So, Does The Christian Need God’s Law For Christian Living?

Does the Christian need God’s Law for Christian living and what is the use and purpose of God’s Law for a person after they have become a Christian? In fancy theological terms, is there a need for what is called, “The Third Use of the Law?” It seems to me that there are two opposing errors in response to these questions by well meaning Christians.

The one error leans toward Legalism and says that we live by the power and motivation of the Law. Keep in mind that the Law initially reveals sin and damnation to these folks, the Gospel saves them and then they return to the Law as a source of hope and inspiration for victorious living. The 3rd part of this Law-Gospel-Law scheme (i.e. the Law after the Gospel) essentially can negate and diminish the centrality of the Gospel. Instead of deriving one’s identity, motivation and assurance from the Gospel, these individuals ever so slightly shift their main attention back towards the Law, demoting the Gospel to a mere assumption.

On the other hand, Antinomians err when the Law is removed from the life of the Christian completely. This leads to lawlessness and spiritual apathy. A deliberate, unashamed, lifestyle of sin essentially repudiates and denies all that the Cross of Christ stands for.

Both the Antinomian and the Legalist are in error. The Antinomian simply negates the Law and the Legalist trusts in the Law as if it were the Gospel.

Friedemann Hebart has a neat little book that is out of print called, “One In The Gospel.” In this book he talks about the Law in the life of a Christian saying,

“Does the Christian need God’s law at all? If we are Christians who ‘live by the Spirit’ won’t we automatically do what God wants? The trouble is that we are not only accepted saints; we are also self-centered sinners and we do not always automatically love God and others. And so, when it comes to recognizing what God’s will is in any situation, our vision is clouded: ‘If believers…were perfectly renewed in this life through the indwelling Spirit…they would do what they are obligated to do…spontaneously and unhindered…But in this life Christians are not renewed perfectly and completely. (Luther)’ Therefore they need God’s commands ‘to light their way.’ God’s commands are an expression of his will for us.”[1]

In other words, due to our sinful nature our understanding of God’s will is clouded; our reason is often off center. The Law not only reveals sin (i.e. second use) but it also shows us what is good and true, what God’s will is (i.e. third use).

Praise be to God that His will is not some mysterious abstract idea that we need to search for by spiritual speculation and mysticism, but is printed plainly in the Word.

So, yes, there is a need for the Law in the life of a Christian. There is a twofold caution to be aware of though.

First, we always need to keep in mind that the Law only reveals to us God’s will but it does not give us any power to fulfill its conditions. In the words of Robert Kolb,

“The Law cannot turn sinners to faith and produce proper behavior performed simply for the sake of God.”[2]

Secondly, when we ponder the Law we can so easily drift back into believing/doing good works from the motives of: fear of punishment or the desire for a reward. Thus we end up forgetting the Gospel and can become Saints of Cain. We error in performing the works of the Law for and from the context of self rather than for the sake of God. According to Michael Horton,

“We always gravitate back towards ourselves: ‘Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it; prone to leave the God I love.’ We wander back towards self-confidence just as easily as into more obvious sins… In every generation, our natural tendency is to put the focus back on ourselves—our inner life, piety, community and actions…”[3]

Keep in mind that these errors are not due to the Law itself. These errors are due to our improper understanding of the Law and our sinful nature.

So, does the Christian need God’s Law for Christian living? The answer is, “Yes.” However, it is a yes knowing full well that we tend to misuse the good Law.

 

======================
[1] Friedemann Hebert, One In The Gospel: The Formula of Concord for Our Day (Openbook Publishers, 2000), 76.
[2] Robert Kolb, The Christian Faith (Concordia Publishing, 1993), 110.
[3] Michael Horton, Christless Christianity (Baker Books, 2008), 120, 122.

About Pastor Matt Richard

Rev. Dr. Matthew Richard is the pastor at Zion Lutheran Church of Gwinner, ND. He was previously a Senior Pastor in Sidney, Montana, an Associate Pastor of Spiritual Care and Youth Ministries in Williston, North Dakota, and an Associate Pastor of Children and Youth in Rancho Cucamonga, California. He received his undergraduate degree from Minot State University, ND and his M.Div. from Lutheran Brethren Seminary, MN. His doctor of ministry thesis, from Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, MO, was on exploring the journey of American Evangelicals into Confessional Lutheran thought. Pastor Richard is married to Serenity and they have two children. He enjoys fishing, pheasant hunting, watching movies, blogging, golfing, spending time with his family and a good book with a warm latte! To check out more articles by Pastor Matt you can visit his personal blog at: www.pastormattrichard.com.

