A Lutheran View of the Third Use of the Law

By Ryan C. MacPherson, Ph.D.

Systematic Theology 405: The Means of Grace, Bethany Lutheran Theological Seminary (Fall 2009)

Note: The footnotes have been omitted, to facilitate the conversion to a website format. However, all sources consulted are listed in the bibliography.



Prominent Lutheran theologians during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries identified zero, two, three, or else four uses of the Law. In some cases, they insisted upon a particular number of uses in disagreement with other theologians who counted more or fewer uses. In other cases, they taught the same thing but in different words. A colloquial expressions claims that “the devil is in the details,” but in this instance it was the purity of the Gospel that was wrapped up in the details of how “Law” should be defined and, given that definition, how many “uses” the Law properly has. An examination of those details sheds light on the controversy to which confessional Lutherans gave answer in Article VI of the Formula of Concord (1577). The doctrine defended there is no idle academic matter, but a central truth of the child-like faith that Christ identified as uniquely salvific (Luke 18:17).

This paper traces the history of the varied expressions—zero, two, three, or four uses of the Law—among Lutheran theologians of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and identifies the issues at stake in the controversy addressed in the Formula of Concord. Gleaning insights from this historical account, this paper concludes with suggestions for pastoral practice in teaching and preaching.


The Early Lutheran Views

During the 1520s and early 1530s, the great reformer Martin Luther and his Wittenberg associate Philip Melanchthon generally identified two uses of the Law: it keeps sin in check, even among unbelievers; and it works penitence in sinners’ hearts, in preparation for the Gospel. But in the second edition of Melanchthon’s Loci (1535), a triplex usus legis (threefold use of the Law) is suggested, including Law now also as a normative guide for sanctification among believers. Luther, meanwhile, continued to limit his discussion of Law to an identification of only two uses. In the Smalcald Articles (1537), Luther wrote that “the Law was given by God first of all to restrain sins by threats and fear of punishment” (a first use) and that “the chief function or power of the Law is to make original sin manifest and show man to what utter depths his nature has fallen” (a second use).

Nevertheless, both Luther and Melancthon taught a positive function of the Law implicitly, but without an explicit “third use of the Law” phraseology. Even when identifying only two uses of “Law” they tended not to call them “uses.” For example, the Smalcald Articles refer not to the “use of the Law” (usus legis) but rather to its “office” or “function” (officium legis). Not until the Formula of Concord would “use of the Law” (usus legis) become the standard expression in Lutheran dogmatics. Meanwhile, Luther and Melanchthon both employed the term “command” (mandatum) rather than “law” (lex) when professing the scriptural doctrine of sanctification in Lutheranism’s early confessional documents, namely, Luther’s two catechisms and Melancthon’s Ausburg Confession and Apology.

Luther’s catechesis of the commandments clearly embraced what the concordists later would term a “third use” of the Law, namely, a guide essential for the sanctified living of Christians in their respective vocations, a point reinforced in the appendix to the Small Catechism, “Table of Duties.” In his Preface to the Small Catechism, Luther also identified the teaching of the “Ten Commandments” as essential (together with the Creed and Lord’s Prayer) for Christians of all educational levels. Luther wrote that those who refuse to learn these three chief parts “deny Christ and are no Christians.” Luther further directed that upon completion of the Small Catechism, the instructing pastor or parent ought to continue with the Large Catechism “so that the people may have a richer and fuller understanding.” Immediately after this statement, he specified how this maturation in the Christian faith may be effected: “Expound every commandment, petition, and part, pointing out their respective obligations, benefits,” etc., “lay[ing] the greatest weight on those commandments … which require special attention among the people where you are. For example, the Seventh Commandment, which treats of stealing, must be emphasized when instructing laborers and shopkeepers.”

