June 7, 2020

Third Use of the Law? No, Something Better


The Debate

One of the great debates in theology regarding Law and Gospel is whether or not there is a third use of God’s laws. The first two uses of the Law are accepted by all:

  • The Civil Use of the Law: God’s laws serve all humanity by restraining sin, setting moral and ethical boundaries for humans in society. This use of the law allows humans to enjoy a limited measure of order and justice in this life.
  • The Pedagogical Use of the Law. God’s laws show the perfection of God’s character and thus reveal people’s sinfulness in contrast to his righteousness. By so doing, it enables us to realize our need for mercy and grace from outside ourselves. It gives the lie to all efforts at self-justification.

Some theologians posit a third use of God’s laws.

  • The Normative Use of the Law. Though God’s laws cannot justify us, grant us forgiveness of sins, or bring us new life, for the Christian God’s laws serve as a guide to show us how to live. The Law sets before us a norm of conduct and instructs those who have been saved by grace through faith regarding the good works that should follow salvation. The Christian, therefore, is called to love God’s laws and obey them.

Others have objected to this idea, noting the clear N.T. teaching that Christians are “free from the law,” and “not under the law” anymore. Specific objections include the following:

  • The third use is unnecessary and actually ends up covering the same ground as the first two uses. The civil use (first use) already covers the purpose of instruction, and is designed to order our behavior by positive guidance and negative warnings. And when Christians embrace God’s commands and attempt to live them out, they discover that they continually fall short, which leads them back to Christ (the second use).
  • The third use is incomplete. Most look to the Ten Commandments as the epitome of God’s laws, along with specific summary passages such as “Love the Lord your God…” (Shema) and “Love your neighbor…” which Jesus himself commended as the greatest commandments. It is up to the New Testament to more specifically enumerate and explicate distinctively Christian behavior through the teaching of Jesus and the apostles. This goes beyond natural and Mosaic law to include such things as “love your enemies,” and “take up your cross and follow me.” Jesus himself speaks of giving and exemplifying a “new commandment” and he is presented in the Gospels (especially in Matthew) as a “new Moses” who inaugurates the Kingdom of heaven among humans. As we will see below, the new covenant now in effect goes beyond the idea of “law” as its guiding principle.
  • The third use is easily misused. Speaking of the third use of the law can lead to a legalistic conception of the Christian’s life, as though the new life in Christ is concerned primarily with obeying commandments, following instructions, avoiding that which is prohibited, and staying within boundaries. Paul wonders why the Colossians are so concerned to live by rules that say, “Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!” (Col. 2:21), and notes that believers have died to such “elementary principles” and are now part of a life that is about so much more.

I am in agreement that it is unhelpful to think of a third use of God’s laws. In the Christian life, except for the ongoing experience of the law’s first two uses, we should not imagine that our lives are to be motivated by laws at all. Our motivation is the Gospel, not God’s laws. Therefore, as some of my teachers have suggested, it is wiser to speak of the second use of the Gospel rather than the third use of the Law.

What do we mean by this?

chagallThe First Use of the Gospel

The Gospel (Good News) is the announcement that God is saving the world in Christ. This is the “word of reconciliation” that Paul speaks of in 2Corinthians 5, “namely, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them” (5:19). When a person receives this Good News and puts her trust in Christ, through baptism that person is brought into a new life. She has died to the old realm of sin and has been raised up into newness of life (Romans 6:1-4). In Christ, she has entered the new creation (2Cor 5:17) with sins forgiven, and she has been washed and renewed by the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:5).

This is the first use of the Gospel. By means of this announcement, people are made new — saved from the powers of sin, evil, and death that once reigned and ruled over their lives.

For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. (Eph 2:8-9)

As this text from Ephesians affirms, the salvation that this Gospel brings is pure gift. Our saving is God’s work from beginning to end; we played no part in it that gives us cause to boast or take credit. As the text from Ephesians goes on to say, “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus…” (Eph 2:10).

God’s Law had nothing to do with this, apart from convincing us about our need. The classic passage that explicates this second use of the Law is Romans 7. Verse 7 says, “I would not have come to know sin except through the Law; for I would not have known about coveting if the Law had not said, “You shall not covet.” So then, the Law serves the Gospel by preparing us for it. It enables us to recognize our sin and our need for forgiveness and renewal. Once we accept the bad news about our condition, we are prepared to receive the Good News of salvation. As a result, we trust in Christ and enter the new creation.

But…what then?

How shall we then live?

Do we look to God’s Laws to provide us a norm of conduct, or do we look somewhere else?

The Second Use of the Gospel

I would suggest that we continue to look to the Gospel for the answer to that question rather than to God’s laws. As Ephesians 2 goes on to say:

For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.

For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.

This text tells us that, rather than looking to God’s Law for guidance in the Christian life, we look to what God has prepared beforehand for us to walk in.

What I want to suggest is that the Gospel introduces us into an entirely new world, a new creation, a different reality than that which was in place under the Law. This was something God had promised his people for many generations.

“Moreover the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, so that you may live.” (Deut 30:6)

“Behold, days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah,not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them,” declares the Lord. “But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” declares the Lord, “I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. They will not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them,” declares the Lord, “for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.” (Jer 31:31-34)

Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. Moreover, I will give you anew heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances. (Ezek 36:25-27)

The Gospel has brought about the New Covenant, wherein it is no longer “the Law” that guides us but the “Law written on our hearts” — i.e. the Gospel of the New Covenant. We are now participants in the Kingdom of God, which has been introduced into the life of this world. The new creation is infiltrating this creation. The age to come is breaking in upon this present age. The good works that God has prepared for us come to us from this new realm, and we are enabled to walk in a life that is animated and motivated by God’s Spirit.

This means that whatever “works” we do as Christians are, by nature, “pure gift” as well. They are works of the Kingdom, works that are not motivated or directed by encoded laws and our perfect obedience to those laws, but by the grace of God in Jesus Christ as experienced in the power of the Holy Spirit. The fruit of the Spirit in the lives of those who walk with Christ is love; that is joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. These qualities do not oppose the law, but fulfill the intent of God’s laws and even surpass its instructions.

So then, there is now a “new obedience” that characterizes the Christian life, one that is based on the Gospel, and not the Law.

The standard for the Christian is not to be found in the “third use of the Law,” but in the “second use of the Gospel.”


  1. I’m with you, Chaplain Mike.

    The “3rd use” just opens the door to legalism. Lets the fox back into the henhouse.

    We already know what to do. “The law is written upon our hearts”.

    We just flat out refuse to do it, so much of the time.


    For all those who are going to want to throw out Bible verses or snippets of the Lutheran Confessions (pro “3rd use”)…I will set this one against it, right now, “Christ is the end of the law for all those who have faith.”


    • There are several problems with denying the third use of the Law. If there is no Third Use, then all of the moral exhortation in the NT is reduced to being nothing more than a foil for the application of the Gospel. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and the Apostle Paul’s exhortations become almost nonsensical when viewed in this light.

      Secondly the Lutheran Confessions teach a Third Use, and Luther talked at length about the Law showing us what the Christian life should look like, lest we create our own brand of good works. (think various forms of pennance and monasticism ) The Law teaches us what good works are and what a godly life looks like. How this is even up for debate is beyond me.

      Some will say “This lends itself to abuse.. so lets do away with it.” If we believe that, how are we any different from those who refuse to preach the Gospel in all it’s sweetness, because it ‘will give the people license’ to sin.? We are just the flip side of that coin. Furthermore, the Lutheran dogmaticians will say that abuse of something only affirms that there is a right use of that same thing.

      • Sorry, Kyle.

