Previews of CPH’s New “So-Called Third Use of the Law” Book

09 Sep

“There is a time for everything…,” but here, now, in this way?


Yes, I know that the book is not only about the third use of the law. But we all know that this is where the controversy lies today.

If someone in the Confessional Lutheran house spoke about the “so-called doctrine of justification,” you could bet that every head would turn.

But say “so-called 3rd use of the law” – using the church’s publishing house meant to provide the most excellent Christian doctrine to the laypersons – and many will yawn, talk about the variety of definitions of “so-called,” yada, yada.

I have two sneak previews for you — for this book that anyone who cares about the future of the LC-MS will be reading in the next few days (this is rhetroric by the way, hyperbole deliberately employed to make a point).

The first is from the Thinking Fellows podcast. A couple of these thinking fellows interview James Nestingen and John Pless, two of the authors who in the book’s introduction talk about the “so-called 3rd use”.

I didn’t need to listen to more than the first ten or so minutes of this podcast to come to Lando Calrissian’s conclusion:


Before we know it, we’ll be learning that Nadia Bolz-Weber also has an essay in the book (even though that is certainly not an endorsement!).

Now the second preview — mine. We do know that the LC-MS was founded with the belief that the Confessional Lutheran Church is the true visible church on earth, right? Crazy? Might that be kind of important to some of us who have come to Lutheranism or, after a struggle, decided to stay? We must be pretty serious then about defending our confessions.

Well….let’s take a look. It says in the book’s preface (download the excerpt I read here):

We have also included “God’s Word Forever Shall Abide: A Guiding Statement on the Character and Proper Use of the Sacred Scriptures” as an appen­dix to this volume. This statement, adopted by the dialogue committee made up of representatives from the NALC, LCC, and LCMS, asserts the necessity of rightly distinguishing the Law from the Gospel for a proper understanding of the Holy Scriptures.

Well, there is no doubt that this is true. That said, being that the book grew out of LC-MS/NALC dialogues I certainly hope that in the book there is some real honesty about the very different understandings those distinct bodies have when it comes to understanding the Scriptures as God’s word… Hmmm. Maybe they will say more about that below.


In our conversations together, we have recognized that the signif­icance of the Law/Gospel distinction is downplayed, questioned, and rejected by some within American Lutheranism. Others have misused the distinction to promote an allegedly more liberated sexual ethic. The place of the so-called “third use of the Law” remains a contentious issue in some circles…

In the Smalcald Articles, Luther notes “that the law was given by God, in the first place, to curb sin by means of the threat and terror of punishment and also by means of the promise and offer of grace and favor” but “the foremost office or power of the law is that it reveals inherited sin and its fruits” (SA III 2).1 These are commonly identified as the first two uses, or functions, of the Law. The Formula of Concord clarified a dispute that had arisen among Lutheran theologians over the place of the Law in the life of the Christian, asserting in Article VI a “third use” that is a guide to the good works that the Christian is obligat­ed to do in his or her vocation. Several of the essays in this volume take up this topic.

The editors of this book are firmly committed to the Lutheran asser­tion that the distinction between the Law and the Gospel is a necessity if the Scriptures are, indeed, comprehended according to the mind of the Lord who inspired them. (bold mine)

There it is again: “The place of the so-called “third use of the Law” remains a contentious issue in some circles.”[i]

As far as I am concerned, that statement says all you need to know about this book, which yes, I plan to read. I could care less is this statement was made in an Augsburg-Fortress or NALC publication. I expect that kind of language from them. But this kind of statement certainly gives the impression that John T. Pless and Albert B. Collver III, who co-wrote the preface with Jim Nestingen, don’t really think vigorously defending the ‘third use of the law’ is that important.

We’re all good confessional Lutheran brothers though who agree that the law is good and the Scriptures are God’s Word[ii] though, right?

No. Not at all. In sum, my sense is that this book would probably be a Godsend in the hands of many an ELCA laymen, but not so with us and our house.

When Mark Tranvik from Augsburg writes: “This book is a cool drink for those thirsty for new perspectives on the proper relationship between Law and Gospel,” I’m happy for ELCA folks to get that but not for LC-MS folks to get the idea that ELCA views like those of Gerhard Forde have a perspective that does not deserve a vigorous rebuttal and brotherly rebuke within the same book – at least in a book by CPH, which is meant to be an organ for the promulgation of unadulterated truth to the LC-MS and beyond. When WELS professor (!) Wade Johnston writes “[b]oth pastors and laypeople will benefit from the essays contained here,” I read that as saying that Gerhard Forde’s disciples aren’t just content to bring their ideas into LC-MS seminaries —  ideas they no doubt believe can help an LC-MS that they see as overly legalistic. I am not even sure how Robert Bugbee can seriously write, “These authors take Christ, the Scriptures, and our confessions seriously” when we are not talking about the same confessions.

Frankly, in my view, the infections of some of these authors — note I didn’t say these authors themselves — need to go back to Bad Bol, Germany from where they came. We should not be so laissezfaire toward the viruses that have created so much Fake Lutheranism in the ELCA. Luther certainly would have not stood for this nonsense.

Another more conservative ELCA gentleman, Robert Benne says: “All you want to know about the distinctive Lutheran wit­ness to the proper relation of Law and Gospel is in this volume.”

To Robert I say: We shall see. Things aren’t off to a good start however, in the mud that I see on our carpet floor. Why shouldn’t I think myself to be naïve for hoping it will be somehow cleaned up by the rest of the book?

Why don’t people with some real clout fight? Do some housecleaning? Say anything?

Finally, if you are reading me to say that I do not think that we should be talking to persons from the NALC and ELCA about these issues, you have not understood people like myself at all. In fact, we need to have a conversation! No, I would delight to have conversations with people who have honest disagreements over these issues, even if we must agree to disagree.

