Are You Confused On The Numbering Of The Three Uses Of The Law?

Over the last decade, one thing that I have learned about the three uses of the Law is that there is a problem with a difference in numbering.  While it is easy to number the three uses of the Law as 'curb, mirror, and guide,' this is not necessarily the case with all theologians and traditions. In other words, there is a great deal of different presuppositions at work when discussing the three uses of the Law, as well as differences in numbering.  For example, is one referencing the three uses of the Law according to the nuances of the Book of Concord, the undertones of Pietism, the distinctions of Luther, or the numbering of John Calvin? Furthermore, when discussing the three uses of the Law, what categorical presuppositions are in place: do we view the numbering of the Law through the old Adam vs. new man, through the unbeliever vs. believer, through civil vs. theological, etc.?  

Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren once stated that “You must be able to say, with reasonable certainty, ‘I understand,’ before you can say any one of the following, ‘I agree,’ or ‘I disagree,’ or ‘I suspend judgment.’”[1] And so, with respect to the three uses of the Law, can we say with absolute certainty that we understand one another, especially in the midst of spirited debates? 

Pietism’s Informal Positive and Negative Categories

Growing up in a Pietistic Lutheran Church and drawing from the theological sentiments of Dr. Erick Pontoppidan, it was informally taught that the second use of the Law was the negative aspect of the Law that revealed sin (i.e., thou shalt not), whereas the third use of the Law was the positive aspect of the Law that revealed righteousness (i.e., thou shall).  And so the second and third uses were divided up into two categories: negative Law exclusively for the old Adam and positive Law exclusively for the new man.  While it could be maintained that this is not the official view of the Law within Pietism, nonetheless, it was the unspoken assumption.  For example, when hearing a stern fire and brimstone tone in a sermon spoken to squirrely people in the pew, one could supposedly conclude that this was the second use of the Law at work.  However, when hearing a friendly sermon spoken with a holy hum to the pious person in the pew, one could supposedly conclude that this was the third use of the Law at work. 

Martin Luther’s Civil and Theological Division

Martin Luther, in his commentary on the Epistle of Galatians, divided the Law into two categories: civil and theological.    For the sake of brevity, Luther understood the civil aspect of the Law as the means to restrain outward sin.  However, on the other side of the coin, Luther saw the Law as theological as well.  

And so, even though Luther understood the Law with the two categories of civil and theological, he also made a two-fold distinction within the theological category of the Law.  In other words, he distinguished between the Law spiritually leading to justification and the Law spiritually in light of justification.  To the point; even though Luther saw the Law categorically as civil and theological, he went on to further divide the theological aspect of the Law into two different aspects.  So, while it is true that Luther held only to the civil and theological aspects of the Law, he further divided the theological use of the Law into two categories.[2]  

The Explanation of the Small Catechism's Three Uses

In the Explanation of the Small Catechism, we read that God uses the Law in three ways: to limit or prevent coarse outbursts of sin, to reveal and condemn sin, and to guide and direct the Christian’s thoughts, words, and deeds.   It is worth noting that the Explanation notes that the first use is directed toward the good of all Creation, the second use is the chief use for all people, and the third use is applied to Christians only.[3]   

John Calvin’s Numbering

In his Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin numbers the uses of the Law differently than the Explanation of the Small Catechism.  For example, Calvin viewed the Law as pedagogical, civil, and normative.[4]  What Lutherans typically number the first use is Calvin’s second use, and Calvin’s first use is closely related to a Lutheran’s second use. Furthermore, it is worth noting that Calvin regards what many Lutherans call the third use of the Law to be the principal use of the Law, whereas Lutherans would consider the second use of the Law as the chief function. And finally, Calvin would further divide his third use of the Law into two more categories: revealing God’s will and exhorting to obedience. That is to say; Calvin views the third use of the Law as a helper to Christians to do what they desire to do.  The third use of the Law will excite Christians to obedience and thus draw away from the slippery paths of sin.[5]  

The Formula of Concord's Historical Framework

The Solid Declaration of the Book of Concord also has a different categorical framework that needs to be considered as well: unbelievers vs. believers.  In Article VI:1 of the Solid Declaration, the authors lay out three uses of the Law.  To help illustrate this, consider the following sentence diagram:

The Law of God is used:

1) …against
dissolute, disobedient people to maintain external discipline. 

2) …to bring such people (i.e., dissolute, disobedient people) to a recognition of their sins.

The Law of God is also used:

3) …for those who… have been born anew through God’s spirit, converted to the Lord… to live and walk in the Law.[6]   

It is important to note the distinction that is being made in the Formula of Concord.  Like John Calvin, the first two categories are directed to dissolute and disobedient people (i.e., unbelievers); whereas the third category is directed only to those who have been born anew (i.e., believers).  However, what is important to note is that, like Luther, who divided the theological aspect of the Law into two categories, the Formula of Concord divides the Law for dissolute and disobedient people into two categories – the maintenance of discipline and the goal of bringing disobedient people to a recognition of their sins. 

Regarding the Formula of Concord, it is important to understand that the articles were not written in a theological or historical vacuum.  In other words, the Formula of Concord is responding to controversies embedded in time and space.  And so, Article V should not necessarily be read theoretically but read within a historical context and controversy: during the 16th Century, everyone was generally viewed as a Christian – the culture was Christianized.  And so, the ‘dissolute and disobedient’ were not people ‘in the church’ but those trying to escape the Law of the Church.  That is to say; they were trying to escape to the left-hand kingdom to be free from God’s Law.  However, if they were to try and escape the Law, as a dissolute person, our Lutheran Forefathers correctly asserted that the Law would still hit these dissolute and disobedient people in the left-hand kingdom. The Law still is in effect to maintain external discipline and drive them to a recognition of their sins.  And so, Christians and unbelievers alike are never free from the Law.  There was no room to be an antinomian in the right-hand kingdom or the left-hand kingdom.  


So, when the three uses of the Law are discussed, what presuppositions and categorical assumptions are we subscribing to?  Do we approach the subject through the theology and numbering of Pietism, Luther, Calvin, the Explanation, or the Book of Concord?  And for those that we visit with, what are their presuppositions?  Are they numbering the Law like Calvin, when we are numbering it according to Luther?  Are they viewing the uses of the Law according to: new man vs old Adam; believer vs. unbeliever; theological vs. civil; etc.?  Furthermore, if a disagreement comes forth, is it due to theological differences or categorical misalignment?  Are all parties in the disagreement understanding terms correctly (e.g., unbeliever, old Adam, New Man; Good of Creation, All People, Christians; Unregenerate, Regenerate, etc.). And finally, if a person rejects a use of the Law, are we entirely certain they are rejecting the Law or denying a categorical classification? 

In conclusion, to paraphrase Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren, “Can you say with reasonable certainty that you understand the other person’s categorical presuppositions regarding the Law?  If you do not, you cannot say, ‘I agree,’ or ‘I disagree,’ but must suspend judgment until understanding is had.”


1] Mortimer Adler & Charles Van Doren, How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading (New York, NY: Touchstone Book, 1972), 143-144..

2] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works: Volume 27 Lectures on Galatians 1535 Chapters 5-6 (St. Louis, MI: Concordia Publishing House, 1964), 3-105.

3] Luther’s Small Catechism with Explanation (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2017), 54-55.

4] Calvin’s Institutes (, 2.7.6, 2.7.10, 2.7.12. 

5] Ibid, 2.7.12.

6] Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church ed. Kolb and Wengert (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 2000), 587.

7] Ibid, 588.

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