Use the Law Lawfully

January 14, 2021 | by: Dale Thiele | 0 Comments

Posted in: Pastoral Encouragement

This Sunday is the Sanctity of Human Life Sunday. Monday is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. day, a national holiday. Both days highlight the battle for values. Will our nation value all human life, including the lives of the unborn? Will our nation value equality among all humans, regardless of skin color? What we value drives how we live. 

As Christians, such values are clearly spelled out in Scripture. We look to God, the source of life and standard of holiness, to lay out the values by which we ought to live. One such place to find direction from God for our values is the Ten Commandments. In these prohibitions, we have a window into the heart of God, what he esteems as valuable and worthwhile. This Sunday, I will preach on the Ten Commandments, explaining how they ought to shape our values as we think about current, cultural debates. 

In preparation for Sunday, I want to draw attention to the three uses of God’s moral law. John Calvin was the first to write about these three uses in his Institutes of the 16th century. Our doctrinal standard, the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms, adapts what Calvin wrote and rearranges the order. The three uses help us understand how to listen to and apply God’s law. Let me highlight these uses, following Calvin’s order. 

First Use of the Law: “While showing God’s righteousness, the law warns, informs, convicts, and lastly condemns every man of his own unrighteousness… so that, naked and empty-handed, they may flee to his mercy, repose entirely in it, hide deep within it, and seize upon it alone for righteousness and merit.” Simply put, the law humbles us by exposing our sin and then drives us to Christ.  Calvin draws heavily from Augustine in explaining this use. The church father writes, “The law was given for this purpose: to make you, being great, little; to show that you do not have in yourself the strength to attain righteousness, and for you, thus helpless, unworthy, and destitute, to flee to grace.” 

Second Use of the Law: “By fear of punishment to retrain… and hold inside the depravity that otherwise they would wantonly have indulged… this constrained and forced righteousness is necessary for the public community of men.” The Westminster Larger Catechism explains that this use of the Law is for all people, “to inform them of the holy nature and will of God, and of their duty, binding them to walk accordingly” (WLC 95; they also list this as the first use of the law). Under this use of the Law, we see the common grace of God restraining evil in the world. 

Third Use of the Law: “The third and principle use finds its place among believers in whose hearts the Spirit of God already lives and reigns… here is the best instrument for them to learn more thoroughly each day the nature of the Lord’s will to which they aspire… and, by frequent meditation upon it, to be aroused to obedience, be strengthened in it, and be drawn back from the slippery path of transgression.” The Larger Catechism states that this third use is “to provoke them to more thankfulness, and to express the same in their greater care to conform themselves thereunto as the rule of their obedience” (WLC 97). Even though we are saved by grace, and neither justified nor condemned by the law, the law helps us know God’s will and be motivated and strengthened to obey. 

In 1 Timothy 1:8, Paul says, “Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully.” Thankfully, Augustine, Calvin, and the Westminster divines help us know how to use God’s law lawfully. 

(All Calvin quotes come from Institutes of Christian Religion, Book 2, Chap. VII, Para. 6-12)


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