Lord, in these last days when you said faith would be rare, give us faith. Much faith.




[i] In John Pless’ essay in the book, available for free here, he also says: “Within the last decade or so, there have been significance publica­tions and conferences on Law and Gospel, particularly with reference to the so-called ‘third use.’” “So-called” can refer to how something is publicly known, or, more often nowadays, be used derisively. Why introduce possible confusion here, if not to stir the pot? Well, pot stirred.

Pless also quotes Murray, who indirectly implicates Walther and Peiper: “The theologians who provided articles for The Abiding Word were deeply affected by the orthodoxy they inherited from Walther and Pieper. They emphasized the Law as an objective standard that provides instruction for Christian holiness. Unfortunately, their viewpoint tended to accept a tamed Law” (Murray, Law, Life, and the Living God, 73).

[ii] The editors of this book are firmly committed to the Lutheran asser­tion that the distinction between the Law and the Gospel is a necessity if the Scriptures are, indeed, comprehended according to the mind of the Lord who inspired them.



Posted by on September 9, 2017 in Uncategorized


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46 responses to “Previews of CPH’s New “So-Called Third Use of the Law” Book

  1. Jon Alan Schmidt

    September 9, 2017 at 3:12 pm

    That is disappointing, as I was (and still am) looking forward to acquiring and reading the book. I have learned a lot recently from the writings of both Pless and Nestingen (among others) about the Small Catechism.

    Best construction (for now) is to hope that Pless is using “so-called” in the neutral sense of “how something is publicly known.” A little online searching suggests that this has actually become fairly standard language among many contemporary Lutheran theologians; in fact, even the sainted Kurt Marquart used it in his now-famous (or infamous?) talk/paper on the subject ( I found a 1916 paper by August Pieper (WELS) entitled, “The Difference Between the Reformed and the Lutheran Interpretation of the So-Called Third Use of the Law,” so it is apparently not a terribly recent expression. Since that piece was originally written in German, I also searched for “sogenannte dritte Brauch,” and found Google Books references from 1833 and 1866.

    Are you familiar with Ryan MacPherson’s views on this (e.g., Like Marquart, he seems to be firmly in favor of maintaining the Formula’s scheme of three uses, yet still states, “In the Large Catechism, the so-called third use became even more apparent.” Here the point seems to be that Luther himself never employed the specific term, “third use of the law,” but what it designates is nevertheless quite evident in many of his writings–something with which I believe you and I both agree. Still, it was probably Forde who popularized the expression, so your concern about it is understandable.

    • Nathan A. Rinne

      September 9, 2017 at 3:46 pm


      Thank you for a very well-thought out comment.


      • Jon Alan Schmidt

        September 11, 2017 at 6:36 pm

        As we discussed over the weekend via Twitter, when addressing Luther’s own writings, it seems reasonable to refer to “the so-called Third Use of the Law,” since he never called it that himself. However, I think we agree that what the term later came to designate is quite evident there; for example, I have pointed to his explanation of the Close of the Commandments in the Small Catechism, where he says that “we should also love and trust in [God], and willingly do according to His commandments.”

        I just finally had a chance to read through the free sample of Pless’s chapter in the new book. My impression is that he is indeed using “so-called” in the neutral rather than pejorative sense. His summary of Murray’s much-discussed work seems balanced, and he mentions near the end “the need to speak concretely of the Christian life in preaching and teaching.” He then states, “There is also the concern that the preaching of so-called horizontal righteousness (active) can easily become disconnected from the vertical righteousness (passive) and become a platform for moralistic preaching.” Here again, “so-called” strikes me as simply a signal that what follows is a term that has a specific meaning in this particular context.

        Stephen Hultgren and Roland Ziegler have chapters in the book that explicitly include “the Third Use of the Law” in their titles. Have they written about that subject previously, such that you can anticipate what they might have to say about it? I would also be interested in your take on a piece by Jeff Mallinson ( that Gene Veith highlighted on his blog today (

      • sassthathoopyfrood

        September 12, 2017 at 1:13 am

        Personally, I think Mallinson’s article has good points, but, if I am reading him properly, it has one major flaw: The third use basically gets kicked out of the DS/sermon and relocated to the church basement. Yes, character formation also happens outside the DS (awesome, good point!) but so does evangelization, and we don’t kick the Gospel out of the sermon. At best, this excuse is a way to make the third use a secret knowledge for the select faithful, or, at worst, a way to pay lip service for something they don’t believe practical. Either way, it is an excuse to avoid preaching like scripture in the sermon.

  2. Rex Rinne

    September 11, 2017 at 1:51 pm

    Prophetic perhaps of things to come? Peace always….dad

    Sent from Mail for Windows 10

  3. Nathan A. Rinne

    September 11, 2017 at 7:42 pm


    RE: the Pless essay, from the footnote above:

    “Pless also quotes Murray, who indirectly implicates Walther and Peiper: “The theologians who provided articles for The Abiding Word were deeply affected by the orthodoxy they inherited from Walther and Pieper. They emphasized the Law as an objective standard that provides instruction for Christian holiness. Unfortunately, their viewpoint tended to accept a tamed Law” (Murray, Law, Life, and the Living God, 73).”

    That kind of tells you where Pless wants to go, I think. I did not find his essay particularly enlightening or helpful.

    Pless would say he does uphold the 3rd use of the law. The question though, as always, is what does this mean? Something like this?:


    Your point about the end of the small catechism is definitely solid. Its one the Forde-friendly have a very hard time dealing with.

    Ziegler’s essay is going to argue that Werner Elert’s denial of the 3rd use does not lead to antinomianism. Hultgren? Well….

    All. Signs. Bad.