        Those are weak arguments. And Luther never taught a “3rd use”. We might as well have a 4th use, and a 5th use. It’s redundant. It’s already there, my friend.

        NO NEED FOR IT.

        We (in our congregation) preach the law…and HARD. At the end of the sermon, no one is left standing…but Jesus. Yes, we use Christian encouragement. reminding people that they are free for the neighbor. But we don’t employ “3rd use” baloney. NO NEED for it. It’s akin to trying to tame a wild dog. You can’t do it.

        The Lutheran Confessions are great…but they certainly are NOT Holy Scripture.

        “Christ is the end of the law….”

        Southern Baptist/Lutheranism causes a lot of trouble.

        • Steve,

          Look at my first argument again, and instead of thinking OT Law think NT moral exhortation. To think that Jesus and the Apostles gave all that instruction never intending to illustrate what the Christian life should look like or what good works are, but ONLY to illustrate how we fail is not right. Luther often taught ‘third use’ even if he didn’t call it that.

      • Robin C says

        Patrick, I am curious. Your answer intrigues me because I have seen your website t-shirt that says “Weak on Sanctification.” I was wondering if your position on the 3rd Use of the Law has changed or if I misunderstood what you just said or perhaps what your t-shirt is implying. I hope to hear back! I really enjoy all that newreformation has done!

        • Robin,

          Our position has not changed. We have never denied Third Use. The T-shirts you reference poke fun at those non Lutherans that charge us with really being “weak on sanctification.’

          We believe that the ‘uses’ of the law are rightly applied by the Holy Spirit in the hearers of the Word, not by Pastors trying to tweez out the various uses and apply them himself to his audience. Preach the Law full force and the Gospel in all it’s purity and let God worry about which of the several uses need to be applied to which people.

  2. Christiane says

    perhaps the ‘use’ of the Gospel is more transcendent than we can imagine . . . I think that once a Christian begins the process of ‘transformation’ by the power of the Holy Spirit, the change that comes within that Christian is being hard-wired to live out a new ‘norm’ . . . I think the Gospel started with Christ who spoke Creation into being, and the Gospel will be seen to be fully accomplished when Christ makes all things new at the end

    I suppose I back the camera lens up as far as it can possibly go to see the Gospel in that way, but it’s the only way I CAN make sense of something as magnificent as God Incarnate coming to help us to return to Him.

    ” . . . we have borne the image of the man of dust,
    . . . . now reborn after the pattern of our Lord . . .
    let us bear the full and complete image of our Maker;
    not in majesty, in which He is alone,
    but in innocence, simplicity, meekness, patience, humility, mercy and concord – in which He deigned to become and to be One with us.”
    (from a sermon by St. Peter Chrysologus)

  3. Aidan Clevinger says

    I don’t understand the objection to the Third Use. Is anyone going to argue that the Ten Commandments are NOT useful for understanding God’s will for Christians, and to understand the best way to love people? Is anyone going to argue that breaking God’s commandments still entails condemnation, even if we can be forgiven always and forever whenever we sin? If no one argues this, then no one is arguing against the Third Use. If someone does, I think they need to re-read the New Testament.

    With all due respect, Chaplain Mike, don’t your ordination vows compel you to uphold the Confessions? And isn’t the Third Use part of those Confessions?

    • Neither you nor Kyle above have actually responded to my argument. Christians participate in something better and more likely to produce the fruits of righteousness than the law.

    • And as for the Confessions, I think they actually strive to say the same thing I am saying here. They say that “the distinction between the works of the Law and those of the Spirit [should] be properly taught and preserved.”

      “But when man is born anew by the Spirit of God, and liberated from the Law, that is, freed from this driver, and is led by the Spirit of Christ, he lives according to the immutable will of God comprised in the Law, and so far as he is born anew, does everything from a free, cheerful spirit; and these are called not properly works of the Law, but works and fruits of the Spirit, or as St. Paul names it, the law of the mind and the Law of Christ. For such men are no more under the Law, but under grace, as St. Paul says, Rom. 8:2 [Rom. 7:23; 1 Cor. 9:21 ].”

      – The Solid Declaration of the Formula of Concord, VI

      I am primarily arguing that the language of law is misleading and that it is more helpful to speak of rooting the believer’s behavior in the Gospel.

      • Richard Hershberger says

        In more concrete terms, I have never seen anyone arguing for the third use of the law (whether or not directly in those terms) conclude therefore that he shouldn’t eat a ham and cheese sandwich, or avoid wearing cotton-poly blends. I honestly have never been able to figure out what is actually meant, unless it is simply “don’t do stuff I disapprove of”.

      • Article 6 of the Epitome of the Lutheran Formula of Concord directly addresses the issue of third use of law. It doesn’t rule out the role of law in the life of the believer, but that the believer “does without constraint and with a willing spirit that which no threatenings [however severe] of the Law could ever extort from him.” That for me is where the law-gospel-law model goes wrong. Carrot-and-stick techniques do not disciple a believer in sanctification.

        The notion promoted in the Formula of Concord that works from the life of the regenerate spring “spontaneously and freely” does seem a bit ideal. I think good works always take significant effort and are always imperfect. But they are not done out of fear of hell (or the frown of God) or hope of heaven (or the smile of God), but out of love and faith.

  4. I think ANY pragmatic leaning upon or application of the Law by followers of Christ constitutes a repudiation and distrust of the Spirit Who is in us ala Ezek. 36.

    If the world could be saved by good advice, it would have been saved ten minutes after Moses came back from Mt. Sinai.

    Robert Capon.


  5. Here’s the late, great Dr. Gerhard Forde on the matter:

    “That is why the law must be limited to its two proper uses. Although the argument is more subtle and complicated that we can do justice to now, one should be able to see why it is perilous to accommodate Luther’s view with a so-called “third use of the law” as a friendly guide for the reborn Christian. There is no way yet into a state where the Christian can use the law in a third way. Such a view rests on presumptions entirely different from those of Luther and, for that matter, Paul. It makes too many pious assumptions. It assumes, apparently, that the law can really be domesticated so it can be used by us like a friendly pet. Does the law actually work that way? It assumes that we are the users of the law. We do not use the law. The Spirit does. And we really have no control over it. Who knows when it is going to rise up and attack in all its fury? Luther knew full well, of course, that in spite of all his piety he could not bring the law to heel. Indeed, even as a Christian one needs to hear and heed the law – and the law will attack a Christian just as it attacks the non-Christian. One does not have the key to some third use.

    We do not live in an eschatological vestibule. Christians need the law in the same way non-Christians do. The idea of a third use assumes the law story simply continues after grace. Grace is just a blip, an episode, on the basic continuum of the law. Luther’s contention is that the law story is subordinate to the Jesus story. The law is for Luther, as it was for Paul, an episode in a larger, not vice versa. It is only grace that can bring the law to heel.”

    – Gerhard Forde

  6. Joe Rigney says

    Chaplain Mike,

    I like the phrase “second use of the gospel,” but I have a question about it: would you say that your second use is more like those who say that we are sanctified primarily (purely?) by reflecting more deeply on our justification/free acceptance in Christ, or more like those who advocate a kind of Spirit-wrought, work-out-your-salvation, act-the-miracle approach (which builds upon the foundation of the first way)?

    And now for a comment: While I like the phrase (especially if you mean it in the second sense), I think you unnecessarily dichotomize the Law and the Gospel in statements like:

    “I would suggest that we continue to look to the Gospel for the answer to that question RATHER THAN to God’s laws.” (I’m not yelling; I just can never figure out the right way to do italics or bolding)

    “They are works of the Kingdom, works that are NOT motivated or directed by encoded laws and our perfect obedience to those laws, BUT by the grace of God in Jesus Christ as experienced in the power of the Holy Spirit.”

