Preaching The Third Use And Encouraging The Saints

What about preaching and the third use of the law? Preachers often end their sermons with a moral application of the text. This practice has a long and honorable history in the Reformed and Presbyterian churches. Certainly pastors should preach the third use of the law. Certainly they should follow the text of holy Scripture wherever it leads and trust the Spirit to do his powerful work through preaching of the Word. Nevertheless, I have a practical question about preaching.

As pastors consider how to apply the text to the congregation, can we not let the final word of the sermon be the comfort of the gospel for the sheep as they head out into their week? Without careful reflection on the nature of application, on the question of how the application relates to law and gospel, in the rush and press of pastoral ministry, it is easy for the preacher and the sermon to make the final exhortation of the sermon more legal than it needs to be.

Sometimes legal shading to the final exhortation is subtle and it is, it tends to cloud the good news that, we trust, was preached earlier in the message. I think this is due, in part, to the fact that we sheep most naturally hear with ears of law and merit-works and not with faith with hearts of gratitude. Also, it’s partially due to the preacher’s desire to be practical and make application of the sermon through appeals to personal responsibility and faithfulness and the law is truly practical.

The admonition of law, however, as it’s sometimes presented, can tun the believer back to himself as he looks to find the resolve and faithfulness necessary to respond appropriately. What lurks just underneath the earnest desire of that believer to obey is the uncomfortable knowledge that his obedience just doesn’t measure up to God’s perfect, holy, righteous standard: his law. Simply read about Paul’s Christian experience in Romans —at least according to Calvin and the traditional Reformed interpretation. Yet, isn’t the good news that we no longer need to measure up in order to be accepted, that Christ has measured up for us? Indeed, our daily falling short, instead of being the mark of our disqualification, is declared to demonstrate our continuing need for forgiveness and free acceptance by God for Christ’s sake alone—without any accompanying deserving works by us. There is therefore now no condemnation to them that are in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:1).

Jesus’ righteousness for us, his obedience and shed blood, cleanses the failed works of his people—and his perfect life lived, credited to their persons, measures up in every way. It is that free and unmerited grace of God in Christ that remains—daily, yearly, and eternally—irrevocably effective and the means of knowing and re-knowing that amazing grace is found and held, as always, through simple trust in Him.

So, I would propose that the last word from the pulpit, after the final admonition, be that the preacher bathe the saints once again in the free mercy of God found only in the news that Jesus died to save sinners. That is the sermon application that is always necessary, effectual, and practical for the saints as they go out into the world to live and obey in Christ.

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Posted by Jack Miller | Saturday, June 21, 2014 | Categorized Gratitude, Moral Law, Preaching the Word | Tagged , , , , Bookmark the permalink.

About Jack Miller

Jack has been married to Barbara, his partner in the faith, since 1973. They have three daughters and sons-in-law who have blessed them with eleven grandchildren. A Ruling Elder formerly at El Camino OPC , he currently resides as a member of Christ Church Plano (ACNA). Jack has been writing on Reformation and Reformed topics at The World’s Ruined blog since 2010. He is a graduate of the University of California Santa Barbara (1974) and holds a Master’s degree in Biblical Counseling from Grace Theological Seminary (1983).


  1. This is good counsel. I sometimes call this “the fourth use of the law”, with the law bringing us back to Christ once again. Of course, if you have weekly communion, as we do, then even if this pastor fails and veers into moralism, the supper always brings us back to the gospel and sends us out with our eyes firmly fixed on Jesus.

  2. Amen! Indeed the motivation of gratitude to live by the third use of the law always points us to the message of the cross again and again.

  3. I would like to posit the following:

    A pastor who puts a lot of emphasis on sanctification and the third use from the pulpit is most probably a wife beater / an authoritarian leader.

    Preliminary proof:

    How does one boldly stand on the pulpit and tell his congregation to ‘get their act together’ week in and week out without always pointing the flock to their true Shepherd who washed their sins? To do this consistently you have to be a man highly confident of his own righteousness to not see the need for looking to (and thus pointing people to) Christ for comfort from their sin and misery.

    If you are part of the Church council, carefully watch how the Pastor behaves when critical decisions are being made…

  4. I’m pretty sure I don’t disagree with what is being said here. But, I think part of the difficulty is putting ‘3rd use’ in oppositional terms to “God’s free mercy to sinners” to begin with. Here is a comment I made elsewhere:

    ‘Bare’ or discrete exhortations/commands to seek more faith and/or gratitude are as problematic as any imperatives that fail to contain the indicatives (ie, as problematic as bare/discrete exhortations to obedience).

