The Three-Fold Use of Moral Law

June 26, 2014 | by: Bob Schilling | 0 comments

Posted in: The Law of God Tags: Law of God, Antinomianism, Legalism, Moral Law, Three-fold Use of The Law

We looked in the last blog at the time-honored and historic three-fold division of Biblical Law – Civil, Ceremonial and Moral. In my estimation, even when good men today seek to criticize these divisions judging them to be without Scriptural warrant – in their refutation, they tend to admit what they deny. A good example is the book by Tom Schreiner, “40 Questions About Christians and Biblical Law” (Kregal, 2010). In a chapter addressing these very distinctions in Biblical law he writes:

Even though it has some elements of truth…” (89)

“We have seen thus far that it is overly simplistic to say that the ceremonial and civil law have passed away, while the moral law still retains validity…Further, even though the division of ceremonial, civil, and moral have some cogency, they are not clearly articulated in the New Testament, and the distinctions between what is moral, civil, or ceremonial is not always clear. Still the distinction has some usefulness, for some of the commands of the law are carried directly over to the New Testament by Paul and applied to the lives of believers. It seems appropriate to designate such commands as moral norms.” (93)

“Nevertheless, they are not normative merely because they appear in the Mosaic covenant, for that covenant has passed away. It seems that they are normative because they express the character of God. We know that they still express God’s will for believers because they are repeated as moral norms in the New Testament.” (94)

For Schriener, since everything is driven by the idea that the “Laws” of the Old Testament stand or fall as a unit – all “laws” associated with the Mosaic covenant are “clearly abolished." Furthermore, since it’s challenging to distinguish in all cases what is 'moral' versus what might be 'ceremonial' or 'civil' – even though he admits that these distinctions “have some usefulness” – they all get tossed aside to be replaced by more helpful labels. And what's the new label? Instead of talking about “moral laws” he prefers to speak of “moral norms.” And instead of talking about ceremonial laws and civil laws as no longer binding – in this chapter he explains:

- “Obviously, the temple is part of the old covenant and therefore no longer in force…[so] believers are under no obligation to worship at the temple or to offer sacrifices.” (90-91)
- “The food and purity regulations, which were required under the Mosaic covenant, also have passed away.” (91)
- “When discussing Passover, I noted that believers are not required to observe the feasts, festivals, and special days of the Old Testament calendar.” (91)
- “On the one hand, the ‘civil’ laws of the Old Testament are no longer in force…” (92)
- “In the New Testament, however, the evil person is not put to death but removed from the church of Jesus Christ.” (92)

So you end up with this:

- Moral norms that are repeated in the New Testament are still binding - not because they are “moral law” but because they reflect the character of God.

- Other than those 'moral norms,' everything in the Old Testament has been abrogated – specifically the temple laws, food and purity regulations, special holy days, and civil laws.


I understand now how he can see “some usefulness to the ‘civil, ceremonial, moral’ distinctions” – but it’s hard to see how he dismisses the divisions as “simplistic.”

This is why I said above that they tend to admit what they deny. There is no need to throw out the widely accepted and recognized divisions of civil and ceremonial laws that have been rendered obsolete in the New Covenant, while admitting the clear testimony to the continuing relevance of the transcendent moral law of God. Let's tred slowly before we discard these widely adopted confessional distinctions. 

Today we address another historic and biblical point of doctrine: the three-fold uses of moral law.

In layman’s terms the three uses of moral law are
  - to ruin
  - to restrain
  - to rule

As someone else has articulated it, the Law functions
  (1) as a Mirror
  (2) as a Muzzle
  (3) as a Map

The law reveals our sin; it restrains our sin; and for the redeemed – it is a guide to godliness - a rule to live by.

Historically these have been called,
  (1) The pedagogical use: the law reveals and convicts us of our sin and thus points us to Christ for forgiveness.
  (2) The civil use: the law restrains our sin, it holds a wicked man back from being as sinful as he would otherwise would be.
  (3) The normative use: the law functions as a norm of conduct for believers; a guide for obedience.

