Three Uses of the Law

Jeff Robinson in an article entitled “Of What Use is the Law? Three purposes” my oldest son asked me a very insightful question: How do the Ten Commandments apply to us today if they were given so long ago in the Old Testament?

It is a basic theological question that many Christians have asked throughout the history of the church and it is an important query. Many answers have been given to that, not all of them good. Obviously, there are two answers that are dead wrong and lead to two opposite ditches that the follower of Christ must avoid: Antinomianism (the law of God has no place in the life of the believer and he/she is free to live however they please) and legalism (I am saved by how closely I adhere to God’s commands—works righteousness).

Calvin09One of the best and most helpful answers, in my opinion, that has been given was set forth by the Genevan reformer, John Calvin. In his venerable systematic theology, the Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin set forth three “uses” for the moral law of God. The Lord of history has given His law, Calvin wrote, to serve as:

A mirror. Calvin argued that the law functions to expose our sin and unrighteousness. When a sinner looks into the mirror of God’s law, he sees himself as he really is: depraved, sinful, wretched, undone, lost and in need of cleansing, in need of a savior. This reality causes sinners to despair of their own righteousness and leads them to flee to the Savior, the cross of Christ, for mercy. Wrote Calvin:

“The law is like a mirror. In it we contemplate our weakness, then the iniquity arising from this, and finally the curse coming from both—just as a mirror shows us the spots on our face . . . The apostle’s statement is relevant here: ‘Through the law comes knowledge of sin’ (Rom. 3:20).”

A restrainer of evil. The law of God functions to keep evildoers from being as bad as they otherwise might be. Thus, to some degree it serves to protect God’s people from the sinful machinations of the ungodly, Calvin argued. The law certainly cannot regenerate a sinful heart—that is the domain of the Holy Spirit through the gospel alone—but Calvin wrote:

“They are restrained, not because their inner mind is stirred or affected, but because, being bridled, so to speak, they keep their hands from outward activity and hold inside the depravity that otherwise they would wantonly have indulged. Consequently, they are neither better nor more righteous before God. Hindered by fright or shame, they dare neither execute what they have conceived in their minds, nor openly breathe for the rage of their lust.”

A revelation of the will of God. Believers, who have been transformed by the gospel, Calvin wrote, need the law as well, certainly not as a means of salvation, but as a guide to sanctification. The law reveals God’s perfect righteousness and reveals that which is pleasing to him. A believer can come to delight in God’s commands, however, only after he his heart has been regenerated by God’s grace through the gospel. Wrote Calvin:

“Here is the best instrument for them (believers) to learn more thoroughly each day the nature of the Lord’s will to which they aspire, and to confirm them in the understanding of it. It is as if some servant, already prepared with all earnestness of heart to comment himself to his master, must search out and observe his master’s ways more carefully in order to conform and accommodate himself to them. And not one of us may escape from this necessity. For no man has heretofore attained to such wisdom as to be unable, from the daily instruction of the law, to make fresh progress toward a purer knowledge of the divine will. Again, because we need not only teaching but also exhortation, the servant of God will also avail himself of this benefit of the law: by frequent meditation upon it to be aroused to obedience, be strengthened in it, and be drawn back from the slippery path of transgression. In this way the saints must press on; for, however eagerly they may in accordance with the Spirit strive toward God’s righteousness, the listless flesh always so burdens them that they do not proceed with due readiness. The law is to the flesh like a whip to an idle and balky ass (donkey), to arouse it to work.”

Calvin’s is a helpful paradigm, I think. But perhaps best of all, Calvin reminded his readers, in speaking of the first use of the law, that the law—like a schoolmaster—prepares one to receive the good news of the gospel. The law of God demonstrates that man has no righteousness in himself that is pleasing to God. Sinful man must be given a righteousness that is extra nos—outside of himself. As the Puritans, Calvin’s theological ancestors, famously put it, the law wounds and then the gospel arrives and heals. Wrote Calvin:

“While [the law] shows God’s righteousness, that is, the righteousness alone acceptable to God, it warns, informs, convicts, and lastly condemns every man of his own unrighteousness. For man, blinded and drunk with self-love, must be compelled to know and to confess his own feebleness and impurity. If man is not clearly convinced of his own vanity, he is puffed up with insane confidence, in his own mental powers, and can never be induced to recognize their slenderness as long as he measures them by a measure of his own choice. But as soon as he begins to compare his powers with the difficulty of the law, he has something to diminish his bravado. For, however remarkable an opinion of his powers he formerly held, he soon feels that they are panting under so heavy a weight as to stagger and totter, and finally even to fall down and faint away. Thus man, schooled in the law, sloughs off the arrogance that previously blinded him.”

