in From the Pastor

Three Uses of the Law

It will probably not surprise you to learn that there is a great deal of debate and dialogue surrounding the question of the relationship of the believer to God’s law. Are we supposed to obey God’s law? After all, Paul told the church in Corinth that he lives under the law of Christ (1 Cor. 9:21). Or are we free from obeying the law? Intriguingly, in the same place, in the same letter to the Corinthians, Paul claims he is not under the law (1 Cor. 9:20).

To quote the preeminent theologian, Winnie-the-Pooh, “Oh, bother!”

One avenue towards gaining a grasp on our relationship to the law is to consider the idea of the threefold use of the law. According to this perspective, the OT law functions in the following ways:

The first function of the law is that it acts like a mirror. The law reflects the righteousness and holiness of God. But the law also acts like a mirror for our own hearts as it reveals the sin that lies within us. By focusing on our sin in light of God’s righteousness, the law drives us to God in Christ as our only hope. In other words, in the mirror of the law, I see who God is, I see who I am, and I am driven to see Jesus is my only hope.

The second function of the law is that it restrains sinful behavior. This use of the law is probably the most familiar to us because this is how we think of our own nation’s legal system. While even God’s law does not have the power to change hearts, it does have a certain coercive power in so far as it includes judgment for disobedience and protection for the just against the unjust. This function of the law was most obvious in the nation of Israel before the time of Christ, though as nations pass laws today that are derived from or find their foundation in God’s revelation, we continue to witness this aspect of God’s purposes.

The third function of the law is that it guides believers. Since Jesus has fulfilled the whole law on our behalf (something we could not do), we have been freed from living under the law. We do not look to the law as our savior; rather, we look to Christ as our Savior. Even so, the law still has a place in our lives in so far as it guides us in how we should live because, returning to the first function of the law, it reveals God’s nature, and the evidence that we love the God who saved us is found in seeking to obey his commands.

Clearly, there is much more to say about this subject, but recognizing the way the law functions is a good start because understanding the third use of the law, especially, will go a long way in helping us appreciate the importance of the law in giving honor and glory to God.