Luther, Melancthon, and the ‘third use of the Law’

Here are some nifty articles that may shed some light on the ongoing disagreement over the ‘third use of the Law’ controversy.

I’d like to know your thoughts on these articles, if you get the chance.



   – Steve M.

12 Responses

  1. I’m printing it out to read today……I’ll get back!

  2. Wayne,

    I’m anxious to find out what you think. I’m going to go back and read it again myself, as soon I finish this thriller that I am reading.(Green Eggs and Ham by Suess)

    – Steve

  3. I found you! You can’t hide from a great detective such as I.

    I’ve downloaded that file for reading later.

    I wrote on the relationship between the New Covenant and the Law a couple of years ago. Here’s the conclusion.

  4. Jeremy Weaver,

    I liked your post on ‘the law’ very much!

    I think you did an excellent job of explaining that it is God that leads us to do the works of the law.

    It is the Holy Spirit working in us.

    As I am trying (maybe in vain) in my latest post to explain that as Christians we live by the Spirit.

    Law is law. Period. It kills. There is no life in it.

    So when a preacher is telling you that you ought be doing this or that, there is no gospel there. That is the accusing voice of the law. There is a role for that accusation, but it never should be confused with sanctification. (as you stated so well)

    To all my friends that are so hot on needing to keep the law in some form, even if only as a guide (what does that mean?) I say then why do you flat out refuse to do it then?

    One the one hand you make (not you) such a big stink on needing to keep some (third use) of the law…and then you blithely go on your merry way doing just as you darn well please in virtually every area of your life.

    I just don’t get it.

    Thanks so much Jeremy for your contribution and sharing your great article!

    – Steve Martin

  5. I’ve pondered this idea of ‘third use of the law’ and think I’ve concluded occording to as much as I can from Luther than he never adhered to it and what many Reformed and even post Luther Lutherans would call “third use” is simply the first use. The Law always kills.

    Here’s what I mean, in Reformed circles third use is used as the back door to works, I fear many Lutherans have arrived here too. It is couched in “no power and only a guide”. But Luther explicitly points out that if ‘you have to be told to do something, you must realize you have ALREADY fallen into sin’. Why? Because the Law requires the free heart, not to be told to do it, to be done such that the “law” disappears. This is Jesus. A fish does not need instructions to swim, they simply swim by nature. If one had to tell a fish to swim, first, second or third use wise, the fish has ALREADY fallen away from the “law of swimming”. What the Law ALWAYS requires is the free heart. Christ for example did not have to be told to do the Law, which would have been to have already fallen into sin. He did as he said He did, “I ALWAYS do the will of My Father…”

    The new creature is a creature of free heart, this we don’t have until glory so we wait in suffering (faith alone).

    Now Luther saw Gospel in the Law per se in so much as it promises. This is true because then it becomes an appendage of the promises of God TO YOU and FOR YOU, “I AM the Lord your God…you shall put no other God’s in front of Me.” Luther used this as a strong sword against the Satanic attach of “am I elect/predestined” we might add today evangelicalisms and Southern Baptist religion’s “am I saved/reborn” and the like. To worry and grow anxious about myself is to ‘put another God in front of God’ and concern myself with saving myself, to despair of God – especially as to eternal life. This Satanic question of Satan’s, the worst suffering/trial to have, “am I elect/predestined/saved/reborn/baptized right, etc…” is utterly destroyed by the first commandment seen as promise and appendage to the Gospel. Luther would give such advise as, “Devil you go up and find out if I’m elect/predestined, I am baptized”. We might expand today, “Devil you go up and find out if I’m saved/reborn/baptized right/etc…, I am baptized”. But notice that this is NOT another third use of the Law as I once thought myself. If there be another “use” of the law, per se, this would be it. And as such the Scriptures become infinitely encouraging to one’s faith!

    The third use of the law is just a repackaging of ‘law light’ leading back to works salvation no matter how it is packaged. There will be no “third use” in heaven for there we will have the free heart that does not “need the law” to say “do this or that”, we will be like Christ, free without sin (dirty sins or pretty sins). The first use, restraint of the flesh, is really the same as the so called third use so I don’t go a rob a liquor store when I want for fear of punishment and hope of reward.


    Larry KY

  6. Larrry,

    You have said some terrific things in your comments which I will study and use in my discussions with other Lutheran types.

    I’ll go back and look at them again tomorrow.

    Thanks much, Larry!

