Dear Church Family,
In your Christian life, do you ever feel divided in yourself – particularly in your relationship to the Law of God? That is, do you sometimes feel the overwhelming condemnation of the Law as you examine your life, recognizing the sinfulness of your heart, and need of a Savior? Then, at other times, do you delight and rejoice in God’s Law, seeking to live for Christ in new obedience? Or, quite often, these two impulses – a recognition of your sin and a desire to pursue holiness – are intermingled, occurring simultaneously.
If that is the case, you’re not alone. In fact, you’re like every other believer that has ever lived. This is one of the reasons that the Psalms are so varied. Sometimes in the Psalms, we are driven by the Law to confess our sin and sinfulness (e.g. Psalm 51:3 – “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me”). And, sometimes in the Psalms, we are exhorted to pursue holiness in keeping with God’s Law (e.g. Psalm 119:55 – “O LORD, I remember Your name in the night, and keep Your Law”). The Apostle Paul gives expression to this dual condition, this wrestling with the Law, which is common to all Christians in Romans 7:14-25.
Theologians have historically spoken of the varied ‘uses’ of the Law of God as falling into three categories. The three uses of the Law describe God’s intended purposes for His Law. In systemizing the teaching of Scripture in this way, we find help in understanding why we respond in different ways to God’s Law. We also discover that the Law of God is a means of grace to us. Thus, we learn of our continuing need for God’s Law as those who have been justified by faith in Jesus Christ. Let us consider these three uses in order (some traditions give a different order, but we will follow the order typically found in Reformed theology). And, just to be clear, by “the Law of God” we primarily have in mind here the Ten Commandments, or the moral law.
1. The Civil Use (usus politicus or civilus). The Law functions as a goad to civil righteousness. The first use of the Law – the civil use – applies to all men everywhere, regardless of whether they are believers or not. This is the operation of God’s law in the realm of common grace. In the first use, the Law restrains sinful behavior and promotes righteous behavior. It simply keeps people from murdering each other and stealing each other’s property.
In the civil use, the law functions much like a strait-jacket. It restrains people’s behavior, but does not penetrate the heart. It is mere behaviorism. It is called the civil use of the law because it is the means by which God, through the authority which he grants to common societies and governing authorities, restrains evil in the world. Paul speaks of this in his epistle to the Romans (13:1-7). Do what is good and you will have praise from rulers and governing authorities; do what is evil, and you rightly fear (vv3-4). Of course, Christians honor and obey earthly authorities for many other reasons, as well, but this is one which we have in common with unbelievers.
2. The Pedagogical Use (usus elenchticus or pedagogicus). This second use of the Law is for the unbeliever and the believer alike. Here, the Law functions as a means of grace in driving people to see their need of Christ and His righteousness. For the unbeliever, the perfect moral Law reveals one’s sinfulness and inability to keep God’s Law. For the believer, the perfect moral Law continues to reveal our sinfulness and inability to perfectly keep God’s Law. In this second use – the pedagogical use – the Law shows our need for Christ and His righteousness – an alien righteousness that is not our own, but can be ours through faith. The Law shows our need to be justified by faith in Christ.
In the pedagogical use, the law functions much like a prison or a harsh task-master. The law exposes our sin, condemns us, and leaves us without hope. Thus, the law prepares us to see the glories of the gospel wherein we learn of Jesus Christ, the Savior of men, who has met the standard of God’s holy Law for us. Paul summarizes this use of the Law well in Romans 8:3-4: “For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, so that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.”
3. The Normative (or Didactic) Use (usus didacticus or normativus). Like the second use, the third use of the Law is a means of God’s grace. However, unlike the second use which applies to both unbelievers and believers in seeing their need for Christ, the third use is applicable only to believers. The third use of the Law is called the normative use because it acts as the norm for our conduct. It is called the didactic use because it teaches us how to live. In addition to continuing to show us our need for Christ (second use), the Law also functions for the believer in showing us how we are to live for Christ (third use).
In the normative or didactic use, the law functions much like railroad tracks. The law shows us the way to live – the way of righteousness and holiness. The law is the revealed will of God for His people, and only the regenerate who have God’s Spirit are able to keep it properly. The Psalms begin with this (third use) understanding of God’s Law: “How blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, Nor stand in the path of sinners, Nor sit in the seat of scoffers! But his delight is in the law of the LORD, And in His law he meditates day and night” (Psalm 1:1-2). Through faith in Jesus Christ, we see God’s law in a new light: purposing to love God, we keep His commandments, and His commandments are not burdensome (1 John 5:2-3).
The Law of God is neglected by many believers who cast aspersions on God’s Law and dismiss His holy standard, believing that God’s Law no longer applies to those who have been born again. Sometimes, God’s Law is dismissed with the false assertion that the work of God’s Spirit is in opposition to the God’s Law. Or, at best, some see God’s Spirit as working apart from God’s Law. Yet, as John Calvin has written, “The third use of the Law (being also the principal use, and more closely connected with its proper end) has respect to believers in whose hearts the Spirit of God already flourishes and reigns” (Calvin’s Institutes, 2.7.12).
After describing these varied uses of the law of God, the Westminster Confession of Faith says this: “Neither are the forementioned uses of the law contrary to the grace of the Gospel, but do sweetly comply with it; the Spirit of Christ subduing and enabling the will of man to do that freely and cheerfully, which the will of God revealed in the law requires to be done” (WCF 19:7).
The uses of the law are not contrary to the grace of the Gospel, but do “sweetly comply” with it! Praise God that He has been gracious to us in revealing to us both His Law and His Gospel!
The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch