Are Believers Under The Law As A Schoolmaster?

Introduction: The Basics

Before we consider directly the answer to the question some preliminaries and definitions are in order. The traditional Protestant way of thinking about the law is to distinguish between three uses:

  • The Pedagogical Use
  • The Civil Use
  • The Normative Use

They are not numbered here because they have been numbered and ordered differently. E.g., in the 1530s Luther spoke formally of two uses, the political (civil) and the theological but taught substantially the third use in his Large Catechism (1529) and elsewhere in his doctrine of sanctification. The 20th-century Reformed theologian Louis Berkhof called the pedagogical the first use and the normative the third use. Thus, sometimes the civil use said to be first and sometimes the pedagogical. The normative use is the third use of the law (tertius usus legis).

There is a second, older set of distinctions inherited by the Protestants (Lutheran and Reformed), namely the distinction between the three kinds of OT laws, the judicial, ceremonial, and the moral. The consensus since the Patristic period has been that the judicial and ceremonial (religious) laws were fulfilled and abrogated or expired with the state of Israel, at the death of Christ. The moral law cannot expire nor can it be abrogated because it is not temporary since it is grounded in the divine nature. That law was said to have been revealed in creation, repeated at Sinai, by the prophets, our Lord, and his apostles in the New Testament.

These approaches to the law distinguish the confessional Protestant approach to the law from the broad evangelical understanding, which tends to ignore or reject them. Thus, it is common to see evangelicals denying the abiding validity of the moral law on the ground that it allegedly expired with the death of Christ. The three uses are not typically observed outside of confessional Protestant circles.

For confessing Protestants, there is no question whether believers are under the civil and normative uses of the law. To deny the normative use (the third use) is the definition of antinomianism, a scourge which Martin Luther opposed in the 1520s, against which the Lutherans confess in the Book of Concord (1580), and which the Reformed have always opposed. The Heidelberg Catechism (1563) organized the Christian faith under three headings: Guilt (Law), Grace (Gospel), and Gratitude (Sanctification). The third part of the catechism contains an exposition of the moral law of God, the decalogue (Ten Commandments). The Westminster Standards also affirm and explain the moral law and apply it to the Christian life not in order that we might keep it and thereby be justified and saved but because we have been justified and saved by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide) in Christ alone.

Though the third use has not changed since the Reformation, the understanding of the civil use has changed since then. Most confessing Protestants no longer expect the civil magistrate to impose the first table of the law (the first four commandments) but they do expect the magistrate to apply and enforce the second table within the limits that belong to his office. E.g., it would seem to be impossible and unwise for the magistrate to try to punish covetousness.

The question before us is whether believers are under the pedagogical (teaching) or elenctic (reproving) use of the law. As I approach this question I am much influenced by Heidelberg Catechism 2:

2. How many things are necessary for you to know, that in this comfort you may live and die happily?

Three things: the first, how great my sin and misery is; the second, how I am redeemed from all my sins and misery; the third, how I am to be thankful to God for such redemption.

As I understand it, the Reformed confess that the law has two distinct functions, uses, or roles here: first to teach us the greatness of our sin and misery, and second, to serve as the norm for the Christian life. The catechism does not speak to the civil use. There is also another correlation to bear in mind as we seek to answer this question, that between the pedagogical use and the covenant of works. Here I am influenced by the primary author of the Heidelberg Catechism, Zacharias Ursinus (1534–83), who wrote a Summa Theologiae before the completion of the Palatinate or Heidelberg Catechism. In question 36 of what is also sometimes called his Larger Catechism (Catechismus Maior) he wrote:

Q.36 What distinguishes law and gospel?

A: The law contains a covenant of nature begun by God with men in creation, that is, it is a natural sign to men, and it requires of us perfect obedience toward God. It promises eternal life to those keeping it, and threatens eternal punishment to those not keeping it. In fact, the gospel contains a covenant of grace, that is, one known not at all under nature. This covenant declares to us fulfillment of its righteousness in Christ, which the law requires, and our restoration through Christ’s Spirit. To those who believe in him, it freely promises eternal life for Christ’s sake.

Here we seem him correlating the covenant of nature or what came to be called the covenant of works with the pedagogical use of the law and the covenant of grace with the gospel. This is the pan-Protestant distinction between law and gospel or between works and grace. He made this correlation in lectures on the Heidelberg Catechism under question 92 where he wrote:

In What Does The Law Differ From The Gospel?

The exposition of this question is necessary for a variety of considerations, and especially that we may have a proper understanding of the law and the gospel, to which a knowledge of that in which they differ greatly contributes. According to the definition of the law, which says, that it promises rewards to those who render perfect obedience; and that it promises them freely, inasmuch as no obedience can be meritorious in the sight of God, it would seem that it does not differ from the gospel, which also promises eternal life freely. Yet notwithstanding this seeming agreement, there is a great difference between the law and the gospel. They differ,

1. As to the mode of revelation peculiar to each. The law is known naturally: the gospel was divinely revealed after the fall of man.