    – Steve

  7. Steve,

    I been reading this TREMENDOUS piece by Nestigen. I’ve read it over and over again and it is a TREASURE TROVE to be mined! Thanks for bringing it out!!!

    I’ll attempt, poorly I suppose, to tell you my ‘digestion’ grasp of it. It makes so much fit together of Luther but more so of Scripture!

    What struck me and clicked was how he pulled that apart. It’s kind of like the sacraments, you explain the God’s work not ours effective regenerative nature (baptism for example) of them IN the “believers baptism” paradigm. It’s kind of like being in a “Not X” world attempting to explain “X”.

    Anyway a couple of things crystallized for me, even thoughts I’d had but too basically not theologically educated to fully explain or get it. It explains why Luther, correctly, saw Gospel, in so much as promise in the Law. It was the best explanation of that I’ve EVER heard.

    One of the things was that Luther speaks of the Law’s eternalness eschatologically, but Phillip (a pretty much every reformer other than Luther that is well known, especially from the Reformed side of the house) like the Reformed speaks of the Law’s eternal nature, God’s will, ontologically and structurally. The essence of which is the Law being so the later is never fulfilled, but for Luther it is. Funny how that teeny tiny little shift changes everything. Thus, with Luther the Law serves the Gospel but with PM and the reformed for the most part that switches especially during talks of third use. It clicked immediately for me because I always saw the verse about Jesus not ‘doing away with the Law but establishing it’ (Paul) as meaning the establishment WAS singularly His fulfilling it. Most see that as a return to something like the third use.

    The other big thing, which I’d detected years ago, is that for example the Ten Commandments via the Gospel which is now by faith and hope but shooting forward to the fact and reality that WILL BE; the Law becomes future promise that hangs on that Gospel Word as Christ fulfills it. Yet in the here and now in this still under sin, death and the devil sieging it demands and thus accuses. So the Law can be used as a ‘descriptive’ of the fruits of faith ENTIRELY devoid of command, because the Gospel causes naturally that which the descriptive (and future reality) describes that we see in part now. When we engage in so called third use, we are merely returning back to the law in a fallen way even if we use the term “guide”. Because “third” use will not be in the age to come, but FULFILLED in FACT to us that which we hold by faith via the Gospel. Does that make sense? For Luther its unfulfilled and fulfilled. The former is purely of the unbeliever and this world still under siege by sin, death and the devil; and it is too part of the simul sinner part in so much as we are still sinner (we hear the law as flesh that way I think you could say). The later is purely by faith and of hope of the believer and will be IN FACT. But in neither case is there a “third use” and the Law as Nestigen points out is not reduced to its necessary offices in the fallen world but is ultimately signifying and pointing to what it IS in which fulfillment is via Christ (which again we hold by faith/hope now, will have in fact then).

    E.g. “You shall honor your father and mother” in the fallen world becomes an imperative that demands and points to what it is, I suppose that’s what it means to be UNDER THE LAW. But in fulfilled by Christ it is a promise, Christ has done this and you and I will be like Him/this in the age to come. Man that’s great promise and simply makes the Gospel all the sweeter!

    As Luther points out as it remains now, this age, (post fall, post first advent, awaiting the eschatological hope that has dawned for eternity) we Christians, only have in parts that fulfilled Law that we will have as total new creatures in eternity. An overly realized eschatology is part of the Baptist problem with the sacraments and I’d say too with the reformed.

    The sums is that the Law is eternal but not eternal as most understand it. It is not the eternal will of God as and end unto itself. This would mean it, the law, is never fulfilled by anyone and always demanding. That would be hell if you realize what is being said.

    It IS eternal this way (Luther) in the damned it will always demand and never be fulfilled in the least – forever in hell. In the blessed, of Christ, it is already fulfilled in Christ and we have this in part and hope NOW and will have in totality and fact eschatologically in the age to come, eternity. The Law is eternal and then in eternity remains unfulfilled in the damned or fulfilled in the blessed.

    So the law is eternal, but not the end or last word itself, the Gospel is to which the Law comes to utter fulfillment, not its function but its reality its function points to.

    The Law, now, to all and unbelievers in particular only demands and accuses and is in an imperative mode. But in part, via Jesus, to the believer – the believer hears promise in the Law. Thus for example the first commandment or Word (as well as the rest) can sometimes sound to us as imperative command which accuses only (unbelievers ONLY hear this). But sometimes the believer via the Gospel and Christ, hears it as PROMISE which is a cheery JOY, hearing the eschatological end Christ yields for us. This is why Luther could “hear” Gospel in the commandments in so much as they promise. The simul Justus et peccator state of the believer makes us hear it both ways in so much as we are truly both sinners and saints, without Christ (flesh) and with Christ (baptized).

