Lutheran And Reformed Differences On The Third Use Of The Law

Excerpts from:
David P. Scaer, Law and Gospel and the Means of Grace: Confessional Lutheran Dogmatics: Volume VIII, ed. John Stephenson (St. Louis, MO: The Luther Academy, 2008), 77-83. Additions to the excerpts are in brackets.

Both Lutheran and Reformed theologies speak of three uses of the law, but similarity in structure does not translate into doctrinal agreement.  Lutherans place emphasis on the accusatory function of the law (second use), while the Reformed emphasize the law's directives for the Christian life (third use).  This corresponds with the Reformed emphasis on sanctification over justification. . . . [Otherwise stated,] the Reformed agree with Lutherans that natural law provides the foundation for society and that the second use of the law can be known only by special revelation.  While Lutherans and Reformed do not agree precisely on the first two uses of the law, a fundamental difference becomes most evident in how each defines the third use. . . . 

[In regard to the third use of the Law,] Lutherans and the Reformed agree that after conversion the law still serves a purpose, so neither tradition is antinomian, though some Reformed theologians see an antinomian tendency in Lutheran theology.  On the other hand, Lutherans detect a note of legalism in the Reformed definition.  Behind these suspicions are differences in anthropology (how the converted Christian is viewed) and in definitions of the law and of the theology of the narrow sense (how God is understood).  A clue to the law's prominence in Reformed theology is the role it has after it carries out its accusatory purposes: it functions foremost in providing directives for the converted Christian.  For the Reformed, Luther's simul iustus et peccator, wherein saint and sinner are distinct realities within one person, plays no significant role in how man lives under the law and the gospel.


[More specifically,] Lutherans and the Reformed each affirm the third use of the law but acknowledge that their definitions differ.  Similar terminology has not been without its problems and has let the Reformed definition with its implicit legalism find entrance into Lutheran theology.  The view that wrath can motivate good works in Christians is a variation of Calvin's view that regenerate Christians need the prodding of the law.  Holding wrath over the Christian insofar as he is a new man in order to induce good works is a horrible confusion of the law with the gospel.  For the Reformed, the law in its third use has both prohibitions and positive directives for the Christian life.  By contrast, in Lutheran theology the law as prohibition and threat belongs to the second and not the third use.  Threats and punishments are not addressed to the Christian insofar as he is a believer.  There is no prodding of the law to do good works.  On the other hand, for as long as they live Christians can never escape the law's prohibitions and threats (SD VI. 23-24).  Whereas Luther holds that the old man and new man are completely opposed to each other as implacable antagonists, Calvin sees the Christian as a composite person who in spite of conversion is still not zealous to do good works.  With this approach not only does the law inform the Christian about what is good, but prods him to do it.  In Lutheran theology the sinner is always hearing the law and the gospel, so that he is constantly feeling sorrow for his sin and turning to Christ for forgiveness.  He is caught between two realities: the God who rejects him as he is in himself and the God who accepts him in Christ.  The word "conversion" is generally used for that one-time occurrence when the individual comes over from the world of Satan and unbelief to the life of Christ and faith, but the experience is lived and relived each time the Christian becomes aware of his sinfulness, feels sorrow for it, and turns to Christ.  In the Reformed view, after an initial conversion in which both the law and the gospel perform their respective functions, the believer embarks on the process of becoming holier by doing more good works.  Sanctification as a process is advanced by both the law and the gospel.  In contrast to this position, the Lutheran Confessions hold that the law provides neither negative nor positive motivation for the Christian life (SD VI).  The Christian's sanctification is a work of the gospel.  At issue here is not only that Lutherans and Reformed have different doctrines of man and of the law and the gospel; they also have a different understanding of God.  In making the third use of the law the goal of theology, the Reformed reinforce the understanding of the sovereignty of God as central to their theology.  God gives the law so that His glory can be manifest in the moral rectitude of His rational creatures.

Lutherans see things otherwise.  For them, theology reaches its goal in the lives of believers who constantly repent by turning away from their sins and are justified by faith in Christ.  For Lutherans, the law is characterized not so much by the Christian's freedom from moral blemish, which is impossible in this life (SD VI.7), but by the freedom to do good works which assist and help the neighbor in distress.  He begins again to live the life God destined for him before the Fall, but now after sin and conversion by the gospel the renewed life has a christological dimension.  He helps others as God in Christ helped fallen humanity.  Thus the third use of the law is the extension first of Christ's life and death through the gospel into the life of the believer.  Even a well-intended reminder to a believer that he has not done enough good works turns the gospel into law.  One Reformed scholar correctly understands the Lutheran definition of the third use: "The law, for Lutheranism, can never become the ultimate norm for Christian living but, instead, must always lead to Christ who is righteousness."(Muller, Latin and Greek Terms, 321)  Believers see the law's perfection in Christ, who comprises the gospel's content, and this law, now fulfilled in Christ, directs the Christian's life (third use).  The third use of the law is the description of the reality of Christ's life taking form and shape in the life of the Christian.  In grammatical terms, the  imperative of command becomes the indicative, describing what already exists.

To order "Law and Gospel and the Means of Grace," CLICK HERE.

CLICK HERE to join in the conversation on Facebook.
CLICK HERE to follow on Twitter.