Berkhof on the Threefold Use of the Law

BerkhofReformed theologians commonly speak of three (3) uses of the law of God. In his Systematic Theology, Louis Berkhof (1873-1957) explains the distinctions between the various uses (what he calls the “threefold use”) in the following way:

Use #1 – the Civil Use: “The law serves the purpose of restraining sin and promoting righteousness. Considered from this point of view, the law presupposes sin and is necessary on account of sin. It serves the purpose of God’s common grace in the world at large” (p.614).

So in this way God’s law is useful for the benefit of society generally (both believer and unbeliever alike). Sin and wickedness have detrimental effects on any community or society. Righteousness, on the other hand, is beneficial to any community or society. As Proverbs 14:34 says, “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people” (ESV). So the law of God (in order for the first use of the law to actually be of use in this way) must then somehow be published or made known to society in general. The less the law is made known, the less it will be of use to restrain sin (or to promote righteousness) in society. While such a use is certainly limited to common (not saving) grace, as Berkhof points out above, such common grace is a good thing. It should not be looked down upon or neglected.

Use #2 – the Pedagogical Use: “In this capacity the law serves the purpose of bringing man under conviction of sin, and of making him conscious of his inability to meet the demands of the law. In that way the law becomes a tutor to lead him unto Christ, and thus becomes subservient to God’s gracious purpose of redemption” (ibid).

The Westminster Larger Catechism Q.96 speaks of this use:

“What particular use is there of the moral law to unregenerate men? A. 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.”

In this use the law of God acts as a mirror of sorts, showing the unbeliever his sin, and driving him to look to Christ by faith for salvation. The law shows us our desperate need for the Savior.

Use #3 – the Normative Use: “This is the so-called . . . third use of the law. The law is a rule of life for believers, reminding them of their duties and leading them in the way of life and salvation. This third use of the law is denied by the Antinomians” (p.615).

Simply put, after the law of God drives us to faith in Christ for salvation (2nd use of the law), it then becomes our rule of life (3rd use), showing us how we should live in light of our salvation in Christ. The Westminster Larger Catechism Q.97 speaks of this use:

“What special use is there of the moral law to the regenerate? A. 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.”

So to the regenerate (i.e. believers in Christ), the law is still of great usefulness, to show us our debt to Christ for our salvation (both in His active and passive obedience), to “provoke” us to thankfulness to Him for our salvation, and to express that thankfulness in striving to conform ourselves unto His law in our daily lives. In a sense, the believer now has even more reason to obey God’s law because of his salvation!

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10 comments

  1. I can clearly see verses of scripture in the NT that teach the first two but can you help me connect the dots on the third one? It brings up the point that many believers argue about, particularly with NT Wright’s teachings encouraging believers to obey the OT laws. I find this all gets very confusing to sort through.

    1. The 3rd (or normative) use of the law is demonstrated so many times in the New Testament, that I almost don’t know where to start. Pretty much every time a New Testament writer quotes or refers to a commandment of God (whether one of the Ten Commandments or some other command found in the moral law of God) they show that they held it (the specific commandment and the moral law as a whole) to be binding upon believers.

      For example, in Ephesians 6:1-3 Paul quotes, expounds, and applies the 5th commandment. He even uses the promise annexed to it in the original text:

      “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honor your father and mother” (this is the first commandment with a promise), “that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.” (ESV)

      Simply put, the moral law of God is His revealed will for how His redeemed people in Christ are to live. That was true in the Old Testament as well as in the New. The “preface” to the Ten Commandments (i.e. Exodus 20:2) clearly teaches this as well. (See Westminster Shorter Catechism Q.44.)

      Not sure if what I wrote here in this reply in any way answers your question about N.T. Wright’s teachings. Just let me know if I can be of further help. (I do hope that the above comments made sense to you.)

      Thank you for checking out the blog & taking the time to comment!

      1. Yes your answer does make sense. I guess I was thinking more specifically about the other categories of the OT Law. For example laws concerning punishment & the like, many of which have been adapted into our current legal system/laws. Is it only the moral laws that carry over, all others were strictly for national Israel?
        I agree the whole didactic encompasses the moral laws, I didn’t word my original question as clearly as I should have.

        Also, I have one other question, when scripture states the law shuts up everyone under sin, weren’t those that lived before the law was given to Moses also in the same situation?
        What does that mean exactly Jesus redeeming us from the curse of the law?

      2. Sorry forgot one last thing. The reference to NT Wright was concerning his advocating for NT saints to be following OT dietary laws, Jewish traditions, celebrating the festivals etc. which he claims are still in effect. At least that’s what one of my friends does who follows the teachings in her church which are apparently based on the new perspectives of Paul.

  2. I have always found Westminster Confession of Faith chapter 19 (Of the Law of God) to be very helpful here. 19.3 addresses the ceremonial aspects of the law, and says, “Beside this law, commonly called moral, God was pleased to give to the people of Israel, as a church under age, ceremonial laws, containing several typical ordinances, partly of worship, prefiguring Christ, his graces, actions, sufferings, and benefits; and partly, holding forth divers instructions of moral duties. All which ceremonial laws are now abrogated, under the new testament.”

    I believe the Westminster Divines were correct here – the ceremonial laws were all fulfilled in Christ, and so have been abrogated. That is why, for instance, OT dietary laws are no longer applicable. (See Mark 7:19; Acts 10, etc.) I think this would be a pretty clear refutation of N.T. Wright’s use of the ceremonial law.

    As for the judicial law (or the judicial aspects of the law), WCF 19.4 says, “To them also, as a body politic, he gave sundry judicial laws, which expired together with the State of that people; not obliging any other now, further than the general equity thereof may require.” In short, because the church is no longer to be thought of in any real sense as an earthly nation (i.e. we are not national Israel), those judicial laws do not apply directly to us. The only exception here is the notion of “general equity.” That is by no means a simple concept to define, but an easy example would be civil laws prohibiting murder. Those civil laws against murder are grounded in the moral law (the 6th commandment). Our civil laws can (sand should) certainly be informed by the judicial law of God.

    Does that help?

  3. One last thing. You asked, “Also, I have one other question, when scripture states the law shuts up everyone under sin, weren’t those that lived before the law was given to Moses also in the same situation? “What does that mean exactly Jesus redeeming us from the curse of the law?”

    1. Yes. The moral law is known even to those who did not receive the written revelation of it at Sinai. (See Romans 2:12-16.) 2. Jesus redeemed us from the curse that was justly due unto us because we have all broken God’s law. The law itself is not a curse, but is holy and good (Romans 7:12). WCF 19.5 actually states that Christ, in the gospel, actually “much strengthens” our obligation to obey God’s will as expressed in His moral law.

    1. Thank you & yes, most helpful explanations. I so appreciate the way you use the WCF to undergird the scripture & create such a strong framework for your answers.
      I need to learn to do that so well ….
      Many blessings to you brother …& I will continue to follow your blog!

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