First, a little background for any not in the know who might be reading this post: 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.
Now, back to the specific topic of this post…. “What Is the Third Use of the Law?” (and related questions).
For Lutherans, this seems like a basic question that the articles on the Third Use of the Law in the 1580 Formula of Concord should be able to answer!
I asked this question to folks on Twitter and Facebook:
One of the more interesting responses that I got was “Why do you ask?”
I suppose that’s not really a bad question to ask someone who recently labeled himself on Twitter as a “Mean and Evilly Evil Lutheran Heresy-Hunter Extraordinaire.” So, here is how I responded:
“Because I really want to know where people go, look, think. Why? Because I have picked up on things over the years. Because experience teaches me this is a very important issue and related to the problems which face us. Because, back in 2008 my pastor and Holger Sonntag translated the Antinomian Disputations because of their own questions and experiences. Because, back in 2011, because of things I’d picked up on, I wrote a blog series titled “We are all antinomians now” (which I still think holds up). Because, I have my own fairly developed ideas about this but want to test them against others who I know have knowledge, wisdom, and love for Christ. Finally, because of a sense of mission as regards this particular issue, feeling that, more than ever, we can’t shrink back but must engage.
Another good question for the “why do you ask” question is this: Do you think *you* should be asking and answering this question? Why or why not?“
So, the question remains: while there are articles about the Third Use of the Law in the Formula of Concord, is the topic really defined there?
It is an important question. One, for example, said it was defined and put it this way: “The 3rd use guides a regenerate in sanctified living. Through that sanctification I’m protected from boastful self-righteousness by following man-made law. But not perfectly, cuz I’m bound to sin. Then I repent & ask for forgiveness.”
You can see my response to this gentleman in the tweet below, which I also shared in my response to Pastor Todd Wilken:
The Third Use of the Law is certainly distinct from the other uses of the Law, particularly the Second Use (the revealing of sin), but how can we best determine just where the differences lie in this doctrinal matter?
Another man told me that he always found conversations about the Third Use of the Law to be unhelpful. I strive to overcome that impasse!
Let’s dig in.
For this post–which I am doing as much for myself as anyone else–I am simply walking through both parts of the Formula of Concord, the Epitome and Solid Declaration (the versions available for free on the internet — clicking the numbers that head each paragraph will take you to the site I got them from), and look for answers to the above question and other critical questions that are related to that first question….
So, we will look at all of the following:
1. What is the Third Use of the Law?
2. Whose Use?: Who is the one “using” the Law in this third way?
3. Why?: What is the goal of the Third Use of the Law?
4. To Whom?: Is the Old Man or New Man of the Christian Being Addressed?
I will bold and highlight parts of the text that address these questions according to how I have colored those questions above (stuff related to definitions in red, stuff that relates to agents in blue, stuff related to goals in green, and stuff related to who is being addressed in purple). Please note that in some cases I struggled to choose which color to highlight in as multiple questions appear to be addressed in each statement!
Also, I am also italicizing any other text that stands out to me as being significant, or to further emphasize what I have already highlighted!
Finally, at the end, we will produce a summary of the results of our inquiry, which will also answer the question about what makes the Third Use of the Law distinct from its other two uses, or “offices” (as Melanththon put it in his 1535 Loci, which first formally discussed the topic).
Epitome of the Formula of Concord
VI. The Third Use of the Law
The Principal Question In This Controversy.
1] Since the Law was given to men for three reasons: first, that thereby outward discipline might be maintained against wild, disobedient men [and that wild and intractable men might be restrained, as though by certain bars]; secondly, that men thereby may be led to the knowledge of their sins; thirdly, that after they are regenerate and [much of] the flesh notwithstanding cleaves to them, they might on this account have a fixed rule according to which they are to regulate and direct their whole life, a dissension has occurred between some few theologians concerning the third use of the Law, namely, whether it is to be urged or not upon regenerate Christians. The one side has said, Yea; the other, Nay.
[Nathan’s comment: Yes, the purple and green above could conceivably be red as well. Still, should not any definition about the Third Use of the law be, in part, that it actually has something to do with “using or deploying the law in this third way”? And note: the statement in red could also be blue as well, correct? So, critically, ask this question too: Is this controversy really over whether or not the Holy Spirit is to use the law in this way?]
