How many times have we heard Reformed Christians affirm the third use of the Law only to have them shy away from preaching on it and to make any that do, feel guilty and in danger of “legalism?” There seems to be, in my opinion, an upswing in such thinking. Although it is never stated in such a way it seems to be consistent with an attitude that sanctification happens in the same way as justification- by the sovereign hand of God apart from the aid of man. Then we are urged to focus on the grace of God in justification and let sanctification follow.
I am currently in a battle for the doctrine of justification by faith alone through Christ alone. I have defended it and proclaim it and will do so until I am home in glory with Christ my Lord. It is indeed the doctrine on which the Church stand or falls. It is that important! With that said, sanctification is also important as it is the way in which our Sovereign God glorifies His name among His justified covenant people. Our sanctification requires effort on our part. Just as our justification is a gracious act of God so is our sanctification. For it is God who graciously took our hearts of stone and them with hearts of flesh so that we can love and long to do the will of God by keeping His commands, “And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules” (Ezk. 36:26-27). This is further confirmed by the Lord in John 14:15-16 “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.” It is interesting that in the John passage right after the Lord tells His disciples to keep his commands as proof of their love for Him, he promises the aid of the Holy Spirit.
There is a very real reason for it. Unlike like the work of regeneration here we are passive, in sanctification we are active. We must ever be striving to grow in Christ and work out our own salvation. Of course this is not to be done for our salvation and nor in our own strength but by the power of the Spirit and for the good pleasure of the Lord, “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Php. 2:12-13). Let’s be clear about this- any attempt to keep the commands of God in ones own strength apart from the Gospel of Christ Jesus, the Author and Finisher of our faith; for the purpose of meriting their own acceptance with God is sheer legalism. Any attempt to keep the law apart from focusing on the finished work of Christ is in danger of veering into legalism in its strictest sense of the word.
Now we know that sanctification is on the basis of the Gospel of Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit but how does the Spirit enable and guide us in conformity to Christ? It is through some subjective mystical experience(s) or is the means through the law of God as given in his Word? While I do not deny the subjective element (we long and delight to do it) it is not sufficient to tell us what is pleasing to God. There must be some objective standard with which to guide us. To be sure the law itself has no power to sanctify as Dr. Alan Cairns writes, “Believers keep God’s law because they love it and the One who gave it, the One who in love for them gave His Son to be their Saviour. The gospel motivates believers to observe God’s law as a delight to their soul, an expression of the very will of God they find written on their hearts. The law may tell us what to do, but it cannot give us the desire or power to do it. Only gospel grace can do that. To divorce obedience from the gospel and from Christ is blatant legalism. It is an unlawful use of God’s law”* (emphasis mine). This is where the law, in it’s third use, is to be preached to the Christian unashamedly and without the charge of legalism. At this point I will turn it over to Dr. Robert Reymond who ably expounds:
Of course, for many Christians today, to speak about Christian ethics and the Ten Commandments in the same breath is to graze the rim of, if not actually to enter into, legalism. This, of course, is a mistaken notion. The proper definition of legalism is given by the Shorter Oxford Dictionary: ‘adherence to law as opposed to the gospel; the doctrine of justification by works, or teaching which savors of it.’ This historic meaning of the term should be kept in mind, for it is all too common in the twentieth century to find the term being used for ‘adherence to God’s precepts as the norm of morality’ which is something altogether different. By such misuse of the term the negative connotations of legalism are transferred to the morality of orthodox Protestantism. The doctrine of justification by faith alone clearly relieves the latter from the charge of legalism. Still, an ethical position might ‘savor’ of legalism if it failed to give adequate attention to union with Christ as the ethical dynamic of the Christian life (see Rom 6:1–14) and to the enabling work of the Holy Spirit in sanctification. Such a charge cannot be leveled against the Westminster Confession of Faith which affirms the necessity of ‘the Spirit of Christ subduing and enabling the will of man to do that freely, and cheerfully, which the will of God, revealed in the law, requireth to be done’ (XIX/vii). A truly biblical ethic is concerned with obedience to God’s precepts made possible by the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus (Rom 8:4). It is this ‘manner of life and behaviour which the Bible requires and which the faith of the Bible produces’.
The Third Use of the Law
The use of the Decalogue for Christian ethics has come to be referred to as ‘the third use of the law’ and is captured in the words of the third stanza of Loy’s poem. The other two uses are, first, its moral standards which serve as the rule and norm of all true civil righteousness (Loy’s fourth stanza), and second, its ‘tutorial’ work of convicting sinners, through the agency of the Holy Spirit, of their sins and thus driving them to Christ that they may be justified by faith (Gal 3:24; Loy’s second stanza).
Some Lutherans, applying their law-gospel paradigm, reject this third use of the law (though it is clearly taught by Melanchthon and the Formula of Concord, Article VI), fearing that it intrudes legalism into the Christian experience.
