The Three Uses of the Law

Dear Church Family,

In your Christian life, do you ever feel divided in yourself – particularly in your relationship to the Law of God? That is, do you sometimes feel the overwhelming condemnation of the Law as you examine your life, recognizing the sinfulness of your heart, and need of a Savior? Then, at other times, do you delight and rejoice in God’s Law, seeking to live for Christ in new obedience? Or, quite often, these two impulses – a recognition of your sin and a desire to pursue holiness – are intermingled, occurring simultaneously.

If that is the case, you’re not alone. In fact, you’re like every other believer that has ever lived. This is one of the reasons that the Psalms are so varied. Sometimes in the Psalms, we are driven by the Law to confess our sin and sinfulness (e.g. Psalm 51:3 – “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me”). And, sometimes in the Psalms, we are exhorted to pursue holiness in keeping with God’s Law (e.g. Psalm 119:55 – “O LORD, I remember Your name in the night, and keep Your Law”). The Apostle Paul gives expression to this dual condition, this wrestling with the Law, which is common to all Christians in Romans 7:14-25.

Theologians have historically spoken of the varied ‘uses’ of the Law of God as falling into three categories. The three uses of the Law describe God’s intended purposes for His Law. In systemizing the teaching of Scripture in this way, we find help in understanding why we respond in different ways to God’s Law. We also discover that the Law of God is a means of grace to us. Thus, we learn of our continuing need for God’s Law as those who have been justified by faith in Jesus Christ. Let us consider these three uses in order (some traditions give a different order, but we will follow the order typically found in Reformed theology). And, just to be clear, by “the Law of God” we primarily have in mind here the Ten Commandments, or the moral law.

1. The Civil Use (usus politicus or civilus). The Law functions as a goad to civil righteousness. The first use of the Law – the civil use – applies to all men everywhere, regardless of whether they are believers or not. This is the operation of God’s law in the realm of common grace. In the first use, the Law restrains sinful behavior and promotes righteous behavior. It simply keeps people from murdering each other and stealing each other’s property.

In the civil use, the law functions much like a strait-jacket. It restrains people’s behavior, but does not penetrate the heart. It is mere behaviorism. It is called the civil use of the law because it is the means by which God, through the authority which he grants to common societies and governing authorities, restrains evil in the world. Paul speaks of this in his epistle to the Romans (13:1-7). Do what is good and you will have praise from rulers and governing authorities; do what is evil, and you rightly fear (vv3-4). Of course, Christians honor and obey earthly authorities for many other reasons, as well, but this is one which we have in common with unbelievers.

2. The Pedagogical Use (usus elenchticus or pedagogicus). This second use of the Law is for the unbeliever and the believer alike. Here, the Law functions as a means of grace in driving people to see their need of Christ and His righteousness. For the unbeliever, the perfect moral Law reveals one’s sinfulness and inability to keep God’s Law. For the believer, the perfect moral Law continues to reveal our sinfulness and inability to perfectly keep God’s Law. In this second use – the pedagogical use – the Law shows our need for Christ and His righteousness – an alien righteousness that is not our own, but can be ours through faith. The Law shows our need to be justified by faith in Christ.

In the pedagogical use, the law functions much like a prison or a harsh task-master. The law exposes our sin, condemns us, and leaves us without hope. Thus, the law prepares us to see the glories of the gospel wherein we learn of Jesus Christ, the Savior of men, who has met the standard of God’s holy Law for us. Paul summarizes this use of the Law well in Romans 8:3-4: “For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, so that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.”

3. The Normative (or Didactic) Use (usus didacticus or normativus). Like the second use, the third use of the Law is a means of God’s grace. However, unlike the second use which applies to both unbelievers and believers in seeing their need for Christ, the third use is applicable only to believers. The third use of the Law is called the normative use because it acts as the norm for our conduct. It is called the didactic use because it teaches us how to live. In addition to continuing to show us our need for Christ (second use), the Law also functions for the believer in showing us how we are to live for Christ (third use).

