‘The Law Cannot Make Us Willing’ by Terry Hahm

Born in the shadow of a law-dominated Roman Catholic church, Luther’s theology recovered the priority of the Gospel and then emphasized a proper distinction Terry Hahmbetween Law and Gospel. And yet, the heirs of Luther (and all Christianity for that matter) continues to struggle with the lawful use of the Law. To say that the issue was settled by Luther (or the Lutheran confessions) overstates the case.

First, Luther’s views did not necessarily hold sway over Calvin and the other reformers – so modern evangelicalism has evolved a different view of the Law than Lutheranism. Beyond that, Lutheran theologians themselves have continued to struggle with how the Law fits into the life of the Christian. And this struggle spills over into the pastor’s way of preaching the Law and how the individual Christian responds to such preaching.

The debate within Lutheranism revolves around the so-called three uses of the Law commonly called the mirror, the curb and the guide. For Lutherans at least, the first two uses are never at issue. The third causes all the mischief.

The essence of the controversy was brought home to me when I recently went back to my little brown catechism, the version I used in confirmation classes fifty years ago. There I found the three uses, just as I had remembered them:

1. As a mirror it shows us our sin and the need of a Savior.

2. As a curb it checks to some extent the coarse outbreak of sin, thereby helping to preserve order in this sinful world.

3. As a rule it guides us in the true fear, love, and trust in God, that we willingly do according to His commandments.
– Luther’s Catechism (1956), Explanation p. 90-91

Immediately I noticed parenthesis inserted around the last clause of use #3. (that we willingly do according to His commandments.) and hand-written in the margin was the sentence: “Law cannot make us willing.”

The handwriting was not mine however. I recognized as it as my father’s. And it was written in ink! (a sin of the first order). What was up with that? Had my dad at some point taken my catechism and made his own editorial comments in it?

I flipped through the rest of the catechism. There were no other entries anywhere. This was the only one.

Then I looked at the inside front cover, where I saw my father’s name – Edgar D. Hahm. This was not my catechism after all.

Sometime between 1956 (when this catechism was published) and his death in 1991, my father felt compelled to blog this single sentence (in ink) in his own copy of Luther’s Small Catechism.

He obviously had his own concerns about the misuse of the Law.

I wish I could talk to him about this now.

                                                                     – Terry Hahm


Can the Law make us willing to do what the Law demands?

26 Responses

  1. Amen! The Law can not make us willing.

  2. St Stephen

    At some level the law can get our inner brats all excited about doing holiness. However, when we lie to ourselves, our neighbours and lift our works to God for his admiration we fall again. So there we have sin of lying, idolatry, covetousness, not honouring our Father in heaven, slapping the Crucified Lord and quenching the Holy Spirit etc.

    Romans 5:20 Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more

    Praise God for the second part of Romans 5:20!

    God’s peace. †

  3. St. David,


    For some reason my inner brat never gets excited when he hears Jesus tell me that “whoever of you does not get rid of everything they own, cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:33)

    I guess this so-called “third use” just never seems to kick in on that one.

    His Peace to you as well, my friend.

  4. It is correct the “third use” or so called cannot make us willing. Some think it “makes them willing” when it either strikes fear of punishment for not doing good (or doing evil) or hope of reward for doing good (or not doing evil) but that’s not willing, rather and in fact that is signatory of unwilling deluding itself that it is willing.

    In “The Theology Of The Cross” Dr. Deutschlander writes, “Hidden under my outward goodness is nothingness, is sin. Again, and it is worth repeating because it is so difficult to accept, if I start to look at some things in me and in my nature that are none of God’s business and certainly not deserving of hell, then I have turned my back on the First Commandment. There God declares that I should fear and love him with all that I am and have. And if I imagine that the best in me is somehow meritorious, is somehow at least just a little deserving of God’s bother and his favor, then the best in me is even worse than what I acknowledge to be the worst in me. For the worst in me I confess; it drives me to seek for nothing but mercy and to depend on nothing but grace, namely, the always and totally undeserved love of God. But to think that some good in me does not need Christ and his cross is to rob Christ of his glory as the only Savior and the only One who is good; it robs him of his claim to be the One who has forgiven me totally, washed me by his blood completely, saved me from a condition that was unconditionally hopeless and absolutely desperate!”