    In preaching (and pastoral counseling, etc) the Person and accomplished salvation work of Christ must be proclaimed. The law is declared to show both sinners’ need and the Savior’s accomplished provision. The exhortation to faith (and repentance) follows, and is directed to, the proclamation of Christ and His guarantee of full and free salvation (sanctification included). So, there is a ‘historio’ indicative, and an application through faith ‘ordo’ indicative.

    The imperatives (or 3rd use of he law) must be (and shown to be) rooted in the ‘double’ indicative/s of redemption accomplished/applied, such that as we are directed to Christ and His work, united to Him in faith (an exhortation here to faith), we are also exhorted to exercise the new life wrought in us –exercised in (the guaranteed, Christ/Spirit-through-faith-produced) gratitude, love, obedience.

    As soon as exhortations to gratitude, love, or obedience become detached from faith (as the sole instrument) and/or those fruits and/or the instrument detached from Christ and His accomplishment/guarantee, then there is error (and the saints not properly edified).

    The dynamic starts with Christ and then moves to union with him through faith, then to the guaranteed fruits. When we move into imperatives (‘3rd use’) we must not ever leave the actual indicatives, or else the fruit is severed from the root. There is a kind of ‘circularity’ insofar as the instrument of faith is perpetually abiding in Christ to increase faith, (which in turn is) the only instrument to increase gratitude, love and obedience.

    I think understanding and speaking of things this way is shown clearly in Romans 6 (among other places). Ending a sermon with the an equivalent of “We who have died to sin cannot continue to live in it. Let us therefore continue to reckon ourselves (through faith alone) dead to sin and (obediently) alive to God in Christ Jesus” is to simultaneously end with the 3rd use and with the free grace of God in Christ!

  5. I’m definitely thankful for this post; however, I remember thinking the same thing during seminary. So, what did I do? I asked my preaching professor, Dr. Dennis Johnson.

    If I recall, he did not have a problem with ending with grace, but he did note that some epistles end with imperatives, which means it is acceptable to do so where indicated.

    “Little children, keep yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:21)

    • Leon,

      What you say is true but a 30 minute sermon isn’t an epistle. A sermon is it’s own genre. The question isn’t whether to exhort or even whether to conclude with exhortation but when and how often or in what proportion.

    • Perhaps choose another example because this is not an ‘imperative’ any more than ‘relax’ or ‘do not be afraid’ are commands

      ‘little children, keep yourself from idols’ is a lovely statement of permission to step away from an ugly step-mother

      The third use preached like this is lovely; most presentations of the Third use are, as Jack intimates, burdensome

  6. RSC,

    If you’re guided by the passage, it seems to me one should take his lead from it. Therefore, while a sermon is not properly an epistle, it is molded by the shape of the epistle, narrative, etc. If, for instance, I am preaching the last several verses of 1 John, I will end as the apostle did (eg, exhortation). If I am preaching other sections I attempt to do likewise. Do I follow that perfectly? Not exactly in the sense that I don’t end with the very words of said passage, but I do attempt to carry the sense of it toward the conclusion, as well as through out the entire passage.

    So, to answer your question, “how often do we end one way or another?,” it seems reasonable to suggest the passage is our guide.

    • That last verse of the 1 John mentioning “idols” (5:21) intentionally contrasts with the immediately preceding verse (5:20) which mentions “the true God,” who is “eternal life.” This true God (and His gift of faith in His Son), is repeatedly described throughout chapter 5 as the sole source of the good news of the gospel, the sole source of salvation from beginning to end. So, the imperative against idols is not isolated law; it is repeatedly grounded on the indicative of our true God of salvation.

      1 Jn 5:1,4-5
      1 Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him.
      4 For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith.
      5 Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?

      1 Jn 5:10-13
      10 Whoever believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself. Whoever does not believe God has made him a liar, because he has not believed in the testimony that God has borne concerning his Son.
      11 And this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son.
      12 Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.
      13 I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life.

      1 Jn 5:18-20
      18 We know that everyone who has been born of God does not keep on sinning, but he who was born of God protects him, and the evil one does not touch him.
      19 We know that we are from God, and the whole world lies in the power of the evil one.
      20 And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true; and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life.

