The Three Uses of the Law

Luther Nailing 95 Theses, by Julius Hübner

This is a pretty special year. If you hadn’t heard, 2017 is the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. The key date if you’re thinking of popping champagne is 31 October. It was on that date in 1517 that Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg.

Actually, forget the champagne. Get a hammer and nail something to the door of your church. Your pastor will totally get the symbolism.

The Reformation that Luther and others started led to a whole new way of thinking about God, church, and the proper use of the law. In the Formula of Concord, the Lutheran Statement of Faith, the three uses of the law are summarized as follows:

The Law was given to men so that (1) men may have knowledge of their sins, (2) wild men might be restrained, and (3) after they are regenerate they might have a fixed rule to live by.

According to the Reformers, the law is a mirror, a restraint, and a guide. Since this is the quincentennial anniversary of the Reformation, it is a good occasion for us to discuss these three purposes.

Is the law a mirror?

Yes. The law is a mirror that reveals our true state apart from God. It shows us our sin. Paul the former chief of sinners said, “I would not have known what sin was had it not been for the law” (Rom 7:7).

We may think of ourselves as decent people, but the good and holy law reveals that we all fall short of God’s perfect standard. Thus, the person who most needs the law is not the lowly “sinner” – he already knows his state – but the moral superstar who thinks of himself as better than his neighbors.

This is why Jesus preached the law to religious people. They were lost but didn’t know it. They needed the mirror of the law to the cancer that was already there. “Once I was alive apart from the law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died” (Rom 7:9).

Sin is fatal but you won’t know it if you don’t see it. The law helps you see.

Is the law a restraint?

Not really. The law does not change the hearts of men, but through fear of punishment it can restrain the outbreak of sin. If you knew that you could be stoned for adultery, you might think twice about breaking the 7th Commandment. But that won’t stop you thinking about it and since thinking about it is as bad as doing it (see Matthew 5:28), the law doesn’t really curb sin.

Indeed, the law actually inflames sin, and this is not widely understood.

I would not have known what coveting was if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of coveting. (Romans 7:7-8)

Paul did not realize he had a problem with coveting until the law told him not to do it. It’s like those youth groups that rail against fornication until everyone’s thinking about the very thing they’re not supposed to be doing.

“The strength of sin is the law” (1 Cor 15:56). The law doesn’t empower you to overcome sin; it empowers sin to overcome you. This is why the church has no business preaching law as a restraint. Using the law to restrain sin is like putting out a fire with a bucket of kerosene.

Is the law a guide for Christians?

Absolutely not. Jesus said the Holy Spirit would teach you everything you need to know (John 14:26). He will “guide you into all truth” (John 16:13). The Christian is to be guided by the living Spirit of Christ, not the dead rule of law.

The law is not your friend, helper, or teacher – Jesus is. To say “the law is my guide” is to say “Jesus was wrong” or “the Holy Spirit cannot be trusted.” And don’t fall for that old chestnut that says the Holy Spirit guides or convicts us with the law. He’s the Spirit of grace not law.

We make an idol of the law when we turn to it for guidance and direction. There is nothing wrong with the law – it is holy, righteous and good. But try to live by it and you fall from grace and cut yourself off from Christ.

So what are the three uses of the law?

According to scripture the law serves three good purposes:

  1. It is a mirror that reveals our sinful state (Rom 3:20, 7:7,14)
  2. It ministers death by inflaming sin (Rom 5:20, 7:7-11, 1 Cor 15:56)
  3. It reveals our need for a Savior (Gal 3:24)

Ultimately the law is a guardian (not a teacher) that leads us to Jesus so that we might be justified and sanctified by faith in him.

For Christ is the end of the law [the limit at which it ceases to be, for the law leads up to him who is the fulfillment of its types, and in him the purpose which it was designed to accomplish is fulfilled. That is, the purpose of the law is fulfilled in him] as the means of righteousness (right relationship to God) for everyone who trusts in and adheres to and relies on him. (Romans 10:4, AMP)

In a word, the law is a signpost. And like any signpost, it only has value in that it points to a place we need to go.

So thank God for the law that does not restrain or guide us but points us to Jesus who is the way, truth, and the life.

___________

If you enjoy Escape to Reality, sign up to our email list and we’ll notify you about new articles as soon they come out. No spam, we promise.

Help these messages of grace and truth go further by supporting us via our Patreon page.

