Anthony Charles

The Three Uses of the Law in Reformed Theology

The Reformed view of the Christian life is one of Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude: Guilt (Pedagogical: first use of the law), Grace (Gospel), and Gratitude (the Christian life: third use of the law). When we fail (guilt), the same order always follows. It is the gospel—our union with Christ—that brings us to life and provides us with the fuel and desire to live a life of gratitude.

In today’s world, numerous things are going haywire. Headlines flicker hourly across our social media feeds with the latest abuse of power, breaches in trust, shootings, riots, and protests. The spirit of anarchy is alive and well in our world. How is it possible for depraved individuals to even recognize evil? Why do we care about injustice? It is because we all have the Law of God written in our hearts (Romans 2:14-15). When we observe countless atrocities occurring on a daily basis, it is human nature to want justice to prevail.
In Christianity, there have always been disputes on how Christians should use the law of God and its role in our lives. Antinomians teach that the law has no place in a Christian’s life. Neonomians desire to make a new law from the gospel demanding faith and obedience for salvation. Understanding the proper distinction between the law and the gospel and being on the same page regarding the three uses of the law can help to provide us with greater harmony amongst Reformed Christians. It can also present us with a solid blueprint of how we can live our lives for the glory of God.
Law and Gospel
What does it mean to properly distinguish between law and gospel? In brief, the law commands and the gospel promises. The law is what we do and the gospel is what Christ has done for us. The law in its first sense reveals God’s requirement for eternal life—perfection (Galatians 3:10; James 2:10). The gospel shares the wonderful promise that Christ is our righteousness received through faith alone (Galatians 3:13-14).
Both the law and the gospel are God given and necessary in a Christian’s life. The law is good because it is an expression of God’s being. The gospel is good because it informs us of the work of Christ on our behalf. However, mixing them—glawspel—is bad. This leads to neonomianism and the error of the Judaizers.
As Herman Bavinck wrote, Reformed Christians perceive “the sharp contrast between law and gospel” and realize this is what restores “the peculiar character of the Christian religion as a religion of grace.” Conversely, “The law demands that humans work out their own righteousness, and the gospel invites them to renounce all self-righteousness and to accept the righteousness of Christ.”[1]
The Three Uses of the Law
With the proper distinction between the law and the gospel in place, the question is: What is the relationship of a regenerate believer to the law of God? In Reformed theology, we distinguish between the three uses of the law. We make these distinctions because we observe the law being utilized this way in scripture.
The three uses of the law are:

Pedagogical (school master)
Civil/Moral (society)
Normative (the Christian life)