    The first question is “Is there anything that gives us the will to do good works”?

    The problem in answering this is with Rome’s doctrine, Calvin’s, Baptistic and Melancthonian Lutherans is that one will hear of in some form or another, “Yes, grace alone of course but God gives me (something – lawish) that makes me willing”, and that something is usually another form of Law or law and not grace it self. It’s as old as the Pharisee’s prayer of “I thank you God (for giving me X), so that I am not like ________”.

    Yet it is only grace that frees a man so that he may on the one hand perform good works as a result of being ALREADY a good tree by grace alone and not the cause of being a good tree. Yet the person who is the good tree and yet has good works is the one made that by the grace, it is the tax collector’s prayer that shows us this, “Lord have mercy on me a sinner”. THAT and that alone is the position of the good tree, that is not an initial conversion! Of course if you are in a OSAS paradigm that’s impossible to imagine because there’s this crossing over of the line and no real (according to that doctrine not Scripture) chance of falling away once across the line. Third use is natural and connected to OSAS and all its variations including Calvin. But again Luther is helpful for this when he analyzes the Roman venial/mortal sin categories and turns them against Rome. Rome’s division here is the difference between dead and deadly sins, the protestant OSAS/Calvinistic parallel is the third use law good deeds/works that are only “stained” by sin (=dead, in Rome’s system) versus the good works depended upon by the pre-converted person (=deadly, in Rome’s system). Here analyzing Rome, and I think Protestants outside of Luther by extension, Luther says to speak of a work (good work) as only “dead” and not deadly (that which truly separates in reality not theory one from God and His mercy) “seems to be a perilous surrender of the fear of God”. So we see that to think this way is a very crafty way of smuggling in good works via a third use/OSAS scheme or paradigm that is no different than Rome’s more overtly stated scheme of works righteousness. In short it is utterly impossible to have a fear of God when in anyway one’s works may be secretly clung to for prove or assurance in a “once I’m saved I cannot fall away”. It’s worth noting that ultimately in Rome and Protestantism that ultimate assurance in the personal way, for me, is in the proofs of “my good works”. Here Rome, Calvin and Baptist are in one accord.

    Second question, is there a position for the Law in the Christian other than for the unbeliever? In short yes! For grace brings us to the where the Law ultimately points much hindered this side of eternity, but to where it goes and that is the nature of the new man in which there is no need of the Law in which the Law is done truly freely and willingly – that utter outward love of God and of neighbor in purity such that there is no law. As it has been well said before the Law wishes to be done so willingly and naturally that there is NO Law, and that is the true nature of the Law, and that condemns us utterly under the Law. Only in grace are we brought back to not be under the Law again.

    Finally it is always worth pointing out again and again so the pietistic arguments may be shown for their utter impotency that they are; “If you have to be told by the Law what to do or not do, you must realize that before you act yea or nay, to obey or disobey, that you have ALREADY fallen into deadly damnable sin worthy of wrath and hell”. Thus, we are ALREADY in trouble when the Law publishes itself in any form.


  5. Can the Law make us willing to do what the Law demands?

    Nope! If so, Jesus wouldn’t have to die!

  6. Larry,

    Amen. If we have to be told to do it, we have aklready blown it.

    The law is written upon our hearts. We know what to do. We flat out refuse to do it, because it would cut into our section of the pie.

  7. Bino,

    If the law could make us into what God demands, Jesus would not have had to die for us.


    Thanks, Bino!

  8. Those who think the Law motivates are like old high school cheerleaders who chant “Let’s get fired up”, and so work themselves up into this “go team” froth. That’s what most evangelical praise services are like, third use law, confounded law gospel – if any at all – all over the place with inane praise music, alter calls, rededications, rebaptisms with occasional crackers and juice just like the little kids snack time in SS. All this in an attempt to work the crowd up into this “can do” enthused lather. Kind of reminds one of the dizzy excitements we read of in Baal worship.

  9. When a pastor, or preacher uses specific examples of what to do, or not do as a means to get us to do the law, they have just created two camps in their congregation.

    Now you have those that say, “well I’m not having any adulterous thoughts” (pride)

    Then you have those who try and try to not have any adulterous thoughts but continue to have them (despair, or phoniness).

