Larger Catechism, #97

The Larger Catechism

Question 97

 97. Q. What special use is there of the moral law to the regenerate?

A. Although they that are regenerate, and believe in Christ, be delivered from the moral law as a covenant of works,[414] so as thereby they are neither justified[415] nor condemned;[416] yet, besides the general uses thereof common to them with all men, it is of special use, to show them how much they are bound to Christ for his fulfilling it, and enduring the curse thereof in their stead, and for their good;[417] and thereby to provoke them to more thankfulness,[418] and to express the same in their greater care to conform themselves thereunto as the rule of their obedience.[419]


Scriptural Defense and Commentary

[414] Romans 6:14. For sin shall not have dominion over you: for ye are not under the law, but under grace. Romans 7:4, 6. Wherefore, my brethren, ye also are become dead to the law by the body of Christ; that ye should be married to another, even to him who is raised from the dead, that we should bring forth fruit unto God…. But now we are delivered from the law, that being dead wherein we were held; that we should serve in newness of spirit, and not in the oldness of the letter. Galatians 4:4-5. But when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, To redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons. [415] Romans 3:20. Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin. [416] Galatians 5:23. Meekness, temperance: against such there is no law. Romans 8:1. There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit. [417] Romans 7:24-25. O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death? I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord. So then with the mind I myself serve the law of God; but with the flesh the law of sin. Galatians 3:13-14. Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree: That the blessing of Abraham might come on the Gentiles through Jesus Christ; that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith. Romans 8:3-4. For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh: That the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit. [418] Luke 1:68-69, 74-75. Blessed be the Lord God of Israel; for he hath visited and redeemed his people, And hath raised up an horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David…. That he would grant unto us, that we being delivered out of the hand of our enemies might serve him without fear, In holiness and righteousness before him, all the days of our life. Colossians 1:12-14. Giving thanks unto the Father, which hath made us meet to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light: Who hath delivered us from the power of darkness, and hath translated us into the kingdom of his dear Son: In whom we have redemption through his blood, even the forgiveness of sins. [419] Romans 7:22. For I delight in the law of God after the inward man. Romans 12:2. And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God. Titus 2:11-14. For the grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men, Teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world; Looking for that blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Saviour Jesus Christ; Who gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works.



This question carefully answers how the law must function in the life of a believer. Some call this the third use of the law. This is the “special use” of the law for believers. The divines precisely explained how it cannot be used and then how it ought to be used by the regenerate.

Historically, many have charged the Lutherans of denying the third use of the law (tertius usus legis).[1] But the Formula of Concord seems to call for the third use of the law. Krauth’s summary teaching of the Formula is as follows, “The Law of God…has also a third use, to wit, that it be diligently taught unto regenerate men, to all of whom much of the flesh still clings, that they may have a sure rule by which their entire life is to be shaped and governed.”[2] The Formula cannot unequivocally affirm the third use. Obedience to the law as obedience tends to be viewed slavishly (the phrase “extorted from people” is used). As Luther clearly taught only two uses of the law,[3] so Lutherans greatly suspect any positive use of the law. For example, one Lutheran writer wrote, “If the reproving sin be regarded a part of the preaching of the gospel, the gospel is converted into a species of law; and the plan of salvation peculiar to the gospel is either obscured or entirely denied.”[4] Here, the Lutheran law and gospel distinction compels them to pit the reproving of sin against the preaching of the gospel. Some Lutherans admit that the WCF rightly distinguishes the law from the gospel but they also believe the distinction “does not have the prominent place …that it has in Lutheran theology.”[5] Reformed theologians believe their distinction is too radical while Lutherans believe ours is not radical enough.

There is one thing the Lutherans rightly noted about the law. Their great suspicion of the law compelled them to explain exactly how the law can function in a believer. The scholastic Lutheran Hollazius (David Hollaz, 1648-1714) stated that the law can serve as “the rule of a holy life” but the law cannot “confer new strength for a spiritual and holy life…”[6] Looking to the law itself will not confer new strength; this negative portrayal of the law can be found in many of Paul’s own teaching.


Delivered from the Law

Before explaining the positive use of the moral law for the believer, the LC judicially delineates in what ways we must not use the law: “Although they that are regenerate, and believe in Christ, be delivered from the moral law as a covenant of works, so as thereby they are neither justified nor condemned…” Question 94 already taught that “no man” can attain “to righteousness and life by the moral law.” Christ does not initially save believers and then leave them to obey the moral law to get to heaven.


