The Third Use of the Law and the Finished Work of Christ

While there has been much debate over the precise nuances of the relationship between justification and sanctification, I thought that it might be helpful to set down what we can all be most certainly agreed upon with regard to the statements of the Westminster Confession of Faith and Larger Catechism regarding what has been commonly called, “the third use of the Law.”

Last year, over at the Reformed Forum we recorded a discussion on the “Third Use of the Law and Redemptive History.” The sum and substance of the discussion there and in the forthcoming interview forms the content of the Th.M thesis on which I am currently working. The following post is the nucleus of that thesis (Note: This is a fairly lengthy post):

Notwithstanding the diversity of opinion and debate that has surfaced throughout the last century and a half surrounding the nature of the Mosaic Covenant and the Law of God, Reformed theologians have constantly emphasized–with a great measure of uniformity–what has been denominated, the third use of the Law. With almost equal uniformity, myriads of objections continue to be raised when this subject is discussed among Christians today. Some of these objections appear to be warranted; after all, didn’t the apostle Paul triumphantly declared that believers are “not under law by under grace” (Rom. 6:14)? The Scriptures are equally clear that Jesus Christ was “born under the law, that He might redeem us from the curse of the Law” (Gal. 4:4). This has naturally led some to conclude that the moral Law of God is irrelevant to New Covenant believers. Most within evangelical Protestantism will agree with the idea of the schoolmaster use of the Law because the apostle Paul unequivocally asserts that the Law demanded perfect obedience (Gal. 3:10; 12), threatened the curse of it upon the smallest infraction (Gal. 3:10; Heb. 2:2), and that it is—in and of itself—”a letter that kills” (2 Cor. 3:6) and a “ministry of condemnation” (2 Cor. 3:9). The Law, in this sense, is meant to show us our sinfulness and our need for the Savior. Paul answers the question, “What purpose does the Law serve,” with the clear statement, “It was added because of transgressions, till the Seed should come to whom the promise was made.”

Elsewhere the apostle affirms that “Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God” (Rom. 3:19). Both in redemptive history for the Jews, and for all men who are unconverted, “Therefore the law was our tutor [i.e. schoolmaster; pedagogy] to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith (Gal. 3:24). While the schoolmaster use of the Law is explicitly taught by Paul, the apostle equally insisted that in the Gospel the law is established rather than made void (Rom. 3:31), and that love fulfills the law (Rom. 13:9; Gal. 5:14). The writer of Hebrews reiterates the promise of the New Covenant with regard to the law being written on the hearts of those whose sins God forgives. The law there mentioned is nothing less than the moral law of God. There is, perhaps, no more pressing need in our day than for a careful treatment of the relationship between the Law and the Gospel, a careful study of the historical development of the three uses of the Law and specifically a study of what has been called the third use of the Law.

In addition to concerns that I have over so many laying aside the moral Law of God in their Christian lives,  there is another concern I have regarding, specifically, the third use of the Law. As a proponent of the third use of the Law, I am grateful for the attempts of many who sincerely seek to defend the holiness of God and the commandments of Christ. That being said, I have become increasingly concerned that the third use of the Law is frequently misrepresented by those who are zealous to uphold its application in the lives of believers.

First, many modern defendants of the third use fail to place it solidly in its redemptive-historical setting. Viewing the Law in light of the fulfillment of the work of redemption in Christ is something that the Westminster Standards and the Heidelberg Catechism consistently do. Our Reformed Confessions and Catechisms make the careful categorical qualifications necessary to preserve the Gospel foundation.

Second, there is a real danger of conflating a defense of the third use of the Law with the warnings against apostasy found in the Scriptures. I attempt to explain this danger somewhat in my post, “Taking Up the Hammer and the Nails: A Theology of Apostasy.”

Finally, I’ve noticed a failure on the part of some proponents of the third use to explain the all-important reality of indwelling sin and the nuanced relationship between progressive sanctification and assurance of salvation. It is only as we carefully define the legal categories into which God’s commandments fall and give consideration to the historical development and formulation of the three uses of the Law that we can come to a settle position on the issues set out above.

The Law and Its Threefold Division 

Prior to entering in on a thorough study of the uses of the moral Law it will be beneficial to establish what Reformed theologians have called the Tri-partite division of the Law. The three-fold distinction of moral, ceremonial and civil law reaches back to the earliest days of the Christian church. It was taught by the apostle Paul in different places as he came to deal with the application of the Law to the New Testament people of God. While the Mosaic legislation in its entirety is sometimes denominated “the Law” (i.e. Torah), the word Law muyst be understood and defined in the various contexts in which it appears in the New Testament epistles and narratives. For instance, the apostle everywhere declares the freedom that Christians have from observances of the ceremonial laws given to Israel. The book of Acts is replete with accounts of how the Gospel was being threatened by the call for ceremonial observations. The book of Galatians is also built around this error, in part, as well. The letter to the Colossians makes it as specific as possible when the apostle tells the Christians in Colosse not to lose their freedom in Christ on account of those who insist on “festivals, New Moons and Sabbaths” (Col. 2:16).

