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.