Law, Gospel, And The Three Uses of the Law

By “law and gospel” I’m referring to the debate between those of us who hold to the historic and confessional distinction between those places in Scripture where God commands and promises blessing conditioned upon our obedience (law) and where he promises blessing freely on the basis of Christ’s obedience for us (gospel). Historically, Protestants have described these two ways of speaking in Scripture as “law” and “gospel” or the covenants of works and the covenants of grace.

There are some, perhaps many, in the Reformed community who, because they were raised in congregations where this way of speaking wasn’t used or because they associate this language with “Lutheranism,” or because they are moralists who think that making such a distinction will cause Christians not to obey God’s law, reject this distinction. By “third use” (tertius usus legis) I’m referring to the historic Protestant and confessional distinctions between the way the moral law is used.

The moral law is summarized for us in Scripture in Exodus 20 and in Deuteronomy 5 and in Matthew 22:37–40 but it is found throughout Scripture in the Old Testament and in the New.

…You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”

The moral law never changes. It was given in creation, re-affirmed under Noah, expressed in typological and national terms under Moses, David, and the prophets, and re-affirmed in the NT by our Lord Jesus and the apostles.

The three uses of the law are:

  • pedagogical
  • civil
  • moral/normative

The uses of the law are numbered differently by different writers but here I’m following the order of the Heidelberg Catechism (1563) which makes the pedagogical use the first use.

2. How many things are necessary for you to know, that in this comfort you may live and die happily?

Three things: the first, how great my sin and misery is; the second, how I am redeemed from all my sins and misery; the third, how I am to be thankful to God for such redemption.

The first use is the “pedagogical” use whereby sinners are driven to Christ. The law in its first use applies only to unbelievers because believers, i.e., those who, by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, have been given new life, have been given the grace of faith and who, through that faith are united to Christ, are credited by God with Christ’s whole (active and suffering) obedience and thus reckoned as righteous before God. A believer cannot be under the law in its first use. Paul says:

For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace. What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! (Rom 6:14–15; ESV)

and in Romans 11:6

But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace.

In justification (acceptance with God) works is law keeping and grace is free. The gospel declares unconditional acceptance by God on the basis of Jesus’ law-keeping for all his people.

So, in this use, the law is taskmaster, a pedagogue (Gal 3:24), a harsh teacher with a ruler or a switch that beats us sinners when we transgress. This is the expression of God’s holy, relentless righteousness (justice), that must be satisfied either by ourselves or by another. God’s law threatens death for all those who transgress: “The day you eat thereof, you shall surely die.” (Gen 2:17)

The second use, the civil use, is the application of the moral law to public or civil life. Here we’re not talking about “theonomy,” which is the novel theory that God intends, in the new covenant, after the abrogation of the Mosaic/Old Covenant, that the civil magistrate institute and enforce the civil aspects and punishments of the 613 laws of Moses. Contrary to the repeated claims by theonomists, this has never been Reformed teaching.

Now, it is true that in the 16th and 17th centuries, in Christendom, under the influence of Constantinianism, the Reformed did expect the magistrate to enforce both tables (1-4; 5-10) of the moral law. In the 18th and 19th centuries, however, most Reformed folk came to see that Constantinianism was a mistake, that the magistrate is not called by the NT to enforce the first table (or at least the first three commandments–an argument can be made for civil recognition for a day of rest). Nevertheless, the Reformed all did affirm the doctrine of natural (creational) law. In recent years there has been an attempt to recover the older doctrine of natural law but to apply it without bringing back Constantinianism.

The Apostle Paul says that the moral law is known from creation:

For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse (Rom 1:20; ESV).

For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them (Rom 2:14–15; ESV)

It was this law that the Caesars knew. It was with this understanding that Paul called pagan Caesars “ministers of God” (Rom 13:6). After the Mosaic national, civil covenant had been fulfilled, God’s moral law, revealed in creation and known by our senses and in our consciences, is sufficient to guide civil society, even though we don’t use it correctly.

The third use is the normative or the moral use, whereby the moral life of the believer is normed and shaped by God’s moral law (the ten commandments). The denial of the third use of the law is called antinomianism, which is widespread in American (and perhaps other) evangelical circles. Few Christians will say outright that, under the New Testament, it is permissible to commit idolatry or adultery, but they will frequently assert that the moral law expressed under Moses is no longer binding. They say this chiefly because they’ve never been taught that the law that was given at Sinai was essentially the same law given to Adam in creation but this is basic Christian teaching. Our Lord himself appealed to creation against Moses when he said, “It was not so from the beginning” (Matt 19:18).

