OBEDIENCE (2): The Third Use of the Law

Last month’s article examined the first two uses of the law, the civil and evangelical uses, in the light of Scripture and Reformed thought. In this article an attempt is made to set forth how the third use of the law developed in Reformed theology. A concluding article next month will deal with practical conclusions related to the believer’s proper use of the law in fostering obedience.




The third or didactic use of the law addresses the daily life of the Christian. In the words of the Heidelberg Catechism, the law instructs the believer how to express gratitude to God for deliverance from all his sin and misery (Q. 2). The third use of the law is a subject that fills a rich chapter in the history of Reformation doctrine.

Philip Melanchthon (l497–1560)

The history of the third use of the law begins with Philip Melanchthon, Luther’s coworker and right-hand support. Already in 1521 Melanchthon had planted the seed when he affirmed that “believers have use of the Decalogue” to assist them in mortifying the flesh.10 In a formal sense he increased the number of functions or uses of the law from two to three for the first time in a third edition of his work on Colossians published in 1534 11—two years before Calvin produced the first edition of his Institutes. Melanchthon argued that the law coerces (first use), terrifies (second use), and requires obedience (third use). “The third reason for retaining the Decalogue,” he writes, “is that obedience is required.”12

By 1534 Melanchthon was using the forensic nature of justification as bedrock for establishing the necessity of good works in the believer’s life.13 He argued that though the believer’s first and primary righteousness was his justification in Christ, there was also a second righteousness—the righteousness of a good conscience which, notwithstanding its imperfection, is still pleasing to God since the believer himself is in Christ.14 The conscience of the believer, made good by divine declaration, must continue to use the law to please God, for the law reveals the essence of God’s will and provides the framework of Christian obedience. He asserted that this “good conscience” is a “great and necessary godly consolation.”15 As Timothy Wengert asserts, he was no doubt encouraged to emphasize the connection between a good conscience and good works by his desire to defend Luther and other Protestants from the charge that “they deny good works without at the same time robbing the conscience of the gospel’s consolation. He thus devised a way to speak of the necessity of works for the believer by excluding their necessity for justification.”16 Wengert concludes that by arguing from the necessity of knowing how we are forgiven, to the necessity of obeying the law, and to the necessity of knowing how this obedience pleases God, Melanchthon managed to place law and obedience at the center of his theology.17

Martin Luther (l483–1546)

Unlike Melanchthon, who went on to codify the third use of the law in the 1535 and 1555 editions of his major work on Christian doctrine,18 Luther never saw a need to embrace formally a third use of the law. Lutheran scholars, however, have debated at length over whether Luther actually taught in fact. though not in name, a third use of the law.19 Suffice it to say, Luther advocated that though the Christian is not “under the law,” this ought not be understood as if he were “without the law.” For Luther, the believer has a different attitude to the law. The law is not an obligation, but a delight. He is joyfully moved towards God’s law by the Spirit’s power. He conforms to the law freely, not because of the law’s demands, but because of his love for God and His righteousness.20 Since in his experience the law’s heavy yoke is replaced by the light yoke of Christ, doing what the law commands becomes a joyous and spontaneous action. The law drives sinners to Christ through whom they “become doers of the law.”21 Moreover, because he remains sinful, the Christian needs the law to direct and regulate his life. Thus Luther can assert that the law which serves as a “stick” (i.e. rod, second use) God uses to beat him to Christ, is simultaneously a “stick” (i.e. cane—which Calvin would call the third use) that assists him in walking the Christian life. This emphasis on the law as a “walking-stick” is borne out implicitly by his exposition of the ten commandments in various contexts—each of which indicates that he firmly believed that the Christian life is to be regulated by these commandments.22

Luther’s concern was not to deny sanctification nor the law as a guiding norm in the believer’s life; rather, he wished to emphasize that good works and obedience to the law can in no way make us acceptable with God. Hence he writes in The Freedom of the Christian, “Our faith in Christ does not free us from works, but from false opinions concerning works, that is, from the foolish presumption that justification is acquired by works.” And in TableTalk he is quoted as saying, “Whoso has Christ has rightly fulfilled the law, but to take away the law altogether, which sticks in nature, and is written in our hearts and born in us, is a thing impossible and against God.”23

