An Ethical Manifesto: 1 Timothy 1:8-11 and the Decalogue

An Ethical Manifesto:
1 Timothy 1:8-11 and the Decalogue

Richard Barcellos

In this essay we will reassess 1 Timothy 1:8-11 with the goal of determining whether or not Paul’s list of vices reflects both the content and order of the Decalogue from the first through the ninth commandments. This thesis occurs in Dr. George W. Knight’s The Pastoral Epistles: A Commentary on the Greek Text. The scope of Dr. Knight’s commentary on 1 Timothy 1:8-11 was purposely suggestive due to space constraints. The goal of this essay is to build upon the seminal work of Dr. Knight and suggest that his basic thesis can be supported from the text itself and other considerations.

Assuming the validity of Dr. Knight’s thesis, we are supplied with a strong arguments for both the perpetuity of the Decalogue, including the fourth commandment, under the New Covenant and the continuing function of the Decalogue as the basic, fundamental law of God which is applicable to all men. This has major implications for Christian ethics and is in full agreement with historic Baptist theology as represented in The Baptist Confession of Faith of 1689.

1 Timothy 1:8-11 states:

But we know that the law is good if one uses it lawfully, knowing this: that the law is not made for a righteous person, but for the lawless and insubordinate, for the ungodly and for sinners, for the unholy and profane, for murderers of fathers and murderers of mothers, for manslayers, for fornicators, for sodomites, for kidnappers, for liars, for perjurers, and if there is any other thing that is contrary to sound doctrine, according to the glorious gospel of the blessed God which was committed to my trust.[1]

In considering this passage, three preliminary questions will be asked in order to set the stage for a more careful consideration of a fourth question. The exposition unfolds in the following order: Why does Paul bring up the issue of the law? What is said about the law? To whom is Paul referring when he says “the law is not made for a righteous person”? What law is Paul referring to in verses 8 through 10?

Why does Paul bring up the issue of the law?

In verses 5 through 7 Paul makes mention of some who have strayed and turned aside to idle talk (see verses 5, 6). These desire to be teachers of the law though they are ignorant of what they claim is their expertise (see verse 7). In verse 8 a contrast between the way those who have strayed use the law and the proper use of the law is begun and completed in verse 11. Why does Paul bring up the issue of the law? He does so to combat the wrong use of the law and to set forth its right use. The law was being used unlawfully by some and Paul aims to present its lawful use (see Titus 3:9 for another instance of an unlawful use of the law).

What is said about the law?

In verse 8 Paul says, “that the law is good if one uses it lawfully.” The law is both good and can be used lawfully. There is obviously a lawful and unlawful use of the law. Those described in verses 5 through 7 used the good law unlawfully but Paul is going to show its lawful use. Commenting on that which “we know” about the law, New Testament scholar George Knight says:

That which “we know” is “that the law is good” … The statement has striking similarities with several in Romans 7 (Romans 7:14,16 … ). The point in 1 Timothy 1:8, as in Romans 7, is to affirm that the nomos (law) is intrinsically good because it is given by God (cf. Romans 2; 7:22; 8:4) and is not to be considered bad, though it can be mishandled, with bad results, as the nomodidaskaloi (law-teachers) have done.[2]

It is very clear that in this passage the law is viewed in its intrinsic goodness as it reveals proper God-defined moral behavior.

To whom is Paul referring?

In verse 9 Paul states, “the law is not made for a righteous person.” To whom is he referring? Some understand “a righteous person” to refer to the justified, the saved, the Christian without qualification. “This view acknowledges that the law functions to bring a person to Christ as a sinner, but then asserts that a saved person is not to be concerned with or directed by the law.”[3] This common view is contradicted by many texts in Paul’s writings (see for instance Romans 7:14, 16, 22, 23; 13:8-10; and especially 2 Timothy 3:16, 17), other texts in the New Testament (Matthew 5:17, 18; James 2:8-11), and does not fit the context as will become clear. It is simply and emphatically not true that the law has no place in the life of the Christian. What then does Paul mean? Knight offers the following explanation:

The meaning of dikaios [righteous] here would seem to be determined in large measure by its place preceding and contrasting with a list of terms concerned with moral behavior. Therefore, the point of this section is to emphasize, against the would-be nomodidaskaloi [law-teachers], that the law is given to deal with moral questions and not for speculation. The would-be nomodidaskaloi [law-teachers] are not Judaizers like those of Galatians, since the P[astoral] E[pistles] give no evidence of that, but rather those who deal with God’s law from the perspective of myths, genealogies, and disputes about it (v. 4; see Titus 3:9). Thus Paul is saying that the law is not given to apply in some mystical way to people who are already “righteous,” i.e., those already seeking to conform to the law. It is, rather, given to deal with people who are specifically violating its sanctions and to warn them against their specific sins (as the list in vv. 9b-10 goes on to do).[4]

