Interview With Mike Horton: Part Two

This is a continuation of my four-part interview with Mike Horton on the nature of the gospel and sanctification. You can (and should) read Part One here.

Mike, what are the three uses of the law?

Reformed theology embraces these “three uses”: (1) pedagogical or elenctic—to show us our sin and drive us to Christ; (2) civil (to curb vice with the threat of temporal punishment), and (3) didactic (to guide Christian living).

In order further to drive a wedge between Lutheran and Reformed approaches, I often hear Reformed brethren point to the “third use” as a Reformed distinctive that’s denied by Lutheran theology.  This too is simply inaccurate.  It was Luther’s sidekick Melanchthon who identified the “three uses” and the Antinomian Controversy in Luther’s circle provoked the sternest rebukes from the Reformer.  As a result, the Book of Concord staunchly affirmed the third use of the law—and gives more space to it than any of the Reformed confessions.  To be sure, there are differences.  As I point out in The Christian Faith, the principal difference in my view is the eschatology of sanctification—that is, the relationship between the “already” and the “not yet.”  When both groups go off the reservation, Lutherans usually wander into an under-realized eschatology (downplaying the “already” of the new creation) and we Reformed folks embrace an over-realized eschatology (downplaying the continuing struggle with sin).  However, that’s a difference in emphasis.  In terms of basic doctrine, there is no difference between our confessions.  It’s very helpful for people on both sides actually to read the others’ confessions!

When applying these three uses, it’s important to know our audience.  Our primary audience in preaching is the covenant community.  God has pledged his grace in Christ to his congregation.  They are baptized, hear the Word, make profession of faith, receive the Supper, participate in the communion of the saints in confession, song, fellowship, prayer, and gifts.  At the same time, as under the old covenant, not all physical descendants of the covenant (children of believers) are true children of Abraham.  Some, like Esau, sell their birthright for a cheap dinner.  In our preaching, we must use the law carefully.  We still need to use the pedagogical use: showing believers that they still, even in their regenerate state, do not have the kind of righteousness that can withstand God’s judgment and must flee to Christ.  We proclaim the law to the nations as well (civil use), testifying to God’s moral will for all of his creatures.  And we exhort believers to follow God’s commands (third use).   In all of this, we have to be careful that we do not give the impression either that by following God’s commands one can receive his saving benefits in Christ or that because we are saved by grace alone, apart from works of the law, that God’s commands are no longer obligatory.

Does the law of God have the power to sanctify us? During this conversation, some have pointed out the Westminster Confession of Faith 19.6 and the Canons of Dordt 5.14 and conclude that both the promises of the gospel and the threatenings of the law carry the power to sanctify. So, when they hear you (or me) say things like “the law guides but only the gospel gives us the power to do what it says” they wonder if we disagree with those portions of our confession. How would you respond?

The law has an indispensable role in our sanctification, but it doesn’t have any power to justify or to sanctify. The law and the gospel simply do different things, but both are essential.  The gospel doesn’t tell us what to do; it tells us what God has done.  The law doesn’t announce God’s pardon and renewal; it tells us what God requires.  In a covenant of law (where perfect, personal, and perpetual obedience is the basis of blessing/cursing), the law can only condemn; in the covenant of grace, the law can no longer condemn the justified but can only guide them in the way of righteousness.  That’s why Calvin called this third use “the primary use” in the Christian life, because while the threatening of the law still drive us to Christ (first use), it must never be used to terrify the conscience of those who cling to Christ.  So it’s not only a question of whether the law is still present, but of what role the law has in determining the basis of the covenant.

The law and the gospel do different things. That doesn’t change after conversion. Think of a sailboat. You can have all the guidance equipment to tell you where to go, to plot your course, and to warn you when you’ve been blown off course. However, you can’t move an inch without wind in your sails. All of the spiritual technology in the world—tools, techniques, and guidance—will not actually drive sanctification anymore than justification. The law (in this case, the third use) directs, but it cannot drive gospel sanctification. Paul answers his own question, “Shall we then sin that grace may abound?” not by switching back to threats and principles, but rather he shows the expansiveness of the gospel as the answer to the dominion as well as condemnation of sin. Persevering on the high seas requires both God’s guidance and God’s power, but it’s the gospel that is “the power of God unto salvation.”

