Lutheran or Reformed?

1. The law promises no good thing to miserable sinners; it promises good only to those who observe it.

2. The law has no force in itself for removing sins; it has force only for punishing.

3. The law cannot be fulfilled by any sinner, as it says in the text, on account of the feebleness of the flesh.

4. If the law could be fulfilled in the future, nevertheless past sins would destroy all hope of receiving a reward from the law. For this cause, the law is called the slaying letter, the ministry of death, and also the ministry of condemnation.

William Ames, A Sketch of the Christian’s Catechism, p. 28 (HT: Sacramental Piety)

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  1. Is there a 5.?

    The Law promises that in the future God himself will come to the rescue of sinners, even those in the miserable condition they’ve earned (Deut 30:1-10)?

  2. I think a great number of theonomists I know would scream “Lutheran! The law is inherently gracious!” I would say solidly reformed.

  3. This is the first use of the law, when it is without the grace of adoption.
    There are two other uses, no?

  4. Chris,

    Even for Christians, the law promises no good thing, nor can it produce faith (i.e. “O foolish Galatians, how can you continue in the flesh what was begun by the Spirit?”). Only Gospel can produce sanctity and good works in the justified, sanctification itself being based in the formal cause of the righteousness of Christ.

  5. Agreeing with Ames (and Scripture), here’s Pilgrim’s Progress (section V):

    Now when I had got about halfway up, I looked behind me, and saw one
    coming after me, swift as the wind; so he overtook me just about the place
    where the Settle stands.

    Chr. Just there, said Christian, did I sit down to rest me; but being
    overcome with sleep, I there lost this Roll out of my bosom.

    Faith. But good Brother hear me out. So soon as the man overtook me, he
    was but a word and a blow, for down he knocked me, and laid me for dead. But
    when I was a little come to myself again, I asked him wherefore he served me
    so? He said, Because of my secret inclining to Adam the First: and with that
    he struck me another deadly blow on the breast, and beat me down backward, so
    I lay at his foot as dead as before. So when I came to myself again I cried
    him mercy; but he said, I know not how to shew mercy; and with that knocked me
    down again. He had doubtless made an end of me, but that one came by, and bid
    him forbear?

    Chr. Who was that that bid him forbear?

    Faith. I did not know him at first, but as he went by, I perceived the
    holes in his hands and in his side; then I concluded that he was our Lord. So
    I went up the Hill.

    Chr. That man that overtook you was Moses: He spareth none, neither
    knoweth he how to shew mercy to those that transgress his Law.

  6. Mr. Gregory,

    Perhaps you know a lot more Theonomists than I do (We don’t seem to have many of them in New England) but I can’t imagine any Theonomist responding to this list with anything other than a hearty “Amen”.


  7. @Timothy,
    I understand the first use of the law. From an unregenerate perspective, this is all it can be.

    But, are you saying that the other two uses of the law are mistaken? Was Paul wrong when he said:
    “Honour thy father and mother; which is the first commandment with promise;
    That it may be well with thee, and thou mayest live long on the earth”. — Ephesians 6:1-3

    Is this what Dr. Clark is suggesting? Is this what you are suggesting?

    There seems to either be some forgetting going on, or serious confusion about the place of the law in the life of the Christian (cf. Westminster Confession XIX, and Calvin’s Institutes on the subject).

  8. @Chris: No, no one is suggesting that for Christians the Law is not good and the Norm for Christian love, but that it in and of itself cannot Produce holiness or good works in even sinners (simul justus et peccator). We live by faith in Christ. We do not get in by faith and then move on to sanctification according to our own law-keeping.

    The 2nd use of the law is its Civic Use and the 3rd is the Normative Use which is adhered by the Reformed and Lutheran. Paul declares our sanctification is also in Christ. He has been made our righteousness, sanctification, wisdom, and knowledge. D. A. Carson does an excellent job with Gal 2:20 showing how the “Christ lives in me” is better understood as ‘for me.’ Christ’s alien, actual righteousness is the formal cause of the believer’s sanctification as well as the material/meritorious cause of justification. This is why justification is so central to the Christian life, and sanctification grows from the preaching of the Gospel (justification sola fide). No one is confusing or saying they do not believe in the 2nd or 3rd use of the law.

  9. @Timothy,
    Thanks for clarifying. So would you say that, perhaps, your statement, “Even for Christians, the law promises no good thing” was a bit extreme in light of Paul’s promise? Paul seems to think that stating the law as a normative way of life for the Christian is fine because we are made willing and able by the Holy Spirit. Just because we don’t keep saying “we do it by faith” does not mean that aren’t doing just that.

    It is the sort of constant qualification of law that seems to be the trouble, as though every time a command is mentioned we have to make sure that everyone knows that we mean in the power of the Holy Spirit, protecting ourselves form the accusation of being legalists or some such thing. Perhaps the Historical-redemptive preaching thing is making us into constant qualifiers. The Apostles didn’t talk that way though.