The Expositor’s Greek Testament agrees with Knight’s interpretation when it says, “diakaios [righteous] is used here in the popular sense, as in ‘I came not to call the righteous’.”[5] The “righteous person” is anyone in external conformity to the law whether Christian or non-Christian.[6] Patrick Fairbairn seems to agree when he says:

By the latter expression [righteous] is to be understood, not one who in a worldly sense is just or upright (for the apostle is not here speaking of such), but who in the stricter sense is such–one who, whether by nature or by grace, has the position and character of a righteous man. Why is the law not made for such? It can only be because he is of himself inclined to act in conformity with its requirements.[7]

These “righteous” ones are those who “conform” to the law. The word “righteous” is used elsewhere in the New Testament to refer to both non-Christians and Christians. For instance, Paul uses a form of this word in Philippians 3:6 when he says, “concerning the righteousness [dikaiosune] which is in the law, blameless.” This verse is Paul’s own description of his relationship to the Mosaic law prior to his conversion (see Philippians 3:9; Luke 1:5, 6; and Acts 10:22). Thus a person can be “righteous” and not a Christian.

James 5:16 states, “The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man [dikaiou] avails much.” Here Elijah is viewed as a believer, “a righteous person” (see Matthew 25:37, 46; and Romans 5:19). Thus a person can be “righteous” and a Christian.

In 1 Timothy 1:9 Paul is not referring to the law in a soteriological sense as it would point to Christ, but in an ethical sense as it defines proper behavior for man. In this sense the law defines proper behavior and rebukes those not in conformity to it. Thus it is not for “a righteous person” because such a person is already conforming to the ethical standards of the law.[8] But what about the person who is not conforming to its standards? He is obviously not “a righteous person” in the sense intended by Paul. It is this person whom Paul has in mind as he writes of the ethical use of the law.

This understanding of the passage makes this use of the law applicable to believers and unbelievers alike. The law is the standard for proper conduct as defined by God for mankind in general, Christian and non-Christian. This lawful use of the law points out sin and defines that conduct which “is contrary to sound doctrine, according to the glorious gospel.”[9]

Notice in verses 10 and 11 that living according to the sins listed in verses 9 and 10 “is contrary to sound doctrine, according to the glorious gospel.” In other words, lawless living is antithetical to sound gospel doctrine.[10] “The sound doctrine demands that man must keep God’s law.”[11] The gospel does not replace the law; it upholds the law. John Stott says,

It is particularly noteworthy that sins which contravene the law (as breaches of the Ten Commandments) are also contrary to the sound doctrine of the gospel. So the moral standards of the gospel do not differ from the moral standards of the law. We must not therefore imagine that, because we have embraced the gospel, we may now repudiate the law![12]

Knight agrees:

[T]he “sound teaching” [doctrine] of the Christian faith has the same ethical perspective as the law, and…that teaching also points out sins that are contrary to it.…By this Paul indicates that law and “sound teaching” [doctrine] are together in opposing these sins and therefore have a common ethical perspective.[13]

Living according to the list of vices in First Timothy 1:9, 10 is sin for the Christian and non-Christian alike.[14]

To what law is Paul referring?

In verses 8-10 some commentators see Paul referring to law in general and not the Mosaic law. There are, however, indicators within and beyond this context which show this view to be inadequate. First, when Paul details for us the lawful use of the law he clearly refers to commands contained in the law of Moses (see verses 9 and 10 and the exposition below). Second, “The ethical list in vv. 9-10 is similar to the Decalogue and the application of it in Exodus 21.”[15] Third, in verses 5 through 7 where Paul brings up the would-be law-teachers it seems clear that there is an assumed and well known law. Fourth, in Titus 3:9 when the law is mentioned Paul again assumes that it would be well known to his readers. Fifth, it would be very difficult not to read these statements on the law in light of the rest of Paul’s letters which deal extensively with this very issue.

To what law is Paul referring? Consider the following observations. In verse 8 Paul uses an article before the word law. “But we know that the [emphasis added] law is good.” This indicates that Paul is referring to an identifiable body of law.[16] It is clear from verses 9b and 10 that Paul had in mind at least the fifth through the ninth commandments of the Decalogue.[17] Knight states, “from ‘strikers of father and mother’ onward the order of the second part of the Decalogue is followed.”[18] It is also clear that Paul summarizes violations of the fifth through the ninth commandments with single words in the Greek text. Again, Knight comments, “single words are used in the latter part of the list to refer to violators of a specific commandment”.[19]

The terms “murderers of fathers” (patroloais) and “murderers of mothers” (matroloais) are single word summaries of the fifth commandment in terms of its violation. The term “manslayers” (androphonois) is a single word summary of the sixth commandment in terms of its violation. The terms “fornicators” (pornois) and “sodomites” (arsenkoitais) are single word summaries of the seventh commandment in terms of its violation. The term “kidnappers” (andrapodistais) is a single word summary of the eighth commandment in terms of its violation. The terms “liars” (pheustais) and “perjurers” (epiorkois) are single word summaries of the ninth commandment in terms of its violation.[20] Paul’s list clearly reflects both the content and order of the second part of the Decalogue.

