Sunday, July 5, 2009


The First Use of the Law

Righteousness exalts a nation,
but sin is a reproach to any people
” (Pr. 14:34)

Three weeks ago, Jailer published a post on “The Political Church”. It received some comment, but I think more is in order, and so I’d like to take a different slant on the subject, using what theologians term “the uses of the law”. One treatment of this subject can be found Berkhof’s Systematic Theology in a section titled “The Threefold Use of the Law”, under “The Word as a Means of Grace”:

The first use Berkhof lists is the law’s “political” use: “The law serves the purpose of restraining sin and promoting righteousness. .... It serves the purpose of God’s common grace in the world at large.” This use is related to what Luther termed in the introductory “declaration” to his great Commentary on Galatians a “civil or political righteousness, [with] which Kings, princes of this world, magistrates and lawyers deal ....” This is the use which concerns us when we wrestle in the church with political activity. So we need to look more closely at it, but it’s helpful to first look at the other two uses of the law, since they cast light on the issues involved.

The second use Berkhof lists is the law’s use to “refute” any notion we may entertain of our own righteousness or ability to please God. The classic Scriptural text that captures this use is Romans 3:19,20: “Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped and the whole world held accountable to God. For by the works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.” I have heard pastors characterize this use of the law as “driving us to Christ”. This characterization is related to what Luther termed in the declaration cited above, “the righteousness of faith [in which] we work nothing, we render nothing unto God, but we only receive, and suffer another to work in us, that is to say, God.” The law’s role in this “alien righteousness” (Luther’s term) is to convince us that we are utterly undone without it. So this use is part of the very central message of the church: “Repent and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1:15)

The compelling importance to the church of the second use of the law is illustrated by the fact that the “third use of the law” is actually controversial. This use of the law, often referred to simply as “the third use”, is called by Berkhof its “normative” use, and a good exposition of it can be found in Questions 90 and 91 of the Heidelberg Catechism. A summary I have heard of this use of the law is that it is a Christian’s "guide to the life of gratitude”. The law is our guide as to how to live in response to His grace to us.

So it may seem surprising that this use of the law would be controversial. But, if we think about it for a moment, the dangers here are very real. What to a grateful Christian, saved by grace and wanting to live in a way that pleases God in gratitude for that, is his guide, can easily be to another listener instructions on how to save himself by works. That is, the concern is that the third use may compromise the second, which is all-important. The tension involved here can be heard in the care Paul takes in Ephesians 2:8-10: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” God has prepared good works for us to do, and surely His word is a lamp for our feet (Psalm 119:105), but be careful that it doesn’t become a matter of pride!

This matter was so troubling to the first Lutherans that the legitimacy of the “third use of the law” was hotly disputed among them and this dispute had to be addressed in the Formula of Concord. In that document, written in 1577 to settle various disputes in the protestant German churches, Articles IV, V, and VI are, entitled, respectively, “Of Good Works”, “Of the Law and the Gospel”, and “Of the Third Use of the Law”. From these titles, one can see the concern that the law not be used in any way that would undermine "the righteousness of faith". In these Articles, the document recognizes the legitimacy of the third use of the law, but also recognizes that it must be exercised very carefully.

Returning now to the “political use of the law”, and looking back at the controversy concerning the “third use of the law”, can it be surprising that, if the dangers of pride and works-righteousness are a concern when the church uses “thou shalt not commit adultery” (Exodus 20:14) to instruct believers on how they themselves ought to live, there is even greater concern when we go beyond that and put our energies into using that precept to work for laws that constrain our unbelieving neighbors to live that way?

Do Christians have a proper concern with such laws? Phrased this way, the answer must surely be “Yes”, since 1 Timothy 2:1-6 makes that very clear. Paul urges in verses 1 & 2 “that ... prayers ... be made ... for kings and all who are in high positions, ....” and part of the reason given in verse 2 is “that we may live a peaceful and quiet life”, but the deeper reason for that is given in verses 3 & 4: “This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.

If we think in terms of the commandment quoted above, consider the social consequences we have seen already from it’s having been ignored in our culture for decades now. An opinion article about illegitimacy by Charles Murray in the Wall Street Journal in October, 1993 titled “The Coming White Underclass” made the situation seem pretty grim then, and things have only got worse in the meanwhile. An inference from his point then was that all the reasons for which we would have been reluctant to walk in certain neighborhoods, were about to become true of neighborhoods a whole lot closer to many of us. The consequences of raising children in broken homes (or homes that were never put together in the first place!) are well-documented: Society breaks down. It turns into "a jungle out there"!

The point here, if we come back to 1 Timothy 2, is that the work of the gospel is made much more difficult when it has to be carried out in neighborhoods with bullet-pocked walls, where people are afraid to walk the streets. We may argue that, “all things are possible with God” (Mark 10:27), but, in the light of 1 Timothy 2:3,4, it’s clear that, while God can indeed save people out of those neighborhoods, He wants us at the very least to be earnest in prayer to the political end that neighborhoods more peaceful than that may be available to those whom He is saving.

But what happens to us, even restricting ourselves to prayer, if we devote so much of our energies to working against the destruction of the family, or the murder of the unborn, or against any one of a number of other abuses, that we lose sight of the fact that we never outgrow our need to “repent and believe in the gospel”? And we know from history, especially when we go beyond prayer, that this danger is very great: In his Pulitzer Prize-winning history “What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848”, Daniel Walker Howe justifiably spends considerable time on the efforts of Northern Evangelicals to ameliorate different social ills of that era, the most acute of them being slavery. Many who worked for these things were devout believers, who never lost their grip on the Gospel of Grace. But many fell into the trap of believing that they could “bring in the millennium” by political transformation. That is, they fell into the trap of making the “political use” of the law their focus, rather than the use which “drives men to Christ”. Even worse, many had shipwrecked their faith altogether and were Unitarians. This was an issue for the church in this country almost 200 years ago, and it’s no less an issue today: How do we work for God’s common grace in our nation without losing sight of His special grace in our lives?

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