As followers of Christ, we are a people of grace and not law. But it is God’s law that demonstrates his spotless character and shows our need of grace. Calvin saw this clearly. As Paul admonished young Timothy, may God teach us how to use the law lawfully (1 Tim. 1:8).

Jeff Robinson is an editor for The Gospel Coalition. A native of Blairsville, Ga., Jeff holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from The University of Georgia, a Master of Divinity in biblical and theological studies and a Ph.D. in historical theology with an emphasis on Baptist history from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky, where he was mentored and supervised by noted Baptist historian Tom Nettles. At Southern Seminary, he also served as public relations officer for 10 years and also served as adjunct professor of church history at Boyce College. Jeff also spent 11 years as an editor and writer with The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood in Louisville. Prior to entering ministry, he spent nearly 20 years as a newspaper journalist. Jeff and his wife Lisa have been married for 19 years and have four children: Jeffrey, 12, Hannah, 10, Lydia, 8, and Jacob, 6. Jeff is the author of numerous articles and book chapters on theology, culture, gender issues, fatherhood/parenting, baseball history and church history and is co-author with Michael Haykin of The Great Commission Vision of John Calvin from Crossway. He is a contributing writer for the online church history journal, Credo. He serves as senior fellow for the Andrew Fuller Center for Baptist History and Tradition and is an adjunct professor of church history at SBTS.

The Distinction Between Law and Gospel

Martin Luther declared of the person ignorant of the distinction between Law and Gospel that “you cannot be altogether sure whether he is a Christian or a Jew or a pagan, for it depends on this distinction.” – Hermann Sasse, Here We Stand: Nature and Character of the Lutheran Faith, trans. by Theodore G. Tappert, (New York: Harper & Bros., 1938). p. 114.

Elsewhere Luther wrote, “Whoever knows well this art of distinguishing between the Law and the gospel, him place at the head and call him a doctor of Holy Scripture.”

Today, I was interviewed for almost an hour on the “Knowing the Truth” broadcast with Kevin Boling on the subject of Law and Gospel.

The program is now available online at this link.

The Promise of the Law

” JETS 40 (1997): 585.

There are two ways to read the Bible. We can read it as law or as promise.

If we read the Bible as law, we will find on every page what God is telling us we should do. Even the promises will be conditioned by law. But if we read the Bible as promise, we will find on every page what God is telling us he will do. Even the law will be conditioned by promise.

In Galatians 3 Paul explains which hermeneutic is the correct one. “This is what I mean: the law, which came 430 years afterward, does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to make the promise void. For if the inheritance comes by the law, it no longer comes by promise; but God gave it to Abraham by a promise” (Galatians 3:17-18).

So, if we want to know whether we should read the Bible through the lens of law or grace, demand or provision, threat or promise — if we want to know how to read the Bible in an apostolic rather than a rabbinic way — we can follow the plot-line of the Bible itself and see which comes first. And in fact, promise comes first, in God’s word to Abram in Genesis 12. Then the law is “added” — significant word, in Galatians 3:19 — the law is added as a sidebar later, in Exodus 20. The hermeneutical category “promise” establishes the larger, wraparound framework for everything else added in along the way.

The deepest message of the Bible is the promises of God to undeserving law-breakers through his grace in Christ. This is not an arbitrary overlay forced onto the biblical text. The Bible presents itself to us this way. The laws and commands and examples and warnings are all there, fulfilled in Christ and revered by us. But they do not provide the hermeneutic with which we make sense of the whole. We can and should understand them as qualified by God’s gracious promise, for all who will bank their hopes on him.