37 Comments on The Three Uses of the Law

  1. Thank you Paul for the History bit. And thank you Father for Jesus and for the liberty we have in Him.

  2. Brandon Petrowski // January 12, 2017 at 2:15 am // Reply

    I agree with your thoughts on this subject. I know a Lutheran pastor who says that the law serving as a guide does not contradict the Holy Spirit guiding or teaching us because the contents of the Bible came through inspiration of the Holy Spirit. They believe that the Law (10 Commandments) comes from the Spirit as a guide for how we should live. They separate the 10 Commandments from the rest of the Levitical laws. I understand his explanation, but for me when I am tempted, it is the HS inside me reminding me of my identity in Christ that guides me away from sin, not thoughts of the Law.

    • Brian Midmore // January 14, 2017 at 8:01 pm // Reply

      Yet at the same time it is by the Law that we realise that we are being tempted but as you say the Law does not provide the answer for this temptation. This is how the law can be a guide by informing us to what is and is not a sin and then we can trust in the power of the Spirit to free us from the temptation. If we do not know what temptation is how can we trust in God to deliver us from it? It is ultimately Christs law we follow, the law of love.

      • The law can be a guide (as can your conscience), but Jesus said we are to be guided by the Holy Spirit. The difference is the law finds fault and does nothing to help, while the Spirit gives life. The law condemns and leaves you wretched, while the Spirit gives liberty and transforms you into Christ’s glorious image. Personally, I would rather be led by the Spirit.

      • tonycutty // January 19, 2017 at 3:38 am //

        The problem with the idea of the Law ‘informing us to what is and is not a sin’ is that actually it doesn’t. Sure the Bible contains what looks like a set of Rules as laid down thousands of years ago, and then what looks like as a second layer of Rules laid down by Jesus. But it does not say, for example, that ‘smoking is a sin’, nor ‘going to the movies’ as some would teach are sins. Actually all things are permissible, but not all are beneficial, and those are the ‘sins’. But that ‘sin list’ is going to be different for everyone. Having a beer is no problem for me, but for my brother at Church, one sniff of alcohol and he’s toast (he’s an ex-alcoholic). And the other thing is that nobody even tries to follow the whole Law. We all make exceptions for those odd little Rules that we feel we can’t keep. Like the rules about unclean foods; I know that’s a cliche, but still we feel it’s ok to eat bacon if we’re not vegetarian 😉 Any Rule that says ‘this is always wrong’ is a road to legalism. Even ‘murder’, which Jesus said is what is actually happening when someone hates someone else, is more common than the crime statistics would have us know, becasue who can count the number of haters? It doesn’t leave a corpse but it’s still murder if you hate someone. The thing with ‘sin’ is to not be continually on the lookout for it, as this is actually how sin ‘so easily entangles’ – not by the commission of sins, but by the constant worry and sin-policing both in our own lives and in those of others. True freedom from sin is the state of not even thonking about it; a person led by the Spirit does not have to worry about it, much less worry about temptation.

    • @Brandon petrowski
      2 Corinthians 3:7 ESV
      Now if the ministry of death, carved in letters on stone, came with such glory that the Israelites could not gaze at Moses’ face because of its glory, which was being brought to an end,

      Which part of the law was “carved in letters on stone” ? That part- The Bible calls it “The ministry of death”. Talk about taking the prime essence of death and selling it as life , somehow differentiating it from other deaths!

  3. This article has made it so clear and to the point about law and grace that I don’t know how anyone could miss it. It’s so refreshing to read the truth about Jesus and the freedom He purchased for all of us. I was one who thought I just had to be good enough. When I first started to really understand God’s Grace through Jesus Christ, it made me angry because of all the work I had put into being good. As time went by I began to see how wonderful Grace is and how fruitless all of my so called “good works” were. Thank you!!

  4. Donald Black // January 12, 2017 at 2:53 am // Reply

    Very helpful and informative message

  5. We can go far too long before realizing the death that the law ministers because most churches mix in just enough grace to keep people on the hamster wheel of fruitless effort.

    • Amen! I think our (the church’s) difficulty to properly handle the Law as God purposed runs parallel to our misguided attempts to live the Christian life through the flesh. In other words, our mixture of Law and Grace is directly proportionate to our mixture of flesh and spirit living. The Life Jesus offers is a “new life” lived through the Spirit by faith. The fleshly life (or mode of operation) is to be discarded and a new way is established. The Law was indeed given by God, but it was given to the flesh – to expose it’s weakness, and it’s true state that can only be described as death. So, in as much as the Christian life is not lived in the flesh, it is not lived by Law. The flesh and Law are left behind all together to live in the newness of life – King Grace has us now! He is better than the Law, it’s that simple.