What to do with the judicial (or civil) Law is somewhat more difficult on account of the fact that there doesn’t seem to be a clear abrogation of it in the writings of the Apostles. While the nature and scope of this paper, prevents us from entering in here on a detailed interaction of specific penal case laws, their place in redemptive-history, and the spiritual application of them by the apostles in the New Testament epistles, we must briefly consider two NT passages in which civil Laws are utilized. The theological significance of one specific form of the death penalty is applied by the apostle Paul to the death of Christ on the cross in Galatians 3:13. The obedient Son is treated as the disobedient son (Deut. 21:18-21). Though He was sinless, He was accused of being a “drunkard and a glutton” (Matt. 12:19) In the Law the rebellious son was to be taken to the elders of the city, and—if found guilty—stoned and hung on a tree (Deut. 21:23). As to the spiritual application of the case laws to the New Covenant church, 1 Cor. 5:13 serves as the locus classicus. Adapting this OT text, the apostle exhorts the church to “put away…the evil person.” This direct quote from Deut. 17:7; 19:19; 22:21, 24; and 24:7, in its original OT context, is used with reference to putting to death one who has committed a crime worthy of the death penalty. In 1 Corinthians it is used with reference to church discipline. There is an obvious shift from the civil to the ecclesiastical sphere with regard to the applicability of the civil law. George Knight reflects on the significance of this hermenuetical principle of spiritually interpreting case laws in the NT when he writes:

[Paul] refers to one or more of the passages in Deuteronomy 20 in which God in his written word instructs the people of God to remove the unrepentant wicked man from their midst (which in the OT context is done by stoning him). And therefore Paul’s entire description of the action to be taken is that of removing the man from their midst and not associating with him, not even eating with him. We note however that the action Paul enjoins is not that of stoning but rather of putting him out of the fellowship with a view to his repentance (cf. 1 Cor 5:5). That this spiritual action becomes the NT principle for church discipline in general, rather than the act of stoning, is borne out by his comments in 2 Cor 2:6–8 where he urges that one who had been disciplined should be forgiven, comforted and restored (impossible if he has been stoned to death). Paul’s utilization of this theocratic case law shows that he regards it as teaching an important principle that must be followed by the Church, even though not in the theocratic form of stoning to death but rather in the form appropriate to the nontheocratic, nonnational spiritual entity that the Church is in distinction from the Israel of the OT. Here the apostle takes account of the difference that fulfillment has brought about and at the same time maintains the principle of continuity for the instruction as it relates to the Church, and in doing so he also has “written for our instruction.”1

While the apostles insisted that the ceremonial law had found its anti-typical fulfillment in Christ, there were many specific applications of the Ten Commandments frequently made in the New Testament with regard to the life of believers. Perhaps the most clear is that found in Ephesians 6:1 where Paul quotes the sixth commandment and makes it applicable to covenant children in the New Covenant church. In addition to this example, Romans 13:8-10 is an explicit reference to the abiding nature of the moral Law. Rather than setting the commandments aside, Paul explains that they are “summed up” in the saying, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Here Paul is interested in showing that the motivation to keep the moral Law is the principle of love. While time would fail us to give a full consideration of the Tri-partite division of the Law, Philip Ross’ excellent work From the Finger of God is the best modern treatment of the subject. I would also commend Jonathan Bayes’ pamphlet as a worthwhile (and considerably shorter) treatment of the subject.


Historical Roots of Three Uses

It might come as a surprise to some to discover that it was not the members of the Westminster Assembly, or the German theologians of Heidelberg, who first taught the categorical distinction between “three uses of the Law;” rather, among Protestants it appears to have been Philip Melancthon, the student of the Magisterial German Reformer Martin Luther, who initiated this systematization. John Calvin–who is often attributed with the deliniation as it is found in his Institutes–evidently developed what was already manifest in Melancthon’s Loci communes. Richard Muller notes:

Characteristic of Melanchthon’s 1535/6 Loci communes is the development of three, as opposed to merely two, uses of the law. The clear distinction between the pedagogical function and the normative function of the law was not evident in 1521 but arose out of Melanchthon’s debates in the early 1530′s. It is therefore of some significance that Calvin’s discussion of the law and its uses in the 1536 and the 1539 Institutes also reflects the Melanchthonian model. In 1536, Calvin followed a pattern much like that of Melachthon’s 1535/6 loci communes, placing the uses of the law after the exposition of the Decalogue, as the point of transaction to the doctrine of justification. In 1539, while adopting the broader outlines of the Pauline-Melanchthonian loci, Calvin retained the concept of the three uses of the law as the conclusion to his discussion of the Decalogue, although, given the other changes that took place in 1539, the third use of the law no longer led to the discussion of justification. Also in 1539, justification no longer immediately follows law but is separated by the chapters on faith and creed and on justification. Calvin has echoed Melanchthon’s Pauline order of law, gospel, grace (justification and faith), and the distinction of the Old and New Testaments by moving from law to faith and creed, repentance, justification and the distinction of the Old and New Testaments, but he has also managed to retain, as a broader and fuller discussion of the Gospel, an expanded version of his chapter on faith and creed.2