The True Christian Doctrine concerning This Controversy.
2] 1. We believe, teach, and confess that, although men truly believing [in Christ] and truly converted to God have been freed and exempted from the curse and coercion of the Law, they nevertheless are not on this account without Law, but have been redeemed by the Son of God in order that they should exercise themselves in it day and night [that they should meditate upon God’s Law day and night, and constantly exercise themselves in its observance, Ps. 1:2 ], Ps. 119. For even our first parents before the Fall did not live without Law, who had the Law of God written also into their hearts, because they were created in the image of God, Gen. 1:26f.; 2:16ff; 3:3.
3] 2. We believe, teach, and confess that the preaching of the Law is to be urged with diligence, not only upon the unbelieving and impenitent, but also upon true believers, who are truly converted, regenerate, and justified by faith.
4] 3. For although they are regenerate and renewed in the spirit of their mind, yet in the present life this regeneration and renewal is not complete, but only begun, and believers are, by the spirit of their mind, in a constant struggle against the flesh, that is, against the corrupt nature and disposition which cleaves to us unto death. On account of this old Adam, which still inheres in the understanding, the will, and all the powers of man, it is needful that the Law of the Lord always shine before them, in order that they may not from human devotion institute wanton and self-elected cults [that they may frame nothing in a matter of religion from the desire of private devotion, and may not choose divine services not instituted by God’s Word]; likewise, that the old Adam also may not employ his own will, but may be subdued against his will, not only by the admonition and threatening of the Law, but also by punishments and blows, so that he may follow and surrender himself captive to the Spirit, 1 Cor. 9:27; Rom. 6:12, Gal. 6:14; Ps. 119:1ff ; Heb. 13:21 (Heb. 12:1).
[Nathan’s comment: I think concern about instituting “self-elected cults” is a problem precisely because it gets in the way of the goal of actual obedience to God’s will. Will address the other stuff in italics below, in the “solid declaration” article]
5] 4. Now, as regards the distinction between the works of the Law and the fruits of the Spirit, we believe, teach, and confess that the works which are done according to the Law are and are called works of the Law as long as they are only extorted from man by urging the punishment and threatening of God’s wrath.
6] 5. Fruits of the Spirit, however, are the works which the Spirit of God who dwells in believers works through the regenerate, and which are done by believers so far as they are regenerate [spontaneously and freely], as though they knew of no command, threat, or reward; for in this manner the children of God live in the Law and walk according to the Law of God, which [mode of living] St. Paul in his epistles calls the Law of Christ and the Law of the mind, Rom. 7:25; 8:7; Rom. 8:2; Gal. 6:2.
7] 6. Thus the Law is and remains both to the penitent and impenitent, both to regenerate and unregenerate men, one [and the same] Law, namely, the immutable will of God; and the difference, so far as concerns obedience, is alone in man, inasmuch as one who is not yet regenerate does for the Law out of constraint and unwillingly what it requires of him (as also the regenerate do according to the flesh); but the believer, so far as he is regenerate, does without constraint and with a willing spirit that which no threatenings [however severe] of the Law could ever extort from him.
False Contrary Doctrine.
8] Accordingly, we reject as a dogma and error injurious to, and conflicting with, Christian discipline and true godliness the teaching that the Law in the above-mentioned way and degree is not to be urged upon Christians and true believers, but only upon unbelievers, non-Christians, and the impenitent.
[Nathan’s comment: Since the law is given for three reasons, the third being to provide the “fixed rule according to which [men] are to regulate and direct their whole life” — i.e. to walk in, obey — it is to be used in this way and urged upon the regenerate. Again, ask yourself: is the controversy rally over whether or not the Holy Spirit should do this?]