John Calvin (1509–1564)

What Melanchthon began to develop in the direction of a God-pleasing righteousness in Christ and Luther left somewhat undeveloped as a joyous action and a “walking-stick,” Calvin fleshed out as a full-fledged doctrine, teaching that the primary use of the law for the believer is as a rule of life. Though Calvin borrowed Melanchthon’s terminology, “third use of the law” (tertius usus legis), and probably gleaned additional material from Martin Bucer,24 he provided new contours and content to the doctrine and was unique among the early Reformers in stressing that this third function of the law as a norm and guide for the believer is its “proper and principal” use.25

Calvin’s teaching on the third use of the law is crystal clear. “What is the rule for life which [God] has given us?” he asks in the Genevan Catechism, and replies, “His law.” Later in the same catechism, he writes:

[The law] shows the mark at which we ought to aim, the goal towards which we ought to press, that each of us, according to the measure of grace bestowed upon him, may endeavour to frame his life according to the highest rectitude, and, by constant study, continually advance more and more.26

Calvin wrote definitively of the third use of the law already in 1536 in the first edition of his Institutes of the Christian Religion:

Believers…profit by the law because from it they learn more thoroughly each day what the Lord’s will is like….It is as if some servant, already prepared with complete earnestness of heart to commend himself to his master, must search out and oversee his master’s ways in order to conform and accommodate himself to them. Moreover, however much they may be prompted by the Spirit and eager to obey God, they are still weak in the flesh, and would rather serve sin than God. The law is to this flesh like a whip to an idle and balky ass, to goad, stir, arouse it to work.27

In the last edition of the Institutes, completed in 1564 just prior to his death, Calvin retains what he wrote in 1536 but stresses even more clearly and positively that believers profit from the law in two ways: first, “here is the best instrument for them to learn more thoroughly each day the nature of the Lord’s will to which they aspire, and to confirm them in the understanding of it”; second, 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.” Calvin concludes: “For what would be less lovable than the law if, with importuning and threatening alone, it troubled souls through fear, and distressed them through fright? David especially shows that in the law he apprehended the Mediator, without whom there is no delight or sweetness.”28

This predominantly positive view of the law as a norm and guide for the believer to encourage him to cling to God and to obey God ever more fervently is where Calvin distances himself from Luther. For Luther, the law generally denotes something negative and hostile something usually listed in close proximity with sin, death, or the devil. Luther’s dominant interest is in the second use of the law, even when he considers the function of the law in sanctifying the believer. For Calvin, as I, John Hesselink correctly notes, “the law was viewed primarily as a positive expression of the will of God…” Calvin’s view could be called Deuteronomic, for to him law and love are not antithetical, but are correlates.”29 For Calvin, the believer strives to follow God’s law not as an act of compulsory obedience, but as a response of grateful obedience. The law promotes, under the tutelage of the Spirit, an ethic of gratitude in the believer, which both encourages loving obedience and cautions him against sin, so that he sings with David in Psalm 19:

Most perfect is the law of God, Restoring those that stray; His testimony is most sure, Proclaiming wisdom’s way.

The precepts of the Lord are right; With joy they fill the heart; The Lord’s commandments all are pure, And clearest light impart.

The fear of God is undefiled And ever shall endure; The statutes of the Lord are truth And righteousness most pure.