2. In matter or doctrine. The law declares the justice of God separately considered: the gospel declares it in connection with his mercy. The law teaches what we ought to be in order that we may be saved: the gospel teaches in addition to this, how we may become such as this law requires, viz: by faith in Christ.

3. In their conditions or promises. The law promises eternal life and all good things upon the condition of our own and perfect righteousness, and of obedience in us: the gospel promises the same blessings upon the condition that we exercise faith in Christ, by which we embrace the obedience which another, even Christ, has performed in our behalf; or the gospel teaches that we are justified freely by faith in Christ. With this faith is also connected, as by an indissoluble bond, the condition of new obedience.

4. In their effects. The law works wrath, and is the ministration of death: the gospel is the ministration of life and of the Spirit (Rom. 4:15, 2 Cor. 3:7).

This correlation, of the covenant of works with the pedagogical use of the law and the covenant of grace with the gospel, became a datum, a given, axiomatic from Reformed orthodoxy through the 19th century. In the 20th century, for a variety of reasons, which I tried to explain in the essay “Letter and Spirit: Law and Gospel in Reformed Preaching,” in R. Scott Clark, ed. Covenant, Justification and Pastoral Ministry: Essays by the Faculty of Westminster Seminary California (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2006), 331–63, many Reformed folk lost the doctrine of the covenant of works. Indeed, through it has made something of a comeback and despite the fact that the Westminster Confession teaches and affirms it no fewer than 4 times, it is still regularly ignored or denied in Presbyterian and Reformed circles.

The loss of or confusion over these distinctions, the three uses, the three types of law, between the law and the gospel, and between the covenants of works and grace, has needlessly created confusion about basic Reformed theology.

What Paul Says

Is the law then contrary to the promises of God? Certainly not! For if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law. But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith (Gal 3:21–26).

Thus far we have already considered the Reformed approach to the law. It is essential, however, to understanding the Reformed approach to this question especially, to see how Paul talked about the law in Galatians 3, Romans 3, and in Romans 7. When the Reformed speak of the pedagogical use of the law, we are drawing that imagery from Galatians 3. We are applying Paul’s language about redemptive history to the application of redemption to the elect and to the order of salvation (ordo salutis).

The crisis that Paul faced in the Galatian congregation was provoked by the Judaizers, who sought to put believers back under the law for their standing with God, for their justification. Using the terms we discussed before, the Judaizers sought to place believers back under the pedagogical use of the law or, as Ursinus explained it, back under the covenant of nature or the covenant of works. It is in this sense that Paul declares that believers are no longer “under the law.” So he uses this very expression this way in Romans 2:12 “For all who have sinned outside the law (ἀνόμως) will also perish outside the law, and all who have sinned in the law (ἐν νόμῳ) will be judged by the law.” In this section of Romans (1:18–3:20) Paul is preaching the law, in its pedagogical use, to teach the Roman congregation (and all of us) the greatness of their sin and misery (and ours) outside of Christ. His intent is, as it were, to drive them (and us) to Christ for our salvation. Everyone is condemned by the law, whether Jew (under the law) or Gentile (outside “the law”). The natural law is the substance of the moral law and it condemns all who are outside of Christ and his righteousness imputed and received through faith alone.

In Romans 3:19 Paul says this very thing: “Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are in the law (ἐν τῷ νόμῳ), so that every mouth may be shut, and the whole world may be indicted before God.” Why? “Because by works of the law no man will be justified in his sight, because through the law comes knowledge of sin.” This is the pedagogical use of the law. Rhetorically, following the threefold structure of the book, we are not Christians yet, i.e., he is not speaking to us as if we are actually converted, believing, and repentant. He is still convicting. This is a distinct use of the law for Paul. This is how the Reformed have historically understood Romans 2:13: “Because it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous with God, but the doers of the law who shall be justified.” This is nothing but the covenant of works. This is not, as some have suggested, a promise to believers (that if we cooperate with grace sufficiently to become sufficiently sanctified, God will recognize our sanctity and reward us accordingly). To read this passage that way is to misunderstand it quite fundamentally and thus to misunderstand the entire book of Romans.

In case we are still uncertain about what Paul means when he speaks of being “under the law” or “in the law” in this way, he explained it more fully in chapter 7. Arguably (this is debated), from vv. 7–14, he is reflecting on is pre-Christian experience of the law. This is how the Reformed (e.g., Calvin) have traditionally understood it. Consider vv. 7–9:

Rom 7:7 What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. For apart from the law, sin lies dead. I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died (ESV).

