The Decalogue The Law of Moses

Rethinking the Third Use of the Law

Is Commandment Without Consequence Still Law? 

How Christians should regard the Mosaic law is still a point of contention among believers of various traditions. One of the rare points of agreement between Reformed believers and those on the Arminian side is the Third Use of the Law. Indeed, both Wesley and Calvin affirmed very similar positions on this. They both believed the law to be a guide and standard for believers in their Christian lives.  But because it is more associated with Reformed doctrine, Calvin’s explanation is a good place to start.

The third and principal use of the law, which pertains more closely to the proper use of the law, finds its place among believers in whose hearts the Spirit of God already lives and reigns. Again, because we need not only teaching but also exhortation, the servant of God will also avail himself of this benefit of the law: by frequent meditation upon it to be aroused to obedience, be strengthened in it, and be drawn back from the slippery path of transgression. In this way the saints must press on: for, however eagerly they may in accordance with the Spirit strive toward God’s righteousness, the listless flesh always so burdens them that they do not proceed with due readiness. The law is to the flesh like a whip to an idle and balky ass, to arouse it to work. Even for a spiritual man not yet free of the weight of the flesh the law remains a constant sting that will not let him stand still.[1]

Calvin speaks of the law finding its proper use among Christians, but the Westminster Confession is even more explicit.

  1. The moral law doth forever bind all, as well justified persons as others, to the obedience thereof; and that not only in regard of the matter contained in it, but also in respect of the authority of God the Creator who gave it. Neither doth Christ in the gospel any way dissolve, but much strengthen, this obligation.
  2. Although true believers be not under the law, as a covenant of works, to be thereby justified, or condemned; yet is it of great use to them, as well as to others; in that, as a rule of life informing them of the will of God, and their duty, it directs and binds them to walk accordingly.[2]

Here we have the language of binding, of obligation. Later Reformed thinkers affirm this, as Anthony Hoekema writes:

“The Christian life, we conclude, must be a law-formed life. Though believers must not try to keep God’s law as a means of earning their salvation, they are nevertheless enjoined to do their best to keep this law as a means of showing their thankfulness to God for the salvation they have received as a gift of grace. For believers, law-keeping is an expression of Christian love and the way to Christian freedom; it is equivalent to walking by the Spirit.”[3]

One more example will show how Reformed theologians cast the believer’s relationship to the Mosaic law as one of obligation.  Arthur W. Pink writes,

“So far from the Law being abolished by the coming of Christ into this world, He Himself emphatically stated, ‘Think not that I came to destroy the Law and the Prophets (the enforcers thereof): I am come not to destroy, but to fulfill. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in nowise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled’ (Matt 5:17, 18). True, the Christian is not under the Law as a Covenant of Works or as a ministration of condemnation, but he is under it as a rule of life and a means of sanctification.”[4]

The Third Use of the Law appears to be one where New Covenant believers are obligated to obey the law—and at the same time suffer no consequence for disobeying it. I am not aware of any church that would institute discipline against a member who covets what he does not have, for example. The point is this: the Third Use as presented by Reformed orthodoxy rests on a category of law that is unknown to Scripture: An authoritative statute which believers are bound to obey, but which carries no consequences for any breaking of it. We may term this a suggestion, or a guideline, but we cannot call it law. For law, devoid of any penalty for the law-breaker, is no more law. I am not suggesting we need to enforce consequences for law-breaking. Rather, I am affirming the consequence is gone because the Old Covenant is gone—and thus any obligation to the commandments is also gone.

Paul affirmed the law’s ability to kill him, and indeed because it had done so, this is why he proclaimed that he (and all who trust in Jesus) are released from the law. (Rom. 7:4)

In truth Reformed believers do not regard the law as law in practice. Rather, they regard it, as Brian Rosner has written, as wisdom. In his excellent book, Paul and the Law: Keeping the Commandments of God, Rosner shows how one of the things Paul does is to reappropriate the Mosaic law for these uses—wisdom and prophecy. Paul no longer regards it as a law covenant, as an obligation that binds Christians. Does it provide moral guidance? Indeed, it does, but it no longer commands because its curse is gone. These two belong together, as Mark Seifrid has noted, “When Paul speaks of ‘the law’ he has in view the commands given at Sinai, which cannot be detached from their authority to condemn without ceasing to be ‘law.’”[5] The law is certainly not inconsistent with the apostolic imperatives, but it does not go as far. The believer in Christ has in fact a far higher standard than the law, the Lord Jesus himself.

The problem is that although this wisdom use is in truth how Reformed adherents of the Third Use live with respect to the law, in their teaching they continue to insist that believers are obligated to the law.

I have written extensively about what I believe to be the true apostolic teaching on the law, but it is common that when one proclaims freedom from the law, the label “antinomian” is not long in coming, as if one had asked “No law, so sin all I want?” But it is the wrong question to ask. Being free from the law means freedom to bear fruit for God, by the Spirit. The Christian life will paradoxically fulfill the righteous requirement of the law by not focusing on the law. It is not, as Hoekema claims, a law-formed life. It is a Spirit-led life. The two are not the same. Nor is it, as Pink said, a life that adheres strictly to every jot and tittle of the law. It is evident that no one actually lives this way.

Third Use adherents are, I believe, in an untenable position of saying Christians are obligated to the law, but admitting the law retains no condemnation. They live in the way I describe—not fearing the law, and implicitly recognizing the law as a lower standard than Jesus himself and the imperatives of the New Testament. They are free from sin’s mastery not because they are listening to the law, but because as Paul says, “sin shall not have dominion over you, for you are not under law but under grace.”

But for the poor souls who have scruples about their failures, they are spiritually mugged by this teaching, and too many do not know the freedom that is theirs in Christ. When they are told that they must obey the law entirely and exactly, and the inevitable failure comes, what are they to think? Indeed many do think that God loves them less, that they are not very good Christians, and they are spiritual misfits.  Teaching obligation when there really is none is putting a yoke of slavery on believers—something Paul warns against in Galatians.

My hope is that Third Use adherents would recognize that, in truth, they live like they are free. I do believe their lives reflect the intent of New Testament teaching, rather than an obligation to the legal code of Sinai. Having recognized that, my plea is they would bring their doctrine in accordance with their lives.

I develop this and many other topics concerning the law in If One Uses It Lawfully: The Law of Moses and the Christian Life.


[1] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (John T. McNeill, ed., Ford Lewis Battles, trans. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), 2.7.12

[2] Westminster Confession of Faith, 19:5–6

[3] Anthony A. Hoekema, “The Reformed Perspective.” In Five Views on Sanctification, Stanley N. Gundry, ed., 59–90. Counterpoints. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1987), 88.

[4] Arthur W Pink, The Ten Commandments (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994), 9.

[5] Mark A. Seifrid, Christ, Our Righteousness: Paul’s Theology of Justification. New Studies in Biblical Theology. (Downers Grove: Apollos, 2000), 126.

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