The Formula of Concord and the Third Use of the Law

Product Details Even though I disagree with several aspects of Lutheran theology, I’ve found some brilliant Christian statements in the Lutheran confessions.  I love the emphasis on Christian liberty, vocation, the five solas, and the penetrating critiques of the papacy and fanaticism (i.e. the Anabaptists). 

In my opinion, one of the most incredible and remarkable statements is found in article 6 of The Formula of Concord Solid Declaration (1577).  In this section of the Formula, Solid Declaration the authors discuss the third use of the law, namely, how Christians “learn to serve God…according to his written Law and Word.  This is a sure rule and standard of godly life and walk.  The Law shows how to order a life in accordance with God’s eternal and unchangeable will.”

Here’s the statement that I’ve underlined and highlighted:

“This doctrine of the law is needed by believers in order that they may not make up a holiness and devotion of their own.”

The statement is brilliant because it clearly echoes Jesus’ rebuke of the Pharisees (i.e. Matt. 15:9; cf. Is. 29:13).  It is brilliant because it also condemns the Roman Catholic Church for their man-made religious rules such as fasts, indulgences, penance, and other such church rituals. 

The statement is also brilliant because it helps us as Protestants fight the tendency to add our laws to God’s law.  For example, we have the tendency to think that “good” Christians will school their children this way or that way, will use this or that translation of the Bible, will only listen to Christian radio, will never celebrate “worldly” holidays, and so forth.  All of us have a little Pharisee buried in us.  All of us have a little pope somewhere down there – a voice that wants to go beyond the Bible in defining what is holy and shows devotion to God.

So we need the law to show us what is actually pleasing to the Lord.  Like the Heidelberg Catechism says, the only thing we do that is truly good is that which arises out of true faith, conforms to God’s law, and is done for his glory – not that which is based on what we think is right or based on human tradition (Q/A 91).  A summary of what pleases God would be this: Love him and your neighbor (Matt. 22:37-39).

The third use of the law also is deeply intertwined with the doctrine of justification by faith alone and the doctrine of Christian liberty.  Because we’re justified by faith alone (Rom. 3:28), and because we have freedom in Christ (Gal. 5:1), the Bible alone – specifically the law – tells us how to live in a thankful, God-pleasing manner (Ps. 119:105, Rom 7:12).  Our conscience is free and only bound by God in his word. 

I must not make up rules that I think would please God, nor can you force me to please God by your rules.  Holiness is defined by God in his word, not by our likes, dislikes, or traditions.  You and I don’t define devotion, God does.  We’ve got to be careful not to add to God’s law; sadly, when we do so, even though we may think we’re pleasing God, we’re really not! 

“[The third use of the law] is needed by believers in order that they may not make up a holiness and devotion of their own.”

The Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration, Article VI.

shane lems

11 thoughts on “The Formula of Concord and the Third Use of the Law”

  1. Shane, I must confess, I have come under conviction after reading this. How many times I have been guilty of holding others up to my standard (how I think they ought to be or act)! Thanks. You have given me much to ponder and repent of.


  2. That is fantastic. Great quote. I need to show this to some of my Lutheran friends that have more or less chucked the third use of the law and hate that us “baptists” say that the law actually gives BELIEVERS a law to now live by.


  3. Reblogged this on Lumbering Brown and commented:
    Shane Lems from The Reformed Reader on “The Formula of Concord and the Third Use of the Law” (inadvertently echoing some of my own newly-forming thoughts about Lutheranism; e.g., “Christian liberty, vocation, etc…)


  4. Thanks for posting this. Yet another shout-out to Lutheranism on this great blog! ;)

    One thing to keep in mind when evaluating this Lutheran doctrine: Lutherans do not believe that preachers “use” the law, i.e. when we say “third use of the law” we mean that preachers are to preach the law (full stop), and the Holy Spirit does with it what He will. So we don’t take out highlighters and mark up our Bibles into “first use” passages and “third use” passages. The law says what it says, and it requires what it requires (if you’ll pardon the tautology). It always requires perfection, and any preaching of the law that softens it in any way is unlawful. Another thing to note is that Lutherans retained “penance,” if by that we simply mean private confession and absolution (you can read about that here: ).

    Sorry for being so long-winded, but the main point is that in Lutheran doctrine the Holy Spirit uses the law, not us. Thanks again for the post!


  5. Hey again!
    This is unrelated to Lutheranism but rather John Walton’s Genesis 1. I saw your posts on it but, I could not comment since I think comments were closed.
    I have browsed through and do find good and over-looked stuff, however what do you believe about his thesis that Genesis 1 is not about creation ex-nihilio? And create means to cause to function?


  6. Does it really not matter what translation of the Bible a Christian uses? How did you conclude from the Third use of the Law to this? I know that the study of the original languages and its application has fallen on hard times, but making short thrift of it like this?!


    1. Read the context hes calling out people who only want to use this or that translation and think its pleasing to God rather than looking to the law and its third use. Think kjv onlyists


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