Three Uses of the Law

Question
My pastor talked about the three uses of the law. What are they?
Answer
Psalm 119:165 Great peace have those who love your law.

The law is still relevant in the new covenant (Matt. 24:35). The three "uses" of the law are:

(1) Pedagogical Use. The law reveals the perfect righteousness of God and our own coming short of it. Through the law is the knowledge of sin (Rom. 3:20; 4:15; 5:13). Our sinful nature uses this knowledge for further rebellion (Rom. 7:7-11) and making us worthy of judgment. Additionally, by revealing to us our need of pardon, the law leads us to Christ in repentance and faith (Gal. 3:19-24). In one sense, with regard to condemnation, those in Christ are not under the law (Rom. 6:14; 8:1-4). However, we are under the law in another respect: it reveals to us that we are still sinners (Rom. 3:23) in need of continual repentance and forgiveness (1 John 1:8-9) and Christ's provision (Rom. 8:34; Heb 7:25).

(2) Civil Use: The law restrains evil through punishment. Though the law cannot change the heart, it can inhibit sin by threats of judgment, especially when backed by a civil code that administers punishment for proven offences (Deut. 13:6-11; 19:16-21; Rom. 13:3-4). Although obedience out of the love of God is the ideal for which every Christian should strive (1 John 4:18), society still benefits from this restraining use of the law.

(3) Moral or Normative Use: The moral standards of the law provide guidance for believers as they seek to live in humble gratitude for the grace God has shown us. The whole law expresses God's unchanging character and thus its moral dimension remains normative for all time (Matt. 5:17-19; Rom. 3:31; 13:8-9; Eph. 6:2; Jam. 2:10-11; 1 John 2:3-7; cf. BC 25; HC 91; WCF 19). Calvin considered the moral guidance of the law its principal use in the sense that the other uses occur only because of sin's presence in the world; whereas its moral use derives directly from God's character. (1 Cor. 9:12).

To understand these three uses of the law, an example may be helpful. Consider the command "You shall not steal" (Exod. 20:15). The first use of this commandment reveals that stealing is a sin condemned by God and that we are inclined to steal. If we steal we need pardon. Since forgiveness is only in Christ, the law leads us to Christ in repentance and faith. In the civil use of the law, society is directed concerning the responsibility of the state to protect property, etc. Laws and their respective punishments consistent with this commandment should exist to inhibit theft. In the moral use of the law, we see that this law remains for the Christian as a necessary guide for his path of holiness. By this law we know what God expects and the high goal of holiness to which we should aim. We are reminded to avoid stealing and to cultivate honest relations with one another.

Reference:

Richard Pratt, General Editor. Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI, 2003.

Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (IIIM).