As Muller notes in his observations above, Calvin clearly set forth “three uses of the Law” in the Institutes. In the following manner Calvin expressed the threefold use: “Let us take a succinct view of the office and use of the Moral Law. Now this office and use seems to me to consist of three parts.”1 He first recognized the way in which the moral Law functions as a “schoolmaster” to bring men to Christ when he wrote:

Thus the Law is a kind of mirror. As in a mirror we discover any stains upon our face, so in the Law we behold, first, our impotence; then, in consequence of it, our iniquity; and, finally, the curse, as the consequence of both. He who has no power of following righteousness is necessarily plunged in the mire of iniquity, and this iniquity is immediately followed by the curse. Accordingly, the greater the transgression of which the Law convicts us, the severer the judgment to which we are exposed. To this effect is the Apostle’s declaration, that “by the law is the knowledge of sin,” (Rom. 3:20). By these words, he only points out the first office of the Law as experienced by sinners not yet regenerated. In conformity to this, it is said, “the law entered that the offence might abound;” and, accordingly, that it is “the ministration of death;” that it “worketh wrath” and kills (Rom. 5:20; 2 Cor. 3:7; Rom. 4:15). For there cannot be a doubt that the clearer the consciousness of guilt, the greater the increase of sin; because then to transgression a rebellious feeling against the Lawgiver is added. All that remains for the Law, is to arm the wrath of God for the destruction of the sinner; for by itself it can do nothing but accuse, condemn, and destroy him.

…that divesting themselves of an absurd opinion of their own virtue, they may perceive how they are wholly dependent on the hand of God; that feeling how naked and destitute they are, they may take refuge in his mercy, rely upon it, and cover themselves up entirely with it; renouncing all righteousness and merit, and clinging to mercy alone, as offered in Christ to all who long and look for it in true faith. In the precepts of the law, God is seen as the rewarder only of perfect righteousness (a righteousness of which all are destitute), and, on the other hand, as the stern avenger of wickedness. But in Christ his countenance beams forth full of grace and gentleness towards poor unworthy sinners.3

Calvin then proceded to categorize the second use of the Law as that of restraint. “The second office of the law,” he wrote, “by means of its fearful denunciations and the consequent dread of punishment, curb[s] those who, unless forced, have no regard for rectitude and justice.” Here, an interesting historical matter arises. It has been common for scholars to appeal to Calvin’s delineation of the second use of the law as referring to civil restraint However, it is not civil restraint that Calvin seems to be speaking about; rather, Calvin subsumed the second use of the Lawunder the schoolmaster category–as he had done with the first use:

To both may be applied the declaration of the Apostle in another place, that “The law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ,” (Gal. 3:24); since there are two classes of persons, whom by its training it leads to ChristSome (of whom we spoke in the first place), from excessive confidence in their own virtue or righteousness, are unfit to receive the grace of Christ, until they are completely humbled. This the law does by making them sensible of their misery, and so disposing them to long for what they previously imagined they did not want. Others have need of a bridle to restrain them from giving full scope to their passions, and thereby utterly losing all desire after righteousness. For where the Spirit of God rules not, the lusts sometimes so burst forth, as to threaten to drown the soul subjected to them in forgetfulness and contempt of God; and so they would, did not God interpose with this remedy. Those, therefore, whom he has destined to the inheritance of his kingdom, if he does not immediately regenerate, he, through the works of the law, preserves in fear, against the time of his visitation, not, indeed, that pure and chaste fear which his children ought to have, but a fear useful to the extent of instructing them in true piety according to their capacity.4

To summarize the first two uses then, we conclude that the the first use of the law is to lead the self-righteous to come off of trusting in his own righteousness and to trust in Christ for righteousness, and the second use of the Law is for the lawless to fear the inevitable outcome of their rebellion and so to flee to Christ for salvation. It is an important distinction that has seldom been observed in treatments on this subject. Calvin leaves no question that he believed that the first two uses of the law were “schoolmaster” to bring legalist and lawless to saving faith in Christ. He introduced the second use by saying “there are two classes of persons, whom by its training it leads to Christ.”

Transitioning from the uses of the Law which are meant to bring men into a state of grace, Calvin denominated the third use of the Law as “the principle use” when he wrote:

“The third use of the Law (being also the principle use, and more closely connected with its proper end) has respect to believers in whose hearts the Spirit of God already flourishes and reigns. For although the Law is written and engraven on their hearts by the finger of God, that is, although they are so influenced and actuated by the Spirit, that they desire to obey God, there are two ways in which they still profit in the Law.”

