Do Christians Understand the Third Use of the Law?

Whenever I say that conformity to Jesus is the appropriate paradigm for the Christian life (i.e., Christian ethics), not the law, I typically hear the objection that I am forgetting the third use of the law. The typical proof-text offered for the third use of the law is 2 Timothy 3:16-17:

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.

The concept of the third use of the law was first articulated by the Lutheran theologian Philip Melanchthon (although the spirit of it is found already in Martin Luther), but it was through Calvin that it became so important to the Reformed tradition. Calvin distinguished between three uses of the law:

  1. the pedagogical use of the law, which is to teach human beings that they are sinners under a curse, and so prepare them for the gospel
  2. the civil use of the law, which is to order the life of human society, with the civil government’s use of the sword if necessary
  3. the spiritual use of the law, which is to teach and exhort those who are no longer under the law (i.e., Christians) what righteousness looks like

Calvin argued that in its proper sense the Old Testament law served primarily to fulfill the first use of the law, the pedagogical use, to teach people their sin and drive them to Christ. But he argued that for Christians, who have received the gospel, been justified, and are no longer under the law (Romans 6:14), the third use, the spiritual use, becomes primary.

Most Reformed Christians understand this, I think, but what I fear many do not understand is how this spiritual use actually works. Many Christians seem to think the third use of the law means that once we have believed the gospel we are placed right back under the law again. Christ has forgiven our sins and given us his Spirit, so now we can get back to following the law. It’s a paradigm of law-gospel-law. Sometimes these same Christians continue to view the law as the one eternal covenant that God has made with his people. For them, the Christian life doesn’t look very different from the life of an Old Testament Israelite. True, we know about Jesus, and we have the Spirit in a greater measure than they did, but the basic form and content of the Christian life is not very different from that of a faithful Israelite.

The problem with this perspective is that it fails to grasp the fact that for Israelites the first use of the law was the primary one. As Paul explains in Galatians 3, the Israelites were under the law as a tutor to lead them to Christ. It was to teach them their sin and drive them to a savior. Israelites were under the law because they were subject to its curses and obligated to perform its sacrifices in order to be right with God. When Israelites heard the Ten Commandments, they heard it as a statement of their covenantal relationship with God:

I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself a carved image … for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.

This is what some theologians have called the “works principle” of the law, but which we might more accurately refer to as its covenantal or legal force. It is the principle that those who are under the law must do the works of the law in order to receive its blessing and avoid its curse. This is what Paul was talking about when he wrote in Galatians 3:10,12 that “all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.’ … But the law is not of faith, rather, ‘The one who does them shall live by them.'” To be “under the law” for Paul is to be subject to it in this covenantal or legal way.

What is crucial to understand is that when Calvin said that the third use of the law is the primary use for Christians he was sharply distinguishing it from this legal sense. As he puts it in the Institutes, “the law is not now acting toward us as a rigorous enforcement officer who is not satisfied unless the requirements are met. But in this perfection to which it exhorts us, the law points out the goal toward which throughout life we are to strive” (2.7.13).

In short, Christians are no longer under the law in a legal or covenantal sense. We are no longer subject to its penalties should we fail to measure up to its standards. It cannot be enforced against us. In that sense, we don’t even experience it as a law anymore. Whenever we read it, or hear it read, we need to translate it in light of what Christ has done. Christ is now the primary paradigm for our life, not the law.

Where the third use comes in, however, is in its ongoing role for education and exhortation, as Calvin explains in Institutes 2.7.12. We are not be under the law in a covenantal or legal sense anymore, but we can still learn from it and be exhorted by it. When we study the law in light of its fulfillment in Christ, it helps us understand the righteousness to which God has called us. Although we are thankful that it is no longer a “burden” that weighs upon us (Acts 15:10), we are free to peruse its stipulations to understand better why Jesus had to come, what he accomplished, and what he continues to accomplish in us by his Spirit. We are free to read its stories and hear its curses and blessings from a safe distance, using them to spur us on to greater conformity to Christ.

That’s why Paul could be emphatic throughout his writings that Christians are no longer under the law, and yet still say to Timothy that all of Scripture, including the law, remains profitable for Christians’ instruction.

What Paul did not say to Timothy is that Christians are once again under the law. What he did not say is that the Christian life consists in law-keeping. On the contrary, he insisted that he was “not myself under the law,” though he was “under the law of Christ” (1 Corinthians 9:20-21). Paul is emphatic throughout his writings that the Christian life consists not in a return to the law but in spiritual union with Christ (in whom the law is fulfilled) and conformity to Christ’s image (by which the law is fulfilled). To continue to make the law the paradigm for the Christian life is to dwell upon the shadow rather than the substance (Colossians 2:17). It is akin to requiring circumcision rather than baptism, or to modeling our worship after the temple sacrificial system rather than Christ’s instruction in the new covenant. As Paul puts it so clearly in Romans 7:6:

But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit.

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About Matthew J. Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga is the Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted on June 2, 2016, in Calvin, Christian liberty, Christian Life, Law and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Do Christians Understand the Third Use of the Law?.

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