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.