What Are the Uses of the Law? Answered by Justin Perdue
Hi, this is Justin. One of the questions that we often get here at Theocast is about the uses of God’s law. What are the uses of the law, and how should we understand them? Historically speaking, in the reformed tradition, we understand that there are three uses of the law.
The first use is to show us our sin and drive us to the savior. God, in his law, has revealed to us what he requires for righteousness. His law is holy. His law is perfect, and he requires perfect obedience and fulfillment of his law all the time, if we are ever going to stand before him and be righteous in his sight. We learn in Deuteronomy 27 and James chapter 2, amongst other places, that if we break any part of God’s law, we are guilty of breaking all of it.
As we assess our lives in light of God’s perfect and holy standard, we realize very quickly that we have failed to meet that standard. We have not passed the test, and so we are driven outside of ourselves, away from our own works and our own notions of our own righteousness, to find our righteousness elsewhere.
That righteousness has been provided for us through Jesus and Jesus alone. Christ has done two massive things for us with respect to God’s law. First of all, he has perfectly kept and fulfilled God’s law for us in the place of sinners. His life was perfect. He always obeyed everything that God had revealed in his law. He kept it perfectly, and his perfect life, his perfect obedience, and his perfect record are counted to sinners by faith. It’s as though we too have perfectly kept and obeyed God’s law all the time.
Secondly, Jesus died to satisfy the penalty that the law requires of everybody who breaks it. Now, Jesus, obviously he didn’t sin, so he did not deserve that penalty himself. He died, and took that penalty, and satisfied that penalty for us, so that by faith in him, we would have peace with God, and be reconciled to God. Our punishment has been handled in full.
So, the law, as God gave it, and as God has always intended, is to do just this: to show us who and what we are, to show us that we have not met the standard that God has for holiness and righteousness, and to drive us to Jesus who has kept the law for us. God never intended that we would keep the law for righteousness, but that we would be driven to Christ who has kept the law, and in him would be counted righteous, and in him we would be reconciled to God. That’s the first use of the law.
The second use of the law, broadly speaking, is to restrain our corruption. Now, sometimes, in a more narrow way, this is defined as the civil use of the law because it’s useful in society and for civilization. God in his law has told us what’s good and what’s bad, and what’s righteous and what’s evil. He has promised blessing and reward for doing good, and he has threatened punishment and even curses for doing evil.
As we look at that, and assess all of that, we conclude rightly that to do good will be good for our lives; we can expect blessing from that. To do evil will be bad for our lives; we can expect punishment and even curses for disobeying and breaking God’s law. So, we are encouraged by all of that to keep God’s law and do good, and we are discouraged and deterred from doing evil. In that sense, it restrains our corruption. That’s the second use of the law.
The third use of the law is to serve as our perfect guide for living in Christ. In Christ, we know that by faith we’re reconciled to God and have peace with him, and the law therefore no longer threatens us in any way; however, it does guide our living. God gave us his moral law in the Old Testament, and he’s also given us a number of imperatives in the New Testament that tell us how we’re to live together in the church. All of those things are good for us, and they guide our lives, and we seek to conform our lives to God’s word by grace as we are safe in Christ Jesus. This is a good thing for us. Calvin would even say that the law is our kind adviser in Christ as we seek to conform our lives to it.
So, that’s the three uses of the law as the reformed have understood it. I hope that this has been helpful and clarifying for you.