1. Delivered from the Covenant of Works for justification

A believer must approach the law with this clear understanding of how his obedience functions in terms of the covenant. The Lord delivered him from obeying the moral law as a means of fulfilling the covenant of works for his justification: delivered from the moral law as covenant of works, so as thereby they are [not] justified … That is, even (especially) as a believer, he must not look to God’s law as a way of becoming justified before God: “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight” (Rom. 3:20). As Ridgley stated, “though the law was a covenant of works to him [i.e. Christ], it ceases to be so to those who are interested in him.”[7]

Believers have been “delivered” from this. We no longer stare at the law to “get right with God.” In Christ, through faith in Him, we have been declared righteous in His sight. Vos says, “He is instantly and forever delivered from all useless labor of trying to save himself by obedience to the law…” The old Adam (“Adam the first”) often creeps in and tries to get us to obey God as a covenant of works for our justification. This simple truth of deliverance must always be in the forefront of our minds — we did not deliver ourselves but Christ delivered us and it is from that gracious vantage point (and only from that foundation) we obey.


2. Delivered from the Condemnation in the Covenant of Works

The catechism further adds that as believers we have been “delivered from the moral law as covenant of works, so as thereby they are … [not] condemned…” Though the law serves as a rule of our obedience, it cannot ultimately condemn us when we disobey. The punitive sanctions of the law have been fully met through Jesus’ death. For that reason, Paul declares, “There is therefore now (νῦν) no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus…” (Rom 8:1). All believers do not stand condemned right now (νῦν). Because they have believed in Christ, God no longer condemns them. Because of what Christ accomplished in behalf of His people, right at this moment, there is no condemnation for those who are in Him by faith. It is now and not later, now and not earlier — as we stand by faith in the Lord Jesus, there is now no condemnation for those who have placed their faith in Christ Jesus.

It often works this way in our hearts. We seek to obey and eventually we fail and so, we feel condemned. Rightly, God’s law condemns us as law breakers. In turn, instinctively we seek to “do better” and “try harder.” We fail again and the useless and vain cycle starts all over again. But the legal requirements of the law have been met by Christ; He paid the penalty for our sins. No ultimate condemnation awaits if we are in Christ. We must repent of our personal sins and turn to the Lord for forgiveness. He will abundantly pardon. Spurgeon said, “My Lord is more ready to pardon than you to sin, more able to forgive than you to transgress.”[8] Legally delivered from the condemnation of the law (and there is no double jeopardy in the heavenly court) we turn to our heavenly Father for His pardoning grace.

Our Father may be displeased but we can never be condemned. “If God is for us, who can be against us?” Then Paul eventually asks, “Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died — more that that, who was raised — who is at the right of God, who indeed is interceding for us.” (Rom. 8:31-34) God is the one who justified us in Christ. He alone could condemn us and in view of all our sins, that possibility looks real and frightening. Yet, Paul’s answer to the question settles the matter. If we lived under any legal condemnation, then the answer is that Christ died! That is the Bible’s answer. My condemnation means death but Christ died for me and not only that, He has been raised and is interceding for me.

We can fall into a great danger at this point. When we disobey, we must realize that our Heavenly Father’s displeasure is real and substantial. We should not minimize this. Thomas Ridgley carefully brings this point out in his exposition of the Larger Catechism. I will comment on his explanation thought by thought instead of offering one large block quote.

  • We must distinguish, however, between a believer’s actions being condemned by the law, or his being reproved by it, and laid under conviction, for sins daily committed; and his being in a condemned state, according to the sentence of the law.” That is, being condemned by the law and feeling condemned or under conviction are different from each other. To feel condemned is not the same as being condemned.
  • We are far from denying that a believer is under an obligation to condemn or abhor himself, that is, to confess that he deserves to be condemned by God, for the sins which he commits; for were God to mark these, or to punish him according to the demerit of them, he could not stand. Thus the psalmist says, though speaking of himself as a believer, and consequently in a justified state, ‘Enter not into judgment with thy servant; for in thy sight shall no man living be justified.’ [Ps. 143:2]” That is, a believer can reprove himself and confess that he deserves God’s condemnation. Recognizing the just demerits of our sins and feeling the weight of our transgressions are appropriate responses of those who are truly justified in Christ. We self abhorring is not inconsistent with our state of being justified in Christ and therefore no longer under condemnation.
  • This a believer may say, and yet not conclude himself to be in a state of condemnation; inasmuch as he sees himself by faith to have ground to determine that he is delivered from the law, and so not condemned by it, as a covenant of works.[9] Lastly, Ridgley notes that a believer can say and experience these things and yet conclude he is not in a state of condemnation since he has placed his faith in Christ.


Special Use: Bound to Christ

When we understand those things mentioned above, then we can better apply the following teaching on how believers ought to respond to the law of God. The answer defines the “special use” of the moral law for believers: “yet, besides the general uses thereof common to them with all men, it is of special use, to show them how much they are bound to Christ for his fulfilling it, and enduring the curse thereof in their stead, and for their good…


1. General uses

Believers are not exempt from the “general uses” of the moral law. As it applies to all men, it also applies to them. Believers are no less bound to obey God than anyone else. Question 95 summarizes those general uses.


2. Special use

Having explained how we should understand our transgressions of the law, we now can better appreciate the special use of the moral law for believers: “it is of special use, to show them how much they are bound to Christ for his fulfilling it, and enduring the curse thereof in their stead, and for their good…” As we immediately recognize our failures, we also see how wonderful our Lord is for fulfilling all the requirements of the moral law and also for taking upon Himself the curse of disobeying God’s law.

