The Three Uses of the Law

One of the problems with the notion that Reformed theology is utterly divorced from the rest of Protestantism (i.e., Lutheranism) and the concomitant ignorance of the broader Protestant history and tradition is that we Reformed folk often end up losing our theology. One example of this is the confusion over the uses of the law.  There are three uses of the law: pedagogical, civil, and normative. Some Reformed folk have got the idea that the normative use is the ONLY use. This is, well, crazy. All the mainstream Reformed theologians and, more importantly, all the Reformed confessions teach three uses of the law. For example, the Heidelberg Catechism asks,

“What is necessary for you to know that in this comfort you may live and die in this comfort?”

Three Things. First the greatness of my sin and misery, second how I am redeemed from all my sins and misery, and third how I am to be thankful to God for such redemption.

From where do we learn the greatness of our sin and misery? The Heidelberg Catechism (Q. 3) says, “out of the law of God.” That’s the first use. When it says, “How I am to be thankful to God for such redemption” and “good works” are “only those which proceed from truth faith, are performed according to the law of God, and to his glory….” (HC 91). That’s the third use, the normative use.

We confess both uses and further, there remains a pedagogical function, even in the third use, even for Christians. God requires that the law be preached “strictly” so that “all our life we may learn more and more to know our sinful nature, and thus become the more earnest in seeking the forgiveness of sins, and righteousness in Christ…” (HC 115). That’s the pedagogical function even in the third use. Yes, Reformed theology does teach a version of “lex semper accusat.” We don’t say that it only accuses, however! There’s a difference. In Christ the flaming arrows of the law have been quenched for believers. We’re not under condemnation. We’re as righteous before God as Christ is (HC 60), as if we had done all that he did for us. That imputed righteousness is the first benefit of trusting (faith) in Christ. From that flows the second benefit or sanctification (See Belgic Confession Art 24).

Does Calvin say that the normative use is the “principal use“? No, not in the way that expression is sometimes taken, as if Calvin denied the pedagogical use. All he means is that the goal of justification is sanctification. The goal of justification is that believers, by grace, through faith, will be conformed to God’s holy law in this life.

Nick Batzig has been working through this question on his blog and he shows that the Westminster Divines taught the same thing. For whatever diversity in there is in Reformed theology, there is, after all, only one Reformed faith.

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    • Sanctification in the Bible is inherently other-oriented (community shaped). Two ways are immediately obvious: 1) Paul shares the gospel with others and suffers. His sanctification plan was proclaiming the Gospel and he was hammered into the shape of Christ. Gospel-suffering is a primary mechanism for sanctification. 2) Dying for the church sets us apart. How we love the community reflects our Christ-like nature and doctrine. That is, we get to serve by washing the feet of the saints. It is life in the church that we find our identity and personal sanctification. That is, sanctification is inherently experienced with others first. It is personal in that I personally join with the suffering body. I personally seek to see others united to the body. It is all body oriented, and that body is the heavenly society that lives among other societies. Ultimately, there is no separation of personal sanctification and the church, so that Jesus can ask Peter, “Peter, are you sanctified? Then feed my sheep.” Or something like that. The point being that Jesus drove Peter to the people of God — the people Jesus died for. And that is social. That is to be truly social. All other societies are mocking parodies or fallen fakes.

  1. Note that the three uses are historical in their development (i.e., they are synthetic statements that drive from church history and theologians). That is, the categories are not, strictly speaking, from the Bible but from reflection upon the Bible. This is particularly evident in the way we talk about the law, as you have it here from one of the confessions: “Three Things. First the greatness of my sin and misery, second how I am redeemed from all my sins and misery, and third how I am to be thankful to God for such redemption.”

    Each of these three speak of us/me first. 1) Me. I am to know My sin. 2) Me. I am redeemed. 3) Me. I am to be thankful.

    We often approach the Bible with the twin pair of questions, “What does it say about me? And how does this apply to me?” And that approach is captured quire nicely in the catechisms quoted here. Appealing to one theologian of some local renown (at least here in Kansas City), there is another way to read the Bible. Dr. Bean says we ask first this question, “What does it say about God?” Second, “What does it say about the people of God (i.e. the people under the Law — the Old Covenant nation — and the Bride wedded to him in the New Covenant)?” Finally, what does this mean for me personally?

    We get the order inverted. All questions are valid. But when we think of the three uses of the Law, we are starting with the last question. And that shapes the whole discussion.

    Now, here is a good history question/quiz. Who first introduced the three uses of the Law? Which church figure do we know to have formed the discussion this way? I think I know the answer, but I want to hear what others have found in the matter.

    Steve Rives

  2. Steve –

    I’m guessing Luther. But I’ll counter with another question: Why does the Reformed numbering of the uses of the Law transpose the first and second uses from the way Luther saw them?

  3. Sorry George, I don’t understand your question. But I will say that I was not thinking strictly Reformed, but church history in general (so if the Lutherans had the same idea, just in a different order, then I am looking at what predates that). Also, I must apologize, for in my mind, I was confusing categories. I was thinking about the three-fold division of the Law. Three uses, three divisions… oh well.

  4. I recently heard the assertion that the 3-fold characterization of law as moral/civil/ceremonial only “began” with Aquinas. I take it to mean, prior to Aquinas all three of these had never been pulled together as a way to categorize different verses or components of Mosaic law. I think the source was D.A. Carson, speaking on Use of the OT in The NT (ELF2003 Theologians Network). It’s something I would want to verify, not that I don’t have lots o’ respect for Dr. Carson.

    We now return control of the HB to Dr. Clark.

  5. A baptist once told me that paedobaptism undermines the spirituality of the church because the imperatives flow from the indicatives. To which I responded:

    This doesn’t undermine the spirituality of the church but instead allows for more than this one use of the imperatives (or law) that you espouse, i.e. it allows for more than just the third use of the law to norm our lives. It also allows for the first use of the law, which is to drive God’s elect to Christ by, to quote Calvin, “show[ing] God’s righteousness, that is, the righteousness alone acceptable to God, it warns, informs, convicts, and lastly condemns, every man of his own unrighteousness.”

    According to your spirituality of the church there would be no need of this, because the church only consists of the regenerate. You don’t seem to have room in your theology for the visible church which, “Christ has given the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God, for the gathering and perfecting of the saints…” (WCF 25.3). For you the church just seems to be the gathered saints that are being perfected, not the place where the gathering and perfecting take place.

    Perhaps the loss of the first use of the law is due to a baptistic thinking about the nature of the church. What do you say?

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