John Calvin (1509-1564) on the three uses of the Law

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Gospel and Law in Reformed theology form two distinct but inseparable aspects of the one revelation of God. The Reformed way of relating gospel and law is often used to distinguish Reformed theology from Lutheran theology. For Martin Luther (1483-1546), even though gospel and law are both considered part of the one Word of God, the chief task of the theologian is to refine one’s ability to distinguish law from gospel, letter from spirit, works from faith. While the Reformed recognize the importance of these distinctions, especially in covenant theology with its unfolding of the historical economy of the covenant of works and the covenant of grace, the Reformed were more concerned to comprehend the law as a positive form of God’s grace. The sentiment from Psalm 19 – that the law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul, making the simple wise – is a foundational conviction of Reformed piety. The rigour of the law, including its ceremonial prescriptions under the Old Testament dispensation, has been removed as a result of the gospel of Christ. But the gospel indicative, the liberation Christ has achieved for sinful humanity, creates an ethical imperative that includes obedience to God’s commandments.

This is nowhere better illustrated than in John Calvin’s (1509-1564) teaching on the “three uses of the law.” The first use is the theological use whereby the law convicts us of sin. For Luther, this was the law’s primary, although not exclusive, function. The second use, also affirmed by Luther, is the civil use according to which the law restrains social evil. The third use of the law is that by which believers are instructed in living unto righteousness out of gratitude for the grace they have received from the Lord. There are hints of this in Luther, and Luther’s successor Philipp Melanchthon (1497-1560) is responsible for bringing it to the fore in the 16th century theological discussion. But for the Reformed, the third use is the primary use of the law; and this is an affirmation difficult for any good Lutheran to make. This is what Calvin had to say:

“That the whole matter may be made clearer, let us take a succinct view of the office and use of the Moral Law. Now this office and use seems to me to consist of three parts. 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 [informs], convicts, and finally condemns him. This is necessary, in order that man, who is blind and intoxicated with self-love, may be brought at once to know and to confess his weakness and impurity…

Thus the Law is a kind of mirror. As in a mirror we discover any stains upon our face, so in the Law we behold, first, our impotence; then, in consequence of it, our iniquity; and, finally, the curse, as the consequence of both. He who has no power of following righteousness is necessarily plunged in the mire of iniquity, and this iniquity is immediately followed by the curse. Accordingly, the greater the transgression of which the Law convicts us, the severer the judgment to which we are exposed…

But while the unrighteousness and condemnation of all are attested by the law, it does not follow (if we make the proper use of it) that we are immediately to give up all hope and rush headlong on despair. No doubt, it has some such effect upon the reprobate, but this is owing to their obstinacy. With the children of God the effect is different. The Apostle testifies that the law pronounces its sentence of condemnation in order ‘that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God,’ (Rom. 3:19). In another place, however, the same Apostle declares, that ‘God has concluded them all in unbelief;’ not that he might destroy all, or allow all to perish, but that ‘he might have mercy upon all,’ (Rom. 11:32); in other words, that divesting themselves of an absurd opinion of their own virtue, they may perceive how they are wholly dependent on the hand of God; that feeling how naked and destitute they are, they may take refuge in his mercy, rely upon it, and cover themselves up entirely with it; renouncing all righteousness and merit, and clinging to mercy…

But even in the reprobate themselves, this first office of the law is not altogether wanting. They do not, indeed, proceed so far with the children of God as, after the flesh is cast down, to be renewed in the inner man, and revive again, but stunned by the first terror, give way to despair. Still it tends to manifest the equity of the Divine judgment, when their consciences are thus heaved upon the waves. They would always willingly carp at the judgment of God; but now, though that judgment is not manifested, still the alarm produced by the testimony of the law and of their conscience bespeaks their deserts…

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. Such persons are curbed not because their mind is inwardly moved and affected, but because, as if a bridle were laid upon them, they refrain their hands from external acts, and internally check the depravity which would otherwise petulantly burst forth. It is true, they are not on this account either better or more righteous in the sight of God. For although restrained by terror or shame, they dare not proceed to what their mind has conceived, nor give full license to their raging lust, their heart is by no means trained to fear and obedience. Nay, the more they restrain themselves, the more they are inflamed, the more they rage and boil, prepared for any act or outbreak whatsoever were it not for the terror of the law. And not only so, but they thoroughly detest the law itself, and execrate the Lawgiver; so that if they could, they would most willingly annihilate him, because they cannot bear either his ordering what is right, or his avenging the despisers of his Majesty. The feeling of all who are not yet regenerate, though in some more, in others less lively, is, that in regard to the observance of the law, they are not led by voluntary submission, but dragged by the force of fear. Nevertheless, this forced and extorted righteousness is necessary for the good of society, its peace being secured by a provision but for which all things would be thrown into tumult and confusion…

To both may be applied the declaration of the Apostle in another place, that ‘The law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ,’ (Gal. 3:24); since there are two classes of persons, whom by its training it leads to Christ. Some (of whom we spoke in the first place), from excessive confidence in their own virtue or righteousness, are unfit to receive the grace of Christ, until they are completely humbled. This the law does by making them sensible of their misery, and so disposing them to long for what they previously imagined they did not want. Others have need of a bridle to restrain them from giving full scope to their passions, and thereby utterly losing all desire after righteousness… 

The third use of the Law (being also the principal use, and more closely connected with its proper end) has respect to believers in whose hearts the Spirit of God already flourishes and reigns. For although the Law is written and engraven on their hearts by the finger of God, that is, although they are so influenced and actuated by the Spirit, that they desire to obey God, there are two ways in which they still profit in the Law. For it is the best instrument for enabling them daily to learn with greater truth and certainty what that will of the Lord is which they aspire to follow, and to confirm them in this knowledge; just as a servant who desires with all his soul to approve himself to his master, must still observe, and be careful to ascertain his master’s dispositions, that he may comport himself in accommodation to them. Let none of us deem ourselves exempt from this necessity, for none have as yet attained to such a degree of wisdom, as that they may not, by the daily instruction of the Law, advance to a purer knowledge of the Divine will. Then, because we need not doctrine merely, but exhortation also, the servant of God will derive this further advantage from the Law: by frequently meditating upon it, he will be excited to obedience, and confirmed in it, and so drawn away from the slippery paths of sin. 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.”

– John Calvin (1509-1564), Institutes of the Christian Religion, II.vii.6-12