First Use of the Law
The first use of the Law is to destroy the spiritual narcissist lurking within all of us. Calvin writes:
“First, by exhibiting the righteousness of God—in other words, the righteousness which alone is acceptable to God—it admonishes every one of his own unrighteousness, certiorates, convicts, and finally condemns him.”[2]
The law in this sense destroys our self-righteousness and arrogance. It puts the old Adam to death. In it, we realize that God does not accept us “just as we.” Outside of Christ, we do not stand a chance on Judgment Day. God’s Law requires perfect obedience and no fallen son or daughter of Adam can attain this. In and of ourselves, we are without hope. We cannot stand before the judgment seat of God and plead our good works since “all who rely on works of the law are under a curse” (Galatians 3:10). This first use of the law serves as a schoolmaster to drive us out of ourselves and to Christ.
Second Use of the Law
The second use of the Law is intended to protect our society from evil people who would cause us harm. Calvin says in his Institutes of the Christian Religion:
“The second office of the Law is, by means of its fearful denunciations and the consequent dread of punishment, to curb those who, unless forced, have no regard for rectitude and justice.”[3]
The commandments such as “do not murder”, “do not steal”, and “do not commit adultery” are also examples of natural law. These aspects of the law are written in all human hearts (Rom 2:14-15). It is intended to restrain evil and promote a harmonious existence in our world. “The moral law is of use to all men, to inform them of the holy nature and will of God, and of their duty, binding them to walk accordingly” (Westminster Larger Catechism, Q.95)
Our society can function only because we innately realize right from wrong. This aspect of the law promotes civil order and protects citizens from those who would cause harm. Hence, the second use of the law is a guide for morality and it equally applies to both believers and unbelievers.
Third Use of the Law
The third use of the law is only for regenerate believers. It does not apply to unbelievers. Calvin remarks:
“The third use of the Law has respect to believers in whose hearts the Spirit of God already flourishes and reigns.”[4]
This use of the law is also known as the “normative” use.  When we state that something is “normed”, we mean that it is “patterned” after something. This aspect of the law reveals God’s righteous will for our lives: We are his workmanship created in Christ Jesus for good works (Ephesians 2:10). When we state that a believer is not under law, we mean that he is not under the law as a covenant of works—as a means of salvation. However, as Christians, we do not lay the law aside because of our faith, but we seek to uphold the law (Romans 3:31).
We strive to uphold the law, not as a means of salvation, but because it reflects who we are as new creations: children of God.
We maintain the law and strive to do good work because of our love and gratitude toward God for saving us. The third use of the law serves as a blueprint for how an already regenerate believer can live a life that pleases Him (Heidelberg Catechism, Q.86 and Westminster Larger Catechism, Q. 97).
Louis Berkhof wrote that the third use of the law is “a rule of life for believers, reminding them of their duties and leading them in the way of life and salvation. This third use of the law is denied by the Antinomians.”[5] If someone denies the third use of the law, then they are an antinomian. This is not good! Antinomianism perverts the grace of God into a license to sin (Jude 4).
Paul anticipated that some would interpret the gospel message as doing away with the law. He asks the rhetorical question: “Do we then overthrow the law by this faith?” He emphatically states: “By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law” (Romans 3:31). This is the third use of the law.
