“Third use of the law” versus antinomianism

Antinomianism seems to have taken a stronghold in some Christian circles. Antinomianism drives the social-gospel movement and it fears that Christians have become indifferent to ethical issues. It seeks to bring about God’s kingdom on earth through social action. It teaches that the love of Christ must constrain the Christian and that we can experience and manifest this love if we have come into a saving relationship with Christ who “first loved us” (1 John 4:19) and gave himself for us on the cross (1 Pet. 2:24). The motivation of love is the only thing that seems to distinguish between a Christian ethic and the non-Christian. It assumes that if the Christian has experienced God’s love, one is in a position to makes decisions in one’s world based on this love. In other words, one is free to choose to love. Thus, antinomianism stands on the fringe of saying that “anything goes” because each existential decision is unique and without precedent. However, I do not believe it has the answers to help us make existential decisions in life.

The Lutheran Confessions teach that the law has three functions: 1) the political (as a restraint for the wicked); 2) the theological (as a paidagogos to bring us to Christ—Gal. 3:24); and 3) the didactic (as a guide for the regenerate). This Third Use of the Law can be thought of as God’s merciful help in the performance of the works which are commanded. The first two uses of the law are generally undisputed by all Christians. However, the Third Use of the Law is disputed by some Christians of antinomian persuasion today. They purport that the law should not be used to guide the regenerate person. They argue that it is only love that guides them. They believe that love is enough. But is love really enough? My answer is: “No, love is not enough.”

I myself believe that they third use of the law is necessary in the Christian’s life. This is state in the Lutheran Formula of Concord (Art. VI) and also in Calvin’s Institutes (II,vii, 12 ff). Luther most valued the first use of the law but Calvin placed emphasis on this third use of the law. Nevertheless, this third use of the law is a threefold concept in the church of the Reformation. I would argue that Christians, filled with the love of Christ and empowered by the Spirit, still need the law to teach us. One should ask the question: even though love motivates us to make ethical decisions and actions, does it necessarily inform the Christian of the proper content of that action?

Horatius Bonar writes in God’s Way of Holiness:

But will they tell us what is to regulate service, if not law? Love, they say. This is a pure fallacy. Love is not a rule, but a motive. Love does not tell me what to do; it tells me how to do it. Love constrains me to do the will of the beloved one; but to know what the will is, I must go elsewhere. The law of our God is the will of the beloved one, and were that expression of his will withdrawn, love would be utterly in the dark; it would not know what to do. It might say, I love my Master, and I love his service, and I want to do his bidding, but I must know the rules of his house, that I may know how to serve him. Love without law to guide its impulses would be the parent of will-worship and confusion, as surely as terror and self-righteousness, unless upon the supposition of an inward miraculous illumination, as an equivalent for law. Love goes to the law to learn the divine will, and love delights in the law, as the exponent of that will; and he who says that a believing man has nothing more to do with law, save to shun it as an old enemy, might as well say that he has nothing to do with the will of God. For the divine law and the divine will are substantially one, the former the outward manifestation of the latter. And it is “the will of our Father which is in heaven” that we are to do (Matt. 7:21); 50 proving by loving obedience what is that “good and acceptable, and perfect will of God” (Rom. 12:2). Yes, it is he that doeth “the will of God that abideth forever” (1 John 2:17); it is to “the will of God” that we are to live (1 Peter 4:2); “made perfect in every good work to do his will” (Heb. 13:21); and “fruitfulness in every good work,” springs from being “filled with the knowledge of his will” (Col. 1:9,10).

Futhermore, this doctrine of the Third Use of the Law also preserves the doctrine of sanctification. As a result of justification, a person receives the Spirit of God, therefore, one’s relation to the law is also changed. Yes, one does remain a sinner (1 John 1:8), therefore, the law will always accuse him; however, one will begin to see the biblical law as the manifestation of God’s loving will and will delight in the law of the Lord. This Third Use of the Law (the law of Christ—Gal.6:2) helps us to take regeneration seriously. I support the Third Use of the Law in the Christian life and do not believe that antinomianism has the answer. I do not believe that “love is enough” for the Christian. Love is a motivator but does not give us answers. We still need the law to guide us.

One thought on ““Third use of the law” versus antinomianism

  1. Hello, I stumbled across your blog post via the serendipitous ways of Google and I feel compelled to quickly refute a few a your claims.

    First, it appears you’re completely misunderstanding the notion of “antinomianism”. In fact, your initial description reads as if you mixed up both arguments entirely. If anything, “The third use of the law” would encourage the so-called “social action” you apparently despise because the Third Use INHERENTLY encourages a rediscovery of the same Legalism condemned by Paul in Galatians and Romans.

    And the thing is, it doesn’t even require a heady theological discussion to prove it–just ask ANY Christian of ANY denomination “What if I told you that because Christ died on the Cross you are now free from the Law entirely”and nobody and I mean NOBODY responds with “Well, I guess that means I’m free to share with others the love Christ has shared with me”. In fact, they almost always assume the opposite–that the statement gives them permission to do as much sinning as they want. That’s because most Christians understand SIN quantitatively and not qualitatively (as it is described in the Gospel)–as if at the end of the day you could tally up your sins and a good day meant less sins than the day before–completely missing the fact that SIN is a quality of humanity. We are SINFUL, and it’s rooted in our hearts (just thinking about sinning is sin itself, remember? Not to mention THE FALL).

    You see, in contrast to the definition you intimated, Antinomianism, if ANYTHING, is the exact opposite of Pelagianism–the same doctrine that, like the Third Use, assumed Sanctification could be attained through human free will.

    You really have got to distinguish between CALVIN’s Third Use and the wise words of Luther. If you have any doubts then just check out the Heidelberg Disputation–Gerhard Forde has a great book on the subject. Or his commentary on Galatians or scores of other treatises. But it’s all right there in the THEOLOGY OF THE CROSS.

    Lastly, your final remarks are most upsetting: if you can’t have faith in Love then how can you even be a Christian? Have you forgotten that “God IS Love”? Can you not see that in the Bible and in theological treatises and, hell, even in your everyday life that the only thing that can ever save our corrupt, fractured, self-righteous humanity is LOVE??

    The law slays; Sola Gratia, dude.



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