They warn from ways of wickedness Displeasing to the Lord, And in the keeping of His word There is a great reward. 30

In sum, for Luther, the law helps the believer—especially in recognizing and confronting indwelling sin; for Calvin, the believer needs the law to direct him in holy living in order to serve God out of love.31

The Heidelberg Catechism (1563)

Ultimately, Calvin’s view of the third use of the law won the day in Reformed theology. An early indication of this strongly Calvinistic view of the law is found in the Heidelberg Catechism, composed a year or two before Calvin’s death. Though the Catechism begins with an intense emphasis on the evangelical use of the law in driving sinners to Christ (Questions 3–18). a detailed exhortation on the prohibitions and requirements of the law placed upon the believer is reserved for the final section which teaches “how I shall express my gratitude to God” for deliverance in Jesus Christ (Questions 92–115).32 The Decalogue provides the material content for good works which are done out of thankfulness for the grace of God in His beloved Son.

The Puritans

The Puritans carried on Calvin’s emphasis on the normativity of the law for the believer as a rule of life and to arouse heartfelt gratitude, which in turn promotes genuine liberty rather than antinomian licentiousness.33 To cite only a few of hundreds of Puritan sources available on these themes: Anthony Burgess condemns those who assert that they are above the law or that the law written in the heart by regeneration “renders the written law needless.”34 Typically Puritan is Thomas Bedford’s affirmation for the need of the written law as the believer’s guide:

There must also be another law written in tables, and to be read by the eye, to be heard by the ear: Else…how shall the believer himself be sure that he doth not swerve from the right way wherein he ought to walk?…The Spirit, I grant, is the justified man’s Guide and Teacher:…But he teacheth them…by the law and testimony.35

The Spirit’s teaching results in Christians being made “friends” with the law, Samuel Rutherford quipped, for “after Christ has made agreement between us and the law, we delight to walk in it for the love of Christ.”36 That delight, grounded in grateful gratitude for the gospel, produces an unspeakable liberty. Samuel Crooke put it this way: “From the commandment, as a rule of life, [believers] are not freed, but on the contrary, are inclined and disposed, by [their] free spirit, to willingly obey it. Thus to the regenerate the law becomes as it were gospel. even a law of liberty.”37 The Westminster Larger Catechism, composed largely by Puritan divines, provides the most fitting summary of the Reformed and Puritan view on the believer’s relationship to the moral law:

Q. 97. What special use is there of the moral law to the regenerate?

A. Although they that are regenerate, and believe in Christ, be delivered from the moral law as a covenant of works, so as thereby they are neither justified nor condemned; yet, besides the general uses thereof common to them with all men, it is of special use, to shew them how much they are bound to Christ for his fulfilling it, and enduring the curse thereof in their stead, and for their good; and thereby to provoke them to more thankfulness, and to express the same in their greater care to conform themselves thereunto as the rule of their obedience.38


10. The Loci Communes of Philip Melanchthon [1521], trans. Charles Leander Hill (Boston: Meador, 1944). 234.

11. Scholia in Epistolam Pauli ad Colossense iterum ab authore recognita (Wittenberg: J. Klug, 1534). XLVIII r, LXXXII v -LXXXIII v.

12. Ibid, XCIIII v.

13. Ibid., XVII r

14. Ibid, XC v.

15. Ibid., Lv

16. Timothy Wengert, Lex et Poenitentia: The Anatomy of an Early Reformation Debate Between Philip Melanchthon and John Agricola of Eisleben (forthcoming), 303 (typewritten manuscript)

17. Ibid, 305.

18. Melanchthon on Christian Doctrine (Loci communes 1555). trans. and ed. Clyde L. Manschreck (Oxford: University Press, 1965). 127.

19. Cf. Hans Engelland, Melanchthon, Glauben und Handeln (Munich: Kaiser Verlag, 1931); Werner Elert, “Eine theologische Falschung zur Lehre yom tertius usus legis,” Zeitschrift fur Religionsund Geistesgeschichte I (1948):168–70; Wilfried Joest, Gesetz und Freiheit: Das Problem des tertius usus legis bei Luther und die neutestamentliche Parainese (Gottingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1951); Hayo Gerdes, Luthers Streit mit den Schwarmern um das rechte Verstandnis des Gesetzes Mose (Gottingen: GottinerVerlagsanstalt, 1955), 111–116; Gerhard Ebeling, Luther: An Introduction to His Thought, trans. R. A. Wilson (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1970); Eugene F. Klug, “Luther on Law, Gospel, and the Third Use of the Law,” The Springfielder 38 (1974): 155–69; A.C. George, “Martin Luther’s Doctrine of Sanctification with Special Reference to the Formula Simul lustus et Peccator: A Study in Luther’s Lectures on Romans and Galatians” (Th.D. dissertation, Westminster Theological Seminary, 1982), 195–210.

