The Third Use Of The Law Describes The Christian Life In Its Most Perfect Form

Excerpt from: 
Rev. David P. Scaer, ThD, Finding a Place for the Third Use of the Law in Our Preaching (Essay)

The third use of the Law describes the Christian life in its most perfect form, but like the Mount of Transfiguration, we return to the reality of lives lived under Law’s accusatory function, and with the Gospel we face the dilemma of what appears as God’s two contradictory wills. Although uncertainty is resolved by recognizing that the Gospel is God’s last word, absolute certainty comes only at death, after which Christians will only know the Law according to its third use. Until then, Christians live their lives between two opposing forces in a state of perpetual uncertainty. This uncertainty is an act of divine love, in that since we are rejected by the Law, we cling to God’s last words that in Christ Jesus he accepts us. However, at the moment of the certainty given by the Gospel, we are drawn back by the Law into the depths of despair. This miserable tension is an act of God’s mercy to prevent us from ever relying on ourselves.

Coming to terms with the Law’s third use requires our understanding that, in the perfect world God created and in a more perfect world at the resurrection, the “thou shalt nots” of the Commandments shall be transformed into what we are before God. Until then, the prohibiting “thou shalt nots” of the Commandments shall haunt the believer. These prohibitions do not explain how God is in himself, but how he had to relate to his fallen creatures. We sinners are responsible for turning the perfectly positive Law into the Law as accusation, its second use. Estranged from our Creator, we fallen creatures see God only as an unwanted imposition in this life. What was positive in God became negative, accompanied by threats.[1]

Just as Luther’s explanations of the Commandments can be understood Christologically, that is, in describing Christ, they can also be understood theologically, that is, they are windows into what God is in himself. Everything hangs on the First Commandment of having no other gods, and so the remaining nine do not constitute an arbitrary moral code, but are expositions of the First Commandment in various aspects of life. To say that they could not have been worded in any other way is an exaggeration, but this exaggeration makes the point that the way the Commandments are formulated is what God is all about. The God who is life and the source of life is by his nature required to forbid the destruction of life. The reverse of this is the true understanding of God as the restorer of life. So believers work to restore life by coming to the aid of those whose lives are in danger or are beset by sickness. In Luther’s words, we are to help and support the neighbor in every physical need. Or in the words of Jesus: “I was sick and you visited me” (Mt 25:36). We do what Jesus did and what Jesus did God is and does. Doing what Jesus did are those works that belong to the Law’s third use.

In Christ’s reversing the horrifying negatives of the Ten Commandments, we find the God who loves. On the reverse side of the prohibition against taking the Lord’s name in vain is the revelation of God’s name as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Keeping the Sabbath Day holy points back to that time when Adam in every moment of his existence heard and believed the Word of God. This points to the present, when Christians again hear and believe the Word of God, and to the future, when believers will no longer live by bread but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God. Honoring our parents, from whom each person has derived life, points to the Fatherhood of God, from whom all have life. Taking the life of another contradicts the God of Genesis 1, who gives life and is life in himself. The community of man and wife in marriage points to the higher community of the Holy Trinity. Just as each of the three divine persons together constitutes one God, so man and woman become one flesh, one person. On the other side of the coin from adultery is God’s faithfulness to Israel and Christ’s faithfulness to his Church. On the opposing side of the prohibition against stealing is the Holy Ghost, who is the giver of life and who satisfies the desire of every living thing. Not bearing false witness means simply not lying. God not only does not lie, but he also speaks the truth because he is the truth, and this truth is found in the Scriptures. The two last prohibitions against coveting indicate that Law for Israel dealt with matters of the heart and not only external matters. It has to do with evil desires, from which all others sins come. God has no evil desires, but desires good for all people. In speaking of the good things God does, especially what he does in Christ, we see the lives of Christians who emulate God in doing the good things that Christ does. This is the third use of the Law.

[1] In an earlier portion of the article, Professor Scaer states, "A solution to recognizing the Law positively, particularly in the sense that God is Law in himself, may be found in Adam’s transgression. His sin in ignoring the word of God by eating the forbidden fruit was an affront to who and what God was, is, and will always be. In attempting to make himself equal with God, he had broken the First Commandment. Adam despised his Creator and rejected his own creatureness and so erased the line between the Creator and the creature. His was a sin against the First Article of the creed, as it was set forth in the first verses of Genesis, that in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, and all of the second chapter in which God called Adam from the dust of the ground. Adam’s perfect relationship in which he lived with God and in which he would live with others was now exchanged for an existence in which God’s Word would become a succession of 'thou shalt nots.' Adam and his descendants would hear God’s Word as prohibitions, threatening punishments on those who broke them. A large 'no' was placed between him and his Creator and all of creation. To borrow language from Lutheran Orthodoxy, his sin was the formal cause of the Law’s second use. His act of rebellion nullified Luther’s 'I believe that God has made me and all creatures.' In attempting to make himself coequal with God, Adam had fatally compromised his relationship with God. The words “in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” were heard as 'thou shalt have no other gods.'"

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