In his treatment of the third use, Calvin set out the two ways in which the regenerate profit from the moral Law as follows:

(1) “It is the best instrument for enabling them daily to learn with greater truth and certainty what that will of the Lord is which they aspire to follow, and to confirm them in this knowledge;”

(2) “Then…the servant of God will derive this further advantage from the Law…he will be excited to obedience, and confirmed in it, and so drawn away from the slippery paths of sin….The Law acts like a whip to the flesh, urging it on as men do a lazy sluggish ass. Even in the case of a spiritual man, inasmuch as he is still burdened with the weight of the flesh, the Law is a constant stimulus, pricking him forward when he would indulge in sloth.”

Calvin followed his statements about the use of the moral Law in the life of the believer with the necessary qualification that “in regard to believers, the law has the force of exhortation, not to bind their consciences with a curse.” In this way Calvin showed the implication of the believers’ justification on his pursuit of sanctification. It would be pastorally damaging for him not to do so. While Calvin used strong language about the Law acting as a “whip to the flesh” and as a “stimulus, pricking…forward when…indulge[d] in sloth,” He developed what he meant by the Law’s inability to bind the conscience of believers when he wrote:

What Paul says, as to the abrogation of the Law, evidently applies not to the Law itself, but merely to its power of constraining the conscience. For the Law not only teaches, but also imperiously demands. If obedience is not yielded, nay, if it is omitted in any degree, it thunders forth its curse. For this reason, the Apostle says, that “as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse: for it is written, Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them,” (Gal. 3:10; Deut. 27:26). Those he describes as under the works of the Law, who do not place righteousness in that forgiveness of sins by which we are freed from the rigour of the Law. He therefore shows, that we must be freed from the fetters of the Law, if we would not perish miserably under them. But what fetters? Those of rigid and austere exaction, which remits not one iota of the demand, and leaves no transgression unpunished. To redeem us from this curse, Christ was made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree (Deut. 21:23, compared with Gal. 3:13, 4:4). In the following chapter, indeed, he says, that “Christ was made under the law, in order that he might redeem those who are under the law;” but the meaning is the same. For he immediately adds, “That we might receive the adoption of sons.” What does this mean? That we might not be, all our lifetime, subject to bondage, having our consciences oppressed with the fear of death. Meanwhile, it must ever remain an indubitable truth, that the Law has lost none of its authority, but must always receive from us the same respect and obedience.5

The question naturally ought to arise here as to why Calvin would not have considered all three uses of the Law to be “principle” (considering the fact that there is always a mixture of spiritual conditions with the visible church to whom the word of God is addressed). It may be that Calvin was thinking about the abiding significance of the law in the life of the believer, and–on account of the lifelong usefulness–so denominated it the “principle use.” It does seem somewhat problematic to call it the “principle use” since the apostle Paul asked and answered the question concerning the purpose of God’s giving the law with what seems to have been the first two uses. This is not to say that Paul did not speak of a use of the Law for the believer. 1 Corinthians 9:21 and Romans 3:31 would be two passages in which the third use could be discovered. Before going into the biblical-theological nuances it will help to consider the development of the teaching of the Law and its uses in the Reformed Confessions and Catechisms.

The Third Use in the Reformed Confessions and Catechisms

Q. 95-97 of the Larger Catechism is likely the best place to start with regard to the question to the Law and its uses as described in the Westminster Standards. As they begin to provide answers to the question, “Of what use is the moral Law…,” the Divines unfold their understanding of the uses in relation to various groups. Accordingly, the Law is useful to all men. This is some sense, a summary statement of the following two catechism questions. There is a general use of the Law that affects all men, whether unregenerate or regenerate. WLC 95 puts it in the following way:

“The moral law is of use to all men, to:

1) inform them of the holy nature and will of God,

2) and of their duty, binding them to walk accordingly;

3) to convince them of their disability to keep it, and of the sinful pollution of their nature, hearts, and lives; to humble them in the sense of their sin and misery,

4) and thereby help them to a clearer sight of the need they have of Christ, and of the perfection of his obedience.

The Law is fundamentally pedagogical. It teaches men that God is holy, that they are not, and that they need Christ.

In question 96, the Divines ask, “What particular use is there of the moral law to unregenerate men?” The answer they give sounds very much like the second part of the previous question. They wrote, “the moral law is of use to unregenerate men, to awaken their consciences to flee from wrath to come, and to drive them to Christ; or, upon their continuance in the estate and way of sin, to leave them inexcusable, and under the curse thereof.” The only addition to the first use–which was for “all men”–is that there is a condemnatory use of the Law for unrepentant unbelievers. If men will not turn to Christ out of a sense of their sin and need for salvation in Him, then the Law will serve the purpose of being the condemning standard on Judgment Day.

