“…the Law of God is useful… to the end that… when [men] have been born anew by the Spirit of God…they live and walk in the law” — FC VI: 1
Here it is, a practical question Americanized Christians indoctrinated into toxic freedom might not immediately get, but most all little kids can probably make sense of:
Just because my children must sometimes be coerced to attend worship services, does that necessarily mean they are not Christians?
(perhaps check out the previous post I mentioned: “Come to me and I will give you rest.” Law or gospel?)
If you answer “no” to that question, you can come to grips with what the Lutheran Confessors were trying to say as regards the “third use of the law”, namely this:
It’s all about Christian’s Spirit-led and default inclination being to coerce and drag old Adam – some other Christian’s or our own – into the presence of God’s means of grace and beyond… i.e. into the straight paths that make life safe and good for straying sheep.
It’s that easy. Amazing how Satan can pull the wool over our eyes!
But what about the law’s accusation? Well, that is not what FC, article VI is about… but let’s address the issue head-on: we can definitely say that the law always kills old Adam. Further – we can say that the law does not have the power to produce God-pleasing works – with a qualification. The qualification is that “God-pleasing works” are defined as those that are motivated primarily by the Gospel in the Christian and are not done as a result of external coercion – like when I make my kids attend worship or sit for family devotions when they don’t want to. On the other hand, so long as the coerced believer has faith – no matter how small, the Gospel covers all their sin anyway for Christ’s sake, making these works “God-pleasing” in a sense as well – they are not externally bad works after all.
If you’d like, you can stop reading now. That’s the main point. If you would like more theological-egg-head stuff, read on….
In the Solid Declaration of the Formula of Concord (VI:9) it recommends for our reflection a Luther sermon regarding the third use of the law: “as Dr. Luther has fully explained this at greater length in the Summer Part of the Church Postil, on the Epistle for the Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity” (Pastor Mark Surburg helpfully explores the implications of this here). The Formula of Concord does not point us to Martin Luther’s Antinomian Disputations at this point, but this simply goes to but this simply goes to show that sometimes we might not understand something in front of us quite the way we should without looking at something else that goes into more detail about the matter.*
In a previous post of which this is a follow-up, I critiqued a quote by Jack Kilcrease, posted by Pastor Matt Richards, about the third use of the law (read his whole paper here). Let me go into more detail specifically about what I am saying there. Kilcrease’s words do not really do justice to the fully-orbed reality of the situation being addressed in FC VI – the text is saying things that he is not saying.
As Kilcrease notes, the first use of the law – its “political use” – is not meant to instruct or discipline Christians. The third use of the law, on the other hand, is. Again, my point here is that the third use of the law is not primarily concerned to be talking about the matter of the law’s accusation** (of the non-Christian or Christian), but it is talking about the law being used with Christians specifically*** – for instruction and discipline – with the result being obedience.
I hope the following goes a long way in making my previous post more clear. When the law is used with Christians with the result being obedience, there are a few things that may be happening:
- Christians obey due to authorities who need to use coercion (parents, teachers, pastors, neighbors, etc) because they are letting their old man get a hold of their new man (hence we read later: “But *the believer* without any coercion and with a willing spirit, *in so far as he is reborn*, does what no threat of the law could ever have wrung from him”). What this means is that the believer, in so far as he is not reborn, does good only when it is wrung out of him – maybe even by using explicitly stated rewards and punishments. Again though, these coerced works are not “works of the law” per se, because they are still done by believers, and the blood of Christ covers these forced works, making them pleasing in the eyes of God.
Obviously, this is less than ideal. Here is something that is much better:
- Christians obey willingly without coercion, due to their putting their old man in its place – by their new man (not Christ, but the new nature that wills – “not my will…” – to cooperate with Christ’s Spirit) who is eager to do so, and spontaneously does so more or less consciously (in other words, they cheerfully and joyfully make the decision, in cooperation with Christ’s Spirit, to do something in the midst of a necessary fight vs. their old man, utilizing even “teaching, admonition, force, threatening of the Law,….the club of punishments[,] and troubles” themselves against their old man – their old nature). Regarding the “new man” in SD II a concrete anthropological location is indicated in the Christian for the renewed delight in God’s holy law – this is his “concreated righteousness”.
