One of the great debates in theology regarding Law and Gospel is whether or not there is a third use of God’s laws. The first two uses of the Law are accepted by all:
- The Civil Use of the Law: God’s laws serve all humanity by restraining sin, setting moral and ethical boundaries for humans in society. This use of the law allows humans to enjoy a limited measure of order and justice in this life.
- The Pedagogical Use of the Law. God’s laws show the perfection of God’s character and thus reveal people’s sinfulness in contrast to his righteousness. By so doing, it enables us to realize our need for mercy and grace from outside ourselves. It gives the lie to all efforts at self-justification.
Some theologians posit a third use of God’s laws.
- The Normative Use of the Law. Though God’s laws cannot justify us, grant us forgiveness of sins, or bring us new life, for the Christian God’s laws serve as a guide to show us how to live. The Law sets before us a norm of conduct and instructs those who have been saved by grace through faith regarding the good works that should follow salvation. The Christian, therefore, is called to love God’s laws and obey them.
Others have objected to this idea, noting the clear N.T. teaching that Christians are “free from the law,” and “not under the law” anymore. Specific objections include the following:
- The third use is unnecessary and actually ends up covering the same ground as the first two uses. The civil use (first use) already covers the purpose of instruction, and is designed to order our behavior by positive guidance and negative warnings. And when Christians embrace God’s commands and attempt to live them out, they discover that they continually fall short, which leads them back to Christ (the second use).
- The third use is incomplete. Most look to the Ten Commandments as the epitome of God’s laws, along with specific summary passages such as “Love the Lord your God…” (Shema) and “Love your neighbor…” which Jesus himself commended as the greatest commandments. It is up to the New Testament to more specifically enumerate and explicate distinctively Christian behavior through the teaching of Jesus and the apostles. This goes beyond natural and Mosaic law to include such things as “love your enemies,” and “take up your cross and follow me.” Jesus himself speaks of giving and exemplifying a “new commandment” and he is presented in the Gospels (especially in Matthew) as a “new Moses” who inaugurates the Kingdom of heaven among humans. As we will see below, the new covenant now in effect goes beyond the idea of “law” as its guiding principle.
- The third use is easily misused. Speaking of the third use of the law can lead to a legalistic conception of the Christian’s life, as though the new life in Christ is concerned primarily with obeying commandments, following instructions, avoiding that which is prohibited, and staying within boundaries. Paul wonders why the Colossians are so concerned to live by rules that say, “Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!” (Col. 2:21), and notes that believers have died to such “elementary principles” and are now part of a life that is about so much more.
I am in agreement that it is unhelpful to think of a third use of God’s laws. In the Christian life, except for the ongoing experience of the law’s first two uses, we should not imagine that our lives are to be motivated by laws at all. Our motivation is the Gospel, not God’s laws. Therefore, as some of my teachers have suggested, it is wiser to speak of the second use of the Gospel rather than the third use of the Law.
What do we mean by this?
The Gospel (Good News) is the announcement that God is saving the world in Christ. This is the “word of reconciliation” that Paul speaks of in 2Corinthians 5, “namely, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them” (5:19). When a person receives this Good News and puts her trust in Christ, through baptism that person is brought into a new life. She has died to the old realm of sin and has been raised up into newness of life (Romans 6:1-4). In Christ, she has entered the new creation (2Cor 5:17) with sins forgiven, and she has been washed and renewed by the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:5).
This is the first use of the Gospel. By means of this announcement, people are made new — saved from the powers of sin, evil, and death that once reigned and ruled over their lives.
For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. (Eph 2:8-9)
As this text from Ephesians affirms, the salvation that this Gospel brings is pure gift. Our saving is God’s work from beginning to end; we played no part in it that gives us cause to boast or take credit. As the text from Ephesians goes on to say, “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus…” (Eph 2:10).
God’s Law had nothing to do with this, apart from convincing us about our need. The classic passage that explicates this second use of the Law is Romans 7. Verse 7 says, “I would not have come to know sin except through the Law; for I would not have known about coveting if the Law had not said, “You shall not covet.” So then, the Law serves the Gospel by preparing us for it. It enables us to recognize our sin and our need for forgiveness and renewal. Once we accept the bad news about our condition, we are prepared to receive the Good News of salvation. As a result, we trust in Christ and enter the new creation.
How shall we then live?
Do we look to God’s Laws to provide us a norm of conduct, or do we look somewhere else?
The Second Use of the Gospel
I would suggest that we continue to look to the Gospel for the answer to that question rather than to God’s laws. As Ephesians 2 goes on to say:
For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.
For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.
This text tells us that, rather than looking to God’s Law for guidance in the Christian life, we look to what God has prepared beforehand for us to walk in.
What I want to suggest is that the Gospel introduces us into an entirely new world, a new creation, a different reality than that which was in place under the Law. This was something God had promised his people for many generations.
“Moreover the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, so that you may live.” (Deut 30:6)
“Behold, days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah,not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them,” declares the Lord. “But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” declares the Lord, “I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. They will not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them,” declares the Lord, “for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.” (Jer 31:31-34)
Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. Moreover, I will give you anew heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances. (Ezek 36:25-27)
The Gospel has brought about the New Covenant, wherein it is no longer “the Law” that guides us but the “Law written on our hearts” — i.e. the Gospel of the New Covenant. We are now participants in the Kingdom of God, which has been introduced into the life of this world. The new creation is infiltrating this creation. The age to come is breaking in upon this present age. The good works that God has prepared for us come to us from this new realm, and we are enabled to walk in a life that is animated and motivated by God’s Spirit.
This means that whatever “works” we do as Christians are, by nature, “pure gift” as well. They are works of the Kingdom, works that are not motivated or directed by encoded laws and our perfect obedience to those laws, but by the grace of God in Jesus Christ as experienced in the power of the Holy Spirit. The fruit of the Spirit in the lives of those who walk with Christ is love; that is joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. These qualities do not oppose the law, but fulfill the intent of God’s laws and even surpass its instructions.
So then, there is now a “new obedience” that characterizes the Christian life, one that is based on the Gospel, and not the Law.
The standard for the Christian is not to be found in the “third use of the Law,” but in the “second use of the Gospel.”