The Three Uses of God’s Law

Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms: Drawn Principally from Protestant Scholastic Theology (NOTE: this is a repost from March, 2009)

When the Reformed and Lutheran scholastics talked about God’s moral law (lex moralis), they taught that there are three basic uses of the law (usus legis).  According to Richard Muller’s helpful research, they are:

1) The civil use (usus politicus sive civilis).  That is, the law serves the commonwealth or body politic as a force to restrain sin.  This falls under the general revelation (revelatio generalis) discussion in most of the scholastics as well as natural law (cf. Rom 1-2).

2) The pedagogical use (usus elenchticus sive paedagogicus).  That is, the law also shows people their sin and points them to mercy and grace outside of themselves (e.g. Rom. 3:20).  In Richard Muller’s summary, this is “the use of the law for the confrontation and refutation of sin and for the purpose of pointing the way to Christ” (p. 320 of Muller).  This can be found in the Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Days 2-4.

3) The normative use (usus didacticus sive normativus).  That is, this use of the law is for those who trust in Christ and have been saved through faith apart from works (e.g. Ps. 119).  It “acts as a norm of conduct, freely accepted by those in whom  the grace of God works the good” (p. 321).  This can be found in the Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Days 32-52 – the law is a moral guide for those who have been saved by grace.

Note: “In this model, Christ appears as the finis legis, or end of the law, both in the sense that the usus paedagogicus leads to Christ as to a goal and in the sense that the usus normativus has become a possibility for man only because Christ has fulfilled the law in himself” (Ibid.).  In other words, in both the pedagogical use and the normative use Christ is central as the one who has saved his people from the law’s demands and the one who has earned for them the gift of Spirit-wrought obedience.

You can read a bit more in Muller’s Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms.

shane lems
hammond, wi

The Dawkins Letters: Challenging Atheist Myths

The Dawkins Letters I’m thoroughly enjoying David Robertson’s The Dawkins Letters: Challenging Atheist Myths.  This book is a chapter-by-chapter response to Richard Dawkins’ well known title, The God Delusion.  I’ll come back and write more on this later; for now, I want to point out the great counter argument Robertson gives to Dawkins’ Darwinian explanation of morality.

Dawkins defines goodness as altruism and says that humans tend to be altruistic towards people of our own kin – that’s how we’ve evolved genetically.  On top of this is a reciprocal aspect – that people are nice to each other so people are nice to them in return.  Dawkins also says that people are sometimes nice because they want to show off.  One other thing he writes is that kindness and sympathy are blessed Darwinian mistakes.

Robertson deconstructs this evolutionary view of morality:

1) First, it does not seem much of a morality.  It is still primarily focused on the Selfish Gene.  It is all about me, me, and mine.  As a Christian I believe that the Bible teaches that human beings are fundamentally selfish and self-centred – however the Bible is not content to leave us there.  There is something better.  Christ came to challenge and to deliver us from the self-centredness which you [Dawkins] glorify as the basis of morality.

2) Second, it is deterministic.  There is no concept of free will, choice, or responsibility.  We are only ‘good’ because we are programmed to be that way.  If my will is not free then you cannot blame me if I only do what I am genetically programmed to do.  The trouble with such an approach is that it legitimises all kinds of behaviour; from the drunkard claiming it is in his genes to the rapist saying that he is only doing what he has been programmed to do.  On the other hand, if I am free and responsible for what I do, then I cannot be genetically programmed.  I do not doubt that there are genetic factors in all aspects of human behavior but I cannot believe that every human being and their actions are governed by such determinism.  A crucial part of being human is having the ability to choose.

3) Third, your [Dawkins’] secular morality is not, as you admit, absolute: ‘fortunately however morals do not have to be absolute.’  As you indicate it is changeable according to the whims of society.  If indeed as we are, as your favourite philosopher Bertrand Russell put it, ‘tiny lumps of impure carbon and water crawling about for a few years, until they are dissolved again into the elements of which they are compounded,’ there seems to be no basis for absolute morality. …If there are no absolutes then there is no absolute standard to judge by.  And if there is no ultimate standard then we are left with anything goes, might is right, or the whims of a changing and confused society.”

4) Finally, your [Dawkins’] absolute Darwinian philosophy cannot logically and consistently argue for morality because, to put it bluntly, there is no good or evil.  As you so brilliantly describe it… “In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any injustice.  The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference.’  That then is the atheist basis of morality – no justice, no rhyme nor reason, no purpose, no evil, no good, just blind pitiless indifference.  Despite the best efforts of atheistic philosophers… this basis is severely lacking, being little more than a utilitarian ‘greatest good for the greatest number’ without ever defining what ‘good is.’