Finally (and most important to this study) in question 97 the Divines ask the question, “What special use is there of the moral law to the regenerate?” Here, I think, is the place where so much confusion occurs. Many modern Reformed theologians, might answer this question (if worded a bit differently), by saying, “The moral law is of special use to the regenerate to be a rule of life to them.” This is certainly true in one very qualified sense, but it is not the qualified and nuanced answer that the Divines give. They first preface it and then give a three layered answer to the question:

(1) Although they that are regenerate, and believe in Christ, be delivered from the moral law as a covenant of works, so as thereby they are neither justified nor condemned; yet, besides the general uses thereof common to them with all men, it is of special use, to show them:

(2) How much they are bound to Christ for his fulfilling it, and enduring the curse thereof in their stead, and for their good; and

(3) thereby to provoke them to more thankfulness, and to express the same in their greater care to conform themselves thereunto as the rule of their obedience.

Note that the Puritans were insistant that our justification by faith alone in Christ alone is the fundamental first step in understanding the role of the moral Law in the life of the believer. They do not lay aside the implications of that justification. Rather, they root the third use of the Law firmly in the justification we have in Christ. To fail to make this first, fundamental step is to walk into the dangerous landmine-field of legal sanctification. If we forget that we are justified in Christ–and that we are neither justified nor condemned by the Law–then we will fail to live in the freedom and gratitude that we have in Christ. It is that freedom and gratitude that will enable us to run the course of God’s commandments.

Secondly the Puritans noted that the moral Law is useful in the life of the regenerate to remind them of the ongoing need they have for the finished work of Christ. It is not only the unbeliever than needs to know that Christ has fulfilled the Law for us and has taken the curse of it “in our place and for our good.” Believers continue to need this to be pressed into their minds and hearts. The reason is simple. The believer needs the Gospel too because the believer will continue to sin. We never grow in godliness so much that we do not constantly need that supporting grace of Christ. The writers of the Heidelberg and the Westminster Standards will certainly move the believer on to see their need for growth in godliness, but not without reminding them of this absolutely fundamental foundation. In fact, in WCF 19.6 the Divines explained that the moral law was useful to the regenerate in that “it directs and binds them to walk accordingly; discovering also the sinful pollutions of their nature, hearts and lives; so as, examining themselves thereby, they may come to further conviction of, humiliation for, and hatred against sin, together with a clearer sight of the need they have of Christ, and the perfection of His obedience.” This, it seems to me is the one emphasis that is often left out by those who are zealous to teach the third use of the Law. It is, however, only part of the third use.

The final layer of the Divine’s answer concerning the third use of the Law (WLC Q. 97) is what moves us on from our need for Christ to the necessary response to the grace of Christ in our lives. The Divines explain that the moral law is useful to believers in that it ” provoke[s] them to more thankfulness, and to express the same in their greater care to conform themselves thereunto as the rule of their obedience.” Here an exceedingly important nuance must be observed. The first thing introduced in the moral obligations of the Law in the life of the believer is not the sheer obligatory character, rather it is the heart motivation for obedience. The language of “thankfulness” is employed. It is not out of “servile fear” that the believer presses on in obedience. Elsewhere in the Confession, the Divines make it clear that “The liberty which Christ has purchased for believers under the Gospel consists in their freedom from the guilt of sin, and condemning wrath of God, the curse of the moral law; and, in their being delivered from this present evil world, bondage to Satan, and dominion of sin; from the evil of afflictions, the sting of death, the victory of the grave, and everlasting damnation;as also, in their free access to God, and their yielding obedience unto Him, not out of slavish fear, but a child-like love and willing mind (WCF 20.1).” It is the “thankfulness,” and “child-like love” that are the proper motivations for the believer to obey God.

This is, incidentally, the same thing being spoken of in the Belgic Confession when they contrast the motives of obedience produced by justification with the improper motives to obedience in unbelievers. Article 23 notes that the justification we have through the finished work of Christ “is enough to cover all our sins and to make us confident, freeing the conscience from the fear, dread, and terror of God’s approach…” Article 24 declares that “far from making people cold toward living in a pious and holy way, this justifying faith, quite to the contrary, so works within them that apart from it they will never do a thing out of love for God but only out of love for themselves and fear of being condemned.” The writers of the Heidelberg sweetly comply with this in Q. 86 when they answer the question, “Since then we are delivered from our misery, merely of grace, through Christ, without any merit of ours, why must we still do good works?” with the answer, “Because Christ, having redeemed and delivered us by his blood, also renews us by his Holy Spirit, after his own image; that so we may testify, by the whole of our conduct, our gratitude to God for his blessings, and that he may be praised by us; also, that every one may be assured in himself of his faith, by the fruits thereof; and that, by our godly conversation others may be gained to Christ.” Someone may at this point object and say, “But doesn’t the Bible everywhere teach us that we are fear God and keep His commandments?” To this I would direct the reader to John Bunyan’s fine work, A Treatise on the Fear of God. It will suffice to say that godly fear is not a fear of God’s terror and wrath that causes a man or woman to seek to obey Him out of fear of going to Hell. Otherwise, the benefits of justification are made void. As John notes in his first epistle, “Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness in the day of judgment; because as He is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves torment. But he who fears has not been made perfect in love. We love Him because He first loved us (1 John 4:17-19).”