A more biblical analogy, of course, is adoption. As a minister, I have to ask myself whether I’m preaching the law in a given moment on behalf of God as Judge or as Father?  If I’m preaching to God’s children as if the one I’m representing is their Judge (pedagogical use), without sending them back to Christ, I’m using the law unlawfully. There is such a thing as God’s fatherly displeasure and rebukes. That’s part of perseverance.

Sometimes, over-reacting against legalism, we’re nervous about passages in Scripture that speak of God punishing his children when they transgress his will and rewarding them for obedience.  Yet these are wonderful passages.  Think of an older adopted child who is delighted when his new father disciplines him just as he does the others whom he has known much longer.  Similarly, “God is treating you as sons.  For what son is there whom his father does not discipline?  If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons” (Heb 12:7-8).  In this process, the law may rebuke as well as guide.

WCF 19.6 says that “believers are not under the law as a covenant of works, to be thereby justified or condemned”; yet it’s “of great use” because it does the following things: (1) “informing them of the will of God and their duty, it directs and binds them to walk accordingly; (2) discovering also the sinful pollutions of their nature, hearts, and lives, so as, examining themselves thereby, they may come to further conviction of, humiliation for, and hatred against sin, together with a clearer sight of the need they have of Christ and the perfections of his obedience.  (3) It is likewise of use to the regenerate, to restrain their corruptions, in that it forbids sin: and the threatening of it serve to show what even their sins deserve; and what afflictions, in this life, they may expect from them, although freed from the curse thereof threatened in the law.”

Very deliberately, the Confession does not say that “the threatening” of the law is an appropriate way to exhort repentant believers.  Rather, it causes us all to flee to Christ and its threats “show what even their [the believers’] sins deserve.”  When it comes to the threatening power of the law, it can extend no further than “reaping what you sow” in temporal afflictions.  The Confession also speaks of promises attached to the law.  This is not because the law itself is gospel, since the law’s promises (blessings/curses) are conditional on obedience.  However, the promises attached to the law do indeed become ours—not through the law itself, but through the gospel.  Without the law, though, we wouldn’t even know what those promises are!  That’s why this statement in 19.6 follows up with the reminder that this is not to be taken in the sense of “the law as a covenant of works.”

A quick and folksy illustration.  My dad was a professional builder (constructed houses) and an expert mechanic (built planes during WWII).  In my case, the apple not only fell far from the tree; it rolled down the hill, into the street, under a bus, and was never seen again.  Nevertheless, my dad was fond not only of letting me watch him at work, but bringing me into the process at the final stage.  “Now drive in that nail,” or “press that valve,” he would say, and then we’d go home and he’d tell my mom that I built a house or fixed the car.  Calvin talks about God “crowning his own works” when he rewards believers.  It’s not something they deserve, but something that God delights to give because he’s a good father.  Although the child’s performance doesn’t exactly rise to the level of the prize, a good father does not reward bad behavior, but good behavior.

None of this threatens justification.  In fact, justification makes it possible for God in Christ to switch from Judge to Father and reward our obedience without any reference to what we deserve one way or the other, but rather what will benefit us.  Once the person is justified for the sake of Christ alone, his or her works can also be accepted.   As the ground of acceptance before God, our best works fall short of God’s glory.  However, once we are declared righteous in Christ, God can overlook the imperfection—even sin—still clinging to our best works.  There’s nothing that God as Judge can do with our works but condemn us, but there’s nothing left for God as Father to do with our good works than delight in them.  Analogous to what my dad did with me, our Heavenly Father can say, “Well done, good and faithful servant,” not only because of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness but also because, on that basis, we are already totally justified in Christ.  Even the mixed works of a justified child bring pleasure to God.  He’s too good of a Father to ignore our imperfect obedience, though even this is wrought within us by his Spirit.  This is over-the-top-amazing: On judgment day, it will not be enough that our gracious Father announces to the world what he has already declared to us: that we are perfectly righteous in Christ; he will add to this rewards for things that we didn’t even really do perfectly, completely, or without mixed motives—and that we could never have done apart from his grace.  That’s not justification; it’s ON TOP OF justification!!!

By the way, in the passage you refer to in Dort, it says, “And as it has pleased God, by the preaching of the gospel, to begin this work of grace in us, so he preserves, continues, and perfects it by the hearing and reading of His Word, by meditation thereon, and by the exhortations, threatenings, and promises thereof, and by the use of the sacraments.” Notice that it refers broadly to God’s Word here, which contains both threatenings and promises—in other words, law and gospel. It doesn’t say that the gospel contains both threatenings and promises. Similarly, we confess with the Heidelberg Catechism that the Spirit “creates faith in our hearts by the preaching of the holy gospel and confirms it by the use of the holy sacraments” (Q 65).

