Some Thoughts on The Third Use of the Law and Preaching by Kurt Marquart

Our preaching needs to serve and communicate the three permanent witnesses on earth, the spirit (or the blessed Gospel words which are spirit and life, St. Jn. 6:63), the water of Holy Baptism, and the Blood of the New Testament, I John 5:8.  It is through these blessed Gospel-channels that the divine life of faith is transmitted to us sinners.

This, however, does not imply indifference to sanctification.  Our Confessions stress its importance everywhere.  Indeed, they insist that sanctification, as the precious fruit of justifying faith, must grow and increase in us.   The Apology teaches “that we ought to begin to keep the law and then keep it more and more” (IV,124, p. 140).  Again:  “For we do not abolish the law, Paul says [Rom. 3:31], but we establish it, because when we receive the Holy Spirit by faith the fulfillment of the law necessarily follows, through which love, patience, chastity, and other fruits of the Spirit continually grow” (XX,15, p. 237).

Luther’s Large Catechism teaches that the Holy Spirit through the Word “creates and increases holiness, causing it daily to grow and become strong in the faith and in its  fruits.”  Also:  “holiness has begun and is growing daily.”  Again:  “All this, then, is the office and work of the Holy Spirit, to begin and daily increase holiness on earth through these two means, the Christian church and the forgiveness of sins” (Creed, pp. 438, 439).

Further:  “Now, when we enter Christ’s kingdom, this corruption must daily decrease so that the longer we live the more gentle, patient, and meek we become, and the more we break away from greed, hatred, envy, and pride” (Baptism, p. 465).  And the Formula of Concord teaches that the Holy Spirit “cleanses human beings and daily makes them more upright and holier.”  Also:  the Spirit “creates and increases holiness, causing it daily to grow and become strong in the faith and in the fruits which the Spirit produces. . . He brings us into the Christian community, in which he sanctifies us and brings about in us a daily increase in faith and good works” (II, p. 551).

Sometimes we are told that sanctification is best left to itself, that conscious attempts to please God lead to hypocrisy, and that if we just preach the Gospel, sanctification will happen automatically.  No, we are not automata.  We have a renewed will, which “is not idle in the daily practice of repentance but cooperates in all the works of the Holy Spirit that He accomplishes through us” (Formula of Concord, SD, II,88, p. 561).

If being branches in the True Vine (St. Jn. 15) means that like plants we have no conscious intentions, but simply produce fruit “automatically,”  then the same applies to the Vine Himself.  And that is as absurd as saying that since Christ is the Way and the Door, He is as indifferent as ways and doors are to who is passing over or through them!

This pseudo-biblical argument is exactly parallel to that of the old antinomians, who argued that Christians will do the right things “without any teaching, admonition, exhortation, or prodding of the law, . . . just as in and of themselves the sun, the moon, and all the stars follow unimpeded the regular course God gave them once and for all” (FC, SD,VI,6, p. 588).

Clearly the New Testament exhortations to love and good works require conscious effort, not unthinking, automatic compliance with inner instincts!  Thus St. Paul begs the Roman Christians by the mercies of God (which he had expounded in the preceding 11 chapters) to present their bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, as their “reasonable worship” (Rom. 12:1).  And of himself he writes:  “Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Phil.3:13,14, NIV).  No automatism or somnambulism (sleepwalking) here!

Antinomianism is undoubtedly a temptation for the Lutheran flesh.  But the great Reformer opposed it.  He spoke of  the antinomians of his day,

who are preaching beautifully and (as I cannot but think) with real sincerity about Christ’s grace,  about the forgiveness of sin and whatever else can be said about the doctrine of redemption.  But they flee as if it were the very devil the consequence that they should tell the people about the third article, of sanctification, that is, of the new life in Christ.

They think one should not frighten or trouble the people, but rather always preach comfortingly about grace and the forgiveness of sins in Christ, and under no circumstances use these or similar words, “Listen! You want to be a Christian and at the same time remain an adulterer, a whoremonger, a drunken swine, arrogant, covetous, a usurer, envious, vindictive, malicious, etc.!”

Instead they say, “Listen! Though you are an adulterer, a whoremonger, a miser, or other kind of sinner, if you but believe, you are saved, and you need not fear the law.  Christ has fulfilled it all!” .  . .

They may be fine Easter preachers, but they are very poor Pentecost preachers, for they do not preach. . . “about the sanctification by the Holy Spirit,”  but solely about the redemption of Jesus Christ, although Christ (whom they extol so highly, and rightly so) is Christ, that is, he has purchased redemption from sin and death so that the Holy Spirit might transform us out of the old Adam into new men. . .

Christ did not earn only gratia, “grace,” for us, but also donum, “the gift of the Holy Spirit,” so that we might have not only forgiveness of, but also cessation of, sin.  Now he who does not abstain from sin, but persists in his evil life, must have a different Christ, that of the Antinomians; the real Christ is not there, even if all the angels would cry, “Christ! Christ!”  He must be damned with this, his new Christ (“On the Councils and the Church,” Luther’s Works, vol. 41, pp. 113-114).