Again, FC VI, the third use of the law, is not really about its accusation and corresponding repentance. It is about the end result of obedience. Now, better yet:
- Christians obey willingly without coercion either more or less unconsciously (in other words, they simply do something without needing to fight much vs. their old man). Ideally, we do these good works more and more spontaneously, as Old Adam’s strength dissipates – while never fully disappearing in this life. Here, again, we think about Luther’s famous words introducing the book of Romans…. (updated: as I noted in the previous post, none of this means, of course, that these good works are not also in need of Christ’s blood to cleanse them, being tainted as they are by the original sin that is within us – see here for more)
To re-iterate: the article on the third use of the law is not really about the accusation of the law – that was covered earlier in the FC – but it is rather about the new obedience of the Christian as regards God’s law.
In other words, for some believers – for those whose new man is strong – this use of the law certainly is “more harmless than any other use of the law”. It *can*, contra Kilcrease, be “rightly be characterized as a pleasant or non-threatening form of the law” and even “friendly”.
Why? Because while the law always accuses, they, ever conscious of the Gospel and its high call, know that they are forgiven in Christ (see Ap. IV, 167) and are, correspondingly, eager to do good.****
So, as Luther says, the Holy Spirit renders the Law enjoyable and gentle to the justified and we can even say that, to the extent that a believer is “actively” righteous, the law’s accusatory office has ceased.
Dr. Kilcrease also said: “Therefore, when the Formula of Concord posits a third use of the law, it is not supplementing a weak connection between justification and sanctification by trying to inculcate obedience to the law”. In light of what has been written above, I now think that this statement is highly questionable as well.
In other words, as Pastor Holger Sonntag explained to me, “SD VI is taking a deep anthropological look at AC VI, which commends itself, given that that anthropology needed clarifying/reaffirming against the new Manichaeans in SD I.”
Again, Pastor Sonntag’s words:
“In other words, FC VI considers the law not as that which condemns the sinner to hell, but as “the definite rule” which, by means of its fierce threats (and sweet promises!), coerces the old man in the believer into what can only be an unwilling obedience and hence into an unwilling cooperation with the Holy Spirit and the reborn part of the believer, the new man in us, who willingly does what the one law of God teaches him as a “definite rule according to which he should pattern and regulate his entire life”.
Finally, what all of this highlights is a simple Scriptural truth we should all recognize: it is the more highly sanctified men, not those who need it the most, who are eager to hear words of both direction and correction. Further as regards the Christian’s sanctification, this is important to add: while there is growth in piety and sanctification, it’s not really a linear progression, meaning: we may feel strong one day and weak the next. Nevertheless, over the whole of the Christian life, the following picture shows how it should look – even if we ourselves, ever aware of our sin, do not see this progress.
*In like fashion, in the “worship wars” look at how people treat the section on adiaphora in the FC. They read the words, but totally miss the clear implications of the words – what they are really getting at. However, if they read more of Luther on these issues, they might be able to discern – should be able to discern – what the words in the Formula are really getting at. I plan on doing some posts on this in the future: “How an improper understanding of sanctification lies at the root of the worship wars”.
Here, SD, Rule and Norm 9 is noted: “The pure churches and schools have everywhere recognized these publicly and generally accepted documents [the “Lutheran” confessions adopted in the 1530s] as the sum and pattern of the doctrine which Dr. Luther of blessed memory clearly set forth in his writings on the basis of God’s Word and conclusively established against the papacy and other sects. We also wish to be regarded as appealing to further extensive statements in his doctrinal and polemical writings, but in the necessary and Christian terms and manner in which he himself refers to them in the Preface to the Latin edition of his collected works.”
**Note the text in the Epitome of article VI, it does not say: “(3) after they are reborn, and while the flesh still inheres in them, to lead them to a knowledge of their sin, so they don’t forget Jesus and become Pharisees.”
***Note from SD IV: “We should often, with all diligence and earnestness, repeat and impress upon Christians who have been justified by faith these true, immutable, and divine threats and earnest punishments and admonitions.” Also from Epitome IV:
3] 2. Afterwards a schism arose also between some theologians with respect to the two words necessary and free, since the one side contended that the word necessary should not be employed concerning the new obedience, which, they say, does not flow from necessity and coercion, but from a voluntary spirit. The other side insisted on the word necessary, because, they say, this obedience is not at our option, but regenerate men are obliged to render this obedience.
4] From this disputation concerning the terms a controversy afterwards occurred concerning the subject itself; for the one side contended that among Christians the Law should not be urged at all, but men should be exhorted to good works from the Holy Gospel alone; the other side contradicted this.”
****From Luther’s Antinomian Disputations, we learn that under the accusatory law insofar as they are sinners, Christians are also “without the law” because Christ’s fulfillment of the law is imputed to them and insofar as they battle sin in their lives in the power of the Holy Spirit (pp. 16-17, Sonntag, God’s Last Word)