    • Jon Alan Schmidt

      September 11, 2017 at 8:18 pm

      Thanks, Nathan. I have been rather immersed in both of Luther’s catechisms lately, and it is quite clear to me that he viewed the Law in general, and the Ten Commandments in particular, as instruction for Christian living, not just a mirror for revealing our sin.

      “For it needs must be that whoever knows the Ten Commandments perfectly must know all the Scriptures, so that, in all affairs and cases, he can advise, help, comfort, judge, and decide both spiritual and temporal matters, and is qualified to sit in judgment upon all doctrines, estates, spirits, laws, and whatever else is in the world. And what, indeed, is the entire Psalter but thoughts and exercises upon the First Commandment?” (LC Longer Preface 17)

      “Thus we have the Ten Commandments, a compend of divine doctrine, as to what we are to do in order that our whole life may be pleasing to God, and the true fountain and channel from and in which everything must arise and flow that is to be a good work, so that outside of the Ten Commandments no work or thing can be good or pleasing to God, however great or precious it be in the eyes of the world.” (LC I.311)

      “Thus the commandments teach man to recognize his sickness, enabling him to perceive what he must do or refrain from doing, consent to or refuse, and so he will recognize himself to be a sinful and wicked person. The Creed will teach and show him where to find the medicine–grace–which will help him to become devout and keep the commandments. The Creed points him to God and his mercy, given and made plain to him in Christ. Finally, the Lord’s Prayer teaches all this, namely, through the fulfilment of God’s commandments everything will be given him. In these three are the essentials of the entire Bible.” (LW 43:14, emphases added)

      Hultgren has a paper online, “Revisiting the Third Use of the Law,” (, which he calls a “condensation” of his chapter in the book. Skimming through it, he does not appear to address the question of whether paraenetic exhortation is appropriate within the sermon. He concludes, “We can understand divine law for the Christian believer not as the opposite of freedom, but as the proper form by which true freedom is to be shaped.”

      Looking forward to your assessment of Mallinson.

      • Nathan A. Rinne

        September 12, 2017 at 10:48 am


        “We can understand divine law for the Christian believer not as the opposite of freedom, but as the proper form by which true freedom is to be shaped.”

        It does seem to me that this is at odds with Forde, but if persons know of Forde saying something similar, I’d certainly be interested in that.

        Very good points though Jon. I hope others are seeing them to.


      • Pedrosity3 (@Pedrosity3)

        September 14, 2017 at 7:35 pm

        Jon, you may want to take a look at Hultgren’s footnotes. Always look at the footnotes, because they reveal the sources and inspiration for what you find in the rest of the paper. If, for example, you find Forde, Paulson and Mattes cited approvingly, you can safely conclude that the writer rejects the third use of the law, or perhaps subsumes the third under the first or second uses. Most likely such a writer finds no positive relation of the believer with the law, disbelieves in the eternal law, reduces natural law to a prudential ethic, and so on.

  4. Jon Alan Schmidt

    September 12, 2017 at 12:52 pm

    SassThatHoopyFrood (awesome moniker, by the way):

    In good Lutheran fashion, I am inclined to reject the either/or and embrace the both/and. Paraenetic exhortation is certainly not forbidden during a sermon–even at the end!–but it is also not required in every single sermon, and can fruitfully take place in other ways within a congregation. In accordance with virtue ethics, we should be wary of universal prescriptions that leave no room for individual discretion and context-sensitive judgment.

  5. cpkrauth

    September 13, 2017 at 6:03 pm

    “Now the second preview — mine. We do know that the LC-MS was founded with the belief that the Confessional Lutheran Church is the true visible church on earth, right? Crazy? Might that be kind of important to some of us who have come to Lutheranism or, after a struggle, decided to stay? We must be pretty serious then about defending our confessions.”

    This of course is of an utmost importance. The LCMS has tacitly, if not officially, accepted the branch theory. Look no further than the About Us page of the LCMS website. The idea that every “denomination” has something to contribute towards the fullness of Christian truth is antithetical to the confessional basis of the catholic faith, but it is this very assumption that goes along with the modern flow on dialogue and conversation and journeying together, etc.

    The words of Dr. Korby come to mind, “For it seems to me that confessors of the evangelical catholic faith must say, we are not talking about a point of view in the midst of many points of view. What we are talking about is we are talking about the catholic faith that ought to be believed by everybody. We want everybody in the world to come to this point, and we’re going to stand up and say it to everybody in the world. With whatever meekness we can, with whatever love we can, with whatever enticement we can, but we’re going to say it to the whole world.” I am happy to be corrected by those who knew him personally, but it seems that this stance did not limit Korby’s emphasis on discourse about the faith. Rather it placed it in a framework of proper seriousness and sobriety and when necessary assertion and confrontation. In fact these controversies are essential for the church, as it is out of such struggle that she has formed her confession through the ages.

    As one who has and is struggling to stay I often join you in wondering where are those with real clout who are willing to join the fight on this? Unfortunately, I am left to conclude that as you point out they either don’t think it is worth a serious effort, or worse they agree with the Pless position, which I think will ultimately play out in further division rather than some kind of Law/Gospel driven unity among those claiming the Lutheran mantle, let alone some kind of pan-reformation church unity under this hermeneutic.

    What more do we have here than a rehash of the Seminex debate over whether the abstract Gospel is floating over the text, as seems to be suggested by the statement, “The editors of this book are firmly committed to the Lutheran asser­tion that the distinction between the Law and the Gospel is a necessity if the Scriptures are, indeed, comprehended according to the mind of the Lord who inspired them,” or if the text itself, in concrete language, is the revelation of the mind of the Holy Trinity, which means the essence, definition, and use of Law and Gospel must be normed by the text of Holy Scripture.

    • Nathan A. Rinne

      September 15, 2017 at 3:27 pm


      Thanks for commenting. Your comment got hung up in moderation.


