Three uses of the Law

Martin Luther

The purpose of this post is to Biblically define the three uses of the Law.  This is more of an abstract concept (in abstracto) rather than a concrete one (in concreto), that said I do believe it is accurate.  I also find that this teaching clarifies scripture on the Law a great deal.  If you want to read about the three uses of the law beyond this post I would recommend clicking HERE.

The Curb

The first use of the law is for governing authorities placed here on this earth by God.  Ultimately the Bible teaches that these authorities are for our good.  I understand that in a broader sense rather than a narrow one.  Of course some individual governments are and have been very bad, that said God’s overall purpose is eternal rather than temporal.  If you want to see a really good example of why this use of the Law is so necessary I would recommend a read through on the book of Judges.  Much of the tragedy that happened could have been curbed with a functioning civil government.  Instead, many times the writer of Judges states:

In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” Judges 21:25 ESV

Where do governments receive their authority to make laws in the first place?  A good American would assert that a government receives their authority by the consent of the governed.  While I would agree that is the best way to establish a government, it is not the only way.  Also it doesn’t address the greater truth, which is that the authority to have a government in the first place is received from God.  This would even include pagan nations, like Rome which Paul speaks of here:

“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God….  

This makes it clear that the authority which is delegated to every government comes from God.  I would argue two things regarding this text.  First is that it applies to every single government ever, even the bad ones.  This is because it says “there is no authority except from God”.  That is a rather all encompassing statement.

Second, I would argue that the authority that which is delegated is less than the authority that which God has.  By that I mean, our government obviously doesn’t have the authority to create or sustain universes.  How then do we define the extent of the authority of government?

Since our only written revelation from God is found in scripture I would argue that the boundaries of the delegated authority is the Law which is given in scripture.  To that end, if a government is passing Laws that are not Biblical then this is a signal to us that they are overstepping the authority delegated to them.

Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.  For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval,  for he is God’s servant for your good….

Simply because the Government oversteps their bounds does not mean we have carte blanche to disobey.  Just as we are commanded to obey and honor our parents so are we commanded to obey and honor government.  Ultimately this is for our good as it says “rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad”.  Ideally, this would mean that citizens are less inclined to murder, steal, etc.  Even though such individuals may not be Christian they are still encumbered by the government at the very least.  My opinion is that this is a gift that God has given to us to reduce the severity of overall wickedness in the world.

But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience….

The command to fear here applies to everyone, not just the heathen.  Even Christians are forgiven of every sin in Christ we still bear the earthly consequences of our actions.

 For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.” Romans 13:1-7 ESV

As I said before, even bad governments are due our respect, money, and obedience.  The Bible does teach one exception to this, and that is when the government is commanding rebellion to God (Acts 5:29).  That said, we are not promised a reprieve from the consequences of violating laws even for the reasons Peter did in Acts, as in this case he still received a punishment for his defiance (Acts 5:40).

Does government work and serve God’s purposes overall?  I believe the answer is yes.  Eventually all earthly governments fail to serve their purpose, at which point total collapse follows pretty quickly.  It is very fortunate for those of us who live in the times between such strife.  For such generations we can be grateful, in these times the first use of the law is an effective curb for sin which allows for life, happiness, and human flourishing.

The Mirror

The second use of the Law is chief among the three, which is that the Law reveals the sin in our hearts.  Held up against the Law like a mirror one’s wickedness is revealed, silences the mouth, and brings us face to face with our death and need for repentance.

“Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.” Rom 3:19-20 ESV

“Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully, understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine, in accordance with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God with which I have been entrusted.” 1 Tim 1:8-11 ESV

This is why I say the Bible teaches different uses of the law.  When speaking of the curb we saw that the Law is for everyone, with a global and timeless application.

When speaking of the law in its second use we see that it reveals our spiritual death (Eph 2:1-3) and prepares the hearer for the gospel.  