    I have often been confused by the way in which the law is discussed here at H—blog. The title “theonomist” gets bandied about as a pejorative, even when the classical, reformed way of using it is discussed. Most people who do so forget the fact that Calvin taught the civil application of law (and many agree to the notion of the 2nd use). And, so far, no one has answered Greg Bahnsen’s challenge: by what other standard? Besides, one has to assume it when we start talking about being against sodomite-marriage. Otherwise, you have no ground to stand on.

    in Christ,

  10. “And, so far, no one has answered Greg Bahnsen’s challenge: by what other standard? ”

    How long have you been reading this blog?

  11. @Chris,

    Nope, my words weren’t extreme in light of Paul’s other words and in light of the fact that “1. The law promises no good thing to miserable sinners; it promises good only to those who observe it.” That promise is to those who observe it. Thankfully, according to Romans we fulfill the law by another principle, the principle of faith in the freedom of the Spirit because it is based in the alien righteousness of Christ and in the power of His resurrection.

    Actually, the Apostles did talk like that in their epistles if you read them in context as a whole, as they often were meant to be read as sermons and in catechesis of members. Paul was acutely self-conscious about living according to faith and not by works and about rightly dividing the word of truth. Just read all his epistles in cursory fashion. It is the kind of qualification we as sinners need being inherently wired towards law and legalism when it comes to justification/sanctification, the means of grace and the true worship of God. Natural law is also quite sufficient in answering Bahnsen’s standard question.

  12. todd,
    Long enough to know when someone is being patronizing.

    So, what other standard is there for the world to be guided? I haven’t heard or read any good proposals yet beyond Moses. If there are, let me know. This is just the second use of the law, which is the classic reformed view, to restrain the evil of the unregenerate — I Tim. 1:9-10.

    Is that problematic?

  13. @Timothy,
    But Paul says that obedience to the law does promise something. The way in which we fulfill something and the thing we fulfill are not at odds with one another. You seem to suggest that they are, as though the law is always an enemy, even to the adopted sons of God.

    You keep qualifying the way in which we fulfill the law, and I agree with your basic notions, but then there is the law itself with which you seem to have trouble. Why?

  14. Romans 7:13-25, I think, bears on this. Paul affirms that God’s Law is “holy and righteous and good.” Paul delights in God’s Law in the inner being. These are the words of a regenerate man, not pre-conversion or some weird literary category of Paul as Israel personified (like any of the Roman Christians would have caught THAT subtle literary nuance). Yet this same holy, righteous, and good Law continually reveals Paul’s remaining corruption, leading to his cry “wretched man that I am!”

    The Law always accuses, even the Christian, even while we delight in it as God’s good and holy will for our lives. The Law deepens our repentance, kills the old man, and drives us to the Gospel over and over again – “There is therefore now no condemnation…” The Gospel strengthens our faith, which bears the fruit of love to God and neighbor.

    So while it is legitimate to talk about the “third use,” we should always bear in mind Romans 7, and the reality that this holy Law inevitably reveals our sin and our desperate need for our Savior. WCF 19.6 is a beautifully balanced handling of the use of the Law to the Christian, including this gem: “…discovering also the sinful pollutions of their nature, hearts, and lives; so as, examining themselves thereby, they may come to further conviction of, humiliation for, and hatred against sin, together with a clearer sight of the need they have of Christ, and the perfection of his obedience…”

  15. @Chris,

    No, I have not intimated that at all. In fact, I have shown how only the justified fulfill the law but the way in which it is done is inherently anti-intuitive, and by the grace of God. if anything, I have intimated a higher view of the law of God then you have.

    Also, you do not understand the second use of the law (civic righteousness) if you think it is about restraining evil. In the Chemnitz, Luther, Calvin, the Reformed orthodox, etc. spoke of civic righteousness in context justification, that the wicked can outwardly obey the moral law because of Natural Law (i.e. the moral law on the consciences of all men).

  16. Chris,

    Not meant to patronize, just pointing out that Scott has been refuting Bahnsen for years on this blog.

  17. “That man that overtook you was Moses: He spareth none, neither
    knoweth he how to shew mercy to those that transgress his Law.”

    I haven’t ever read Pilgrim’s Progress all the way through, but quotations like this make me wonder about it. The very gift of the law was a gift of grace! The Law is inherently gracious in the sense that any revelation from God is gracious; it represents his favor towards his people. As the Psalmist says, “He has done this for no other nation; they do not know his laws. Praise the LORD.” Ps 147:20

  18. Law by definition governs and regulates human conduct. God’s moral law (the moral law of Moses) governs and regulates human conduct. This law is spiritual, and we can not keep it by our own efforts because we, by nature, are unspiritual. (Romans 7:14). There is a law that both governs and regulates human conduct AND saves, which Paul describes as the “law of faith” in Romans 3:27 and the “law of the Spirit of life” in Romans 8:2. As the righteous in Christ live by faith and walk by the Spirit, they will be regulated by Christ in them to observe that moral law, which not only is spiritual, but is holy, righteous and good (Romans 7:12). So are we to keep the holy, righteous and good law of God? Of course, but only by new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code (Romans 7:6). Jesus is the way.

  19. But, David, don’t you think there is a significant difference between saying God’s giving of the law was “in some sense gracious” and saying that “law is gospel”? When a cop stops you for going 100 in a 25 it could be said that his enforcing of the law is in some sense gracious, but isn’t the plain and ordinary understanding of his doing so really to be enforcing the law?

