The Art of Making Distinctions – Three Uses of the Law

Lent 3 Midweek
Romans 7:7-25
March 29, 2017
Trinity Lutheran Church—New Haven, MO

Three Uses of the Law

In the name of + Jesus.

Our first major distinction during this Lenten season was the distinction of Law and Gospel. The Law, we determined, was God’s Word of command, and in distinction to the Gospel, the Law reveals sin. It’s the necessary speech of God because of our fallen and corrupt nature. But we can also further distinguish the Law by three uses. This does not mean that there are three separate laws for separate occasions. The Law of God is one Law, because the Law of God is simply an expression of His unchanging will, but it operates and functions differently in different contexts. Furthermore, while these contexts are always distinct, they are not always mutually exclusive. The Law functions in three ways, but often it is functioning in more than one way at any given time.

The three uses, or functions, of the Law are illustrated by a curb, mirror, and guide. But while we focus on a distinction within the Law of God, we shouldn’t let our distinction of Law and Gospel disintegrate. We are never in danger of losing the Law, but we are always in danger of losing the Gospel. So we will also recognize a corresponding “use” of the Gospel for each of the uses of the Law. So, the Law is a curb, a mirror, and a guide. Thus,

The Law Curbs Our Base Desires, Mirrors the Depth of Our Sin, and Guides Us toward a Sanctified Life, But Its Work Is Incomplete Without the Gospel


The first function of the Law is its curbing function. This is a universal working of the Law, which is to say you don’t have to be a Christian for it to function on you. Just as a curb on the side of the road keeps your car from careening off into a ditch, so the Law of God curbs sinful behavior and our base desires.

This use is necessary because of sin. By nature, our desires are so corrupted that we are all capable of the most horrendous offenses. When we see the news report of a gruesome murder, or when we are viciously betrayed by a former friend, when people utter all manner of insulting and hurtful things about us, we wonder how that can happen. But we will continue to deceive ourselves until we realize that every heinous sin we know about, we are capable of doing. The kernel of those offenses also resides in each of our hearts.

It’s only the curbing of the Law that keeps those kernels from popping up in full-blown depravity. On one level, the Law curbs sin by fear of punishment. You know that murder carries a stiff punishment, so that the very least, to avoid punishment, you don’t commit murder. On another level, the curbing nature of the Law is a result of the Law begin written on the hearts of all people. There is a general sense that if everyone was allowed to do their heart’s desire, we would soon devolve into anarchy. So there has to be some broad preventative.

But just as car is able to hop a curb and end up in the ditch anyway, the curbing function of the Law is limited. People overcome the fear of punishment or decide anarchy would be better than what they currently have, and simply do whatever they please. So the curbing function of the Law is imperfect, and it certainly does not provide salvation. Its strongest application is the penalty of death.


The second use of the Law is its mirroring function. Like a mirror reflecting an image back to use, the Law is for self-examination. But it’s not to gaze at your own beauty. Rather, the Law reveals the depth of our sin.

The mirror of the Law is its theological function. It condemns sin. When you look at a commandment, say, You shall not murder, you will automatically start judging yourself. “Well, I haven’t murdered anyone,” you think. “Check!” But if you spend a little longer looking into the mirror, you’ll start to realize the imperfections, the blemishes, the ugliness that resides just below the surface. Jesus amplifies the Law’s reflection and says that even if you’ve called someone a name, you’re guilty of murder.

This is a hammer of judgment, that breaks the rock to pieces. If you do not deceive yourself and lie to yourself, every commandment should reveal you to be the worst sinner in the world. Too often, though, in our deception, we hold the mirror the opposite way to tell our neighbors how sinful they are when we should be looking at it ourselves.

But that doesn’t mean that we are always looking directly at ourselves in the mirror. If you tilt it ever so slightly, the mirror will still show yourself, but it shows you that you also live in a fallen and broken world. It shows you terrorist bombings, and human trafficking, and corporate greed, and the people who berate you and gossip about you and lie about you. It is a mirror of existence.

This function of the Law should drive you to repentance. If you believe what the Scriptures say concerning the world around you and your own sinful nature, you should despair of any of your own claims to justification. This is the theological function of the Law because it should always drive you to God to find forgiveness, salvation, and life in Him, which He offers in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.


The third use of the Law is the one that generally gets labeled as such. It’s the guiding function of the Law. Guide is perhaps not the best word for it, maybe rule or standard would be better. It’s a way of saying that the Law functions as the measure of a good work. So in addition to the first two functions, the Law also guides us toward a sanctified life.

Several caveats, however. First of all, to say that the Law guides us to a sanctified life doesn’t imply that it has the power to provide the sanctified life. If the Law remains alone, then it has no power to cause us to do what it demands. Only the Gospel provides the power to do with the Law expects us to do.

Second, the third use of the Law doesn’t make a Law on top of the Law. That is to say that it doesn’t define Christian works over and above normal, everyday good works done in vocation. In fact, the third use is to prevent that. By nature we are law-oriented creatures because of the Law written on the heart. But the corruption of our nature means that we often will invent laws which we can keep in order to prove our righteousness. That was the monastic project—set your own bar and justify yourself. The third use of the Law maintains that God defines a good work.

Third, the third use is sometimes thought of as a positive, or friendly use of the Law, that after becoming a Christian, the Law becomes benevolent. Wrong. On account of the sin that still remains after conversion, the Law still functions negatively in its third use as well. It restrains the old nature in order to allow the new nature to come forth.

This is what Paul writes about in the seventh chapter of Romans. The Gospel doesn’t eliminate the Law. Jesus isn’t a free pass to sin more in order to get more forgiveness. The Law remains because we still sin. In a sense, the third use is like the first use for the Christian, only with sharper definition.

There is a tension in the life of a Christian because we are at the same time sinners and righteous. Christian life has a rhythm of repentance and forgiveness that is always held in tension between the Law in all its uses and the Gospel. The Law is always on account of our sin; the Gospel is always on account of Christ. Both are necessary for a Christian every day of his or her life. It’s how God brings about a good life, a sanctified life.


Finally, the Law in any of its uses is always a penultimate Word; it is always answered by the Gospel. And the Gospel answers in three different ways.

The first use of the Law is a general use of the Law for everyone. Similarly, there is a kind of Gospel that is general and for everyone. It corresponds to the grace of God given in the First Article of the Creed. He makes the rain fall on the just as well as the unjust. He gives daily bread to all people, even to all evil people. This kind of prevenient grace sustains the world, but just as the Law’s first use is imperfect and broad, the grace of the First Article is broad and limited to this life. It is not grace for eternal salvation. Yet it is God’s good grace all the same.

Second, and most familiar, is the specific answer of Jesus Christ to the Law’s condemnation of sin—Christ died, you are forgiven for His sake. Trust in Him alone. This is salvific grace, something entirely apart from works.

And third, in answer to the Law’s expectations of good works and a sanctified life, the grace of the Third Article comes through worship. By Word, Baptism, Supper, the Holy Spirit is given to accomplish the Law’s demands. This work is yet imperfect in this life because of sin, but by the daily rhythm of repentance and forgiveness, the Spirit moves us by grace toward the fulfillment of the promise.

In the name of + Jesus.

Jacob W Ehrhard