It’s worth noting, as many have, that the Heidelberg Catechism included its exposition of the Law in the gratitude section and not in the guilt section.  This choice reflects the widespread Reformation belief in the so-called third use of the law.  The law is given (1) to restrain wickedness and (2) to show us our guilt and lead us to Christ.  But, according to Calvin, the “third and principal use” of the law is as an instrument to learn God’s will.  The law doesn’t just show us our sin so we might be drawn to Christ; it shows us how to live as those who belong to Christ.

In one sense Christians are no longer under the law.  We are under grace (Rom. 6:14).  We have been released from the law (Rom. 7:6) and its tutelage (Gal. 3).  On the other hand, having been justified by faith, we uphold the law (Rom. 3:31).  Even Christ recoiled at the idea of coming to abolish the law and the prophets (Matt. 5:17).  Christians are free from the law in the sense that we are not under the curse of the law–Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes (Rom. 10:4)–nor is the law a nationalized covenant for us like it was for Israel.  But the law in general, and the Ten Commandments in particular, still give us the principles which instruct us how to live.

The Ten Commandments were central to the ethics of the New Testament. Jesus repeated most of the second table of the law to the rich young man (Mark 10:17-22). The Apostle Paul repeated them too (Rom. 13:8-10) and used them as the basis for his moral instruction to Timothy (1 Tim. 1:8-11).  The commandments are holy and righteous and good (Rom. 7:12). How could they be anything else? They are an expression of God’s character. If we do not love what God commands us to do, we do not love what God is like.

We obey the commandments, therefore, not in order to merit God’s favor but because we have already experienced his favor.  The Decalogue was given to Israel after God delivered them from Egypt.  The law was a response to redemption not a cause of it. In one sense, the law shows us our sin and leads us to the gospel. But in another sense, law ought to follow the gospel just as the giving of the Decalogue followed salvation from Egypt. We obey God’s words not because we cower under threat of judgment, but because we stand confidently with our Deliverer and gladly accept his good rule for our life.

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20 thoughts on “The Third and Principal Use”

  1. Chris Julien says:

    Just listened to the audio of your message “Spirit-Powered, Gospel-Driven, Faith-Fueled Effort.” Thanks for the continued emphasis on the third use of the law .

    Overtones of your message made me think of Jack Miller’s emphasis as well as the “Gospel Centered Life’s” emphasis on looking to our justification in order to fuel our sanctification; for example, you said we need to do more than simply “get more gripped by the gospel” in overcoming sin and temptation.

    However, I think proper Biblical striving does not happen without “getting a grip on the gospel.”

    I think there does need to be a proper emphasis on “getting more gripped by the gospel.” However, it is a focused grip. What I mean is that at the root of specific sins are specific idols or sin struggles, which must be counter-acted (fought against, worked against) with various promises of God. The greatest of these promises is that we are declared righteous through Christ’s death on the cross- and this is getting gripped with the gospel.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that practically, when the Holy Spirit reveals our sins to us, we must look deep and long into what specific areas we are not trusting in God and resting in him. Only then will we know how to fight and strive. If I’m struggling with lust and simply tell myself to stop it, and even if I tell myself to stop because I am a child of God, I still might be very far from the real idol, sin struggle, and reason that I am lusting. We need to have a focused grip on the gospel.

    This “focused grip” is the emphasis we find in 2 Peter 1:3-5, some of which you mentioned in your message: “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire.” Note the emphasis on the promises of God: through [specific] promises of God we become partakers of the divine nature as we escape from the corruption in the world. Specific sins must be exposed by the Spirit, examined by a mind that is saturated in the gospel, and then counter-acted by specific promises.

    Further reading on this topic, and particularly how it relates to the teaching of Jack Miller, can be found in this extremely insight book, “When History Teaches us Nothing: the Recent Reformed Sonship Debate in Context.” I highly recommend it (it’s also not too long!) http://www.amazon.com/When-History-Teaches-Us-Nothing/dp/1556353030

    God bless.

  2. Sandy Grant says:

    Kevin, thanks for a great brief statement of the ongoing relevance of biblical law to Christians. I think it is very helpful.

    As a helpful complement, I draw attention of you and your readers to Brian Rosner’s suggestion of a way of understanding Paul’s view of the law (sometimes negative, sometimes positive) depends on whether he is viewing law from the perspective of legal demand (negative) or as prophecy (positive as it points us to Christ) or wisdom (positive as insight into the consistent morality of God). You can read Brian’s lecture notes to his over-view public lecture on the topic at Moore College last year here.

  3. Andrew says:

    Thanks Kevin,
    I’ve actually been tussling a bit lately with what the 3rd use of the law should look like and I have a twofold question-

    1) What should the role of the Old Testament law be in our lives now? Does it add anything such that our ability to obey God would be incomplete if we only read the New Testament?

    2) How should we filter which parts of the Old Testament law are applicable to our obedience to Christ?

  4. Good stuff and good sermon at T4G – a much-needed corrective to some fuzziness in our day on this issue. Some seem to think that Jesus did away with all uses of the OT law and instituted a new law in all senses. If so, there was a time (i.e., prior to the completion of the NT documents) when Christians had no revealed and/or written law.

  5. Truth Unites... and Divides says:

    Rev. DeYoung: “It’s worth noting, as many have, that the Heidelberg Catechism included its exposition of the Law in the gratitude section and not in the guilt section.”

    Amen!

    BTW, are you familiar with how Lutherans or Lutheranism preach and teach the Law?

    It’s quite a bit different than the Heidelberg Catechism.

  6. Peter E. says:

    Remember, it is the Holy Spirit who “uses” the law (how he wills–to teach, to convict, etc.). However, I freely admit that we, men, usually speak the Law with a certain intention. On the one hand, I fully acknowledge a third use and appreciate its value, and yet, I thank God most for the 2nd use. By it (2nd use), God has brought me to repentance so that I might hear the Gospel with joy. In Christ, I now delight in God’s Law. Yet, I would never do so, if it were not for his convicting message.

    Thank you God for slaying my idols, especially my self-righteousness! (And please continue to do so.)

  7. Eric Hettinger says:

    thanks that was pretty boss

  8. As a Reformed Baptist, I appreciate your drawing attention to the third use and your words concerning the Decalogue.

  9. Luke Johnson says:

    How do you understand the new covenant believer’s relation to the Sabbath in light of Colossians 2 and Romans 14?

  10. The Order of Holy Communion in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer seems to combine the first and third uses of the law in rehearsing the Decalogue. By position it must be meant to convict sinners, but the response also anticipates a life of gratitude for the gospel: Lord, have mercy upon us, and incline our hearts to keep this thy law.

  11. Micah says:

    Nick Batzig has written a thorough and helpful post on the Third Use of the Law and redemptive history over at http://feedingonchrist.com/the-third-use-of-the-law-and-finished-work-of-christ/

  12. Kathleen says:

    What is meant by the law? Is it just the ten commandments? I know Hebrews says we no longer are commanded to offer sacrifices, but what about the dietary law and the civil law? My young adult son has been asking me why we no longer feel obligated to keep those laws and I’m at a loss as to what to say. I know we do not keep any laws for our justification, but does God still want us to keep the OT law as a means to sanctify us? Where in the NT does it say that we are no longer obligated to keep the dietary and civil law in the OT, if indeed it does? I’d appreciate any insight – particularly scripture references – on this topic. Thanks!

  13. Andrew says:

    Kathleen, Acts 10:1-11:18 is the “game-changer” about the dietary laws.

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Kevin DeYoung


Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church (RCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University. He and his wife Trisha have six young children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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