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.

The Law and Its Fulfillment in Matthew 5

Does Jesus bind his followers to keep the law?


The question of the applicability of the Mosaic law in all its forms to the Christian life is a perennial one. Discussions never get very far before someone will quote Matthew 5:17-18 as a proof for the continuing authority of the law for us. But they do so without considering where this would lead. The passage reads:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.”

This is usually put forth with a certain finality. “See? That settles it! Jesus said the law remains.”
But think through the assumptions behind such a claim, as well as the implications of it. One of these assumptions is that Christians do not keep the so-called civil or ceremonial law. The sacrificial system that Israel was under is gone, as are the various laws governing their lives. We can eat shellfish or eel if we want to, even though Leviticus 11:10-11 says this:

“But anything in the seas or the rivers that does not have fins and scales, of the swarming creatures in the waters and of the living creatures that are in the waters, is detestable to you. You shall regard them as detestable; you shall not eat any of their flesh, and you shall detest their carcasses.”

Don’t these laws represent iotas and dots, the smallest parts of the law? Don’t they form part of the “all” Jesus spoke of? If you set them aside, aren’t you doing exactly what Jesus said NOT to do? So those who insist what Jesus says here in Matthew 5 is that we must continue to keep the law scrupulously must admit that they aren’t doing it, that they have in fact done the very thing Jesus said they must not.

Secondly, consider the verbs here: abolish and fulfill. Abolish means to destroy, to remove, and to fulfill is to complete, to bring to an end. This informs what Jesus himself did with the law. He fulfilled it in all that he did, not transgressing it. People sometimes speak of this as the precept side of the law—what it commands. But more importantly, he fulfilled the penalty side of the law—his death absorbed and emptied the curse of the law. In speaking of the death of Jesus, Paul quoted Deuteronomy 21:23 to the Galatians. “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.” Paul also notes in Ephesians 2:14-15, “For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances.” Jesus, through his death, abolished the requirement of law for those who trust in him.

This is where I ask a question of those citing Matthew 5:17-18 as a proof that Christians must still keep the Ten Commandments. What part of the law did Jesus not fulfill? What part did he leave undone that we are yet bound to do? The implication that there remains anything of the law for us to complete or do is to suggest that Jesus left something undone in his death on the cross. I am sure those quoting these verses don’t mean that, but only because they haven’t thought through the implications of what they are saying.

If we were to go on to Matthew 5:19, it introduces a great difficulty for those insisting on an obligation to the law for Christians.
“Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”

In the category of those who relax the least of these commandments, we have to put the apostle Peter. When the question arose of whether Gentiles must obey the law of Moses, he asked in the midst of the Jerusalem assembly, “Why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?” Acts 15:10. The Jerusalem assembly goes on to rule that Gentiles who come to faith in Christ do not need to keep the law of Moses.

Paul, too, falls into this category, for he wrote to Timothy of those whose consciences are seared and who “require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving.” 1 Tim. 4:2 In other words, you can eat shellfish, despite what Leviticus 11 says!

How, then, can we make sense of this? Are Peter and Paul disobedient disciples of Jesus in what they teach? Recall that Jesus said “until all is accomplished.” The important thing to keep in mind in what Matthew records is we are moving from Old Covenant to New. What God had given to the nation of Israel at Sinai governed life among his covenant people at that time, but in the New Covenant, it does not. Paul makes this explicit in 2 Cor 3, saying

“Now if the ministry of death, carved in letters on stone, came with such glory that the Israelites could not gaze at Moses’ face because of its glory, which was being brought to an end, will not the ministry of the Spirit have even more glory? For if there was glory in the ministry of condemnation, the ministry of righteousness must far exceed it in glory. Indeed, in this case, what once had glory has come to have no glory at all, because of the glory that surpasses it. For if what was being brought to an end came with glory, much more will what is permanent have glory.” 2 Cor 3:7-11.

In other words, because all is accomplished in the death of Christ, all is fulfilled, we are free from any of the law’s demands. Paul contrasts the law—which he calls the ministry of death—with the ministry of the Spirit. He says it is being brought to an end, and indeed in Romans 10:4 says that Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to all who believe.
Seeing these truths in no way undermines the law. It recognizes that the death of Jesus fulfills the law in every possible way. Having fulfilled it, he brought any obligation to an end. This means we are free to serve him in the new way of the Spirit and free from the mastery of sin.

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