In the Large Catechism, the so-called third use became even more apparent. Here Luther devoted more words to the discussion of the Ten Commandments than to all of the other chief parts combined, and his approach to those commandments emphasized how each Christian may apply the Law specifically to himself or herself for guidelines in daily living. True, the heathen violate the First Commandment when worshipping idols, but Luther’s principal point in discussing that command was for Christians: that they learn what it means to have “true faith and confidence of the heart” in the one true God their Savior. Similarly in the Fourth Commandment, Luther addressed believers specifically, exhorting them in sanctification when writing that “it is [every parent’s] chief duty, on pain of losing divine grace, to bring up his children in the fear and knowledge of God.” As one scholar of the Large Catechism has noted, “Failure to see that in the Large Catechism the divine Law is being applied also according to its third use—its use as a rule or guide for the God-pleasing conduct of Christians—must be ascribed either to a misreading or a total bypassing of the Large Catechism.”

In neither of his two catechisms did Luther explicitly enumerate three uses of the Law. But “whether [Luther] uses the term ‘third use of the Law’ cannot be the issue.” Luther, in fact, appears to have had good reason to prefer other terms, such as “command,” “ordinance,” and “rule.” He especially favored the term mandatum (command), rather than lex (Law), to distinguish God’s guide for sanctification from the wrathful use of the Law. (Lex may be faulted for too readily connoting lex simper accusat, “the law always accuses,” thus serving better for working penitence into the heart of sinners than for guiding the regenerate in sanctified living.) Mandatum in the Lutheran confessions, as distinct from lex, emphasizes the positive, guiding function, of God’s moral law, particularly with respect to living in one’s vocation.

Like Luther, Melanchthon also identified the importance of God’s commandments for Christian living when writing in the Augsburg Confession that the commandments guide the Christian’s life of new obedience: “We must do all such good works as God has commanded, but we should not do them for God’s sake and not place our trust in them as if thereby to merit favor before God.” Likewise, in a later section of the Confession, he wrote, “Our teachers have been falsely accused of forbidding good works. Their writings on the Ten Commandments, and other writings as well, show that they have given good and profitable accounts and instructions concerning true Christian estates and works.” It is, then, the moral Law, as summarized in the Ten Commandments, that identifies for believers what their “true Christian estates and works” are. This is precisely the “guide” function, or “third use,” of the Law that the concordists later would defend.

Just as the Large Catechism explained in further detail the intention of the Small Catechism, so also Melanchthon’s Apology expounded the doctrine earlier summarized in the Augsburg Confession. In discussing good works, the Apology emphasized two points: first, that works do not merit salvation, which comes instead entirely through faith in Christ’s merit; and, second, that only those works which have God’s command are good. For example, Melanchthon wrote that “those who teach that the monastic life merits the forgiveness of sins or eternal life are simply crushing the Gospel … nor can any vows or any Laws abolish the commandment of the Holy Spirit” revealed in both Scripture and in human nature.

Thus we find that Luther and Melanchthon discussed a third use of the Law throughout their writings, though without using the phrase “third use of the Law”; instead, they wrote of Gebot (“commandment”), praeceptum (“precept”), and mandatum (“command”). Call it what one may, the two Wittenberg professors agreed that “the divine will accomplishes the positive function of helping the faithful avoid all self-chosen works.”


Mandata Dei for Christian Vocations

As the Apology clearly revealed, Rome’s theology had distorted both the substance of the Law by prescribing self-chosen, or humanly prescribed, works; and, the purpose of the Law by teaching that such works merited divine favor. The Lutheran doctrine of vocation addressed both of these points, situating good works as a necessary fruit of faith and identifying good works “according to the rule of God’s Word” (ex praescipto Verbi), a concept that the concordists later would incorporate under the heading “third use of the Law.”

The Augsburg Confession, for example, objected to Rome’s pretension that “whoever observed festivals in this way, prayed in this way, fasted in this way, and dressed in this way was said to live a spiritual and Christian life.” Truly good works, continued Melanchthon, were those “which everybody is obliged to do according to his calling—for example, that a husband would labor to support his wife and children and bring them up in the fear of God, that a wife should bear children and care for them, that a prince and magistrates should govern land and peoples, etc. Such works are commanded by God.”