One of his major burdens in this section is to vindicate the law. The law is not the problem. It is the chemistry, if you will, of the mixture of my sin with the law. In that case, the law does what it does because it is what it is. The law is the reflection of God’s holiness and righteousness. It is relenting. When mixed with my sin, it brings condemnation. It reveals our sin. Sin becomes the subject of the verb. It seizes the opportunity. It produces covetousness. Of course Paul was never actually “alive” apart from the law. We know that from chapters 2 and 3. Existentially, however, or experientially, he thought he was alive because he did not know the greatness of his sin and misery. He was deluded until the law, as wonderfully used by the Holy Spirit, convicted him and taught him the greatness of his sin and misery and his need for a Savior.

So, with this context, we can better understand what Paul meant in Galatians 3. Again, the problem is not with the law or the gospel. The law and the gospel are not against each other. They both promise life under different conditions. The law promises life to those who obey perfectly. The gospel promises life to those who trust Jesus, the perfectly righteous one. They agree. Scripture imprisoned everything and all of us “under sin” (ὑπὸ ἁμαρτίαν) but putting us all “under the law” in order that we might give up trying to present ourselves to God on the basis of our law keeping, so that we might flee to Christ, who kept the law perfectly for all his elect. The promise is given to those who believe. That process is worked out both in the history of redemption and in the life of the believer, in the order of salvation (ordo salutis, in the application of redemption.

In this use, Paul calls the law a “schoolmaster” (παιδαγωγὸς) or a “pedagogue.” In our day teachers are not ordinarily allowed to strike students but when I was a boy, students and principals regularly applied “corporal punishment.” They used paddles and switches to teach us our sins and misdeeds. So it was in Paul’s day. One was given a lesson to memorize (say some Hebrew, Greek, or Latin) and should the student fail to memorize the lesson, he expected to receive corporal punishment. That is the image the Paul was employing to help us understand the “pedagogical use” of the law.

In Paul’s scheme here, no believer is still under the law as a pedagogue. We have been set free from that use. It is in that sense in which we are said no longer to be “under the law.” We were captive to the law but we are no longer. When the fullness of time came, the Son was born “under the law” (ὑπὸ νόμον) for us, so that we, who believe, should no longer be “under the law” in its pedagogical use. Thus, Paul remonstrates with those who seek to present themselves (Gal 4:21) to God on the basis of their law keeping as still “under the law.” He contrasts the Christian life as being “led by the Spirit” versus the Judaizers who were still “under the law” (Gal 5:18) Contra the Antinomians, he was not speaking to the third use of the law but the pedagogical. Again we see why it is so important to get these categories right.

For Paul, it is impossible for those, for whom Christ came, for whom Christ as the Last Adam obeyed, for whom Christ was the substitute, for whom he died, and for whose justification he was raised, to be “under the law” in this pedagogical sense. To be under the law in that sense is to be under the covenant of works but we, who have believed by grace alone, are no longer under the covenant of works but under the covenant of grace.

What Luther Said

We began with Heidelberg Catechism (1563) 2, which says,

2. How many things are necessary for you to know, that in this comfort you may live and die happily?

Three things:

The first, how great my sin and misery is;

The second, how I am redeemed from all my sins and misery;

The third, how I am to be thankful to God for such redemption.

According to Heidelberg 3, we learn the greatness of our sin and misery “out of the law of God.” The catechism does not go on then to exposit the law. That is suspended until the third part, where the law is not treated under its pedagogical use but under its normative use. To be sure, there is for Luther, for Calvin, and for the Heidelberg Catechism, a pedagogical or elenctic function even under the third use. We see this in Heidelberg 115:

115. Why then does God so strictly enjoin the ten Commandments upon us, since in this life no one can keep them?

First, that as long as we live we may learn more and more to know our sinful nature, and so the more earnestly seek forgiveness of sins and righteousness in Christ;

Secondly, that without ceasing we diligently ask God for the grace of the Holy Spirit, that we be renewed more and more after the image of God, until we attain the goal of perfection after this life.

The law continues to teach us the greatness of our sin and misery but the Christian is not under the covenant of works, that voice of the law that says, “do this and live” and which promises to us rewards (e.g., eternal blessedness) on the basis of our performance. Rather, the law speaks to us here as members of the covenant of grace, who stand before God on the basis of Christ’s righteousness imputed, received through faith alone, by grace alone.

In that gracious covenant we are free to repent of our sins and to die to them and to seek to be renewed more and more (i.e., to be made alive) in Christ.