I’ve thought about this before quite a bit, and I think Robertson’s arguments are correct – one glaring weakness of the atheist religion is the lack of basis for morality, good, and evil.  For more info on this, read Dawkins’ discussion of morality in The God Delusion, and then read chapter eight of Robertson’s excellent book, The Dawkins Letters.  

shane lems
hammond, wi


Murray on Shutting the News Off

 I’m the opposite of what some people call a “news junkie;” I don’t follow the news at all.  Sometimes I think I should know what’s going on in the world, but it’s not something that interests me so I have a hard time trying to follow breaking stories.  Speaking of news, I very much agree with David Murray’s discussion of this in his book, The Happy Christian (which I reviewed here last week). He basically argues that watching too much news hinders joy, optimism, and peace in the Christian life.  He first notes that most news (TV, blogs, newspapers, etc.) is negative, shocking, and full of distress and death.  We all know the mantra, “If it bleeds, it leads.”  Here’s Murray:

“It is neither necessary nor wise for must of us to know all this horrifying information.  What good purpose does it serve to hear or read exactly how the murderer went about his vile business, what was heard or seen in the classrooms and offices, how victims tried to defend themselves and others, and more?  It is deeply damaging to our short- and long-term mental, emotional, and spiritual health to expose ourselves to such bloodcurdling details.”

Murray writes that this doesn’t mean we must remain totally ignorant and not sympathize with victims.  He is simply saying that most of the time the only things we need to know are generals so we can pray intelligently for the needs of those involved in tragedies.  “But most of us get to know way, way more than that, darkening our waking hours and disturbing our sleeping hours.  I don’t think most of us realize the deep and damaging trauma we are inflicting upon ourselves.”  While some people with certain jobs or positions might need to follow the news closely, “most of us don’t need to glue ourselves to the TV and to Internet news.  Instead, we should actively shield our families and ourselves from much of it.”

Murray gives a possible objection: “But won’t that mean ignoring problems in the real world?”  His answer:

“Quite the reverse, said Shawn Achor, ‘Psychologists have found that people who watch less TV are actually more accurate judges of life’s risks and rewards than those who subject themselves to the tales of crime, tragedy, and death that appear night after night on the ten o’clock news.  That’s because these people are less likely to see sensationalized or one-sided sources of information, and to see reality more clearly.”

One more thing Murray says is that he only reads a few headlines and maybe the first paragraph of reports about catastrophes and such: “I operate on a ‘need to know’ basis, and I don’t need to know everything.  To me, that’s putting Philippians 4:8 into practice.”

Again, I agree.  If you think about all the disturbing news people read/hear (which usually isn’t overly accurate), and if you think about all the death and murders people watch on the movie/TV screen (which are over-the-top), it’s not too tough to see why people live in fear, why they are quite pessimistic about things, and why they struggle to live joyfully knowing that God is sovereign and that Christ is on the throne.

Get this book, The Happy Christian, and read this chapter (especially pages 35-36) if you need biblical encouragement to fight pessimism and hopelessness.  Recommended!

shane lems
hammond, wi

Hating “Little” Sins

While all sin is a transgression against God and his law, some sins are less heinous and vile than others.  For example, it is far worse if I would kill my neighbor’s beloved dog than if I would lie to him and say I liked the dog.  However, as Christians, we should detest all of our sins and repent of them all – not just the worst ones, but the “little” ones as well.  One question comes up: why should we hate the “little” sins in our hearts and lives?  Thomas Brooks gave some good answers to that question (I’ve edited them for length & grammar):

1) A holy man knows that little sins, if not prevented, will bring on greater sins.  David gives way to his wandering eye, and that led him to those scandalous sins for which God broke his bones, hid his face, and withdrew his Spirit (2 Sam. 12).  Peter first denies his Master and then foreswears him, and then falls cursing and damning of himself (Mt. 26).

2) A holy man knows that little sins have exposed both sinners and saints to very great punishments.  He remembers how Saul lost two kingdoms at once, his own kingdom and the kingdom of heaven, for sparing Agag and the fat of the cattle.  He remembers how the unprofitable servant, for the non-improvement of his talent, was cast into outer darkness.  He remembers how Ananias and Sapphira were stricken suddenly dead for telling a lie.  Those sins which are seemingly small are very provoking to the great God and hurtful to the immortal soul, therefore little sins cannot but be the object of a Christian’s hatred.

