Uses of the Law

Although I spent the first 20+ years of my life as a Lutheran and have continued to hold true to many Lutheran ideals (including the benefits of folk music, beer, and the love of a good woman), I’ve only recently become aware of the dispute about the valid uses of the Law (that would be the old Jewish Law of Moses, including all 10 commandments and whichever other laws people tend to think are important at the time).

Lutheran (Formula of Concord)

The Lutheran document “The Formula of Concord” enumerates three uses in Article VI, saying that the “Law was given to men for three reasons…”  These are that:

1. “thereby outward discipline might be maintained against wild, disobedient men”

2. “men thereby may be led to the knowledge of their sins”

and the infamous 3rd use:

3. “after they are regenerate … they might … have a fixed rule according to which they are to regulate and direct their whole life.”

Now, the Formula of Concord was developed several years after Luther died, at the direction of Elector August of Saxony. Luther himself never taught 3 uses of the law, and probably would have thrown a fit over number three, which is clearly outside of and contrary to anything Paul taught about the law (the law causes sin to increase, the written code kills, yada, yada).   But, we’ll come back to this.


Calvin, who in my opinion tried as best as he could to undo the essence of the Lutheran reformation, also taught 3 uses of the law, pedagogical, civil, and didactic.  His three uses, however, seem to misconstrue the essence of Paul.  His first use, pedagogical or “to tutor,” is of course straight from Paul, but he seems to miss the point. The civil use, to keep people from sinning, also shows a clear misunderstanding of Paul, who as I’ve already pointed out clearly said that the law causes sin to increase. By the 3rd use, didactic, Calvin meant that the Mosaic law can be used to teach and provoke people to good works. This concept, of course, is not found in the New Testament either.  So, I’ll just ignore Calvin for the remainder of my thinking about uses of the law (it is my blog, after all).

 Back to Luther(an)

While most Lutherans (especially those liberal ones) only recognize the first two uses of the law as found in the “Formula,” some such as the Missouri Synod are champions of the 3rd use of the law, at times seemingly in preference to the other two. Now I’d be happy for some wise MS Lutheran to show me I’m wrong on this, but this is what I’ve seemed to find among the Concordia crowd.

The Real  3rd Use of the Law

Now, I’m going to get a touch sarcastic here, but I really don’t mean to offend anyone. I’m just trying to raise an issue and make a point.  It seems to me that among some 3rd Users, the real 3rd use of the law is to be able to hammer it over the head of someone else.  Seriously, I’ve seen some of the most vile, judgmental, and downright mean comments on the internet coming from these nice, grace-loving Lutherans who just love to be able to say “I’m not as sinful as you.”

What’s up with that?

I’ve thought about this for months, and keep seeing it again and again, and it really, really bothers me.  This kind of attitude is no different than what Jesus talked about in Luke 18:10-14. Is grace just for us, or should we perhaps spread it around just a bit?  Or is grace only good for polite or socially-acceptable sins?

It is, okay, by the way, to disagree with other Christians, even to say, “I’m sorry, but I believe you’re a heretic.” Paul himself set an example for this. However, ad hominem, dehumanizing attacks are a different story. As the great doctor once said, “a person’s a person, no matter how small.”

What Paul Didn’t Teach

Paul never taught that the Law was an acceptable tool to use to pronounce judgment on others, and Jesus certainly didn’t.  Paul also didn’t teach that being justified by grace made us better than anyone else.

So What Did Paul Teach About the Law?

That’s a very good question.  In my mind (an often scary place), neither of the above lists really hits the mark. For one thing, I don’t think Paul ever meant for there to be such a list. Paul used examples to make points, like Jesus did with his parables and sayings. One day Jesus would say, “The Kingdom is like this” and another day he would say, “the kingdom is like that.”  They aren’t competing ideas, and they aren’t mutually exclusive or definitive. They’re examples. I don’t think Paul ever intended his letters to be seen as an exhaustive, definitive analysis of the law; however, taken as a whole, I think we can come up with a pretty good picture of Paul’s thinking.

My Plan

So, I am seriously considering going through Paul’s letters and discussing his various comments about the law. I may get sidetracked or bushwhacked, but at the moment this is my plan.  It could be interesting. Really.



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3 Responses to Uses of the Law

  1. Pingback: Alden Swan dot com - What’s up with the Lutherans?

  2. Steve Martin says:

    “Christ is the end of the law for all those who have faith.”

    Hmmm…seems pretty straight forward to me.

    The “3rd use” of the law is letting the fox back in the hen house.

  3. Excellent post, Alden, focusing upon a key concern (which I’ve also encountered amongst other Reformed and some Charismatic churches in my time – perhaps in a slightly different guise). I’m reading Robert Capon Farrar’s ‘ The Fingeprints of God’ at the moment (not in agreement with all of his views, but he’s on target on some really major issues) and he notes how moralism and religiosity are always easier to adopt and practice than the true Pauline position on grace, but that the problem you touch upon became somewhat endemic (‘the leaven’ that Jesus warned about) from the first quarrels following the inclusion of gentiles into the Jerusalem community onwards (see Chapter 4 of his book). It’s certainly one of the most serious blights within Christianity and is caused, I think, from our often all to common error of qualifying either the nature of God or the realm He made in a fashion which undermines what He has really said and done – hence, the continuing crisis to encounter something deeply meaningful and truly genuine in much of what is defined as contemporary spirituality.

    I look forward to more!

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