From where did the framers of the catechism (chiefly Zacharias Ursinus and, to a lesser degree, Caspar Olevianus) learn these categories? Of course, they were students of Scripture. They read and preached Romans and Galatians but they were influenced in the way they read Scripture by Martin Luther (1483–1546). This is not to say that they necessarily agreed with everything Luther ever said but they read deeply in Luther and his language and categories shaped them. Ursinus was a German-speaking Protestant, who began his career as an orthodox Lutheran under Luther’s colleague Philipp Melanchthon (1499–1560). He studied with Melanchthon for 7 years or so. Just after Philipp’s death Ursinus publicly identified with the Reformed Reformation. Olevianus was a German Christian who became Reformed in university, who studied a bit in Geneva and Zürich. He was much influenced by Calvin and by his colleague and successor, Theodore Beza (d. 1605). Olevianus regularly paraphrased Luther in his books on covenant theology and in his other works.

In his 1531 commentary on Galatians Luther wrote extensively on the uses of the law:

Thus the first understanding and use of the Law is to restrain the wicked. For the devil reigns in the whole world and drives men to all sorts of shameful deeds. This is why God has ordained magistrates, parents, teachers, laws, shackles, and all civic ordinances, so that, if they cannot do any more, they will at least bind the hands of the devil and keep him from raging at will. Therefore just as ropes and chains are bound upon men who are possessed and in whom the devil is ruling powerfully, to keep them from harming someone, so the whole world, which is possessed by the devil and is being led headlong into every crime, has the magistrate with his ropes and chains, that is, his laws, restraining its hands and feet lest it rush headlong into all sorts of evil. If it does not permit itself to be restrained this way, it will pay with the price of its head. This civic restraint is extremely necessary and was instituted by God, both for the sake of public peace and for the sake of preserving everything, but especially to prevent the course of the Gospel from being hindered by the tumults and seditions of wild men. Paul is not discussing that civic use here; it is indeed very necessary, but it does not justify. For as a possessed person is not free and mentally balanced just because his hands and feet are bound, so when the world is most restrained from external acts of disgrace by the Law, it is not righteous on that account but remains unrighteous. In fact, this very restraint indicates that the world is wicked and insane and that it is driven by its prince, the devil; otherwise there would be no need for it to be kept from sinning by laws.

The other use of the Law is the theological or spiritual one, which serves to increase transgressions. This is the primary purpose of the Law of Moses, that through it sin might grow and be multiplied, especially in the conscience. Paul discusses this magnificently in Rom. 7. Therefore the true function and the chief and proper use of the Law is to reveal to man his sin, blindness, misery, wickedness, ignorance, hate and contempt of God, death, hell, judgment, and the well-deserved wrath of God. Yet this use of the Law is completely unknown to the hypocrites, the sophists in the universities, and to all men who go along in the presumption of the righteousness of the Law or of their own righteousness. To curb and crush this monster and raging beast, that is, the presumption of religion, God is obliged, on Mt. Sinai, to give a new Law with such pomp and with such an awesome spectacle that the entire people is crushed with fear. For since the reason becomes haughty with this human presumption of righteousness and imagines that on account of this it is pleasing to God, therefore God has to send some Hercules, namely, the Law, to attack, subdue, and destroy this monster with full force. Therefore the Law is intent only on this beast, not on any other.

…Therefore it is a matter of no small moment to believe correctly about what the Law is and what its use and function are. Thus it is evident that we do not reject the Law and works, as our opponents falsely accuse us. But we do everything to establish the Law, and we require works. We say that the Law is good and useful, but in its proper use, namely, first, as we have said earlier, to restrain civic transgressions; and secondly, to reveal spiritual transgressions. Therefore the Law is a light that illumines and shows, not the grace of God or righteousness and life but the wrath of God, sin, death, our damnation in the sight of God, and hell. For just as on Mt. Sinai the lightning, the thunder, the dark cloud, the smoking and burning mountain, and the whole horrendous sight did not make the Children of Israel happy or alive but terrified them, made them almost helpless, and disclosed a presence of God speaking from the cloud that they could not bear for all their sanctity and purity, so when the Law is being used correctly, it does nothing but reveal sin, work wrath, accuse, terrify, and reduce the minds of men to the point of despair. And that is as far as the Law goes (Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, 26.308–13).

In this passage from his 1531 Lectures on Galatians Luther laid out two of the three uses of the law, which we discussed in part 1, the civil and the pedagogical uses. He did not mention the third use (tertius usus legis) or the normative use of the law. From passages such as these some have, without warrant, inferred that Luther denied the third use. I say without warrant because the conclusion is a non sequitur and contrary to fact. On this see Edward Engelbrecht, who has challenged this caricature of Luther. Luther certainly taught the substance of the third use of the law.

Notice that Luther calls the civil use the first use of the law. For Luther, as for Calvin, Melanchthon, Bucer, et al. the substance of the moral law is the decalogue (the ten commandments) and the substance of the moral law is the natural law. Here’s an essay which considers Calvin’s view of natural law. They assumed that the state had the right and duty to impose not only the 2nd table (with which we should agree) but also the 1st table (with which we should disagree). Nevertheless, this was view of the “civil use” of the law.