“though if I should wish to boast, I would not be a fool, for I would be speaking the truth; but I refrain from it, so that no one may think more of me than he sees in me or hears from me. So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” 2 Cor 12:6-9 ESV

Here we see Paul sharing that it is God’s intent for him to still have a weakness, probably related to sin (1 Tim 1:15), in his life.  For it is in our fleshy weakness that we turn to the Grace of God rather than ourselves.  A weakness that turns us to Christ continually rather than rely on our own abilities.  I would argue that this teaches there is a continuing application of the second use of the law even for the believer.  We need to be continually reminded of our sin and brought to repentance in Christ. In this sense repentance is a place one lives rather than a place one visits.

The standard of the second use is absolute perfection in word thought and deed.  Anyone falling short of that, which is all of us, needs a perfect savior in their place.  This is because Jesus says:

“You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Matt 5:48 ESV

When handling this verse in Matt 5 many will try to move the goal post on the word “perfect”.  They will say that perfect is perfection in your current state of sanctification.  The problem is that Jesus likens the perfection to God the Father.  A standard that only God himself could ever achieve.  By moving the goal post one makes a subjective definition of moral behavior descriptive of God Almighty.

Just follow that to its logical conclusion, when you fail to meet your personal “perfect” standard of sanctification you only have two options.  Either first you have to question whether or not you were ever saved in the first place, or you have to move the goal post again.  Many will choose the second until they have moved it so far their only description of God in heaven is themselves which is no God at all, but an idol.

There is no escaping the death of the law.  It will beat you into submission, only God the Holy Spirit gives life through the death burial and Resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ who perfectly satisfied and fulfilled the law.  We need him to take our place of death under the law as our sacrificial Lamb on the Cross for all of our sins.

For an example of a pastor preaching the Law in its second use click HERE.

The Guide

Much of the legalism in Christianity is born out of a confusion between the third use of the Law and the second.  One reads verses demanding perfection and doesn’t discern the difference between them with those teaching the sanctifying work of God the Holy Spirit.  I believe that the key to understanding the third use properly is that it is subjective rather than objective.  You cannot say ‘all true Christians will never commit the sin of lying’, or any other sin in particular.  Once you do you have in some way conceded to a form of works righteousness.

Instead the Scriptures teach that believers change over time, and in this sense a law is a guide to us because we can see where we are at our weakest and need to grow.  That said, the law in this use is not salvific.  It was Martin Luther who said:

“God doesn’t need your good works, but your neighbor does”

We see this in the sense that good works are not something that we do for God, but rather they are something that he creates within us.

For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” Eph 2:10 ESV

“Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.” 1 Peter 2:11-12 ESV

“For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty.” James 2:11-12 ESV

What we see above is a command for holiness.  Not in such a fashion as to pull yourself up by the bootstraps to get to heaven, but rather as a command to follow God’s law in spite of your imperfection.  Some will argue that this need not be taught as the Holy Spirit will work in the heart of the regenerate automatically.  Where this errs is that the manner in which God the Holy Spirit has chosen to speak to us and teach us is in his Word.  When we don’t teach the Word, even with regards to the law, we are not feeding on the Word of God but rather the word of man.  The word of man cannot sanctify anyone, only the Word of God can do that.

“Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the Lordand on his law he meditates day and night.” Psa 1:1-2 ESV
“Blessed are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the LordBlessed are those who keep his testimonies, who seek him with their whole heart, who also do no wrong, but walk in his ways! You have commanded your precepts to be kept diligently. Oh that my ways may be steadfast in keeping your statutes! Then I shall not be put to shame, having my eyes fixed on all your commandments. I will praise you with an upright heart, when I learn your righteous rules. I will keep your statutes; do not utterly forsake me!” Psa 119:1-8 ESV

What we see in the Psalms is “blessed are….” in the context of meditating on and observing God’s laws.  It is a wonderful blessing indeed, this is not the law in the sense of the curse one is under but rather a promise.  Jesus took the curse (Gal 3:13), but we can still receive the practical real life blessings of keeping the law.  These need not be mystical blessings, but are in fact very practical.  Is ones life not better and simpler with less lying, cheating, and stealing?  Is that not in and of itself its own reward and blessing?

Following God’s law leads to good things.  When you break it down this is Loving the Lord with all your heart, mind and soul, and loving your neighbor as yourself (Matt 22:37-39).  More love in your life rather than less is certainly a blessing as the psalmist teaches.  For this cause we are to daily exercise in the law of the Lord.  

