Understanding the Law and its Uses
There continues to be confusion about the precise relationship between the Law and the Gospel, the Law and the Covenant people, and the Law and the Mosaic Covenant. This is the case because there is confusion over the different uses of the Law, as taught in Scripture. There have been a plethora of views, even within the writings of Reformed theologians from the Reformation forward, with regard to the various uses of the Law. It is similar to the variety of views that existÂ in attempts to define the marks of a true church. There is great overlap between the answers given, but there is certainly not absolute uniformity. I have read a number of views and opinions, over the past decade, and am left wondering why Reformed theologians do not more readily appeal to the Westminster Larger Catechism for a balanced and robust expression of the biblical teaching on the Law and its uses. Questions 91-97 clearly articulate the Puritans’ understanding of the Law:
Question 91: What is the duty which God requires of man?
Answer: The duty which God requires of man, is obedience to his revealed will.
Question 92: What did God at first reveal unto man as the rule of his obedience?
Answer: The rule of obedience revealed to Adam in the estate of innocence, and to all mankind in him, besides a special command not to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, was the moral law.
Question 93: What is the moral law?
Answer: The moral law is the declaration of the will of God to mankind, directing and binding 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.
Question 94: Is there any use of the moral law to man since the fall?
Answer: Although no man, since the fall, can attain to righteousness and life by the moral law; yet there is great use thereof, as well common to all men, as peculiar either to the unregenerate, or the regenerate.
Question 95: Of what use is the moral law to all men?
Answer: The moral law is of use to all men, to inform them of the holy nature and will of God, and of their duty, binding them to walk accordingly;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, and thereby help them to a clearer sight of the need they have of Christ, and of the perfection of his obedience.
Question 96: What particular use is there of the moral law to unregenerate men?
Answer: 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.
Question 97: What special use is there of the moral law to the regenerate?
Answer: 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: How much they are bound to Christ for his fulfilling it, and enduring the curse thereof in their stead, and for their good; and 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.
While the Divines do not expressly say, in these questions and answers, that the moral Law is one and the same as given to Adam in the Garden and Israel at Sinai (in the Ten Commandments and its subsequent ceremonial and civil expressions), there is no contesting that this is what is logically implied in them, as well as in other places in the Westminster Confession of Faith and Shorter Catechism. So, what exactly isÂ being taught about the use of the moral Law in these seven questions?
First, you will notice that the Divines note that all men must receive God’s requirement for them by revelation. It is His “revealed will.” God must reveal to man what he requires of man.While the Law is written on the heart of man, as image bearer, it must be promulgated to man by special revelation. This was so, even in the Garden with Adam. God tested Adam’s obedience in the Covenant of Works, by means a special command which reflected all the other commands of the moral Law. Would it have been wrong for Adam to cut down the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, make and idol, and bow down to worship it? Would it have been wrong for Adam to have bowed down to the Tree and prayed to it in the name of God? Would it have been wrong for Adam to have skipped out on worship on the Sabbath, by sitting under the Tree and taking a nap all day? Would it have been wrong for Adam to have cut down the Tree and make a bat to kill Eve with? Would it have been wrong for Adam to steal the fruit of the Tree which God withheld from him? This should adequately explain the relationship between the one command given to Adam and the ten that were always binding for him and his posterity.
Second, God revealed this to our first father, Adam. We all were born under the headship of Adam and therefore were under the broken Covenant of Works by nature. But we were also born into God’s world. The demands of the Law, with their promises of blessings and cursing upon perfect and perpetual obedience or disobedience, remained in place. God would fulfill these demands, take the curse that we brought upon ourselves by our disobedience, and give the blessings promised for perfect obedience toÂ the law in the Person and work of Christ.
Third, the moral Law demands perfect and continual obedience. Even after the fall, God demands perfect obedience. Just 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.” This is the case 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. The Divines expressly teach this as fundamental to the nature of the Law of God and the relationship between the moral Law and the all people. Of course, no fallen man can keep one precept of the Law, let alone keep it 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.Â 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.
