Luther and Calvin on the Third Use of the Law


Departing briefly from my normal obsessing over American exceptionalism, I contributed an essay today to Nomocracy in Politics. In this essay on historical theology, I wrote about how magisterial reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin interpreted the meaning and application of the Mosaic law in the life of the Christian. While both acknowledged that the function of the Mosaic law was to reveal sin to the sinner and restrain wickedness in society, Calvin explained that there was a third use of the law. That is, the law is a tool for the sanctification of the believer in Christ. This usus renatis is an aspect of God’s grace, as he draws believers closer to himself and conforms them more and more to the image of Christ.

Here is a taste:

Up to this point, Luther and Calvin present similar views on the functions of the law. For Calvin, however, the primary use of the law for the Christian is neither the usus elenchticus nor the usus politicus. The third and primary use of the law is the usus renatis. Herein, the Holy Spirit does His work of guiding the Christian into renewal of spirit and conformity with the will of God using the law. Calvin wrote, “Again, because we need not only teaching but also exhortation, the servant of God will also avail himself of this benefit of the law: by frequent meditation upon it to be aroused to obedience, be strengthened in it, and be drawn back from the slippery path of transgression. . . . The law is to the flesh like a whip to an idle and balky ass, to arouse it to work. Even for a spiritual man not yet free of the weight of the flesh the law remains a constant sting that will not let him stand still.”The role of the law in justification is important to Calvin, indeed it is central. In his discussion on the three uses of the law, Calvin carefully shows how valuable the law is in driving the sinner to Christ. Yet his emphasis on the value of the law in sanctification is found in his discussion on the third use of the law. For Calvin, the usus elenchticus and the usus renatis occur simultaneously, because the sinner must know God both as Judge and as Father in order to benefit from grace. Recall that Calvin viewed the law as the foundation of the whole Christian faith. Calvin wrote, “Moses was not made a lawgiver to wipe out the blessing promised to the race of Abraham. Rather, we see him repeatedly reminding the Jews of that freely given covenant made with their fathers of which they were the heirs.”Thus, according to Calvin, the law is an integral part of God’s covenant of grace, and because of this, the law is most beneficial to those who are adopted as children of God.


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