The Threefold Use Of The Law

The Reformation Study Bible contains 96 theological articles on a wide variety of subjects. Here is a helpful article that succinctly explains what is commonly called the threefold use of the law:

“Scripture shows that God intends His law to function in three ways, which Calvin crystalized in classic form for the church’s benefit as the law’s threefold use.

Its first function is to be a mirror reflecting to us both the perfect righteousness of God and our own sinfulness and shortcomings. As Augustine wrote, “the law bids us, as we try to fulfill its requirements, and become wearied in our weakness under it, to know how to ask the help of grace.” The law is meant to give knowledge of sin (Rom. 3:20; 4:15; 5:13; 7:7-11), and by showing us our need of pardon and our danger of damnation to lead us in repentance and faith to Christ (Gal. 3:19-24).

A second function, the “civil use,” is to restrain evil. Though the law cannot change the heart, it can to some extent inhibit lawlessness by its threats of judgement, 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 civil order, and serves to protect the righteous from the unjust.

Its third function is to guide the regenerate into the good works that God has planned for them (Eph. 2:10). The law tells God’s children what will please their heavenly Father. It could be called their family code. Christ was speaking of this third use of the law when He said that those who become His disciples must be taught to do all that He had commanded (Matt. 28:20), and that obedience to His commands will prove the reality of one’s love for Him (John 14:15). The Christian is free from the law as a system of salvation (Rom. 6:14; 7:4, 6; 1 Cor. 9:20; Gal. 2:15-19, 3:25), but is “under the law of Christ” as a rule of life (1 Cor. 9:21; Gal. 6:2).”

What’s the Difference Between the Decretive and the Preceptive Wills of God?

“The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.” – Deut 29:29

In this excerpt from his teaching series, “Foundations,” Dr. R.C. Sproul distinguishes between the decretive and the preceptive wills of God.

Transcript
The secret things of the LORD our God belong to Him. That refers to what we call the hidden will of God. Now usually when we’re speaking of the hidden will of God we have in our mind the decretive will of God. And when people say to me, “What is the will of God for my life?” I say, remember that the Bible uses the word “will of God” in several different ways. The first way in which we talk about the will of God is what we call the decretive will; and the decretive will of God is that will of God by which God sovereignly brings to pass whatsoever He wills. Sometimes it’s called the absolute will of God; sometimes it’s simply called the sovereign will of God; sometimes it’s called in theology the efficacious will of God. But normally, we talk about the decretive will of God. That is, when God decrees sovereignly that something should come to pass, it must needs come to pass.

The Bible frequently speaks about the determinate counsel of God. Where, when God has decreed from all eternity that Christ should die on the cross in Jerusalem at a particular time in history, it must needs come to pass. It comes to pass through the determinate counsel or will of God. That’s what we’re talking about when we’re talking about the decretive will of God. That will that God brings to pass by the sheer power of His sovereignties. It’s irresistible, it has to happen. When God calls the world into existence, it comes into existence. It cannot not begin, the lights cannot not come on when He says, “Let there be light.” That’s the decretive will of God.

Now, we also talk about the preceptive will of God. And we understand that the decretive will of God cannot be resisted. The preceptive will of God not only can be resisted by us, but is resisted all the time. The preceptive will of God is a reference to God’s law; to His commandments. This is the will of God that you not have any other God’s before Him. Now when people call me and they say, “How can I know the will of God for my life?” I want to say to them, what will are you talking about? Are you talking about the decretive will of God? Are you talking about the hidden will of God? If you’re talking about the hidden will of God, the first thing you have to understand about the hidden will of God is that it’s hidden.

And when people say to me, “What does God want me to do in this sort of case?” I say, how do I know? I study theology, but I can’t read God’s mind. All I can do is read God’s Word. And what God’s Word does for me is give me His revealed will. And that’s enough of a task to last me my lifetime trying to sort out everything that is in this book that God has revealed. And if you’re asking me about that I can help you with it; but if you’re asking me about His hidden will, you’re asking the wrong person, because I have no earthly idea what is in God’s mind where He has not revealed Himself.

