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Three Uses of the Law

The Law and the Christian


Here is an excerpt on law taken from the Geneva Study Bible which was edited by R. C. Sproul. The proper role of law within the life of the individual and the culture is a vital issue. It is one of the issues you will run into when discussing the particulars of a biblical worldview and its application to culture. While we are saved by grace alone, there is still a role the law should play in the life of the Christian, at least according to the Reformed worldview. 

Our culture has rejected God’s law. However, the fact is that the much of church previously rejected God’s law when it adopted dispensational theology. This theology was introduced into to the church in the 1860s and spread quickly with the wide use of the Scofield Study Bible which contained the theology. 

The correct use of the law by Christian leaders is a major issue that impacts our relation to the cultures that surround us. It is an issue you will encounter when discussing and teaching worldview concepts – so hopefully this article will prepare you to address issues related to the question of the law’s correct use today. Knowledge of this issue helps us to understand why the ethical behavior of many Christians differs little from nonbelievers. This theological perspective also influences other areas of life dealing with the application of a biblical worldview within the culture. This is a clear example of how individual theologies can develop their own unique worldviews with ideas that have serious consequences. 

The Three Uses of the Law

Scripture shows that God intends His law to function in three ways, which Calvin crystallized in classic form for the church’s benefit as the law’s threefold use.

Its first function is to be a mirror reflecting to us both the perfect righteousness of God and our own sinfulness and shortcomings. As Augustine wrote, “the law bids us, as we try to fulfill its requirements, and become wearied in our weakness under it, to know how to ask the help of grace.” The law is meant to give knowledge of sin (Romans 3: 20; 4: 15; 5: 13; 7: 7-11), and by showing us our need of pardon and our danger of damnation to lead us in repentance and faith to Christ (Galatians 3: 19-24).

A second function the “civil use,” is to restrain evil. Though the law cannot change the heart, it can to some extent inhibit lawlessness by its threats of judgment, especially when backed by a civil code that administers punishment for proven offenses (Deut. 13: 6-11; 19: 16-21; Romans 13: 3, 4). Thus it secures civil order, and serves to protect the righteous from the unjust.

Its third function is to guide the regenerate into the good works that God has planned for them (Eph. 2: 10). The law tells God’s children what will please their heavenly Father. It could be called their family code. Christ was speaking of this third use of the law when He said that those who become his disciples must be taught to do all that He had commanded (Matt. 28: 20), and that obedience to His commands will prove the reality of one’s love for Him (John 14: 15). The Christian is free from the law as a system of salvation (Rom. 6: 14; 7: 4, 6; 1Cor. 9: 20; Gal. 2: 15-19; 3: 25) but is “under law toward Christ” as a rule of life (1Cor. 9: 21; Gal. 6: 2).   (New Geneva Study Bible, p. 258).