A Laymen’s Commentary on the Epitome of the Formula of Concord: The Third Use of God’s Law

VI. The Third Use of the Law


The Principal Question In This Controversy.

1 Since the Law was given to men for three reasons: first, that thereby outward discipline might be maintained against wild, disobedient men [and that wild and intractable men might be restrained, as though by certain bars]; secondly, that men thereby may be led to the knowledge of their sins; thirdly, that after they are regenerate and [much of] the flesh notwithstanding cleaves to them, they might on this account have a fixed rule according to which they are to regulate and direct their whole life, a dissension has occurred between some few theologians concerning the third use of the Law, namely, whether it is to be urged or not upon regenerate Christians. The one side has said, Yea; the other, Nay.

There was no debate amongst the Reformers about the three uses of the Law. These are:

  1. Curb: The Law restrains our sin. This is the civil use of the Law.
  2. Mirror: The Law shows us our sin. This is the theological use of the Law.
  3. Guide: The Law shows us the perfect will of God. This is the Christian use of the Law.

However there was debate about whether or not the guide should be applied to the regenerate man. To wit does the third use need to be taught or is it just known by the Christian?  This controversy was brought up by the Philippists who insisted that the regenerate follow the Law natively without any instruction and thus the third use should not be taught, even if it did exist.

Affirmative Theses.

The True Christian Doctrine concerning This Controversy.

2 1. We believe, teach, and confess that, although men truly believing [in Christ] and truly converted to God have been freed and exempted from the curse and coercion of the Law, they nevertheless are not on this account without Law, but have been redeemed by the Son of God in order that they should exercise themselves in it day and night [that they should meditate upon God’s Law day and night, and constantly exercise themselves in its observance, Ps. 1:2 ], Ps. 119. For even our first parents before the Fall did not live without Law, who had the Law of God written also into their hearts, because they were created in the image of God, Gen. 1:26f.; 2:16ff; 3:3.

3 2. We believe, teach, and confess that the preaching of the Law is to be urged with diligence, not only upon the unbelieving and impenitent, but also upon true believers, who are truly converted, regenerate, and justified by faith.

First of all, even though in the Gospel we are freed from the penalty of breaking the Law, it does not mean that we live without the Law or rejoice in it.  In fact, this is precisely the reason we have been redeemed. As Christians we are to live under God’s Law perfectly and rejoice in it (Psalm 1, Psalm 119).

It is also clear from Scripture that prior to the Fall, Adam and Eve were instructed in the Law.  It is not as if they needed to divine it from some mysterious place.  They were instructed in it and had it written on their hearts (Genesis 1-3).

God told Adam and Eve the Law in the Garden.  It was not some enthusiastic vision that revealed to them right and wrong. Rather they had the Law engraved on their hearts by God, and were explicitly told it by God who spoke to them.  It was only when they doubted the clear Word of God that had been spoken to them that they sinned.  Thus it is clear that even the sinless man needs and desires to hear God’s Law.

4 3. For although they are regenerate and renewed in the spirit of their mind, yet in the present life this regeneration and renewal is not complete, but only begun, and believers are, by the spirit of their mind, in a constant struggle against the flesh, that is, against the corrupt nature and disposition which cleaves to us unto death. On account of this old Adam, which still inheres in the understanding, the will, and all the powers of man, it is needful that the Law of the Lord always shine before them, in order that they may not from human devotion institute wanton and self-elected cults [that they may frame nothing in a matter of religion from the desire of private devotion, and may not choose divine services not instituted by God’s Word]; likewise, that the old Adam also may not employ his own will, but may be subdued against his will, not only by the admonition and threatening of the Law, but also by punishments and blows, so that he may follow and surrender himself captive to the Spirit, 1 Cor. 9:27; Rom. 6:12; Gal. 6:14; Ps. 119:1ff; Heb. 13:21 (Heb. 12:1).

In addition we are not yet sinless in this life.  While the penalty of sin has been removed the effects of sin are still among us.  We do not see God’s Law clearly, even when preached.  Our sinful flesh still wars against us (Romans 6).

Thus since our sinful man is still with us and we do not see clearly what God’s Law is we must preach it both for the edification and joy of the new man and the curbing of the old man.  In effect, it is the continual use of the Law in the Christian’s life (Psalm 119, Romans 6-7, 12, 1 Corinthians 9, Galatians 5-6, Hebrews 11-13)

5 4. Now, as regards the distinction between the works of the Law and the fruits of the Spirit, we believe, teach, and confess that the works which are done according to the Law are and are called works of the Law as long as they are only extorted from man by urging the punishment and threatening of God’s wrath.

6 5. Fruits of the Spirit, however, are the works which the Spirit of God who dwells in believers works through the regenerate, and which are done by believers so far as they are regenerate [spontaneously and freely], as though they knew of no command, threat, or reward; for in this manner the children of God live in the Law and walk according to the Law of God, which [mode of living] St. Paul in his epistles calls the Law of Christ and the Law of the mind, Rom. 7:25; 8:7; Rom. 8:2; Gal. 6:2.

7 6. Thus the Law is and remains both to the penitent and impenitent, both to regenerate and unregenerate men, one [and the same] Law, namely, the immutable will of God; and the difference, so far as concerns obedience, is alone in man, inasmuch as one who is not yet regenerate does for the Law out of constraint and unwillingly what it requires of him (as also the regenerate do according to the flesh); but the believer, so far as he is regenerate, does without constraint and with a willing spirit that which no threatenings [however severe] of the Law could ever extort from him.

