Monday, March 19, 2012

Lutherans don't believe in the third use of the Law?

On the recent Christ the Center podcast, the subject of Lutheranism again came up. This time the subject at hand is that of the third use of the Law. Rev. Nick Batzig rightly showed that the discussions of the three uses of the Law came from Melancthon and were subsequently popularized by Calvin. However, Rev. Batzig made the comment that the Lutheran tradition largely denies the third use of the Law. Is this true?

In recent Lutheran history, there has been a large debate surrounding the issue of a third use of the Law. Gerhard Forde, the chief proponent of so-called "radical Lutheranism" argued that there is no such thing as a "Natural Law" or a third use of the Law. The third use of the Law is not to be found in Luther's theology, but is an unfortunate departure following Melancthon's lead.

The issue really comes down to one question, "what do the Confessions teach?" Lutheranism is not defined by the teachings of Luther. We do not idolize any individual theologian and accept his opinion as de facto truth. The Lutheran movement is a Confessional movement, proclaiming its teaching through the consensus of the Church. This consensus is contained in the Confessional documents contained in the Book of Concord. The Small and Large Catechisms for example are not adopted as Confessions simply because Luther wrote them; rather, they are Confessional documents because the church agrees that they accurately summarize the teachings of Holy Scripture.

The Forde type of theology does not simply propose a new view of the third use of the Law, but a radical restructuring of the sources of Lutheran teaching. Much of the movement places a functional priority of the teachings of Luther over the teachings of the Church. Thus Forde and those following his lead are not to be defined as representative of the Lutheran tradition, but as a new theological tradition altogether.

If you are wondering where the Confessions teach the third use of the Law, look at the Formula of Concord Article VI where the subject is treated, and the third use is rigorously defended.

This does not mean that Reformed and Lutheran perspectives on the Law are identical. The Reformed, following Calvin's lead, have prioritized the third use over the other two. However, the Lutheran tradition has Confessed that the primary use of the Law is always to slay the old Adam, showing the Christian his inadequacy before God. This is because the Law always accuses (lex semper accusat). Even when the Law is used as our guide, showing us what good works we should perform, we are still confronted with the truth that we don't live up to what God commands. We don't love God with our whole heart, and we don't love our neighbors as ourselves. It is only through this honest confession that we can begin to use the Law as our guide.


CovenantGuy said...

So would you take us through the main Scripture passages on the law (such as the giving of the law on Mt. Sinai) and show us where the main function of that law-giving was to slay the old Adam?

OR, was it to show people who were already in relationship with God how to behave in gratitude from their salvation from bondage in Egypt?

OR, was it something else? Subscribing to confessions is awesome...and more people should do it. But one must also be able to point to the Scripture that they summarize and show how they do, in fact, represent what's there.

I have every confidence, by the way, that you can. I'm interested in seeing how, however.

Martin Yee said...

Hi Jordan,

Great write up! Really liked this piece. If I did not misread Forde, he rejected the Third Use because it blunts the Law. Third Use can be hijacked by subtle human enterprises to make the Law more manageable, user-friendly and digestable. We are sophiscated sinners! The Law kills, the Spirit gives life. Rejecting the Third Use does not make a person anti-nomian

Lex semper accusat


Martin Yee said...

On further thought, many also hijack and interpret the Third Use of the Law, drawing out prescriptions for themselves others to fulfill their own agenda or aspiration or idea as what the church should be or to exclude others. Seen this many times even here in Asia. Man can do all sorts of things in God's name.

Mark said...

Interesting discussion on the proper use of the Law. Thanks!

Jeremiah Caughran said...

Thanks for this Jordan! I'm always telling people that Lutherans don't reject the Third Use, it's just that they emphasize the Second Use following the Third. I started telling people that it is like two sides of the same coin. It the Second use convicts you, you are immediately directed to how to live in light of that conviction, but as soon as you do that, as you said, you get pointed back to the Second use's conviction of not living up to the Law.

I fully think that Luther taught the third use in the Small Catechism because he tells us how to live and what the Law wants us to do. Hence, it is a guide to our lives, but again, in that oh so wonderful Lutheran way with the Law, we get pointed back to our need for Christ and forgiveness due to our lack of true obedience. It's also been helpful in pointing out to people that the Third Use isn't so much about pleasing God in and of ourselves, but is about serving our neighbors, which as Luther said (I have heard, but don't know where to reference it), is who needs our good works.