  20. Timothy wrote:
    “We live by faith in Christ. We do not get in by faith and then move on to sanctification according to our own law-keeping.” So true, and all too easy to think like that.

  21. “We live by faith in Christ. We do not get in by faith and then move on to sanctification according to our own law-keeping.”

    Wait. Then why is a local SBC church where I live about to embark on a 40 day challenge of “Fasting from the World & Feasting on God ?” Hmmm..

    Maybe if you do, or don’t do something for 40 days, it will improve the effectiveness of, and augment Christ’s completed work on the cross…

  22. @timothy,
    I am pretty sure that I agree with your emphasis on the way in which we obey, which I said before. Not sure how you’ve obtained a heightened view of the law, I wish I had that magic secret, but for now I will be content with just reading it and enjoying it’s effects on me- which, as a son of God, are all good. Not sure what you mean by anti-intuitive or the way in which you are using the idea of Natural Law (Thomistic, Kantian, Heideggerian, etc.), as this is a very broad category of thinking and has developed since the time of the reformation.

    But, your denial that obedience to the law provides blessings is overwrought. “Even for Christians, the law promises no good thing”, as you said. This goes against other aspects of the Christian’s relationship to the law, and the plain statement of the Apostle Paul in Ephesians 6:1-3. There is more room for more thoughts here than the ones you are suggesting. Even being absolute about the nature of the law implies a law in itself, which is a philosophical tangle of sorts. No time to get into that though.

    The civic use is a sticky issue, and even Calvin was inclined to take up Mediaeval categories on that one in the Institutes, although his commentary on Deuteronomy shows his more theonomic side.


  23. RSC, maybe. But, and not to be slavish to the analogy, could we then say our sheriff is being merciful when he pulls us over? It would seem to me he’s still being lawful as opposed to either gracious or merciful. Strictly speaking, he’s only being gracious or merciful when he sets the law aside and sends me on my way without a ticket. Nobody really speaks of him being gracious/merciful when he issues a ticket, and nobody speaks of him as being lawful when he lets me go.

  24. @Zrim

    Well, one could argue that the enforcing of the law by the sheriff is gracious in the sense that he may be doing what is best for us (e.g. teaching us a lesson and preventing us from getting into serious accidents).

    I wouldn’t say that law is gospel but I would say that gospel was contained in the law (HC q&a 19; BC Art 25).

    • But you’re using the word law in two distinct senses aren’t you?

      When we say that gospel was “in the law” we don’t usually mean it in the theological/hermeneutical sense but in the historical sense (e.g., under Moses).

      It’s pretty important in this discussion to be specific about the sense in which the word “law” is used.

  25. @Zrim

    I should clarify…I said “one could argue that…” because I recognize that the law is not necessarily gracious as such. Nevertheless I do believe that the law of God is full of grace.

    • David,

      What’s your definition of “grace”? When is the law gracious? To what sort of person? If it is gracious to sinners why does God say what he does in Gal 3:10?

  26. RSC:

    Off the top of my head:

    Grace is God’s favor to undeserving sinners; as the acronym goes, God’s Riches at Christ’s Expense.

    Each use of the law can be seen as gracious. Even the use of the law to reveal sin is a testimony to the grace of the Holy Spirit working in one’s heart. Furthermore much of the content of the law is gracious. First and most important, in the law provision for dealing with sin is made, which is certainly gracious. However, much of Israel’s law speaks of God’s favor – the festivals, the fellowship offerings, the allowance for a year’s honeymoon before going to war, etc. Examples could be multiplied. When God commands Israel to party, they are supposed to view that as an intolerable burden?

    The law is gracious to the one who has been redeemed and is enabled to keep it by the power of the Holy Spirit, in accord with Jeremiah’s new covenant prophecy. It is gracious because (3rd use now) it shows us what it means to live in freedom.

    Of course, there are two edges to this sword, to get to Gal 3:10. Yes, the law offers blessings, and life, and freedom, but it also pronounces curses on those who do not keep it. I would agree that in this sense the law is not gracious to sinners; it places them under a curse. Of course, one could also could say that the enactment of the curse does not detract from the gracious character of the law – God was good to forewarn Israel that disobedience would result in exile! But I certainly wouldn’t want to deny that curses come upon the one who breaks the law (because of sin, and not having to do with the essential character of the law as such).

  27. “First and most important, in the law provision for dealing with sin is made, which is certainly gracious. ”


    What about Heb. 10:1-4?

    “For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near. 2 Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, since the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have any consciousness of sins? 3 But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year. 4 For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.”

    The Law did not make a provision for sin, that is why a new covenant was needed. The Law only provided a picture or type of forgiveness. The law itself only produced death in the sinner – (Rom 7:5&6)

  28. Most of the people I’m encountering in seminary would say the law is inherently gracious. However, I (even being a Calvinist) see an importance in keeping law and gospel distinct and not confounding the two. They are tied together and must be preached as such, but I agree with BVan: we must distinguish between not only law & gospel, but between common and gospel graces.

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