In the normative or didactic use, the law functions much like railroad tracks. The law shows us the way to live – the way of righteousness and holiness. The law is the revealed will of God for His people, and only the regenerate who have God’s Spirit are able to keep it properly. The Psalms begin with this (third use) understanding of God’s Law: “How blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, Nor stand in the path of sinners, Nor sit in the seat of scoffers! But his delight is in the law of the LORD, And in His law he meditates day and night” (Psalm 1:1-2). Through faith in Jesus Christ, we see God’s law in a new light: purposing to love God, we keep His commandments, and His commandments are not burdensome (1 John 5:2-3).


The Law of God is neglected by many believers who cast aspersions on God’s Law and dismiss His holy standard, believing that God’s Law no longer applies to those who have been born again. Sometimes, God’s Law is dismissed with the false assertion that the work of God’s Spirit is in opposition to the God’s Law. Or, at best, some see God’s Spirit as working apart from God’s Law. Yet, as John Calvin has written, “The third use of the Law (being also the principal use, and more closely connected with its proper end) has respect to believers in whose hearts the Spirit of God already flourishes and reigns” (Calvin’s Institutes, 2.7.12).

After describing these varied uses of the law of God, the Westminster Confession of Faith says this: “Neither are the forementioned uses of the law contrary to the grace of the Gospel, but do sweetly comply with it; the Spirit of Christ subduing and enabling the will of man to do that freely and cheerfully, which the will of God revealed in the law requires to be done” (WCF 19:7).

The uses of the law are not contrary to the grace of the Gospel, but do “sweetly comply” with it! Praise God that He has been gracious to us in revealing to us both His Law and His Gospel!

The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch

Punishment and Discipline

Dear Church Family,

A couple of people have asked about the poem that I read this past Sunday during the Lord’s Supper. The poem is called, “A Dialogue-Anthem” by George Herbert and was written in 1633. The poem is a dialogue between the Christian and Death and speaks of Christ’s victory of the grave. You may read the text of the poem online here:

In the sermon this coming Sunday morning, we will be picking up our series in the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Galatians in chapter 3, verses 15-22. In this passage, Paul discusses the relationship between the promise made to Abraham and the Law given through Moses. These verses are part of an extended discussion on the purpose of the Law.

Historically, theologians have spoken of the Law as having three uses: (1) civil, (2) pedagogical; (3) normative. Next week, I’ll write more on these three uses. At present, suffice it to say that in chapters 3-4 of Galatians, Paul’s emphasis is on the pedagogical use – the Law is a tutor which leads us to recognize our need of Christ and His righteousness (Galatians 3:24). In Chapters 5-6, Paul’s emphasis is on the normative use – the Law teaches the believer how to walk, how to live (Galatians 5:14; 6:2). Again, I’ll write more about these three uses and why it’s important to understand them, next week.

In these discussions – and how believers relate to God through the Law – I have found it helpful to highlight the difference between punishment and discipline. As an aside, we must be careful here because these words are often used interchangeably in the Bible. So, we don’t want to take what is said here about these concepts and import it into every use of these words in Scripture. I call this importation of all the various nuances of a concept into a particular word, ‘theological word-loading.’ It’s tempting to do, but it’s also dangerous. So, we need to be on guard against theological word-loading.

Differentiating between Punishment and Discipline

At the same time, it is helpful to differentiate between the concepts of punishment and discipline. A good way to see the difference is to consider the ends or the intended result of each. Punishment is intended to balance the scales of justice, to exact payment for a wrong committed. Discipline, on the other hand, is intended to correct the one who committed that wrong, to benefit the one who is disciplined. The former serves justice, the latter serves the offender.

We see the differentiation of these concepts in debates surrounding the penal system of our country. I’m not an attorney or a law-expert, and I’m surely over-simplifying the debate, but it seems to me that the debates surround this question: are those who commit crimes put in prison in order to punish them for their crimes (to balance the scales of justice) or to rehabilitate them (to teach them to obey the law).

Does God Punish or Discipline?

So, in differentiating between the concepts of punishment and discipline, here is the question: Does God punish people for their sins or does he discipline them for their sins? The answer is yes – both/and.