In the Lutheran tradition the principle use of the law is seen to be its first use. The law always accuses and exposes our sin. This is for the purpose of driving the unbeliever to Christ – and the believer also. Fore we who are in Christ, the law exposes our sin, humbles us and drives us back to justification. The Law’s primary function is as a mirror to show us our sin and repeatedly point us back to the cross, and the grace to be found in Christ.

Contrariwise, the Reformed tradition recognizes this benefit of the 1st use of the law for the redeemed (as well as the second use of the law which is missing from some Lutheran formulations), but for Calvin and others of the Reformed persuasion the principle use of the law for the believer is instruction and exhortation. The law reveals the will of God and as such is “a lamp unto our feet and a light unto our path” (Psalm 119:105). The law’s primary role for the Christian is illumination and direction in marking out the highway to holiness. The believer is now in union with Christ, regenerate, indwelt by the Holy Spirit and equipped for every good work to which God calls him in his progressive pursuit of Christlikeness.

The Three Uses of Moral Law:

1. The Moral Law Exposes our Sin: It functions as a Mirror

Through the law comes a knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3:20). It shows sinners their need of a Savior. In fact when sin is mixed with a sinful heart – it stirs up greater sinfulness. Sin is so sinful, that even the good law provokes it to greater sin (Rom. 7:11-13). The fault is not with the law, it is holy, just and good (Rom. 7:12); the fault is with our sinful flesh. Why the law? “It was added because of transgressions” (Gal. 3:19), in mercy – to show us our sin.

As an old preacher once said, “The law is like a mirror. The purpose of the mirror is to reveal to you that your face is dirty. The purpose of the mirror is not to wash your face. You don’t remove the mirror from the wall and scrub your face with it. The purpose of the mirror is to drive you to the water.” Jesus is the water; it is the gospel that cleanses.

This is why Jesus said to the rich, young, ruler who asked Him what he must do to inherit eternal life, “If you would enter life, keep the commandments” (Matt. 19:17). Why does He point him to the commandments? Because "through the law comes a knowledge of sin.” Christ came not to save the righteous, but sinners (Mark 2:17). We preach the law that people might come to see their sin. We want them to see their sin, their great sinfulness – that they might see their need of the Savior. When the young man responded, “Teacher, all these I have kept. What do I still lack?” (Matt. 19:20) Jesus then applied the law to his particular case – he needed to forsake his idols. But “when the man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions” (v. 22). God will have no rivals. Faith in God is accompanied by forsaking our sin (repentance). You cannot have one without the other. But for a man to forsake his sin he must first see it. That's why we preach the law to him - for by the law comes a knowledge of sin.

2. The Moral Law Restrains our Sin: It functions as a Muzzle

The law rightly fosters healthy fear. It functions as a deterrent. The threat of penalty and judgment help to keep sinful inclinations in check. The law (use one) can stir up sin, but it also (use two) restrains sin. There have been many raised in Christian homes, who though not converted till later in life, look back with thankfulness for the restraining influence of parental rules and a Christian culture that kept them from many harmful evils. This is the restraining power of the law at work.

Referring to this use and its application to both unbeliever and unbeliever, Ernest Kevan in his excellent volume, “Moral Law,” writes, “Not only the untamed colt, but also the trained horse, needs a bit and bridle.” “My flesh trembles for fear of you, and I am afraid of your judgments” (Psalm 119:120). These are the sentiments of the circumcised of heart. The laws of God and the judgment seat that awaits us – are restraining graces. God restrains evil men from being as evil as they otherwise would be. And, He restrains His own people through warnings and chastening to keep us from further sin. “By them” [God’s rules] “your servant is warned” (Ps. 19:11) and “in keeping them there is great reward.”