    This, to me, has always what the Psalmist speaks of that many attempt to understand but truly do not. When in the Psalms and elsewhere we read that he loves God’s Law and meditates on it day and night. Without the Gospel this is IMPOSSIBLE because Law then is imperative only not promise. The Psalmist speaks of the law’s promise heard via the Gospel of the Christ Whose eschatological promise to fulfill makes it so. For such makes the Law, promise, GREAT JOY to the believer! That’s the joyful eschatological fulfillment in part we have in hope in Christ and will have in fullness in fact in the age to come.

    Sorry for the length but this was HUGE to me. I’ve been sharing these thoughts all around.



  8. Larry,

    I’m so glad that have enjoyed Nestingen’s take on Luther’s take.

    It really is great and liberating stuff! That the Law is turned towards the promise for the believer is a freeing Word, indeed. There is nothing like it…literally!

    What a joy, Larry, to see someone appreciate this stuff the that some of us do. It IS HUGE!

    Thanks Larry, for being such an encouragment to me and also to the many others with whom you share.

    Your friend in Christ,


  9. A follow up thought:

    The whole Arminian Vs. Calvinist argument tends to teeter on “do we ever choose to believe” in Christ. And extreme versions of the later tend to think you cannot say with any viable reality, “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ” and the former, the Arminian, tends to only see that as an imperative, naked in and of itself. It’s a false dichotomy. However, when we look at that phrase, “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ”, it is in fact imperative in it’s speech – it is telling us something “to do”. Can we or rather can we willingly do so, just like the Law itself? The answer is no. The Arminian makes the classic semi-Pelegian error that if God commands something it implies ability (the whole Law/Gospel confusion). Some Calvinist, on the other hand, go to the other extreme and then limit the Gospel and actually reassert some work you have to gin up qualified as the work of the Spirit which differs little if any at all from the Arminian’s idea of ginning up faith. Then other Calvinist leave it kind of fuzzy. The sacraments make ALL the difference in the world, especially one’s teaching on them. The link between ill teachings on the sacraments and the entire concept of the third use of the Law seems inescapable.

    It seems what we have here in this imperative, “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ”, is a real time example of how the Gospel serves the Law, and not vice versa if one aligns the sacraments truly and Luther’s understanding of the Law and Gospel and NOT the third use of the law. Yes, it is imperative as the command, “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ” and it would be as it comes or dons into this Age besieged by sin, death and the devil. It CAN like the Law accuse “if you don’t believe, then…”, it accuses THIS age under siege by sin, death and the devil. BUT if Luther and not Melancthon (and Calvin, third use) are right concerning Law and Gospel, the Gospel MAKES that imperative as it does all Law, a promise (the Law that accuses in THIS AGE is fulfilled in the AGE TO COME and thus becomes promissory via the Gospel. The Law is eternal not as an end itself, the Gospel serving the Law, third use. Rather it is eternal in that it is either in the damned always accusing or fulfilled in the blessed for eternity eschatologically). So via the Gospel this particular imperative, “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ”, is changed into for our hearing the future by fulfilling it and as such one DOES believe. But the believing reflex on our part is due to that Gospel that fulfills it via Christ FOR US. Luther’s confession is more power packed than we often perceive, “I cannot by my own strength or will believe in my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ, but am called by the Gospel by the Holy Spirit” (paraphrased – LDH).

    Here, I think, we see in real time how the Gospel – that donning reality of Christ’s death/resurrection FOR US (now/not yet tension) that is much like the rising sun’s first light that begins but is not in fullness yet to declare the full day. Similarly, the Gospel BREAKS INTO this age still under siege of death, sin and the devil and gives of the fullness of the age to come, the Kingdom of the King, what the imperative command demands. And THAT is given by way of Christ FULFILLING it, not us. When THAT comes to us, the Gospel FOR ME/YOU, that imperative (in this age), “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ”, becomes the future tense fulfilled promise (age to come/the kingdom brought in the train of the rob of the King Christ Himself) that is calling US into being as believers (naked trusters alone in Christ’s work for us) simul Justus et Peccator (now/this age) and unto then (the age to come without the Peccator part) such that we begin to believe it, that is to live unto that which is promised. The new creature is being born of which Christ is the head (the individual IN the church and church linked here at this point).