In our natural state, because of our sin, all men are deserving of God’s wrath – His punishment (John 3:26; Ephesians 2:1-3). Each individual person who sins will die and be punished for their own sin; the wickedness of the wicked will be upon himself (Ezekiel 18:20).

However, the good news of the gospel is this: “when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His son, born of a woman, born under the Law, so that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons” (Galatians 4:4-5). Thus, “if we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).

Notice the words that are used in that last verse to describe how God acts in forgiving us. It does not say that God is forgetful and merciful to forgive our sins. No, God is faithful (to His covenant promises) and righteous (just) to forgive us our sins. How is He just? Because God has already punished our sins by pouring out His wrath on the Lord Jesus Christ. To punish those who are ‘in Christ’ (who belong to Him) would by unjust. There is no more punishment for those who trust in Christ.

Instead, for believers – those who have been justified by faith in Christ – we will never be punished for our sins! Praise God! There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1)! Because justice has been served on the cross of Calvary wherein God punished our sins in His only begotten Son, God does not punish us. He disciplines us. For He disciplines those whom He loves (Hebrews 12:5).

Justice having been served, God disciplines us for our good – in order that we might share in His holiness. Human fathers discipline their children as seems best to them, but “God disciplines us for our good, so that we may share His holiness. All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness” (Hebrews 12:10-11).


Understanding the difference between the concepts of punishment and discipline is foundational to understanding how we relate to God through His Law. Apart from Christ, God’s Law condemns and punishes us. In Christ, God’s Law disciplines and trains us in holiness.

For those who have come to know Jesus Christ and the love of God for us in Him, we can have confidence in the day of judgment because we share in God’s holiness (1 John 4:16-17). Christ’s righteousness has been credited to our account. Thus, though fear involves punishment, we have nothing to fear because there is no punishment for those whom God has accepted in Christ, only love (1 John 4:18). And, in that love, there is no punishment, only discipline.

The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch

The God of Resurrection

Dear Church Family,

Good Friday Communion Service: This Friday, March 29th at 7:00 pm, we will have a Good Friday Communion Service. Come, bring your family, and invite your friends, as we remember the Lord Jesus Christ’s crucifixion and death on our behalf. In our service on Friday, we will be examining the last verse of Romans, chapter 4: Jesus our Lord was delivered over because of our transgressions, and was raised because of our justification.

Adult Sunday School: In the Adult Sunday school class this coming Sunday (yes, there is Sunday school scheduled for Easter Sunday), we will be in Lesson 3 of our video series, He Gave Us Prophets. In this forthcoming lesson, we will learn about “The People of the Covenant.” That is, we will learn how in both the Old and New Testaments, God relates to people through covenant. If you miss a lesson in this series or want to review a lesson, you may do so online here:

Sunday Morning Worship: Then, in the sermon in this Sunday morning’s service (Easter), we will be looking at the different blessings of the “grace in which we stand” – those blessings which we enjoy as those who have been justified by faith in Jesus Christ (Romans 5:1-11). In the Sunday morning service, we will also formally receive several individuals and families into membership at Providence Presbyterian Church. And, we will have the privilege of partaking in the baptism of a child of the covenant, Eleanor Finley.

Covenant Continuity

A common thread in all of these things is the continuity of God’s covenant promises to His people throughout redemptive history. That is to say, the promises which God made to those of the old covenant (people like Abraham and Moses and David) are fulfilled in the new covenant people of God (to us!) through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. As we saw this past Sunday from Galatians 3:6-14, those who are of faith are sons of Abraham and are blessed with Abraham, the believer (vv 7, 9).

This Sunday, we will see this continuity of God’s covenant promises in the sacrament of baptism. Both signs, circumcision in the old covenant and baptism in the new covenant, point to the “circumcision of Christ” (Colossians 2:9-12) – the inward work of regeneration which comes by the indwelling of God’s Spirit and the removal of punishment and power of our own sin nature, this body of flesh.