    • Richard Riley // January 13, 2017 at 12:05 pm // Reply

      The law is death? The word of God calls the law:
      The way (malachi 2:8)
      The truth (psalms 119:142)
      The life (proberbs 6:23)
      Holy (romans 7:12)
      Freedom (psalms 119:45)
      Sin causes death, not the law. Paul says, “is the law sin? God forbid.”
      The book of James says,Faith without works is dead. What does that mean to you? Martin Luther wanted to actually rip the book of James out. It actually means, faith with out works is dead. It means what it says. So the moral is, how can we claim to believe, and not Do? God himself said to love him, is to obey his commandments. Seems to me I see grace and the law here. Just to clarify, faith alone saves. If that faith isn’t producing fruit unto God through Christ Jesus, it’s dead. That’s what scripture says. Grace is being perverted on this post! Shall we continue in sin so that grace may abound? God forbid. What is sin? It is literally defined in 1john as breaking God’s law. Let’s read that again,
      “Shall we continue in sin(the breaking of God’s law) so that grace may abound? Absolutely Not.

      • Richard, you are correct in saying sin causes death, but since the holy law inflames and empowers sin, the Apostle Paul was equally correct in calling the law a “ministry of death” (2 Cor 3:7). Romans 7 provides an excellent explanation of how this happens.

        Indeed, mixing grace with law is even more deadly than living purely under law for while grace comes by faith the law is not of faith. They nullify one another. Faith without works is dead, but since the law is not of faith (Gal 3:12), any works done with law-keeping in mind are dead works that cut us off from Christ.

      • Well said Paul!

      • I love the way you explained, it is the work of the Holy Spirit! Grace sounds very basic for Christian life but to understand it, we really need a revelation of the Holy Spirit. Thanks again Paul for this beautiful article.

      • Richard. Brother. Allow me to clarify my comment above as I think it may have caused confusion resulting in your questioning comment: “The law is death?” That’s not what I meant. To clarify – The Law was indeed given by God, but it was given to the flesh. To expose the weakness of the flesh, and the flesh’s true state that can only be described as death.
        “how can we claim to believe, and not Do?”
        The answer to a sinful life, or a faith that isn’t producing fruit, or dead faith is not Law. If it was, Jesus never would have needed to come. The answer is to grow in the Grace in which we stand, APART FROM the Law (this, of course, is what the Church struggles to see and teach). When Grace and Truth start to flow through a person the fruits of the Spirit, in return, come forth rather effortlessly. Walking in the assurance of God’s loving grip, and not being attracted to sin, or comfortable with sin start becoming regular thinking patterns. Alternately, striving for Law obedience is not effortless or in any way a “REST”. Not to mention obedience to the Law is impossible. It’s like trying to teach a rock to swim…. Good luck with that. The enemy has us blinded to this truth so Jesus raised the bar of how we perceived the Law. We thought the Law was a path to life but He showed it was to be a burden to crush us. To help us see we are rocks that sink and need someone to save us from this state. In Christ, we cross over from death to life and walk by faith in the newness of life. Look down behind you… the Law is left behind in the grave with the “old man”. If we rebuild what we destroyed (Gal 2:18), a return to the Law, the same worn out record is ready to play over and over saying – you are a sinner. Or – you are a rock that can’t swim. “Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!” Christians are released from the Law, and bound to Christ.

  6. Brad Robertson // January 12, 2017 at 4:25 am // Reply

    Thanks Paul!

    • Yes. I went far too long. The mixture is infinitely more dangerous and almost universally prevalent.

    • Charlotte Stukey // January 17, 2017 at 3:14 am // Reply

      Outstanding…my church taught too much of the law & not enough of the gospel & power of Christ to not only save you from your sins, but empower you to live a Holy life… The outcome? Condemnation & judgementalism. Thank you Paul…very precise words of faith.

  7. Paul, can you clarify what you mean by a ‘new way of thinking’? i have shared your post in a group on FB and someone is challenging the word ‘new’. He says Luther was bringing people back to the original gospel teaching, that this wasn’t ‘new’ in terms of being totally different to anything that had gone before. I said it was new to those who had never heard it!

    • Luther’s new way of thinking was radical in the deeply religious context of his time, but the gospel he preached was not new. There has only ever been one gospel. Perhaps I should have clarified that in the article above.

      • Thanks, Paul.That is exactly what I said you meant but it’s good to have the clarification!

  8. Thank you Lord Jesus for the grace

  9. Thank you Paul for you continued work. Your posts, and books are light in the darkness. The enemy’s cloud of manipulation and deception is so thick. It’s not a light gray cloud, but dark black – creating blindness for those without the Truth. It’s obvious that pursuing the Law as a means of godliness can only take us in 2 directions – guilt or pride. We become like a ping pong ball in an endless game being bounced back and forth by the guilt and pride paddles. It’s like running in a circle, round and round trying so hard but going no-where. God gave the Law to help us see the prison and slavery of our existence apart from Him. Jesus came and spent His last 3 years exposing by word and deed this deceived, bound, slavery existence that everyone was oblivious to. Then He punched a hole in the prison and made (rather He became) the way out for anyone and everyone.