    • Jon Alan Schmidt

      September 15, 2017 at 3:45 pm

      Just to clarify, what exactly do you mean by “the Pless position” here?

  6. Rev. Karl Hess

    September 14, 2017 at 2:14 am

    I’m glad somebody came to my page from yours and caused me to come over to see this. The antinomian controversy that has broken out among LCMS “confessionals” is shaping up to be a much bigger issue than anyone seems to want to deal with yet.

    Prof. Pless had Nestingen come and speak to our class a decade or so ago when I was at the seminary. I should say that Prof. Pless was one of my favorite professors and continue to have great respect for him. I remembered Prof. Nestingen, however, mentioning that the Scandinavian Lutherans never formally adopted the Formula and therefore he did not consider himself confessionally bound by the FC’s statements about the third use. The fact that this is what has stayed with me from his talk is indicative of how it unsettled me, even though I recall overall appreciating his talk. Having a family background steeped in evangelicalism and fundamentalism I had been plagued by sanctification talk prior to seminary, always being uncertain as to whether I had borne sufficient “good fruit” to prove that I was justified.

    I couldn’t have imagined at the time that the “radical Lutheranism” of Forde would bear the kind of rotten fruit in LCMS confessional circles that I’ve seen in the last five years. We are, after all, supposedly “confessional.” Not “Lutheran” in the way that Mark Driscoll was “Reformed”, but actually bound by the Lutheran Confessions.

    This will of course really tend to discredit those of us in the LCMS fighting against the inroads of the nondenominational spirit or “style” into the synod. As we criticize the mainstream of the synod for adopting the technique and flavor of evangelicalism on the grounds that it is inconsistent with our confessions, the more intelligent on that side will be able to point out quite easily that on their part they don’t formally dissent from any doctrine in the confessions (since the evangelical spirit/style is anti-theological). Whereas among those advocating for the liturgy in the LCMS, something like half has come down with an antinomian virus that causes them to view the entire concept of a third use of the law with suspicion.

  7. Jon Alan Schmidt

    September 14, 2017 at 8:12 pm


    There are no mentions of Forde, Paulson, or Mattes in Hultgren’s online paper–not in the text, and not in the footnotes. I am aware of the issues with Forde and Paulson, but where has Mattes rejected the Third Use of the Law?

    • Nathan A. Rinne

      September 15, 2017 at 1:14 pm

      In the book, he says we should support the 3rd use of the law.


      • Jon Alan Schmidt

        September 15, 2017 at 1:57 pm

        Hultgren, Mattes, or both? I ordered my copy yesterday.

      • Nathan A. Rinne

        September 15, 2017 at 3:15 pm

        Mattes. I believe the same is true of Hultgren (have not completely read his essay yet). I believe both essays, though, raise other problems — but problems I’m not ready to speak to just yet.


  8. Pedrosity3 (@Pedrosity3)

    September 16, 2017 at 1:04 am

    Revisiting the third use of the law, Rev. Dr. Stephen Hultgren, LTJ 49/2 2015

    The author does affirm, on the basis of Scripture, but not perhaps on the basis of Luther’s writings, the third use of the law.

  9. Pedrosity3 (@Pedrosity3)

    September 16, 2017 at 1:14 am

    Rightly dividing the word of truth: An introduction to the distinction between law and gospel, Mark A. Seifrid while at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary:

    “This divinely-ordained function of the Law came to be known as the “first” or “political” use of the Law (usus civilis). It is not to be confused with the “second” or “condemning” function of the Law, which serves God’s larger saving purpose (usus theologicus). Simply because I refrain from murder under threat of punishment, does not mean that I have been forgiven and redeemed from the evil of hating another human being in my heart! Out of his own particular theological perspective, Luther’s fellow-Reformer, Philip Melanchthon came to speak of a “third use of the Law,” the use of the Law as instruction and as a pattern of life for the regenerate. This category, although extraneous to Luther’s understanding of Law and Gospel, nevertheless can be encompassed within it, so long as it is recognized that the “third use of the Law” in the end is nothing other than the first and second
    uses of the Law at work in the life of the believer.”

    “Nothing other than” is problematic.

    This is the article to which I was referring, unfortunately confusing Hultgren and Seifrid in the process.

    • Jon Alan Schmidt

      September 25, 2017 at 2:57 pm

      I read Seifrid’s chapter over the weekend, and found the second half of that paragraph rather astonishing. Besides “nothing other than,” which is indeed problematic, claiming that the third use is “extraneous to Luther’s understanding” seems completely unwarranted, and Seifrid simply asserts it without offering any support whatsoever. The accompanying footnotes are no better, alleging – again, without argument – that “Now it is not God who uses the Law, but the human being!” and that FC VI “nicely walks a very fine line, preserving Luther’s position while allowing for a certain understanding of a tertius usus legis, in the wake of the debates that had broken out on the matter.” How can FC VI simultaneously preserve Luther’s supposed position that there are only two uses of the Law, while explicitly affirming the third use as something that all Lutherans believe, teach, and confess?

  10. Pedrosity3 (@Pedrosity3)

    September 16, 2017 at 1:47 am

    Re Mattes, one should ponder diligently Beyond the impasse: Re-examining the third use of the law, CTQ 69 (2005) 271-291.

    Mattes allows for a reconfigured third use of the law, one that, following Paulson’s imaginings, preserves “eternal law” talk while emphasizing the essential thrust of Forde. Accordingly, for Mattes he law is instructional for the old man, perhaps barely (see footnote 14). Like most followers of Forde, Mattes translates Rom 10:4 as Christ being the literal end of the Law, its termination, rather than its fulfillment for the believer. Thus, there is hardly any room for Jer 31:33ff, Rom 2:15, 2 Cor 3:3, 1 Thess 4:9, Heb 10:16, etc.