Fourth, 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. They proceed to explain that, even though no one can be justified by it, the Law is still useful in a special and common way for three groups.Â First, the Law is useful for all men. Second, the Law is useful for the unregenerate (i.e.those who remain in their natural fallen condition). Third, the Law is useful for the regenerate (i.e. those who have been given a new nature by grace). Note that the Divines do not say that the law is useful for all men, then for those outside of the covenant community, and, third, for those within the covenant community.
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.Â “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.”
Finally, in question 97 they ask, “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, since they have been redeemed to obey,” This is certainly true in a qualified sense, but it is not the nuanced answer that the Divines give. They first preface it and then give a tripartite answer to the question. The qualifier is as theologically full and interesting as the tripartite answer:
[Preface] 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:
1) How much they are bound to Christ for his fulfilling it, and enduring the curse thereof in their stead, and for their good;
2) and thereby to provoke them to more thankfulness,
3) and to express the same in their greater care to conform themselves thereunto as the rule of their obedience.
In the prefatory statement, the Divines connect the moral Law with the Covenant of Works. There is an undeniable relation between the Law and the Covenant of Works. The unregenerate are still under the moral Law as a Covenant of Works. There is no denying the fact that it is broken. There is no denying the fact that they cannot keep it to obtain the blessings promised for perfect obedience to it. But it is still in place. The moral Law given to Adam in Eden and Israel as Sinai, is one and the same Law. The statement of the Divines does not say that the Mosaic Covenant, in its entirety, is a republication of the Covenant of Works. But it does intimate that a relationship between the Moral Law and the Covenant of Works, and the Law given in the Mosaic Covenant and the Covenant of Works exists, for the unregenerate–whether Israelites or otherwise. The regenerate are “delivered from the moral Law as a Covenant of Works.” It no longer remains a Covenant of Works for those who have been savingly united to Jesus Christ; but, it remains a Covenant of Works for unbelievers. They remain under the curse of the broken Covenant of Works as well, by their union with Adam. They also attempt to be justified by the Law. This is why the Pharisees and Scribes sought righteousness by their own attempts to keep the Law of God. There is a psychological and spiritual dimension to the relationship that the unregenerate sustain with regard to God’s Law. Because we are from Adam by nature, we, by nature, constantly seeking to obtain life in the way that Adam was called to obtain it prior to the fall. This is not God’s intention for us, after the fall. In fact, it is the greatest dishonor to Him when we try to bypass His grace with our works. But it is the way that we as self-righteous sinners respond to the moral demands of God place on Adam in Eden and Israel at Sinai.
The next important belief expressed in this prefatory statement is that believers are “neither justified nor condemned” by the moral law. Their obedience to the Law of God plays ABSOLUTELY NO ROLE in their justification. Their disobedience to it plays ABSOLUTELY NO ROLE in their condemnation. How can this be? It is because of the finished work of the Lord Jesus Christ. He alone merits justification for His people. He alone takes the condemnation for all their lawlessness. He is a complete Savior who justifies His people perfectly, once and for all, by His finished work.
Perhaps the most striking thing about all three answers supplied in Larger Catechism questions 95-97 is that the moral law, in each of its uses, points men to the Person and work of Christ. This is something that is frequently overlooked by those who wish to so ardently stress the obedience that the third use of the Law calls for in the life of believers. The Divines are not so quick to move away from the finished work of Jesus on our behalf in their expositions of the various uses of the moral law. In all three catechism questions they return to Christ. The moral Law, “helps [bring all men] to a clearer sight of the need they have of Christ, and of the perfection of his obedience” (Q. 95); is useful to “awaken the consciencesÂ [of unregenerate] to flee from wrath to come, and to drive them to Christ” (Q. 96); andÂ is useful for the regenerate to show them “how much they are bound to Christ for his fulfilling it, and enduring the curse thereof in their stead, and for their good” (Q. 97). The Westminster Divines show that the Law drives us out of ourselves and back to Christ. They explain that the Law magnified the finished work of Jesus. We should not ever get beyond the finished work of Christ. Even in heaven the finished work of Christ is the theme of our songs and praises. It is the basis for our eternal life–not our obedience to the Law. By that law, we are neither justified nor condemned.
