The Forgotten Use of the Law

It’s old news that the famous “three uses” to which God puts the law (a curb that restrains sin, a mirror that reveals the depth of our guilt, and a guide by which Christians live) have become very controversial among contemporary Lutherans. This oddity is despite the fact that these uses are included in the explanation of the Small Catechism and thus part of how every Lutheran is taught the Faith.

One side of it focuses almost exclusively on Second Use. They drive home how the law reveals our sin and therefore our need for the Gospel. At the same time, they tend to be highly dubious of any preacher who might proclaim the law in a way that implies any expectation that a Christian might actually change their behavior and follow it. In practice, they really only acknowledge one use of the law. The other side, in contrast, argues that Third Use really needs to be recognized alongside Second. Christians need to be and want to be instructed on how to live God-pleasing lives. After all, though each of us is simultaneously a saint who does not sin and a sinner who does nothing but sin, the saint is still human and is therefore still the kind of being that needs instruction—we must not be Saint/Sinner Nestorians. Adam was perfect, but God still told him what to do and what not to do.

This leads us to the second oddity of this debate: there’s a fight over the three uses of the law between a side that only talks about one use and a side that only talks about two. Whatever happened to the First Use of the law—outwardly restraining our wicked deeds? When God uses the law in this fashion, it does not make us better people, but it does limit our capacities and restrain our tendencies to blatantly harm our neighbors in overt ways. While it may not lead to the Gospel or even proceed from the Gospel, this is still nothing to sneeze at. God calls many of us to live on this Earth for a good many years; all other things being equal, this is a better experience when we’re not being constantly raped, beaten, and robbed by everyone we meet.

Perhaps First Use gets overlooked by Christians because it is often called the “civil use” of the Law. We see the government punish murderers, penalize thieves, & so forth, and we think that this is the essence of restraining sin. Because of this, its treated as a concern for government officials, but not for Christians unless they also happen to be government officials. We think it’s simply not our problem, and so we leave it by the wayside for police, judges, and maybe public schools to pick up. It’s their job to stop people from blatantly hurting each other.

Perhaps the most obvious problem with our nonchalance is this: Where exactly are all these civil authorities going to learn what the word “harm” means? It’s an odd question, but a very pertinent one. After all, it wasn’t too long ago that we knew entrusting children to sexual deviants would harm them. Now, refusing to do so is deemed “harmful” to the deviants. Does abortion harm the children that it kills or does acting like the mothers they are harm those children’s would-be killers? Does letting children walk to the local park on their own harm them more than taking away their parents? These are not difficult questions, and yet American civil authorities get them wrong with an ever-increasing consistency.

And so, we must seriously ponder how our civil authorities will learn the difference between good and evil—between helping and hurting. From America’s longstanding civil traditions and cultural roots? Unfortunately, we’ve been throwing those under the bus for quite some time now—we thought they were just too darn restrictive. Most of our culture has simply latched onto some version of “follow your heart,” even as we cluck our tongues about all the increasingly nasty things everyone’s hearts are telling them to do.

Well, if our traditions are a bust, then perhaps the law written on our heart can shed some light on the situation. It can, but as J. Budziszewski has repeatedly shown, natural law doesn’t just do that by virtue of its mere existence. Those who are unwilling to look at it or unable to mentally process it can just as easily be driven by their consciences to greater depravity. Appealing to natural law in a culture who no longer admits its existence takes a certain level of skill and expertise, and the most applicable developments in that area of philosophy are being undertaken specifically by Christians whose natural knowledge is reinforced by special revelation. Our nation simply needs well-catechized Christians to rebuild its moral sensibility.

The other problem with our relegation of First Use to the civil authorities is that it overlooks the fact that almost every adult Christian is a civil authority in one way or another. It’s particularly sad that Lutherans would arrive at such a mistaken conclusion given how it ignores our rather helpful theology of vocation. Most obviously, fathers and mothers have a responsibility to civilize their own children by deliberately restraining their wickedness. In addition, America spreads some of her civil authority among the population—Christians are usually voters and so must have sufficient understanding of right and wrong to vote well. There is also a fact of polity that we tend to forget—peer pressure is very real and by design. When we share our views on morality, when we react with disgust to disgusting things or embarrassment to shameful things, when we openly disapprove of inappropriate behavior… in all these cases we are subtly restraining the wickedness of our neighbors.

The ways in Christians participate in the restraint of open wickedness are manifold. When Christians are inadequately catechized in the moral law—when First Use fails to even show up on our radar—we become unable to carry out those roles well and our neighbors suffer as a result.

And yes, as I’ve written before, the three uses of the law are God’s uses, not ours. Preachers and teachers do not get to choose whether someone is restrained, convicted, or instructed when they proclaim the law. Nevertheless, one who understands the law too narrowly cannot preach that same law very well. Pastors who only accept Second Use tend to gloss over any part of the law which they don’t think serves that purpose terribly well. They do not, for example, spend much time on specifics, but keep everything vague and generic so that all will be equally convicted. Furthermore, they tend to spin those parts of the law that they do teach instead of teaching them straightforwardly. For example, if they ever mention adultery at all, it is to remind their hearers that all have broken the Sixth Commandment by lusting in our hearts, and never to pass on the Apostles’ frequent practical warnings to stay as far away from all sexual sin as possible. In other words, their narrow view of law ends up obscuring parts of God’s word rather than shining all of it forth brightly.

In the same way, teachers who never consider First Use are going to be deficient in their instruction. They might bring up adultery as a reminder of our own sins, and avoiding sexual sin as a path to personal piety, but never portray chastity as an expectation that parents should have of their children, that the unmarried should have of prospective spouses, that Christians should have of each other, and so forth. When those expectations are never cultivated, then the customs and lifestyles that ultimately fulfill those expectations are never considered or developed. To continue using chastity as an example, if parents never expect chastity from their children, then they will never question participating in our culture’s coupling practices—the ones that are essentially designed to promote fornication. As Americans, we are already hyper-individualists, and forgetting first use is another hurdle that impedes the moral law from being understood corporately and not just personally.

It is well that Lutherans are beginning to once again admit the existence of Third Use. Nevertheless, for the sake of our neighbors, we cannot stop there. If we are to understand the law well, then we must be cognizant of all three uses—not just of our favorites. Though we are not of the world and our hope does not lie here, the Church does have a role to play in civilization, and we need to step back into it. It is the work of the Church to proclaim the law in its fullest; it is the work of God to bring blessings out of that work. We cannot carry out our work well as long as we study the law through too narrow of a lens and proclaim it through a man-made filter.

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