    Folks following in this train are absolutely paranoid that believers might take the slightest notice of their own good works. This stems, in my opinion, from Norwegian Pietism and not so much from the Bible, Luther, or the Confessions.

    • Jon Alan Schmidt

      September 16, 2017 at 3:08 pm

      Thanks, I have a copy of that paper but have only skimmed through it so far.

      It baffles me that anyone familiar with the Small and Large Catechisms, as any Lutheran theologian obviously must be, can claim that Luther did not teach what the Formula of Concord calls the Third Use of the Law.

      • Jon Alan Schmidt

        September 29, 2017 at 2:30 am

        I just finished the chapter by Mattes in the new book. The last section before the conclusion is titled, “Freedom and the Third Use of the Law,” and includes the following (emphases added).

        “Naturally, this raises the question of a third use of the Law which has long been in dispute among Lutherans. We should stand with the Book of Concord on this matter. Otherwise there is no way coherently to read apostolic parenesis throughout the New Testament. Likewise, there is no coherent way to understand the delight in the Torah which is advocated by the psalmist and many of the prophets. Indeed, the best presentation of the third use of the Law is to be found in both of Luther’s catechisms. Especially the Small Catechism is addressed to Christian you and families. The presentation of the Law there is given not as its civil or political use but as a path in which Christians are to walk …

        “… The new person in Christ truly delights in God and in His ways, how God has ordered the cosmos and the limits He has established for our behavior which fosters our own well-being as well as the well-being of others. Too many practitioners of the Law and Gospel distinction have a robust view of God’s killing function in the Law but too limited a view of the power of the Gospel to raise believers into the new life in Christ. We are reborn so that we might do good works–to the glory of God and the good of our neighbor. The third use indicates that very path and presupposes a new motive (the “new obedience” as the Augsburg confession calls it) for walking that path.”

        Is this not right on the money? Or am I missing something?

      • Nathan A. Rinne

        September 29, 2017 at 10:58 am


        I did like that. I mentioned in my review he upheld the 3rd use of the law, although the essay was not without its problems. See the sentence that spans pp. 124-125. What in the world does that mean? Where does the idea come from?


  11. Jon Alan Schmidt

    September 29, 2017 at 4:09 pm

    Nathan, the book is at home and I am at work; what is the specific sentence to which you are referring?

    I first encountered Mattes a couple of years ago upon reading his 2012 paper on “Discipleship in Lutheran Perspective” (, which he cites in his chapter. It resonated strongly with me at the time, and is part of the background for my current attempt to develop a devotional using Luther’s Small and Large Catechisms. Lutheran discipleship is about daily repentance as a return to Baptism – drowning the Old Adam and living as the New Man – rather than striving by human effort to grow in individual holiness (pietism) or make the world a better place (social activism).

    • Jon Alan Schmidt

      September 30, 2017 at 1:37 am

      Now that I am home, I was able to look up the sentence: “There is no continuous self which can grow in higher degrees of perfection.” I agree that it seems odd in isolation, but I think that it makes sense within the context of the entire paragraph, which is precisely where Mattes references his discipleship paper (emphases added):

      “Many goals of the Pietists were praiseworthy, and in fact live on in our current focus on ‘discipleship,’ but they undermined the proper distinction between Law and Gospel by presenting the Christian life as a program for continuous spiritual growth, urging spiritual perfection insofar as it is possible, instead of a daily return in repentance and faith to God. Since the proper distinction of Law and Gospel situates the Christian life in terms of a daily dying of the old Adam or Eve and a rising of the new person in faith in Christ, it acknowledges a discontinuity of the self. The self exists not on its own but instead exists solely moment to moment by God’s gracious mercy. There is no continuous self which can grow in higher degrees of perfection. Nor are there benchmarks by which to nail down spiritual progress. Our life is hidden with Christ in God (Colossians 3:3). As hidden in Christ, we have no access to determine our growth and progress. Luther agrees that we make some progress in this life. But our progress is of no concern to us. Faith directs us to live outside ourselves in God and in the neighbor, serving the neighbor as ‘little Christs’ … the overall portrait of the Christian life as a program of spiritual perfection is to be rejected, if the proper distinction of Law and Gospel is to be honored.”

      The Lutheran model of discipleship is summarized in the fourth item on the Sacrament of Holy Baptism in the Small Catechism: “What does such baptizing with water signify?–Answer. It signifies that the old Adam in us should, by daily contrition and repentance, be drowned and die with all sins and evil lusts, and, again, a new man daily come forth and arise; who shall live before God in righteousness and purity forever.” Luther explicitly associated this explanation with Romans 6:4, but turned what Paul described as a one-time event into something that gets repeated over and over. As he wrote in the Large Catechism, “These two parts, to be sunk under the water and drawn out again, signify the power and operation of Baptism, which is nothing else than putting to death the old Adam, and after that the resurrection of the new man, both of which must take place in us all our lives, so that a truly Christian life is nothing else than a daily baptism, once begun and ever to be continued. For this must be practiced without ceasing, that we ever keep purging away whatever is of the old Adam, and that that which belongs to the new man come forth.” (LC IV.65)

      Hence the Christian life is not Baptism followed by a continuous increase in holiness on the way to eventual perfection. There is certainly “growth and progress,” as Mattes acknowledges; in fact, Luther added, “when we are come into the kingdom of Christ … the longer we live we become more gentle, more patient, more meek, and ever withdraw more and more from unbelief, avarice, hatred, envy, haughtiness.” (LC IV.67) However, since we remain sinners, this tends to happen in fits and starts; and in any case, it is not where our focus is supposed to be placed. Rather than trying to gauge whether and how much I am “more sanctified” today than yesterday, I simply daily return to my Baptism as the Holy Spirit once again drowns the old Adam in me, who rightly fears God’s wrath and punishment, and brings forth the new man in me, who also loves and trusts in Him, and willingly does according to His commandments.