The one thing most American evangelicals know about the law is that it was fulfilled in Christ (which is true) and thus they assume that we are no longer bound by it. This is particularly true for the 2nd and 4th commandments (and the 5th). We all recognize that there were temporary, typological elements in the Mosaic expression of the moral law. We recognize that the land promise in the 5th commandment is no longer in force. The Apostle Paul explicitly recognizes the change in the law as a consequence of its fulfillment in Christ:

Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honor your father and mother” (this is the first commandment with a promise), “that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.” (Eph 6:1–3; ESV)

People often assume that the 2nd commandment no longer applies. Many evangelicals have decorated their homes and churches with patent violations of the 2nd commandment. The second commandment, however, is still in force. Yes, God the Son came in human flesh (in which he remains in glory!) but we don’t know what how he appeared. Therefore any alleged depiction of Christ’s humanity is nothing but a vain imagination. This is why the Reformed churches universally confess that it is sin to represent the 2nd person of the Holy Trinity.

Believers widely assume the 4th commandment (sabbath) no longer applies because they do not see that the sabbath is rooted not in Moses (the Old Testament) but in creation. Again, our Lord corrected Moses, as it were, by appealing to creation:

And he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, anot man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27)

Our Lord did not overturn the 1 in 7 rest and worship principle built into creation but he did free us from the typological (Saturday) observance and Jewish strictness. This was the teaching of the Synod of Dort.

There are some, however, who, as a matter of principle, deny that believers are under the law as a norm for Christian behavior. This is antinomianism. It is anti-Christian. The law is holy and good. In Christ, the terrors of the law having been satisfied for us by Christ’s righteousness and now that we live in union with Christ, by the Spirit, under grace, the law is a gift to us and the Spirit does use it to sanctify us. It is impossible for a Christian to deny the abiding validity of the moral law because it is by the law that sin is defined. God’s Word says:

sin is lawlessness (1 John 3:4)

Sin is not what you or I think or say it is. It is not subjectively defined. It is defined objectively by the divinely given objective standard of Christian morality and ethics.

The third part of the Heidelberg Catechism (questions 86–129) is about the Christian life, lived in grace, in union with Christ, as adopted sons, out of gratitude to God. The major part of third section of the catechism is devoted to the Christian exposition and application of the moral law to the life of the believer. Each one of the ten commandments has a prohibition (what we must not do) and a positive injunction (what we must do).

Let’s address some other errors and misconceptions.

1. It is alleged by the Federal Visionists and other moralists that, unless one makes law-keeping a part of justification, unless one’s justification is somehow contingent upon sanctification, there’s no incentive to be obedient or to keep God’s law. This, of course, is foolishness. As we saw above, our salvation and our acceptance with God (justification) is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.

2. It is also too often said in Reformed circles that the third use of the law is a Reformed distinctive. It is not. It is shared with the Lutheran confessions. The language “third use of the law” comes from Philip Melanchthon and was used widely by Reformed writers in the classical period.

It is said by some Reformed folk that Calvin thought of the third use as the first use. This is not only confusing but it is not true. In his 1559 Institutes he wrote:

The third and principal use, which pertains more closely to the proper purpose of the law, finds its place among believers in whose hearts the Spirit of God already lives and reigns. For even though they have the law written and engraved upon their hearts by the finger of God [Jer 31:33; Heb 10:16], that is, have been so moved and quickened through the directing of the Spirit that they long to obey God, they still profit by the law in two ways. (2.7.12)

First of all, this section comes in the midst of a larger discussion of the three uses of the law beginning in 2.7.6. There he explicitly enumerates the three uses of the law in sections 6–9. The first use is the pedagogical use. The second use (2.7.10–11) is the civil use and the third use (2.7.12–14) is the normative use. So, let’s stop saying that, for Calvin the third use is the first use.

What he wrote in 2.7.12 was: “Tertius uses, qui est praecipuus est…” “The third use, which is the chief use…” and by that phrase he was echoing what the whole Reformed world was saying before and after him, that we are justified that we might be sanctified. We’re justified in order that we might be “so influenced and actuated by the Spirit” that we desire to obey God from the heart, out of gratitude, according to his law. That’s all he means. This was not revolutionary.

3. The third use is not a backdoor to legalism. We’re not bringing back justification by law under this heading. We discuss this use of the law under the covenant of grace, not the covenant of works.

4. Further, because the law is God’s objective standard for morality it is actually a liberating gift, because it frees me from the tyranny of fads and opinions. The law is the law. The definition of sin does not shift with the tides of human whim. No one may require of me what God has not. In that way God’s law is a bulwark against legalism. It protects me from your opinion and you from mine. Further, our churches confess an understanding of what the law entails. That confession isn’t legalism, even if it may seem unfamiliar to those outside the Reformed theology, piety, and practice.

This essay first appeared as a two-part series on the Heidelblog in 2007.