Where confusion enters in is when one hinges justification upon law keeping.  It is through the Gospel that the curse of the law is lifted.  One can receive the blessings of the law without the curse. This is best understood with the teaching of the third use of the law.

The reason it is not burdensome to us to keep the law in its third use is because the actual debt has been paid, there is no threshold that need be reached on our end.  We are free to receive the blessings from the law without any eternal fear from missing the mark in sin.

Final remarks

The reason I find this so helpful is it prevents the scriptures from being twisted with regards to the law.  For example, some will say “we are no longer under the law but under grace…. so I can do whatever I want”.  Such an assertion, while plausible in the sense of the second use of the law fails to recognize the third and in doing so confuses the two.

Another example of this would be if someone thinks they are a good person because they have never gone to jail.  This would be a case of confusing the first use of the law with the second.  Staying out of jail is great, but just because you haven’t crossed that civil line doesn’t mean you meet the standards of perfection demanded by a Holy God.

What do you think? Did I handle this abstract concept correctly?  Please let me know in the comments.

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About ACTheologian

I am a layman who blogs my Biblical studies. Enjoy, please read with an open Bible and do double check with your pastor.
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5 Responses to Three uses of the Law

  1. Fatima says:

    Great article. I totally agree the distinction between the second and third uses of the Law is a cause of much confusion and dispute within Christianity. We don’t do good works to GET saved, we do it as a response to love because we ARE saved! Often it is the not works but the motivation that matters, as made clear in Article VI, section 6 of the Epitome on the Formula of Concord:

    ‘Thus the Law is and remains both to the penitent and impenitent, both to regenerate and unregenerate men, one [and the same] Law, namely, the immutable will of God; and the difference, so far as concerns obedience, is alone in man, inasmuch as one who is not yet regenerate does for the Law out of constraint and unwillingly what it requires of him (as also the regenerate do according to the flesh); but the believer, so far as he is regenerate, does without constraint and with a willing spirit that which no threatenings [however severe] of the Law could ever extort from him.’

    The only question I have is if Luther and the Lutherans founders said the Law was our guide under its third use, what “Law” are we talking about? Would that include the 4th Commandment of the Decalogue? Yes or no?

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  2. Fatima says:

    Hi I’ve read Luther’s Large and Short catechism and must admit it was confusing (sorry I’m sure it was just me). However, I’ve done a lot of reading on Lutheran understandings of the Law lately. What I found really useful is Frederick Mueller, “Differentiating Between Ceremonial, Civil, and Moral Laws”, where he describes Luther’s approach:

    “While we are free from the commandments in the Old Testament, Luther, however, didn’t teach us, thereby, that we are free from the commandments or natural law (Rom. 2:14-15). Luther said, “Wherever the Law of Moses and the law of nature are one and the same, there the Law remains and is not outwardly abrogated, except by faith spiritually which is nothing less than the fulfilling of the Law (Rom. 3:28). That is, wherever Moses gives commandments that we do not follow him any farther than where he agrees with the natural law” …For Luther, then, where the commandments agree with the natural law, we are to follow them. The correct interpretation of the commandments or the natural law is never to be found for us in the Mosaic Law, but in the New Testament alone, as Jesus and the apostles, inspired by God, interpret the Law for us.”

    Would you agree with Mueller? That for Luther, all the OT commandments were gone unless: 1) they were found in natural law; and/or 2) they were explicitly reaffirmed in the NT?

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    • Armchair Theologian says:

      That is pretty much what I argue on my post titled “The Law of Christ”. The only thing that I may disagree with Luther on, or perhaps we agree I don’t know, is that I would argue that the old covenant law is to be used definitionally not prescriptively. I know that sounds like straining at a knat but I think this is an important distinction. Very strong language is used in the new testament for the disposition of the Torah.

      But one cannot ignore that the apostles taught many of the same laws. So on those that match I would argue old covenant teachings on those laws can add a lot of necessary insight and guidance with properly interpreting them.

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  3. Pingback: Augsburg Confession Article VI: About New Obedience | Armchair Theologian

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