Thanks for this good post!

Anonymous said...

Forde is completely off on this issue--regarding Luther (not to mention the clear teachings of Scripture). Just because Luther did not explicitly incorporate the language of the "third use of the law" in his writings has nothing to do with whether he taught the concept. It's the equivalent of saying that the Scripture doesn't teach the Trinity because it doesn't use the term "Trinity." Luther's writings are chock full of the centrality of the law according to it's third use in the believer's life (whether in his detailed discourse on the requirements of the commandments for the believer in the Smaller and Larger Catechism or in any one of his thousands of sermons and other writings). In a real sense Luther may be considered to be a stauncher advocate of the necessity of the third use of the Law than Calvin himself in that Luther, unlike Calvin, explicitly teaches throughout his writings (frequently and vehemently) that living contrary to the moral law can even bring the formerly saved believer into a state of damnation.

Just one of many examples of Luther's strong admonitions for the "third use of the Law" by the believer (Larger Catechism):

Therefore it is not in vain that it is commanded in the Old Testament to write the Ten Commandments on all walls and corners, yes, even on the garments, not for the sake of merely having them written in these places and making a show of them, as did the Jews, but that we might have our eyes constantly fixed upon them, and have them always in our memory, and that we might practice them in all our actions and ways, and every one make them his daily exercise in all cases, in every business and transaction, as though they were written in every place wherever he would look, yea, wherever he walks or stands. Thus there would be occasion enough, both at home in our own house and abroad with our neighbors, to practice the Ten Commandments, that no one need run far for them.

God Bless,
WA Scott

Martin Yee said...

It is better to follow Luther's fooststep and avoid speaking about a "Third Use" of the Law as it often lend itself to abuse and misinterpretation by man sometimes even out of godly intentions but causes consciences to be crushed instead of being comforted by the Gospel. When "Third Use" is mentioned the human tendency is to focus on how to fulfill them to plaese God. Just speak of them as encouragements or admonitions on how to love our neighbour in Christian vocations. As pointed out by some theologians, Luther also avoided using the term "covenant", not because he does not believe in it or never uses it. He seldom uses it unlike the Reformed, because it was abused by medieval theologians who teaches that man has a part to play in his own salvation as part of the covenant deal with God. So Luther has good reasons to avoid using certain terms.

Jordan Cooper said...

Covenant Guy- I would point you to Galatians 3 through 4, and Paul's discussion of the "covenant of death" with the Corinthians. It seems that for Paul, the Law was given as a means of condemnation rather than living in the covenant.

I have heard many try to argue that the punishments for disobedience in Deuteronomy are merely "Fatherly discipline" for those in the covenant who don't obey the commandments. A cursory reading of Deuteronomy 28 shows that it goes far beyond that.

Anonymous said...

"Just speak of them as encouragements or admonitions on how to love our neighbour in Christian vocations."

Are you sure you're reading the same Luther I'm reading?

Luther says:
In today's Gospel Christ says plainly and bluntly: "If a man love me, he will keep my Word; he that loveth me not, keepeth not my words." The text stands there clear; whoever loves God keeps his commandments, and on the contrary, whoever does not love God, does not keep his commandments. Christ here simply casts out of his kingdom all who do not keep his commandments with pleasure and love. Let us thoroughly understand this. It is briefly pictured to us here who are and who are not Christians. No one is a Christian unless he keeps Christ's Word, as he here says.

This is Luther's teaching throughout. Luther makes clear over and over again in his writings and sermons that those Christians who are not seeking to conform their lives to Christ's commandments can have no true assurance from the Gospel and have lost true faith and the Holy Spirit.

God Bless.
WA Scott

p.s. I'm afraid this will have to be my last post because of time constraints.

Martin Yee said...

Hi WA Scott,

Thanks for info. I stand corrected.


Anonymous said...

@WA Scott -- And what do you make of Luther when he begins speaking of looking to our baptisms for assurance? Surely if this is his clear teaching 'throughout', then all of Lutheranism has misunderstood him. Not that we are by any means bound to all of his writings.

Martin Yee said...

Hi Nick,

WA Scott has already shown convincingly that Luther emphasised the third use of the law even more than Calvin. As good Lutherans we should heed Luther, teach others and ourselves to observe carefully God's laws and commandments, and conform to them closely in our daily life. Otherwise we will not have assurance from the Gospel and have lost true faith and the Holy Spirit. The Law is our friend and guide for our Christian living. Living contrary to the law can bring formerly saved believer into damnation. It is all very clear in Luther's writings. People like Gerhard Forde has got it all wrong where the uses of the law are concerned.