    The law ought be used (in a sermon) to slay everyone. And if there is encouraging to be done, that is great (we are now free in Christ for the neighbor, so make use of that freedom as best you can).

    Preachers just ought stay away from prescribtive lists of what to do. That opens the door to legalism and all that goes along with it. And most of it is bad.

  10. Larry wrote:
    “so work themselves up into this “go team” froth”.

    there’s plenty of that kind of froth in christian spirituality,
    the substance is, thankfully, where it always has been,
    in the finished work of God in Christ at calvary and the empty tomb-
    all our righteousness stems from HIS work alone.

  11. I am no friend of the third use of the law. We know the law will not justify and that in spite of it’s absolute claims it can neither save or give life. At the same time eliminating the word “should” from preaching does not eliminate the myriad requirements placed upon the Christian in a world of sin and death. If we do not speak the legal word of obligation our people will hear it anyway from the culture and in the opposing, illusory language of personal rights, which is tantamount to handing the sinner a blank check. And it is precisely the obligations we are concerned with. For every relationship – including the relationship with God – comes with obligations. The gospel has not eliminated these.
    In fact, it is when the sinner is brought to the point of recognizing how he\she has failed in these obligations that the gospel breaks in with all it’s force and freeing power. We should preach the non-negotiable obligations which come with creaturely life but these will never create what they demand. Christ is our last word.

  12. Steve,

    “prescribtive lists”. BINGO!

    A few brilliant quotes from Dr. Norman Nagel come to mind regarding this:

    “Numbers and measuring are always of the law.”

    “Faith in the Way of the Law and Faith in the Way of the Gospel.”

    “A lot of love talk is a lot of Law talk.”

    “Who’s running the verbs?”

    “Who’s doing the doing?” (repeat over and over until you get the right answer.–Christ!)

    “The Done Didness of the Gospel”



  13. The 3rd rule doesn’t really say that it is the law that makes us willing, but that the law continues to serve as a guide. It is the power of grace that makes us willing to live holy lives.

    I actually question use #2, as Paul made it clear that the law does not curb sin, but causes sin to increase.


  14. Alden,

    I believe #2 is referring to the civil use. It does help to keep chaos from reigning.

    As far as the ‘guide’ goes, it seems (to me anyway) that the first two uses take care of that function also.

    • I agree with the 2nd point; it does seem somewhat redundant.

      And, I understand the use of the law for civil purposes; it becomes somewhat problematic separating the “civil” law from the holiness-related law, as the Law of Moses incorporated both. Paul, of course, supported obedience to the state (to some extent, anyway) for the sake of civil order. Interesting, thought, that he doesn’t seem to make that distinction in his discussion of “the law.” Perhaps the context made the distinction clear.

  15. Alden,

    Good question on #2. I think it can be easily answer, how does it increase sin? There is the lesser psychology that most interpret that, and that is too part of it. Basically, “forbidden fruit” is tempting; such as a “Wet Paint Do Not Touch” sign. But the deeper increase in sin is when it either creates the “I can pull it off” or “despair of hope”, for both commit the greatest sin of denying the grace of God. Fallen man thus uses, as Forde put it once, to withhold himself from the grace of God and thus God and not closer to God as fallen man thinks. It aggravates sin this way (1) I don’t need Jesus Christ at all, or its partner (2) I only need Christ “this much”, I can work with Him on the rest. Thus, It curbs sin only in so much as it issues forth fear of punishment and hope of reward (which is faithless and damnable) in the earthly level. E.g. I won’t steel my neighbors car because I really don’t want to go to jail.

    Third use as a guide is an interesting approach I’ve pondered much myself. That’s not really “third use”. Luther would call that actually “being without the Law”. In other words returned via grace to be a creature again so that true good works are those we are created for. E.g. Celebacy via Rome is satanic since Christ is not nearly enough versus marriage and changing baby diapers true godly love because faith says Christ did it all. That’s not really a “third use” that’s “being no longer UNDER the Law” and returned to the creation/recreation. E.g. the pretend fish says, “I need to be in the water” (third use guide concept – still UNDER the Law). The real fish just IS in the water (no longer UNDER the Law but “in it”). Thus one has that release that comes with the Gospel versus the tightening up we see in all pietism and phariseeism. Pietism looks for a job jar, the believer just does and often doesn’t know he/she just does.