Here we should distinguish between the works of the Law and the fruits of the Spirit.  The works of the Law are those things which are done under compulsion of the Law. The work of the Law is to show us our sin and try to compel us to do what is right.  They continue to be the works of the Law so long as coercion is necessary for men to follow them (Galatians 2:15-21).

However the fruit of the Spirit comes out of the new man naturally.  They do these things naturally, spontaneously, and without coercion. The Law rather is a guide to know what is pleasing to God.  The regenerate man rejoices in the Law of God as in this use he now knows what to do and does not need to wonder in his heart what is pleasing to God.  Rather he knows what it is and treasures that knowledge (Romans 7-8, Galatians 5-6).

We must remember that the Law of God is good, not evil.  It is not to be despised or ignored by the regenerate man but studied and lived in.  We rejoice that the Lord has given us His Word of the Law so we can know clearly what pleases Him and what His will for our life is.  We need not ask what does God want looking for some enthusiastic vision or revelation.  Rather He tells us in His clear immutable Word.

That said we must reiterate as we did before regarding Good Works that the Law does not give the ability to actually do these things.  It only shows us what must be done.  The Gospel is then needed to give man the power to do these things.  As the Solid Declaration says:

11 For the Law says indeed that it is God’s will and command that we should walk in a new life, but it does not give the power and ability to begin and do it; but the Holy Ghost, who is given and received, not through the Law, but through the preaching of the Gospel, Gal. 3:14, renews the heart.

12 Thereafter the Holy Ghost employs the Law so as to teach the regenerate from it, and to point out and show them in the Ten Commandments what is the [good and] acceptable will of God, Rom. 12:2, in what good works God hath before ordained that they should walk, Eph. 2:10. He exhorts them thereto, and when they are idle, negligent, and rebellious in this matter because of the flesh, He reproves them on that account through the Law, so that He carries on both offices together: He slays and makes alive; He leads into hell and brings up again. For His office is not only to comfort, but also to reprove, as it is written: When the Holy Ghost is come, He will reprove the world (which includes also the old Adam) of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment.

13 But sin is everything that is contrary to God’s Law.

14 And St. Paul says: All Scripture given by inspiration of God is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, etc., and to reprove is the peculiar office of the Law. Therefore, as often as believers stumble, they are reproved by the Holy Spirit from the Law, and by the same Spirit are raised up and comforted again with the preaching of the Holy Gospel.


22 But how and why the good works of believers, although in this life they are imperfect and impure because of sin in the flesh, are nevertheless acceptable and well-pleasing to God, is not taught by the Law, which requires an altogether perfect, pure obedience if it is to please God. But the Gospel teaches that our spiritual offerings are acceptable to God through faith for Christ’s sake, 1 Pet. 2:5; Heb. 11:4ff.

23 In this way Christians are not under the Law, but under grace, because by faith in Christ the persons are freed from the curse and condemnation of the Law; and because their good works, although they are still imperfect and impure, are acceptable to God through Christ; moreover, because so far as they have been born anew according to the inner man, they do what is pleasing to God, not by coercion of the Law, but by the renewing of the Holy Ghost, voluntarily and spontaneously from their hearts; however, they maintain nevertheless a constant struggle against the old Adam.

24 For the old Adam, as an intractable, refractory ass, is still a part of them, which must be coerced to the obedience of Christ, not only by the teaching, admonition, force and threatening of the Law, but also oftentimes by the club of punishments and troubles, until the body of sin is entirely put off, and man is perfectly renewed in the resurrection, when he will need neither the preaching of the Law nor its threatenings and punishments, as also the Gospel any longer; for these belong to this [mortal and] imperfect life.

25 But as they will behold God face to face, so they will, through the power of the indwelling Spirit of God, do the will of God [the heavenly Father] with unmingled joy, voluntarily, unconstrained, without any hindrance, with entire purity and perfection, and will rejoice in it eternally.

Formula of Concord Solid Declaration Article VI 11-14, 22-25

Thus we must preach the totality of the Law and the totality of the Gospel.  All three uses of the Law must be proclaimed but always with the Gospel close at hand.  Else the third use is useless. The Epitome continues:

Negative Theses.

False Contrary Doctrine.
8 Accordingly, we reject as a dogma and error injurious to, and conflicting with, Christian discipline and true godliness the teaching that the Law in the above-mentioned way and degree is not to be urged upon Christians and true believers, but only upon unbelievers, non-Christians, and the impenitent.

Very simply we reject that the Law should not be preached to the regenerate.  Rather the truly regenerate will desire and want to hear God’s Law.  It does not harm Christian discipline but rather gives structure to it as it is God’s will for us.

1 “Come, follow Me,” the Savior spake,
“All in My way abiding;
Deny yourselves, the world forsake,
Obey My call and guiding.
O bear the cross, whate’er betide,
Take my example for your guide.

2 “I am the Light, I light the way,
A godly life displaying;
I bid you walk as in the day;
I keep your feet from straying.
I am the way, and well I show
How you must sojourn here below.

3 “My heart abounds in lowliness,
My soul with love is glowing;
And gracious words My lips express,
With meekness overflowing.
My heart, My mind, My strength, My all,
To God I yield, on Him I call.

4 “I teach you how to shun and flee
What harms your soul’s salvation,
Your heart from ev’ry guile to free,
From sin and its temptation.
I am the refuge of the soul
And lead you to your heav’nly goal.”

5 Then let us follow Christ, our Lord,
And take the cross appointed
And, firmly clinging to His Word,
In suff’ring be undaunted.
For those who bear the battle’s strain
The crown of heav’nly life obtain.

(LSB 688)

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