The final part of WLC 97 most certainly teaches that believers may not lay aside the moral obligations of the Law of God; rather, out of gratitude for what Christ has accomplished for them they are to “express the same [i.e. their thankfulness for redemption] in their greater care to conform themselves thereunto as the rule of their obedience.” The 10 commandments form the sphere of our sanctification. They are the railroad tracts upon which the Spirit of God moves the believer along. They are the guiding pathway of the righteous. They are, in the words of the promise of the New Covenant spoken by Jeremiah the prophet (Jer. 31:33; Heb. 10:16), “written on the heart” of believers. Far from Christ’s finished work giving permission to lay aside the commandments, Jesus renews His people so that they grow in obedience to them throughout their Christian life.

The authors of the Heidelberg Catechism give similar answers about the Law and its use in the life of the believer as that of WLC 97. For the sake of this study we will only consider Heidelberg Q. 114-115. In Heidelberg 114 the question is asked, “But can those who are converted to God perfectly keep these commandments?” It is clear that the writers are seeking to guard against a unbiblical teaching of perfectionism. Having just taught that the Law demands absolute perfect obedience, someone might ask then if it is possible for the redeemed to attain to that perfection. The answer they give is extremely straightforward. They say, “No: but even the holiest men, while in this life, have only a small beginning of this obedience; yet so, that with a sincere resolution they begin to live, not only according to some, but all the commandments of God.” It is a two part answer that first guards against the abuse of some who might suggest that the practical holiness that believers attain to in this life is in perfect or nearly perfect. However, the writers are also eager not to say that it then doesn’t matter whether we pursue practical godliness in our lives. The first part of the answer is a reflection on what Paul teaches in Romans 7 and the second what he teaches in Romans 8.

The writers of the Heidelberg Catechism put it so nicely when they answer the question, “Why will God then have the ten commandments so strictly preached, since no man in this life can keep them?” (Q. 115), with these words: “that all our lifetime we may learn more and more to know our sinful nature, and thus become the more earnest in seeking the remission of sin, and righteousness in Christ.” The authors of the Heidelberg Catechism, in the same way as the writers of the WLC, are making the observation that we as believers need to recognize our sinfulness and trust in Christ and His finished work “all our lifetime.”

The Third Use of the Law and the Foundation of Christ’s Saving Work

The Divines begin to explain what Calvin had denominated the third use of the Law by emphasizing that “believers be not under the moral Law as a Covenant of Works so that they are neither justified nor condemned by it.” The Divines consider this to be the necessary first step in treating the usefulness of the Law in the life of the believer. Because even the best Christian discovers “sin that so easily besets them,” and often feels the weight of that sin and the accusatory voice of the evil one, they need to be reminded that the relationship which we sustain with God is not one built upon our performance to the Law of God. We are “neither justified, nor condemned by it.”

 While it is helpful to know the historical roots of these distinctions, it is important to note how seldom modern proponents of the “third use of the Law” will approach their defining of the third use in the manner in which the authors of Reformed Confessions and Catechism expositions of them (This is somewhat ironic, since those who are most zealous to defend the role of the Law of God in the life of the believer also often see themselves as gatekeepers of the Reformed Confessions). The Divines so carefully define the relationship of the moral Law to believer in light of the finished work of Christ in their defense of the third use. There is an undeniable redemptive foundation laid in the Reformed Confessions and Catechisms so often overlooked or ignored; and yet, it is precisely this foundation that is necessary for sustaining the obligatory aspects ofthe third use of the Law.

The moral Law demands perfect and continual obedience. Even after the fall, God demands perfect obedience. As was the case prior to the fall, so after the fall, the demand for perfect and continual obedience is coupled with the promise of “life upon the fulfilling, and threatening [of] death upon the breach of it” (WCF 19.1). The authors of the Westminster Confession of Faith expressly state this when they wrote: “ This law, after his fall, continued to be a perfect rule of righteousness…” Wherever the Law is found (whether it be in the Covenant of Works with Adam in the Garden or the promulgation of it to the Covenant people at Sinai) it demands absolute obedience. The Divines expressly teach this as a principle fundamental to the nature of the Law of God–and the relationship between the moral Law and the all mankind. Of course, no fallen man can keep even one precept of the Law, let alone keep the whole of the Law of God perfectly and perpetually. But that does not change the fact that God “directs and binds everyone to personal, perfect, and perpetual conformity and obedience thereunto, in the frame and disposition of the whole man, soul and body, and in performance of all those duties of holiness and righteousness which he owes to God and man: promising life upon the fulfilling, and threatening death upon the breach of it.”