The second use he called the “theological use,” which the Reformed have traditionally called the pedagogical use. His explanation of it, however, was widely accepted by the Reformed including Calvin. When the Heidelberg says that we need to learn the greatness of our sin and misery, this is exactly what it means to teach and confess. Only God’s law teaches us this. The gospel does not. Indeed, Luther goes in this wonderful section to explain the difference between the law and the gospel in this respect. Where the law, in this use, condemns, the gospel is good news. The gospel liberates. The gospel saves or it announces our free and gracious salvation sovereignly wrought for us in Christ and applied to us by the Holy Spirit.

What Calvin Said

In some Reformed circles, particularly those who are either dissatisfied with classical Reformed theology and the Reformed confession and in among those who are simply unaware of historic Reformed theology, it is thought (a priori) that since Luther and Calvin represent two fundamentally distinct types of Protestantism that Luther and Calvin must have had rather different views of uses of God’s moral law. This is nothing but supposition based upon an assumption that is itself without warrant in the sources.

For decades Richard Muller has been criticizing the “Central Dogma” reading of the history of the Reformation on which this supposition rests. There are three types of people in the world: those who have never heard of Muller, those who cite his work, and those who read it. The third group is the smallest. Nevertheless, Muller and others have shown that approach to reading the Reformation to be untenable. I have been criticizing this approach to understanding Calvin’s relationship to Luther’s theology. If we pay attention to what Calvin said, rather than beginning with a supposition—which in America has been more rooted in a national identity than in history—we will see that Calvin did not consider himself to part of a fundamentally different approach to Protestant theology.

The Latin text Calvin used for his commentary on Galatians 3:24 says (in translation), “Therefore the Law was our schoolmaster unto Christ, so that we may be justified by faith.”1 In his 1548 commentary on this passage he wrote

This is the second comparison, which still more clearly expresses Paul’s design. A schoolmaster is not appointed for the whole life, but only for childhood, as the etymology of the Greek word παιδαγωγός implies. Besides, in training a child, the object is to prepare him, by the instructions of childhood, for maturer years. The comparison applies in both respects to the law, for its authority was limited to a particular age, and its whole object was to prepare its scholars in such a manner, that, when its elementary instructions were closed, they might make progress worthy of manhood. And so he adds, that it was our schoolmaster (εἰς Χριστὸν) unto Christ. The grammarian, when he has trained a boy, delivers him into the hands of another, who conducts him through the higher branches of a finished education. In like manner, the law was the grammar of theology, which, after carrying its scholars a short way, handed them over to faith to be completed. Thus, Paul compares the Jews to children, and us to advanced youth.2

Were we to stop here we might conclude that it was not Luther who was the (alleged) antinomian in the 16th century Reformation but Calvin. Of course, that would be a poor way to read a text. One of the most important (and neglected) principles of hermeneutics may be expressed in two words: keep reading. When we read Calvin in context we see (as we will below) that Calvin was not saying that the moral law is no longer in force as the guide for the Christian life. He was addressing the distinct redemptive-historical function of the Torah and the Mosaic covenant. According to Calvin, Paul’s point was to note a unique and unrepeatable function of the Mosaic covenant, to point us to Christ.

He continued to explain what it means to talk about the pedagogical function of the law:

But a question arises, what was the instruction or education of this schoolmaster? First, the law, by displaying the justice of God, convinced them that in themselves they were unrighteous; for in the commandments of God, as in a mirror, they might see how far they were distant from true righteousness. They were thus reminded that righteousness must be sought in some other quarter. The promises of the law served the same purpose, and might lead to such reflections as these: “If you cannot obtain life by works but by fulfilling the law, some new and different method must be sought. Your weakness will never allow you to ascend so high; nay, though you desire and strive ever so much, you will fall far short of the object.” The threatenings, on the other hand, pressed and entreated them to seek refuge from the wrath and curse of God, and gave them no rest till they were constrained to seek the grace of Christ.

Such too, was the tendency of all the ceremonies; for what end did sacrifices and washings serve but to keep the mind continually fixed on pollution and condemnation? When a man’s uncleanness is placed before his eyes, when the unoffending animal is held forth as the image of his own death, how can he indulge in sleep? How can he but be roused to the earnest cry for deliverance? Beyond all doubt, ceremonies accomplished their object, not merely by alarming and humbling the conscience, but by exciting them to the faith of the coming Redeemer. In the imposing services of the Mosaic ritual, every thing that was presented to the eye bore an impress of Christ. The law, in short, was nothing else than an immense variety of exercises, in which the worshippers were led by the hand to Christ.3