This excerpt from the Augsburg Confession echoes well Luther’s own teaching on the doctrine of vocation. For Luther, one’s vocatio (Latin) or Beruf (German) indicated “where the Christian is to perform good works as a service of love to his neighbor.” Monastic orders were not the only vocation, and many of the monastic vows were not even God’s mandata, but men’s. Accordingly, Lutherans also rejected the Roman distinction between praeceptum (precept) and counsilium (council). First, Lutherans insisted that each person has a valid mandatum within his particular vocatio. Moreover, Lutherans denied that there were any such “councils” that could enable persons in some vocations to attain greater perfection than the “precepts” of persons in supposedly lesser vocations (or lacking a “vocation,” as Rome would likely put it, tending to reserve that term for ecclesiastical orders).

Unlike the human artifice that was papistic monasticism, God’s commands in his Word correlate with a reality in the created world. Thus, the reformers emphasized creatio et ordinatio, “creation and institution,” against Rome’s man-made Laws for self-righteousness. The mandata of Christian vocations consisted not simply of legal prescriptions applicable to various stations in life, but also included an “active, creative character,” which involved, for example, God’s command at creation that men and women be fruitfully united to one another. “Scriptural commands, then, are to be found in the Bible and are at times active in creation, which is the work of God.” Luther’s discussion of the Fourth Commandment in the Large Catechism well illustrates how God’s institution of the family at creation imbeds human nature also with the commands that children honor their parents and that parents provide for and discipline their children. Parents, teachers, and civil magistrates are God’s representatives on earth; the command to honor them is to be prized more highly than all the monastic vows the Papacy could imagine. Mandata dei, commands clearly stated in Scripture and often made obvious in human nature, identify the good works to which Christians are called. If they are to be classed under “Law,” then they constitute a distinct, and hence third, use of the Law, apart from the Law as a secular curb against gross iniquity (first use) and the Law as a theological mirror that reveals one’s depravity and need for forgiveness (second use).


The Antinomian Controversy

This Lutheran confessional consensus concerning mandata dei as guides for sanctified living nearly crumbled in the mid sixteenth century amid the Antinomian Controversy. Antinomianism, or a rejection of any use of the Law for Christians, found a prominent spokesperson in John Agricola. While serving as an instructor in Eisleben duiring the 1520s, Agricola taught that the mercy of God revealed in the Gospel alone suffices to cause a person to repent of his sins. In addition to rejecting the second use of the Law, he also discarded the third. Agricola, who had trouble accepting that Melancthon, rather than he, received an appointment to the new theology post at Wittenberg in 1526, criticized the distinction that Melanththon made on these points between Law and Gospel. “Agricola took an extremely antinomian position, virtually rejecting out of hand the whole Old Testament, as well as injunctions of the Law in the lives of the regenerate.” Confusion compounded the controversy when Melancthon’s followers noted that their teacher had, at times, ascribed a Law function to the “Gospel,” using that term in its broader sense to include both the Law and the narrow definition of the Gospel. “But Melancthon’s followers did not make this distinction. They insisted that the Gospel in its narrow, proper sense worked contrition and rebuked sin.” Luther and Agricola argued back and forth in print during the late 1530s. After Luther’s death, Agricola took major part in drafting the Augsburg Interim (1548), which forged a compromise between Rome and the Lutheran theologians by equivocating on the distinction between Law and Gospel.

The Antinomian Controversy developed into a second phase in 1556 when Andrew Poach, pastor in Erfurt, issued a strong statement against George Major’s heretical claim that good works are necessary for salvation. Poach, soon joined by Pastor Anton Otto of Nordhausen, Professor Andrew Musculus of Frankfurt an der Oder, and Pastor Michael Neander of Ilfeld, denied that the Law had a didactic or normative function for Christians, with Poach even going so far as to deny the Law any function whatsoever in the assembly of believers. Poach, Otto, and Musculus later moderated their expressions, admitting that they had overreacted against Major’s legalism by slipping into antinomianism themselves. Musculus, in fact, helped to put the orthodox via media into its polished expression in the Bergic Book that became the Solid Declaration of the Formula of Concord. Article V rejected Major’s position, while Article VI affirmed the Law’s “third” function, namely, to serve as a “rule” for Christian sanctification.


