The Threefold Function of the Law

In relation to SOCIETY, the law issues a standard for right and wrong (the civil use of the law).

God’s law promotes righteousness in society and protects people from wrongdoers (Rom. 13:1–7; 1 Tim. 2:1–2). For instance, the law commands us not to bear false witness against our neighbor in order to promote honesty and in order to protect us from dishonest people (Exod. 20:16). The moral law then provides a standard for good and evil in our land. It commends good and condemns evil.

In relation to SALVATION, the law informs sinners of their sin and need of a Savior (the evangelical use of the law). The law proclaims our guilt, for we have transgressed God’s law. “Through the law,” the apostle Paul says, “comes knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3:20). The law is like a mirror that exposes our sins.

The law also pronounces a judgement on us as guilty sinners. Because of our disobedience to God, we deserve punishment, that punishment being death (Rom. 6:23).

But the law also points us to Jesus Christ, who kept the law on behalf of guilty sinners and died in their place, so that sinners who believe in Him will be justified on the basis of His righteousness. “Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith” (Gal. 3:24, KJV).

So, when used by the Holy Spirit, the law convicts us of our sin, condemns us, and creates in us a sense of need for Christ, who alone can save us from the curse of the law (Gal. 3:10).

In relation to SANCTIFICATION, the law instructs us to live a holy life out of gratitude for what God has done for us in Christ (the didactic use of the law).

The Heidelberg Catechism, a Reformed document published in 1563, primarily uses the law in this way. Divided into three main sections (guilt, grace, and gratitude), this catechism asks, “We have been delivered from our misery by God’s grace alone through Christ and not because we have earned it: why then must we still do good?” Answer: “To be sure, Christ has redeemed us by his blood. But we do good because Christ by his Spirit is also renewing us to be like himself, so that in all our living we may show that we are thankful to God for all he has done for us . . . And we do good so that we may be assured of our faith by its fruits” (Q&A 86).

In other words, why do good works if we have not been saved by our good works? Or why obey the law if we have not been justified by our obedience to the law? Because our obedience to the law shows that we have truly been justified by faith in Christ (James 2:17).

Moreover, our obedience to the law is an expression of our gratitude to God for what He has done for us in the gospel. We love the Lord our God with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our mind, and we love our neighbors as ourselves in response to the great gift of salvation that God has given to us.

Some people say that we do not need God’s law any more, because we are no longer under His law but under His grace. To support their case, they cite Romans 6:14, “You are not under law but under grace.” “You see,” they argue, “we are no longer under God’s law but under God’s grace. Therefore, there is no need for us to study or even read the law (the Ten Commandments).” This thinking is prevalent in many churches today where God’s moral law is rarely heard. Does the church that you attend still read the Ten Commandments regularly? When was the last time your pastor(s) preached on the Ten Commandments?

In this article I will briefly clarify the meaning of Paul’s words in Romans 6:14—“You are not under law but under grace.” By this statement Paul means that we are not under the moral law as a requirement for eternal life.

The Bible can be divided into two main sections: before the fall of man (before Adam sinned) and after the fall of man (after Adam sinned). Before the fall, Adam was without sin. Yet, while Adam is morally perfect, he is capable of sinning. And if he sins, he will die. What must he do then in order for him to live forever? The answer is found in Genesis 2:16–17: “And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, ‘You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.’”

So, what must Adam do in order for him to live eternally? Answer: Obey God. Thus, before the fall, the requirement for obtaining eternal life was perfect obedience to God. “Obey and you will live forever. Disobey and you will surely die.” Sadly, Adam failed to keep God’s commandment. He sinned and died. And here’s bad news: Because Adam was our head representative, when he sinned and died, we also sinned and died in him (Rom. 5:12). Thankfully, the story does not end here, because in Genesis 3:15 God proclaims the good news about the Messiah. This Messiah, the second Adam, will both actively and passively obey God. Actively, Christ will fulfill the law’s perfect demand. Passively, He will pay sin’s penalty, which is death.

Indeed, Jesus kept the law on behalf of sinners and died in their place, so that sinners who believe in Him will be justified on the basis of His obedience or righteousness. That is, they will be declared righteous as if they had never sinned before and as if they had perfectly obeyed God’s law (Rom. 5:19). Hence, after the fall, the requirement for receiving eternal life is no longer obedience to the law but faith alone in Jesus Christ. As Paul writes, “We know that a person is not justified by works [or obedience] of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ . . . because by works of the law no one will be justified” (Gal. 2:16).

Now, this doctrine of justification by faith alone does not mean that we do not need to obey the moral law. In fact, it is by our obedience to the law that we show that we have truly been justified (James 2:17). And so, elsewhere Paul adds, “Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law” (Rom. 3:31). Those who claim to be believers in Christ and disregard His law make their claim questionable.

In summary, we are not under law but under grace in the sense that we are no longer under the covenant of works (obey the law and you will live forever) but under the covenant of grace (believe in Christ and you will have everlasting life).

Rev. Brian G. Najapfour is the pastor of Dutton Reformed Church, Caledonia, MI, and author of The Very Heart of Prayer: Reclaiming John Bunyan’s Spirituality (2012) and  Jonathan Edwards: His Doctrine of and Devotion to Prayer (2013). He and his wife, Sarah, have two children, Anna and James. He blogs at