    I’d consider this both a misrepresentation and then a false dichotomy. It’s a misrepresentation because no Third Use advocate would say that our works should be motivated by “our perfect obedience to those laws.” The Second Use dispenses with that folly and puts us on the sure foundation of God’s grace in Christ.

    I’d say that the other part of the statement is a false dichotomy, first because the NT does contain “encoded laws” (Forgive one another, Don’t lie to one another; Love your wives, etc), all of which are meant to motivate us to good works AND be fulfilled by the grace of God in Christ through the Spirit. And then second, because in the same book where Paul talks about “the works God prepared for us to do,” he then goes on to unpack some of those works in terms of the Law; children should obey their parents because the command in the Law to honor your parents comes with a promise.

    I’d argue that Paul does something similar in Romans 13 where the various commands are summed up in the law of love. I take this to mean that we can move both ways between the various commands in the Law and the Gospel command to Love: We can reduce the Law’s commands to Love, or we can unpack the Love command in terms of the various Laws (i.e. this is what love looks like in various contexts and situations). I’d suggest that Jesus does a similar thing in reducing the Law to the two great commandments, and pushing the Law deep into the heart in the Sermon on the Mount.

    All of which is to say, I like the Second Use of the Gospel, and I like the Third Use of the Law, and don’t want to separate what God has joined together. Law and Gospel (in the macro-theological sense) don’t refer to two different types of passages, but to two different orientations to God (and then the hermeneutic that flows from each). The fleshly heart can turn the most glorious gospel reality into a ladder to climb to heaven, and the new heart of grace finds comfort and guidance in Deuteronomy and sings with David, “Oh how I love your Law!”

  7. “The law, written on stone tablets, is the ministry of death.”

    Saint Paul wrote that. Big “3rd use” guy.


    • Joe Rigney says


      Didn’t Paul also write Ephesians 6:1-3, where quotes the Law (the one written on those tablets) to support the obedience of children to parents?

      And doesn’t he quote Deuteronomy 25:4 twice (Don’t muzzle an ox while it treads the grain), once in 1 Corinthians 9 and again in 1 Tim 5, in order to teach the church to pay the pastor?

      Isn’t the whole reason that the Reformers developed the three uses of the Law because the NT’s use of it is a little more complicated than you imply?

  8. Just because they teach it in some seminary, doesn’t make it Christian.

  9. The Psalmist writes, “Do not be as the horse or as the mule which have no understanding, whose trappings include bit and bridle to hold them in check, otherwise they will not come near to you.” He says this after he describes the process by which he found forgiveness from an unnamed sin.

    Paul quotes the first and second verse of this Psalm in the Roman Epistle to establish the fact that “God reckons righteousness apart from works.” David had experienced the forgiveness of God for a sin that he had kept hidden for some time. After receiving forgiveness, he makes the comment about horses and mules being held in check by a bridle – it is not fitting for those who have known the lovingkindness of God. I find it interesting that “gospel motivations” moved David rather than the “bit and bridle” of the law. Before the New Covenant was inaugurated, David was already motivated by the “second use of the gospel”!

    A good and thoughtful post, CM, one that needs to be understood in this day.

  10. Here’s the problem with a “Third use of the Law”, that is, what parts of the Law are we to use? Some of it? Selected portions of it? ALL of it? The 10 Commandments ONLY? Or do we have to adhere to dietary and health laws? When the Law states that rebellious children should be stoned do we then adhere to THAT, or do we blithely blow it off and hang onto the laws for tithing because they are a “principle” that just happens to justify our modern church building/professional clergy paradigm?

    The real question about “Third use” is: are we, as fallen human beings, able to keep from going back to legalism rather than relying on the Holy Spirit to guide us? My answer would be a resounding “NO!” It is much simpler to consult a written code rather than we being “conformed to His image”. Relying on Christ and the Holy Spirit is the ONLY reliable way for humans to lead a righteous life. Jesus said I am the Way, The Truth and the Life> No man comes to the Father but by me.” No “Law”, no “principles” based on the law, no commandments of man, nothing but Jesus!

    • Oscar: exactly.
      I just heard my old pastor state that when Paul was talking about no longer being under law, clearly he didn’t mean ceremonial law or civil law, but he must have somehow still meant moral law such as the 10 commandments.
      I have no idea how Paul would recognize that hermeneutic if it was presented to him.

  11. Obviously there is a “third use”. The bible clearly speaks to us on how to live. But yes – I think you are onto something. In talking about a second use of the gospel.

    The bibles norms are occasionally time- or culture -bounded, don’t cover every conceivable contingency, and when read as a recipe on how to create the perfect Christian can lead us into legalism, black and white thinking, and a circle-the-wagons approach to community.

    Reading the bible with a more redemptive hermeneutic where we read the bibles norms and ask “Is that it? Can I aspire toward something still better?” That “second use of the gospel is more helpful to me. It’s what bridges the gap between “slaves obey your masters” in the bible and Martin Luther King.

    It’s commands don’t end and always respond to where we are right now.

    It’s a both/neither sort of answer. There is a third use of the law, but it works best when subsumed in a second use of the gospel.

  12. Rick Ro. says

    I think two or three years ago, I would’ve tried to state some sort of argument FOR the Third Use of the Law. But over these past few years of my walk with Jesus, I think this statement by CM sums up where I’m at today in my beliefs:

    “In the Christian life, except for the ongoing experience of the law’s first two uses, we should not imagine that our lives are to be motivated by laws at all. Our motivation is the Gospel, not God’s laws.”

    A motivation by laws turns into “I must try harder and do better.” People also tend to become judgmental of others: “THEY aren’t trying harder and doing better.” Congregations become enslaved once more to the law, not free to follow Jesus. The motivation to love God and love others must be Gospel-fueled and Jesus-led. And while works done under the law probably does bear some fruit, I would argue the really good fruit comes when we are living our lives totally focused on Jesus’ love for us, his work done on the cross, and the victory he won for us.

    • The lie of the third use of the Law is that if you try hard enough you can actually succeed at obeying God’s commands. It’s what the serpent told Eve: take matters into your own hand, and you’ll achieve your own righteousness. I’ve got nothing against good works and good old fashioned elbow grease (aside from my own personal aversion to them), but as soon as we get our hopes up about how great we’re gonna be we’re just setting ourselves up for disappointment. Sometimes God doesn’t do “great things” through us. Sometimes he gives us just enough grace to keep believing, and that, in the end, is a truly great thing.

      The motivation to love God and love others must be Gospel-fueled and Jesus-led.

      Amen to that! And I would add that the truly good works we do are the ones we are not aware of (Matthew 25:37). But when Christ and his gifts to us are the focus of our spirituality, they stir up things in us that we could never muster up in our own determination.

  13. The post reminds me of Christian Smith’s book, Bible Made Impossible. It seems that many of the divisions we see in churches come about because of people attempting to use the Bible as a law book, or a constitutional view (to steal Brian McLaren’s term). The problem with that is that there will always be divergent readings on many passages. Oscar brought it up above, but the question of what things are meant for our guidance and what others are not will always be an issue. Is it OK for Christians to get tattooed or for men to get their ears pierced? By in large, the church has come down on the side of this being OK now, but when I was growing up, it wasn’t nearly as accepted.

    So back to Christian Smith – I like how he brings everything back to what Iranaeus called the “:Law of Christ”. Some might use the term “canon within the canon” to mean roughly the same thing. But essentially, what we need is an overarching ethic that guides us as we read Scripture, and that ethic is always centered on Christ. To go a little further, that means we’re always evaluating things in terms of how they enable us to show our love for God and for others.