      This gospel-saturated message is, of course, present throughout each of the preceding chapters as well:
      * 1 Jn 1:2,7-10 (“the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin”; “he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.”)
      * 1 Jn 2:1-2,12-14,20,25,27 (“But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins”; “your sins are forgiven for his name’s sake”; “you have been anointed by the Holy One”; “this is the promise that he made to us—eternal life”; “the anointing that you received from him abides in you”)
      * 1 Jn 3:1,2,24 (“See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are.”; “Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him”; “by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit whom he has given us.”)
      * 1 Jn 4:7,9-10,13-16,17,18-19 (“love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God”; “In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins”; “By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love”; “By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment”; “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. We love because he first loved us.”)

      LB: “If you’re guided by the passage, it seems to me one should take his lead from it. Therefore, while a sermon is not properly an epistle, it is molded by the shape of the epistle, narrative, etc. If, for instance, I am preaching the last several verses of 1 John, I will end as the apostle did (eg, exhortation). If I am preaching other sections I attempt to do likewise…So, to answer your question, ‘how often do we end one way or another?,’ it seems reasonable to suggest the passage is our guide.”

      If the sermon being preached is on the entire epistle or an entire chapter in 1 John, it ought to be saturated with the gospel as the entire epistle and each of the chapters are. No sermon ought to be only or principally on 1 John 5:21 because, when the message of sufficiency of the gospel is minimized or underdeveloped, the grounding and cause of salvation could be misinterpreted to partially fleshly origins, synergism through a side-door.

    • The passage should be preached in the light of the whole epistle (and 2 Cor preached in the light of 1 Cor too)

      So you cannot preach just the exhortations/commands without the whole run up to that. You can’t do a long jump without a run up. If Paul had so intended, he would have saved ink and sent only the commands

  7. If the epistles were to guide what the “last word” of a sermon should be, Jack’s point is well established. Except for 1 John, well nigh all of the other epistles end with a benediction, a good word of grace.

  8. “…bathe the saints once again in the free mercy of God found only in the news that Jesus died to save sinners.”

    I WANT to hear how I should be different, how I should do better, because I feel it to be true; I’m not who I should be. But to be bathed in the love of the Lord Jesus FOR ME, a sinner, is something altogether different.


    • Barbara, very perceptive, thank you

      To want the law is like keeping our feet on the ground on a flowing river.

      To find our feet lifted off the bottom is..well, scary

  9. ‘Sometimes legal shading to the final exhortation tends to cloud the good news that, we trust, was preached earlier in the message’

    Amen. Paul insisted we are not called to the terrible Mt Sinai, but to beautiful Mt. Zion, where the Church of the justified elect & the better covenant abide, to the blood that cries “Father forgive!”, and not like Abel’s, which like the Law, cries “Vengeance!”
    But we are not without law. We have the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus

    • Allan,

      And that law is the moral law that God gave Adam, re-stated at Sinai, and again in the Sermon on the Mount and in the epistles. Believers are not under for justification but it is the moral norm of the Christian life. To deny that is antinomianism (lawlessness).

  10. No, Paul is talking about the two life principles (laws) in the two Adams and passed on to their seed. The moral law is not ‘The Law of Sin & Death’ Paul bemoaned, gained from Adam, nor is the moral law the ‘Law of the Spirit of Life’ which is in Christ Jesus.

  11. 1. I don’t think Allan’s comments point to antinomianism. I don’t think any of us advocate the antinomianism that means we stand against the law or think it irrelevant. So, yes, the moral norm remains
    2. But what is being discussed is the next step, the nature of epistles and sermons (and even Jesus’ utterances) and how they bring about the Will of God
    3. Jack’s concern, shared by most posts, is that too many sermons carry ‘legal shading’. Only a pronomian would deny this ever happens, or could ever happen
    4. So the practical question is how sermons on ‘imperatives’ can be ‘bathed’ in the gospel to avoid ‘legal shading’ but do justice to those imperatives
    5. Surely the mechanics (whether we can or should not end with an imperative) are less important than the ‘feel’ of the sermon. Even the ‘law’ at the end of 1 John (‘‘little children, keep yourself from idols’’) carries with it the gospel in “little children”.
    6. When commands are given, what is important is the relationship in which they are given. When a parent says to a child ‘come here’, the child’s willingness to come (and of course the true heart attitude is what God looks at) depends on the child’s perception of the parent. That is why gospel teaching must actively draw on the truths of the new creation and a union with Christ which forever binds the believer in as close a loving relationship as possible. Without these we are preaching to the old man to improve himself with a power given to him by God; that will always have ‘legal shading’ even if we offset it with niceties that this is not for your justification but for your sanctification etc.

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