Anonymous said...

Hello Nick.

I'm certainly not saying that all Lutheranism has interpreted Luther incorrectly. However, many have, and that's what I'm responding to here.

Although Luther teaches that we are to look to our Baptism, the proclamation of the Gospel (in the preaching, Absolution, etc), and the Lord's Supper for assurance, it doesn't negate his frequent warnings (to say nothing of the warnings of Scripture) against presumption.

For Luther, true assurance is not possible for the Christian who is not seeking to live according to the Word of God (because such a "Christian" does not have true faith and the Holy Spirit).

Consequently, he warns frequently against taking false assurance or presumption from God's promises when you are not seeking to live in conformity with His Will (in the following quote he is speaking to those who would apply the comforting promises of Christ to themselves without submitting to God's command against covetousness):
If you will not desist from the vice of covetousness, then know you are not a Christian, not a believer, but, as Paul calls you, a base, detestable idolater, having no part in God's kingdom; for you are living wholly to the world and without intent to rise with Christ. You will receive no blessing from the joy-inspiring and gracious revelation that Christ died and rose for sinners. You cannot say, "Therefore he died for me, I trust." Truly, Christ died for you, but if you continue in your wickedness, using this revelation as a cloak for your mean covetousness, do not--such is the declaration of the text--by any means apply that comforting promise to yourself. Although Christ indeed died and rose for all, yet unto you he is not risen; you have not apprehended his resurrection by faith. You have seen the smoke but have not felt the fire; you have heard the words but have received nothing of their power.

Anonymous said...


Therefore, Luther speaks later in the same sermon to the necessity of seeking to conform our live to the Will of God (through "unceasing warfare" against our sinful lusts):
The apostle refers to this subject in Romans 7: 5, 8, 23, and elsewhere, frequently explaining how, in the saints, there continue to remain various lusts of original sin, which constantly rise in the effort to break out, even gross external vices. These have to be resisted. They are strong enough utterly to enslave a man, to subject him to the deepest guilt, as Paul complains (Rom 7, 23); and they will surely do it unless the individual, by faith and the aid of the Holy Spirit, oppose and conquer them.

29. Therefore, saints must, by a vigorous and unceasing warfare, subdue their sinful lusts if they would not lose God's grace and their faith. Paul says in Romans 8, 13: "If ye live after the flesh, ye must die; but if by the Spirit ye put to death the deeds of the body, ye shall live." In order, then, to retain the Spirit and the incipient divine life, the Christian must contend against himself.

As Luther also notes in a 1540 sermon:
The sins remaining in saints after conversion are various evil inclinations, lusts and desires natural to man and contrary to the Law of God. The saints, as well as others, are conscious of these sins, but with this difference: they do not permit themselves to be overcome thereby so as to obey the sins, allowing them free course; they do not yield to, but resist, such sins, and, as Paul expresses it here, incessantly purge themselves therefrom. The sins of the saints, according to him, are the very ones which they purge out. Those who obey their lusts, however, do not do this, but give rein to the flesh, and sin against the protest of their own consciences.

They who resist their sinful lusts retain faith and a good conscience, a thing impossible with those who fail to resist sin and thus violate their conscience and overthrow their faith. If you persist in that which is evil regardless of the voice of conscience, you cannot say, nor believe, that you have God's favor. So then, the Christian necessarily must not yield to sinful lusts.

There are virtually innumerable statements from Luther on this point.

Anyhow, this really will have to be my very last post because of time constraints.

God Bless,
WA Scott

Anonymous said...

@Martin Yee
It is one thing to emphasize 'third use'...I'm not 100% sure you can seperate the uses like that. I'm objecting to being able to 'find assurance' in our adherence to the law, which you seem to be indicating. How would we ever have assurance? I agree with Jordan's last paragraph in this post. The law can be our guide only when it first condemns.

Nick H.

Martin Yee said...

Hi Nick,

As WA Scott has pointed out, we can know a tree by its fruits. So if we cannot show the fruit of good works in our lives, we cannot claim the assurance of the Gospel.


Anonymous said...

I salute you as you try to find comfort comparing yourself to the law, brother. Lex semper accusat.