3) A holy man knows that a holy God looks and expects that the least sins should be shunned and avoided.  Not only great sins, but little ones, must be killed, or they will kill the soul.  God expects that his children should ‘abstain from all appearance of evil’ (1 Thess. 5.22).  He that truly hates the nature of sin cannot but hate the least sin, yea, all appearances of sin.

4) A holy man knows that the indulging of the least sin is sufficient for any man to question his integrity and ingenuity towards God.  He that will transgress for a morsel of bread will be ready enough to sell his soul for a grain (Prov 28.21).  He that will pervert justice for a few pieces of silver, what will he not do for a hatful of gold?  He that dares to lie to save a little of his estate, what will not he do to save his life?

5) A holy heart knows that the least sin cost Christ his dearest blood (Heb 9.22).  He knows that the blood of Christ is as requisite to clean the soul from the least sin as it is to cleanse it from the greatest (1 John 1.7).  It is not the casting of a little holy water on us, it is not the Papists’ purgatories, nor their whippings, nor St. Francis his kissing or licking of our sores, nor a bishop’s blessing, nor a few tears that can cleanse us from the least sin.  No, it is only the blood of Christ that cleanses us from all our sins.  Certainly there is not a vain thought nor an idle word nor an angry word that can be pardoned or cleansed but by the blood of Jesus – the remembrance of which cannot but stir up a holy indignation in a gracious soul against the least corruption.

Thomas Brooks, The Crown and Glory of Christianity, IV.2.

shane lems
hammond, wi

We Ask You To Abstain

The Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms Historic Reformed and Presbyterian churches have always “fenced” the table of the Lord.  That is, when the Lord’s Supper is celebrated, the pastor and/or an elder says that certain people are not to partake.  The details vary among historic Reformed/Presbyterian churches, but they all do fence the table to some extent.  Even if we might disagree how “high” the fence is, it is proper and biblical to warn the unrepentant and unbelievers not to take Holy Communion.  The Westminster Confession of Faith says it like this:

“All ignorant and ungodly persons, as they are unfit to enjoy communion with him [Christ], so they are unworthy of the Lord’s table; and cannot, without great sin against Christ, while they remain such [ignorant and ungodly], partake of these holy mysteries or be admitted thereunto” (29.8).  [1 Cor. 11:27-29, 2 Cor. 6:14-16, 1 Cor. 10:21, 2 Thess. 3:6, 14-15, Matt. 7:6, etc.]

Thomas Brooks, in The Crown and Glory of Christianity, discussed this topic briefly and gave some helpful citations from church history (slightly edited):

“Chrysostom said that he ‘would rather give his life to a murderer, than Christ’s body to an unworthy receiver, and rather suffer his own blood to be poured out like water, than to tender Christ’s blessed blood to a profane person.’  ‘Church officers are to keep the sacrament pure, as a man would keep a pleasant spring which he drank from clean, not letting the filthy beasts and swine to muddy it.’”

“Justin Martyr wrote, ‘In our assemblies we admit none to the Lord’s Supper but such as being baptized continue in professing the true faith, and in leading such lives as Christ hath taught.’  Martyr taught that these three things were required for those who wish to come to the table: 1) ‘A new birth,’ 2) ‘Soundness in faith,’ and 3) ‘A promise to live well.’”

“Augustine argued that there were horrid sins wrapped up in Adam’s eating of the fruit, much more so are there horrid sins in unbelievers eating the sacrament: pride, rebellion, treason, sacrilege, theft, murder, etc.”

“Aquinas said ‘the majesty of church discipline should never allow this, to let open and known offenders presume to come to the table of the Lord.’”

“Calvin wrote, ‘I will sooner die than this hand of mine shall give the things of God to contemners of God.’”

Again, we might discuss and debate how “high” the fence is around the table, but it is biblical (see citations above) and wise to clearly tell unbelievers and unrepentant persons that they are not to take the Lord’s Supper.  It might not sound politically correct or “nice,” but it is a biblical help in keeping Christ’s church pure, it does keep unbelievers from bringing further judgment upon themselves, and it does guard God’s people from trouble and hardship (cf. 1 Cor. 11).

shane lems
covenant presbyterian church
hammond, wi

Wealth, Materialism, and Idolatry

Product Details (This is a repost from October, 2009)
Herbert Schlossberg’s Idols for Destruction is a truly deep and thought-provoking read.  Although it was written around 30 years ago, the message is still relevant.  Schlossberg takes the reader through the main things in American culture that serve as people’s idols.  At first I thought it was going to talk about how Christians end up making idols out of certain things in our culture, but the book is broader than that.  He simply lines up the main things American’s “bow down to” and gives proof, citation, and critique.  The chapters include idols of history, humanity, Mammon, nature, power, and religion.  He ends with a few “application” chapters.  Below is a part from his last chapter, a constructive account of how Christian pilgrims should live in and interact with this idolatrous culture, specifically on the topic of materialism and wealth.