    Many of us are incredibly thankful for your work Paul. For revealing the way things really are, so we can escape to reality. Please, keep going brother! Keep going!

  10. Very well done Paul. I try telling people of the Laws purpose but you nailed it!! ” well Jesus nailed it to the cross!! But you explained it so well, thank you for your post. I am always looking forward to reading them. Much love

  11. I worked a few years as a cashier in a retail store, and there were a lot of rules (laws) governing coupons, refunds, exchanges, price-matching, check cashing, credit card payments, bagging, etc. Some of the policies were even posted on signs such as in the Returns Department and at certain cash registers (e.g. “20 Items or Less,” in the Express Lane or “Cosmetics Purchases Only,” in the makeup section). Let me tell you that NOBODY–not even management–followed procedure 100% of the time, nor was it expected. The die-hard stubborn ones would inevitably get in trouble for being unbendable and failing to see that the situation warranted an exception, and NONE of the customers liked those legalistic clerks. In fact, they never lasted long. I was easygoing, and people would seek out my checkout line, but this doesn’t mean that I gave the store away. I was just being “led by the Spirit.” Didn’t Jesus remind the Pharisees that although it was unlawful for anyone but the Priest to consume the holy bread, David ate it, with the priest’s permission, when he was on the lam, running from King Saul? And after Elijah healed the foreign general, Naaman, the latter asked that it not be counted against him when he accompanied his master to the temple of the national pagan deity, because even if Naaman bowed down for show, it didn’t mean anything to him in his heart. Elijah told him not to worry about it, and that’s OT.

  12. Excellent article Paul!
    I had to chuckle at the Moral superstar phrase.

  13. Paul, I love the way you rephrase things : )
    “The strength of sin is the law” (1 Cor 15:56). The law doesn’t empower you to overcome sin; it empowers sin to overcome you. This is why the church has no business preaching law as a restraint. Using the law to restrain sin is like putting out a fire with a bucket of kerosene.”
    Keep ’em coming. God bless you.

  14. Above three sin laws concepts well explained but how we will feel Christ and Holy spirit have controlled over us as believers/ followers of Christ.what link I’m missing reply please that I’m forgiven when discussed with our Jesus christ on my e-mail please to improve my faith.

  15. William Deyerle // January 15, 2017 at 10:06 pm // Reply

    When Paul refers to the law as a school master, he is not referring to a teacher, but rather to a slave or hired servant tasked with responsibility for ensuring that his employer’s (or master’s) son actually went directly to his teacher. This was common practice in the Hellenistic world.

    The school master would presumably guard the youngster, and protect him against attack, robbery or kidnapping et. al. He would also quickly infoirm the Father iuiuf TGE student strayed off course for a day of fun.

    I think that your use of thus connection is quite descriptive. The school master guarded TGE student by keeping him safe, and he guarded TGE missdiin by keeping on TGE patgtoiward TGE teacher. In this wazwazy TGE the lklkaw directs us to the the Greatest if Teachers.

    Thank you for your weonderful, enlightening asnd encouraging posts.

    Grace, peace and love,

    Bill

  16. Here’s a question. I’m quite happy to go and stick some statements on the doors of some churches I’ve attended. Actually, really up for it. Probably use blutack rather than nails. But what should I put up there? I fancy something short and and to the point.

  17. As a fan of New Covenant Theology I heartily concur that the law has been FULLY accomplished in Christ. The tripartite division of the law appeared soon after NT times and was furthered by Thomas Aquinas, Calvin and most Reformed Christians in order to facilitate the keeping of the supposed «moral» aspect of the law while jettisoning the supposed «ceremonial and civil» aspects. Actually the OT law is of one piece and Christ is the end of that law. His Spirit has written Christ’s law on our hearts which is not contrary to Moses but is God’s perfect will in the New Covenant era.
    Happy New Year,
    René Frey, Shefford, QC, Canada

  18. Paul, it seems that Isaiah 2:3 speaks regarding the law being kept in the millennium after Jesus Christ returns in power and glory to earth. It says that “For out of Zion shall go forth the law and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.” It repeats it in Micah 4:2. This has always been a challenge for me to understand if the law is done away with. Can you give your thoughts on this? Thanks!

    • Brandon Petrowski // January 19, 2017 at 5:27 am // Reply

      There is a difference between THE Law and “A” law. If you check literal interpretation and original language, those verses refer to “a law”. Not the same thing. Those verses refer to something new, not the OT Law.

    • The law of liberty in the new covenant is love. We fulfil all other laws by being Jesus kind of love to others.

Tell us what you think (<250 words)...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s