Our final observation concerning what law Paul is referring to is best put in the form of a question. What part of the Mosaic law do the sins listed before verse 9b reflect? If the sins in 9b and 10 reflect both the content and order of the Decalogue, should we expect the sins in 9a to do so as well? In other words, since verses 9b and 10 reflect the content and order of the second part of the Decalogue, does verse 9a reflect the content and order of the first part?[21] Homer Kent says, “the list of sins that appears in verses 9 and 10 seems clearly to follow the order of the Ten Commandments.”[22] Consider Knight’s observations once again:

Once it is recognized that from “strikers of father and mother” onward the order of the second part of the Decalogue is followed, then the question naturally arises whether the preceding part of the list in v. 9 corresponds to the earlier part of the Decalogue. An interesting correlation may well exist, especially if it is borne in mind that single words are used in the latter part of the list to refer to violators of a specific commandment, and therefore single words could also be used in the former part to characterize violators of the earlier commandments.[23]

Commenting on all of the vices in verses 9 and 10 Fairbairn says, “they admit of being all ranged under the precepts of the two tables.”[24] He goes on to say:

In regard to those for whom, he says, the law is made,–those, that is, who need the check and restraint of its discipline,–the apostle gives first a general description…. Then he branches out into particulars, the earlier portion of which have respect to offences against God, the latter to offences against one’s fellow-men .… [25]

Alfred Plummer adds:

In rehearsing the various kinds of sinners for whom law exists, and who are found to be (he hints) among these false teachers, he goes roughly through the Decalogue. The four commandments of the First Table are indicated in general and comprehensive terms; the first five commandments of the Second Table are taken one by one, flagrant violators being specified in each case.[26]

Let’s take a closer look at verse 9 going backward from Paul’s reference to the fifth commandment at the end of the verse.[27] The first sin category going backward from “murderers of fathers and mothers” mentioned by Paul is the “profane”. The noun form of “profane” is used of persons in the New Testament only twice; here in 1 Timothy 1:9 and in Hebrews 12:16. The verb form of “profane” is used of persons twice in the New Testament as well.[28] In Acts 24:6 it is used in the context of profaning the temple. In Matthew 12:5 it is used in the context of profaning the Sabbath. Concerning the verb form of the word “profane”, the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament says,

“To desecrate,”:…Common in the LXX[29] I…thus…of the holy day [emphasis added] of God in Nehemiah 13:17f. …In the NT the only use is at Matthew 12:5 of the violation of the Sabbath and at Acts 24:6 of that of the temple, in both cases in the sense of the OT view of holiness….[30]

One Greek-English lexicon indicates that the Septuagint uses this word to refer to desecrating or profaning the Sabbath in Nehemiah 13:17; Ezekiel 20:13 and Isaiah 56:2.[31] Notice that the Septuagint uses a form of the word “profane” in Isaiah 56:2 (see Isaiah 56:6 as well) in the context of the Sabbath being defiled (verse 2) and kept (verse 4). This is especially instructive considering the fact that Isaiah’s prophecy concerns the interadvental days of the New Covenant. The word “profane” then refers to breaking the fourth commandment.[32] This understanding is supported by several considerations. Paul was very familiar with the Septuagint. He was reducing other commands of the Decalogue to one word. He was following the content and order of other commands of the Decalogue. He was reducing other commands of the Decalogue to single words in a negative form.[33] Knight concludes, “Since the keynote of the sabbath is to keep it holy (… Exodus 20:8 …) and since Paul’s list is in negative terms, the single term [profane], … might well characterize those who profane that day, putting the command negatively in terms of its violation …”[34] This sin is a violation of the fourth commandment of the Decalogue.[35]

The second sin category going backward from “murderers of fathers and mothers” mentioned by Paul is “the unholy.” Knight says,

Likewise, those who take the Lord’s name in vain (Exodus 20:7) might well be designated negatively by a single term as those who are “unholy”… This understanding is strengthened if the language associated with this command has been influenced by the petition of the Lord’s Prayer that the Lord’s name be hallowed or regarded as holy (Matthew 6:9; Luke 11:2).[36]

This sin is a violation of the third commandment of the Decalogue.