I think I heard Rod Rosenbladt (maybe...don't quote me on this...I'm notoriously bad about remembering where I heard things) describe the Christian's producing good fruit as information. It's what Christian's do. Amen, sure is. But that is no place to find comfort...because you're not meeting God's standard of law fulfillment, only your own. And, plus, that's not the gospel. The gospel is outside you, not inside. Finding hope in what you do is nowhere to be.

Nick H.

Anonymous said...

Aye..I think this shows how Lutheran theology is essentially pastoral and not as conducive to systematizing as some other branches of Christendom.

Say I came to a Lutheran pastor with a cavalier attitude saying, "Ya, I'm a sinner. You betcha. I love me some sinnin'. But guess what? I'm baptized. So I'm good to go." That pastor shouldn't give me the comfort of the gospel.

On the other hand, if I came saying, "Pastor, I've been trying to fight against my sin, but I just can't stop. I look at the 'fruit of the spirit' that the word says I should have, and I don't have any. All I can do is sin. Who will rescue me from this body of death?" Then the pastor is compelled to point me to my baptism where God delivered to me the benefits of the cross.

A broken sinner should always be pointed outside himself. Imagine if that pastor said to the second man, "Surely you're showing evidence of some fruit. The fact that you are concerned shows that you have the spirit." God forbid that broken, hopeless man be turned back in on himself.

Either a man will be prideful, thinking he is 'measuring up' in some way to God's law, or he will live in despair because he will realize he has no hope inside himself.

Martin Yee said...

Hi Nick,

Thanks for the great illustrations. They are really good and logical I must say. It makes things much clearer. Looks like Rod Rosenbladt and Gerhard Forde teachings do have their value also.

But what do you think of Engelbrecht's new CPH book "Friends of the Law"? He is documenting that Luther did teach the third use of the law by both God AND man.

Lex Semper Accusat.


Anonymous said...


Sorry for the long delay; we just had our fourth kid last week. She was buried with Christ in baptism on Sunday!

I have not read the book, sorry. It is on my wishlist, though. I'm not really arguing that the third use isn't valid. I'm not that familiar with Forde, but if he teaches that, I honestly don't understand why.

What I am saying is that you can't just take the law and say, "I'm going to preach third use right now." Sure, you can intend to do that, but I may hear that law and be shown the mirror. It's not really something that we can control to a great degree.

I'm also saying that our assurance must be objective for it to be assurance. Anytime we are looking inward at our fruit, judging ourselves by God's law, we must be condemned. Now of course, we are to use the law as a guide, but our assurance must be in the objective word of Christ for us, in our baptisms, in the supper. If its inward, I think it's false and we either think too highly of ourselves or are chopping at God's law, making it a measure we can reach to some degree. Maybe I'm missing the finer points of the debates you guys are having about the third use, but that's all I've been trying to say. Hope that makes sense. God bless!

Martin Yee said...

Hi Nick,

Congrats on your 4th kid.

Thanks for kind reply. As Lutherans in Asia, we are also struggling with understanding this third use of the law. Different Lutheran groups and teachers in America say different things regarding its definition and usage, we really don't know who to believe. I guess we have to build our own convictions on this.

Easter Blessings,

Robert said...

Gerhard Forde rejected not only the 3rd use of the law, but also the eternal law and natural law. Forde also denied that the Bible is God's Word, which he relegated to an "event." Here Forde's subjectivism and existentialism are clear.

Forde also rejected the substitutionary atonement, and denied that Christ offered His holy blood to the Father to appease God's wrath over our sins.

Forde also was unable to construct a robust argument based on Scripture or natural law against same-sex sexual activity. Rather, he relied appealed to tradition and prudential arguments (see my "Natural Law, Human Sexuality, and Forde's 'Acid Test,' in Natural Law: A Lutheran Reappraisal (CPH, 2011).

Finally, Rev. Ed Engelbrecht provides a devastating critique of Forde in his outstanding work proving Luther taught the 3rd use of the law, in Friends of the Law: Luther's Use of the Law for the Christian Life (CPH, 2011).

Forde was a false teacher, plain and simple, and folks who promote his works are doing grave damage to future generations of Lutherans and other Christians.

Steve said...

Great post. I really appreciate your making the distinction between the Reformed and Lutheran views of the third-use of the law. I will say, in Forde's defense, we should not castigate all of his teaching because of his views on the third-use. I know you weren't doing that but I have seen it recently. Not all of us who would consider ourselves "students" of Forde agree with his conclusions regarding the third use.