    • The problem with that is that there will always be divergent readings on many passages.

      Yes. But if two parties disagree, at least one of them is incorrect, and possibly one of them is correct. Just because people don’t agree, it doesn’t follow that therefore nobody can be correct. I believe God spoke in order that we might understand. The solution isn’t hermeneutical relativism, but agreement to disagree, to recognize that disagreement and not dishonestly minimize it, while maintaining open lines of conversation and debate for the sake of mutual edification. Kind of like this blog.

  14. I just want to say something to my Missouri Synod brothers and sisters who seem to have a real hangup regarding inerrancy.

    The Lutherans Confessions did not drop out of Heaven with a bow tied around them, either.

    They are great documents. But they could have been better.

    Melancthon was a humanist who once said to Erasmus (on Erasmus’ death bed) “I have followed you in all that you have taught”).

    Melancthon and his ilk had a big hand in writing those Confessions, also.

    The “so called “3rd use of the law” has been hotly debated by Lutherans from the start.

    So this horse manure about, “if you don’t ascribe to all aspects of the Lutheran Confessions, then you aren’t a true Lutheran” is just that…a load of horse excrement.

    Lutherans have been going at it (the “3rd use”) for 500 years.

    We aren’t going to solve it now. But maybe some of us can see it for what it truly is…’not helpful’.

    • But they could have been better.

      Well, we’re open to new ideas Steve. The only problem is, we haven’t heard many genuinely new ones in the last 500 years.

      So this horse manure about, “if you don’t ascribe to all aspects of the Lutheran Confessions, then you aren’t a true Lutheran” is just that…a load of horse excrement.

      That was redundant. But nonetheless, words have meaning because meaning exists. The term “Lutheran” has always been understood, since 1580, to mean the branch of Protestantism that believes, teaches, and confesses Lutheran doctrine. It’s the definition of the word. You can pull something out of a hat and call it Lutheran, but that but if it’s Buddhism, than you are objectively incorrect. The difference between Lutherans and Presbyterians and Anglicans etc… is that they believe different things. You can call yourself a Lutheran, but if you believe double predestination and reject infant baptism, then you’re a Reformed Baptist whether you admit it or not. It’s like these gals running around ordaining women and claiming to be Roman Catholics. Nobody’s buying it. You reject Roman doctrine, you are not a Roman Catholic. You reject Lutheran doctrine, you are not a Lutheran. There’s nothing wrong with that! Why not just bother checking whose doctrine you actually DO align with, and identifying as one of them?

      Melancthon was a humanist who once said to Erasmus (on Erasmus’ death bed) “I have followed you in all that you have taught

      …which, if he said it, is an blatant lie. Melancthon did do a bit of flopping under pressure, however, he also did pen the Augsburg confession. Yeah, Erasmus was real happy about that one.

      The “so called “3rd use of the law” has been hotly debated by Lutherans from the start.

      Actually, we’ve enjoyed a bit of harmony and agreement on this since 1580. There was a lot of blood, sweat, and tears spent to achieve that consensus, and it makes me sick to see people treat it like the mud on their tires when they have a political axe to grind.

      I’ll give you this much: There’s a bit of theology in the Book of Concord. It is technically possible for somebody to agree with 95% of it. Is that close enough? How Lutheran do you have to be to be truly Lutheran? Here’s my confession: I haven’t read the whole thing. I don’t imagine I will accomplish that any time soon. But I practice confessional subscription because I value unity in the church, and I trust the tradition that was handed down to me and has proven itself for 500 years (or 2000, depending on how you look at it). I do not set myself up to be the final arbitrator of doctrine, and I give my church the right to make some mistakes that I will have to live with. It’s called walking together.

      • If you are denying that Melancthon was a humanist and a big fan of Erasmus then you have a bit of studying to do. It is well know and a fact. Google him…read it for yourself.

        95% is good. Leave out the “3rd use” and anything else that may open the door to legalism and erode our assurance.

        Contrary to the belief of some…there is NO perfect doctrine. But there certainly is a perfect gospel.

        And I’m quite happy to walk together. It’s the other side who say that they alone are “the true Lutherans”.

        • Whether Melancthon was or was not a humanist is largely irrelevant. He was originally a Catholic, followed Luther for a bit, became a “Phillipist,” succumbed to Reformed influence, and returned to Lutheran thought. We accept a select number of things he wrote as authoritative in our churches. The Lutheran Confessions to not prescribe a legalistic “3rd use” unless you can find it in there for me. It absolutely does exactly what you say: creates legalism and erodes assurance. Therefore we reject the Reformed understanding of the 3rd use.

          Contrary to the belief of some…there is NO perfect doctrine. But there certainly is a perfect gospel.

          Hold the phone! So the Gospel is not a doctrine? …would you care to define “doctrine?”

          there is NO perfect doctrine.

          No, but there is sound doctrine. “Perfection” is not a matter of degrees. You wouldn’t say you have a perfect truth: if it’s truth, no modifier is necessary. “Perfect doctrine”, or “completely true truth without mixture of error” is superfluously redundant. However, I would argue that the teaching of Jesus is true and perfect. Any doctrine that agrees with him is correct. Surely you must concede this is possible, or Jesus was wasting his breath.

          …it’s the other side who say that they alone are “the true Lutherans”.

          What IS this chip on your shoulder? Is that a bit of faux humility I detect? “I thank you God that I’m not like those super Lutherans who think they’re the only correct ones.” Give it a rest. We reserved the right to be equally convinced of our own right opinions (if you’ll pardon me that oxymoron).

          Nobody is saying the BoC is perfect: we claiming that it’s teachings are true, because they are an accurate summary and representation of the teaching of scripture. You have to at least concede that this is a plausible accomplishment, or else the study of scripture is a vain pursuit. But consider that we take them with a grain of salt (unless there’s a poo flinging [literally] side of the LCMS I haven’t been exposed to yet).

          It’s not about a series of shibboleths to determine who is in and who is not. Nobody cares who’s a “true Lutheran” and who’s a wannabe. Save the posturing games for niche genre scene kids. But scripture shows great concern for correct doctrine and spends a considerable amount of time refuting err. Even Jesus was known to take sides in theological debate.

          You wanna take exception to the BoC? Fine. That’s your right as an American. And there’s even a church body for you. But let’s not make historic consensus into a crime. We believe the BoC is correct. This is the teaching of the Lutheran church. You can cherry pick what you like from it, but at some point your doctrine may more closely resemble a different tradition. It would be honest to admit that.

          • It’s not irrelevant that Melancthon was a humanist. It helps explain why he compromised with the Catholics.

            The BoC is a great document. But it could have been better.

            And it is in no way better than or equal to Holy Scripture itself which declares :”Christ is the end of the law for all who have faith.” So much for the need to use the law to make us better Christians.

            Chip on my shoulder? I can’t tell you how many LCMS folks, including pastors, have told me that I am not a “real Lutheran” if I don’t subscribe to every jot and tittle in the Lutheran Confessions. And a few have banned me from their sites for stating the truth about Melancthon and the so-called “3rd use”.

            I have NEVER suggested, not once, that LCMS’s are not true Lutherans. Only that for some strange reason they have a Southern Baptist doctrine of the Word (that every jot and tittle floated down from Heaven with a bow tied around it).

            God uses earthen vessels, in case you haven’t noticed. It is a small god who needs perfect documents or books to accomplish His will for sinners.

            If you cannot admit that Lutherans have been debating these issues from the git-go, then you are denying the truth about it.

          • Steve, I personally do not care how much Melanchthon compromised with Rome unless you can show me where that err is contained in the portions of the BoC he penned. Those errs were, I believe, kept out.

