Law, Gospel, And The Three Uses Of The Law (2)

Supreme-Court1In Part 1 we looked at the distinction between law and gospel and the first two of the three uses of the law.

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 We recognize that the land promise in the 5th commandment is no longer in force.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.

More on this topic.


  1. Obviously you did not read this articles. The Third use has to do with “how I am to be thankful to God for such redemption.” But I guess you either are not thankful, or you are not redeemed or you do not want to be instructed in how to practically be thankful.

  2. Very helpful post.

    It is interesting that Calvin in the 1545 version of La Forme has the reading of the law follow the absolution, ie third use of the law whereas in the 1559 version the order is changed so that the reading of the law comes before confession, ie first use of the law.

    Apropos the comment re Federal Vision and the conflating of sanctification into justification, I like that statement of Calvin:

    “Christ was given to us by God’s generosity, to be grasped and possessed by us in faith. By partaking of him, we principally receive a double grace: namely, that being reconciled to God through Christ’s blamelessness, we may have in heaven instead of a Judge a gracious Father; and secondly, that sanctified by Christ’s spirit we may cultivate blamelessness and purity of life.” Institutes , III.XI.1

    It relates justification and sanctification through grace yet maintains the proper distinction between the two. Note that the expression “may cultivate” is alerting us to the fact sanctification (and the accompanying regeneration) is something we grow into all the days of our life.

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