Jesus Christ, the second Adam and true Israel, fulfills the Law perfectly for His people, takes their curse in His death on the cross, and receives the blessing of life for them by His own merit. This is why the Scriptures say that He was “born under the Law.” That is why the Redeemer was an Israelite. This is why He became our “flesh and blood” brother. He took on a human nature, and put Himself in our precise relationship, to redeem us from the curse of the law. This is one eternally important reason why Israel received the Law in the Mosaic Covenant, with the associated typological promise of blessing and cursing. Christ, the antitype of Israel, takes the antitypical curse for the Covenant people and fulfills the righteous requirement of the Law to give them the antitypical (eternal) blessings by faith in Him.

The Divines, make it clear that no man or woman–as physically descending from Adam by ordinary generation–can fulfill the Law of God for their justification. Even when they enter in on the discussion of the role of the moral Law in the life of the believer, the Divines note that “though the regenerate be delivered from the moral Law as a Covenant of Works,” and that it continues to show believers “how much they are bound to Christ for his fulfilling it, and enduring the curse thereof in their stead, and for their good.” When the Law is divested of the fulfillment it finds in the finished work of Christ it becomes an unbearable burden. This is not only the case for the unbeliever who labors under the weight of unforgiven sins. In the believers’ life the law can function in a condemnatory manner if it is striped out of its redemptive-historical setting. If we left it there, however, we would surely be falling into the realm of an accidental antinomianism. We must always press on in obedience to the commandments of the Christ who redeemed and justified us. We can never rest in a lifestyle of sin and rebellion. We, out of gratitude and child-like love, pursue holiness in the fear of God. Our Lord Jesus did not redeem us to leave us in disobedience. We were purchased with His blood that we might be “zealous for good works.” May we always keep these two parts of God grace before us. Christ frees us from sins guilt and power. We receive both in the Gospel, both by faith, and both by grace.



1. George Knight, “The Scriptures Were Written for Our Instruction,” (an article published in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological SocietyJETS 39/1 (March 1996) 3–13, see esp. p. 10.

2. Richard Muller, The Unaccomodated Calvin (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000) p. 129

3. John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, Book 2.7.7, 1921)  p.319

4. Ibid., Book 2.7.11  p.321

5. Ibid., Book 2.7.15 pp. 325-326


17 Responses

  1. “Christ is the end of the law for all those who have faith.”

    “3rd use” is really superfluous since what we ought be doing is already made known to us in ‘the 1st use’ (the civil use of the law).

    Theologically speaking, the law brings death (St. Paul), and it’s purpose is to kill us off to any self-pretention.

    And, since the law is written upon our hearts, we already know what to do, anyway. Trouble is, we just flat out refuse to live under that law and choose to become a law unto ourselves.

    Thanks, so much.

  2. Thank you very much for putting this up, Nick. That a great read. I was wondering, however, if you could be a little more direct in who you are arguing against? Also, I thought it was strange to conclude with the CoW. Normally, conclusions draw together what has been said, or in a controversy, make an appeal for the thesis on common ground, right? Those who see the CoW/CoL as having been solely about the chance to DEmerit — not merit — would not see this as common ground. They would say Christ failed to disqualify himself in regards to the CoW, and so was a fitting substitute for us. Given the big kerfuffle over “obedience” this seems like a strange choice to end on.

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  4. Robert,

    I appreciate the fact that you took time to read my lengthy and not well-edited piece! That being said, I think the last paragraph perfectly sums up the point of the post. The point of the post was to say that when we emphasize the role of the moral law in the life of the believer we ought never do so without emphasizing the Law-keeping and sin-atoning work of Christ for our justification. This is precisely what Calvin, the Westminster Divines, and the writers of the Heidelberg and Belgic Confession did. That was the main point of the post. I will certainly be editing it to make it clearer. As far as the CoW is concerned, the writers of the Standards make it clear that “believers are delivered from the law as a Covenant of Works, so that they are neither justified nor condemned by it.” They then procede to tell us that the Law still reminds believers of “how much they are bound to Christ for fulfilling it and taking the curse of it in their stead and for their good (WLC 97), and that it continues to give believers “a clearer sight of the need they have of Christ, and the perfection of His obedience (WCF 19.6). I am not sure how you cannot read the “Christ-merit” into this language. I am well aware of the debate and the three disenting voices at Westminster, but these two statements seem pretty clear to me considering the close proximity they are made with regard to the statements about believers and the CoW. I think the burden of proof falls on the person who does not believe that Christ merited righteousness to explain why the Divines suggest that believers are “bound to Christ” for “His fulfilling the Law” and that they “need” the “perfection of His obedience.”

  5. Bob McDowell

    I think I once heard D.A. Carson say (on a podcast somewhere) that the first to mention the 3 uses of the law as Thomas Aquinas. I think Carson said that this fact caused him to treat “3 uses” with caution.