  16. A point Luther makes is that he who appoints his own works, even distilled from Scripture actually PROVES he hates the Law of God. As opposed to those whom God lays suffering upon in order to deny self. In his HD Luther points out that a theology of glory loves works over suffering and glory over cross. But to suffer is to do what is given to do not what one appoints. Suffering Cross truly, whereby true good works are really done and hidden as articles of faith occur in the common-ness of ordinary vocations. That’s what it means to suffer, to passively endure that which is laid upon one. It doesn’t mean, however, to suffer when God has presented opportunity to end a particular cross which would then be the occasion for self righteousness.

    This is what offices are for, to suffer our crosses!


  17. I seem to think that there is a difference between being willing and being capable.

    I like to be able to fly but I have no capability.

    From what I read in the BoC, the Law gives the will but it does not supply the capability. This is from SD VI.

    11] For the Law says indeed that it is God’s will and command that we should walk in a new life, but it does not give the power and ability to begin and do it; but the Holy Ghost, who is given and received, not through the Law, but through the preaching of the Gospel, Gal. 3:14, renews the heart. 12] Thereafter the Holy Ghost employs the Law so as to teach the regenerate from it, and to point out and show them in the Ten Commandments what is the [good and] acceptable will of God, Rom. 12:2, in what good works God hath before ordained that they should walk, Eph. 2:10. He exhorts them thereto, and when they are idle, negligent, and rebellious in this matter because of the flesh,

    I am still processing the 3rd Use up to now, but the BoC take on it I think is influential lately.


  18. As Pastor Anderson stated earlier in his comment, the law is still in effect and needs to be preached and preached in it’s fullness, for not one jot or tittle of the law will be done away with until Jesus ushers in His New Kingdom.

    But it is not done (or shouldn’t be) to make us better Christians.

    We cannot be better Christians than the Lord made us at our baptisms.

    The Lutheran Confessions are great, and what Luther and Melancthon and the other reformers said and wrote is great…but every word of it is NOT Holy Writ.

    Those documents were formulated in time of great tension and war and were compromised (if only a little) by those circumstances.

    But a little compromise when it comes to matters of faith, is too much.

    Just because some of the first Lutherans (and certainly not all of them) felt a need for the “3rd use of the law” does not mean that we still have to live with that compromise.

    ‘Well, what harm is in it?’

    It can (and has in many places), open the door to legalism.

    If we stay in the Center (which is Christ), then we can avoid the mistakes of a rigid fundamentalism that makes a god of certain doctrine, and we can avoid the mistake of licentiousness and a jettisoning of God’s law altogether.

    It is not easy to do. But there are places where it is being done.

  19. Steve and LP,

    That’s exactly right the Law must be preached in its 200 proof wrath burning reality. As Luther says God kills, destroys and takes to hell in order to make alive, save and forgive. One presupposes the other.

    LP’s distinction is a good one to bear in mind.

    This is why the law and gospel distinction is much deeper than simple “imperative/indicative” recognition (which is where most Reformed and third use folks make the break). As Luther pointed out once concerning Gen. 3:15 that it is a terrifying statement. At first blow we say, “Whaaaat! That’s the Gospel.” Yet Luther recognized they are two sides of the same coin, law and gospel. It is, thus, a terrifying reality that it takes the death of God the Son on a Cross, His blood, to redeem fallen man. The Cross is both the purest Gospel and forgiveness, but it is also the purest Law and wrath. Likewise often Luther saw Gospel in the more direct “law statements”, like the first commandment, in so much as they are promises.

    What this means is that deluded preachers who reduce the Law necessarily reduce the Gospel and vice versa. It is impossible to not do this! And to do this is to have neither the Law and neither the Gospel. Put more bluntly such is to in reality and fact, not theory, preach, teach and confess another “law” and another “gospel” which is neither and damned and a damned hellish message.