Thank God for the first use of the law and the second use of the law – both are beneficial in their place. Both the ungodly and the godly benefit from these functions of the Law. But there’s a third use that applies only to believers and this use is for us its primary benefit. Thus, to borrow the words of the apostle Paul in 1 Cor. 12:31, “I will show you a still more excellent way.

3. The Moral Law is a Guide to Godliness: It functions as a Map

Jesus prays, “Father, sanctify them in the truth, your word is truth” (John 17:17). The moral law is the ethical will of God revealed to us in His Word. According to Scripture, God's moral requirements are summarized in the Ten Commandments. Those Ten Commandments are further summarized in the two greatest Commandments – supreme love for God and sacrificial love of our neighbor. “On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets” (Matt. 22:40). All moral duties or transgressions thereof can be placed under one of the Ten Commandments. All that God has to say, ethically, is subsumed under the summary of moral law.

The reason the law is now our aid and not our enemy is because the gospel has transformed our relationship to it. Our transgressions are forgiven; we’re no longer under its condemnation (Rom. 8:1) nor bondage. Its precepts are now our delight and joy (Ps. 1:2; 19:7-10; 119:97). And most importantly, having been born again (1 Pet. 1:3-5), God’s Spirit is now within us (Rom. 8:9-14) empowering our new hearts to keep and obey His law (1 John 2:3) in a manner that genuinely pleases Him (Eph. 5:8-10; 1 John 3:22; 1 Chron. 29:17; Luke 1:6; Josh, 11:15, 14:5).

Godliness is God-likeness (Eph. 5:1). Christian transformation has as its goal – conformity to Jesus Christ (Rom. 8:29; 1 Cor. 15:49; Col. 3:10). He who kept the law for us – for our justification, also kept the law for us, for our imitation (1 John 2:6; 1 Cor. 11:1; 1 Pet. 2:21-24) and sanctification. To love Him – which is His supreme commandment for us – is to obey all His commandments.

1 John 5:2, “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey His commandments."

The Moral law is eternal. Its distinguishing feature is its ‘permanence of obligation.’ It is binding on all peoples of all times. We are duty bound to our Creator (He is the Judge of all), and our obligation is now only increased as we are furthermore duty bound to our Redeemer (Luke 6:46; 17:10). This is why the Reformed Confessions say,

The moral law doth for ever bind all, as well, justified persons as others, to the obedience thereof, and that not only in regard of the matter contained in it, but also in respect of the authority of God the Creator, who gave it; neither doth Christ in the gospel any way dissolve, but much strengthen this obligation.” (the 2nd London, 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith, chapter 19 “Of the Law of God,” paragraph 5)

It is the same teaching throughout both Testaments of Scripture:

Deut. 10:12–13, “And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you, but to fear the Lord your Godto walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments and statutes of the Lord, which I am commanding you today for your good?”

Ecc. 12:13–14, “The end of the matter; all has been heard.
Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.”

1 Cor. 7:19, “For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God.”

John 14:15, “If you love me, you will keep My commandments.”

1 John 5:3, “For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments. And His commandments are not burdensome.”

Psalm 19:7-11; Psalm 119 in its entirety. I list just three verses from Psalm 119:111, 112 and 160:

“Your testimonies are my heritage forever, for they are the joy of my heart. I incline my heart to perform your statutes forever, to the end…The sum of your word is truth, and every one of your righteous rules endures forever.”

We’ll take a deeper look at the summary of God’s moral law, the Ten Commandments in an additional blog next week, but here let me add a couple of brief applications to this overview of the threefold use of God’s moral law.

(A) One of the things that gets lost when we dismiss the abiding nature of moral law, is a proper definition of sin.

It’s quite in vogue these days to substitute catchy synonyms for the concept of sin. Idolatry, Selfishness, Narcissism, Pride – these are all frequent favorites for popular preachers. They all have their place – but none of them are comprehensive enough. There is one basic definition that Scripture gives us which fits all situations: Sin is the transgression of God's Law. That is what SIN is.