Now Calvin made his comment at this point, he says, “Where God closes His holy mouth, I will desist from inquiry.” I’ll say that again, “Where God closes His holy mouth, I will desist from inquiry.” Now to translate that into modern nomenclature, we would say something like this, “The hidden will of God is none of your business, that’s why it’s hidden.”

“Why Can’t I Own Canadians?” Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth

by Dr. Michael Horton at Dr. Laura Schlesinger, an Orthodox Jew, said that homosexuality is an abomination according to Leviticus 18:22, and cannot be condoned under any circumstance. The following response is an open letter to Dr. Laura, which was posted on the Internet. It creates a great opportunity to talk about how we interpret the Bible (especially the Old Testament). We need to have good answers—better than Dr. Laura would have—to the frequent criticism that if we’re going to follow Leviticus on one thing (like the vileness of homosexuality), we have to take the rest (such as stoning homosexuals and rebellious children—not to mention, the ban on pork, etc., and holy war in defense of a holy nation).

Dear Dr. Laura:

Thank you for doing so much to educate people regarding God’s Law. I have learned a great deal from your show, and try to share that knowledge with as many people as I can. When someone tries to defend the homosexual lifestyle, for example, I simply remind them that Leviticus 18:22 clearly states it to be an abomination …. End of debate.

I do need some advice from you, however, regarding some other elements of God’s Laws and how to follow them.

1. Leviticus 25:44 states that I may possess slaves, both male and female, provided they are purchased from neighboring nations. A friend of mine claims that this applies to Mexicans, but not Canadians. Can you clarify? Why can’t I own Canadians?

2. I would like to sell my daughter into slavery, as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7. In this day and age, what do you think would be a fair price for her?

3. I know that I am allowed no contact with a woman while she is in her period of Menstrual uncleanliness – Lev15: 19-24. The problem is how do I tell? I have tried asking, but most women take offense.

4. When I burn a bull on the altar as a sacrifice, I know it creates a pleasing odor for the Lord – Lev.1:9. The problem is my neighbors. They claim the odor is not pleasing to them. Should I smite them?

5. I have a neighbor who insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly states he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself, or should I ask the police to do it?

6. A friend of mine feels that even though eating shellfish is an abomination, Lev. 11:10, it is a lesser abomination than homosexuality. I don’t agree. Can you settle this? Are there ‘degrees’ of abomination?

7. Lev. 21:20 states that I may not approach the altar of God if I have a defect in my sight. I have to admit that I wear reading glasses. Does my vision have to be 20/20, or is there some wiggle-room here?

8. Most of my male friends get their hair trimmed, including the hair around their temples, even though this is expressly forbidden by Lev. 19:27. How should they die?

9. I know from Lev. 11:6-8 that touching the skin of a dead pig makes me unclean, but may I still play football if I wear gloves?

10. My uncle has a farm. He violates Lev.19:19 by planting two different crops in the same field, as does his wife by wearing garments made of two different kinds of thread (cotton/polyester blend). He also tends to curse and blaspheme a lot. Is it really necessary that we go to all the trouble of getting the whole town together to stone them? Lev.24:10-16. Couldn’t we just burn them to death at a private family affair, like we do with people who sleep with their in-laws? (Lev. 20:14)

I know you have studied these things extensively and thus enjoy considerable expertise in such matters, so I’m confident you can help. Thank you again for reminding us that God’s word is eternal and unchanging.

Your adoring fan,
James M Kauffman, Ed.D.
Professor Emeritus, Dept. Of Curriculum, Instruction, and Special Education
University of Virginia
(It would be a damn shame if we couldn’t own a Canadian)

Although the responses aren’t usually this clever, the “Do you really want to go to Leviticus?” argument packs a punch in contemporary debates. Often, the critic assumes that every biblical command is a timeless and universal law. They really can’t bear the blame by themselves for this misunderstanding, since it’s common to a lot of Christian preaching through the ages. Medieval popes invoked these “holy war” passages for the crusades and appealed to Leviticus for prohibiting the charging of interest on loans to Christians.

