The Decalogue The Law of Moses

The Law as “Wisdom” or the “Third Use”—What’s the Difference?

When one reads the New Testament, and in particular Paul’s epistles, one can’t help see how the law of Moses is a prominent theme in the apostle’s thought. How he treats it is of great importance to how Christians should regard it. First, one has to say that for Paul, “the Law” is specifically those commandments given at Sinai, and following. The holiness code of Leviticus 18-22 is also part of the law, and an overarching truth for Paul is summarized in Rom. 3:19: “Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law.” In other words, Paul refers to the Jewish nation. To them alone were the laws of the Mosaic covenant given. Paul earlier in Romans spoke of Gentiles who “do not have the law.” (Rom. 2:14). It is true that Gentiles sometimes act according to what the law requires, but Paul is careful to point out that they do this not because of Scriptural revelation, but by nature or conscience, “even though they do not have the law.”

How then does Paul regard this law with respect to Christians? For everyone within the Protestant category, all would say that justification comes by faith apart from doing any of the law. But some retain a use for the law as a guide to know how to live, what God requires of us, how to please God. This, in brief, is the “Third Use of the law.” John Calvin expounded this quite clearly, and later confessional standards took it up as well. Calvin said, “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.”[1] He continued, “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.”[2]

Against this view is another that sees the Law less as a standard we must adhere to, and more as wisdom and prophecy that informs and complements the specific instructions of the apostle’s themselves. Brian Rosner of Ridley Melbourne Mission and Ministry College in Australia ably expounds this in his book Paul and the Law: Keeping the Commandments of God. Rosner notes among other things how Paul repudiates the law as a covenant in any way binding upon believers.

“Unlike Jews, believers in Christ are not under the law, nor are they in the law or from the law. They are not imprisoned and guarded under the law, nor are they subject to the law as to a disciplinarian. Those who are under the law are under a curse and under sin. Even though the law promises life to those who keep it, it is evident that no one keeps the law. Consequently, no one receives life through the law. The law used as law is for the lawless. Christ has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances.”[3]

He notes that any covenantal aspect of the law is for Jews only. A covenant is a binding treaty, and thus comes with obligation. Indeed, one can scarcely read the Pentateuch without seeing God’s repeated warnings to be careful to keep the entirety of the law.“You shall therefore be careful to do the commandment and the statutes and the rules that I command you today.” (Deut 7:11) Such an obligation does not belong to Christians now, because we are not under the Mosaic covenant, nor part of Jacob’s seed.

The other point Rosner makes is that although we are not under the law as a covenant, this does not mean there is no value in it at all. It is in “wisdom and prophecy” where the value comes to believers. This sometimes comes in surprising applications. Paul, for example, cites the commandment to not muzzle an ox as it treads out the grain (Deut. 25:4) as a reason why ministers of the gospel who labor full time in the Word should be paid for this work—a rather unexpected application of this law, to be sure.

Even in the sections where Paul seems to directly cite the commandments, such as Romans 13:9-10, which contains commandments 6,7,8, and 10, Paul doesn’t in fact say “You must keep these commandments.” Rosner notes

“Paul’s point is that loving one’s neighbour is the goal of keeping the law. But keeping the laws (even those of the Decalogue, such as laws against adultery, murder, stealing and coveting) does not mean that one will love one’s neighbour. But if one loves one’s neighbour, one will do more than just keep the law, fulfilling what Paul takes to be its real intent.”[4]

What Rosner outlines is where I believe the Third Use digresses. That is, Calvin had assigned to the law abilities that Paul explicitly rejects, namely, the ability to call forth obedience in the believer. (“The law is to the flesh like a whip to an idle and balky ass, to arouse it to work.”) Paul says instead that the law arouses sin (Rom 7:5), and was given to increase the trespass. (Rom 5:20) But, doesn’t Calvin qualify his counsel to say that the law “finds its place among believers in whose hearts the Spirit of God already lives and reigns.”? Indeed, Calvin does, but is this what Paul teaches? Paul has set the Spirt and the law in opposition to one another, not because the law is bad, but because it belongs to a prior covenant, to a different people, and to those not under the headship of Christ. Paul told the Galatians that the law is not of faith. No such thing as a faith-enabled keeping of the law is anywhere in Paul’s teaching.

