The Third Use of the Law – What do you think?

The Third Use of the Law – What do you think?

by
Jul 22, 2011

Image: Washing Feet, by Ed Bierman, Creative Commons Attribution License, on Flickr.com

Do Christians have a special obligation to follow God’s law, more so than non-Christians?

What are the three “uses” of the Law?

This debate has been going on since the beginning of the Reformation. If you grew up in a Lutheran church, or have gone to a Lutheran church for a long time, chances are you’ve heard talk of two important terms: Law & Gospel.

To greatly oversimplify complex theological distinctions, “Law” is that gift which God gives us that includes all of the Bible’s laws — the rules about loving our neighbor, about remembering the Sabbath to keep it holy, about honoring our fathers and mothers, etc. Whereas the “Gospel” is the lasting promise that God forgives us, even when we wholly fail to adhere to the Law. In Lutheran theology, we believe that these to concepts are inextricably tied together; we can’t have one without the other.

And in the Lutheran tradition, there are at least two “uses” of the Law, that is, two reasons the Law exists in the first place:

  1. “…that through [the Law] external discipline may be maintained against the unruly and the disobedient” and
  2. “…that people may be led through it to a recognition of their sins;”1

In short, the first reason the law exists is to order society. Without rules and laws, people would harm themselves and others. And second, because humans consistently fail to live up to the high standards of the Law (i.e. we sin), the Law shows us that we are in need of grace.

Law & Gospel at LWR

Here at LWR — like in the life of every Christian — our work itself straddles Law & Gospel. The work we do in sustainable development is exactly what is meant by the “gift” of the Law. Helping small farmers in Niger access credit and improve their agricultural skills, fighting to end malaria in Tanzania and providing emergency relief for victims of drought are all part of following God’s commands to give the hungry food, give the thirsty water and welcome the stranger.

Yet for LWR staff, there is Gospel here, too. We are sinners, acting in the world in response to God’s grace. The lasting promise that God loves us and will not abandon us is the motivation for the work that we do. We act out of thanksgiving.

The Question

But the question I often struggle with is, “is LWR’s work part of ordering society, of making society more fair and just for ‘the least of these’?” In my opinion, that would fall under the 1st use of the Law.

But is there something more than simply maintaining discipline and order, both in LWR’s work and in the Christian life in general? If LWR is motivated by our Lutheran identity — that we’ve been saved by grace through faith — does that give us a special obligation to do good work in the world?

Is there a difference between “the Law” and the “fruits of the Spirit”?

What do you think?

1Epitome of the Formula of Concord, Article VI. “Concerning the Third Use of the Law”. The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. Edited by Robert Kolb and Timothy Wengert. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000.

is Lutheran World Relief’s Interactive Marketing Manager and an ordained pastor in the ELCA.

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  • Anonymous

    Perhaps Christians may become more acutely aware of God’s law in the first and second uses than others (this is not necessarily what happens, though) through study of the law or through hearing promises of a new creation that does not seem to be here yet. We can easily fall into the trap of thinking that God’s kingdom will only come if we bring it about, or that acting as perfectly as we can would be the best witness to the hope we have. To say that we have a special obligation is tempting because bringing in the kingdom and acting perfectly would be very good things. But if we’re freed to do those things by the gospel and given the gift of the Holy Spirit to be fruitful in every good work, then the law is not necessary to cause us to do them, and trying to make the law nip at our heels to make us run faster when the gospel has freed us is to throw away its benefits and to act on the misguided notion that the law can perfect us and motivate us more effectively than the gospel can. If this were the case, Christ would be unnecessary.
    Whether Christians are motivated by law or gospel, they’re not going to be able to solve the world’s problems without God really doing all the work in the enigmatic and sometimes frustrating way God seems to work; and they certainly will still continue to sin either way. If they’re relying on the law to help them it will lead them to despair and timidity, but if they hang their hopes on Christ, they have his righteousness and don’t have to worry about covering their butts as they serve in a broken world.