THIRD PURPOSE OF THE LAW-SEEING THE LAW THROUGH THE GOSPEL
A friend of mine recently observed that the Lutheran message seemed always to come down to works. He explained that what he found himself often hearing was a message that first lifted up salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, without regard to our merits or works. Then, almost as if that first message was being put entirely aside, the message shifted to a complete focus upon good works. Considering the fact that this gentlemen is himself a committed Confessional Lutheran and a student of Lutheran theology, I found his observation concerning the confusion in the message to be worth considering.
I do not think that there is any dispute concerning the need to make a right division of the Word between Law and Gospel. Lutherans have been educated and trained in the language of the three purposes of the Law and the purpose of the Gospel.
Dr. Martin Luther set forth in his Small Catechism that the first purpose of the Law was to act as “a curb.” Dr. Martin Chemnitz described the first purpose in terminology of the “civil use” of the Law. Both terms attempt to summarize under one label the concept that the Law has the purpose of providing limits to the behavior of man, whether regenerate or unregenerate. The need for such is obvious. Without limitations on behavior, there could be no safety or security in this life whatsoever. This purpose looks only to punishment for violations and therefore can only serve the other purposes of the Law, and though labeled “first”, is certainly not superior to the other purposes in that it fails to address the heart of man in its sinfulness.
Dr. Luther identifies the second purpose of the Law as “a mirror.” Man here confronts his condition, and is put in terror of his sinfulness before God’s righteous judgment and wrath, and is pointed to the desperate need for an Answer to his condition.
The third purpose of the Law is identified by Dr. Luther as “a rule”. This purpose is only for the regenerate as they look to the Law for guidance. In fact, I often label the third purpose of the Law as “a guide” to avoid confusion with the second purpose.
We also have been taught that the Law prepares us for the Gospel, and the Gospel actually teaches and works the change necessary for salvation within man. We know that the Law convicts us and puts us in terror of our sinfulness and the eternal verdict that our sinfulness demands. We then flee to the Gospel for the good news of salvation solely through Christ Jesus, while we also know that in this life we continue to be both sinner and saint. My friend’s observation raised the question of how we use the Law in the process we typically call “Sanctification” and for what purpose.
For me, the question came down to whether or not, in sanctification, under the third purpose of the Law, the “guide”, do I look at the Law directly or do I look at the Law through the Gospel? The answer to that question requires me first to understand the purpose or goal of the Law confronting us as a guide. Is the Law really only guiding me to good works? In my friend’s language, have we moved good works from the beginning (“i.e. justification”) and put them as the goal and thereby distorted in the process the person and work of Christ Jesus?
As I examine that question, the nature of God as revealed in the Scriptures confronts me. We know that God is truly indivisible with an essence that is beyond our comprehension, but we also know that He chose to reveal Himself in His Word in a manner we can grasp, by His grace. In so doing, He reveals Himself with passages depicting His essence, or His attributes, or His works. Yet, while we look at these three aspects (essence, attributes and works) we must remember that such divisions are actually inappropriate. God cannot be divided into various aspects of His nature. We do it because we just can not understand matters divine without Him graciously employing human language, concepts, and explanations that are within our ability to understand. Therefore, we should look at the third purpose of the Law, the “guide”, in a similar manner.
In sanctification, is He leading us only unto good works? Not at all. He is rather, in the process of maturing and growing us, through good works, working to develop attributes like His and ultimately to create a new essence within us. If I look at the Law through the Gospel, with an understanding of an ultimate goal of a new essence, a “new me”, rather than seeing the Law as only things commanded and things forbidden, I see behind the Law a reflection of the essence of God. For example, behind the commandment not to kill, I not only see a commandment to not kill others, or even a commandment to love others, but I also see a reflection of the perfect, pure, holy, righteous God who is Himself in essence, love. Seeing His essence in that commandment, I then can better grasp the entire concept that He is recreating my flesh in Christ Jesus in the image of God. When I look at the Law through the Gospel, I realize that His purpose is to recreate me through Christ to bear His image for all eternity. I then see the entire work of salvation as an act of His grace throughout. In this way, I avoid the temptation to begin with a God of grace and end up only with a God of sovereignty who only seeks to force me to do what He commands – an impossible task for my fallen nature.
The true goal of the third purpose of the Law is this Gospel view. This view of the Law leads me to a greater appreciation of the new and the old Adam within. Through the Gospel, I grow in my understanding of the essence of God. I also see all the more how my sinfulness separates me from Him. Therefore, as I grow in faith in Him, I share more and more His essence, attributes and works. At the same time, as I see with increasing clarity the separation, I also see the more clearly God as the Giver of all things, including specifically my salvation. This becomes the cause of my celebrating and worshipping Him with my whole life.
Does that make any difference in the church? Does it make a difference if I know that under the second purpose of the Law, the mirror, that the conviction and terror will be based on a limited understanding of our sinfulness and His righteousness? Can my friend tell me that as a believer he has confronted the second purpose of the Law as completely as the Word demands once and for all? Can he rest in the third purpose simply acknowledging the imperfection of his works but knowing that they are deemed to pleasing to God for Christ Jesus’ sake?
However, what happens if “too much Law” is applied too “early” in the confrontation of an individual with God’s Word? Will not that individual end up not only convicted, but also crushed and never able to flee to the Gospel for an answer? Will he not be lead then into only the theology of self-help, whether in the form of works or the form of spiritual or physical suicide?
Yet, on the other hand, if the Law is not always being examined through the Gospel in the third purpose, will we not then become complacent, arrogant and eventually reject the Gospel?
The constant celebration of our Baptism requires us always to confront the Law according to its second purpose, the Gospel for salvation, and then to live according to our Baptism by seeing the Law through the Gospel. That allows us to live in the paradox of being both sinner and saint. We can see His love in recreating us into a people who will bear His image for all eternity, living in a perfect relationship with Him, according to His image, that new essence, without allowing works to become merit for salvation, whether before justification or afterwards. We can work with people as they grow into Christ without seeking the impossible goal of the quick fix. We can avoid both excusing sin and crushing people away from the Gospel because we never lose our focus upon His grace, always believing, teaching, confessing and living according to and in Christ Crucified.
Larry D. Harvey
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