Another Reflection on the Divine Uses of the Law

By Caleb Keith

It seems like nobody can stop talking about the three uses of the Law, which is often a blurry distinction. The systematic distinctions of the Law help the Christian work through the various ways the law functions in Scripture. Melanchthon introduces the third use of the Law for the first time in the 1535 Loci Communes under the title De usu legit divine. Our own Dr. Keith has translated that section of the Loci and has made it available to read at 1517 Legacy project. Interestingly, Lutherans tend to omit the word “divine” when talking about the uses of the Law. While this removal is most likely for the practicality of speaking, I believe this can lead to preachers who preach the Law in a manner that serves one particular use over another. This method of thought allows pastors to assume the role of a user of the Law, rather than God being the one who uses the Law through their preaching.

Scripture does not cleanly divide the Law into uses. Instead, it is approached as the universal and timeless Law of God. Yet as seen in Paul, that Law has specific effects on different individuals, and some universal effects that touch all people, even those who have not heard the Law directly (Romans 2). This allows Paul to preach toward specific issues plaguing various churches without dividing the Law, but rather letting it have multiple effects on many people. I would suggest that the term “effects of the Law” is a better description than “uses of the Law.” Such an explanation maintains God as the wielder of the Law rather than man. The term “effects” removes the hard lines produced by the word “uses” and acknowledges that the Law restricts, accuses, and guides all people, and that those effects have a different reality for those in Christ than those outside of Christ.

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My intention here is not to reject the third use of the Law or FC VI. I truly believe that the Law does serve as a guide in and for the Christian life. Instead, my intention is simply to bring attention to the language Christians use in describing God’s Law. We must not forget that the term “use” is not inspired or holy, but is a systematic construction that helps the Christian understand Scripture. The Law functions in all of its uses whenever it is faithfully preached regardless of our ability to properly divide and distinguish those uses at a particular time. Instead of focusing on our division of Law, we ought to focus our energy of the distinction between Law and Gospel. Every use of the Law is death to the sinner apart from Christ. May God guide our hearts and minds to the forgiveness from the Law that we have in Jesus Christ our Lord.

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