A good example of Jesus practicing the third use of the Law is found in Matthew 28:20—“teaching them [new disciples] to observe all that I have commanded you.” He meant that Christians should be taught all that he commanded. They were taught this in the third sense of the law because they were already believers. The first use of the law had completed its work. It is God’s desire that Christians “walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him: bearing fruit in every good work” (Colossians 1:10). The third use of the law is the “Law of Christ.” It shows us how to live a life of gratitude.
The Difference between the Lutheran and Reformed View of the Third Use
Confessionally, both Lutherans and Reformed acknowledge the third use of the law. The early Lutherans articulated it well in The Formula of Concord, Epitome, Article 6:
“People who truly believe in Christ and are genuinely converted to God have been liberated and set free from the curse and compulsion of the law through Christ, they indeed are not for that reason without the law. Instead, they have been redeemed by the Son of God so that they may practice the law day and night.”
This is a good definition and is compatible with Reformed theology. However, since Reformation times, it is difficult to find a Lutheran theologian who consistently articulates the third use in this way. I recently reviewed the Lutheran classic, The Proper Distinction of Law and Gospel by CFW Walther (1897). I was disappointed the third use of the law was not affirmed and appeared to be repudiated (Thesis 23).
Lutheran theologian David Scaer, Professor of Biblical and Systematic Theology at Concordia Theological Seminary, believes Walther’s theses on the law and the gospel do not lend themselves to a developed doctrine of the third use of the law. He also points out that Gerhard Forde rejected the third use of the law as outlined in the Formula of Concord and thought it had no place in Lutheran theology.[6]
It’s noteworthy that Scaer believes this denial of the third use of the law was a significant factor in the decline in American Lutheran theology.
With these Lutheran views, it is not surprising that Bavinck (a contemporary of Walther) wrote:
“Lutherans do speak of a threefold use of the law, not only of a…civil use for the purpose of restraining sin, and of a pedagogical use to arouse the knowledge of sin, but also of a didactic use of the law to be a rule of life for believers. This last use, however, is solely necessary since…believers still continue to be sinners and have to be restrained by the law and led to a continuing knowledge of sin.”[7]
It is unknown which Lutheran theologian Bavinck had in mind (Walther?). However, it needs to be pointed out:
A “third use of the law” defined as merely a version of the first use is neither a confessionally Lutheran or a confessionally Reformed position.
Unfortunately, the non-confessional Lutheran view of the law (pedagogical only) seems to be the popular version on Twitter and social media. It is often passed off as the standard Lutheran view. Reformed Christians would do well by not integrating it with Reformed theology.
Concluding thoughts
It is critical to properly distinguish between the law and the gospel, but it is equally important to properly distinguish and affirm the three uses of God’s law. It is also important to remember that even the holiest people in this life have only a small beginning of obedience, yet they will have a sincere resolution (Heidelberg Catechism, Q. 114). We should never base our justification on our sanctification.
Our obedience is motivated by our gratitude. This is the epitome of the third use of law.
The Reformed view of the Christian life is one of Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude: Guilt (Pedagogical: first use of the law), Grace (Gospel), and Gratitude (the Christian life: third use of the law). When we fail (guilt), the same order always follows. It is the gospel—our union with Christ—that brings us to life and provides us with the fuel and desire to live a life of gratitude.
Anthony Charles lives in Los Angeles, California and recently transitioned from the PCA to the United Reformed Church in America (URCNA). He is married and has two adult sons.  His Bachelor’s degree is in Theology from The Master’s University and he is a descendant of the French Huguenots.  Tony also hosts the @ReformedTwitt3r account. You can read more about him here. This article is used with permission.

