A Brief Homily on the Three Uses of the Law

According to St. James, the law of God is an expression of God’s unchanging character and the royal law of liberty. Paul says in Romans 7 that it is God’s good gift to humanity. And this is only the New Testament! When we go back to the pages of the Older Testament, particularly in the Psalms of David, we find in the longest chapter in the Bible: Psalm 119, David’s perpetual love affair with the law of God. If I began to read of David’s love for the law you would think I was talking about the love of a man for his wife. Rather, David is speaking of words, life-giving words. Not just life-giving words, God’s words, reflecting His character.

Though there has been some dispute on how the law of God is understood, for our purposes, Reformed theology has summarized this matter in terms of three valid ways of using the law.

The first way to use the law is pedagogical, that is, the law reveals the holiness and righteousness of God and consequently our shortcomings that drive us to Christ. One powerful way to tell those outside God’s grace of His Gospel is to teach them that God is holy and that they fall short of His glory and are therefore in need of His Son.

The second use of the law is civil. It serves to restrain evil through threats of punishment. It means that the law of God serves to stop evil men from being as bad as they can be. If there were no threats of punishment, our society will quickly fall into anarchy and pure lawlessness. We have seen from our study of history what happens to societies that refuse to punish evildoers. But according to Romans 13, the civil government serves as God’s sword to execute judgment upon those who live for evil.

The third function of the law is the moral use. The moral standards of the law provide guidance for believers as we seek to live in humble gratitude for the grace God has shown to us. Perhaps the most evident place we see this is in Exodus 20, which is the giving of the Ten Commandment on Mt. Sinai. Instead of God beginning directly with the law, rather He prefaces the 10 Commandments with the kindness of His grace: I have brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. The grace of God was shown to the Israelites in redeeming them from bondage. So now, God tells the Israelites that if they want to live peaceably with all men, then they must follow His perfect standard by His grace.

In a sense we can understand the law as driving us to Christ and Christ in turn driving us back to the law for our sanctification. For the modern church to despise so great a law is to despise what David considered sweeter than honey. Indeed if we teach others to despise God’s law we will be called least in the kingdom of heaven. God forbid.

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About Uri Brito

I am the Pastor of Providence Church (CREC) in Pensacola, Fl.
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