Notice how he intertwined the redemptive historical (objective) with the application of redemption by the Spirit to the believer (subjective). He did not set them at one another but saw them, in Paul, as complementary. The Israelites were under the law as a pedagogue both objectively, historically, corporately in order to point them to the coming Messiah and personally, individually. The law function both as a type and, in this use, as the teacher with a switch (or a paddle) to teach them the greatness of their sins and misery and their need for the Savior. Thus he explained, “When a man’s uncleanness is placed before his eyes, when the unoffending animal is held forth as the image of his own death, how can he indulge in sleep? How can he but be roused to the earnest cry for deliverance?”4

According to Calvin, the believer is no longer under the law as a schoolmaster. He explained,

It denotes the brighter revelation of grace after that “the vail of the temple was rent in twain,” (Matt. 27:51,) which, we know, was effected by the manifestation of Christ. He affirms that, under the reign of Christ, there is no longer any childhood which needs to be placed under a schoolmaster, and that, consequently, the law has resigned its office,—which is another application of the comparison. There were two things which he had undertaken to prove,—that the law is a preparation for Christ, and that it is temporal. But here the question is again put, Is the law so abolished that we have nothing to do with it? I answer, the law, so far as it is a rule of life, a bridle to keep us in the fear of the Lord, a spur to correct the sluggishness of our flesh,—so far, in short, as it is “profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that believers may be instructed in every good work,” (2 Tim. 3:16, 17)—is as much in force as ever, and remains untouched.5

Believers are not under the law as a schoolmaster but the law always remains the norm of the Christian life. This is basic Christian theology. There is a way between antinomianism, the rejection of the Ten Commandments (the moral law) and nomism, i.e., the attempt to turn obedience to the moral law into the ground or instrument of our salvation. A pox on both their houses. For confessional Protestants there are not two stages of justification or salvation. We are justified and saved “apart from the works of the law” (Rom 3:21, 28; 4:6).

In its third use, its normative use, the law, Calvin says, remains “as much in force as ever…”. Calvin was no nomist nor was he an antinomian. Calvin all but said that Christians are no longer under the law as a covenant of works. He did not use that phrase but he clearly taught that distinction and concept. In the next paragraph he wrote:

In what respect, then, is it abolished? Paul, we have said, looks at the law as possessing certain qualities, and those qualities we shall enumerate. It annexes to works a reward and a punishment; that is, it promises life to those who keep it, and curses all transgressors. Meanwhile, it requires from man the highest perfection and most exact obedience. It makes no abatement, gives no pardon, but calls to a severe reckoning the smallest offences. It does not openly exhibit Christ and his grace, but points him out at a distance, and only when hidden by the covering of ceremonies. All such qualities of the law, Paul tells us, are abolished; so that the office of Moses is now at an end, so far as it differs in outward aspect from a covenant of grace.6

What qualities did Calvin attribute to the law in its pedagogical use? “it annexes to works a reward and punishment.” It promises life “to those who keep it” and curses transgressors. It demands perfection. These qualities are the essence of what Calvin’s students Ursinus and Olevianus and his orthodox successors would call a “covenant of nature” or a “covenant of law” or a “covenant of works” as distinct from the covenant of grace. We need not infer that he was thinking in covenantal categories. He said it. “the office of Moses is now at and end, so far as it differs in outward aspect from a covenant of grace.”

Believers, those who have been given new life, who, by grace alone, have trusted Christ as their righteous substitute, who have been united to Christ by the Spirit through faith, are delivered from the law as a covenant of works. It no longer says to us, “do this and live.” It continues to correct us and to convict us but he never condemns us because Christ has satisfied its demands and set us free to serve not in the “oldness of the letter” but in the newness of the Spirit.”

What Turretin Said

Contrary to many popular (and some academic) presentations, Reformed theology did not begin nor did it end with John Calvin. Indeed, Calvin was part of a broader tradition that existed before him, that drew heavily and directly from Luther and was influenced directly and indirectly by the Zürich theologians (e.g., Zwingli, Bullinger, Peter Martyr Vermigli). The tradition was much broader than Calvin. It also continued after Calvin. Reformed theology spread into the German Palatinate, France, (briefly) into Italy, and the Netherlands. It continued to develop after Calvin. That is not to say that there was a great discontinuity between Calvin and the later Reformed theologians. It is to say that they faced issues he did not. They had decades to reflect on issues and come to different conclusions. They sometimes dissented from his biblical exegesis. Contra the now discredited “Calvin v. the Calvinists” thesis, the application of Reformed theology to the challenges of the late 16th century through the 17th century in the church and academy did not “corrupt” Reformed theology (e.g., make it “rationalist”).

Because of the long-standing hostility, however, to Reformed orthodoxy as it developed after Calvin, scholars, pastors, and laity have too often been reluctant to study the Reformed orthodox and to learn from them. That is too bad and a significant mistake. There is much to be learned about Reformed theology, piety, and practice from Calvin’s orthodox successors. One of them was Francis Turretin (1623–87), the leading seventeenth-century theologian in Geneva, whose family fled Italy to Geneva because of Romanist persecution of Protestants.

