The Third Use of the Law
We continue in this article to address the following request: “Maybe Rev. Hanko can write an article on the role of the law in the conviction of sin, paving the way for the knowledge of Christ, as the Heidelberg Catechism teaches in the knowledge of misery. Has it such a function, and what place has it in the regeneration of a sinner and in his growth in grace?”
We have seen that the law has an important and necessary function in showing us our depravity and sin, and our need for God’s great salvation. Now the question is: “Does the law have a place in the regeneration of a sinner and in his growth in grace, i.e., his sanctification?”
If we mean by “place” that the law has any power to regenerate or sanctify us, the answer is an unqualified “No.” Galatians 3:21 tells us plainly that the law cannot regenerate us: “Is the law then against the promises of God? God forbid: for if there had been a law given which could have given life, verily righteousness should have been by the law.” The Word of God is saying here that, if the law were able to regenerate us and give us life, it would first have to be able to justify us and that it cannot do.
Nor can the law sanctify us, as is clear from Romans 8:3-4: “For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh: That the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.” Having the righteousness of the law fulfilled in us and walking after the Spirit is sanctification and growth in grace, which are always and only the fruit of Christ’s work, and not something the law could do.
We do not mean, however, that the law has no connection with our regeneration and spiritual growth. When we are born again, regenerated, the Spirit of God writes the law in our hearts: “For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, saith the Lord; I will put my laws into their mind, and write them in their hearts: and I will be to them a God, and they shall be to me a people: And they shall not teach every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord: for all shall know me, from the least to the greatest” (Heb. 8:10-11; quoting Jer. 31:33-34).
The law does not give us the new life of regeneration, but, written in our hearts, it defines the boundaries of that new life that we have through regeneration and in Christ. When God created man, His moral law was a boundary for man’s life of fellowship with Himself. Within the boundaries of God’s law was life. Outside of those boundaries was death and so the law defined the boundaries of man’s fellowship with God.
God did something like that for all of His creatures. God’s law for a fish is that it must live in the water and, if that law is broken, the fish dies. God’s law for a tree is that it must be rooted in the earth and, if that law is broken, the tree dies. So it was with man who was created to live in relationship with God. God’s law for him was much more extensive but only within the boundaries of God’s law for him can he live in fellowship with God. Outside those boundaries is only death.
That does not change with our regeneration. When we are regenerated, God gives us life out of death, and also writes the law in our hearts and brings us back within the boundaries of the law (the righteousness of the law is fulfilled in us). Thus the law continues to define, like a boundary, where a life of peace, blessedness and fellowship with God is found.
The law does this because the law is rooted in the nature of God Himself. It is grounded in the truths that He is the only God (the First Commandment), that He is spirit, so glorious that no eye has seen Him or can see Him (the Second Commandment), that He is so holy that even His name may not be uttered without reverence and fear (the Third Commandment), that He is the Creator and Sustainer of all (#4), sovereign (#5), the living God (#6), faithful (#7), Lord of all (#8), a God of truth (#9) and perfect (#10).
With its precepts, therefore, the law tells us what our life in relationship to Him must be, that we must be single-eyed and single-hearted in relationship to Him, that we must worship Him “in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24), that we must be holy as He is holy, fear and reverence Him, find our rest in Him, submit to Him, receive our life from Him, be faithful in all our relationships as He is faithful to us, seek all things from Him, walk in the truth and be perfect as He is.
Those precepts of the law are necessary because we are still sinners and are tempted to think that life, happiness and satisfaction can be found apart from Him in sin. The law, then, continues to remind us that it is not so. We also need those precepts because we are slow of heart and ignorant of His glory, and of what it means to love and serve Him. We need to be told over and over that love is not just a feeling but that love involves obedience: “If ye love me, keep my commandments” (John 14:15). Calvin says, “The Law acts like a whip to the flesh, urging it on as men do a lazy sluggish ass. Even in the case of a spiritual man, inasmuch as he is still burdened with the weight of the flesh, the Law is a constant stimulus, pricking him forward when he would indulge in sloth” (Institutes 2.7.12).
In regeneration, therefore, we are given a new life filled with the love of God and obedience to Him, and the law is written in our hearts to show us the way of life. The law does not preserve the life of regeneration. It does nothing to strengthen and sustain that new life of Christ in us. That life does not depend on the law for anything. Christ by His Spirit is the source, the strength, the blessedness, the help and the hope of that new life. He is our life (Gal. 2:20). The law is only a reminder and a guide.
The law has a similar function in our sanctification. It has no power to make us holy, or even keep us holy, but it is an important guide for holiness, the road map which we must follow as we walk the narrow way of life. Written not only on tables of stone but in the fleshy tables of our hearts, it becomes a guide that we know well and love. It shows us where danger threatens our relationship to God and to others whom we love. It shows us the path of peace and spiritual safety in worship, in family and marriage, in our work and even in our inward life.
This is what Psalm 119:105 has in mind: “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path.” Thus also Deuteronomy 32:46-47: “And he [i.e., Moses] said unto them, Set your hearts unto all the words which I testify among you this day, which ye shall command your children to observe to do, all the words of this law. For it is not a vain thing for you; because it is your life.” Saved by grace, regenerated and renewed by the Spirit, a believer finds the law most useful and good.
Thus the law is a guide for gratitude also, for a life lived according to the precepts of the law is a life of gratitude to God, a life in which our thankfulness becomes more than just words. “What shall I render unto the Lord for all his benefits toward me? I will take the cup of salvation, and call upon the name of the Lord. I will pay my vows unto the Lord now in the presence of all his people” (Ps. 116:12-14). In other words, “I really have nothing to give; all I can do is receive. In taking the cup of salvation, I will be thankful and will, by grace, pay my vows and serve to the utmost of my ability as long as I live.”
It is a guide for gratitude because, as the Westminster Larger Catechism explains, “[The law] 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” (A. 97). The law, written upon our hearts and in the Word of God, constantly reminds us of what Jesus said: “If ye keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love; even as I have kept my Father’s commandments, and abide in his love” (John 15:10).
This, according to Calvin, is the third and principal use of the law: “The third use of the Law (being also the principal use, and more closely connected with its proper end) has respect to believers in whose hearts the Spirit of God already flourishes and reigns. For although the Law is written and engraven on their hearts by the finger of God, that is, although they are so influenced and actuated by the Spirit, that they desire to obey God, there are two ways in which they still profit in the Law. For it is the best instrument for enabling them daily to learn with greater truth and certainty what that will of the Lord is which they aspire to follow, and to confirm them in this knowledge; just as a servant who desires with all his soul to approve himself to his master, must still observe, and be careful to ascertain his master’s dispositions, that he may comport himself in accommodation to them” (Institutes 2.7.12).
In short, God’s law is a mirror of our misery and so also a schoolmaster to bring us to Christ, a lamp for living, a handbook for holiness and a guide for gratitude. What other response is possible but “O how love I thy law! it is my meditation all the day” (Ps. 119:97). Rev. Ron Hanko