[1] Bavinck, H. Reformed Dogmatics: Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation (Vol. 4, p. 453)
[2] Calvin, J. (1997). Institutes of the Christian religion. Institutes 2.7.6
[3] Calvin, J. (1997). Institutes of the Christian religion. Institutes 2.7.10
[4] Calvin, J. (1997). Institutes of the Christian religion. Institutes 2.7.11
[5] Berkhof, L. (1938). Systematic theology (p. 615)
[6] Scaer, David. Walther, the Third Use of the Law, and Contemporary Issues. Concordia Theological Quarterly Volume: 75 Number: 3 in 2011, p. 329.
[7] Bavinck, H. Reformed Dogmatics: Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation (Vol. 4, p. 455)
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The Sacramental Theology of Herman Bavinck

In the end, the sacraments are “designed to help us understand more clearly and certify to us that on account of Christ’s one sacrifice finished on the cross, God grants to us, by grace alone, the forgiveness of sins and eternal life.”  In this sense, “Believers are assured by [the sacraments] of their salvation.” For Bavinck, “the sacraments do not work faith but reinforce it, as a wedding ring reinforces love. They do not infuse a physical grace but confer the whole Christ, whom believers already possess by the Word.”

In this blog post, it’s my objective to synthesize Herman Bavinck’s theology of the sacraments.  All of the thoughts and quotes are taken directly from Chapter 9 of Reformed Dogmatics, Volume 4, Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation.
Bavinck begins by saying that “in addition to the Word, the sacraments are a second means of grace.”  The word Trinity is not in the Bible, and the same is true of the word “sacrament.” But the concept is there.  The word sacrament is derived from the original Greek word mystērion.  It describes the “mighty and marvelous acts of God that were formerly hidden but have now been revealed.”  In Latin, this word was translated as sacramentum and also carried the meaning of a soldier’s oath of loyalty.
Signs and Seals
“Reformed theology describes the sacraments as signs and seals that are instituted and distributed by God so that believers might understand more clearly and be reassured of God’s promises and benefits in the covenant of grace.”
So first, sacraments are a sign of something greater.  What’s a sign?  In the natural world, a sign can be something like, for example, smoke or a footprint.  When we see smoke, we know there’s a fire.  When we see a footprint, we know a person is nearby.  In the institutional world, slogans and flags serve as signs. They represent countries and corporations.  Bavinck develops on this and says the “Sacraments are extraordinary signs taken, according to a preformed analogy, from visible things to designate invisible and eternal goods.” As signs, sacraments are analogies or visible pictures of something great.
Secondly, sacraments are seals. “They confirm God’s trustworthiness and strengthen for us the “element” of the covenant of grace that is summed up in Christ the Mediator, with all his benefits and blessings.”  Seals authenticate that something is true.  When we cash a check from someone how do we know it’s not a counterfeit?  We know because it has an official bank seal and a signature that confirms its authenticity.  It’s a trademark of the genuineness of something.  As seals, sacraments signify something.  They not only bring “the invisible matter to mind, but also validate and confirm it.”
Sacraments consist of two parts that can be distinguished as “word” and “element”—the spiritual truth signified and its physical sign.  There’s an internal and an external reality.  The sign and the seal refer to something else.  They are not the thing but the sign and the seal of something greater.
Comparing and Contrasting with Roman Catholicism
Since many people in our society have a Roman Catholic background, they tend to look at the sacraments with some suspicion—especially when we say they’re a means of grace.  They think perhaps Reformed Christians believe there’s some type of magical substance infused into them.  Or that we believe in baptismal regeneration.  Many discount the Reformed faith because of this misconception.  Bavinck reassures us that this is not the case.
In Reformed theology, “The sacrament does not impart one benefit that is not also received from the Word of God by faith alone; the content of both is identical.”
Why? Because we’re not justified by the sacraments.  It’s by faith alone that we have eternal life (John 3:36), are justified (Romans 3:28; 5:1), sanctified (John 15:3; Acts 15:9), and glorified (Romans 8:30).
While in Roman Catholic theology there is baptismal grace infused into the water, and in the Lord’s Supper the bread and wine physically change into the corporal flesh and blood of Christ, this is not the case in Reformed theology. “There is neither a separate baptismal grace nor a separate communion grace. The content of Word and sacrament is completely identical.”
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The Reformed View Of The Lord’s Supper

When we compare the Reformed and Lutheran view, we see there really is no disagreement about the reality of a communion with Christ. The difference is in the nature of that communion. For Lutherans, the communion happens by Christ coming down to earth and into the bread and wine. By contrast, the Reformed view is that our souls are in union with Christ by His Spirit, because His humanity remains at the right hand of the Father until His second coming. The ultimate purpose of the Lord’s Supper is that it unites us with the Lord. 