Comments

So, Does The Christian Need God’s Law For Christian Living? — 57 Comments

  1. During our weekly reading group at noon today, the portion read included this:

    “The sum of the preadching of the Gospel is this: to convict of sin; to offer for Christ’s sake the forgiveness of sins and righteousness, the Holy Spirit, and eternal life; and that as reborn people we should do good works.” Apology XIIa:29.

    I see this as affirming both what Rev McCain has said and what Pr Richard has said. Some deny that it is any part of the Gospel to preach that we should do good works. That is a grave error that reduces the Gospel. No doubt the goods works in sanctification are illuminated by the third use of the law. On the other hand, the quoted words say we should do good works as reborn people, which shows that the power and motivation are the Gospel.

  2. “Preaching the law is necessary to terrify the secure sinner, but the Law will not renew the heart nor kindle love to God and the neighbor. At best it will produce only a forced obedience.”

    “Let no one think, ‘If someone preaches the Gospel to them, they will not do God’s will. I must preach the Law and God’s threats.’ If that is all you do, you have led the people straight to hell. Better not act the policeman in your congregation, but change the people’s hearts, so that they will freely and gladly do what pleases God.”

    “We must indeed preach the Law, but only as preparation for the Gospel. Else we are not true servants of the Gospel.”

    “It is horrible blindness to say, as the papists do, that in Scripture two doctrines must be distinguished, namely the old law and the evangelical law. To speak of an “evangelical law” is a contradiction in terms. How can the Law be a joyful message?”

    C.F.W. Walther, “Law and Gospel”

  3. What Luther said: “This distinction [between law and gospel] must be observed all the more when the Law wants to force me to abandon Christ and His Gospel boon. In that emergency I must abandon the Law and say: Dear Law, if I have not done the works I should have done, do them yourself. I will not, for your sake, allow myself to be plagued to death, taken captive, and kept under your thraldom and thus forget the Gospel. Whether I have sinned, done wrong, or failed in any duty, let that be your concern, O Law. Away with you and let my heart alone; I have no room for you in my heart. But if you require me to lead a godly life here on earth, that I shall gladly do. If, however, like a housebreaker, you want to climb in where you do not belong, causing me to lose what has been given me, I would rather not know you at all than abandon my gift.”

    Martin Luther, quoted in C. F. W. Walther, The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel (St. Louis, 1928), pages 46-47.

    Wow, I love that!

  4. Abby, yes, that is absolutely correct.

    And it is also absolutely correct that Christians need the law for their Christian lives of good works and service to Christ and others. And the Christian, according to the New Man, loves the law and delights in it and rejoices in the opportunity to let their light so shine before men so they may see their good works and glorify their father in heaven.

    The problem with most of this kind of conversation is a truncation and error in regard to the Law and its role for the Christian, etc.

  5. Dear Pastor McCain: What I know compared to you could fit on the head of a pin. And I bless you for all the good that you give our church. But I thought I would try to explain a little about why I loved that quote. I shared a concern with a pastor who counseled me and he said that my struggle was “like Luther’s and St. Paul’s.” I also heard from Dr. Rosenbladt in an Issue’s segment that Luther at one time used to wear out 2 confessors per week! I told this pastor that I wish I could find 2 confessors per week that I could wear out. 🙂

    I don’t know at what time of Luther’s life that he wrote this. But he used to have an obsessive problem with guilt–which really helped drive him to finally discover the golden nugget of the Reformation (it seems to me).

    “. . .when the Law wants to force me to abandon Christ and His Gospel . . .” I can relate to this — not from having a low view of the Law, but from having a high view of the Law, I think. But because of this, I too have–sometimes–an excessive amount of guilt when the Devil tries to plague me with it. (I know it’s him!) I have read a little that tells me that you came from a wonderful Christian family background. I have always envied that when I have heard of that in others. I usually have no sympathy for PKs because I say that I would have traded circumstances with them any day. My home was black and gray. When the Law feels excessively heavy to me (yes, I am introspective too much and confuse both true and false guilt) it does seem to me that I feel “forced to abandon Christ and His Gospel” because I can’t live up to it. It just seems too easy and good.

