there is no ‘third use of the law’

Tullian Tchividjian was recently interviewed by Justin Taylor on the relationship between law and gospel.  Much of what TT says I heartily endorse and recommend the blog interview for reading.  He advocates clearly a law gospel distinction and spells out well what this means. My only gripe is that TT doesn’t go quite as far as the Bible (in my view) in his disjunction between law and gospel.  In the final analysis Tullian supports the so-called third use of the law, that it is a rule of life for the believer. In this, I disagree.

I outlined some reasons for my disagreement in TT’s comment box.  I reproduce them here (slightly amended and enlarged).

Tullian writes:

‘To say the law has no power to change us in no way reduces its ongoing role in the life of the Christian. And it in no way minimizes the importance of the law’s third use. We just have to understand the precise role that it plays for us today: the law serves us by making us thankful for Jesus when we break it and serves us by showing how to love God and others.’

I respond

I have no doubt we may learn from the law about godly living as indeed we may from all parts of Scripture. However, we can do so appropriately, only by observing the law through a redemptive-historical lens.  As it stands it is impossible to say the law is a rule of life for a believer.  If we take ‘the law’, as Paul normally does and as you agree, to mean the Mosaic Covenant in its entirety (civil, religious and ethical) as it stands it is palpably not a rule of life for believers. We do not circumcise our males, avoid clothes that mix fabrics, nor stone adulterers etc.  Few Christians would suggest we should.  Even the Ten Commandments (only a part of what Paul meant by the Law) need to be modified to express Christian behaviour (Sabbath observance must become Sunday observance).  The Law does not sanction such cavalier ‘modifications’.  Considered barely the law simply cannot be cited as a ‘rule of life for believers’. To make it a rule of life requires radical surgery to the covenant stipulations that the covenant simply does not permit.

However, the question is more fundamental yet.   Was the law intended for guidance in godliness? Paul comments in Timothy: ‘Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully, understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine’. (1Tim 1:8-10).  In other words, the law was given to identify gross sin not instruct in holiness.  Does the law teach us how to be holy? Does it give paradigms for holy living. Arguably not a great deal. The civil law functions like any civil law, it restrains the worst excesses of the flesh.  Most of the Ten Commandments are framed negatively telling us what we ought not to do rather than what we ought to do. If we look to the Decalogue for a rule of life guiding holy living we are looking to very general principles indeed. It calls for love but I am at a loss to see how it demonstrates what love is, even less how to love.   It is interesting that the NT rarely cites the law in the context of holy living and never as authoritative.

In fact, again and again, the NT points to Christ in his person and work as the guiding principle of holiness.  The gospel concerning Christ and his work is the NT ‘rule of life’ for the believer.  We are to forgive as God forgives us in Christ… (Does the law ever command forgiveness or give teaching on it?)  Love one another as Christ has loved you… Let this mind (of humility) be in you which was also in Christ Jesus… etc.   In Christ we have a modelling of the godly life. A life that calls us to go with him beyond the letter of the law into self-sacrifice… like Christ we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers.  In Christ and the gospel we have revealed the heart of God, not in the law.  In him love is seen in action in all its kaleidoscopic splendour.  That Christ is the measure of and reference for true godly living is written so plainly on the face of the NT that I wonder at the persistence to stress the ‘third use of the law’ by many believers.

Finally, the view that the law is a ‘rule of life’ for believers collapses when we ask the relationship of the risen exalted Christ to the law.  For whatever his relationship to the law, is ours, for we are united to him. Clearly he has died to the world where law has authority. While on earth, in the flesh, he lived under the law, magnifying it in his obedience to it.  However, in his death he died to the realm where law had jurisdiction.  In resurrection he is the first of a new creation outside and beyond the first.  He is not subject to the law, he has died to its authority and lives before his Father in a relationship of reciprocated love.  As he is, so too are we in this world.  We too have died with Christ to the old order and that means we have died to the law.

This is precisely the point of Roms 7. The law – in any shape or form – only has authority (in any shape or form) on someone alive in the flesh. In Christ we have died to the realm of flesh and live in the realm of the Spirit. As we live in the Spirit, guided and empowered by the one who constantly points us to Christ we will see be transformed by this gospel vision into Christ’s likeness and so the just requirement of the law will be fully met in us.

The question is not whether we can learn from the OT, of course we can; the question is whether the law is a rule of life for the believer (I find it difficult to distinguish between a ‘rule of life’ and ‘under law’).  It is a question of our present relationship to God; is it that of a slave or a son?  It is not a trivial question.  It affects our whole outlook as a believer.

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the cavekeeper

The Cave promotes the Christian Gospel by interacting with Christian faith and practice from a conservative evangelical perspective.


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