The Apology claims that our Reformation churches are characterized by “practical and clear sermons,” which “hold an audience” (XXIV, p. 267).  Just what that means is made crystal clear in Article XV:

. . . the chief worship of God is to preach the Gospel . . . . in our churches all the sermons deal with topics like these:  repentance, fear of God, faith in Christ, the righteousness of faith, prayer. . . the cross, respect for the magistrates and all civil orders, the distinction between the kingdom of Christ (the spiritual kingdom) and political affairs, marriage, the education and instruction of children, chastity, and all the works of love (p. 229).

Sanctification and good works clearly do not dominate Reformation preaching, but they are equally clearly an important part of it.  This is important because the new creation in us is under constant attack by the devil, the world, and our own flesh.  This new creation in us needs encouragement and care.  To ignore it, to preach as if we had no new creation in us, but only the wicked old flesh, is to break the bruised reed and to quench the smoldering wick, contrary to Isaiah 42:3, cited in St. Mt. 12:20.

We preachers need to encourage our hearers as they battle for what is good and right and God-pleasing in their daily lives.  And we must remember our own chief duty: to proclaim the divine truths of God’s Law and Gospel with truth and integrity, without compromise.  Luther reminds us, in connection with the First Petition:

See, then, what a great need there is for this kind of prayer!  Because we see that the world is full of sects and false teachers, all of whom wear the holy name as a cloak and warrant for their devilish doctrine, we ought constantly to shout and cry out against all who preach and believe falsely and against those who want to attack, persecute, and suppress our gospel and pure doctrine, as the bishops, tyrants, fanatics, and others do.  Likewise, this petition is for ourselves who have the Word of God but are ungrateful for it and fail to live according to it as we ought  (Large Catechism, p. 446).

In our age of rampant bureaucratism and organisationalism, which creep also into the church, yes, even into the orthodox church, truth is perceived as the great disturber of the peace, as creating “divisiveness.”  Against this superstition, we must refuse to be “dumb dogs” (Is. 56:10), but bear witness to the truth without fear or favor.  The minister of the Gospel is there to serve God and His holy people with His truth.  He is not there to flatter leaders and promote compromise, see Gal. 2:11-21.

But it is also vital to insist that the truth be spoken in love, so that it draws people rather than repelling them.  The ancient church’s love towards the poor and the helpless was a great magnet that drew people to the alone-saving Gospel proclamation.  Let us encourage our people to be conscious of our great missionary obligation, so that the church also in our day may draw the lost to the treasures of salvation.

Editor’s Note: This excerpt is taken from Dr. Marquart’s “The Third Use of The Law in The Formula of Concord”.  All references from the Confessions are taken from the Kolb and Wengert edition.


Some Thoughts on The Third Use of the Law and Preaching by Kurt Marquart — 7 Comments

  1. Thank you!

    I valued listening to Prof. Kurt Marquart when I had the opportunity and I appreciate these selections from his work.

  2. Dr. Marquart doesn’t discuss where the idea that good fruit is produced “automatically” may have come from. C.F.W. Walther writes in God’s No and God’s Yes, 1973 translation:

    “Luther taught that those who would be saved must have a faith that produces love spontaneously and is fruitful in good works. […] The believer need not at all be exhorted to do good works; his faith does them automatically.” [Emphasis sic.]

    Walther does not cite any specific work of Luther here. Perhaps he was thinking of a couple of passages that had already been translated as follows in Select Works of Martin Luther: An Offering to the Church of God in “the Last Days” (1826):

    “The Holy Spirit renews, gladdens, quickens and kindles such an holy flame in the heart, that it does whatever the law requires. And hence, out of faith thus living within and effectually working, spontaneously flow good works indeed.”

    “[From a Christian’s] faith there follows, naturally, nothing but good works. Wherefore, it is without cause that you say to a Christian, do this or that good work; because, without any commanding, he does nothing but work good works spontaneously.”

  3. Spontaneously means willingly or from the heart. Automatic is a bad translation and misrepresents Luther’s point. The point is rather that the good works are done because they are wanted and not forced against the will.