In fact, John Calvin took aim at medieval canon law on just these very points, explaining that while the moral law is indeed universally binding for all time and places, the civil and ceremonial laws attached to it in the Old Testament covenant code were given uniquely to the only nation that has ever been chosen and separated as holy to the Lord. Anticipated by John the Baptist’s fiery announcement of a judgment in God’s house, Jesus pronounced his covenant curses on the religious leaders and in word and deed replaced the Temple. The only holy land after Jesus’ resurrection is his body, those who are united to him through faith, “from every tribe, kindred, tongue, people, and nation” (Rev 5:9). Already in Hebrews 8:13, the old covenant could be called “obsolete.”

The commands in the old covenant law (viz., Leviticus and Deuteronomy) are specific to that remarkable geo-political theocracy that foreshadowed the universal kingdom of Christ. The deliverance of Israel in the exodus anticipates a far greater exodus through the waters of death and hell in Christ. The holy wars pale in comparison with the judgment of the nations that Christ will execute at the end of the age. Even if Israel had been faithful to this covenant, Canaan would have only been a type or small-scale model of the extensiveness and intensiveness of God’s reign at the end of the age. Moses could not give God’s people rest in the land of everlasting Sabbath. As the prophets proclaim, this would only come when one greater than Moses would rescue his people and lead them victoriously into the perfect peace, love, and joy that he would win for his co-heirs.

Sure, we learn from Leviticus 18:22 that God considers homosexuality an abomination. Yet our critics (at least the clever ones) will point out that the same code threatens excommunication for eating any meat with blood in it (Lev 17:10) and eating animals that chew the cud or part the hoof (like pigs) is strictly forbidden as “unclean” (Lev 11). The responder above points to many other examples.

Few of these commands can be explained in terms of general wisdom for hygiene, sanitation, and gastronomic health. They focus attention on God’s act of separating Israel (“clean”) from the unclean nations. Each set of prohibitions is a facet in the diamond of an old covenant system that sparkled with anticipation of the coming Messiah. It takes a good knowledge of the covenantal context and import of these commands for Israel to recognize their unique significance in this history of redemption. It also requires that we interpret the Old Testament in light of the New Testament, allowing the fulfillment to guide our understanding of the typological promise.

A good place to start in digging deeper is M. G. Kline’s Kingdom Prologue, especially where he talks about “Intrusion Ethics”: that is, the suspension of ordinary providence in favor of miracle, ordinary wisdom in favor of God’s direct word through the prophets, just war among common nations in favor of holy war on behalf of God’s holy land and nation. Homosexuality is still a violation of God’s moral law for all times and places, but the sanction for it under the old covenant (death by stoning) was theocracy-specific.

Living in an era that foreshadowed the last judgment, the Psalmist properly offered imprecatory prayers calling for God’s judgment on the ungodly. Nevertheless, in Jesus’ ministry this identification of heaven with a geo-political nation was declared no longer in effect. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus quotes some of these passages in Leviticus and Deuteronomy: “You have heard it said, ‘…..’ But I say,….” These old covenant commands were not wrong; they had their place in the theocratic government that God exercised directly over his people. However, Jesus rebukes James and John when they seek to call fire down on the Samaritan village that rejected the gospel. I offer a summary of this argument in The Christian Faith (chapter 29).

In the moral law that runs not only through the whole Bible but throughout the codes of so many civilizations across the ages, God reveals his righteous character. In the specific legislation that God attaches to this moral law for Israel alone, however, God’s moral will is in service to his saving will in Jesus Christ. These Israel-specific laws are not intended to regulate the constitutions of common nations, but ultimately to play their part in a theocratic system that leads us ultimately to Christ and his everlasting kingdom. So you can’t invoke the old covenant passages for common nations in this era in which Christ’s kingdom is not identified with any geo-political nation. It’s an era of forgiveness, a stay of execution before the dreadful day of judgment. In this in-between time, the kingdom of Christ (regardless of what the secular kingdoms of this age determine) announces God’s righteous judgment and gracious salvation. It calls all people everywhere—gay, straight, gossips, and the pious grandmother who trusts in her own righteousness—to repent and embrace God’s only Son.