The Solid Declaration of the Formula of Concord
VI. The Third Use of the Law
1] Since the Law of God is useful, 1. not only to the end that external discipline and decency are maintained by it against wild, disobedient men; 2. likewise, that through it men are brought to a knowledge of their sins; 3. but also that, when they have been born anew by the Spirit of God, converted to the Lord, and thus the veil of Moses has been lifted from them, they live and walk in the law, a dissension has occurred between some few theologians concerning this third and last use of the Law. 2] For the one side taught and maintained that the regenerate do not learn the new obedience, or in what good works they ought to walk, from the Law, and that this teaching [concerning good works] is not to be urged thence [from the law], because they have been made free by the Son of God, have become the temples of His Spirit, and therefore do freely of themselves what God requires of them, by the prompting and impulse of the Holy Ghost, just as the sun of itself, without any [foreign] impulse, completes its ordinary course. 3] Over against this the other side taught: Although the truly believing are verily moved by God’s Spirit, and thus, according to the inner man, do God’s will from a free spirit, yet it is just the Holy Ghost who uses the written law for instruction with them, by which the truly believing also learn to serve God, not according to their own thoughts, but according to His written Law and Word, which is a sure rule and standard of a godly life and walk, how to order it in accordance with the eternal and immutable will of God.
4] For the explanation and final settlement of this dissent we unanimously believe, teach, and confess that although the truly believing and truly converted to God and justified Christians are liberated and made free from the curse of the Law, yet they should daily exercise themselves in the Law of the Lord, as it is written, Ps. 1:2;119:1: Blessed is the man whose delight is in the Law of the Lord, and in His Law doth he meditate day and night. For the Law is a mirror in which the will of God, and what pleases Him, are exactly portrayed, and which should [therefore] be constantly held up to the believers and be diligently urged upon them without ceasing.
[Nathan’s comment: Again, in this definition of the what the third use of the law is, naturally, it’s actual use has something to do with it! And is it the Holy Spirit who need to be reminded to “constantly hold up” God’s law to believers so they will really obey it, i.e. “daily exercise themselves in [it]”? Is it really the Holy Spirit who needs to be told to “diligently urge [it] upon [believers] without ceasing?]
5] For although the Law is not made for a righteous man, as the apostle testifies 1 Tim. 1:9, but for the unrighteous, yet this is not to be understood in the bare meaning, that the justified are to live without law. For the Law of God has been written in their heart, and also to the first man immediately after his creation a law was given according to which he was to conduct himself. But the meaning of St. Paul is that the Law cannot burden with its curse those who have been reconciled to God through Christ; nor must it vex the regenerate with its coercion, because they have pleasure in God’s Law after the inner man.
6] And, indeed, if the believing and elect children of God were completely renewed in this life by the indwelling Spirit, so that in their nature and all its powers they were entirely free from sin, they would need no law, and hence no one to drive them either, but they would do of themselves, and altogether voluntarily, without any instruction, admonition, urging or driving of the Law, what they are in duty bound to do according to God’s will; just as the sun, the moon, and all the constellations of heaven have their regular course of themselves, unobstructed, without admonition, urging, driving, force, or compulsion, according to the order of God which God once appointed for them, yea, just as the holy angels render an entirely voluntary obedience.
[Nathan’s comment: And yet note again that God did give law to Adam and Eve who were entirely free from sin… (see above)]
7] However, believers are not renewed in this life perfectly or completely, completive vel consummative [as the ancients say]; for although their sin is covered by the perfect obedience of Christ, so that it is not imputed to believers for condemnation, and also the mortification of the old Adam and the renewal in the spirit of their mind is begun through the Holy Ghost, nevertheless the old Adam clings to them still in their nature and all its internal and external powers. 8] Of this the apostle has written Rom. 7:18ff.: I know that in me [that is, in my flesh] dwelleth no good thing. And again: For that which I do I allow not; for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that I do; Likewise: I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin. Likewise, Gal. 5:17: The flesh lusteth against the spirit and the spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary the one to the other, so that ye cannot do the things that ye would.
9] Therefore, because of these lusts of the flesh the truly believing, elect, and regenerate children of God need in this life not only the daily instruction and admonition, warning, and threatening of the Law, but also frequently punishments, that they may be roused [the old man is driven out of them] and follow the Spirit of God, as it is written Ps. 119:71: It is good for me that I have been afflicted, that I might learn Thy statutes. And again, 1 Cor. 9:27: I keep under my body and bring it into subjection, lest that, by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway. And again, Heb. 12:8: But if ye be without chastisement, whereof all are partakers, then are ye bastards and not sons; 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.