The Concordists’ Solution

Musculus joined with Martin Cheminitz and others on 29 May 1577 to sign both the Epitome and the Solid Declaration of the Formula of Concord. They sought thereby to put to rest several intra-Lutheran controversies, including that regarding the uses of the Law. The Epitome of the Formula of Concord clearly laid forth three uses of the Law: The Law has been given to men for three reasons: (1) to maintain external discipline against unruly and disobedient men, (2) to lead men to a knowledge of their sin, (3) after they are reborn, and although the flesh still inheres in them, to give them on that account a definite rule according to which they should pattern and regulate their entire life.

Subsequent phrases in Article VI echoed the emphatic language of this opening statement (“definite rule … regulate their entire life”), for example: “the teaching of the Law is to be diligently applied … to people who are genuinely believing, truly converted.” The Formula of Concord expressed no casual afterthought when it speaks of a third use of the Law, but rather a core purpose—alongside the first and second uses—for which God has given His Law. “More is written in [the Lutheran] Confessions on the topic of good works and the Christian life than any other subject.”

The concordists rested their case for a third use of the Law both upon the language in which Scripture deals with sanctification and also the systematic relations between the doctrines of original sin, conversion, sanctification, the mortification of the flesh, and glorification. The Solid Declaration of the Formula of Concord cited seven verses from the Psalms (1:1,2; 119:1,35,47,70,97) to illustrate Scripture’s common pattern of portraying the believer’s life of good works as an activity that involves mediation upon God’s Law. The concordists admitted that some New Testament passages seemingly deny the significance of the Law in the lives of the regenerate (for example, 1 Tm 1:9). However, they interpreted such passages in the full context of biblical theology, noting that even Christians still have God’s Law written in their hearts, and this, together with the Law as revealed in Scripture, “is a mirror in which the will of God and what is pleasing to him is correctly portrayed. It is necessary to hold this constantly before believers’ eyes and continually to urge it upon them with diligence.” When de-emphasizing the relevance of the Law for Christians in 1 Tm 1:9, St. Paul meant only to deny its condemning power, not its usefulness as a guide for sanctification. “The Law cannot impose its curse upon those who through Christ have been reconciled with God,” but it remains in its more positive, guiding function.

Were it possible to be fully sanctified in this life, then the Law would not be necessary for believers even in its third use. “But,” continued the concordists, “in this life Christians are not renewed perfectly and completely. … The Old Adam still clings to their nature and to all its internal and external powers.” The flesh, therefore, must be daily mortified, and the Law in its third use guides the new man in sanctification. Moreover, the Law continues to protect believers against the Old Adam’s propensity toward self-righteousness. Just as the second use of the Law humbles the proud by revealing to them their sin vis-à-vis the immutable and holy will of God, so also the third use of the Law identifies what that will of God is, lest a person “set up a self-elected service of God without his Word and command.” Thus, for example, the commands in Dt 12:8,28,32 against adding or subtracting from God’s Law apply to believers, and Paul’s confession of the lifelong battle between the Old Adam and the new man (Ro 7:18,19) serves as a model of how the Christian may exercise the third use of the Law in his sanctified life.


The Age of Orthodoxy

In the seventeenth century’s “Age of Orthodoxy,” Lutheran dogmaticians gave systematic expression to the theology confessed in the Book of Concord. Among them, Johannes Andreas Quenstedt identified not merely three but four uses of the Law. “The use of the moral Law is fourfold: political, condemnatory, pedagogical, and didactic.”

First, Quenstedt specified the Law’s “curb” function, or, as he termed it, the political use (usus politicus), by which civil unrighteousness is held in check (1 Ti 1:9). Second, he identified the condemnatory use (usus elenchticus) of the Law, which reveals sin like a mirror (Ro 3:20, 7:7). Thus far his treatment agreed with the Formula of Concord. But next Quenstedt distinguished another aspect of that second use, to be numbered as a third and pedagogic use (usus paedagogicus), whereby the Law drives one to seek redemption (Gal 3:24). Finally, he wrote of the Formula’s “third use,” but now in his own schema he numbered it as the fourth, namely, the didactic use (usus didacticus), which identifies what good works are (Tit 2:7,8). Enumerated this way, Quenstedt’s “first three uses apply also to the unconverted. The fourth applies only to those who are reborn.” Quenstedt defended the didactic use in a manner that echoed the Formula of Concord’s refutation of Agricola’s antinomianism: “In the church, the doctrine not only of the gospel but also of the Law must be preached as the Word of God, not only to the impious and unbelievers but also to those who are pious and truly believe.”