The sacrament of baptism is a sign and seal of our ingrafting into Christ, our partaking of the benefits of the covenant of grace, and our engagement to be the Lord’s (Westminster Shorter Catechism 94). The washing with water in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit is the proclamation of God’s promise, His visible words to us: Only believe in Me, trust in Me, and I will save you from the punishment of your sins and grant you eternal life and fellowship with me, through the washing of regeneration and the renewing by the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:5-7).

But, you know, the continuity of God’s covenant promises is not only seen in the sacraments of the old and new covenants. Nor, is this continuity only manifested in the fact that Abraham was justified by faith as we are. It is also the object, the specific content of Abraham’s faith and ours, in which this continuity is manifested. Here’s what I mean (bottom line up front): Both Abraham and we believe in God as the God of resurrection. We, like Abraham, have placed our faith in the fact that God is able to raise the dead.

Abraham’s Faith in the Resurrection

To Abraham, God had promised to make him into a great nation, that his offspring would be too numerous to count. We know – particularly through our study of Galatians – that we who have trusted in Christ are included in that number; we are sons of Abraham. But, for Abraham to have faith – to believe this specific promise of God – he had to believe that God was a God who could raise the dead, on at least two counts!

First, Abraham believed that God could raise the deadness of his own body and the deadness of his wife, Sarah’s, womb (Romans 4:19-20). Abraham, though both he and Sarah were about a hundred years old, believed that God could resurrect their dead bodies and give them offspring. Second, in the book of Hebrews, God’s word tells us that even as Abraham obediently offered up his only begotten son, Isaac, as God had commanded, he believed the promise: “In Isaac your descendants shall be called” (Hebrews 11:18). What was the content of Abraham’s specific faith? Abraham considered that God is able to raise people even from the dead, and receive his son back from the dead (Hebrews 11:19). Even Abraham’s words and actions at the time, reveal that he was trusting that God was a God who was able to raise the dead (Genesis 22:5).

So, in the content or specifics of Abraham’s faith, he believed that God could resurrect both he and his wife’s body and make Abraham a father of many nations, even as God had promised. And, in the content or specifics of Abraham’s faith, he believed that God could resurrect his son, and give him offspring through Isaac, even as God had promised.

Our Faith in the Resurrection

At Easter, we are reminded that our God is a God of resurrection. God raised His own Son, Jesus Christ, from the dead (Acts 2:24, 32; 10:40; Romans 10:9). That is the content of our faith: our God is a God of resurrection. He raised Jesus from the dead, and He promises to raise we who belong to Him from the dead. As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15, that great chapter on the resurrection, “If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied. But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:19-20).

Like Abraham, our faith hinges on the fact that our God is the God of resurrection. Christ has died! Christ is risen! Christ will come again! Hallelujah! And, even as God raised Jesus Christ from the dead, He promises to raise from the dead those who believe in Jesus Christ. For if we died with Him, we will also live with Him (2 Timothy 2:11). Because God raised Jesus from the dead, we have placed our hope and faith in God to raise us from the dead, even as He has promised.

The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch

Are We Living in the End Times?

Dear Church Family,

In the adult Sunday school class this past week, we began a new video series in which we are studying an overview of the prophetic books of the Old Testament. The series is called He Gave Us Prophets. In case you missed it, or would like to review the lessons, the video series is available to view online here:

Anxious or Apathetic

One of the questions that often arises in the study of prophecy in Scripture is: “Are we living in the end times?” The question usually elicits some kind of apocalyptic fervor in every generation. In 1984, Jerry Jenkins and Timothy Lahaye published a book whose title bore this question. Of course, this book, like all others of its kind, has had to be updated and rewritten every couple of years. Unfortunately, as prognosticators make their predictions and profess to have the ability to read the “signs of the times,” Christians usually become one of two things: anxious or apathetic.

In order to counter this anxiety or apathy, when I am asked the question, “Are we living in the end times?” I answer like this, “Yes, we are – and according to the Bible we have been living in the end times for about two thousand years, since the first coming of Christ!” You see, as believers in Christ, we miss a great deal of the implications of the promises of the gospel if we listen to the prognosticators, rather than actually studying God’s Word. We need a better understanding of what the Bible says about the ‘latter days’ so that rather than being anxious or apathetic, we may become confident, hopeful, alert – full of faith, as God intended through our proper understanding of the end times (Matthew 6:31-34; Mark 13:7, 11, 20-22, 33, 35, 37).

