Accidentally Hating what God Loves

As an amateur theologian with enough knowledge to make me dangerous, I have gotten myself in the thick of various pickles. (I’m mixing my metaphors, aren’t I? See, I’m dangerous.) Over the past few weeks, I might have inadvertently encouraged the pursuit of one such pickle: a loathing for the law of God.

If all the law does is show me what I must but cannot do, then the law is basically nothing more than a constant reminder of my failures. That’s not much to celebrate, is it? Well, the truth is that we have been focusing on only one of the law’s uses, but it actually has three. It functions as a curb, a mirror, and a guide.

A Curb
First, the law “helps to control violent outbursts of sin and keeps order in the world” (Luther’s Small Catechism). In this respect, it doesn’t change human nature for the better. It simply restrains us from doing what we would otherwise do.

A Mirror
Second, the law “accuses us and shows us our sin” (Luther’s Smaller Catechism). It lets us see our reflection—and the sight is horror-film-level scary. This is the use of the law I had become familiar with—too familiar.

A Guide
The law has a third use: It “teaches us Christians what we should and should not do to lead a God-pleasing life. . . . The power to live according to the Law comes from the Gospel” (Luther’s Small Catechism). With this use, the law warmly lights our darkened path and reveals where we need to go.

The law shows us a beautiful standard: God’s standard. It proclaims what He values and what He hates. By revealing God’s will to us, it helps us see who God is and what He is like. It shows what is possible only for the Christian: loving obedience to His commands.

In the first two uses, the law brings an outward control on us that may provide some societal benefit (peace and order), but it doesn’t bring any inward reformation. Our behavior might change (to a limited degree), but our hearts do not. With these two uses of the law, we only experience what Paul calls its dominion over us (Rom. 7:1). It can only coerce and condemn.

The third use of the law comes into play only after a person experiences the new birth. Once a person is born again, the law does something it couldn’t do before—provide an inward control. When the gospel bears fruit to salvation, God puts His law in our minds and writes it on our hearts (Jer. 31:33). With this use of the law, we are compelled to love God from within.

When the law comes down on us from the outside, bringing its condemning power with it, our hearts respond to the pressure in this way: they “bear fruit to death” (Rom. 7:5). But when we die to the outward dominion of the law and experience the inward dominion of the law, the fountain of our heart changes: we “bear fruit to God” (Rom. 7:4). An outward compulsion of the law brings forth sin and death. An inward compulsion of the law brings forth righteousness and life.

Notice that I haven’t contradicted any of my earlier statements. Even as believers, we can never obey the law of God by ourselves. “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Php. 4:13) isn’t code for, “I can now do all things by myself.” No, Jesus tells His disciples, “without Me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). Obedience to the law of God only comes by the power of the gospel of God.

So we see that the law and the gospel are vastly different, though not in a contradictory sense. Just as melody and harmony combine to provide greater musical texture, so the law and gospel work in unity to glorify the saving work of Jesus Christ. The law shows us what is good and right and true—but gives us no power to follow it. Through the gospel, God promises to do in us that which is humanly impossible: willingly and happily obey Him.

This article concludes our series on the distinctions between law and gospel. You can read the series in its entirety by clicking on the “law vs. gospel” label at the bottom of this post.


Steve Martin said…
Luther never talked about a "third use".

The guide, which is there is already part of the first two uses. We preach the same law/gospel sermons to both the believer and the non-believer...since all of us have that 'non-believer' aspect to us (we constantly wander off).

The trouble with the so-called "3rd use" is that it lets the fox back into the henhouse and opens the door to legalism.

We Lutherans have argued about this so-called :"3rd use" since the beginning of Lutheranism. We're not going to resolve it anytime soon.

I happen to land in the group that believes it causes trouble and that there's no need for it.

Cap Stewart said…
Thanks for the clarifications, Steve. How would you say Lutherans view Luther's Small Catechism now (or, at least the parts that I quoted)?
Steve Martin said…
Thank you, Cap.

I think Lutherans view the Small Catechism much in the way that you laid out...except a lot of us don't buy into the "3rd use". Knowing what the law demands of us is made perfectly clear in the first two uses.

We know what to do. (the law is "written upon our hearts)...we just flat out refuse to do it, so much of the time.

My Small Catechism does not have the "3rd use" language in it. I'm not sure if the Missouri Synod guys inserted into theirs. Luther himself never used "3rd use" language (according to my Lutheran pastor who has studied Luther for 30 years). Now, Melancthon used "3rd use" language. But he was a humanist and missed the mark a bit some of his understanding of the capabilities of humans with respect to keeping the law.

Anyway, my 2 cents.

Thanks, Cap.
Steve Martin said…

Here's what the late Dr. Gerhard Forde (esteemed Lutheran theologian) thought about it:

“That is why the law must be limited to its two proper uses. Although the argument is more subtle and complicated that we can do justice to now, one should be able to see why it is perilous to accommodate Luther’s view with a so-called “third use of the law” as a friendly guide for the reborn Christian. There is no way yet into a state where the Christian can use the law in a third way. Such a view rests on presumptions entirely different from those of Luther and, for that matter, Paul. It makes too many pious assumptions. It assumes, apparently, that the law can really be domesticated so it can be used by us like a friendly pet. Does the law actually work that way? It assumes that we are the users of the law. We do not use the law. The Spirit does. And we really have no control over it. Who knows when it is going to rise up and attack in all its fury? Luther knew full well, of course, that in spite of all his piety he could not bring the law to heel. Indeed, even as a Christian one needs to hear and heed the law – and the law will attack a Christian just as it attacks the non-Christian. One does not have the key to some third use.

We do not live in an eschatological vestibule. Christians need the law in the same way non-Christians do. The idea of a third use assumes the law story simply continues after grace. Grace is just a blip, an episode, on the basic continuum of the law. Luther’s contention is that the law story is subordinate to the Jesus story. The law is for Luther, as it was for Paul, an episode in a larger, not vice versa. It is only grace that can bring the law to heel.”

- Gerhard Forde