      • Jon Alan Schmidt

        September 30, 2017 at 10:34 pm

        Amending my last sentence above: Rather than trying to gauge whether and how much I am “more sanctified” today than yesterday, I simply daily return to my Baptism as the Holy Spirit once again drowns the old Adam in me (because of which I all too often act contrary to God’s commandments, and rightly fear His wrath and threatened punishment) and brings forth the new man in me (because of which I genuinely also love and trust in Him, and willingly do according to His commandments).

      • Nathan A. Rinne

        October 1, 2017 at 9:19 am


        Oye – so frustrating. I was working on an answer to you for about 45 minutes and my computer, acting up, just caused everything I’d been writing to be deleted. Not off to a good start this morning. On the positive side (for you), it will now take you less time to read what I write.

        In brief, Mattes talks about this “continuous self,” which I guess is a Forde thing, and never really lets his readers in on what it means, or why such a concept is either a) necessary, or b) useful. That’s just not a good way to proceed in a chapter like this in a book like this. More conservative LC-MS Lutherans are rightfully going to be like “What?”

        As regards what he writes and you write here, my general point is that I believe that we are a continuous self in that we are continually sustained moment-by-moment. I also assert that the idea of dying and being raised in baptism daily and serving one’s neighbor need not be set against the notion of a Christian growing in higher degrees of perfection (II Cor. 3:18). There’s no reason there is an either/or going on here.


  12. Jon Alan Schmidt

    October 1, 2017 at 6:27 pm

    As I often say, technology is great – when it works.

    I agree that it would have been very helpful for Mattes to elaborate on exactly what he means by “continuous self”; this needs to be explained and defended, rather than merely assumed. My proposed interpretation is, as usual, an attempt at best construction. Mattes brings up the concept again near the end of his chapter, in the omitted portion of the passage that I initially quoted a few comments ago:

    “Undoubtedly, some find a third use of the Law inconsistent with the second use because in their mind any talk of the Law indicates the supposition of a continuity of the self. But that is not the case. Such continuity need not be assumed when we admit that the new person comes forth in faith each day.”

    Again, the connection between the continuity/discontinuity of the self and the different views on the uses of the Law (especially the third) is implied but not spelled out. So far, much to my surprise and frustration, I have not been able to find any more information about this whole notion anywhere online. It apparently has something to do with the drowning of the old Adam and the rising of the new man, but as I tried to clarify in my amendment above, both are still present (and constantly at war) within each of us throughout this earthly life.

    In that sense, the actual “discontinuity” presumably still lies in the future – when the old Adam is put to death once and for all, so the new man can finally and truly live before God in righteousness and purity forever. In the meantime, it is still the same person – “I” – who both sins and pleases God; we cannot neatly separate the actions of the old Adam and the new man as if they are somehow being performed by different entities. That seems to be Hultgren’s mistake regarding Romans 7; I am working through his chapter now, and agree with your assessment that this is a jarring flaw in what is an otherwise solid contribution.

    • Jon Alan Schmidt

      October 1, 2017 at 8:56 pm

      Hultgren getting it right (p. 230, emphasis in original): “… Forde, it seems to me, risks losing sight of the continuity of the old Adam and the new person in Christ as personal ethical subject. While Forde would (rightly) insist that the Law never ceases to carry out its condemning function on the justified, since they remain liable to sin, it seems that in his proposal the new person in Christ is deprived of any normative structure for the right exercise of freedom. A sharp discontinuity between the old Adam and the new person in Christ may be effective homiletically; whether it is capable of rendering a coherent biblical anthropology or ethics is another question. A similar critique can be made of Elert.” Accompanying footnote: “Elert (see above) distributes Law and Gospel thus: the preaching of the cross functions as Law to crucify the old man. The resurrection, however, has the last word. As Gospel it raises up a completely new man, ruled only by grace. Here the Law can no longer speak. The result of Elert’s distribution of Law and Gospel is that, not only is there no substantial unity between Law and Gospel, but there is no real continuity between the old man and the new.”

      So Hultgren, apparently unlike Mattes, recognizes the “real continuity” between the old Adam and the new man – yet still somehow interprets Romans 7 as describing “the situation of a person under the Law before (or without) faith in Christ” (p. 222). He even explicitly acknowledges that Luther and FC VI interpret it “as primarily a depiction of the life of the Christian” (p. 219). The more I read the book, the more your comment at the end of your review resonates with me: “Perhaps if Mattes’ and Hultgren’s and even Nestingen’s essays had served as jumping off points for others who clearly uphold the third use of the law to respond (and rebut), this would have been a great book.” Even just having those two or three interact with each other to clarify their agreements and differences would have been quite valuable for advancing the larger conversation.

      • Jon Alan Schmidt

        October 1, 2017 at 8:58 pm

        Rats, wish there was a way to preview a comment or edit it after submission. Only “personal ethical subject” should be italicized, per the original text.

      • Nathan A. Rinne

        October 1, 2017 at 10:16 pm


        Evidently, many Forde-ians are quite familiar with this notion, and reject the notion of a continuous self. From what I was told, “if Christian life is a daily dying and raising in Christ, then there can be no continuous subject of the ego that exists per se.” Here, the only “self” that we can speak of is the one that dies and is raised in Christ. Look at the chart on p. 437 in Forde’s locus on “The Christian Life” in the Braaten/Jenson Christian Dogmatics, volume 2 (Fortress, 1984) is worth looking at.

