The Three Uses of the Law: What Good Is the Law?
Throughout the history of the church there has been widespread confusion over the role of the Old Testament law in the Christian life. Many theologians have utterly rejected the law as irrelevant to the New Testament believers. Although there have been varied opinions concerning specific issues, traditional Reformed theology has summarized this matter in terms of three valid uses of the law. Some theological writers present these in the order given below; others reverse the first two, so there is some discontinuity within the Reformed tradition as to what are the "first" and the "second" uses of the law.
What we shall call the first function of the law is the pedagogical use. The law reveals both the perfect righteousness of God and our own shortcomings that drive us to Christ for salvation. The law gives knowledge of sin (Rom. 3:20; 4:15; 5:13), and our sinful nature takes this knowledge as opportunity for even further rebellion (Rom. 7:7-11), thus condemning us to judgment. By revealing to us our need of pardon the law leads us to Christ in repentance and faith (Gal. 3:19-24). In this sense, believers are not under the law. The apostle Paul identified this use of the law with the ways of the age of sin and death prior to the coming of Christ (see theological article "The Plan of the Ages: Are We in the Last Days?"). The law came so that sin would increase (e.g., to the point that Israel was condemned to exile), but where sin increased grace increased all the more when Christ came (Rom. 5:20-21). Those who are united with Christ are set free from the judgment of the law when they pass from this age to the age to come. We are not "under law but under grace" (Ro 6:14) in the sense that we are not under the condemnation of the law but under the grace of God in Christ (Rom. 8:1-4). Nevertheless, believers continue to need the law's pedagogy to remind us that we still sin and need God's forgiveness (1 John 1:8-9) and Christ's intercession (Rom. 8:34; Heb. 7:25). The law forces us to return to the cross of Jesus, to see that we have no hope in ourselves and that Jesus' atonement alone can take away our sin and its consequences. This function of the law also continues to apply to unbelievers even today, showing them their need for repentance, forgiveness and conversion.
The second function of the law is its civil use. The moral standards of the Old Testament law restrain evil through threats of punishment. Though the law cannot change the heart, it can inhibit lawlessness by its threats of judgment, especially when backed by a civil code that administers punishment for proven offenses (Deut. 13:6-11; 19:16-21; Rom. 13:3-4). Thus it secures some civil order and protects the weak from the unjust. Although the Scriptures never use the expression "under the law" to refer to this civil function, it is apparent that at times even Christians are restrained by the threat of punishment. Although obedience out of love for God is the ideal for which we are to strive (1 John 4:18), we can benefit from the restraint this use of the law provides. This restraining function of the law was clearly in view during the Old Testament period (Exod. 21-23). Yet it was also affirmed for the New Testament time when Paul wrote that the law is not for the righteous but for sinners (1 Tim. 1:8-11).
The third function of the law is the normative or moral use. The moral standards of the law provide guidance for believers as we seek to live in humble gratitude for the grace God has shown us. As the prologue to the Ten Commandments makes clear (Exod. 20:2), obedience to God's commands rightly flows from a heart thankful for the redemption that has been received as a free gift of grace from God. It is often helpful for us, as believers living after the first coming of Christ, to distinguish between the moral, ceremonial and civil dimensions of the law. Reformed theologians have historically expressed general agreement that God gave certain ceremonial and civil expressions of the law for specific situations in history, rather than for all believers at all times (e.g., OT dietary laws; see note on Acts 10:15). Even these, however, continue to instruct us about the principles of God's wisdom and justice. Because the whole law expresses and reflects God's unchanging character, its moral dimension remains normative for all time (Matt. 5:17-19; Rom. 3:31; 13:8-9; Eph. 6:2; Jam. 2:10-11; 1 John 2:3-7; cf. BC 25; HC 91; WCF 19). Calvin considered the moral guidance of the law its principle use in the sense that the other uses occur only because of sin's presence in the world, whereas its moral use derives directly from God's character. Paul spoke of this third use of the law when he wrote, "I am not free from God's law but am under Christ's law" (1 Cor. 9:21), "Christ's law" being the law as interpreted and applied by Christ.
Reference:Richard Pratt, General Editor. Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI, 2003.
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