By the late 1570’s the dispute regarding faith and good works had been assumed into the broader political and theological discussions of the day but the issues addressed during the antinomian controversies had not. As the formulators [of what would eventually become the Formula of Concord] gathered, Jacob Andrea lobbied for a definition of the third use of the law in keeping with his belief that Christians were always suffering under the attacks of, “the old ass, the old Adam, who is not yet regenerate.”
Thus Article VI defined the third use of the law as applying to people,
“…after they have been reborn – since nevertheless the flesh still clings to them – that precisely because of the flesh they may have a sure guide, according to which they can orient and conduct their entire life..”
The necessity of such a use is affirmed by the argument that Christians:
“have been redeemed by the Son of God so that they may practice the law day and night (Ps. 119:1). For our first parents did not live without the law even before the fall. This law of God was written into the heart, for they were created in the image of God.”
Because regeneration and renewal are incomplete in this world, the formulators asserted, the third use of the law functions as a guide for Christians on account of “the old creature [who] is still lodged in the human understanding, will, and all human powers,” and thus, “in order that people do not resolve to perform service to God on the basis of their pious imagination in an arbitrary way of their own choosing, it is necessary for the law of God constantly to light their way.”
Andreas Poach, Michael Neander, Anton Otto, and Andreas Musculus received a final answer, and reproof, in the Epitome to the Formula of Concord, when it was agreed that the Holy Spirit produced fruits in the regenerated, so that, “in terms of obedience to [the law] there is a difference only in that those people who are not yet reborn do what the law demands unwillingly, because they are coerced (as is also the case with the reborn with respect to the flesh). Believers, however, do without coercion, with a willing spirit, insofar as they are born anew, what no threat of the law could ever force from them.”
In spite of serious reservations voiced by Poach and Musculus as to the content of the article, both men signed their names, affirming the document.
Why, if they disagreed so vehemently with the arguments made for a third use of the law, did Poach and Neander sign the document affirming the third use of the law as a Lutheran doctrine?
What is the relation of the third use of the law to the first and second use, as Lutherans have understood and taught them?
Finally, what could the consequences have been if Poach, Neander, etc., had refused to the sign the document?
Although Andreas Poach and his colleagues were labeled antinomians by many contemporaries they remained adamant in their defense of what they believed was the law’s proper functions (which they argued was in keeping with their professor’s, Martin Luther’s, understanding of the law). As students of Luther, Poach and Anton Otto, as well as Otto’s friend Michael Neander, and Andreas Musculus in like manner, were of the opinion that they, and not their opponents, were the true custodians of Luther’s teaching regarding the proper functions of the law.
For Poach the law could not function in abstraction but was instead a functional reality, given “for obedience” in order to reveal God’s justice. The law was not a moral code inculcated under the rubric of the Ten Commandments alone. Instead, the law was a “debt we owe” or an “obligation which we must fulfill.” The proper operation of the law in the world, and upon Christians, for Poach was its function as a killer. He wrote, “…the most proper effect of the law is in the revealing and demonstrating of our works, that is, our sins – to accuse, to thoroughly terrify, to kill and to damn.” Thus, “the law is to be taught not for salvation, but for death and damnation.”
In response to Joachim Moerlin and Joachim Westphal, Poach criticized their arguments for the necessity of the law in salvation by quoting Luther’s Lectures on Galatians, writing, “The works of Christ, which are the fulfillment of the law, are the merit of our salvation. Our works, which ought to have been the fulfillment of the law, do not merit salvation, even if they were the most perfect, as the law requires – which, moreover, is impossible. The reason is that we are debtors to the law. Christ, however, is not a debtor to this law. Even if we most perfectly fulfilled all the commandments of God and completely satisfied the righteousness of God, we would not be worthy of grace and salvation on that account, nor would God be obligated to give us salvation and grace as a debt. He justly demands the fulfillment of his law from us as obedience due him for his creature, who is bound to obey its Creator.”
Poach maintained a distinct understanding of Christ’s work in that he believed Christ Jesus imputed his righteousness to Christians “above and apart from the law.”
Peppering his writing with Luther’s vocabulary throughout the correspondence with Moerlin, Westphal, and the others, Poach pressed their definition of the law, emphasizing the functional reality of the law as that which, “terrifies, reveals sins, accuses, works wrath, damns and kills,” whereas the gospel, “consoles, reveals the justification of God, defends, works peace, absolves, and vivifies.” Faith, Poach argued, created works spontaneously in the believer apart from any coercion of the law.
Nevertheless to the extent Poach and his colleagues sought Luther’s understanding of the law throughout the debates, they were unable, even when employing Luther’s vocabulary, to disentangle their theological thinking from the usus legis formula of their opponents. The potency and untamed dynamism of Luther’s understanding of the law was absent from Poach and company as they attempted to construct theological categories around the impasse of an eternally binding lex moralis.
Yet in quoting copiously from Luther’s Antinomian Disputations as well as his Galatians lectures during the conflict with Moerlin, Matthias Flacius, Westphal and Abdias Praetorius, Poach, along with Otto, Neander, and Musculus presented their opposition to the third use of the law from a highly defensible position; the distinction between the law and the reality to which the law points.
For their part Moerlin, Westphal, Flacius, and Praetorius based their argument firmly within a presupposition that the law was the way of salvation. Writing a criticism of Poach’s antinomian opinions, Moerlin stated, “…if obedience to the law is not necessary to salvation, then Christ’s merit is not necessary to salvation” Flacius followed suit by insisting the necessity of the third use of the law.
This necessity of a usus tertius legis in the Christian life was two-fold. First, that “…the old creature, like a stubborn, recalcitrant donkey, is also a part of them, and it needs to be forced into obedience to Christ not only through the law’s teaching, admonition, compulsion, and threat but also often with the cudgel of punishments and tribulations until the sinful flesh is completely stripped away and people are perfectly renewed in the resurrection.” Second, “believers…require the teaching of the law regarding their good works, for otherwise people can easily imagine that their works and life are completely pure and perfect.”
What finally flourished in the formula was, in its best moments, a compromise. Neither party was able to formulate an understanding of the law in keeping solely with the ethic of Luther or the dogmatic of Melanchthon. “For Luther,” as Lauri Haikola wrote, “the absolute law is hidden and cannot be known. The command to Adam not to eat from the tree in the middle of the garden, for example, was not an insight into general ethical principles. Instead of living out his life against the background of a timeless, abstract, philosophical law, man lives in a series of ‘situations of creation’ within the flux of time. Dependent, he must learn what is required of him again and again. Melanchthon’s idea of an absolute law, on the other hand is inevitably transformed by the human mind into mastery of the future, and then into a doctrine of free will.”
The door thus opened, both parties contended over the proper ‘usus’ of the law amongst Christians, never fully distinguishing the functional reality of the law’s subject from an abstracted eternal lex moralis, never finessing the function of the law, in its three modes, within the happy exchange between the little whore, the sinful soul, and the pure bridegroom, Christ.