    “. . .In that emergency I must abandon the Law . . .” When I read the New Testament it told me, ‘No, I am the kind of person Jesus was looking for.’ I don’t deserve it, but He gives it to me if I believe. Because I see the lowest of the low given this grace and mercy by Jesus. Even those who had not been keeping the Law compared to the religious leaders of that time.

    Now, this is still hard for me to come to completely: “I will not, for your (the Law) sake, allow myself to be plagued to death, taken captive, and kept under your thraldom and thus forget the Gospel. . .” On another thread you said something like a person suffering from too much guilt all the time probably was “pietistic.” I don’t believe that is me. I am just trying hard to understand and learn what all this means to me when I have to deal with old “effects” from my past situation. I really do hope yet, that “I will not . . . allow myself to be plagued to death . . .” and be free of this wrong thinking on my part.

    “Away with you and let my heart alone; I have no room for you in my heart.” I am not lawless. Honestly, I can’t wait to be rid of all this someday. To me, this is again the Devil who is trying to give me all this trouble by using the Law against me. It is not the Law I am dismissing from my heart, but the lies that he tries to tell me by using the Law.

    “But if you require me to lead a godly life here on earth, that I shall gladly do.” But see, Luther is saying that the Law helps us do good. Just like you have said. And the new commandment that is given throughout the NT is that this Law is now fulfilled from love. If I love God I will not be an idolator. If I love my neighbor I will not steal. If I love my husband I will not commit adultery. . . But, alas, I still cannot measure up in my “good works.” I am condemned through and through when I look at the Law.

    “If, however, like a housebreaker, you want to climb in where you do not belong, causing me to lose what has been given me, I would rather not know you at all than abandon my gift.” Now, if push comes to shove — and I feel the Devil is winning this battle with me by deceiving me so that I almost give up, then I would say with Luther that I would rather not know the Law than abandon the gift Christ has given me. I don’t know how I could do that, but I would try.

    This may sound extreme and confusing to you and others. It is confusing to me as well. That is why I fix my eyes on Jesus, because I can’t look at myself without despair. And really, I am not pietistic. Believe me.

    I understand your reply, and thank you for it.

  6. “Both the Antinomian and the Legalist are in error. The Antinomian simply negates the Law and the Legalist trusts in the Law as if it were the Gospel.”

    This is the WRONG frame and a false choice I suggest. It is to teach Aristotle and the Golden Mean which is to say that virtue is the lack of excess or deficit. This distinction between license and legalism is a good one. BUT! This is to teach the outward discipline of carnal righeousness! No Christ and NO Holy Spirit are necessary to know the difference between legalism and license.

    Civil courtrooms are all about dealing with this aristotelian moral balance! And it drives me nuts that we often present this as a wisdom that only Christians can know. That is horrible error.

    So then what is the right and Lutheran frame here?

    The Confessions, everywhere tell us this:
    The Law, preached apart from those Two Words that are alone Gospel “given and shed FOR YOU!”, will result in ONLY two kinds of sinners: Pharisee OR despairing hedonistic epicurean.

    Download the searchable pdf of the book of concord here: http://www.bookofconcord.org search for the places that talk about this two fold result of preaching the law without Christ!

    So this kind of article you present to us is what will ALWAYS result when the Law is preached apart from Christ.
    What is the point of such a message that tells us such a thing? The only way to avoid these two results is , alone, to preach Two Words ,unconditionally, to legalists and hedonistic life style sinners alike!

    And the ONLY way to do that is to get them to want to show up in church of their own free will because that is the only place they will hear those two words. This is not such a hard task to get pharisees to show up. What is it we need to do to make lifestyle sinners feel welcome in our churches?

  7. “This is not such a hard task to get pharisees to show up.” [Elder brothers. Too many in our churches are elder brothers. They refuse to go in to the party where sinners are concerned. In fact, a sinner should be most welcome.]

    “What is it we need to do to make lifestyle sinners feel welcome in our churches?” [Put away pharisaical judments and condescension. How did these sinners even know that they could approach Jesus? He must have shown something of acceptance for the persons but not the sin. They still felt they could approach Him. They were not afraid of Him even though He preached Law too. They somehow knew what was on the other side of the Law.]

    They need to know what and how deep their sin is. And then we need to do a good job of teaching forgiveness, I think.

    Luke 7:36-50
    Luke 15:11-32

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