The Three Uses of the Law
There has been much confusion over the relationship of the Law of God (the Ten
Commandments) to the believer throughout church history and especially in our day. There are
antinomians who, in one way or another, deny the Law of God, whether it is by crossing out the
4 th Commandment, or by saying that the Law was only for the Jews and has no place in the
Christian’s life, or by declaring that God broke his Law in order to love (as one famous heretic
recently said). On the other side, there are legalists who put believers back under the Law as a
covenant of works. They use the threat of judgment in order to effect change. They suspend
believers’ justification and keep the threat of condemnation possible until believers strive to
produce an undetermined amount of holiness (which they are always left guessing and which
only the pastor or preacher can determine) in order to keep people incentivized to pursue
holiness. In all of this, there is great confusion over the relationship of the Law to the believer.
A helpful pedagogical tool that the Reformers used is called the three uses of the Law.
They get this from the Apostle Paul’s statement in 1 Timothy 1:8 where he says, “Now we know
that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully.” Obviously, the Law is good no matter what, but
what Paul is talking about here is good versus bad uses of the Law. The Law is good in
relationship to a sinner only if it is used lawfully (that is, correctly). Thus, the issue is the right or
correct use of the Law. So, then, how does one use the Law lawfully or correctly? Well, based on
taking into consideration the whole counsel of God (that is, all the Scriptures and drawing non-
contradictory, accurate conclusions from it) the Reformers give three correct uses of the Law.
The first (sometimes enumerated differently) is that the Law is referred to as the
pedagogical use - that is, the Law teaches us the greatness of our sin and misery in order to lead
us to Christ. This comes from what Paul goes on to immediately say in 1 Timothy 1:9:
“understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient,
for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane…” The Greek word for “laid down”
means “laid or placed upon.” The sense of word comes across in our saying, “I’m going to lay
down the law!” When we say this, we are referring to someone who has already done something
wrong and needs to be confronted with their wrong-doing. This is what Paul is referring to here.
The Law is laid down or laid upon sinners. That is, it shows them the greatness of their sin and
misery and therefore their need for Christ. It is meant to lead them to be justified only through
faith in Christ (cf. Gal. 3:19-24).
The second use of the Law is what is referred to as the civil use - that is, it restrains evil
in the civil realm. There are laws against murder and stealing in every society that come with
penal consequences in order to deter evil. This does not actually produce a true righteousness
from the heart; rather, it merely restrains certain expressions of the evil heart through
consequences. Disciplining our children is another example of this use. Our discipline does not
actually regenerate their heart and make them truly obedience with a heart of faith and
repentance; only the gospel can do that. Rather, it merely restrains or deters their disobedience
by teaching them that there are consequences for their actions.
The third use of the Law is that it is the rule of life - that is, it is the rule for how we or to
live our life; it guides us in how we are to live out of gratitude to God for saving us. The Apostle
Paul tells us that the Law of God (the Ten Commandments) expresses God’s will for our life
(Rom. 2:18). After spending eleven chapters declaring to us God’s glorious gospel and how he
has saved us, he then goes on to tell us to keep the Commandments because this is how we love
our neighbor as ourselves (Rom. 13:8-10). He does the same in Galatians 5:13-14. So, Paul’s
conclusion to us being saved is not that we set aside the Law or have no use of it any longer, but
rather the exact opposite: that we keep the Law because we have been saved by Christ’s death
and resurrection from both the penalty and power of sin. While we are not saved by keeping the
Law, yet one of the purposes for us being saved is in order to keep the Law. So, the issue is not
the Law itself, as if it must now be set aside, but rather in the use of the Law. We must use it
Brian Onstead is pastor of Trinity Bible Church in Powell, WY (https://tbcwyoming.com/). He was born and raised in Omaha, NE where he was saved and met his wife Jackie. He then spent three years in San Diego, CA where he attended Westminster Seminary California and the Institute for Reformed Baptist Studies. After graduating in 2015, he moved to Montana where he pastored a church for 4 years. In 2019, he moved to Powell, WY where he currently resides. He and his wife have been married for 10 years and have two young children. You can find his sermons on sermon audio and follow him on Twitter (@brianonstead).
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