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law (Gal. 3:13-14). Struggling with sin, we wonder if there is any hope. In the midst of this tension and struggle (“Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?”), Paul ends up declaring, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Rom. 8:25) — the answer is not trying harder or making greater resolutions (though they are not per se wrong) but realizing our hope and faith must be in what God has done for us in Christ. Believers feel their debt to God’s grace. My every failure helps me to see how much Christ did for me. That is the special use of the moral law — I see all that Christ has done for me (active and passive obedience) and feel bound to Him.


Provokes Thankfulness

Of course, as we see Christ’s sufficiency and our failures, we should be thankful to the Lord: “and thereby to provoke them to more thankfulness…” In Col. 1:12-14, Paul thanks God for his salvation — “giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light.” When we look at the moral law and see how incapable we are, we begin to appreciate and to thank God for Christ who died for us and paid our debt.

The catechism presents a unique challenge to our understanding. When we see all that Christ has done for us by fulfilling what was required and undergoing the curse for us, we should erupt with thanksgiving. Every believer has this for which he can be thankful. This should provoke him to thankfulness. If we weigh this correctly and see it rightly, then we will always have a solid reason for thankfulness. If the law has done its work to show our desperate wickedness and we see how wonderfully Christ has delivered us, then we have great reasons for thankfulness.

If we turn this argument around, we can say, if you cannot be thankful in view of what Christ has done for you, then something is seriously wrong. Could it be that you think lightly of what Jesus has done? Could it be that you think lightly of your offences? Could it be that you think highly of your own abilities and goodness? If not, why are you not thankful?


Greater Care to Conform

Seeing that our Lord has done it all for us, a holy sense of obligation grips our souls: “and to express the same in their greater care to conform themselves thereunto as the rule of their obedience.” Our thankfulness expresses itself in the great care with which we seek to conform ourselves to God’s law. The indicatives of the Bible lead to the imperatives (Rom. 12 and Eph. 4). Vos says, “A Christian should express his thankfulness to God not only in words of prayer and praise, but also in taking care to live according to God’s moral law as the rule of obedience.” As he who is forgiven much loves much so as we understand we have been delivered from much, we should obey much. “The grace of God, therefore, is so far from leading to licentiousness, that all who have experienced it are put by it upon the exercise of that obedience which they owe to God as their rightful Lord and Sovereign, and to Christ as their gracious Redeemer, whom they love entirely, and therefore keep his commandments.”[10]

The last phrase “the rule of their obedience” means that believers seek to conform their lives according to God’s moral law instead of the world’s standards. Some tend to believe they are saved by Christ so that they can run around with impunity. True believers are debtors to grace and the love of Christ constrains them. They want to please Him who purchased them.

[1] See Richard Muller’s section on usus legis (in Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms).

[2] Charles P. Krauth, The Conservative Reformation and Its Theology: As Represented in the Augsburg Confession, and in the History and Literature of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co., 1875), 314. This is actually his translation of the Formula. He does not include the entire section that adds: “It is concerning the third function of the law that a controversy has arisen among a few theologians. The question therefore is whether or not the law is to be urged upon reborn Christians. One party said Yes, the other says No.”

[3] See Timothy Wengert, Law and Gospel: Philip Melanchthon’s Debate with John Agricola of Eisleben over Poenitentia, Texts & Studies in Reformation & Post-Reformation Thought (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1997), 191ff. Wengert also demonstrates that Melanchthon, on the other hand, taught the third use of the law — “that they may practice obedience” (196).

[4] Henry E. Jacobs, “Gospel,” ed. Henry Eyster Jacobs and John A. W. Haas, The Lutheran Cyclopedia (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1899), 201. This is contrary to Titus 2:11-14.

[5] Jacobs, “Gospel,” 202.

[6] Heinrich Schmid, The Doctrinal Theology of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, Verified from the Original Sources, trans. Charles A. Hay and Henry E. Jacobs, Second English Edition, Revised according to the Sixth German Edition. (Philadelphia, PA: Lutheran Publication Society, 1889), 523: “in sanctification the Law is at hand as a normative principle, or the rule of a holy life; it prescribes and teaches what is to be done and what omitted, and binds to obedience, but it does not confer new strength for a spiritual and holy life; therefore the Gospel comes in as a succor and productive principle, which furnishes strength and power to men, enabling them rightly to walk in the ways of God.”

[7] Thomas Ridgley, A Body of Divinity, vol. 2 (New York: Robert Carter & Brothers, 1855), 304.

[8] M&E, Aug. 22.

[9] Thomas Ridgley, A Body of Divinity, vol. 2 (New York: Robert Carter & Brothers, 1855), 304.

[10] Thomas Ridgley, A Body of Divinity, vol. 2 (New York: Robert Carter & Brothers, 1855), 305.

Leave a Reply