Can I Save Myself by the “Third Use of the Law?”

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In these blog postings, we have seen that we were completely addicted to the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil by eating it ”in Adam,” in the Garden of Eden at the Fall. As a result, everything we do, think, understand and learn, we visualize in terms of “is this a good thing or is it a bad thing,” and we have done so since we came out of the womb. We are completely unaware that this is not how God designed for us to live! 

Martin Luther’s insight into God’s solution to the Fall at the cross awakened the slumbering church to the results of our universal addiction, but solving the addiction itself, particularly after Luther’s death, has proven to be much more elusive. 

Make no mistake, the Reformation that followed Luther changed the world, one reason being because John Calvin, considered to be “the Theologian of the Reformation,” made Luther’s thought consumable to the world. I believe Calvin to be one of the greatest theologians of all time, if not the greatest. My son’s anti-Christian college professor said, not favorably: “George Washington was not ‘the Father of America’—it was John Calvin.” 

In his writings (Institutes 2.vii.6-12) Calvin discusses in detail the “Threefold Use of the Law.” In this section, he details the importance of us understanding the way God uses His law in our lives. I believe that two of these are biblical and very necessary today; the third one is not. I believe it is an unconscious attempt to convince me that I still must “do something” to save (sanctify) myself. 

However, God acted decisively at the cross to prevent me from doing anything whatsoever to save myself. There is absolutely nothing I can do, because I have been “…crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith (alone) in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Galatians 2:20. Paul is saying that what you see my body doing is not really me doing it at all; it is Christ in me at work, naturally, spontaneously, and unconsciously!

I want to investigate all three of these uses of the law in our lives today in this posting, and, as I do, the initial definition of each is mine; following it in parentheses is Calvin’s.

1. External Use of the Law (Civil Use). The first use of the law is to keep order in the family and in the public square. This is the role of parents, teachers, employers, law enforcement, and anyone else who carries legitimate authority—to punish law-breakers and protect law-keepers. This external use of biblical civil law is for both Christians and non-Christians, who are all treated equally by the authorities to which they answer (Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-17). 

We are said to be “kept under guard by the law, kept for the faith which would afterward be revealed” (Galatians 3:23). The external use of the law fences us in until God captures us and gives us His Spirit (or, “until faith comes”) and we no longer need external fences because the Spirit is now living through us!

2. Internal Use of the Law (Pedagogical Use). While the external use of the law has nothing to do with our relationship with God, who is above us, and only with activities in the world beneath us, the internal use deals only with our relationship with God. “Therefore the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But AFTER FAITH HAS COME, we are no longer under a tutor” (Galatians 3:24, 25). 

In ancient Rome, the “tutor” (Gk. – “child conductor”  or “guide”) was a trusted Greek slave whose whole job it was to insure that the Roman child’s behavior was controlled as he made it safely each day to the teacher, who was entrusted, not only with his education, but also making sure he was absorbing the customs and life-style of his father.  

Also, James uses the illustration of the law as a mirror that exposes our sin (James 1:23, 24). The law does not clean us up like a scrub brush; it exposes our dirty faces like a mirror!

The belief in Jesus as our Savior, that will hopefully result from God using His law in our lives in this internal way, cannot be demanded. Parents can’t make their children Christians in their hearts. They can teach, pray for, protect, encourage, discipline, etc, but never force belief. “You (or your parents) did not choose Me, but I chose you” (John 15:16).

3. Third Use of the Law (Normative Use)  I see this as a classic example of the often automatic (and I believe fallacious) view of salvation, taught in many churches today: Justification (is by faith alone)—I can do nothing whatsoever to save myself; Glorification (is by faith alone)—I can do nothing to resurrect my dead body and give myself a new glorified one; Sanctification (is by faith AND works)—I must do good works in order to make myself righteous in my experience. 

Here are Calvin’s words from the above reference in Institutes that corroborate his belief in this view of the “third use of the law:”

“In this way must the saints press onward, since, however great the alacrity with which, under the Spirit, they hasten toward righteousness, they are retarded by the sluggishness of the flesh, and make less progress than they ought. 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.”

My wife Jill’s response to hearing this was, “If it’s true, this shivers my timbers, and I quit! I’ve tried that all my life, unsuccessfully.”

Next week: the “straw that stirs the drink” that renders the third use of the law not only irrelevant, but an obvious, huge, main-line hit of the “good and evil” drug.

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