Like Calvin, Turretin wrote an Institutes, a book of basic Christian instruction. Unlike Calvin’s’ Institutes Turretin’s was aimed at responding to specific challenges to the Reformed faith and practice in the 17th century. It is less a comprehensive survey and more targeted. He did, however, address the question of the believer’s relationship to the law in 11.22.8–13.7 By the time Turretin was lecturing on theology Reformed covenant theology was well-developed. The doctrines of the pactum salutis, the pre-temporal covenant of redemption between the Father and the Son, and the covenant of works made with Adam as the representative head of all humanity before the fall, were well established. When Calvin died, the language “covenant of works” or “covenant of nature” or “covenant of law” or “covenant of life” (all synonyms) were just being formed in Reformed theology. The doctrine existed well before the Reformation but recovering it and putting it to use was another matter.

In 11.22.8 he addressed the use of the law as a covenant of works:

VIII. The relative use is manifold according to the different states of man. (1) In the instituted state of innocence, it was a contract of a covenant of works entered into with man and the means of obtaining life and happiness according to the promise added to the law. Although express mention is not made of a promise made to obedience (but only of a punishment), still it may be sufficiently inferred from the latter because it is not very probable that God would have threatened our first parent with punishment (if he should sin) and not have added any promise of a reward (if he should obey); or that he promised less in reference to a reward than he had threatened in reference to a punishment. Yea, the tree of life itself was a seal that there would be conferred upon him eternal life, which is opposed also to the eternal together with temporal death denounced in Rom. 6:23. This has already been proved in Part I, Topic VIII, Question 5.

He recognized that the substance of the covenant of works was present before the fall, that, in the state of innocence, the law promised life and eternal blessedness on condition of perfect obedience. It was an inference but the Reformed found this inference compelling. As I wrote above, they did not invent this idea. It existed among the Fathers and was expressly articulated by Augustine in The City of God on the basis of their understanding of Hosea 6:7. We should note too his inference from existence and function of the tree of life. In other words, for Turretin as for the Westminster Divines before him and the Reformed orthodox from the 1560s through the 19th century, the existence of a covenant of works was evident from Genesis 2 and by reinforced by their reading of the history of the Israelite theocracy (hence the doctrine of republication of the covenant of works to Israel).

For Turretin, after the fall, the law has a twofold use of the law for those who are not yet regenerate: to convict as a pedagogue (the use we are considering in this series), the civil use (as the norm for social behavior). In the pedagogical use the law brings “conviction.” It “brings man to a knowledge of sin and convinces him of his guilt—’by the law is the knowledge of sin’ (Rom. 3:20). Thus it is like a mirror in which we see our blemishes (11.22.9).

For our purposes, however, perhaps most interesting is his discussion of the use of the law for those in a state of grace. The law has a use before conversion and after. Before conversion the law serves “to convince and humble man so that (his own misery and weakness being felt) he despairs of himself and renounces confidence in his own righteousness and merit and rests upon the mercy of God alone.” We might call this the 1st aspect of the pedagogical use: shaming. In its second aspect the law does what teachers do. It takes the shamed pupil by the hand and leads him to Christ. It cannot do this by itself—the law has no such power—but rather it “impels man (cast down and despairing of his own strength) to seek the remedy of saving grace” (11.22.10). He explains:

Under this relation (schesei), it is called by Paul “a schoolmaster” unto Christ (Gal. 3:24) and Christ is called “the end of the law” (Rom. 10:4). Not the end of destruction and abolition (because the law remains also in the gospel, as will be shown hereafter), but of perfection and of complement (because Christ was bound to fulfill it in himself and in us) and of intention (because he is the mark to which it is directed and on account of whom the law was given). Not indeed in its own nature and on the part of the thing, for the end of the law in this respect was the justification of the just man, but on the part of God giving the law to sinful man that he might be prepared for Christ; that his weakness (astheneia) being seen from the law, he might more clearly know the necessity of a mediator and also more ardently seek him.

The law continues to exercise this function even for the believer but not so that the believer is under a covenant of works. Even though the believer is renewed and justified and saved he continues to sin and needs continually to learn the greatness of his sin and misery and to be directed back to Christ for favor, forgiveness, and the power to die to sin and to live to Christ (11.22.11). In its third use the law serves as the rule for the Christian. Now, however, our relation to the law has changed. “Before, it was an instrument of the spirit of bondage to throw down and bruise man, but afterwards it becomes the instrument of the Spirit of adoption to promote sanctification. Thus the law leads to Christ and Christ leads us back to the law; it leads to Christ as the redeemer and Christ leads to the law, as the leader and director of life.”