        My guess is that what Pastor Cwirla says here tracks with these notions pretty closely:

        I know our culture is obsessed with the self and that “authenticity” of self is not something that we think about as Christian. My point would be that our external behavior and internal motivations should allign however, and that is we find ourselves doing the right things for wrong reasons, that means we have an opportunity to repent, and trust that God will help us. This is a lifelong struggle, but one we should strive for, to please God and neighbor. No, my focus should not be on my own perfection, but I can still say that Christians are perfected in this process, starting with what we read in II Cor. 3:18.

        I get the idea this is not a popular position. I remember reading Daniel Preus’ “Why I am a Lutheran” many years ago. I remember him using an illustration about someone doing something for someone they didn’t really want to do (mow a lawn?), and he ended up giving the impression that motivations were entirely irrelevant. When it comes to the neighbor, our attitude often might not matter, but sometimes it does (ask my wife : ) ). And even if we are sure it doesn’t matter, how do we *know* that. We can’t know the immediate nor wider implications of our lack of proper motivation.


      • Jon Alan Schmidt

        October 4, 2017 at 4:31 pm

        I finally had a chance last night to read carefully Hultgren’s online “condensation” of his chapter in the book ( On the one hand, it is obviously not as comprehensive; but on the other, one of the things that it leaves out is the unfortunate claim that Romans 7 describes the situation of an unbeliever, rather than a Christian.

  13. Pedrosity3 (@Pedrosity3)

    October 2, 2017 at 9:31 pm

    The denial of the “continuous self” is indeed Fordian. Sanctification is limited to the daily dying and rising motif in that non-legal scheme. It is based on a false dichotomy, to wit, the dying and rising motif necessarily excludes progress in sanctification. It doesn’t in Orthodox Lutheran theology. Be aware that Fordian doctrine is paraphrased by his disciples, such that it is often difficult to detect.

    • Nathan A. Rinne

      October 4, 2017 at 9:59 am


      I believe in the book “Justification is for Preaching” there is a chart which indicates that the old man decreases in the believer over time, which might seem to indicate some kind of progress. I’ll see if I can find it and post it here over the next few days.


      • Jon Alan Schmidt

        October 4, 2017 at 4:24 pm

        Are you perhaps referring to the two diagrams that Forde included in “Forensic Justification and the Christian Life,” attributing them to Joest’s Gesetz und Freiheit? I found the same essay in another book, A More Radical Gospel, that has a better Google Books preview.

        The first diagram shows two parallel horizontal lines – the bottom one for the Christian as totus peccator, the top one for the Christian as totus iustus – and zigzagging arrows for the Christian’s “oscillation” between the two, presumably through daily dying and rising.

        The second diagram shows the top line sloping downward, representing how “the totality of the righteousness imputed to faith descends toward the lower reality.” The discontinuity during this life is still affirmed, but there is eventually a convergence that corresponds to the demise of the old Adam in the next life.

        The idea seems to be that “progress” is not the old Adam getting better, which would correspond to the bottom line sloping upward; rather, “progress” is basically the new man crowding out the old Adam until the latter finally disappears. There is probably some truth in this illustration, but my understanding is that a Christian is always simultaneously both old Adam and new man, not constantly shifting back and forth.

      • Nathan A. Rinne

        October 5, 2017 at 10:26 am


        Way to find those. Yes, I agree that there is truth to the illustration. I think its interesting that you say “presumably daily dying and rising”. I think this is what it does mean, and would be surprised if he does not lay that out specifically.

        Again, from what I was told, “if Christian life is a daily dying and raising in Christ, then there can be no continuous subject of the ego that exists per se.” I guess I don’t see how this makes for a discontinuous self. We are simulataneously both, and our new man is called upon to put off/drown old Adam and rise in Christ daily, but unless old Adam is the real self (if he really does die daily in some sense and yet really never goes away until death, perhaps here is where discontinuity comes in? — need to read Paulson), I don’t see how there is discontinuity here.

        Overall, I think my pastor has a better approach, and better charts as well!:


      • Pedrosity3 (@Pedrosity3)

        October 5, 2017 at 1:54 am

        Paulson offers tidbits of the “discontinuity thesis” of the self in his Luther for Armchair Theologians.

  14. follyofthecross

    October 5, 2017 at 2:07 am

    I have a question about the Lutheran view of natural law and it’s possible relationship to this discussion of the third use of the law. I am just layperson, who has only been in confessional Lutheranism for a couple of years, so I appreciate any feedback and direction from those who have much more theological and Lutheran training and time learning than I.

    In studying a lot of philosophy recently on natural law, and Thomistic metaphysics in general, it seems to me that when speaking about God’s law, we are really just speaking about God’s natural order for the universe. It seems to me that there is, then, a broad sense of God’s law – the laws of nature (physics), laws of morality, and the idea of telos (natural ends for things) in general. There also is a narrow sense in which we can speak of God’s law, and this is the sense we often hear spoken of in the Bible when we look at the specific direction that God has given us in the moral sphere of actions.

    When I think of the moral law as just a subset of the broader natural order of creation that God has instituted in the cosmos, it seems perfectly reasonable to me to then talk about any topics of the third use of the law or natural law in general. Natural law theory allows for us to have a rich vocabulary to deal with questions of human sexuality, end of life medical issues, and especially abortion. We also have a rich philosophical tradition from which to teach (and metaphysically ground) a system of virtue ethics; a system for living a Christian life. I struggle to see what is inherently bad about it and why it doesn’t have more prominence in Lutheran teaching today.

    Of course, all this talk about ethics and how to work at being a better Christian doesn’t have to confuse Law and Gospel. It doesn’t have to have anything to do with our justification before God. The pure gospel (sola fide) is still the profoundly Lutheran insight to me. It is like the Einsteinian view of Justification vs. the Newtonian view of works righteousness found in so many other Christian traditions. I for one do not see the inherent problem with learning and teaching natural law/virtue ethics and keeping the gospel pure. I do see the potential problem in disregarding all the commands God has given us or denying that the law (God’s natural order) is a good thing and should be actively pursued by Christians.