How do Reformed Christians understand the Lord’s Supper? How is the Reformed understanding different from what Evangelicals and Lutherans believe? Do we believe in the true presence of Christ in the Supper? In this post, I will be drawing a great deal from the Reformed Confessions and John Calvin, as I seek to articulate the Reformed view of the Lord’s Supper.
The First Lord’s Supper
“When [Jesus] had given thanks, he broke [the bread], and said, “This is my body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”
1 Corinthians 11:24–25
On the night Jesus was betrayed, he gathered with His disciples to celebrate the Jewish Passover. This was a sacrament of the Old Testament that celebrated Israel being saved from the angel of death and the tyranny of Egypt. Jesus took the Passover elements of bread and wine and instituted the Lord’s Supper. The original Passover found its ultimate fulfillment in the sacrifice of the lamb of God—Jesus Christ.
Why was the Lord’s Supper Instituted?
Why was the Lord’s Supper instituted? It was to “nourish and support those whom” God “has already regenerated and incorporated into His family, which is His Church.”
Just as God gives us natural food for our natural life, He also gives us spiritual food for our spiritual life. He “has sent a living bread, which descended from heaven…Jesus Christ, who nourishes and strengthens the spiritual life of believers when they eat Him, that is to say, when they appropriate and receive Him by faith in the spirit” (Belgic Confession, Article 35).
Because we’re still frail and weak human beings, Jesus provided tangible earthly elements to teach and reassure us “that, as certainly as we receive and hold this sacrament in our hands and eat and drink the same with our mouths…we also do as certainly receive by faith (which is the hand and mouth of our soul) the true body and blood of Christ our only Savior in our souls, for the support of our spiritual life” (Article 35).
The Real Presence of Christ
Unlike the majority of Evangelicals, Reformed Christians believe in the true presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper. It’s more than a commemorative memorial meal. Paul says, “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? (1 Cor 10:16).
In a way, that’s mysterious; there’s a true communion with Christ in the Lord’s Supper. Herman Bavinck said, “The Lord’s Supper is above all a gift of God, not our memorial and confession. The Lord’s Supper signifies the mystical union of the believer with Jesus Christ.”
As Reformed Christians, we can even say that we feed on Christ in the Lord’s Supper, if we understand it like this: “what is eaten and drunk by us is the proper and natural body and the proper blood of Christ. But the manner of our partaking of the same is not by the mouth, but by the spirit through faith” (Belgic, Article 35).
Like Lutherans, Reformed Christians believe in the true and real presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper. Calvin taught that “Nothing is more absurd than to call that a sacrament which is void and does not really present to us that which it signifies.” The question comes down to not IF Christ is present, but HOW He is.
While Martin Luther staunchly taught “is means IS,” the Reformed position is that “This is my body” should be taken in the same way Jesus said He is “the door,” or in the same way He is “the good shepherd” and “the vine.”
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A Concise Case For Reformed Infant Baptism

In Acts 2:39, Peter assures the Jewish people of the unity of the Abrahamic promise and the gospel. With echoes of Genesis 17:7, he declares, “the promise is for you and for your children.” It is no accident that Peter used this phrase, since it shows the cohesiveness and unity of the covenant of grace.

Are you interested in attending a Presbyterian or Reformed church, but you just haven’t been able to be convinced of the validity of infant baptism? If so, this post is especially for you.
The first thing to keep in mind in this: In Reformed theology, our belief in infant baptism doesn’t come from isolated Bible proof texts, but by considering Scripture as an organic whole.
In this post, I’ve tried to refine down the most concise and compelling case for Reformed infant baptism. Many of these ideas are influenced by Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics and Louis Berkhof’s Systematic Theology.
What is Christian baptism?
First, what is Christian baptism? In paraphrasing the Belgic Confession (Article 29), baptism is a sign that marks us as belonging to God and to His church (compare Exodus 12:48 with 1 Peter 2:9). It serves as His pledge to forever be our God, and the God of our children (Genesis 17:7). It also serves in the place of circumcision as the sign and seal of the righteousness of faith (compare Romans 4:11 and Colossians 2:11).
Baptism signifies that similar to the way water washes and cleans our body from dirt (1 Peter 3:21), the blood of Christ—by the power of the Holy Spirit—also internally cleanses the soul of sin and regenerates us and makes us pure in His sight (Hebrews 9:14). The promise of the gospel, which is sealed by baptism, is for us and our children (Acts 2:39).
Reasons for Infant Baptism
With this understanding of baptism, what is the strongest case for infant baptism?  It’s ultimately built on three foundational pillars:
First, the children of believers are members of the covenant of grace.
They are members of the visible covenant community. God promised Abraham that He would be God to us and our children (Genesis 17:7). God’s promise was never cancelled; it was fulfilled in Christ (Galatians 3:16). All those who have faith in Jesus Christ are the true sons of Abraham (Galatians 3:7).
Second, baptism has replaced circumcision as the sign and seal of the covenant.
When Abraham believed God, God gave him the sign of circumcision, as it was “a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith” (Romans 4:14). One must note that it was not related to Abraham being an ethnic Jew since Israel did not yet exist.
This is why Calvin could say, “Christ…accomplishes in us spiritual circumcision, not through means of that ancient sign…but by baptism” (Commentary on Colossians 2:8).
Berkhof also concurred that, “The covenant made with Abraham was primarily a spiritual covenant.”
We can see from these statements that baptism is the Christian equivalent to Jewish circumcision. Paul calls baptism the “circumcision of Christ” (Colossians 2:11). This is why believers are no longer circumcised. Baptism has replaced circumcision as the sign and seal of the covenant of grace.
Thirdly, in the covenant of grace, the Old and New Testaments comprise one organic whole.
The Abrahamic promise (the beginning of the covenant of grace) is described as an “everlasting” covenant (Genesis 17:7). It is distinct from the Mosaic Law, which came 430 years later (Galatians 3:17). It was not annulled but came to fruition in Christ during the New Testament (Galatians 3:14).
Paul even calls the promise of the Abrahamic covenant “the gospel” (Galatians 3:8). He points Christians to Abraham as the paradigm of our faith, saying that Abraham is the father of us all (Romans 4:16).