[Nathan’s comment: The key point here, bolstered by Luther’s sermon mentioned in the Formula, is that the Christian ultimately recognizes God disciplines those He loves and is himself eager to discipline His old Adam (who frustrates and wages war against his true desires so much! — see previous paragraph) — with blows even! This is why the third use of the law can be readily and eagerly received with thankfulness… (in addition to the first and second uses as well).]
10] But we must also explain distinctively what the Gospel does, produces, and works towards the new obedience of believers, and what is the office of the Law in this matter, as regards the good works of believers.
11] For the Law says indeed that it is God’s will and command that we should walk in a new life, but it does not give the power and ability to begin and do it; but the Holy Ghost, who is given and received, not through the Law, but through the preaching of the Gospel, Gal. 3:14, renews the heart. 12] Thereafter the Holy Ghost employs the Law so as to teach the regenerate from it, and to point out and show them in the Ten Commandments what is the [good and] acceptable will of God, Rom. 12:2, in what good works God hath before ordained that they should walk, Eph. 2:10. He exhorts them thereto, and when they are idle, negligent, and rebellious in this matter because of the flesh, He reproves them on that account through the Law, so that He carries on both offices together: He slays and makes alive; He leads into hell and brings up again. For His office is not only to comfort, but also to reprove, as it is written: When the Holy Ghost is come, He will reprove the world (which includes also the old Adam) of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment. 13] But sin is everything that is contrary to God’s Law. 14] And St. Paul says: All Scripture given by inspiration of God is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, etc., and to reprove is the peculiar office of the Law. Therefore, as often as believers stumble, they are reproved by the Holy Spirit from the Law, and by the same Spirit are raised up and comforted again with the preaching of the Holy Gospel.
15] But in order that, as far as possible, all misunderstanding may be prevented, and the distinction between the works of the Law and those of the Spirit be properly taught and preserved it is to be noted with especial diligence that when we speak of good works which are in accordance with God’s Law (for otherwise they are not good works), then the word Law has only one sense, namely, the immutable will of God, according to which men are to conduct themselves in their lives.
16] The difference, however, is in the works, because of the difference in the men who strive to live according to this Law and will of God. For as long as man is not regenerate, and [therefore] conducts himself according to the Law and does the works because they are commanded thus, from fear of punishment or desire for reward, he is still under the Law, and his works are called by St. Paul properly works of the Law, for they are extorted by the Law, as those of slaves; and these are saints after the order of Cain [that is, hypocrites].
17] But when man is born anew by the Spirit of God, and liberated from the Law, that is, freed from this driver, and is led by the Spirit of Christ, he lives according to the immutable will of God comprised in the Law, and so far as he is born anew, does everything from a free, cheerful spirit; and these are called not properly works of the Law, but works and fruits of the Spirit, or as St. Paul names it, the law of the mind and the Law of Christ. For such men are no more under the Law, but under grace, as St. Paul says, Rom. 8:2 [Rom. 7:23; 1 Cor. 9:21 ].
18] But since believers are not completely renewed in this world, but the old Adam clings to them even to the grave, there also remains in them the struggle between the spirit and the flesh. Therefore they delight indeed in God’s Law according to the inner man, but the law in their members struggles against the law in their mind; hence they are never without the Law, and nevertheless are not under, but in the Law, and live and walk in the Law of the Lord, and yet do nothing from constraint of the Law.
19] But as far as the old Adam is concerned, which still clings to them, he must be driven not only with the Law, but also with punishments; nevertheless he does everything against his will and under coercion, no less than the godless are driven and held in obedience by the threats of the Law, 1 Cor. 9:27; Rom. 7:18. 19.
20] So, too, this doctrine of the Law is needful for believers, in order that they may not hit upon a holiness and devotion of their own, and under the pretext of the Spirit of God set up a self-chosen worship, without God’s Word and command, as it is written Deut. 12:8,28,32: Ye shall not do … every man whatsoever is right in his own eyes, etc., but observe and hear all these words which I command thee. Thou shalt not add thereto, nor diminish therefrom.
