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What Ever Happened to the Third Use of the Law?


As Lutherans we have been taught to read the scriptures through the lens of both law and gospel.  Our preaching reflects that understanding that the law is what we cannot do and the gospel of Jesus Christ is what saves us from our sin.  It is what God does for us because we are unable to do for ourselves.  But it seems to me that there is a struggle going on in Lutheran circles (and many other denominations as well) to even feel good about mentioning the law.  It’s too oppressive we might say.  Truth is subjective even, so why should we worry about the law?  It only drives people away from the church and Christ.  The law is irrelevant, passe, out of touch and out of date.

Perhaps we need to recover a right understanding of the dichotomy of law/gospel.

When we render certain aspects of human life, that the scriptures clearly call sin, to the realm of acceptable behaviors then we are negating the law and inching, no rushing, into a state of antinomianism.  Without the law, who needs the gospel?  If there is no longer “sin” in this world then why do we need Jesus to be our Savior?  He can be just another wise sage with helpful advice for us to follow if we so choose.  As a culture we are averse to the word “obedience.”  To be a disciple of Jesus is to submit to God’s will fully and completely.   This is not about oppression, it is about discipline.  Spiritual discipline.  This discipline brings about a new life, a joyful life, a full life lived in the Spirit of God.  It is my contention that we cannot grow as Christians if we are not paying attention to and being obedient to God’s will and command.  God’s will and command have not changed. . .   it is not easy for us to be faithful. . . it is not an easy task to follow Jesus.  It is a risk: risk of status, risk of criticism, risk of comfort and sometimes- in some places around the world- risk of life.  But it is worth it!  Don’t take my word for it, talk to a devoted Christian and they will tell you how life in Christ has changed them, transformed them into more loving, more hopeful, more obedient believers.

From the Formula of Concord, Epitome VI Concerning the Third Use of the Law the Lutheran reformers who came after Martin Luther had to hammer out “orthodox” Lutheran teaching and one subject that came up was this third use of the law.  As a reminder of what each of the uses are I quote from that text (BC, Wengert/Kolb 2000 edition) “The law has been given to people for three reasons:  first, that through it external discipline ma be maintained against the unruly and the disobedient.”  (BC, 502) That’s why we have stop signs, drunk driving laws, etc.  This is the civil use of the law.

Continuing on, “Second, that people may be led through it to a recognition of their sins.”  This is the theological use of the law, the part of God’s word that drives us to Christ because we come to realize our sinfulness and need of God’s mercy and grace.  On our own we cannot “fear, love and trust God above all things.” (Explanation to the First Commandment, Small Catechism.)

Then comes the Third Use of the Law which many do not even know exists unless they happened to go to seminary.  This is for the “reborn,” the Christian who is on a lifelong journey with Jesus, still captive to that old Adam (sin), but living in obedience to God’s will.  The reformers debated whether or not there should be such a third use of the law for those who confessed Jesus Christ and him crucified and risen.  Their conclusion was “yes!” We are not free from the law because we believe.  We are redeemed by Christ’s life, death and resurrection so that we may “practice the law day and night.”  They go on to say that the law has been written on our hearts since we were created imago Dei (in the image of God).  “We believe, teach, and confess that the proclamation of the law is to be diligently impressed not only upon unbelievers and the unrepentant but also upon those who believe in Christ and truly converted, reborn, and justified through faith.” (BC, 502)

We will never be able to follow the law perfectly and we know that it is not our good works that save us, however, as ones who know the love of Christ and who embrace his saving acts in our lives we seek to live as obediently to him as possible.  We want to please the one who loves us most.  We do not do it out of coercion but out of the Spirit who dwells within us.  We do it joyfully and without resentment.  We do it willingly because we love Christ and want to show others where our hearts are, with him who has saved us.

“The law is and remains one single law, the unchangeable will of God.”  (BC, 503)


Grace and peace,

Amy Little


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