1 John 3:4, “Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness; sin is lawlessness.”

Jam. 3:9, “But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.”

Rom. 4:7, (quoting Ps. 32) “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered…”

All of us by nature are sinners and thus, “children of wrath” in this fallen world (Eph. 2:1) Paul goes on to summarily describe us as, “sons of disobedience.” (Eph. 2:2) This is who we are in our fallen state: “dead in transgressions and sins” (2:1).

Christ came to redeem us from what? Titus 2:14, 

“…who gave Himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness…”

Again and again in Scripture, “Righteousness” is contrasted with “lawlessness.” Sin is lawlessness.

Whatever synonyms for sin you want to use in certain situations – by all means employ them. But let us never, ever lose the primary and most basic, Scriptural definition: Sin is the transgression of the law of God.

Rom. 4:15, “…where there is no law there is no transgression.”

We won't be helped by vagueness if we’re going to deal radically and faithfully with our sin. We need the concreteness of biblical law, God’s moral law. That perfect standard of righteousness; that humbling reflection of divine character; that which “is holy and righteous and good…and spiritual” (Rom. 7:12, 14).

Your word O Lord, have we hidden in our heart, that we might not sin against you.

(B) The other major loss when we dismiss the abiding nature of the moral law is a primary means of grace for holiness.

Too many sloganize the law and deny its usefulness in sanctification with simplistic dismissals. Here’s a string of such slogans by the king of catchy wordsmithing (I mean those words as a complement), Tullian Tchividjian,

“…the apostle Paul makes it clear that the law illuminates sin but is powerless to eliminate sin. That's not part of its job description. It points to righteousness but can't produce it. It shows us what godliness is, but it cannot make us godly. The law can inform us of our sin, but it cannot transform the sinner. Only the gospel can do that.” (context here)

In Tullian's thinking, since the law can’t supply what it demands – only the gospel can; then the law cannot be a means of grace (it’s only effectual work is to convict and condemn). Our hard work is to keep reminding ourselves of the gospel and let it fuel a life of heart-motivated, compulsive godliness; not an outwardly-constrained, dutiful, legalistic life of perpetually defeated law-keeping.

What a horrific misrepresentation of the Christian life – and I have taken care to not caricature the grace-alone-sanctification position. They do not view the law of God as a means of grace. But Scripture does. No one of substance in this debate has ever claimed that the law, in and of itself is able to produce holiness in fallen men. But though Christians remain fallen - the thing that makes them Christians is that they’ve been regenerated. As stated above, their relationship with the law has been changed. It’s no longer merely an outward command, it is an inward compulsion. We have now been given the HOLY SPIRIT who enables us and empowers us to keep God’s commandments in a manner pleasing to Him. The law that we once hated and couldn’t submit to (Rom. 8:7-11) we now love and gladly keep. God’s law now, not only informs us, it enflames us. Renewing our mind after its precepts has transforming power. His moral law, as the apex of the imperatives of His word is light, and joy, and liberty for us now. Yes we need the indicatives of the gospel – we have that in union with Christ – so that now, the law, that which is holy and just and righteous and spiritual becomes our aid and a primary means of grace for us.

“…Strengthen me according to your word…When I think of your rules from of old, I take comfort O Lord…If your law had not been my delight, I would have perished in my affliction…Great peace have those who love your law; nothing can make them stumble…” (Psalm 119: 28, 52, 92, 165)

We don’t want to lose the primary use of the law (As Calvin and the Reformed tradition saw it). God’s laws are the guardrails on the highway to heaven – a crucial means of grace.

John Calvin wrote,

“The Lord instructs by their reading of it those whom He inwardly instills with a readiness to obey.”

The Prophet Ezekiel wrote,

Ezek. 36:26–27, “And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.”

Sanctify us in the truth O Lord, your word is truth.