[Nathan’s comment: Again, “a holiness and devotion of their own” describes a way of life — an ordering of life and its affairs — not in accordance with God’s desires. In other words, this is countering obedience to a false God.]
21] So, too, the doctrine of the Law, in and with [the exercise of] the good works of believers, is necessary for the reason that otherwise man can easily imagine that his work and life are entirely pure and perfect. But the Law of God prescribes to believers good works in this way, that it shows and indicates at the same time, as in a mirror, that in this life they are still imperfect and impure in us, so that we must say with the beloved Paul, 1 Cor. 4:4: I know nothing by myself; yet am I not hereby justified. Thus Paul, when exhorting the regenerate to good works, presents to them expressly the Ten Commandments, Rom. 13:9; and that his good works are imperfect and impure he recognizes from the Law, Rom. 7:7ff ; and David declares Ps. 119:32: Viam mandatorum tuorum cucurri, I will run the way of Thy commandments; but enter not into judgment with Thy servant, for in Thy sight shall no man living be justified, Ps. 143:2.
[Nathan’s comment: Although this involves the revealing of sin in the heart of man, the revealing of sin is ancillary to the key point which is evaluating the content of mans’ actual work and life. In other words, they key point is that God’s Law requires that in our lives we actively obey God from a perfect fear, love, and trust in Him. It shows us in great detail the perfection required of us, the goal that God will eventually fulfill in all believers.]
22] But how and why the good works of believers, although in this life they are imperfect and impure because of sin in the flesh, are nevertheless acceptable and well-pleasing to God, is not taught by the Law, which requires an altogether perfect, pure obedience if it is to please God. But the Gospel teaches that our spiritual offerings are acceptable to God through faith for Christ’s sake, 1 Pet. 2:5; Heb. 11:4ff. 23] In this way Christians are not under the Law, but under grace, because by faith in Christ the persons are freed from the curse and condemnation of the Law; and because their good works, although they are still imperfect and impure, are acceptable to God through Christ; moreover, because so far as they have been born anew according to the inner man, they do what is pleasing to God, not by coercion of the Law, but by the renewing of the Holy Ghost, voluntarily and spontaneously from their hearts; however, they maintain nevertheless a constant struggle against the old Adam.
24] For the old Adam, as an intractable, refractory ass, is still a part of them, which must be coerced to the obedience of Christ, not only by the teaching, admonition, force and threatening of the Law, but also oftentimes by the club of punishments and troubles, until the body of sin is entirely put off, and man is perfectly renewed in the resurrection, when he will need neither the preaching of the Law nor its threatenings and punishments, as also the Gospel any longer; for these belong to this [mortal and] imperfect life. 25] But as they will behold God face to face, so they will, through the power of the indwelling Spirit of God, do the will of God [the heavenly Father] with unmingled joy, voluntarily, unconstrained, without any hindrance, with entire purity and perfection, and will rejoice in it eternally.
26] Accordingly, we reject and condemn as an error pernicious and detrimental to Christian discipline, as also to true godliness, the teaching that the Law, in the above-mentioned way and degree, should not be urged upon Christians and the true believers, but only upon the unbelieving, unchristians, and impenitent.
[Nathan’s comment: To repeat what was said above (see the Epitome above and comment), since the law is given for three reasons, the third being to provide the “fixed rule according to which [men] are to regulate and direct their whole life” — i.e. to walk in, obey — it is to be used in this way and urged upon the regenerate. And again, ask yourself: is the controversy really over whether or not the Holy Spirit should do this?]
My Final Summary of How the Text Addresses All of the Questions Above.
While the Holy Spirit will ultimately do as he pleases, Christians are to urge the law in this third way upon one another which means not primarily with the goal of revealing sin (this is the second use, article V, which is modeled in Romans 1-3) but for the goal of actual obedience to God (see Romans 12ff, for instance).