“Materialism, coupled with the productivity of machinery and electronics, has brought us to the universal expectation of More, first rising expectations and then rising entitlements.  This is what the Bible refers to as covetousness, which is condemned from the original Ten Commandments through the whole biblical literature.  The common observation that prosperity tends to bring spiritual complacency, pride, and moral decline goes back at least as far as the Pentateuch.  The wicked are identified as those who trust in riches rather than in God.

The biblical outlook on wealth seems odd only because we have adopted as normal a way of life that is hopelessly unable to produce what it promises and has demonstrated that inability to almost everyone.  As little children we learned that the doll or the game we invested with the aura of desire, and of which we thought we would never tire, inevitably palled on us after a time.  The same is true of all the world’s glittering satisfactions.  What they have in common is that, after the initial flash of gratification, they fail to satisfy, leading us to seek further for the next bauble.

We ought instead to reconsider the basic assumption.  For if past acquisitions and attainments have not satisfied us, perhaps it is not in their nature to provide more than fleeting satisfactions.  This is the insight that led the prophet to inquire: ‘Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread…?’ (Is. 55:2).  For the greedy there is no conceivable level of wealth that would be enough, for greed is insatiable.  That is why trying to satisfy it, giving in to the love of money, causes such intense suffering (1 Tim. 6:10).”

Here’s his exhortation.

“Christians need to renounce the systems by which their fellow citizens plunder each other, either within or outside the law.  …They should learn to give without receiving anything in return, reversing the process by which society is reducing itself to poverty.  They should be wary of the temptation to have ever more of the world’s goods, for that desire is what takes away personal freedom, delivering people into the clutches of those who want power. …The early Christians were said to have ‘joyfully accepted the plundering of [their] property’ (Heb 10:34); but this could only have happened to people who regarded themselves as pilgrims, content with whatever they had, having renounced the quest, on which their neighbors had embarked, for ever more goods to consume.  For them the statement of net worth was valueless in determining human worth.”

Quotes above taken from Schlossberg, Idols for Destruction (Wheaton: Crossway, 1990), 311-312.

shane lems
hammond, wi

The Final Answer to the Devil

Romans 8:17-39: The Final Perseverance of the Saints The Christian’s salvation is securely founded on historical facts and truths of God.  We are justified by faith alone in Christ alone by God’s grace alone.  These gospel truths give us solid ground to stand upon and a bulletproof defense against Satan’s attacks.  Lloyd-Jones explains this well in his comments on Romans 8:33-34.

“How important it is to understand the doctrine of justification by faith only!  There is no type of Christian who is so utterly foolish as the one who says, ‘I am not interested in doctrine; I have my experience.’  It is only as you understand the doctrine of justification by faith that you will have security and safety and joy.  Doctrine is essential.”

“Have you realized the meaning of justification?  You are not merely pardoned and forgiven; you are declared by God to be just in his sight.  This is a matter of status, a matter of standing.  There is no going back and forth from being justified to not being justified, and then being justified again.  God has done this one and for ever, and the Law is ended as far as you are concerned.  ‘Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone that believeth.’  (Romans 10:4).  That is the complete answer to any charge that can ever be brought against us.  It is the only answer.  If you rely on anything else the devil will soon shake you.  There is only one answer to give him, and it is, ‘God himself has justified me, so all you say is a lie.”

“This, then, is the way to meet the devil and his accusations.  If you begin to listen to the devil and say to yourself, ‘Well, after all, he is right; I did sin yesterday and I am not as good as I ought to be,’ you will soon be feeling under condemnation again because you have brought in works once more.  You should rather say, ‘I know I am unworthy, I know I am sinful; no one knows how bad I am, but God has justified me in Christ.  I do not rely upon myself; I am relying utterly, only, absolutely upon the Lord Jesus Christ and upon what he has done on my behalf, and upon God’s declaration with respect to me.’”

“Stand on justification by faith only.  It is the only ground on which you can stand.  We must learn to do this; it is the final answer to the devil.  ‘It is God who justifieth.’”

D. M. Lloyd Jones, Romans Chapter 8:17-39, p.411.

shane lems
covenant presbyterian church (OPC)
hammond, wi