Friday, February 03, 2006

Lutherans and the Third Use of the Law

Last night, my lecture in Reformation and Modern Church History was on the process of German Lutheran Confessionalization in the 16th century. One of the things that I discovered in my reading and research for the lecture was that the common Reformed (and in many quarters, Lutheran) claim that Lutherans deny "the third use of the law" is completely wrong. In fact, it is the exact opposite.

[For those who don't know what the third use of the law is--Reformation thinkers have claimed that the moral law has three uses--it reveals and condemns sin, points to Christ, and provides a guide or norm for the Christian life. This last use is the "third use of the law."]

In the Formula of Concord, article 6 (1577), Lutherans confess, "We believe, teach, and confess that the proclamation of the law is to be diligently impressed not only upon unbelievers and the unrepentant but also upon those who believe in Christ and are truly converted, reborn, and justified by faith."

In that same article, they confess, "The fruits of the Spirit, however, are the works that the Spirit of God, who dwells in believers, effects through the reborn; they are done by believers (insofar as they are reborn) as if they knew of no command, threat, or reward. In this manner the children of God live in the law and walk according to the law."

This strikes me as exactly right and very much in line with the Westminster Confession of Faith, 19:6, 7. The law is "the unchangeable will of God"; and for believers, it represents a standard of perfection that they cannot meet because of remaining sin. And yet, God grants us his Spirit to enable them to walk in the law's way (indeed, to love God's law itself as a friend and not as a foe). This healthy emphasis upon the Spirit's enablement also represents Galatians 5:13-26 well, in which the works of love are motivated and enabled by the Holy Spirit.

It represents yet another area of common ground between Reformed and Lutherans, reminding us that historically speaking (i.e. in the 16th century) the dividing line was not election, predestination, bondage of the will, or the continuing use of the law (for this see Robert Kolb's brilliant Bound Choice, Election, and the Wittenberg Theological Method [2005]).

Rather, the dividing line was (what Lutherans called) "the sacrament of the altar"--how is Christ's body and blood present in the Lord's Supper? And while that was and is an important issue, it doesn't strike me to be the same kind of barrier to fellowship and cooperation that it was in the 16th century. With such a large amount of common ground, I think conservative Lutherans and Reformed would do well to be in closer conversation and cooperation.


AJM said...

Check this out from the Apology (1531) that eventually accompanied the Augsburg Confession (Article 4):

"It is written in the prophet (Jer 31:33), "I will put my law upon their hearts." In Rom 3:31 Paul says that faith does not overthrow but upholds the law. Christ says (Matt 19:17), "If you would enter life, keep the commandments." And again, "If I have not love, I am nothing" (1 Cor 13:2). These and similar passages assert that we should begin to keep the law ever more and more. We are not speaking of ceremonies, but of the Decalogue, the law that deals with the thoughts of the heart. Since faith brings the Holy Spirit and produces a new life in our hearts, it must also produce spiritual impulses in our hearts."

This interpretation of the above four passages smells very much like the third use.

Sean Lucas said...

Yes, I agree. Part of the issue for Lutherans has been that the "third use" has been blamed on Melancthon--from whom both the Augsburg Confession and the Apology derived. What makes the Formula's statements so compelling is that they came from the "Gnesio-Lutherans" (the Genuine Lutherans who opposed the "Philippists"). It seems that there was a consensus on both sides (excluding John Agricola, who was antinomian) on the third use. sml