To the extent that the Third Use of the law presents Christians obeying or keeping the law through the enablement of the Holy Spirit, it strays from the apostolic use of the law. Paul’s avowal that we have died to the law in order to live to another rules this out. Indeed, in Galatians 5:18 he notes “But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.” To follow the Spirit’s leading and guidance in our lives does not lead us to “keep the law” —though indeed we fulfill the law’s intent of loving one another. To distinguish between keeping and fulfilling is in essence the difference between the Third Use and the Law as wisdom.

If advocates of the Third Use agree that Paul repudiates any obligation to the law for Christians, that he instead uses it as wisdom, but a kind of lowest common denominator of what we are called to, that would be a different matter. Indeed, the law’s commandments are not in conflict with the holiness God now calls us to, but they in fact don’t go far enough. As Rosner pointed out, just “keeping” them does not mean I love.  I have most often encountered a view that presents the law (and only the Ten Commandments) as not only a required standard for Christians, but indeed, a revelation of God’s mind and will for Christians. That does not accord with the multiple ways Paul presents the law in his epistles. The topic is a complex issue, to be sure. For further discussion, please see my book, If One Uses It Lawfully: The Law of Moses and the Christian Life. (Wipf and Stock, 2018).


[1] Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2.7.12.

[2] Calvin, loc. Cit.

[3] Brian S. Rosner, Paul and the Law: Keeping the Commandments of God (Downers Grove, InterVarsity Press, 2013), 221.

[4] Rosner, 193.

3 thoughts on “The Law as “Wisdom” or the “Third Use”—What’s the Difference?”

  1. Hi, M. Ferris,

    You don’t get Paul right here, and I suspect it is because you haven’t considered the whole of Paul’s argument about the law in all of Romans and Galatians, but only the parts you find useful to justify your position.

    Paul has an incredibly complex story to tell about the law in Romans and Galatians. It is better, in fact, to speak of different kinds of law for Paul, or perhaps to speak of different parts of the story of the law for Paul. The law that was originally given by God at Sinai is, as Paul says in Romans 7, “holy and just and good” (7:12). It is of the Spirit (Romans 7:14). It is worthy of delight in the inward parts (Rom. 7: 22).

    But then the cosmic power called Sin grabbed a hold of the law (7:8, 11) and put it to a use that it was never intended to have: Sin used the law to work sin and death in humans (7:13). This law grabbed hold of and twisted by Sin is “the law” that stirs up sin in us; that acts as a disciplinarian/pedagogue; that brings a curse; that holds us as slaves to sin; that cannot give us life or make us right with God (“justify us”) (Gal. 3); and from which Christ has freed us in his death, to which we are united in the death that baptism is (Rom. 7:4-6).

    But this is not the end of the story of the law for Paul. We aren’t freed from “the law grabbed hold of by Sin” to live without a law. To the contrary. We have been freed from the law of Sin to live joyfully under the law of Christ. That is to say, followers of the Messiah are to live by the law of Christ (Gal. 6:2). It is, indeed, the “law of the Spirit of life” that has set us free from the law of Sin and Death” (Rom. 8:2).

    The whole point is that Paul doesn’t talk about “the law” simpliciter. He talks about the law originally given by God at Sinai, then the law as it was seized by Sin and Death to bring death and destruction, then finally as the law of God as the life-giving pattern of life that followers of Jesus embody and live by.

    The fundamental antithesis in Paul is not between “law and no-law,” but between “those living under the power of the law grabbed hold of by the cosmic powers Sin and death (which brings slavery and death) and those living under the power of the law of the Messiah and his Spirit (which brings freedom and life).” In Galatians and Romans Paul calls his hearers/readers to not run back toward their slavery in which they were bound under the law grabbed hold of by Sin and Death, and then he issues a further call for them to fulfill the law of Christ by bearing one another’s burdens (Gal. 6:2) and to live in obedience to God by presenting their members to God as instruments of righteousness (Rom. 6:12-14) and to walk according to the Spirit and his law (Rom. 8:1-8). The question is not whether to fulfill the law, but which law to fulfill, what power to submit to, what Lord to serve — Lord Sin/Death and its law or Lord Jesus Christ and his law? (Romans 7:6).

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