In the application of civil law, we recognize that the status of the individual affects how the law applies. For example, the lawful authorities can execute capital punishment on a convicted felon as part of their duties. But if a private individual were to take it upon himself to be the judge, jury, and executioner of a criminal, he would be held to account by the law.
Scripture tells us that something similar happens in the application of the law of God. How the law is used and what it does to those to whom it is applied depend on the status or identity of those who are under it. As we consider the full biblical teaching on God’s law, we see at least three different effects, and these effects are due in part to the condition of those who read and hear it.
The first use of the law that we will discuss is the use of the law as a restrainer. One of the key texts that describe this use of the law is 1 Timothy 1:8–11, where Paul explains that the law was given for lawless, unholy, disobedient people. God’s revealed law in His Word prescribes various punishments for those who break its commandments (for example, Ex. 21:16; 22:15; Lev. 20:2). The Apostle lists several kinds of lawbreakers in today’s passage, all of whom are subject to particular judgments and consequences in the law. Of course, these punishments are given for the purpose of deterrence, to warn people that they will suffer if they disobey God’s law. People see these punishments and are given an incentive not to break the law lest they be subject to the punishments for the crimes defined in the law.
This use of the law pertains particularly to those who are unconverted, though as we will see in our next study, the law can serve as a restraint to Christians as well. In any case, sinners need the restraint of the law because of their fallenness. If we were sinless and unable to sin, we would not need an external code to remind us of what is wrong and to prescribe punishments that deter us because we would not have any desire to do what is evil. As John Calvin comments, “The law of God was given in order to restrain the licentiousness of wicked men; because they who are good of their own accord do not need the authoritative injunction of the law.”
So, the written law of God serves a vital purpose in our fallen world. It keeps us from being as bad as we possibly could be. It encourages us not to act on all of our sinful thoughts, not to allow our fallen urges to bear fruit in murder, theft, adultery, and other vices.