The 3 Uses of the 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).  They are – as Richard Muller describes them in the Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms these three:

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.  In 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).  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.  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.

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 life for them. By his Spirit, he makes his people willing and able to live for him in thankful obedience.

The above quotations and more information on this can be found in Muller’s Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

Psalm 119: The Breath of the New Heart (McCheyne)

Memoir & Remains of Robert Murray M'Cheyne Bonar, Andrew cover image

Psalm 119 has always been one of my favorite Psalms. I love how the Psalmist talks about the beauty and power of God’s word, precepts, commands, and laws. Speaking of Psalm 119, Robert Murray MCheyne called it “the breathing of the new heart” in a sermon on Romans 7:22-25. After mentioning how an unbeliever has no delight in God’s law (e.g. Rom. 8:7), MCheyne explained what it means when a believer does delight in God’s law:

When a man comes to Christ, this [hatred for the law] is all changed. He can say, “I delight in the law of God after the inward man.” He can say with David, “O how I love Thy law: it is my meditation all the day.” He can say with the Lord Jesus in the 40th Psalm, “I delight to do Thy will, O God, yea, Thy law is within My heart.” There are two reasons for this:

First, the law is no longer an enemyIf any of you who are trembling under a sense of your infinite sins, and the curses of the law that you have broken, flee to Christ, you will find rest. You will find that He has fully cancelled the demands of the law as a Surety for sinners, that He has fully borne all its curses. You will be able to say, “Christ hath redeemed me from the curse of the law, being made a curse for me, as it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree” (Gal. 3:13). You have no more to fear, then, from that awfully holy law; you are not under the law, but under grace. You have no more to fear from the law, than you will have after the Judgment Day. When that awful scene is past-when the dead, small and great, have stood before the Great White Throne—when the sentence of eternal woe has fallen upon all the unconverted, and they have sunk into the lake whose fires can never be quenched; would not that redeemed soul say, I have nothing to fear from that holy law; I have seen its vials poured out, but not a drop has fallen on me? So may you say now, O believer in Jesus! When you look upon the soul of Christ, scarred with God’s thunderbolts, when you look upon His body, pierced for sin, you can say-He was made a curse for me; why should I fear that holy law?

Second, the Spirit of God writes the law on the heart. This is the promise: “After those days, saith the Lord, I will put My law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be My people” (Jer. 31:33). Coming to Christ takes away your fear of the law, but it is the Holy Spirit coming into your heart that makes you love the law. The Holy Spirit is no more frightened away from that heart. He comes and softens it. He takes out the stony heart and puts in a heart of flesh; and there He writes the holy law of God. Then the law of God is sweet to that soul: he has an inward delight in it. “The law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good.” Now he unfeignedly desires every thought, word, and action, to be according to that law. “Oh, that my ways were directed to keep Thy statutes: great peace have they that love Thy law, and nothing shall offend them.” The 119th Psalm becomes the breathing of that new heart. Now also he would fain see all the world submitting to that pure and holy law. “Rivers of water run down mine eyes because they keep not Thy law.” Oh that all the world but knew that holiness and happiness are one. Try yourselves by this. Can you say, “I delight in the law of God after the inward man?” Do you love it now? Do you long for the time when you shall live fully under it—holy as God is holy, pure as Christ is pure?

Robert Murray MCheyne, Memoirs, p. 274-275

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54002

To Distinguish is To Avoid Trouble (Manton)

In his treatise The Life of Faith Thomas Manton (d. 1677) spent a few paragraphs explaining from Scripture how to improve on cheerfully “walking with God in a course of obedience.” One way is to meditate on God’s promises. Another way is to plead those promises. Still another way is to “counterbalance things.”

What does Manton mean when he says we should counterbalance things? It means to distinguish between fearing God and fearing man (Mt. 10:28). It means to distinguish between eternal and temporal things (Rom. 8:18). It means to understand the use and profit of afflictions despite the present pain of them (Heb. 12:11). After briefly explaining several ways of “counterbalancing” or distinguishing things, Manton writes a few brief but brilliant lines. These are worth reading a few times!

All trouble comes from not right sorting and comparing things; Seeking that on earth which is only to be had in heaven; seeking that in the creature which is only to be had in God; looking for that from self which is only to be found in Christ; seeking that in the law which is only to be had in the gospel.

Thomas Manton, Complete Works

That’s a great quote for sure! If we think about it, so many of our troubles in the Christian life come from not distinguishing the things Manton mentions. Lord, help us to properly “counterbalance things!”

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

That Will Only Make You A Pharisee (Willard)

The Great Omission: Reclaiming Jesus's Essential Teachings on Discipleship

Dallas Willard’s “The Great Omission” is a collection of his articles and lectures that had to do with discipleship and spiritual formation. Although I don’t agree with everything in it, “The Great Omission” has been a blessing to read. Here’s a helpful section of it I highlighted earlier today:

The genius of the moral teachings of Jesus and his first students was his insistence that you cannot keep the law by trying not to break the law. That will only make a Pharisee of you and sink you into layers of hypocrisy. Instead, you have to be transformed in the functions of the soul so that the deeds of the law are a natural outflow of who you have become. This is spiritual formation in the Christian way, and it must always be kept in mind when we consider Jesus’ teachings about various behaviors – in the Sermon on the Mount and elsewhere.

For example, his famous teaching about turning the other cheek. If all you intend is to do that, you will find you can do it with a heart still full of bitterness and vengefulness. If, on the other hand, you become a person who has the interior character of Christ, remaining appropriately vulnerable will be done as a matter of course, and you will not think of it as a big deal…

Dallas Willard, The Great Omission, p. 152.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

The Law, the Heart, and the Conscience (Stott)

 Romans 2:14-15 is a very important part of Scripture that talks about the requirement of God’s law and what it has to do with our hearts and consciences.  Here’s how Paul said it: “For whenever the Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature the things required by the law, these who do not have the law are a law to themselves. They show that the work of the law is written in their hearts, as their conscience bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or else defend them…” (NET).  I appreciate John Stott’s comments on these verses:

How then are we to explain this paradoxical phenomenon, that although they do not have the law, they yet appear to know it? Paul’s answer is that they are a law for themselves, not in the popular—albeit mistaken—sense that they can frame their own laws, but in the sense that their own human being is their law. This is because God created them self-conscious moral persons, and they show by their behavior that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts (15a). So then, although they do not have the law in their hands, they do have its requirements in their hearts, because God has written them there. This surely cannot be a reference to God’s new-covenant promise to put his law in his people’s minds and write it on their hearts, as Barth, Charles Cranfield and other commentators have suggested, since the whole context is one of judgment, not salvation. Paul is referring not to regeneration but to creation, to the fact that ‘the work of the law’ (literally), its ‘requirements’ (NIV), its ‘effect’ (NEB, JBP), its ‘business’, has been written on the hearts of all human beings by their Maker. That God has written his law on our hearts by creation means that we have some knowledge of it; when he writes his law on our hearts in the new creation he also gives us a love for it and the power to obey it.

In addition, their consciences are bearing witness, especially by a negative, disapproving voice when they have done wrong, and so are their thoughts in a kind of interior dialogue, now accusing, now even defending them (15b), as if in a lawcourt in which the prosecution and the defence develop their respective cases. It seems that Paul is envisaging a debate in which three parties are involved: our hearts (on which the requirements of the law have been written), our consciences (prodding and reproving us), and our thoughts (usually accusing us, but sometimes even excusing us).

 John R. W. Stott, The Message of Romans: God’s Good News for the World, The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 86–87.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015