The Three Uses of the Law in Reformed Theology

In today’s world, numerous things are going haywire. Headlines flicker hourly across our social media feeds with the latest abuse of power, breaches in trust, shootings, riots, and protests. The spirit of anarchy is alive and well in our world. How is it possible for depraved individuals to even recognize evil? Why do we care about injustice? It is because we all have the Law of God written in our hearts (Romans 2:14-15). When we observe countless atrocities occurring on a daily basis, it is human nature to want justice to prevail.

In Christianity, there have always been disputes on how Christians should use the law of God and its role in our lives. Antinomians teach that the law has no place in a Christian’s life. Neonomians desire to make a new law from the gospel demanding faith and obedience for salvation. Understanding the proper distinction between the law and the gospel and being on the same page regarding the three uses of the law can help to provide us with greater harmony amongst Reformed Christians. It can also present us with a solid blueprint of how we can live our lives for the glory of God.

Law and Gospel

What does it mean to properly distinguish between law and gospel? In brief, the law commands and the gospel promises. The law is what we do and the gospel is what Christ has done for us. The law in its first sense reveals God’s requirement for eternal life—perfection (Galatians 3:10; James 2:10). The gospel shares the wonderful promise that Christ is our righteousness received through faith alone (Galatians 3:13-14).

Both the law and the gospel are God given and necessary in a Christian’s life. The law is good because it is an expression of God’s being. The gospel is good because it informs us of the work of Christ on our behalf. However, mixing them—glawspel—is bad. This leads to neonomianism and the error of the Judaizers

As Herman Bavinck wrote, Reformed Christians perceive “the sharp contrast between law and gospel” and realize this is what restores “the peculiar character of the Christian religion as a religion of grace.” Conversely, “The law demands that humans work out their own righteousness, and the gospel invites them to renounce all self-righteousness and to accept the righteousness of Christ.”[1]

The Three Uses of the Law

With the proper distinction between the law and the gospel in place, the question is: What is the relationship of a regenerate believer to the law of God? In Reformed theology, we distinguish between the three uses of the law. We make these distinctions because we observe the law being utilized this way in scripture. 

The three uses of the law are:

  1. Pedagogical (school master)
  2. Civil/Moral (society)
  3. Normative (the Christian life)

First Use of the Law

The first use of the Law is to destroy the spiritual narcissist lurking within all of us. Calvin writes:

“First, by exhibiting the righteousness of God—in other words, the righteousness which alone is acceptable to God—it admonishes every one of his own unrighteousness, certiorates, convicts, and finally condemns him.”[2]

The law in this sense destroys our self-righteousness and arrogance. It puts the old Adam to death. In it, we realize that God does not accept us “just as we.” Outside of Christ, we do not stand a chance on Judgment Day. God’s Law requires perfect obedience and no fallen son or daughter of Adam can attain this. In and of ourselves, we are without hope. We cannot stand before the judgment seat of God and plead our good works since “all who rely on works of the law are under a curse” (Galatians 3:10). This first use of the law serves as a schoolmaster to drive us out of ourselves and to Christ.

Second Use of the Law

The second use of the Law is intended to protect our society from evil people who would cause us harm. Calvin says in his Institutes of the Christian Religion:

“The second office of the Law is, by means of its fearful denunciations and the consequent dread of punishment, to curb those who, unless forced, have no regard for rectitude and justice.”[3]

The commandments such as “do not murder”, “do not steal”, and “do not commit adultery” are also examples of natural law. These aspects of the law are written in all human hearts (Rom 2:14-15). It is intended to restrain evil and promote a harmonious existence in our world. “The moral law is of use to all men, to inform them of the holy nature and will of God, and of their duty, binding them to walk accordingly” (Westminster Larger Catechism, Q.95)

Our society can function only because we innately realize right from wrong. This aspect of the law promotes civil order and protects citizens from those who would cause harm. Hence, the second use of the law is a guide for morality and it equally applies to both believers and unbelievers.

Third Use of the Law

The third use of the law is only for regenerate believers. It does not apply to unbelievers. Calvin remarks:

“The third use of the Law has respect to believers in whose hearts the Spirit of God already flourishes and reigns.”[4]

This use of the law is also known as the “normative” use.  When we state that something is “normed”, we mean that it is “patterned” after something. This aspect of the law reveals God’s righteous will for our lives: We are his workmanship created in Christ Jesus for good works (Ephesians 2:10). When we state that a believer is not under law, we mean that he is not under the law as a covenant of works—as a means of salvation. However, as Christians, we do not lay the law aside because of our faith, but we seek to uphold the law (Romans 3:31).

We strive to uphold the law, not as a means of salvation, but because it reflects who we are as new creations: children of God.

We maintain the law and strive to do good works because of our love and gratitude toward God for saving us. The third use of the law serves as a blueprint for how a regenerate believer can live a life that pleases Him (Heidelberg Catechism, Q.86 and Westminster Larger Catechism, Q. 97).