20. Cf. Paul Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther, trans. Robert Schultz (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1966). 267.

21. Luther’s Works 26:260.

22. See On Good Works, The Freedom of the Christian, Small Catechism, Large Catechism, Disputations with Antinomians.

23. Cited by Donald MacLeod, “Luther and Calvin on the Place of the Law,” in Living the Christian Life (Huntingdon, England: Westminster Conference, 1974), 10–11.

24. Speaking of believers, Bucer taught that “Christ will indeed have freed Iliberassel. but will not have loosed [solvisse] us from the law” were “further accentuated by Bucer in his Commentaries”· (Calvin: The Origins and Development of His Religious Thought, trans. Philip Mairet [New York: Harper & Row, 19631. 198). For example, Bucer wrote that the law “is in no sense abolished, but is so much the more potent in each one as he is more richly endowed with the Spirit of Christ” (Ibid., 204). Cf. Ralph Roger Sundquist, “The Third Use of the Law in the Thought of John Calvin: An Interpretation and Evaluation” (Ph.D. dissertation, Union Theological Seminary, 1970), 317–18.

25. For Calvin, the convicting use of the law is not its “proper” use for this was to drive a sinner to Christ, and the civic use was only an “accidental” purpose. Cf. Victor Shepherd, The Nature and Function of Faith in the Theology of John Calvin (Macon, GA: Mercer, 1983), 153ff.

26. Selected Works of John Calvin: Tracts and Letters, ed. Henry Beveridge and Jules Bonnet (1849; reprint Grand Rapids: Baker, 1983), 2:56, 69.

27. Institutes of the Christian Religion 1536 Edition, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975), 36.

28. Institutes 2.7.12. Calvin gleans considerable support for his third use of the law from the Davidic Psalms (cf Institutes 2.7.12 and his Commentary on the Book of Psalms, trans. James Anderson, 5 vols. [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1949]).

29. “Law-Third use of the law,” in Encyclopedia of the Reformed Faith, ed. Donald K. McKim (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1992), 215–16. Cf. Edward A: Dowey, Jr., “Law in Luther and Calvin,” Theology Today 41,2 (1984):146–53; L. John Hesselink, Calvin’s Concept of the Law (Allison Park, PA: Pickwick, 1992), 251–62.

30. The Psalter, No. 42.

31. W Robert Godfrey, “Law and Gospel,” in New Dictionary of Theology, ed. Sinclair B. Ferguson, David F Wright, J. L Packer (Downers Grove, lL: InterVarsity Press, 1988), 379.

32. Ibid, 26-88.

33. Ernest F Kevan, The Grace of Law (London: Carey Kingsgate, 1976) provides a thorough treatment of Puritan teaching on the believer’s relationship to the law.

34. Spiritual Refining: or a Treatise of Grace and Assurance (London: A: Miller, 1652),563.

35. An Examination of the Chief Points of Antinomianism (London, 1646), 15–16.

36. The Trial and Triumph of Faith (Edinburgh: William Collins, 1845), 102; Samuel Rutherford in Catechisms of the Second Reformation, ed. Alexander F Mitchell (London: James Nisbet, 1886), 226.

37. The Guide unto True Blessedness (London, 1614), 85.

38. Westminster Confession of Faith (Glasgow: Free Presbyterian, 1994), 180–81.

Dr. Joel R. Beeke is pastor of the Heritage Netherlands Reformed denomination and is editor of its periodical, The Banner of Sovereign Grace Truth.