            The BoC is a great document. But it could have been better.

            You keep saying that but I don’t see any helpful suggestions. I’d even agree that it could have been better, yet I do not find fault with what it does say. If I did, I’d be quite willing to overlook a number of errs. The gist of the doctrine it represents has been a salve for my weary soul.

            I’m not sure why you keep going on about this third use. Lutherans reject the self-improvement angle entirely. It’s not in the BoC, is it? Every Lutheran I’ve ever heard teach has categorically rejected the notion that our submission to the law could possibly make us better Christians. That is not the doctrine of the BoC or the LCMS, period. But being the theologically conservative denomination, fundamentalism is always at our doorstep.

            And I’m sorry, but the LCMS does not have an SBC doctrine of the Word. Nothing could be further from the truth. Our approach to scripture is SO radically different (…and remember, I’m a convert FROM the SBC), it was by far my most exciting post-conversion discovery. We are not required to subscribe to Biblical inerrancy (or YEC, for that matter). This is aside from the fact that, as I’ve said countless other times, Lutherans mean something drastically different when they talk about inerrancy.

            God uses earthen vessels

            Yes, but where are you going with that? Was Christ just an “earthen vessel?” No, he was simultaneously fully human and fully divine. We see Scripture the same way, because all theology is Christology: The book is simultaneously authored by God yet the product of human agency. We do not dogmatically assert any one theory of inspiration, but are content to let it remain a mystery, like the incarnation and hypostatic union. Just as Christ was without sin, we believe God’s Word is without falsehood. I personally don’t care if there’ an “err” in it somewhere, there’s a million ways that could have gotten in there. But God deliberately misleading us or making a mistake are the options we do not put on the table. Would you?

            Over 15 years in SBC circles and I never heard anything like that.

            If you cannot admit that Lutherans have been debating these issues from the git-go

            Nobody is saying debate never happened. But saying “some Lutherans have always begged to differ with historic Lutheran orthodoxy” doesn’t mean they were either correct OR accurately representing Lutheran doctrine. We came to a consensus in 1580. I believe this consensus is a rare thing and brings much good, and therefore is worth preserving. So do the powers that be in the LCMS. Surely you don’t fault us for insisting on unity and agreement within our own denomination?

            It seems to me that you are objecting to the BoC on principle rather than from actual concern. Are there teachings present in it that you find concerning or contradictory to Scripture? Or are your objections based on your experienced with ultra-conservative LCMS’ers wielding the law like Calvinists?

  15. IMO this is an anthropological argument. Those who hold a high anthropology or a high view of human effort have a very low view of Gods will and activity in the everyday. They want their obedience to count for something.

    On the other hand, those who have a low (and realistic, dare I say biblical) view of human effort have a very high of Gods activity in the everyday. We know that our obedience is indicative of what we have received – not an imperative for getting something.

  16. Christiane says

    the fruits of the Spirit
    do not come from ourselves, but are derived from the Holy Spirit’s presence in our rebirth,
    and can empower our way of living and our interactions with others so that we can follow Christ’s ‘upgraded’ Law of Moses

    • Yeah, Jesus did seem to play the one-upping game with some of the OT rules. But if Christ is a second Moses, what he offers is not freedom. We couldn’t even keep the ten commandments. Heck, we couldn’t even keep our hands off the apple. It’s gonna take more than the Holy Spirit to help us follow the teachings of Christ, cause we just ain’t gonna, most of the time. Where we succeed, it’s grace. Where we fail, there’s mercy.

  17. Robert F says

    “The fruit of the Spirit in the lives of those who walk with Christ is love; that is joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control…..” Yes, I believe in Jesus Christ; Lord, help thou my unbelief. Yes, I do want the fruit of the Spirit; but though I want the fruit, I do not experience it. I lack joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control, and I feel there lack in the very times I need them most.

    What then should I do? What must I do to attain these fruits that I so painfully feel the lack of in my life, and that do not spontaneously arise out of me? If you tell me that I lack faith, and that’s why I lack the gifts, then tell me how to acquire more faith, aside from praying for it, which I already do; but remember, whatever you tell me I must do to acquire more faith so that I may know these fruits will itself become a law that I will strive to obey. Are you telling me that if I don’t experience these fruits spontaneously welling up in me, then I don’t belong to Jesus? What truly awful news that would be, although I’ve already harbored that fear; but, if that is the case, tell me then what I must do to belong to Christ? Pray the sinner’s prayer? I’ve done that many times. Confess my lack of belief? I’ve done that, too, over and over. Just make myself trust Christ for the gifts? Yes, how many times I’ve tried that. Each one has become a law in its turn, and none has delivered me from the terrible moral and spiritual poverty of my soul. If what you are telling me is that there is nothing I can do to make myself adequately believe, and that as long as I don’t adequately believe I will not have the fruits that you have and that are the natural condition of those walking with Christ, you are counseling me to despair.

    This is the problem with the Second Use of the Gospel as you’ve sketched it above: I, and others, not finding the evidence of these fruits in our lives, will have to question if we really believe, and end up in a place of self-judgement where you can not help us, and, according to the implications of what you’ve outlined, Christ has not helped us. And then we will look to some kind of law to help us.

    This is not what you intended, is it?

    • Robert F, finish that verse: “…against such things there is no law.”
      Paul doesn’t mean: “by the way, it’s not illegal in Galatia to be loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, etc.”.
      Paul means what he says 4 verses earlier: “But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the Law”. Gal 5:18.
      No law can push against your will to compel you into being more loving or patient or kind.
      Notice that Gal. 5:19-20 refers to deeds/ activities of the flesh, but the fruits of the Spirit listed in 5:18 are not activities, but qualities of character.

      In my own experience, despite many years in church, I concluded that lack of these fruits did not mean I was a nonbeliever, but it did mean I was in many ways still a baby Christian. That realization was both humbling and (oddly) liberating), in that I didn’t have to pretend about my maturity.

  18. I had never heard of the “uses of the law” until I read this yesterday, then I read it again last night in an ethics book.

    I would argue that the OT law gives us lots of pointers as to how God wants us to live – how to love God and our neighbour. Likewise the NT letters and teaching of Christ.

    To lift up the first use and put down the third is *a bit* like the culture war Christianity we often critique – where we want society to follow much of the law, but aren’t willing to go beyond our godless neighbours in obedience.

  19. This whole debate perplexes me. Maybe it’s because I’m not Lutheran and this seems to be largely an in-house Lutheran thing.

    With all this talk of Law, (and I know this is a concept that looms large for Lutherans, but I want to ask-) which Law? Are we talking Jewish ceremonial law? Or are we talking natural law, ethics, morality? I see verses being quoted back and forth in the article and in the comments, and many seem to speak to only one or other of those, but no distinction is being made. It seems to me like kind of an important distinction.

    I also feel like something gets lost if we only talk about righteousness and sin in terms of obeying or not obeying rules. Maybe it’s because Lutherans and others tend to look at these matters forensically? I’m not sure. But there’s an ontological dimension that’s missing here. If I only look at Law as rules I should obey but don’t, or look at the Gospel as Jesus having fulfilled the rules because I didn’t, or absolving me from following rules, I think there’s a fundamental problem in my approach. Admitting I’m a sinner is about more than my actions- it’s a recognition that there’s a deap-seated corruption in me, in the very foundation of my being; that I am and have chosen to be less than fully and authentically human. It’s not just that I do what I’m not supposed to do and don’t do what I am supposed to do, but rather I am not as I am supposed to be.

    But Jesus is, and through union with His death and resurrection, so am I, in some sense- and will be, in every sense.