  4. Some thoughts on Luther and the Third Use of the Law, from Vol III of my book Historical and Theological Foundations of Law (Nordskog 2016):
    The long-term controversy over whether Luther taught the third use of the law or whether this concept was developed by later Lutherans, is beyond the scope of this treatise. This writer believes Luther did teach the third use of the law, although he did not develop it as fully as the first and second uses. He spoke of the “three-fold use of the law” in his 1522 Commentary on Galatians 3, and in his Fifth Disputation he wrote, “Therefore the teaching of the Law is necessary in the Church and by all means to be retained, since without it Christ cannot be retained.” (Quoted in Francis Pieper, Christian Dogmatics (Concordia 1953) III:239). The Formula of Concord, completed in 1580, clearly sets forth the three uses of the Law and declares that “We believe, teach and confess that the preaching of the law is to be diligently applied not only to unbelievers and the impenitent but also to people who are genuinely believing, truly converted, regenerated, and justified through faith,” and further, “Accordingly we condemn as dangerous and subversive of Christian discipline and true piety the erroneous teaching that the law is not to be urged, in the manner and measure above described, upon Christians and genuine believers, but only upon unbelievers, nonChristians, and the impenitent.” (The Book of Concord [Fortress Press 1959] I:vi, 479-81). John Witte writes that “It is clear that, for Luther, law could serve not only as a harness against sin and an inducement to faith but also as a teacher of Christian virtue.” Witte at 104. In Luther’s Large Catechism he suggests that obedience to the Fourth Commandment (obedience to authority) constitutes performing “works so precious and pleasing to Him.” (paras. 116-20; Kolb/Wengert 402-03). In the opinion of this writer, much of the confusion concerning Luther’s view of the third use of the Law stems from a failure to consider Luther’s view of the Christian as a person redeemed by God but still possessed of a sinful nature. Luther is quoted as saying “According to the spirit the believer is righteous, without any sin, has no need of law whatever;” but the quotation continues, “according to his flesh he still has sin.” (Pieper III:238). One need not preach the Law to the spiritual side of the Christian, but one must preach the Law to his sinful side. Scott R. Murray has produced a good study of the issue in Law, Life, and the Living God: The Third Use of the Law in Modern American Lutheranism (Concordia 2002) esp. 16-39.

  5. I learned the meaning of the words, “antinomian” and “gospel-reductionism” from my brother. I cannot remember any more what specifically we talked about but I know that we had our differences on the subject of Law and Gospel, and the Third Use came up frequently.
    During the year in which he went to be with the Lord, I was able to visit him three times. On one such occasion, I was sitting in the room where his easy chair was, and he was in the living room, speaking to someone on the phone. I did not intend to eavesdrop, but I could not help but hear his words, “The Gospel is everything, the Gospel is everything.”
    The Law is good, and the Third Use is good. What is not good is when Law and Gospel are confused. That is always to the detriment of the Gospel, and it causes doubt to arise in the souls of God’s people. That is why it is not good.
    As quoted in the posting, Article 15 of the Apology reads, in part, “. . the chief worship of God is to preach the Gospel . . . . in our churches all the sermons deal with topics like these: repentance, fear of God, faith in Christ, the righteousness of faith, prayer. . .” Is “repentance” Law or Gospel? During the past few days I read and heard 4 sermons on the occasion of the Nativity of St. John, the Baptist. Each LCMS pastor referred to the call of John to “Repent!” saying that this call applied to each of us today. Is there any doubt that John’s call to repent is Law, not Gospel? First Use, not Third! Repentance is indeed part of the Gospel when it is done as my brother wrote with reference to St. Paul’s admonition, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God…” Most of our pastors do not even know that there are two kinds of “repentance” spoken of in the New Testament, or they do not think it makes any difference.
    Is “fear of God” Law or Gospel? Luther wrote in his great Commentary on Galatians, Chapter 5, v. 1:“Our conscience is free and quiet because it no longer has to fear the wrath of God. This is real liberty, compared with which every other kind of liberty is not worth mentioning. Who can adequately express the boon that comes to a person when he has the heart-assurance that God will nevermore be angry with him, but will forever be merciful to him for Christ’s sake? This is indeed a marvelous liberty, to have the sovereign God for our Friend and Father who will defend, maintain, and save us in this life and in the life to come.” I know that Luther distinguished between “Furcht” (fear) and “Ehrfurcht” (awe), but I am not sure what Melanchthon was thinking when he wrote these words in the Apology. What layperson in the USA knows that and worries about his salvation because he is not afraid of God?
    The Third Use can be a tricky thing if you are not convinced that “The Gospel is everything.”
    Peace and Joy!
    George A. Marquart

  6. Correction, when I wrote “First Use, Not Third” I meant “Second Use, not Third.”
    George A. Marquart

  7. Dear BJS Bloggers,

    For those who still wonder whether Luther taught the “Third Use of the Law,” please consult the relatively recent book by:

    Edward A. Engelbrecht, Friends of the Law: Luther’s Use of the Law for the Christian Life (St Louis: CPH, 2011).

    It received endorsements from professors at: Emory University, Luther Seminary-Saint Paul (Walt Sundberg), Augustana College, Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary (John Brug), Susquehanna University, St Olaf, Roanoke College (Bob Benne), Thiel College, Texas Lutheran U., Wartburg Seminary-Dubuque, and Dr. Ken Schurb. Peer reviewers included Dr. Carl Beckwith (Beeson Divinity School), Dr. Scott Murray (LC-MS 2nd VP), and Dr. Jeffrey Silcock (Australian Lutheran College).

    It sums up all the Lutheran scholarship on this topic up to 2011 in a fair and clear manner. Highly recommended!

    Yours in Christ, Martin R. Noland

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