The Formula of Concord and the 3rd Use of the Law

Product Details (This is a re-post from December, 2012.)

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, will go to this or that conference, 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 isactually 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


2 comments on “The Formula of Concord and the 3rd Use of the Law

  1. Brenda R says:


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