We are not sure what the false teachers were teaching in Ephesus, but from what Paul writes, we can guess that it could have had something to do with Old Testament law. They promoted themselves as teachers of the law (1 Timothy 1:7). Perhaps they were distorting the gospel (“sound doctrine”, v. 10) by teaching a legalistic Christian faith—that we are saved by practising religious piety. In that case, theirs would have been a religion of the flesh, a salvation that is rooted in self-effort, resulting in self-glorification.
The law is a guide for Christian behaviour. We are not saved by keeping the law; instead, God saves us and enables us with His Spirit to keep His moral law, which reflects His character and how He has made us
In every age of church history, such brands of legalistic Christianity have emerged to turn people away from the “gospel concerning the glory” of Christ (v. 11). How do we avoid getting into such doctrinal deviations? One way is to do away with the law altogether and ignore it. We then end up with a “grace is good, law is bad” kind of thinking. We can take up the Reformation cry—grace alone—and reject any role for the law in Christian living. But that is not how the great Reformer John Calvin saw it.
Calvin pointed out three purposes of the law, according to the Bible. Firstly, it is a mirror that shows the character of God as well as our own sinfulness. Secondly, it acts to restrain evil among people—imagine how anarchy would break out if there is no sense of divine law. Thirdly, it shows us what pleases God and guides us in our behaviour.
We find all three purposes in this passage. The law is made “for lawbreakers and rebels” (v. 9). Paul mentions some of the Ten Commandments in the passage (vv. 9–10). He also mentions “slave traders” (compare this with human trafficking) and homosexuals. Lawbreakers are exposed by the law and also restrained to some extent.
But we also note that “the law is good if one uses it properly” (v. 8). The law is a guide for Christian behaviour. We are not saved by keeping the law; instead, God saves us and enables us with His Spirit to keep His moral law, which reflects His character and how He has made us. When used in this way, the law is good.