Louis Berkhof wrote that the third use of 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.”[5] If someone denies the third use of the law, then they are an antinomian. This is not good! Antinomianism perverts the grace of God into a license to sin (Jude 4).

Paul anticipated that some would interpret the gospel message as doing away with the law. He asks the rhetorical question: “Do we then overthrow the law by this faith?” He emphatically states: “By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law” (Romans 3:31). This is the third use of the law.

A good example of Jesus practicing the third use of the Law is found in Matthew 28:20—“teaching them [new disciples] to observe all that I have commanded you.” He meant that Christians should be taught all that he commanded. They were taught this in the third sense of the law because they were already believers. The first use of the law had completed its work. It is God’s desire that Christians “walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him: bearing fruit in every good work” (Colossians 1:10). The third use of the law is the “Law of Christ.” It shows us how to live a life of gratitude.

The Difference between the Lutheran and Reformed View of the Third Use

Confessionally, both Lutherans and Reformed acknowledge the third use of the law. The early Lutherans articulated it well in The Formula of Concord, Epitome, Article 6:

“People who truly believe in Christ and are genuinely converted to God have been liberated and set free from the curse and compulsion of the law through Christ, they indeed are not for that reason without the law. Instead, they have been redeemed by the Son of God so that they may practice the law day and night.”

This is a good definition and is compatible with Reformed theology. However, since Reformation times, it is difficult to find a Lutheran theologian who consistently articulates the third use in this way. I recently reviewed the Lutheran classic, The Proper Distinction of Law and Gospel by CFW Walther (1897). I was disappointed the third use of the law was not affirmed and appeared to be repudiated (Thesis 23).

Lutheran theologian David Scaer, Professor of Biblical and Systematic Theology at Concordia Theological Seminary, believes Walther’s theses on the law and the gospel do not lend themselves to a developed doctrine of the third use of the law. He also points out that Gerhard Forde rejected the third use of the law as outlined in the Formula of Concord and thought it had no place in Lutheran theology.[6]

It’s noteworthy that Scaer believes this denial of the third use of the law was a significant factor in the decline in American Lutheran theology.

With these Lutheran views, it is not surprising that Bavinck (a contemporary of Walther) wrote:

“Lutherans do speak of a threefold use of the law, not only of a…civil use for the purpose of restraining sin, and of a pedagogical use to arouse the knowledge of sin, but also of a didactic use of the law to be a rule of life for believers. This last use, however, is solely necessary since…believers still continue to be sinners and have to be restrained by the law and led to a continuing knowledge of sin.”[7]

It is unknown which Lutheran theologian Bavinck had in mind (Walther?). However, it needs to be pointed out:

A “third use of the law” defined as merely a version of the first use is neither a confessionally Lutheran or a confessionally Reformed position.

Unfortunately, the non-confessional Lutheran view of the law (pedagogical only) seems to be the popular version on Twitter and social media. It is often passed off as the standard Lutheran view. Reformed Christians would do well by not integrating it with Reformed theology

Concluding thoughts

It is critical to properly distinguish between the law and the gospel, but it is equally important to properly distinguish and affirm the three uses of God’s law. It is also important to remember that even the holiest people in this life have only a small beginning of obedience, yet they will have a sincere resolution (Heidelberg Catechism, Q. 114). We should never base our justification on our sanctification.

Our obedience is motivated by our gratitude. This is the epitome of the third use of law.

The Reformed view of the Christian life is one of Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude: Guilt (Pedagogical: first use of the law), Grace (Gospel), and Gratitude (the Christian life: third use of the law). When we fail (guilt), the same order always follows. It is the gospel—our union with Christ—that brings us to life and provides us with the fuel and desire to live a life of gratitude.

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Tony lives in Los Angeles, California and recently transitioned from the PCA to the United Reformed Church in America (URCNA). He is married and has two adult sons.  His Bachelor’s degree is in Theology from The Master’s University and he is a descendant of the French Huguenots.  Tony also hosts the @ReformedTwitt3r account. You can read more about him here.

[1] Bavinck, H. Reformed Dogmatics: Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation (Vol. 4, p. 453)

[2] Calvin, J. (1997). Institutes of the Christian religion. Institutes 2.7.6

[3] Calvin, J. (1997). Institutes of the Christian religion. Institutes 2.7.10

[4] Calvin, J. (1997). Institutes of the Christian religion. Institutes 2.7.11

[5] Berkhof, L. (1938). Systematic theology (p. 615)

[6] Scaer, David. Walther, the Third Use of the Law, and Contemporary Issues. Concordia Theological Quarterly Volume: 75 Number: 3 in 2011, p. 329.

[7] Bavinck, H. Reformed Dogmatics: Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation (Vol. 4, p. 455)