    Does this idea of a broad and narrow sense for the “Law” have any merit? Am I way off base in seeing this connection between natural law philosophy and third use of the law teaching on how to live a Christian life?

    It seems to me that the loss of this vocabulary of metaphysics in modern Lutheranism has lead to a generally negative view of God’s law (and natural law theory in general) and an inability to speak clearly on the biblical/orthodox view of the third use of the law.

    Again, any feedback or direction is much appreciated.

    God bless!

    • Nathan A. Rinne

      October 5, 2017 at 10:33 am


      Agree entirely. Well said. I would say that Luther basically upheld Thomistic metaphysics even though he approached it not from the rational angle, but a more experiential, empirical, evidential angle. I think he basically assumed the world of Thomistic metaphysics, as one would simply expect a person of his time to do, much less a Chrisitan of any time given passages like Romans 2:14-15 (insofar as Thomistic metaphysics merely syncs with, upholds, etc. Scriptural truth and does add to it).

      You might find this post interesting:


      • folly of the cross

        October 5, 2017 at 2:38 pm


        Thank you for the response and the link. I have already read and saved your excellent posts from that series.

        I don’t mean to hijack your thread but this connection between metaphysics and the third use of the law seems to have such a direct connection, and I am afraid of the consequences if we orthodox Lutherans cannot get this straightened out.

        For example, I heard Albert Mohler talking about an article on his program yesterday, where someone interviewed Justin Welby, the head of the Anglican Church, and he was unable to give a clear response on why homosexual acts are sinful. Article Link

        Asked by Campbell if gay sex was sinful, Welby said: “You know very well that is a question I can’t give a straight answer to….

        And then a little later in the interview:

        Pressed on why he could not answer, the archbishop said: “Because I don’t do blanket condemnation and I haven’t got a good answer to the question. I’ll be really honest about that. I know I haven’t got a good answer to the question. Inherently, within myself, the things that seem to me to be absolutely central are around faithfulness, stability of relationships and loving relationships.”

        To me, this is exactly what happens you lose the metaphysical language of ethics that classical Christian theology is steeped in. This is a real danger for any denomination (including ours).

        I don’t know why it is so hard for Christians to simply follow Aquinas’s lead; what is good is that which is aimed/ordered towards its natural ends, and what is bad is that which frustrates these natural ends. Of course, homosexual acts are sinful then as they are a dysfunction of the natural order of sex and procreation. Homosexual acts frustrate the natural ends of procreation. From my experience, this is not the common defense given in the non-Roman Catholic world because our theologies have lost sight of a moderate realism view of the world and natural law theory in specific.

        Thank you for your work, Nathan. I have been very blessed to find both your’s and Pr. Cooper’s writings as you both seem to be of a select few of Lutherans who are willing to explore the connections between Orthodox Lutheranism and classical Christian Theology. I hope there is a revival of classical theology in the Lutheran Church as if not, I fear we stand very exposed to the attacks of the secular world. Of course, I trust in God that all that is done is His will, and His Word is always effective according to His will. I don’t see, however, a good reason for us to be losing so many from within our own Lutheran ranks, when the philosophies that secular worldviews are built on that pull these people away, are severely lacking in explanatory power when compared to the Classical Christian worldview.

        God Bless!

      • Nathan A. Rinne

        October 6, 2017 at 4:54 pm


        Thank you sir for the encouragement.


        “It is revealed in the Word of God, which alone, as I said, imparts true information about the two main causes, the effective and the final; knowledge of these, if available, is considered to be of the greatest importance also in matters pertaining to nature. What advantage is there in knowing how beautiful a creature is man if you are unaware of his purpose, namely, that he was created to worship God and to live eternally with God?” (AE 1: 131)

        He goes on to say:

        “The main goal, then, to which Scripture points is that man is created according to the likeness of God; in eternity, therefore, he is to live with God, and while he is here on earth, he is to preach God, thank Him, and patiently obey His Word. In this life we lay hold of this goal in ever so weak a manner; but in the future life we shall attain it fully. This the philosophers do not know. Therefore the world with its greatest wisdom is most ignorant when it does not take advantage of Holy Scripture or of theology. Human beings know neither their beginning nor their end when they are without the Word. I say nothing about the remaining creatures” (131).

        By saying this Luther surely was not opposed to the kind of teleological inferences that you point to. Again, these are things he took for granted. Those would be reasons why homosexual practice, for example, is contrary to God’s design, and hence Paul’s injunctions in Romans 1.


  15. Jon Alan Schmidt

    October 5, 2017 at 2:56 pm

    Nathan: I did not (and still do not) have time to read through Forde’s whole text, so maybe he did explicitly link the oscillation (per Joest) to daily dying and rising. If so, then it seems that it is not only the new man in us that keeps being resurrected, but also the old Adam! Alternatively, this model essentially acknowledges that the old Adam in us will not be completely dead until the next life, implying that it is only mostly dead in the meantime (yes, I love “The Princess Bride”). On the contrary – I am not bouncing back and forth between totus peccator and totus iustus, such that I am either one or the other at any given moment; rather, I am simul iustus et peccator, both at the same time. I exist as a continuous self, having both the old Adam and the new man in me at all times; but the latter must increase, while the former must decrease (cf. John 3:30). Jesus will deliver me from this body of death (future tense), but I remain a wretched man until then, pulled in opposite directions (Romans 7:24-25). Hence I agree that your pastor’s approach and diagrams make much more sense.

    Pedrosity3: Can you give specific page references in that book by Paulson? I have it at home and can take a look this evening.


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