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A Reformation Story

I realized that I was a sinner and needed to repent from my sin and trust in Christ alone for my salvation (I later learned the three elements of saving faith are: knowledge about Jesus, intellectual assent that the gospel is true, and entrusting ourselves to Christ for salvation). Because of the new life God breathed into me, I truly felt “born again” and like a new creation. I found that I genuinely desired to live a life of obedience out of gratitude.

Have you ever come to a significant fork in the road of your life and felt your very destiny, and the destiny of those you love, could be forever altered? A situation in which, as Morpheus said in The Matrix:
You take the blue pill, the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.
All of us have a story, but not all have a “Reformation” story.  Here’s mine: I was baptized as an infant and was raised in the American Lutheran Church, which later became a part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). This was the more liberal branch, so I had both male and female pastors.
I went through my First Communion and then Confirmation, and what still frustrates me to this day is, I don’t remember ever actually being taught what the gospel was. Admittedly, I did learn about the historical facts (the Apostles and Nicene Creeds), but I never heard about the imputed righteousness of Christ or justification by faith alone. Ironically, in a church named after Martin Luther, I wasn’t taught the two concepts that formed the foundation of his theology!
I remember during a confirmation class, I asked one of the pastors if “good people” in different religions were going to be in heaven. Her reply: “There are many ways to God, but Christianity is the most direct path.” I look back on this as a cataclysmic moment.  If all paths ultimately lead to God, why not forge my own path?  That’s exactly what I did for the next decade.
Post Tenebras Lux: After Darkness, Light
God was gracious enough to place Christian co-workers around me. They challenged my claim that I was a Christian. Even my then-fiancée told me that if there was one thing she could change about me, it would be that I would become a Christian. Since Confirmation, I firmly believed all I had to do was intellectually “believe” in Jesus and I would be saved. He was one of the many roads to God.
My co-workers pointed out James 2:19 in which James says that, “even the demons believe, and shudder.”
The Holy Spirit illuminated my mind as I read these passages.  It was as if a light bulb went on.  I was able for the first time to understand, and care, what the Bible was saying. I realized that I was a sinner and needed to repent from my sin and trust in Christ alone for my salvation (I later learned the three elements of saving faith are: knowledge about Jesus, intellectual assent that the gospel is true, and entrusting ourselves to Christ for salvation).One night after work, I went out and bought a Bible. I was determined to prove to myself and others that I was a Christian. After reading the Gospel of John and Romans, I realized becoming a Christian involved more than just intellectually believing in Christ.
Because of the new life God breathed into me, I truly felt “born again” and like a new creation. I found that I genuinely desired to live a life of obedience out of gratitude.
Journey to Geneva
When the gospel took root in my life, I decided to return to the Lutheran church.  I was delighted to find the Missouri Synod was committed to the inerrancy of Scripture.
Our first-born son was baptized in the Lutheran church.  So, metaphorically speaking, it was from Wittenberg that my small family began our journey to Geneva.
As I grew in my faith, I found how life transforming the Scriptures were.  The concept of grace permeated to the core of my being.
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