The Third Use of the Law – A Historical Examination, with Questions, pt. 2

December 6th, 2012 Post by

Part 1     Part 3

The Synod of Eisenach was convened during 1556 to discuss Justas Menius’ contention that good works were necessary to salvation.  Seven theses were agreed upon, of which the first by Nicholas Amsdorf stated:

“Although the proposition, Good works are necessary to salvation, may be tolerated hypothetically and in an abstract in the doctrine of the law, nevertheless there are many weighty reasons why it ought and should be avoided no less than this one: Christ is a creature.”

The theses, particularly the first, had successfully reined in Menius but three Lutheran pastors began raising objections to what they believed was a capitulation by the Lutheran theologians to abstract and hypothetical doctrines regarding the necessity of good works.

In a letter to Joachim Moerlin, Poach protested the consensus arrived at during the synod that good works were not necessary for salvation with respect to justification, but were necessary “abstractive et idea in doctrina legis” (in an abstract sense and as a notion in the teaching of the law); he objected “on grounds that the law was not given as a way to salvation.”

Poach wrote:

“The law does not have the necessity of salvation but the necessity of what is owing.  Even if…a man were to do the law perfectly, he would not acquire salvation because of those works.  Neither is God obligated to man, but man is obligated to God.  And God in the law requires of man the obedience, which he owes; he does not require obedience with the promise of salvation.  In fact salvation, that is, the remission of sins and justification, as something apart from the law and alien to the law, is gained through Christ.”

As the correspondence between the two Lutheran parties continued, becoming increasingly confrontational, it became apparent to Joachim Moerlin and his colleagues that Andreas Poach and his fellow pastors were fanatics or worse.  Though the quarrel about the 3rd use of the law remained relatively private for a decade, accusations against Anton Otto of antinomianism, led to a more public discussion of faith and good works at the Altenburg Colloquy in 1568-69.  Yet, even then, the contentions of either party were far from being settled.

As the Gnesio-Lutheran argument sought a resolution to the relation of faith and good works another dispute was likewise underway between the pastor and professor Andreas Musculus, a son-in-law of Johann Agricola, and Abdias Praetorius, a professor of Hebrew at Frankfurt.

Musculus had contended that:

“In every good work (I believe) the saints are acted upon rather than acting, and those works are best which are worked without us by the Holy Spirit of Christ and those are worst which we do, having chosen them ourselves and with the assistance of free will.” Andrea pointed out that he believed Musculus disagreed with Praetorius’ affirmation of the third use of the law because the former considered it “coercive.”

Contrariwise, Praetorius believed good works were necessary for salvation in that they were “according to God’s order and will.”  The third use of the law, he corrected, was not coercive but necessary if good works were to be produced in the believer.

Political and academic quarrels persisted to embitter the combatants, as they paralleled the contentions of the intra-Gnesio-Lutheran disputation.  But, despite the support of the clergy in Brandenburg, Praetorius was compelled to abandon the argument and return to Wittenberg during 1563.  For at that time, despite being labeled an antinomian, Musculus had won the support of a majority of the clergy and the elector Joachim II.  “Thus even though he was branded as an antinomian, he was able to hold his position and contribute to the final drafting of the Formula of Concord.”

Are those works “best which are worked without us by the Holy Spirit of Christ and those are worst which we do”?

Are good works necessary for salvation “in that they were ‘according to God’s order and will’”?

Is the third use of the law coercive?

Is the third use of the law necessary if good works are to be produced in a believer?


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  1. David Preus
    December 6th, 2012 at 10:39 | #1

    Great post. Thank you!

    Here are some answers for discussion.

    Are those works “best which are worked without us by the Holy Spirit of Christ and those are worst which we do”?

    Yes. Stated differently, the law cannot explain how good works are pleasing to God. Only the gospel can. The old man will appeal to the law in order to take credit for them, but the new man appeals to the gospel and ascribes all things to Christ.

    Are good works necessary for salvation “in that they were ‘according to God’s order and will’”?

    I wouldn’t venture to say. What makes a human act a good work is the fact that God for Christ’s sake has imputed a certain value to it. Does it make sense to say that it is necessary for salvation for God to impute value to our works?

    Is the third use of the law coercive?

    Yes, as it pertains to the old man. The new man cannot be coerced, but is perfectly willing and free to please God in everything he undertakes.

    Is the third use of the law necessary if good works are to be produced in a believer?

    Yes, law and gospel are necessary for the production of good works in as much as the believer dwells in a body of death which needs to be threatened and coerced, and the new man needs to emerge daily. This is to say that repentance is necessary for the production of “fruits of repentance.”

  2. Carl Vehse
    December 6th, 2012 at 11:58 | #2

    John Warwick Montgomery had this to say about the third use of the law:

    [T]he doctrine of the Third Use is an essential preservative for the entire doctrine of sanctification. The Third Use claims that as a result of justification, it is a nomological fact that “if any man be in Christ he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new” (II Cor. 5:17). A man in Christ has received a new spirit — the Spirit of the living God — and therefore his relation to the Law is changed. True, in this life he will always remain a sinner (I John 1:8), and therefore the Law will always accuse him, but now he sees the biblical Law in another light — as the manifestation of God’s loving will. Now he can say with the psalmist: “I delight in Thy Law” and “O how I love Thy Law!” (Ps. 119;cf. Ps. land 19). Only by taking the Third Use of the Law — the “law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2) — seriously do we take regeneration seriously; and only when we come to love God’s revealed Law has sanctification become a reality in our lives. Ludwig lhmels made a sound confession of faith when he wrote in Die Religionswissenschaft der Gegen wart in Selbstdarstellungen: “I am convinced as was Luther that the Gospel can only be understood where the Law has done its work in men. And I am equally convinced that just the humble Christian, however much he desires to live in enlarging measure in the spirit, would never wish to do without the holy discipline of the tertius usus legis.” The answer to antinomianism, social-gospel legalism, and existential relativism lies not only in the proper distinction between Law and Gospel, as C.F.W. Walther so effectively stressed, but also in the proper harmony of Law and Gospel, as set forth in the classic doctrine of the Third Use of the Law.

  3. December 7th, 2012 at 05:09 | #3

    Yeah… what Carl said….

  4. Johan Bergfest
    December 8th, 2012 at 03:49 | #4

    Perhaps it would be more helpful if we were to talk about the “third use of the Law” as though it were “the second use of the Gospel”.

  5. Carl Vehse
    December 8th, 2012 at 08:41 | #5

    That would turn the Gospel into the Law. The third use of the Law applies only to those who already have the Gospel.

  6. Robert
    December 9th, 2012 at 17:01 | #6

    @David Preus #1

    So, in other words, David, the new man in no wise cooperates with the Holy Spirit in producing good works?

    And thus Pieper, Walther, Luther, Augustine, and the whole Christian Church on earth has been wrong all this time?

    My goodness. What a fanciful claim.

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