    I firmly believe God wants me to be virtuous and is working to make me so. If someone tells me I’m always going to be as I am now, then I don’t know what you mean by salvation. I have no confidence that I will ever be very virtuous in this life. But that doesn’t mean we are all stuck as we are. I look at the saints and see men and women changed by God in extraordinary ways. St Ignatius eagerly on his way to martyrdom, St Augustine waxing lyrical and passionate on the love of God- these folks inspire me. Why have I not been thus extraordinarily changed? Maybe it’s my fault, maybe it’s not. I’ve given up trying to work it out. But I do know that virtue, that genuine goodness, is possible through God’s grace, and that God wants it for His children. I disbelieve any theology that would say different.

    Genuinely virtuous people don’t need rules. I, on the other hand, still need them plenty, but I look towards a day (maybe in this life, maybe not till the next) when I won’t, when God’s grace will have restored my nature such that I will do and be naturally what is now difficult, almost impossible, for me.

    I’m not well enough read in Lutheran theology to work out if all of that adds up to agreement with the essence of this article. Maybe someone can tell me.

    • Here’s a lot of background on it, Glenn:


    • Genuinely virtuous people don’t need rules.

      You’re right about this being Lutheran thing. We believe there has only ever been one genuinely virtuous person, and of course we couldn’t stand it and had him killed.

      Why have I not been thus extraordinarily changed?

      We answer the question of “why some and not others” when it comes to sanctification (“new obedience”) the say way we answer that question concerning predestination: *shrugs*

      But I do know that virtue, that genuine goodness, is possible through God’s grace, and that God wants it for His children. I disbelieve any theology that would say different.

      Agree. Call a thing what it is: sin is bad and virtue is good. I would just emphasize that true virtue is possible ONLY through God’s grace, and apart from it, what may apear virtuous to the eyes of men, yet springs from corrupt motives laid bare before the eyes of God. It’s quite simple, I think: any good brings credit to God, any bad brings reproach to us. While this may seem hopelessly self denigrating to some, I have found it to bring much hope and comfort to believe that God actually cares to do good for us, to us, in us, and through us. That is a God worth believing in, no matter how much of a schmuck I refuse to admit I am.

  20. Don’t forget the all-important fourth use of law: to make lots of money selling books, videos, study guides and conferences on life principles to achieve a victorious/prosperous/successful/better/on-fire life.

  21. Charles H. Featherstone says

    Actually, the “third use” of the torah/nomos (teaching is better than law, but who I am to argue with the LXX translation committee?) is the only real use the the “law” is put to.

    I argue with this whole framework. I don’t believe there is a first use at all. That’s a Christendom conceit, a Lutheran attempt to let Aquinas in the back door (and this makes sense; aside from his soteriology, Martin Luther was a medieval scholastic in just about every way that matters), an attempt to universalize a very particular revelation in a particular time and particular place. What the whole Lutheran approach to “law” completely ignores is that God gathers God’s people *first* and only when God gathers them does God give a teaching. God does not impart or write “law” or “moral rules” in the world. God gives the teaching only when God has gathered the people. But the people are gathered FIRST. The teaching is what is given to the gathered people. The ten words were given only at Sinai and then only to a people God had just gathered together, and they are what it means to love each other as God loves them. (They are a first attempt.) The ten words are not given to the world (or else God could have — and hate speaking of God’s acts in these ways — just told Pharaoh to write the ten words on stella across his empire (ahem, on monuments at county courthouses and in school rooms). Jesus gathers first and THEN teaches.

    There is no “law” in any sense, natural or otherwise. (There is human self-organization, and all communities create rules and boundaries, and punish transgressors, but rules and norms and right and wrong vary so much I hardly think this rises to the notion of “natural law.” There are always people who can be killed with impunity, who have honor that doesn’t matter, whose property is of no account, whose suffering is not worthy of concern.) It curbs nothing, it prevents nothing, it stops nothing. The only things that curb sinful human beings are conscience and other sinful human beings. So, someone’s sin will always go unpunished, usually someone with power. Because that’s how it works.

    • Good stuff, Charlie.

    • There is no “law” in any sense, natural or otherwise.

      Are you saying there is no objective standard of right and wrong? I agree that those in power get their sins overlooked, but unless you are appealing to a higher moral authority, then aren’t you justifying their cover up?

      • Charles H. Featherstone says

        There is no objective standard of right and wrong, no. Nothing we can know about those things absent revelation or subjective agreement.

        • …so then you are saying there is nothing objectively wrong when those in power cover their sins and punish the masses? Will to power, the strong shall trample the weak? …the universe works this way so apparently it’s right? …isn’t that, in the end, an appeal to a natural law?

          • Charles H. Featherstone says

            I’m saying nothing curbs their sin. And the first use of the law speaks as if somehow the universe is made so that sinful human beings are restrained or can be restrained. It’s like Constitutionalism in the American sense. The Constitution is a piece of paper, a set of rules, perhaps even principles and ideas, but itself does nothing but just sit there. Because it can do nothing but sit there. It is only as useful as the commitment those in power have to adhering to it. Depending on what they actually believe it means, because there may be little or no agreement on that front. (Alberto Gonzales saying that indefinite detention is constitutional, for example, or Barack Obama agreeing with him more or less.) So, the law itself restrains nothing. Only human beings restrain. And it is a puzzle without solution, this sinful human beings restraining the sinfulness of other human beings. It means that someone’s sin will always go unrestrained. ALWAYS. And most likely, because of the way human beings organize themselves, that means those with the most power to restrain the sinfulness of some human beings will themselves go unrestrained. There is no right and wrong to this.

            This is an appeal to a natural law of sorts, but not the kind that comes of out medieval Europe and haunts the Christian tradition, which supposes some form of the Sinai covenant is written into the working of the world and the organizing of human beings. That it can be known absent God’s calling and revealing. That is the conceit of Christendom I find so annoying. But I am not happy with how much Athens there is in my Jerusalem.

            However the universe may be made or organized, what matters is grace, and grace only becomes known to us because it is revealed to us.

  22. Every discussion about third use tends to become infected by Calvin’s very unLutheran view of the Third Use. If anybody is interested in seeing how third use is very different for Lutherans than Calvinists, I suggest this paper:


    The Lutheran Third Use is very much more like the “second use” of the Gospel referred to above, which I think is very much worse term than the third use of the Law. It adds to the Gospel something we do, when the Gospel is only ever what God does for us. All of creation is God’s gift, including the Law, but a gift of something for US to do is still Law.

    There is only one Law, not a different law for each use. The New Obedience in Christ complies with the same Law that is in creation, that our conscience points to, that we failed to satisfy. The Law only kills, never motivates. True. What’s totally missing here is the Sinner side of the simul, the Old Adam, that still clings to the New Christian. The Third Use is what the law does to a Christian who knows he still sins and still has the weakness of flesh of the Old Adam. The Third Use is the Law’s continued operation to kill that sinful weakness of the Old Adam, a process which the New Christian delights in.

  23. I would agree with Forde that the third use is dubious but a so called second use of the gospel is just return to the same backdoor denial of the gospel. Its really a reformed version of th same thing. This is what happens when the sacraments get unhinged. The gospel is not just bees but a pro me gift that is given and not just good information.

    The problem is we are always looking for some motivating force. Sanctification is not doing good works third use or otherwise. That would be finding life in works. Sanctification is really just receiving. The gospel again and again in word and sacrament…ie finding life continually in Christ alone…the forgiveness of sin. Ie as Force said “getting use to our justification “.

