How Christians think about the law and commands of the Bible is an important issue. Historically the church has distinguished three legitimate uses of the Law. John Calvin was one of the first to delineate these three uses of the Law, and his work is still relevant as we consider how we should think about the law.
The first legitimate use of the law teaches that “the law shows the righteousness of God, and as a mirror discloses our sinfulness, leading us to implore divine help”(John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, II., VII, 6, pg. 354). Calvin further explains,
All of us are proved to be transgressors, the more clearly it reveals God’s righteousness, conversely the more it uncovers our iniquity. The more surely it confirms the reward of life and salvation as dependent upon righteousness, the more certain it renders the destruction of the wicked (Ibid., II. VII. 7, 356).
To this he also adds,
The law is like a mirror. In it we contemplate our weakness, then the iniquity arising from this, and finally the curse coming from both–just as a mirror shows us the spots on our face (Ibid.).
John Calvin was not the first theological to teach the punitive use of the law. The apostle Paul taught that “through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Rom 3:20). This is not the only use of the law, but it is the most important use. Thus, the Law, when personally applied, shows us that we cannot live up to God’s perfect standard and we need a Savior. In this respect, the Law points us to Christ and our need to believe in the Gospel to be saved.
“The second function of the law is this. . . to restrain certain men. . . by hearing the dire threats in the law” (Ibid., II.VII. 10., pg. 358). In other words, the Law, when culturally respected, restrains sin in the world. So, even though the church and the state serve different purposes in God’s plan, when the state recognizes biblical truth it mitigates the effect of sin on a culture.
Finally, “the third and principal use, which pertains more closely to the proper purpose of the law, finds its place among believers in whose hearts the Spirit of God already lives and reigns” (Ibid., II., VII, 12, p. 360). In other words, the law guides God’s people in how they should live. In this use of the law Calvin writes,
Here is the best instrument for them to learn more thoroughly each day the nature of the Lord’s will to which they aspire, and to conform them in the understanding of it (Ibid.).
To this he adds that “the law is to the flesh like a whip to an idle and balky ass, to arouse it to work” (Ibid.). This, of course, is only effective in conjunction with the grace of God. As Calvin put it, “the Lord instructs by their reading of it those whom he inwardly instills with a readiness to obey” (Ibid.). Thus, when enlivened by the grace of God, the law is a means of further grace that provides wisdom for the Christian life.
This is how the church has historically viewed the Law. However, in recent days this perspective on the law has been called into question by some, and totally ignored by many others. Instead of recognizing three legitimate uses of the Law, some are emphasizing only the first use of the law–to show us our sin and need for Christ. They are teaching that for believer and unbeliever alike, the Law is not a means of grace in our life, but is only points us to our need for grace. For instance, note what one popular Reformed teacher has written:
The law shows non-Christians and Christians the same thing: how we can’t cut it on our own and how much we both need Jesus. Sinners need constant reminders that our best is never good enough and that “there is something to be pardoned even in our best works.” We need the law to strip us of our fig leaves. We need the law to freshly reveal to us that we’re a lot worse off than we think we are and that we never outgrow our need for the cleansing blood of Christ.
This statement seems to be saying that believers and unbelievers are both totally incapable of rendering obedience to God’s law. It views the law’s function in the life of a believer in the same way that the law functions in the life of an unbeliever–condemning but not guiding.
Similarly, another very good Reformed teacher says,
Where the law pronounces us all “guilty before God” (Rom 3:19-20), the gospel announces “God’s gift of righteousness through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (vv 21-31). The law is unyielding. It commands, but doesn’t give. The law says, “Do!”, but the gospel says, “Done!”
The main point of this statement is commendable. What a wonderful truth that Christ has positively accomplished the Law on our behalf and taken away the Law’s curse for us. This is the very essence of the Gospel. However, is it true that, even in the life of a believer, the law does not “give”? Is there really no positive value in the law? This seems to be a generalization that ignores the possibility that, in the life of a believer, God has designed the law to be a means of grace to guide him in his life. In this respect, the law does “give.” This is why David, an inspired Bible teacher, did not hesitate to says that “the law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul” (Ps 19:17).
When working through this issue of how the law functions in the life of a Christian, it is pivotal to recognize that any dichotomy between the law and the gospel is altered through regeneration. Richard Gaffin carefully makes this distinction when he writes,
It should be appreciated that the antithesis between law and gospel is not an end in itself. It is not a theological ultimate. That antithesis arises not by virtue of creation, but as the consequence of sin, and the gospel functions to overcome it. The gospel removes an absolute law-gospel antithesis in the life of a believer. How so? Breifly, apart from the gospel and outside of Christ, the law is my enemy and condemns me. Why? Because God is my enemy and condemns me. But with the gospel and in Christ, united to him by faith, the law is no longer my enemy but my friend. Why? Because now God is no longer my enemy but my friend, and the law. . . is now my friendly guide for life in fellowship with God (Richard B. Gaffin Jr., “By Faith, Not By Sight”: Paul and the Order of Salvation, 2nd ed. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2013), 117-118.).
The point that Gaffin makes–and many miss–is that the role of law in a persons life depends on that person’s status before God. If they are totally depraved and rejecting Christ, then they are under God’s judgement and the judgment of God’s law. However, if they have been united with Christ through faith, regenerated, made new, and have the law of God written on their hearts, then the law not only shows them their sin but also becomes an instrument of the Holy Spirit to practically guide them out of that sin. Mark Jones puts it this way,
Thus, the law is changed by the Spirit into something effectual, so that we may accurately claim. . . that the law is an instrument in progressive sanctification (Mark Jones, Antinomianism: Reformed Theology’s Unwelcome Guest? (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2013), 56.).
Jones goes on to say,
The law is friendly to the Christian only because of Christ’s mediation, which makes us friends of God. And the law is friendly to the Christian because it is accompanied by the Spirit, so that our obedience may be truly said to be gospel obedience (Ibid., 60)
All this to say, we need to be careful about how we talk about the law. Yes, it condemns us as sinner and reveals our need for Christ. Even as believers it reminds us of our total dependance on Christ. However, in the design of the Father, on the basis of Christ’s work, and with the empowerment of the Holy Spirit, the law becomes a means of grace to guide the Christian in life. In an effort to magnify the grace the God has shown us in justification we must not ignore the sanctifying grace that God makes available to us through His law. We must not preach as “either-or” what the bible presents as “both-and.” And we must not preach to “New Creatures in Christ” as if they were still “Old Men in Adam.”