    Luther never once makes a “third use” distinction, but he does go to tremendous length in discussing the difference of being “under the Law” versus not under the Law. Paul also makes this very distinction! The third use, also, does not match up with true simul Justus et peccator. For the old adam will most certainly ONLY abuse the third use unto self righteousness, and the new man has no need of it for he/she ONLY acts in all he/she does as the good tree. Jesus’ ENTIRE point about the good versus bad tree was a black and white description or indication, not an imperative. Point blank an apple tree by its MADE (by another) nature ONLY produces apples and a thorn bush by its nature (like the fallen nature) ONLY produces thorns. Thus when a thorn bush “produces” something that outwardly appears as an apple (a good work) it is still just a thorn (damnable). And when an apple tree’s outward work produces even a rotten apple, the blood of Christ makes it truly an apple! A Christian is an apple tree not because “he does so”, but has been “made so”…IN baptism!


  20. […] Born in the shadow of a law-dominated Roman Catholic church, Luther’s theology recovered the prior… […]

  21. Pastor Mark, Well said.

  22. I am googling this, so I found it late.

    Here is THE Lutheran response you your question.

    First, the questions and answers in the synodical catechism are not part of the small catechism. and the part you quote is actually wrong. It is directly contrary to the Lutheran confessions.

    Secondly the 3rd use is dealt with in article VI of the formula of concord. It does not say that the 3rd use is that the law us a guide for christians. that is not it´s thrust.

    the controversy it answers was where one group of Lutherans was saying that sanctification and good works happen spontaneously in christians and so no law preaching is necessary any longer. the other side said “nope, the law is still necessary and useful for christians”

    This controversy is still a burning one isnt it? the queston is “what should the christian life look like? and how do we increase good works and become more sanctified?”

    While the 3rd use is generally taught by Lutherans as you quoted, this is really a reformed view of things.

    Article VI does not teach this and is the official Lutheran view. Here is how it speaks:

    first it defines regeneration (aka sanctification) as where god puts a new man with a new will into us. This new man is in perfect conformity with the will and law of God and so as a result the FRUIT of that new man happens spontaneously, automatically, like light from sun.

    The upshot is that sanctification is not The Holy spirit PLUS our sweat effort. It is pure heavenly kingdom stuff. it is all faith and no works. it just happens.

    now in the earthly kingdom things are different: Here the Holy Spirit uses the Law to bring the old adam to submission to make him service-able to his neighbor in the form of good works or outward righteousness. This is called Mortification of the Flesh. This is Holy spirit + law = Good works. These good works are gods work, blessed by him temporally, rewards are promised for these works and they will perish with the earth. this earthly kingdom stuff is ALL law. NO faith at all.

    so then:

    heavenly kingdom. sanctification regeneration faith fruit of faith/sanctification/regeneration. fruit is automatic like light from sun. INNER righteousness, sanctification is about FAITH ALONE sanctification=faith=new birth.

    earthly kingdom. mortification of flesh. law work of the holy spirit as well . same thing in old adam of pagan and christian alike. unwilling . OUTward righteousness. law. effort.

    here is why Lutherans got confused I think. They heard paul and luther say Holy spirit and try harder in the same sentence and thought…hmmm holy spiirit, must be talking bout sanctification.

    What they miss is that the holy spirit also works through the law. in fact all the fatherly good gifts we get from our neighbor are delivered by old adams in this way. God the holy spirit does this . using the law. mortification of the flesh. and here is the important part: FAITH IS EXCLUDED, UNNECESSARY for outward righteousness to happen.

    the other part that gets Lutherans confused is that the bible teaches that for good works to be TRULY good, they must flow from faith. the tree must be good for the fruit to be good. so they dismiss outward righteousness as not being gods will or pleasing to him.

    the true lutheran teaching is that outward righteousness are pleasing to God, are necessary (logic tells us this eh?) BUT they do not merit salvation. and they are not necessary for salvation. Only christ is necessary there. and our faith connects us to him.

    make sense?

  23. make sense?


    The part after and here is the important part: FAITH IS EXCLUDED, UNNECESSARY for outward righteousness to happen. I can follow.

    But this statement is spurious. Without faith it is impossible to please God so, the outward righteousness you must be speaking about is a fake righteousness.

    so they dismiss outward righteousness as not being gods will or pleasing to him.

    I certainly do not dismiss it. It could be a typical American Lutheran slant on outward righteousness. I am starting to think this way since many there do not believe in the 3rd use of the Law.


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