Lutherans and the third use of the law

This post from Paul McCain’s blog is refreshing to see. One of the reasons (though not the only one) that I am not a Lutheran, though I was raised such and remain attracted by its liturgy, is this very issue. Though not so taught in their historic confessions, in practice Lutherans have struck me as so eager to embrace the Gospel that they often downplay the third use of the law. You’ll hear things like “Look to your baptism” (whereas in evangelicalism, you’d be more likely to hear “Well, you prayed the prayer, didn’t you?”). Apparently Rev. McCain has noticed it too.

The Epistles are chock full of exhortations to holiness. A persistent theme in the entire book of Hebrews is to abide, to continue, to not fall away. Don’t retreat to the weak shadow of the Real Thing! The clear sense of Scripture for the believer is this: You’re a good tree, a new creation, so act like it. Obey. Bear fruit. As Elrond says to Aragorn in Lord of the Rings: “Put aside the ranger. Become who you were born to be.” Or as an old acquaintance remarked once about Rom 6:6 (“We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin”): it has to mean something! When Paul says “examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith” (2 Cor 13:5), it’s hard to get around the obvious, especially when he goes on to say “Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?”

The Westminster Confession of Faith (MESV translation) puts it this way in Ch. 16:

These good works, done in obedience to God’s commandments, are the fruits and evidences of a true and living faith. By them believers show their thankfulness, strengthen their assurance, build up their fellow believers, adorn the profession of the gospel, shut the mouths of the adversaries, and glorify God. They are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, so that, bearing fruit unto holiness, they may attain the outcome, which is eternal life. … Their ability to do good works is not at all from themselves, but entirely from the Spirit of Christ. And ”in order that they may be enabled to do these things” besides the graces believers have already received, there must also be an actual influence of the same Holy Spirit working in them both to will and to do God’s good pleasure. This truth, however, should not cause believers to become negligent, as though they were not bound to perform any duty without a special moving of the Spirit; rather, they ought to be diligent in stirring up the grace of God that is in them.

And again in Ch. 19:

[T]he law is of great use to [believers] as well as to others. By informing them “as a rule of life,” both of the will of God and of their duty, it directs and binds them to walk accordingly. It also reveals to them the sinful pollutions of their nature, hearts, and lives. Therefore, when they examine themselves in the light of the law, they may come to further conviction of, humiliation for, and hatred of their sin, together with a clearer view of their need of Christ and the perfection of his obedience. The law is also useful to the regenerate because, by forbidding sin, it restrains their corruptions. By its threats it shows them what their sins deserve, and, although they are free from the curse threatened in the law, it shows the afflictions that they may expect because of them in this life. The promises of the law likewise show to the regenerate God’s approval of obedience and the blessings they may expect as they obey the law, although these blessings are not due to them by the law as a covenant of works.

I mentioned the third use issue to a local LCMS pastor recently. He nodded and said “we’re trying to get back to that.” Godspeed!

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