Heidelberg 92: What Is The Law Of God? (3)

In part 2 we looked at how the law reveals the character and nature of God, particularly his righteousness and holiness. We have also considered the historic Christian threefold distinction in the law. We have seen that the moral law is permanent in a way that the civil and ceremonial Mosaic laws were not. Since God’s moral law has abiding validity, how does it in the new covenant? The Reformation churches have distinguished three uses: the pedagogical, the civil, and the normative. The three uses have been shared, in principle, by the Reformation churches since the 1520s. The nomenclature developed over time and the uses have been ordered differently, by different writers (e.g., Calvin and Berkhof), at different times. For example, in his commentary on Galatians, Martin Luther (1483–1546) described the civil use as the first use of the law:

The first use of the law, then, is to bridle wicked people. The devil reigns throughout the world and forces people to do all kinds of horrible wickedness. Therefore, God has ordained magistrates, parents, ministers, laws, and civil ordinances, so that if they cannot do anything else, at least they may bind the devil’s hands so that he does not rage in his slaves as he wants to do. This civil restraint is very necessary and appointed by God both for public peace and for the preservation of everything, but especially so that the course of the Gospel should not be hindered by wicked people.1

The Reformed theologian Louis Berkhof (1873–1957) also described the civil or political use as the first use.2 The uses of the law, however, have been numbered differently by different writers. The Heidelberg Catechism does not mention the civil use (at least not explicitly) and the first use of the law it mentions is the pedagogical use.

The civil use is the application of the moral law to public or civil life. Here we are not talking about “theonomy,” which is the 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. As we saw in part 2, the Westminster Confession 19.4 explicitly teaches that the Mosaic civil law has “expired.” 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 (commandments 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 New Testament 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.

As we saw in part 2, the Apostle Paul clearly taught a doctrine of natural revelation and natural law. 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 (Canons of Dort, 3/4.4).

There is no question is Reformed theology what the law does in its pedagogical use. The Heidelberg Catechism says the first thing a believer must know is “the greatness of” his “sin and misery” (Heidelberg 2). Whence this knowledge? The law of God (Heidelberg 3). This is the pedagogical or elenctic use. Berkhof defines the pedagogical use:

In this capacity the law serves the purpose of bringing man under conviction of sin, and of making him conscious of his inability to meet the demands of the law. In that way the law becomes his tutor to lead him unto Christ, and thus becomes subservient to God’s gracious purpose of redemption.3

This is the use of the law to which Paul refers, in when he says that believers are no longer “under the law:”

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)

It is vitally important for Christians to understand the distinction between the pedagogical use and the normative (below). Failure to grasp and use this distinction leads either to legalism (moralism) or to antinomianism, i.e., denial of the third or normative use of the law.

In the pedagogical use, the law is a taskmaster or a tutor (Gal 3:24), a harsh teacher with a ruler in hand with which to beat us sinners when we transgress. This use of the law 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 believer cannot be “under the law” in this sense, since the law no longer condemns him. A believer has been declared righteous or just before God on the basis of all that Christ has done, which has been freely credited (imputed) to him and received through faith alone (sola fide). A believer has been united to Christ. He has been crucified with Christ (Gal 2:20) and raised with him. In its pedagogical use, the law demands perfect obedience as the condition of justification and salvation. Romans 11:6 says, however, that for us sinners, salvation is by grace and “if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace” (ESV).

In the third use, however, God’s moral law guides our new life in Christ. The third thing a Christian must know is how he is “to be thankful to God for such redemption.” The law norms our new life. This is why we confess that good works are “only those which proceed from truth faith, are performed according to the law of God, and to his glory….” (Heidelberg 91). Berkhof characterized the third use this way:

The law is a rule of life for believers, reminding them of their duties and leading them in the way of life and salvation. This third use of the law is denied by the Antinomians.4

There is a way of life, i.e., there is a way that believers live. There is a way of salvation, a path that believers walk toward eternal life, in the grace of Christ, in union with Christ. It is essential to distinguish, however, between is and through or because. The moralist wants to turn is into through or because. We are not saved through obedience. That is Romanism. We are not saved because of our obedience. That is sheer Pelagianism. Nevertheless, it is the case that those to whom God has sovereignly given new life, to whom he has given the grace of faith and through it union with Christ, will and shall seek to live, sola gratia, sola fide according to God’s moral law.

Finally, it is sometimes claimed that, for Calvin, the third use of the law was really 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, 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 enumerated 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, Luther’s order (and Berkhof’s) differed from Calvin’s but they taught substantially the same thing. Second, even in the passage to which some have appealed Calvin did use the adjective “third.” He wrote: “Tertius usus, 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 in order that we might be sanctified. Indeed, there is nothing to indicate that, when he wrote those words, he was distinguishing himself from Luther. Rather, Calvin was articulating a Reformation commonplace, that believers are justified in order that they might be “so influenced and actuated by the Spirit,” as he wrote, 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 and it does not overturn the three uses of the law.


1. Edwin Sandys, “Foreword to the First English Edition,” in Galatians, Crossway Classic Commentaries (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1998), 165.

2. Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans publishing co., 1938), 614.

3. Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 614.

4. Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 615.

Here are all the posts on the Heidelberg Catechism.

Subscribe to the Heidelblog today!

One comment

  1. Calvin (comments on second half of Leviticus 26):

    “But if ye will not hearken unto me. Thus far a kind invitation has been set before the people in the shape of promises, in order that the observance of the Law might be rendered pleasant and agreeable; since, as we have already seen, our obedience is then only approved by God when we obey willingly. But, inasmuch as the sluggishness of our flesh has need of spurring, threatenings are also added to inspire terror, and at any rate to extort what ought to have been spontaneously performed. It may seem indeed that it may thus be inferred that threats are absurdly misplaced when applied to produce obedience to the Law, which ought to be voluntary; for he who is compelled by fear will never love God; and this is the main point in the Law. But what I have already shewn, will in some measure avail to solve this difficulty, viz., that the Law is deadly to transgressors, because it holds them tight under that condemnation from which they would wish to be released by vain presumptions; whilst threats are also useful to the children of God for a different purpose, both that they may be prepared to fear God heartily before they are regenerate, and also that, after their regeneration, their corrupt affections may be daily subdued. For although they sincerely desire to devote themselves altogether to God, still they have to contend continually with the remainders of their flesh. Thus, then, although the direct object of threats is to alarm the reprobate, still they likewise apply to believers, for the purpose of stimulating their sluggishness, inasmuch as they are not yet thoroughly regenerate, but still burdened with the remainders of sin.”


    Meredith Kline—The newness of the New Covenant does not consist in a reduction of the Covenant of Redemption to the principle of election and guaranteed blessing. Its law character is seen in this, too, that it continues to be a covenant with dual sanctions….There is no reason to regard Jeremiah’s description of the New Covenant as a comprehensive analysis, on the basis of which an exclusive judgment might then be rendered, excluding the curse sanction from a place in New Covenant administration. Even the aspect of New Covenant consummation that Jeremiah does deal with he views from the limited eschatological perspective of an Old Testament prophet…. The theologian of today ought not impose on himself the visionary limitations of an Old Testament prophet. By virtue of the fuller revelation he enjoys ( Luke. 10:24; I Peter. 1:10-12) he is able to distinguish these two distinct stages in the history of the New Covenant and to observe plainly that the imperfection of the covenant people and program has continued on from the Old Covenant into the present phase of New Covenant history. It is in accordance with this still only semi-eschatological state of affairs that the administration of the New Covenant is presently characterized by dual sanctions, having, in particular, anathemas to pronounce and excommunications.”

Comments are closed.