The “Last Days” in Scripture

In Deuteronomy, Moses prophesied that God’s people will worship false gods and thus go into exile (4:25-28), but then they will repent and God will come to them (4:29). Because Yahweh will not forget the covenant which He swore to their fathers, He will not leave them or destroy them in the ‘latter days’ (4:30-31). As we know from Scripture, the people of God were sent into exile, but they still held out hope for redemption from the Lord. The prophets of the Old Testament develop this theme of latter days blessing. Isaiah says that the “mountain of the house of the LORD will be established as the chief of the mountains.” Many people will come to worship the one true God and will learn His word and the way of peace (Isaiah 2:2-4). Jeremiah emphasizes the clarity of understanding which Yahweh will bring for His people in the latter days (Jeremiah 23:20; 30:24) and the eventual blessing of even the enemies of His people (Jeremiah 48:47; 49:39). Hosea prophesies that after their exile, “the sons of Israel will return and seek the LORD their God and David their king; and they will come trembling to the LORD and to His goodness in the last days.” (Hosea 3:5).

When Jesus begins His earthly ministry, His message is summarized as, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17). Jesus brought the reign and peace of God. With the coming of the kingdom of heaven, Jesus Christ sent His disciples out with the same message and power over sickness, death, and the devil (Matthew 10:7-8). On that first day of Pentecost after Jesus’ ascension, the disciples were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in the languages of the nations (Acts 2:1-5). Interestingly, one of these nations is Elam which is mentioned by Jeremiah as one of the nations that will be blessed in the latter days (Jeremiah 49:3). Luke tells us that the people who witnessed this event in Jerusalem were bewildered, amazed, and astonished (Acts 2:6-7). Peter stood up in the midst of the crowd and interpreted the day’s events as a fulfillment of a prophecy which we find in Joel concerning the last days,

“‘And it shall be in the last days,’ God says, ‘That I will pour forth of My Spirit on all mankind; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; even on my bondslaves, both men and women, I will in those days pour forth of My Spirit and they shall prophesy. And I will grant wonders in the sky above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke. The sun will be turned into darkness and the moon into blood, before the great and glorious day of the Lord shall come. And it shall be that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’” (Acts 2:17-21; cf. Joel 2:28-32a)

Peter understood that the blessings of the latter days as foretold in the Prophets had begun. Peter continues to expound the Old Testament in a historical lesson on the plan of God as fulfilled in Jesus Christ (Acts 2:22-36), and concludes with an exhortation and a promise “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call to Himself.” (Acts 2:38-39).

The writer of Hebrews begins this way, “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.” (Hebrews 1:1-2) We are already in the last days. Make no mistake, the kingdom of heaven and the latter days have come in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Christ’s first appearing means that His kingdom has come (2 Timothy 4:1).


To be sure, we still await the glorious appearing of our God and Savior Jesus Christ when He will come again to make all things new in the new heaven and the new earth (Titus 2:13; Revelation 21:1-5). However, let us remember that those things which the prophets of old foretold in the coming of the latter days are ours today; the blessings of the latter days are a present reality for the new covenant people of God. Things like the writing of the law upon the hearts of His people, personal knowledge of the Holy One of Israel, and the forgiveness of our sins (Jeremiah 31:31-34). The good news is: “Your God reigns!” (Isaiah 52:7). Through death, Jesus Christ destroyed the one who has the power of death, namely the devil. Therefore, as believers in Christ, the offspring of Abraham, we have been delivered from exile and the bond of slavery (Hebrews 2:14-16).

You see, the proper understanding of eschatology and the ‘latter days’ is crucial to our understanding of the promises of the gospel and the reign of God. Believers in Christ are fellow heirs and fellow members of the body, and fellow partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel (Ephesians 3:6). So, the next time someone asks you what you think about the end times, tell them, “I’m enjoying them very much, thank you. How about you?”

The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch