Do You Really Think You Can Use God’s Law?

By Scott Keith


I write quite frequently for The Jagged Word and somewhat less frequently on 1517 The Legacy Project. Admittedly, I design most of my posts to encourage you, the reader, to enact the freedom that Christ has won for you. Inevitably, when I post, I receive comment after comment reminding me to remember the famously over-referenced “Third Use of the Law.”

Now, for those unfamiliar with the idea of “uses” of the law, let me explain. Developed during the Reformation, Philip Melanchthon first articulated this theological concept. According to his formulation, God’s divine law has three uses.

The first use of divine law applies to all mankind. Melanchthon calls this the “civil use,” whereby the law restrains sin. In catechetical terms, this use treats the law as a type of curb, governing the acceptable possibilities of behavior by keeping everything between the lines. The civil use, restrains external evil so as to make life in society possible.

The second use of divine law is the “theological use.” This function of the law convicts the sinner of their unrighteousness before God. In catechetical terms, this use functions as a type of speculum magnificans; it shows us our own flaws by means of amplification — whether prospective, introspective, or retrospective. In fact, I often describe this use as a magnifying make-up mirror that lays bare every flaw in great detail.

Finally, the third use of divine law provides rules for the Christian as they live out their everyday life. Catechetically, this use is quite rightly described as a rule or ruler because it directs and measures the Christian’s sanctification. The third us is sometimes described also as the “educational,” “didactic,” or “pedagogical” use of the law because it teaches the Christian how to live.


Ironically, a good deal of my doctoral dissertation involved a careful and critical examination of Philip Melanchthon’s systematic expression of these theological concepts. Melanchthon first discussed this third use of the law in the 1535 edition of his Loci Communes Theologici. This edition of the Loci — Melanchthon’s second — also contains many of the theological foibles for which Melanchthon is infamous, including the phrase “good works are necessary to salvation.”

So, why do I bring this up? As near as I can reckon, there are two issues at hand.

Gerhard Ebeling raised the question first: If the law is known by its uses, who is the user? Now, that’s a good question. If God’s law is being used, is it not, then, ourselves whom we believe are the users? Is it this idea of instrumentality that distresses my readers? Or rather, when I discuss freedom, am I not “using” the third use of the law? Am I using it as God intended me to use it? In turn, I must pose a question both to my readers and to myself: do we really think we can use God’s divine law? This, at best, seems problematic to me.

Second, we must attend to and understand the terms that Melanchthon actually employs. In fact, with respect to the law, he uses two: (1) usus legis divinae, or “the use of the divine law”; and (2) legis officia, or “the offices of the law.” The distinction hinges on the difference between usus and officium. The former implies that the law is used; usus: the use, employment, and exercise of a thing. Therefore, the concept of usus is necessarily broad. But, importantly, buried into the term usus is the notion that someone — or something — will necessarily be the “user.” The second term employed by Melanchthon, officium, denotes an official duty, a service, employment, and business. The concept of officium is more closely related to the concept of vocatio, a calling or occupation. That these two formulations are distinct implies that, to Melanchthon’s understanding, the law has two different jobs to do — each of which are ordained by God.

Ten Com 500

So, what does this all mean? Well, to my mind it boils down to two possibilities. According to Melanchthon, two terminologies govern the law — use and duty. Therefore, the law either does stuff because God ordained it to do that stuff, satisfying officia legis, or that we direct the law to do stuff at our whim and use the law as we see fit, satisfying usus legis.

As I read the Scriptures, it becomes clear to me that God has ordained that which the law will and or will not do. He has set its limits and expanded its horizons to serve His purposes. We can search the text in order to examine what those purposes are, but both the limitations and opportunities the law provides are more-or-less set. Therefore, we can never be the ones who truly direct its use.

Furthermore, I truly believe that the law is always convicting of sin. When all is said and done, no matter what varied purpose the law is serving, regardless of whether one envisions the law as a curb, a mirror, or a rule, the end result is the same. And that result is everywhere and always the conviction of sin.


To see why this is, we must return to Melanchthon. In his 1535 edition, he continues, “lex semper accusat” indeed, the law always accuses! Because we are folks incurvatus in se, having been turned in toward ourselves, we constantly seek our own end rather than God’s. Because of this orientation, we sin against Him in thought, word, and deed. The law both shows us this to be the case and delimits the scope of this failing. Even when we think we are using the law to exhort, it condemns.

We do not use the Law of God. It may express itself in several ways, but it always acts to condemn, because that is its primary vocation. You don’t use the law, God does. God uses the law to restrain, He uses it to provide direction, and He uses it to convict miserable sinners of their extreme unrighteousness.

To believe otherwise is sheer arrogance and leads us down the path of moralizing for the sake of moralizing.

We fear our newfound freedom in Christ and our inclination is to flee to the law for rescue. “What one last thing must I do?” is always in our minds and on our lips. The short answer? Nothing. Furthermore, the law won’t do anything either — other than reveal the depths of our depravity and inability. The answer is not to “use” more law; the answer is found in the freedom Christ has won for us.


Do not seek to use the law. Rather, seek to use your freedom. You are free in Christ. You are free to be all that God has already declared you to be; His child. You no longer earn your place in His house through your service (law); you are given that place on account of Christ (Gospel). Freedom will move a redeemed sinner to feel the joy of their freedom by means of helping others in small but freely chosen ways.

Now, how’s this for all of you who desire an imperative: Live Freely!