Dispensationalists, fearing the heresy of ‘Galatianism’, also reject the notion that Christians are under the so-called ‘Mosaic law’. For example, Lewis Sperry Chafer declares that Christians are not obligated to obey the Decalogue as such and cites Paul’s statement that ‘we are not under law but under grace’ to prove it (Rom 6:15; see Gal 3:24–25). These Christians argue that Paul teaches that the law has been fulfilled and hence done away in Christ. They are bound to Christ, they declare, and therefore are obligated only to serve him out of love for him. I have been afforded the opportunity on several occasions to speak to dispensational thinkers who were contending, because they were ‘not under law but under grace’, that they were bound only to the ‘law of Christ’ and were under no obligation to obey the Decalogue. My first question has always been, ‘Can Christians sin?’ Their answer, of course, has always been unequivocally in the affirmative. My second question has always been, ‘What is the nature of their sin?’ Their answer, of course, has always been, ‘Sin is disobedience to the law of Christ.’ I have then asked them to give me examples of the law of Christ against which Christians can sin. They have usually said: ‘Simply Christ’s two great love commandments, which are: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength,” and, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” ’ (Of course, the Old Testament said these things before Jesus did, and of course these are divine commandments under which they acknowledge that they stand. They must believe that they are under obligation to obey these commandments because Christ placed them under them and not because the God of the Old Testament did so.) I have then asked: ‘How does one show concretely his love to God and to his neighbor, as Christ commands?’ On every occasion, their response to my fourth question has become essentially a recitation of the laws of the Decalogue; as they must, they have regularly responded: ‘One shows his love to God by worshiping God only and by never putting anything before him, by never making any image of him, by never taking his name in vain, that is, by keeping his commandments, as John says in 1 John 5:2–3 [dispensationalists usually omit his fourth commandment]. And one shows his love for his neighbor by honoring his parents, by not murdering his neighbor, by not committing adultery against him, by not stealing from him, by not bearing false witness against him, and by not coveting that which belongs to him.’ So much for the dispensational contention that Christians are not under the Decalogue as the moral law of God for all men.
But does the New Testament repeal the Decalogue’s normative character for Christian life and practice? Because it is Paul in particular who is credited with teaching this, it is important that we address this matter of Paul’s teaching on the Christian’s relation to the law of God. At the outset, it is striking to note that the great Apostle of justification by faith alone completely apart from the works of the law can still speak of the law of God as holy, just, spiritual, and good (Rom 7:12, 14, 16) and can contend that all the world is accountable to God because all men are ‘under the law’ (Rom 3:19). He makes it clear that obedience is conformity to God’s will and that God’s will provides the specific norms or standards for Christian obedience. Here, as in the case of the content of the gospel message itself, the norms or standards are sometimes presumed or assumed and not always specifically stated. At times, however, the basis or standard is stated in very significant ways. In these places it becomes clear that the foundational character of Paul’s ethic is God’s revealed preceptive will or law.
The norm or standard in Paul’s ethic is, first, the law of God known by all men because they are made in the image of God: ‘Although they know the righteous ordinance [τὸ δικαίωμα] of God, that those who practice such things [as he lists in Rom 1:29–31] are worthy of death, they not only do the same, but also give hearty approval to them who practice them’ (Rom 1:32). Paul’s foundational premise here is that men are aware of the basic moral teaching of God made known through God’s general revelation to them (see Rom 1:26, 27; 2:14ff; 1 Cor 11:14). Thus it is that Paul speaks of conscience (συνείδησις)—the self-conscious self-evaluative process of assessing the degree of one’s moral success or integrity—within men because they are made in God’s image (see Rom 2:15). This is not to say that man’s conscience is an independent norm but only that man’s conscience is a scale which registers or reflects within him his own awareness of God’s standard. His conscience bears witness to the presence of God’s norm within him.
It is not very often, however, that Paul utilizes this perspective, regarding men in general, of Christians. Of the latter Paul speaks of informing their conscience by God’s written word-revelation. He does not presume that their conscience does not need more instruction. But Romans 1:32 does indicate that at the most rudimentary level of human existence, the ordinance or law of God is understood to be the norm of human ethics or conduct. This aspect of the ordinance or law of God Paul develops from its most rudimentary and implicit presence to an explicit unfolding of the normative character of God’s law.
For Paul the moral law of God, which Christians are to obey, is revealed in the Scriptures—especially (but not exclusively) in the Decalogue…*
*Cairns, A. (2000). Chariots of God: God’s Law in Relation to the Cross and the Christian (66). Greenville, SC; Belfast, Northern Ireland: Ambassador-Emerald International.*
*Reymond, R. L. (2000). Paul, Missionary Theologian (471–475). Scotland: Christian Focus Publications.