One final important note. Turretin turned briefly to mention the Lutheran theologian Karg, who in the early 1570s denied the imputation of Christ’s active obedience (11.22.12). He concluded “[i]n the state of grace, it binds the believer only to obedience, not to punishment because there is no condemnation to those who are in Christ (Rom. 8:1), whose transgressions are forgiven (Ps. 32:1). He also argued that, in the state of sin, i.e., apart from grace, the believer owes to God both obedience and punishment when there is transgression. That is to say that Karg was wrong. He did not understand the nature of the law’s demands and of the consequences of transgression. Therefore it was necessary that Christ’s active obedience should be credited to believers as well as is suffering (passive) obedience (11.22.13). In Turretin’s mind the failure to distinguish the uses of the law and the believer’s relation to the law in the state of sin and the state of grace is related to the denial of the imputation of the active obedience of Christ. We should not be surprised, therefore, to see that since the early 20th century, when the covenant of works came under sustained assault from evangelicals (e.g., Dispensationalists), liberals (Barth), and even from within the confessional Reformed world, that, at the same time, we began to lose our doctrine of the imputation of the active obedience of Christ.

In the following chapter (11.23) he defended the third use of the law. So, for Turretin, there was not a question of whether the believer owes obedience to the law out of gratitude for our gracious salvation but neither was there any doubt whether believers are under the law as a covenant of works or as a schoolmaster. We are not. Both things are true simultaneously.


It is basic Reformed and Protestant theology that believers are not under the law as a covenant of works for salvation. The moral law continues to norm our Christian lives as a guide. It is still the standard for right and wrong. To transgress the moral law is sin. To deny the abiding validity of the moral law as the norm for Christian ethics is antinomianism, i.e., lawlessness. That is sin and a doctrinal error rejected by the confessional Reformed and Lutheran Churches.

We say that we cannot be justified or saved by obedience to the law because God’s Word teaches us to say it. The Apostle Paul contrasted law (works) and grace (unconditional divine favor to sinners) and two distinct principles. The Pharisees who hounded Jesus and Judaizers who troubled Paul refused to make this distinction. The Judaizers thought that they could start with grace and finish with law. There is nothing new about the so-called “New Perspective on Paul.”

What Luther recovered in the Reformation, Calvin carried on and transmitted to his orthodox successors, represented in this essay by Francois Turretin. He argued clearly that believers are not under the covenant of works. They are in and under a covenant of grace, i.e., a covenant of free favor with God. The law continues to teach us the greatness of our sin and misery and it continues to norm civil life but Christ has met the terms of the covenant of works for us and all his obedience and righteousness is credited to us who believe. Those who are outside of Christ, who are not united to him by grace alone, through faith alone, remain under a covenant of works and the law continues to demand of them perfect obedience for eternal life. Christians, by contrast obey the law not for salvation but because we have been untied to Christ by the Spirit and because we have been saved and we have been justified freely and because the Spirit is at work in us conforming us to the will of God and the image of Christ.


1. The Latin text that Calvin used reads: “Itaque Lex pædagogus noster fuit in Christum, ut ex fide justificaremur.”
2. John Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul to the Galatians and Ephesians, trans. William Pringle (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 107.
3. Ibid., 108–09.
4. Ibid., 109.
5. Ibid., 109–110.
6. Ibid., 110.
7. Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, ed. James T. Dennison Jr., trans. George Musgrave Giger, vol. 2 (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1992–1997), 139–140. (11.22.10-13)


  1. Law, Gospel, and the Three Uses of the Law (1)
  2. Law, Gospel, and the Three Uses of the Law (2)
  3. Evangelicalism and the Reformed View of the Law
  4. The HB Library on the Covenant of Works
  5. The HB Library on the Distinction Between Law and Gospel
  6. The HB Library on the Third Use of the Law

    Post authored by:

  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

    More by R. Scott Clark ›

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  1. “Most confessing Protestants expect the civil magistrate to impose the first table of the law (the first four commandments) but they do expect the magistrate to apply and enforce the second table within the limits that belong to his office.”

    I think you meant to write “Protestants do not expect.”

    • Thanks Shane!

      Revised: Most confessing Protestants no longer expect the civil magistrate to impose the first table of the law (the first four commandments) but they do expect the magistrate to apply and enforce the second table within the limits that belong to his office.

  2. Dr. Clark,

    Alongside Shane’s question, you said: “but they do expect the magistrate to apply and enforce the second table within the limits that belong to his office. E.g., it would seem to be impossible and unwise for the magistrate to try to punish covetousness.” Coveting is part of the second table, yet you imply modern Protestants don’t expect magistrates to enforce it.

    • Within the limits that belong to his office. He cannot enforce the law against coveting or desiring what does not belong to you until it becomes open sin such as theft or adultery.

      • LC,

        I agree with Angela. I don’t see how the magistrate can detect let alone enforce the 10th. I’m not interested in the state legislating against thought crimes. “Hate crimes” are too close already.

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