The Third Use of the Law and the Finished Work of Christ

What special use is there of the moral law to the regenerate?

In the believers’ life the law can function in a condemnatory manner if it is striped out of its redemptive-historical setting. If we left it there, however, we would surely be falling into the realm of an accidental antinomianism. We must always press on in obedience to the commandments of the Christ who redeemed and justified us. We can never rest in a lifestyle of sin and rebellion. We, out of gratitude and child-like love, pursue holiness in the fear of God. Our Lord Jesus did not redeem us to leave us in disobedience.


R. Scott Clark recently interviewed me on the Heidelcast regarding the post below. While there has been much debate over the precise nuances of the relationship between justification and sanctification, I thought it would be helpful to get out what we can all be most certainly agreed upon with regard to the statements of the Westminster Confession of Faith and Larger Catechism regarding what has been commonly called, “the third use of the Law.”

Last year, over at the Reformed Forum we recorded a discussion on the “Third Use of the Law and Redemptive History.” The sum and substance of the discussion there and in the forthcoming interview forms the content of the Th.M thesis on which I am currently working. The following post is the nucleus of that thesis (Note: This is a fairly lengthy post):

Notwithstanding the diversity of opinion and debate that has surfaced throughout the last century and a half surrounding the nature of the Mosaic Covenant and the Law of God, Reformed theologians have constantly emphasized–with a great measure of uniformity–what has been denominated, the third use of the Law. With almost equal uniformity, myriads of objections continue to be raised when this subject is discussed among Christians today. Some of these objections appear to be warranted; after all, didn’t the apostle Paul triumphantly declared that believers are “not under law by under grace” (Rom. 6:14)? The Scriptures are equally clear that Jesus Christ was “born under the law, that He might redeem us from the curse of the Law” (Gal. 4:4). This has naturally led some to conclude that the moral Law of God is irrelevant to New Covenant believers. Most within evangelical Protestantism will agree with the idea of the schoolmaster use of the Law because the apostle Paul unequivocally asserts that the Law demanded perfect obedience (Gal. 3:10; 12), threatened the curse of it upon the smallest infraction (Gal. 3:10; Heb. 2:2), and that it is—in and of itself—”a letter that kills” (2 Cor. 3:6) and a “ministry of condemnation” (2 Cor. 3:9). The Law, in this sense, is meant to show us our sinfulness and our need for the Savior. Paul answers the question, “What purpose does the Law serve,” with the clear statement, “It was added because of transgressions, till the Seed should come to whom the promise was made.”

Elsewhere the apostle affirms that “Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God” (Rom. 3:19). Both in redemptive history for the Jews, and for all men who are unconverted, “Therefore the law was our tutor [i.e. schoolmaster; pedagogy] to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith (Gal. 3:24). While the schoolmaster use of the Law is explicitly taught by Paul, the apostle equally insisted that in the Gospel the law is established rather than made void (Rom. 3:31), and that love fulfills the law (Rom. 13:9; Gal. 5:14). The writer of Hebrews reiterates the promise of the New Covenant with regard to the law being written on the hearts of those whose sins God forgives. The law there mentioned is nothing less than the moral law of God. There is, perhaps, no more pressing need in our day than for a careful treatment of the relationship between the Law and the Gospel, a careful study of the historical development of the three uses of the Law and specifically a study of what has been called the third use of the Law.

In addition to concerns that I have over so many laying aside the moral Law of God in their Christian lives,  there is another concern I have regarding, specifically, the third use of the Law. As a proponent of the third use of the Law, I am grateful for the attempts of many who sincerely seek to defend the holiness of God and the commandments of Christ. That being said, I have become increasingly concerned that the third use of the Law is frequently misrepresented by those who are zealous to uphold its application in the lives of believers.

First, many modern defendants of the third use fail to place it solidly in its redemptive-historical setting. Viewing the Law in light of the fulfillment of the work of redemption in Christ is something that the Westminster Standards and the Heidelberg Catechism consistently do. Our Reformed Confessions and Catechisms make the careful categorical qualifications necessary to preserve the Gospel foundation.

Second, there is a real danger of conflating a defense of the third use of the Law with the warnings against apostasy found in the Scriptures. I attempt to explain this danger somewhat in my post, “Taking Up the Hammer and the Nails: A Theology of Apostasy.”

Finally, I’ve noticed a failure on the part of some proponents of the third use to explain the all-important reality of indwelling sin and the nuanced relationship between progressive sanctification and assurance of salvation. It is only as we carefully define the legal categories into which God’s commandments fall and give consideration to the historical development and formulation of the three uses of the Law that we can come to a settle position on the issues set out above.

Read More