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July 24, 2023

Speaking with a Reformed Accent: The Third Use of the Law

This is the second blog in a series of monthly blogs on “Speaking with a Reformed Accent”. In this blog Dr. Cornelius Plantinga reflects on how the law can be a form of God’s grace, something John Calvin referred to as the third use of the law.

In his famous Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin lays out three main uses of the law of God (Institutes 2.7.6-12). By “the law” Calvin has in mind the moral law, the law God intends to govern human behavior—that is, the Ten Commandments plus Jesus’ summary of them in the gospels. There Jesus says that the Ten Commandments may be compacted into two commandments: first, that we are to love God with everything we have, and, second, that we are to love our neighbors as ourselves (Matthew 22:37-39).

What are Calvin’s three main uses of the law?

(1) The law is a “mirror,” showing us our sins just as a mirror “shows us the spots on our face” (Institutes 2.7.7). Once we look into the mirror of the Ten Commandments we can see that we are idolatrous, larcenous, covetous, and so on. This prompts us to confess our sins and to beg God’s forgiveness based on the atoning work of Jesus Christ.

(2) The law is a “bridle,” restraining us from doing what we want (Institutes 2.7.10). Calvin has in mind especially criminal laws based on the Ten Commandments that threaten citizens with punishment if they feel like stealing or slandering or murdering. This threat pulls them up short of doing what they want.

(3) The law is a “lamp” to show us the path of righteousness (Institutes 2.7.12, quoting Psalm 119:105). We have been forgiven and clothed with the righteousness of Christ, but then we need the Ten Commandments to guide us in behavior that pleases God because it fulfills God’s will for our lives. Seeing how powerful the law can be in this function, Calvin called the third use of the law its “principal” use. As a result, “the third use of the law” has become, within Protestantism, one of the trademarks of Calvinism and the Reformed tradition more generally.

How, exactly, do we “love God with everything we have” and “love our neighbors as ourselves?”

The Heidelberg Catechism of 1563 answers with a list of the Commandments stated in positive form, to make it easier for us to see how they guide us along the right path for our behavior. Here is the list:

  1. Acknowledge the only true God. Trust God alone. Give up anything rather than going against God’s will in any way.
  2. Worship God in the ways laid out in God’s word.
  3. Use the holy name of God only with reverence and awe.
  4. Especially on the festive day of rest, gather with God's people. But rest from evil every day.
  5. Honor, love, and be loyal to your father and mother and to all who are in authority over you. Submit to them, as is proper, and be patient with them when they fail.
  6. Instead of killing, be peace-loving, gentle, and friendly to your neighbor. Protect your neighbor from harm as much as you can.
  7. Instead of committing adultery, remember that we are, body and soul, temples of the Holy Spirit. God lives in us. Live a sexually upright life that keeps God’s house clean.
  8. Instead of stealing, work faithfully so that you too have something to give to those who are in need.
  9. Instead of bearing false witness, love the truth, speak it candidly, and do what you can to guard, and even to enhance, your neighbor's reputation.
  10. Instead of coveting, let all your desires be conformed to the will of God. Develop a hearty hatred for sin and a hearty pleasure in doing what's right.

The Heidelberg Catechism, Questions and Answers 94-113, my paraphrase.

Here is the third use of the law in classic form. A mere glance reveals its purpose—to guide believers in living a Godly life. “Do this,” the commandments say, “and you will thrive.” In fact, we may see here a delightful component of God’s providence. God doesn’t prohibit certain behaviors and command others arbitrarily or just to show off divine sovereignty. God’s law is part of the gospel! The commandments all say, in effect, “Good news! Flourishing with God and with others is your God-ordained destiny. Here’s how to do it”

Can the third use of the law show up in our corporate worship?

Absolutely. The worship leader may read the law to worshipers following an assurance of pardon, or following a sermon celebrating God’s grace, or as a departing word as people prepare to depart the service.

Sermons that deal with sanctification, with Christian behavior, with the shape of new life in Christ gain strength and traction by tying into God’s law with statements such as this: “Friends, loving the truth and speaking it straight out is God’s will for us.” “This is a way to follow Jesus.”  “This is what God wants for us because it’s right and because it’s a way for all of us to thrive together.”

Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs may be chosen that celebrate God’s law, God’s will, God’s design for wonderful Christian life. The offertory prayer may say, “O God, these gifts are the fruit of our work. Now we have a chance to give them to those who are in need. Follow them with your blessing for Jesus’ sake, Amen.” Even the benediction or parting word can say something on the order of “Take the love you have felt here and spread it to the world.”

The third use of the law. The law in the gospel. Who would ever have guessed that even God’s law is a form of God’s grace?


In addition to the ideas suggested in the blog, RW staff prepared the following litany that could be used as part of your liturgy of sending or in response to the assurance of pardon. The leader’s portion is in regular font with those gathered reading the portion in bold.

In response to God’s gift of grace,

how might you live a life of gratitude in the week ahead?

We will love the Lord our God

by following God’s will rather than our own,

spending time in worship,

and only speaking God’s name with the reverence it deserves.

God calls you to take a day each week to rest from your work,

but God also commands that every day we are to rest from doing evil.

How will you rest in the week ahead?

We will love our neighbor as ourselves.

Starting with our parents and those in authority over us,

we will submit to them and be patient with their failings.

Instead of killing and hurting others,

we will strive to be lovers of peace;

protecting our neighbor from harm

and working for the flourishing of all creation.

Instead of misusing our own body or another’s

we will remember that God lives in us,

treat our body and soul as a temple of the Holy Spirit,

live a sexually upright life,

and treat all persons with honor.

Instead of taking what is not ours,

we will work faithfully

so that we have something to give to those in need.

Instead of speaking lies and gossiping about others,

we will love the truth, speak honestly,

and protect the reputation of others.

Instead of wanting what others have,

we will conform our thoughts and desires to God’s will.

Every day we will fight against all forms of sin 

and take joy in doing what is right, good, and pleasing to God.

God has given us this command:

“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’... [and] ‘love your neighbor as yourself’” (Matthew 22:37-38 adapt.).

May each of us do so with grateful hearts

knowing that we do not journey alone,

but that God has provided us with a community to support us,

and the Holy Spirit as our counselor and guide.

Leave now with God’s blessing…