  6. Jason

    I appreciate this write up so much! I have a couple of questions that maybe you can help me with.
    First, when you were giving your quote from the Westminster Confession on the 3rd use of the law:

    You wrote:
    (1) Although they that are regenerate, and believe in Christ, be delivered from the moral law as a covenant of works, so as thereby they are neither justified nor condemned; yet, besides the general uses thereof common to them with all men, it is of special use, to show them:

    (2) How much they are bound to Christ for his fulfilling it, and enduring the curse thereof in their stead, and for their good; and

    (3) thereby to provoke them to more thankfulness, and to express the same in their greater care to conform themselves thereunto as the rule of their obedience.

    When in fact it says: Although true believers be not under the law as a covenant of works, to be thereby justified or condemned; yet is it of great use to them, as well as to others; in that, as a rule of life, informing them of the will of God and their duty, it directs and binds them to walk accordingly; discovering also the sinful pollutions of their nature, hearts, and lives; so as, examining themselves thereby, they may come to further conviction of, humiliation for, and hatred against sin; together with a clearer sight of the need they have of Christ, and the perfection of his obedience. It is likewise of use to the regenerate, to restrain their corruptions, in that it forbids sin, and the threatenings of it serve to show what even their sins deserve, and what afflictions in this life they may expect for them, although freed from the curse thereof threatened in the law. The promises of it, in like manner, show them God’s approbation of obedience, and what blessings they may expect upon the performance thereof; although not as due to them by the law as a covenant of works: so as a man’s doing good, and refraining from evil, because the law encourageth to the one, and deterreth from the other, is no evidence of his being under the law, and not under grace.

    It seems that your construction is a bit misleading to the relative importance that they put on justification by faith and it’s place in the 3rd use of the law. I’m not saying that they do not anchor it in justification by faith, but your construction seems to make it more clear, more glaring, then the Westminster itself-which puts “rule of life” right in there before the bit about seeing how much we need Christ to obey. Can you provide some clarity at that point?

    Secondly, You said regarding the fear of God: It will suffice to say that godly fear is not a fear of God’s terror and wrath that causes a man or woman to seek to obey Him out of fear of going to Hell. Otherwise, the benefits of justification are made void.
    I’m wondering how you square this comment with all of Jesus words where he threatens people with hell. (in a pursuit of holiness even) For example, and there are several but here’s one: “And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.”
    It clearly seems that to say there is no fear of condemnation in our pursuit of holiness doesn’t jive with Jesus’ own methodology, Fear of hell is to move Christ’s disciples to do the painful work of cutting off right hands and gouging out right eyes.

    I’m really looking for some insight and perspective here. Is there away of reconciling what you are saying with Jesus’ methodology?

  7. David Rothstein

    Really helpful clarification of the third use. It helps confirm a hunch I’d had about the difference between the way it’s commonly (inadequately) understood today, versus in the Reformed confessions, and notably in WLC 97. Thank you.

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  10. LR

    Couple of questions.

    First, you say Paul taught the tri-partite division, but you didn’t give any evidence of that. Neither did you interact (that I see) with Gal 5:3 (by Paul) and James 2:10 (by James) that both teach that the law is indivisible, and that keeping any of it requirements keeping all of it. It seems that for Paul and James, the law could not be divided in terms of applicability (either mandate or penalty). I wonder if you might directly address that.

    Second, you do not (anywhere that I see) interact with the idea that the Mosaic Law was the expression of the moral law for a particular people group at a particular cultural and historical point of history; those expressions were not intended for other times. The “schoolmaster” language of Gal 5 seems clearly to refer to a period of time (the time of the Law vs. the time of faith). That is an important teaching by Paul, it seems. I wonder if you might interact with the idea that Paul’s temporal view of the law seems contrary to the Reformed view of the third use of the Law. Tied in with this is the question of why the Scriptures do not demonstrate this third use of the Law.


    1. You are right. Holy Scripture does not speak of a “3rd use”. The so-called “3rd use” is ALREADY present in the first two uses.

      It just opens the door to legalism.

      Here’s the truth of the matter;

      “Christ is the end of the law for all those who have faith.”

      1. David R.

        Except that the actual citation is: “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believeth.”

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  12. Jon B

    Excellent stuff, Nicholas. Thank you for this. I found your article while googling around on how the fact that the Law is supposed to continue to convict even Christians of our sin (contra pretending and performing) and continue to drive us to Christ and rest in His finished work; and does this belong to the traditional 2nd usage or 3rd usage of the Law? I love your piece. We need more of this teaching. Those of us who cling to and affirm the 3rd usage (people like me) fail to emphasize exactly what you do here, and it robs us of joy. When we are confronted with commands in Scripture, what are we to do? We are to see first that we continue even as Christians to fail miserably in really keeping that command (“Love one another as I have loved you”), and we are to bask in the finished work of Christ on our behalf. It’s only the gospel that gives any power to our obedience. Jesus is our sufficiency. Thanks Nick.

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  15. Roberto

    I really need help to understand the second use. Please help me Mr. Batzig.
    How are we to understand the role of modern civil jurisdiction? Should, for example, theft be punished nowadays with the same punishment as in the mosaic Law?

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