  24. I’m finding one of the best ways to understand God’s Law and its role in the life of new covenant believers is best explained in the text of this hymn:

    The Law of God is good and wise and sets His will before our eyes,
    Shows us the way of righteousness, and dooms to death when we transgress.

    Its light of holiness imparts the knowledge of our sinful hearts
    That we may see our lost estate and turn from sin before too late.

    To those who help in Christ have found and would in works of love abound
    It shows what deeds are His delight and should be done as good and right.

    But those who scornfully disdain God’s Law shall then in sin remain;
    Its terror in their ear resounds and keeps their wickedness in bounds.

    The Law is good; but since the fall its holiness condemns us all;
    It dooms us for our sin to die and has no pow’r to justify.

    To Jesus we for refuge flee, who from the curse has set us free.
    And humbly worship at His throne, saved by His grace through faith alone.

  25. This may be a stupid question, but what is this “law” that everybody keeps talking about, and how can we know what it says, if we’re thinking about doing something that may or may not be against it? I know there’s a bunch of rules in the Bible, but some of them are just ridiculous. And anyway, society can function perfectly well without Bible laws as long as we have government laws, so that “first use” turns out to be unnecessary. As for the “second use,” I’m wiling to be convicted of sin just as soon as somebody explains to be what that is. ‘specially if there “ain’t no ten commandments.”

    • No, it’s a good question actually because I don’t think Christians understand quite what they’re talking about when they refer to the Law. “The Law” in Scripture is of course the Law of Moses given on Mt Sinai. This is also what Paul meant when he referred to the Law in books like Romans. However Christians don’t usually mean this. A common practice is to assume that Paul’s use of the word “Law” should be extrapolated into “any set of rules used to govern behavior, at any time and place.” Such an application will get you a certain distance in understanding the theology of grace, but the question often arises of “how do we know what to do, then?” which I guess is your question, and what is being discussed here.

      The theology and writing of the early Christians clearly put forth a number of “do’s and don’ts”, but broadly speaking, the primary impetus for the practice of a New Testmament church would seem to be the “law of the Spirit of Life,” which is “through Christ.” (Romans 8:2) A VERY short, somewhat rediuctionist definition of that might be something like: the momentum of the Gospel in people’s hearts and minds, producing fruit of the Spirit (love, joy, peace…etc- Gal 5:22-23) through the church- through those who have sworn allegiance to the Messiah. “We love because he first loved us” as John the Apostle puts it.

      There’s much difficulty in understanding this, and the line in the sand often gets drawn when someone decides to insist that the life of a Christian must universally look thus and so….sometimes referencing Biblical commands, sometimes not. This proves to be a much easier way to extract behaviors out of people, but the complaint against this legalism is that it doesn’t change the heart, or produce the “fruit” God is looking for. It’s also not the best motivator.

      So my answer to you question “how can we know what it (the Law) says,” is that it can’t really be answered. At least not quickly, or universally, or without ignoring lots of context specifics. “Love God and love your neighbor,” maybe.

      I believe the best practice of the historic church has not been to seek answers to “what should I do?” but to practice “Union with Christ.” The practice of receiving the Gospel through Word and Sacrament. These things aren’t the Law, but they are the Way, the pathway down which one travels and finds ultimately that he HAS kept the Law, even though he didn’t really know what it was. Sounds very Dao, really. Very Zen.

      As for sin, I don’t believe the ten commandments are the best way to describe or define it. The definition of sin ought to come from Genesis 3: that Adam disobeyed God and sought to be his own authority- to unseat the Creator- satisfying his desires without regard for the giver, separating himself from the just and good will of God, thus rejecting and despising him.

      As for your personal conviction of this, it may be more important first to see what is obvious- that collectively humanity travels a path which results in destruction- socially, politically, and relationally. This is a parallel, a result, of Adam’s disobedience. So the conviction of sin rests on the society of Adam, the injustice of the world. Individuals like you and I collude with this regularly. Sometimes it’s more obvious than others.

      Jesus is the reversal of all that. He is the anti-Adam. Swearing allegiance to him reverses the original “bad decision” and places one in a New Society of people under a New Government (Jesus) in a New Creation.

  26. BJR great paper that nicely peels this apart. It seems since the law itself is a creature. and as all of Gods creatures good. But finding life even in the law is similar to finding life in any creature and as such just as much idolatry as is worsipping other creatures.

    The law asthird use thus identifies no different what is agood work is than any other use but is no motivation. The gospel motivates but it is a motivation that knows the work is good not because I do it but Christ does it and receives… stained with the old mans addition to it.

    Good paper worth reading a few times to untangle the reformed influence.

  27. Weeder;

    Original sin is not as oft potrayed and taught in most circles. Original sin is primarily the loss of the knowledge of God and to trust that he is forgiving. It was not a fall into the crass or sin list; rather seeking ironically more pious than God. Luther points out that the first move by the serpant was to “put faith on trial ” by disconnecting it from the Word. (The son of God) by “hath God really said. That’s the root and source of all sin. Pious or overtly impious. Sin is thus not “the negative sin list ” but the inwardly curved man seeking himself for himself in all things be it murderer or saving a thousand lives that he may be self righteous. Thus Luther said that the law of God is the most salutary doctrine of life…but not only can it not help a man toward God rather it hinders him. And he uses the best creatures for the worse end. Generally this can be said also of reason…one of the highest gifts given us by God…but it not only cannot help man toward God it rather hinders him. Man uses Gods gifts Against God…particularly the Logos, the Son of God, the Word of God. Thus all stifles of faith are “foolishness ” except to faith itself for whom these articles make room for faith alone.

  28. CM, I agree with your view of ‘Gospel’ in place of ‘Law’. However, I think the whole issue of ‘3rd use’ (or 1st or 2nd for that matter) comes from a couple of fundamental misunderstandings about ‘Law’.

    First, when speaking of O.T. Law (whether as it applies to Christians or as a means of ‘convicting’ non-believers) one must break the Law into parts – the ‘ceremonial’, the ‘civil’, and the ‘moral’. To a first-century Jew (including the Apostle Paul) such ‘breaking’ ‘breaks’ the Law. To a first-century Jew it was as much of a violation to plant two kinds of crops in his field or wear clothing of mixed fabric as it was to steal. Granted the penalty was not the same, but both were clearly a violation of the Law, for God expected Israel to keep all of it. The reason some separate the Law into ‘parts’, some binding and some not, is because it is clear that some parts are not binding, and rather than grant that believers (and non-believers) are not bound by O.T. Law at all, it is said that the ‘moral’ part of the Law still applies. But, as I said, it was all ‘moral’ to a first-century Jew – they would not have considered (or comprehended) the artificial separation done by later Christians (though they did make accomodations to the laws regarding sacrifice after the destruction of the Temple).

    Second, the real misunderstanding has to do with the purpose of the Law. It was not to ‘lead us to Christ’ (Gal. 3:24 is a temporal clause – ‘the Law was our [exclusive ‘our’ – Paul speaking as a Jew, not inclusive as in ‘all people’] guardian UNTIL Christ came’, not ‘our tutor to lead us to Christ’ (as the NASB has it). Paul’s point is that the Law was ‘operative’ as a ‘guardian’ (Greek ‘paidagogos’ – a guardian, usually a slave, given responsibility to guide and protect a male child from 7 to 17, at which time he was ‘freed’ from the control of the paidagogos since he had become an adult) for Israel until the time of ‘faith’ – Christ – came. At that time it had served its purpose since a new covenant had come and the Law was part of the old covenant (Paul’s argument in Galatians is eschatological, not soteriological).