    But the how is the difference, not as Arminian or Calvinist set it forth. The “believe” part is made real by the fact that Jesus CAN BE believed TO THE MAN IN FACT. And THAT comes about not by withholding the Gospel one millimeter from a man or the sacraments awaiting faith to then grasp (basically both Arminian and Calvinistic sacramental teachings) it. Rather when by that Gospel it comes ALL THE WAY DOWN via the Word and in particular the Word in, with and under sacraments FOR REAL and WITHOUT FAITH such that it touches, as it were, us individually as persons (God’s Word and name in, with and under the water baptized me as opposed to Joe Blow over there. And I actually ate Christ’s real body and blood IN, WITH and UNDER the bread and wine that WE eat and not just bread and wine that awaits faith to be carried up into heaven to have Christ).

    This is why the Sacraments as Luther taught and “third use” cannot resolve to each other. Because the nature of the Law is such that it is either fulfilled or not and is eternal in that way, serving the Gospel and not in and of itself eternal whereby the Gospel serves the Law and the Law is never fulfilled (Calvin and apparently later Melancthon contra Luther).



  10. OOPS, second paragraph opening sentence should read: “…real time example of how the Law serves the Gospel, ” (BIG DIFFERENCE)

  11. Larry,

    I think you have hit upon something here. The way one views the sacraments has a great deal to do with one’s view of the so-called “third use” of the law.

    If Christ is really present “in, under, and with”, and if He truly was the end of the law for righteousness then how could the Gospel serve the Law? The Law’s accussing voice is no longer. The Law has served the Gospel inasmuch as it has put to death the sinner.Then the gospel can go to work and do what it does, namely giving us forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation.

    This promise is given to each of us in the sacraments that we might know with assurance this is true.

    What possible need is there for a guide when the new life lived is from the pure heart of a believer? How is it that the Holy Spirit needs a law to inspire one to do the right thing? Is not the love of the Spirit enough? It had better be, or we are all in big trouble. The Spirit always brings life while the law always brings death.

    The Arminians (as you rightly say) use ‘Believe’ as an imperative and the Calvinists are wrapped up in the law also, and neither of them understand what is going on in the sacraments.

    When Christ commands us to do something (baptise, speak of Him, eat His body and drink His blood…then by golly, He’s going to be there in it!

    Isn’r it funny how all these sacrament denying groups say that Christ is actually present in their hearts, but that He can’t actually be present in a bowl of water or piece of bread where that His Word has been attached?

    It all goes back to ‘me’. I must insert ‘myself ‘into this game anyway that I can.

    That’s bunk. ‘Me, myself and I’…that is the problem ffor cryin’ out loud!

    I think that your thinking on this stuff is way above me. I am a pretty simple amateur theologian. I would love to hear a conversation between you and my pastor (Mark Anderson). You guys would tear it up!

    Feel free to contact him at the Lutheran Church of the Master website, if ever you have a question or want to bounce something off him. He lives to talk about this stuff!

    Feel free to call him at the church office, also. he’s usually there in the mornings between 8am and noon Pacific time. (949) 355-6381
    Also feel free to call me at (949) 355-6381… anytime.

  12. Steve,

    Thanks much for your pastor’s contact info, I’ll have to do that.

    “Isn’r it funny how all these sacrament denying groups say that Christ is actually present in their hearts, but that He can’t actually be present in a bowl of water or piece of bread where that His Word has been attached?”

    You got that right, I’ve NEVER understood that. Even an atheist/agnostic, like I was for years would say, “If God is God this is not a hard thing for Him to do, power or will wise”. In fact as an atheist/agnostic I would not get baptized because baptism had objective reality to me, it wasn’t something that “came into being IF I believed”. That is I was openly denying something tangible in and of itself, baptism not the “possibility of it if I believed”.

    Don’t under play simple, I find “simple” better and smarter – sometimes I get myself caught up in too much analysis because I’m not smart enough! Someone who can state it more succinct than me, to me gets it better and gives it to others better!

    It’s kind of like Dr. Rosenbladt, I’m sure you’ve listen to him, he is pure Gospel genious of the highest caliber and he can say more in one decent sentence than most can in books!

    My wife always helps me by reminding me constantly, “Larry you try to say everything all at once and when you do, it’s confusing!” I have to laugh and say, “I know, I know you are right.”



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