Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Was Calvin a Luther-ite?: Luther and the Three Uses of the Law

This morning I am reading Luther's Postal for New Year's Day from Galatians 3:23-29.  He begins the postal, "This is a truly Pauline Epistle, written about faith against works..."  Of course, I am thinking, "classic Luther."  And then I was expecting to read a lot about the law-gospel dichotomy.  However, I was surprised by what I read a few pages later, and I am interested in what others think on this.

I was theologically "raised-up" believing that Luther did not have a "third-use" of the law, unlike us Reformed folk.  

R.C. Sproul helpfully and succinctly defines them thus:

The first purpose of the law is to be a mirror. On the one hand, the law of God reflects and mirrors the perfect righteousness of God. The law tells us much about who God is. Perhaps more important, the law illumines human sinfulness. Augustine wrote, “The law orders, that we, after attempting to do what is ordered, and so feeling our weakness under the law, may learn to implore the help of grace.”2 The law highlights our weakness so that we might seek the strength found in Christ. Here the law acts as a severe schoolmaster who drives us to Christ.

A second purpose for the law is the restraint of evil. The law, in and of itself, cannot change human hearts. It can, however, serve to protect the righteous from the unjust. Calvin says this purpose is “by means of its fearful denunciations and the consequent dread of punishment, to curb those who, unless forced, have no regard for rectitude and justice.”3 The law allows for a limited measure of justice on this earth, until the last judgment is realized.

The third purpose of the law is to reveal what is pleasing to God. As born-again children of God, the law enlightens us as to what is pleasing to our Father, whom we seek to serve. The Christian delights in the law as God Himself delights in it. Jesus said, “If you love Me, keep My commandments” (John 14:15). This is the highest function of the law, to serve as an instrument for the people of God to give Him honor and glory.  

This is close to my understanding.  And it is also supposedly different from what Luther thought.  But this is what Luther says in his New Year's Postal that has me wondering if we understand Luther correctly:

"Second, [we see] that this is a threefold use of the Law -- or that people take a threefold attitude toward it.  The first are those who risk everything and lead shameful lives against it; for them, it is as if there were no Law [See Sproul's first use.  The shameful life is only known to be shameful in light of God's righteousness.  Cf. Rom 7:7].  The second are those who refrain from such a dissolute life and are preserved in an honorable life; they are under discipline outwardly, but inwardly they are hostile to their guardian [the law], and all their thing happen out of fear of death and hell.  Thus they keep the Law only outwardly, and the Law keeps them outwardly, but inwardly they do not keep it and are not kept by it [See Sproul's second use.  The law is a fence.].  The third are those who keep it outwardly and inwardly; they are the tablets of Moses, written outwardly and inwardly by the finger of God Himself [Exod. 31:18]."

This third "attitude" towards the law, as Luther says, sounds quite Reformed, or less anachronistically, proto-Reformed (?).  However, would it be more correct to say in light of this that Calvin was a Luther-ite (and in light of Luther's treatise on The Bondage of the Will, also)?  I do not say Lutheran, because Lutherans are not Luther-ites - they are Melanchthonians.  It is a question of mine. 


  1. Threefold attitudes toward the law sounds a bit different from "uses" of the law in a Calvinist sense. Attitude is different from use in that the latter refers to the activity of the preacher who preaches the law to the regenerate who straightforwardly obey. The former, attitude, seems to have to do with individuals who act apart from the compulsion of the law - it is not preached, but is instead written by the finger of God on the heart.

    See, for example, Gerhard Ebeling's essay "On the Doctrine of the Triplex Usus Legis in the Theology of the Reformation" in the book Word and Faith. He restricts his discussion to the Antinomian Dispute, but concludes that Luther is insistent that "the law has to be preached to the *pii* not *in quantum iusti* but *in quantum peccatores*" (p.77) - ie the law may have a third realm of applicability but it is subsumed under the Law/Gospel order and distinction.

  2. Thanks for your thoughts, Todd. I feel, as it seems you may be, that I am working through the semantics of the issue. How Luther and Calvin express their theology is of course quite different, and for good reason when one considers the differing contexts they were speaking into, and the different respective stages and aspects of the Reformation they were part of and were influences upon their thinking. This is why I am interested in hearing other thoughts. Yours is helpful.

    I especially valued your Ebeling part. I am a little more unsure about the "attitude"/"use" distinction you make. I see your point, namely, that one is the communication of the law in the preaching of the Word, while the other is the living out of the law by the believer, but wonder if it may be a false dichotomy. Might "attitude" simply be Luther's way of expressing "use"? Maybe I am understanding you incorrectly. Or maybe it is simply that I need to do more homework! Thanks, however, for your thoughts.

  3. A couple other comments posted on Facebook on this article:

    Mike P.:I think our surprise in the reformed community is due more to a misunderstanding of Lutheran views on the law than reality. Luther's small catechism is all 3rd use. The Lutheran confessions have articles on the third use of the Law. It's not as much of a foreign concept to Lutheran's as we make it out to be. Nor should the 2nd use (conviction of sin) be weird for Presbyterians - It's right there in the WCF. I think the difference comes down to emphasis, and maybe anthropology. Lutheran's would say you can't predict what the law is going to do - you may be striving for the 3rd use, but it is heard as 2nd, etc. For Luther the problem is not the law, it is "holy, righteous, and good," but we are not and therefore exhortation from the law will always bring us back to the 2nd use, and the need to hear the gospel afresh. That's just my 2 cents though.

    Nick G.: It's always seemed to me that the Reformed have been more appreciative and sympathetic to Luther and Lutheranism (see the Calvinist 2K Theology and it's importation of a form of the Law&Gospel Hermeneutic, among other things) than Lutherans are of Calvin and Calvinism. I have a friend (actually, he's the husband of one of my wife's childhood friends) who is a hardline LCMS pastor and every now and then I interact with him and his LCMS pastor friends on an issue and they are usually convinced that I/we are ultimately teaching a form of works-righteousness when I represent a Reformed perspective.

    Dave Mann (Pastor, ELCA): Modern liberal Lutheranism, in its rush toward antinomianism, has abandoned the 3rd use of the law. However, all 3 uses of the law are abundantly clear in Luther's writings and in The Formula of Concord to which Lutherans subscribe, at least in theory.

  4. I couldn't find where to post this - but here is my submission for the Biblical Studies Carnival for February. I hope you consider it inclusion-worthy - I'm rather new to this blogging world!