The 3 Uses of the Law

J.C. Ryle on the Spiritual Use of the Law

holinessCan a sinner be justified in the sight of a holy God by works, or by obedience to God’s commandments? No, of course not. In Galatians 2:16 the Apostle Paul plainly states as much:

“yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.” (ESV)

Notice that Paul basically states this same truth at least three (3) times in just this one simple verse. (It’s as if he is trying to emphasize his point!) No one will be justified by the works of the law. No one.

Having established that, we must be careful to maintain that although we are not in any way justified by works or by obedience to God’s commandments, yet this does not therefore mean that we as believers in Christ have no more need or use for God’s law. Quite the opposite! In his book, Holiness, J.C. Ryle writes,

“There is no greater mistake than to suppose that a Christian has nothing to do with the law and the Ten Commandments, because he cannot be justified by keeping them. The same Holy Ghost who convinces the believer of sin by the law, and leads him to Christ for justification, will always lead him to a spiritual use of the law, as a friendly guide, in the pursuit of sanctification.” (p.26)

As Ryle rightly points out, the Holy Spirit not only uses the law of God to convince or convict the believer of his or her sin, and so to drive them to look to Christ by faith for salvation from sin (often referred to as the pedagogical use of the law), but after conversion also leads that same believer to what Ryle calls a “spiritual use of the law.” What is that “spiritual use” of God’s law? It is to use it as the believer’s rule for life (often called the normative or 3rd use of the law).

To the believer who has been justified by faith alone in Christ alone, the law no longer holds forth the threat of condemnation for sin, but now serves as (to use Ryle’s words) a “friendly guide” in our lifelong pursuit of sanctification.

Berkhof on the Difference Between the Lutheran & Reformed Views of the Threefold Use of the Law

BerkhofIn part 5 of his Systematic Theology, Louis Berkhof includes a chapter on “The Word as a Means of Grace.” At the close of that chapter, he points out that there is often a distinction or difference between the way that Lutherans view the threefold use of the law (i.e. the civil, pedagogical, and normative uses of the law – see here), and the way that the Reformed view that same threefold use.

Now he is quick to point out that both groups “accept” or affirm the threefold use. Neither would reject any of the three uses of the law. The difference is rather to be found in the emphasis on one of the uses over the others. Berkhof notes that “Lutherans stress the second use of the law” (i.e. the pedagogical use, wherein the law of God reveals our sin to us and drives us to Christ for salvation). He writes,

“In their estimation the law is primarily the appointed means for bringing men under conviction of sin and thus indirectly pointing the way to Jesus Christ as the Savior of sinners. While they admit the third use of the law, they do it with a certain reserve, since they hold that believers are no more under the law. According to them, the third use of the law is necessary only because, and in so far as, believers are still sinners; they must be held in check by the law, and should become ever-increasingly conscious of their sins. It is not surprising therefore that this third use of the law occupies no important place in their system” (p.615).

In other words, the emphasis is primarily a negative one. To the Lutherans, the primary use of the law of God for believers is to remind them of their sins, and to restrain them from sin. To be sure, the Reformed certainly acknowledge this aspect as well. The Westminster Confession of Faith (19.6) says that the law of God is of use even to the regenerate in order 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.”

What about the Reformed view? Berkhof continues:

The Reformed do full justice to the second use of the law, teaching that through the law cometh the knowledge of sin,” and that the law awakens the consciousness of the need of redemption; but they devote even more attention to the law in connection with the doctrine of sanctification. They stand strong in the conviction that believers are still under the law as a rule of life and of gratitude. Hence the Heidelberg Catechism devotes no less than eleven Lord’s Days to the discussion of the law, and that in its third part, which deals with gratitude” (ibid).

So, if you are a believer in Christ, which (if any) describes your approach to the third use of the law of God? Do you approach it “with a certain reserve” (as the Lutherans commonly do), or do you devote even more attention to the law in connection with the doctrine of sanctification” (as the Reformed commonly do)? By all means we should “do full justice to the second use of the law” (as Berkhof puts it), but that should in no way prevent us from ‘devoting even more attention’ to the third use of the law of God when it comes to sanctification. There is no reason to make an either/or choice out of what the Scriptures present to us as a both/and proposition.

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!