    The basic problem is that the purpose of the O.T. (Mosaic/Sinaitic/Deuteronomic) Law was to regulate the covenant relationship between God and Israel, and Gentiles were never a party to that covenant and were thus never seen as being under the O.T. Law or bound (or condemned) by it. This is clear from reading ancient Jewish literature. First-century Jews believed Gentiles would be judged and held accountable to the ‘Noahic Laws’, which they ‘suggested’ for ‘God-fearers’ in the Synagogue (which, by the way, are the same requirements the Apostles put on Gentile believers in Acts 15). In Acts 15 this very thing is affirmed – Gentiles are/were not (never) under the Mosaic Law (Acts 15:10). The first issue – whether circumcision was required was quickly dispensed with – Gentiles were not required to become Jewish proselytes to be Christians. The issue then is ‘what do we require of Gentile believers in order that they may have fellowship with Jews?’ In 15:10 Peter states what is the Jewish understanding of the time – ‘why are you . . . placing a yoke upon the neck of the disciples . . .’ Note that those calling for Law-keeping are ‘placing’ a burden on the Gentiles that they do not currently have – i.e. they are not under the Law since they are not Jews. This is clearly understood by the apostles, Jews of the time, and even Jews today. The Law is for Israel; it is that which regulates God’s covenant with Israel.

    When one understands that the Law was the ‘document’ that regulated the covenant between God and Israel, the issue of Law and Christians becomes much clearer. The basic reason Gentile Christians are not under the O.T. Law (and the reason non-believers, at least Gentile non-believers, are not ‘condemned’ by the Law) is that Gentiles are and were never a party to the covenant God made with Israel thus are not bound by its conditions. The second reason that Christians (Jew or Gentile) are not under the O.T. Law is that we are (as CM notes) under a new covenant – ‘the’ New Covenant, with a new ‘document’ if you will – the ‘Law of Christ’, a law written in our hearts, but also taught in the New Testament, through the teachings of Jesus (think Sermon on the Mount specifically) as well as the Apostles’ teaching. This is not anti-nomianism (in the ‘lawless’ sense) since the Law of Christ has higher ethical standards than the O.T. Law demanded of Isreal (see Matt 5-7).

    As far as using the O.T. Law in evangelism, I think this is misguided as well. One must pick and choose certain parts (the ‘moral’ part) and say non-believers are condemned by that. When critics point out that the same Law condemned eating pork and called for stoning disobient children their point is really on target (though their motives usually aren’t). While the O.T. Law does convey much about God’s expectations of humans and how they treat each other, to use the Law to ‘show people they need Jesus’ since they have failed to keep the Law is like telling someone they are guilty of violating some obscure law of Croatia – if I’m not a Croatian and I’ve never been there, I can’t be condemned by their laws since they don’t apply to me.

    In my view a much better approach is to do what Paul does in Rom 1:18-21 (and a very similar thing in his sermons in Acts) – he shows the basic problem for what it is – the failure to acknowledge God as God and be thankful to him. This leads to idolatry (whether self-worship or creating our own god in our minds) and that leads to more problems as the chapter proceeds. The real ‘sin’ problem that requires salvation is not failure to keep a Law that only applied to a certain group of people for a certain time but rather rebellion against the creator God and thus failing to acknowledge him as such. (That also has the advantage of cutting through all the post-modern ‘that’s sin to you but not to me’ arguments.)

    • Jesus said that among those born of women, there was none greater than John the Baptist… not Moses, not Joshua, not David, not Elijah, not Solomon… yet the least in the Kingdom is greater than John.
      John the Baptist seems to be the pivot point in history, from urging people to repent to ushering in the Kingdom. Yet even John has a moment of doubt whether Jesus is the Messiah, because Jesus’ inauguration of the Kingdom does not look like “Law on Steroids”, nor is he bringing Herod to justice… Instead, Jesus is ministering grace and healing in the middle of nowhere in Galilee.
      Whatever the transition from Law to Kingdom looks like, Jesus acknowledges that the process of taking the Kingdom is violent and is taken by force… it ain’t easy to grasp..

      I guess we can take some comfort that if even John the Baptist struggled with it, we can expect to wrestle with it too.

      One of the few times in scripture where Jesus is recorded praising his Father is when the Father hides these things from the wise, in Matt. 12.

  29. William Hordern’s “Living By Grace” has helped me enormously to wrap my head/heart around the subject at hand.

  30. A few thoughts from a Lutheran pastor:
    The “two-use” only argument has been fairly common on among Lutherans recently, especially in the ELCA, which, in my opinion, has naturally resulted in their decision to allow openly homosexual clergy be ordained. It’s common here to speak about the law in negative terms.
    -The third use of the law has gained revival among Lutherans lately from a deeper study of what’s been called “natural law.” The idea here is that law and creation are intimately created, such that the law expresses God’s intention and desire for creation. We have been recreated to walk according to that purpose (Love of God and love of neighbor).
    -To a certain extent, I think its fair to say that regardless of how many categories or “uses” of the law exist, the one preaching the law really has no control over how it functions. When I preach that husbands should lay down their lives for their wives, that command may hit one person as a curb (“Gee, I better love my wife so she doesn’t make my life miserable or leave me!”), as mirror (“WOW… I’m a terrible husband. I need Jesus!), or as a guide (“Hmmm…. I get it now. That’s how I’m supposed to love my wife).
    -Psalm 19 (“The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul”) and Psalm 119 (“Lord, I love your law!”) no longer make much sense.
    -“The law always accuses” but it doesn’t only accuse.
    -The idea that good works flow naturally and from a thankful heart is a great ideal, and this does happen on a good day. But on some days we just end of having to do things not because we want to but because our neighbor needs it. Anything less devolves into what I would call a “soteriological selfishness” in which my personal salvation by grace alone trumps any difficult and costly effort toward serving my neighbor, even when I don’t feel like it.
    -Last, but not least, having attended a Lutheran college, I learned two-use of the law, and I saw its impact on Christian life. Apathy and licentiousness, all defended by “Christ is the end of the law.” I was basically taught that earnestly seeking to follow Jesus is for the Baptists, but not for Lutherans. It was only at seminary that I learned more about the third use.

    • Right. Antinomianism does not lead to life and freedom, but back into another bondage that is ultimately worse than before. Chist is the “end” of the law, but not in a chronological sense. We must leave room for God’s law to instruct us and guide us in the determination of what is or is not right or wrong, because to do otherwise is to thumb our nose at God’s Words because our own opinions hold more weight. Knowing good and evil in no way empowers us to choose good, much less succeed in fulfilling it, but it at the very least enables us to call a thing what it is. Nothing is more unjust than to call wickedness good or to call goodness wicked. Apart from the Revelation of God’s law, that is precisely what the natural man is bent on doing. In this sense, the law is a gift. It enlightens, but does not empower or change our hearts to cease desiring evil.

  31. Jesus spent a lot of time teaching people, very authoritatively and impressively as we are told. But the Gospels don’t usually say *what*. However, as we can see from various things Jesus said, it was about the law. There wasn’t any Good News yet, so there wasn’t much else he could talk about. Much of what Jesus said relates directly back to the Old Testament law. If you don’t know what the OT law says, you can’t figure out what the heck he is talking about. Jesus’s message was largely about proper understanding and use of the law, as opposed to the improper understanding and misuse of the law by the Pharisees and scribes. Dismissal of the law is a serious mistake.

    • There wasn’t any Good News yet?

      Jesus himself was the Good News at that point, and his message about the “proper understanding and use of the Law” was that he was fulfilling it, thus preparing the way for the law-free Gospel that the apostles gave to the Gentiles.

  32. Chaplain Mike,

    Someone just directed me to your post. I am wondering if you had heard of this paper yet, linked at my blog:


    I would be interested in getting your feedback on it.