The third sin category going backward from “murderers of fathers and mothers” mentioned by Paul is “sinners”. The Greek word for sinner

is often used in the NT with the broad meaning “sinner,” as it is in 1 Timothy 1:15, … At times, however, it is used in the NT more specifically of those who fail to keep the Mosaic law, particularly Gentiles, especially because of their idolatry … This usage is found also in Paul in Galatians 2:15 (cf. on idolatry Romans 2:22). Thus one who violates the prohibition of making and worshipping idols (Exodus 20:4-6) might well be designated a “sinner” in the specific sense (so Exodus 20:5 LXX … ).[37]

This sin is a violation of the second commandment of the Decalogue.

The fourth sin category going backward from “murderers of fathers and mothers” mentioned by Paul is “the ungodly.” “[T]he first commandment of the Decalogue (Exodus 20:3) prohibits having other gods and abandoning God as the one and only true God….”[38] The New Testament uses a positive form of the word which Paul uses here in 1 Timothy 1:9, “ungodly,” “of those who accepted the ethical monotheism of the OT (see Acts 13:43, 50; 16:14; 17:4, 17; 18:7)”[39] though they were not even Christians. In other words, those in the texts just cited were not violating the first commandment, at least externally, and those in 1 Timothy 1:9, “the ungodly”, were. This sin is a violation of the first commandment of the Decalogue.

It seems quite clear that both the content and the order of the Decalogue from the first through the ninth commandment is followed by Paul in this list of sins which are “contrary to sound doctrine, according to the glorious gospel. Knight concludes, and rightly so, “The order of the Decalogue seems, then, to give a satisfactory explanation of Paul’s list from ["the ungodly"] onward.”[40]

One question still remains. What about the first two sins in Paul’s list “the lawless and insubordinate?” These first pair of terms function as a general introduction to the more specific list that follows. “These two terms bring into perspective those for whom the law is given, namely, those who need its discipline and restraint in their propensity for lawlessness and disobedience.”[41]

Knight’s concluding comments serve as a fitting end to our study of this crucial text.

Paul has shown how the law may be used lawfully in accordance with its purpose as an ethical guide to warn against sin. He has demonstrated this by presenting a list that shows that the Decalogue is so understood in the OT. He has concluded by stating that this is also the ethical perspective of the truly healthy teaching based on the gospel, so that both it and a proper use of the law concur in terms of their concern for a righteous life and in their teaching against sin. Thus when the law is rightly applied as an ethical restraint against sin, it is in full accordance with the ethical norm given in the gospel as the standard for the redeemed life. A different use of the law, for example, in a mythological or genealogical application to the righteous, is thereby shown to be out of accord with the law’s given purpose and the gospel and its teaching.[42]

It now becomes obvious what law Paul was referring to in 1 Timothy 1:8-11. He was referring to the heart of the law of the Old and New Covenants. He was referring to the basic, fundamental law of the Bible. He was referring to the law common to believer and unbeliever. He was referring to the law whose work is written on the hearts of all men by creation. He was referring to the Decalogue in its function of revealing God-defined ethical norms for all men.[43]

1 Timothy 1:8-11 now becomes for us a vital text in the whole question surrounding the utility of the Decalogue. According to the exposition of this text, both Christian and non-Christian are held to an ethical standard which is reflected in the Decalogue.[44] It becomes quite clear that the utility of the Decalogue transcends the Old Covenant. The Decalogue is used by Paul as the basic, fundamental law or body of ethical divinity applicable to all men. It is clear that the Decalogue has more usefulness than a temporary law governing the life of Israel under the Old Covenant. The Decalogue is transcovenantal. This point is supported by considering the fact that Paul was writing to Timothy who was ministering in Asia Minor (Ephesus) where Jews and Gentiles lived and after the Old Covenant had been abolished and replaced by the New Covenant.

The goal of this essay was to reassess 1 Timothy 1:8-11 in light of Dr. George W. Knight’s seminal work on this text. The attempt has been made to build upon his work and show that his basic thesis stands: Paul’s list of vices reflects both the content and order of the Decalogue from the first through the ninth commandments. This text functions as an ethical manifesto of Paul’s view of the utility of the Decalogue in Christian ethics. This interpretation is reflected in the Reformed and historic Baptist view of the utility of the Decalogue as articulated by The Baptist Confession of Faith of 1689 which reads:

The moral law [Decalogue] doth for ever bind all, as well justified persons as others, to the obedience thereof, and that not only in regard of the matter contained in it, but also in respect of the authority of God the Creator, who gave it; neither doth Christ in the gospel any way dissolve, but much strengthen this obligation (19:5).

It is hoped that this essay will not only contribute to our understanding of 1 Timothy 1:8-11 but call Baptists and all Christians back to the ethical paths of our theological forebears.