The First Table of the Commandments’ Relationship to the Third Use of the Law (Part I of II)

05 Feb
Imitate me and do this!... the best and most important good work!

Imitate those who exalt Christ… the best and most important good work!









During the 16th century Reformation, church reformers such as Martin Luther identified, from the Scriptures, three uses of God’s law. Simply put, God’s law is that which He commands, and is often accompanied by the threat of punishment and the promise of reward. The first use of the law serves as a curb (as in the curb on a road) which prevents gross outbreaks of human sin, the second use of the law serves as a mirror to reveal the depths of our sin to us, and the third use helps to guide the Christian believer.

This law of God, which is exemplified by but not limited to the ten commandments, gives us a picture of what God desires for His people – those He means to “set apart” in the world that they might shine for Him and lead others to their King. While the first use of the law completely has unbelievers in mind, the second and third use of the law are to play an important role in the life of believers as they grow in holiness, or sanctification. That said, as one Pastor Chris Rosebrough has put it, there is not a “fourth use” of the law, an “empowering use”, where one is given the power to keep the law by the law!

A = justification ; B = sanctification - because we must properly distinguish law and gospel. No mixing the columns! (ht: Rod Rosenbladt)

A = justification ; B = sanctification – because we must properly distinguish law and gospel. No mixing the columns! (ht: Rod Rosenbladt)

Despite the title of this post, the main idea I would like to get to here in this first part (there will be a part II next week) is not that we need more of God’s law – that is, a list of things commanded – but more of the gospel: the forgiveness, life, and salvation promised in Jesus Christ. Furthermore, if the Western church is indeed weak in holiness and sanctification – our faith being weak and our love cold  – I heartily contend that this is because it is looking to Jesus Christ and His promises less, not more; and for less, not for more.

In other words, what we ultimately need is to be justified in Christ – to know the sheer Loving Majesty of the King who has died for our sins and given us a new identity in Him! And when it comes to this teaching of justification, particularly but not limited to when we think of infants, the Spirit causes us to consent in a way that is primarily passive (hence we simply receive – here I think about a mother nursing her child). “Now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God“, Paul says… We can especially see this justifying work of the Lord’s in holy baptism.

That said, our understanding of these things should involve a proper degree of nuance – particularly when it comes to the role of the law and gospel in our Christian life. The gospel is to predominate, and yet, in order for the church to grow to be what it should, both law and gospel need to be “in the mix”  – all throughout the Christian’s life! Following from the beginnings of our Christian life, the Holy Spirit continues to “refine us”, and as we grow in awareness and maturity, there is also a consent that is both more conscious and more active…. that even runs, pursues, seeks, chases after, longs for Christ as well (even as He is always the initiator even in this)!

So, what might the law of God — particularly in its third use — have to do with this, if anything? Is Justin Holcomb’s statement here right all the time and in every way?

Yes? No? Both?

Yes? No? Depends?

For the moment, let’s be skeptics about what Holcomb is here saying. Let us assume that the third use of the law plays some kind of a role in the Christian’s growth in holiness or sanctification. Further, assuming that this is the case, that there is a role for it, where should we be focusing? I don’t think I’m going out on a limb when I say that when it comes to either the second or third use of the law that the first table of the ten commandments should be our main focus. (the “first table” of the ten commandments all deal with the believer’s relationship with God, and the “second table” deals particularly with the believer’s relationship with other human beings) This means, for example…

  • the command to fear, love and trust God and no other
  • to gather for worship frequently with His people
  • to pray, praise, proclaim and sing his Name and deeds
  • …and to gladly hear his word and keep it!

And here, as one Lutheran blogger has recently emphasized, we might also think of the story of Mary and Martha – Mary was commended for simply resting and sitting at the feet of the Lord Jesus! “She has chosen the better thing”, Christ said – for the sake of us all.

Rest!: “...until the Last Day, the Holy Spirit remains with the holy community of Christendom, through which he heals us and which he uses to proclaim and propagate his Word, whereby he initiates and increases sanctification so that we grow daily and become strong in faith and in its fruits, which he creates” -- Martin Luther

Rest!: “…until the Last Day, the Holy Spirit remains with the holy community of Christendom, through which he heals us and which he uses to proclaim and propagate his Word, whereby he initiates and increases sanctification so that we grow daily and become strong in faith and in its fruits, which he creates.” — Martin Luther

And is this not exhilarating? God commands us to “stay put” and “abide in Him”? In a word, yes. With that said though, persons like the Apostle Paul do tend to go on with more “first table exhorting”. Even as it condemns me as often as I hear it, I absolutely love his command in I Thes. 5:16-18: “Rejoice evermore. Pray without ceasing. In everything give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you.”

Amen! And here I am keen to add this: this stirring exhortation could not be all it is meant to be unless it followed from the sweet Gospel words of grace and peace spoken earlier in that epistle. For which of us does these things – even as, we admit, such a close and vital connection with the Loving One we know sounds so good? No, we need those Gospel words that set us up to hear such commands, and among these I include these very beautiful and encouraging words in 2:13:

“And we also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is indeed at work in you who believe.”

In other words, God’s word is never just “information” that we act on, but is living and lovingly active in its work for and in us! No wonder Jesus praised Mary so highly!

And here, I suggest, is the real key to any “sanctification debates” (and “third use of the law” debates) we might have. Since it is the nature of faith in God to grow into strong love for God, we as Christians should seek to grow in knowledge of God and His love in Jesus Christ – that we may boast only in this!

Here, the Christian, already knowing God’s peace and forgiveness in Jesus Christ, seeks and pursues not more justification per se (free forgiveness for Christ’s sake – “just as if I’d never sinned!”, etc.), but more of Christ (and he does this where He has promised to be found! – in God’s word and sacraments)! And here, wouldn’t you know it, there is nevertheless “perpetual justification” for the believer. Regarding this “perpetual justification” then, this means, in general, that it is both passively received throughout the Christian life, and it is also actively taken, even at times indirectly, as one pursues Christ (and indeed, sometimes this pursuit will be driven by a need to confess one’s sin, guilt and unworthiness – even as one is aware they have a merciful Savior).

And of course, if one has perpetual justification – forgiveness, life and salvation in Christ – one also has deepening and progressive sanctification – growth in holiness (uneven though this growth may be). And this, of course, means that the Christian who is perpetually justified increasingly lives within, and not by, the law of God (even if they doubt this). Again, “in” and not “by”. The law, after all, cannot motivate or inspire the obedience it demands – but the Gospel can inspire us to say “Amen!” when we hear the beauty that is God’s law/will!

And that, I think, is saying enough for now. And let me be totally clear here: I think that for some of us, that is all that we will ever need.

That said, I deeply regret my evaluation that some in the church, among its leadership, need more than this. This is because of the things I said above that they seem to deny. I’ll continue with this article next week, and hope that some of you – if you have questions here – will join me then.

Until that time, it is my hope and prayer that you will think about what I have written – and perhaps Pastor Cooper’s latest podcast on free will before the fall and after conversion as well – and let me know if you have any questions or think there may be problems with what I have said above.




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Posted by on February 5, 2016 in Uncategorized


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