Question 97 expresses what is commonly called the third use of the law (Tertius Usus Legis). The Divines certainly express the use of the law as binding the elect “to express the same [i.e. thankfulness to Christ for fulling the law and taking the curse of the law in their place] in their greater care to conform themselves thereunto as the rule of their obedience.” But they immediately make it the “rule of obedience” in their answer. They start with the Gospel. The Law continues to show believers their need for Christ. It is first, and foremost, useful for believers, to show them “how much they are bound to Christ for his fulfilling it and enduring the curse thereof in their stead, and for their good;” secondly, “to provoke them to more thankfulness;” and finally “to express the same in their greater care to conform themselves thereunto as the rule of their obedience.” The obedience that the Law calls believers to render, should only be understood in relationship to the redemption that we have in Christ. It should only and ever be an “expression” of the thankfulness we are bound to give Christ for “fulfilling it and enduring the curse thereof in our stead.” If we miss this step, we will inevitable look to our performance in regard to the demands of the law, instead of looking to Christ.
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Thank you for this, Nick! This is so needed in some of our Reformed churches which slide off into a type of legalism in an inappropriate view of the Third Use. Keep on writing on this!
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Please help me understand this sentence: (It appears in the paragraph that begins “Fourth, the Divines, make it clear . . .”
“Note that the Divines do not say that the law is useful for all men, then for those outside of the covenant community, and, third, for those within the covenant community.”
Maybe I’m dense, but this doesn’t seem to fit the rest of the paragraph.
Thanks, this is a topic we all need to discuss.
Thanks for asking me to clarify. I can see that what I was trying to say may not have been clear. There are some in Reformed circles who want to say that the Law functions exclusively as a rule of life for those in the covenant community. This is to say that we assume that everyone in covenant is regenerate. But in Duet. and Jeremiah, we find the Lord telling to covenant people, who were circumcised, to get a circumcised heart. The covenant community was always comprised of believers and unbelievers. In fact, the Scriptures bear witness than the believing covenant members were actually a remnant of the covenant people as a whole (see Rom. 11:1-6). So, the pedagogical use of the Law is just as applicable as the “rule of life” use for the church. While the Divines distinguish uses of the Law for the unregenerate and the regenerate, when they ask the question, “Of what special use is the law to the regenerate?” they are not asking “Of what special use is the Law for the Covenant people?” Does this help shed light on what I was saying?
Thanks, Nick, I appreciate your clarification. I also am appreciative of your work on this topic.
I am burdened by being told by some that the definition of the 3rd use of the law is â€œEvangelical Obedience.â€ No one is saying that this obedience is salvific; it’s a response in gratitude to a life lived to please God.
In addition to the Moral Law, there are hundreds of imperatives, particularly in the writings of Paul regarding what we should (and shouldn’t) do as new creatures in Christ. If we love God, we should love his law as the Psalmist in 119 does. We are told in 1 John 5:3 that â€œhis (God’s) commandments are not burdensome.â€ I don’t know about you, but keeping the commandments even out of gratitude is burdensome.
I’m told that I feel this way because I don’t understand grace; I really have too low a view of grace. I don’t know that grace is the fulcrum that is the anchor point that enables any object (even a mountain of sin) to be moved.
Consider this: Is what we are striving for here is to be a â€œPerfect Pharisee?â€ Bear with me for a moment. A Perfect Pharisee would be someone with a circumcised heart, keeping the law perfectly, not for salvation but out of gratitude. Certainly there would be failure, that’s Romans 7. Then you go to the cross and receive forgiveness. But your striving for complete obedience would never cease, in fact, it would make you redouble your efforts!
I find this thought enormously discouraging. The spirit is willing but the flesh is simply too weak to climb this mountain. Nor do I find this yoke easy or the burden light.
Somehow I feel I am not alone. I wonder if this isn’t the source of the long faces in most reformed churches and the somber (dare I say dour) worship? The overwhelming sense that we are forgiven, but our repentance is not whole-hearted and we will be like dogs and return to our own vomit as in Proverbs 26:11.
Perhaps this struggle is a bit personal for a blog, but this topic is very close to the way we live our lives.
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Thanks for this. I’ve been preaching through the Larger Catechism in our evening service, and just came to the second half on our obedience to God. You’re understanding above is spot on. It should be interesting how my Seminary students in the congregation respond to my sermons through this section!
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This was very helpful. Thank you!
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