Despite Quenstedt’s high standing in the history of Lutheran dogmatics, his suggestion of enumerating four uses has not supplanted the Formula’s simpler enumeration of three. His enduring relevance on this question has less to do with the quantity of the Law’s uses and more to do with the quality of its didactic use, which upholds the biblical doctrine that Christians cannot go without instruction as to the content of the good works for which they were created as new persons in Christ Jesus to perform (cf. Eph 2:10).


Pastoral Applications for Preaching and Teaching the “Third Use of the Law”

Orthodox Lutherans have identified two, three, or else four “uses of the Law.” So have heterodox teachers. The differences between the two groups of theologians has less to do with the number of uses that they enumerate and more to do with the definitions they employ for “Law” and the relationship they present between Law and Gospel. In recent generations, orthodox Lutheran catechesis has followed the Formula of Concord in enumerating three distinct uses of the Law. For example, the Evangelical Lutheran Synod’s most recent edition of Luther’s Small Catechism (2001) conveniently summarizes the uses of the Law as (1) a curb against chaos in the social world, (2) a mirror to reveal sin and the need for salvation, and (3) a guide for sanctified living among the regenerate.

This schema well summarizes the concordists’ consensus and also accords conceptually, even if not terminologically, with the earlier confessional writings of Luther and Melanchthon and the later dogmatic exposition by Quenstedt. History reveals that the Wittenberg reformers tended to discuss only the first two uses in terms of “Law” and the third use in terms of “command,” and Quenstedt went the other way, numbering four uses of the Law by subdividing the second use into two. But antiquarian curiosity does not justify changing current catechetical pedagogy when the current practice so clearly communicates the essential doctrine that all of these orthodox fathers taught in their various ways. Luther and Melanchthon during the early Reformation, the concordists during its conclusion, and Quenstedt during its systematization and preservation all taught the same Scriptural doctrine, namely, that mandata dei provide the content for sanctified living and that the Gospel provides the motivation and empowerment.

With respect to the third use of the Law, pastors should, therefore, impress upon their congregations these things:

1. In the life of the believer, the Law functions both to work daily contrition and repentance (second use) and also to set forth a picture of what holy, sanctified living should look like (third use). Admittedly, it also functions in its first use, not only for unbelievers but at times also for the regenerate, by keeping the Old Adam’s tendency toward civil unrighteousness in check.

2. Although the motivation and power for doing good works is effected by the Holy Spirit through the Gospel in Word and Sacrament, the identification of which works are good remains the proper purview of the Law. By guiding sanctified living, the Law protects the Christian from the pretensions of self-righteousness through man-made Laws, a problem that has plagued the Roman Church and the Reformed Church, each of which is prone to legalism.

3. As important as the Law remains for Christians, it nevertheless must be subordinate to the Gospel. The pattern in Luther’s Morning and Evening Prayers and in the Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary’s daily prayers for morning and evening provides a helpful framework: at the start of the day, the Christian thanks God for sleep and requests of God that his or her life be rich in good works during the coming day; at the close of day, however, one does not look back upon one’s good works, but rather confesses one’s sins and goes to sleep in the peace of the Gospel alone. The same applies also to pastoral counsel at the bedside of a dying parishioner. Both justification and sanctification were to be taught until that moment, but in the final hour, it is not the Christian’s sanctification guided by a third use of the Law that needs mentioning. Attention properly focuses on Christ alone—His vicarious fulfilling of all mandata dei for us, His vicarious suffering through all punishments due us, and His victorious resurrection to bring new life to us.



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