The third use of the law can be quickly and effectively defined as “encouraging, exhorting, and admonishing Christians to [actually!] do God’s Law”. Going along with this, only the Gospel can empower a Christian to fulfill God’s law, but one should never imagine that the fulfillment of the law, God’s purposes, cannot encourage the Christian who has the Gospel ringing in his ears.
The third use of the law then, while intimately related to the Christians’ new obedience, is not this in its essence. Rather, again, it is about Christians following the Holy Ghost’s lead (and Apostles’ in their writings) in exhorting, admonishing, and even reproving their brethren with God’s law, all with the end that the “old Adam” would surrender himself “captive to the Spirit.” After all, the Christian, according to their pre-fall-Adam-like new man, will not be “vexed by the coercion of the law,” but will “from a free, cheerful spirit” do the “God’s immutable will” — hearing and better learning it, walking in it, and growing in obedience to it.
These, empowered by the Gospel, will even be pleased to administer not only admonishments and threats to themselves, but punishments and blows to their own body (see all the verses quoted at the end of Epitome VI:4)!
Again, we emphasize that the regenerate are to be continually taught God’s law and that “even our first parents before the Fall did not live without Law.” “[A]lso to the first man immediately after his creation a law was given according to which he was to conduct himself.” Going along with this, we read that one side in the controversy argued that “the truly believing also learn to serve God, not according to their own thoughts, but according to His written Law and Word,” and this teaching is never condemned in the article (even as we also hear about the hypothetical that if we were completely renewed in this life — something God’s word does not tell us will happen — we would be like the angels and need no law [I also note that even if they need no law, Luther spoke about how they would nevertheless eagerly and gladly receive and do commands from God]). In fact, we hear this instead: “the Holy Spirit employs the law to teach the regenerate from it, and to point out and show them in the Ten Commandments what is the [good and] acceptable will of God, Rom. 12:2, in what good works God hath before ordained that they should walk, Eph. 2:10. He exhorts them thereto…” To insist, for instance, that the teaching and learning here in FC VI only are the “old man learning how to die,” or something like this, is certainly an unwarranted interpretation.
Finally, in places like the end of the Epitome, we also read about the growth of the Christian, albeit indirectly: “the believer, so far as he is regenerate, does without constraint and with a willing spirit that which no threatenings [however severe] of the Law could ever extort from him.” Therefore, the continual renovation or conversion of the Christian is also spoken of here as it is with other parts of the Formula of Concord. Also, the believer not only pleases God for Christ’s sake, because His blood covers our imperfect works, but also “because so far as they have been born anew according to the inner man, they do what is pleasing to God, not by coercion of the Law, but by the renewing of the Holy Ghost, voluntarily and spontaneously from their hearts”!
And, hopefully, now that I have carefully unpacked these articles, this Twitter thread I did a while back might make more sense:
And a final clarification: I agree sometimes we can’t distinguish particular uses of the law being attempted. Nor do we need to or should we! That said, sometimes we can. My kids, who are believing but immature Christians, are going to participate in church and family devotions whether their new man is getting the better of them or not at that moment (Third Use, and perhaps even a situation where “he does everything against his will and under coercion, no less than the godless are driven and held in obedience by the threats of the Law”!)! If I were to insist that their non-Christian friend staying over on Saturday night attend worship with us the next day that would be the First Use of the Law.
This, really, gets to the heart of the issue: do you contend that what Paul is doing in Romans 1-3 is actually the same thing as in Rom. 12ff — or that if he isn’t doing the same thing he is nevertheless completely unaware that this is the case?
As you can see from this post, I have some pretty firm convictions about this, and have for a good long while now (see this post from 2014, and the detailed conversation that follows, as well — my concerns here though go back long before even this).
Steve Paulson, who teaches that Christ commits sin, also has some real convictions about this topic (and I think his reasons for teaching Christ committed sin and teaching as he does on this topic both relate to his denial that the law of God is eternal — that is that it belongs to who God is)
I agree with Paulson that using words like “Gospel Imperatives” is a terrible idea.
That said, when it comes to these Third Use of the Law issues, why, really, does he echo Luther on the one hand and sound so much unlike him on the other?
Why do we? Yes, even me… to this day?