As for WCF 19.6, we read clearly that believers are “not under the law, as a covenant of works, to be thereby justified or condemned,” but are still obliged to the law’s direction (third use). Even though we continue to fall short of God’s glory, we are finally free to delight in God’s law because it no longer condemns us!  (In fact, this is the conundrum only true believers face, as Romans 7 underscores: simultaneously loving the law even while we break it.) Believers still need to hear the law in its first use in order to have “a clearer sight off the need they have of Christ and the perfection of his obedience…and the threatenings of it serve to show what even their sins deserve and what afflictions in this life they may expect for them, although freed from the curse thereof threatened in the law.”

What these confessions have in mind is the importance of both the law and the gospel in the Christian life. However, we have to recognize that they do different things. You never settle your confidence on your obedience to commands—even in sanctification. At the same time, when we begin to take grace for granted, the law threatens. When we start to entertain the idea, “God likes to forgive, I like to sin: what a great relationship!”, that’s when we need the law to hit us between the eyes with stern rebukes such as, “No adulterer will ever enter the kingdom of heaven.” We live in repentance every day—never in a state either of complete “victory” or complete destitution. However, those who are not repentant are not Christians. They need a good law-smacking!

In my pastoral experience, this happens more in counseling than in the pulpit.  Some people need to be uprooted from their carnal security by the terror of the law, so that they will truly repent and flee to Christ for full salvation.  At the same time, believers who are repentant and trust in Christ must never be discouraged from their confidence in Christ alone.  Calvin makes this point clearly when he writes, “Whenever the conscience trembles, it can give no place to the law.” The antinomian’s conscience doesn’t tremble—that’s the problem. That’s why the full force of its threats must be heard. However, most of those under our care are not in this situation. “The gospel promises are free and dependent solely on God’s mercy, while the promises of the law depend solely upon the condition of works,” Calvin adds (Inst. 3.11.17).  Anyone who finds shelter in Christ alone is free of the law’s condemning and threatening power.

Some recommend that we must always preach the law before we preach the gospel. How does that square with the Scriptural pattern (Ephesians, Colossians, etc.) of telling us first what Jesus has done (gospel) before we are told what to do (law)?

Yes, for example, William Perkins made that point in his book on preaching. However, in some extreme forms of Puritanism and pietism (Lutheran and Reformed), it became two distinct and often prolonged stages. You went from the “law-work” stage to “gospel assurance.” I don’t believe it’s that formulaic in Scripture. We are always hearing God’s law and gospel as distinct words throughout our Christian life.

Think of Romans. First, there’s the pedgaogical (first) use of the law in the first three chapters: all the world condemned. Then there is the proclamation of the gospel for eight chapters. Then in chapter 12 you have the transition to the third use of the law: “Therefore, brothers, in view of God’s mercies, present your body as a living sacrifice…” Even in making specific commands, the gospel soil in which they’re grounded is never forgotten.  We love because we are loved by the Father in Christ. We contribute to the welfare of the saints because we have received all of God’s riches in Christ.

The Heidelberg Catechism follows this logic: Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude. The second question and answer tell us that we know our sin and misery through the law and our salvation in the gospel. But the place where the Ten Commandments are unpacked in their didactic use is in the third section: Gratitude.  It’s only in view of our the gospel, which has done away with our guilt and the tyranny of sin, that we can respond appropriately to the law in its third use.

The danger comes when we turn back to the first use at this point, threatening believers after we have directed them to Christ alone for salvation! Often, this comes in the form of a final point where, after treating the exhortations, we ask, “Does this describe you?” The sensitive Christian conscience will have to say, “Well, no—at least, not enough.”  What then?  Is the gospel enough to save me when I don’t see enough fruit in my life? Paul’s answer is to say, “Yes, I’ve already told you [in chapters 6-8] that it DOES describe you! Now live as if you really believed it!”

I once heard a preacher say that the law sends us to Christ for justification and then Christ sends us back to the law for sanctification. This seems to indicate a law-gospel-law paradigm. Thoughts?

This relates to my point above. We have to follow the text. Some passages will pick up at a different place on the law-gospel business than our previous sermon. We don’t preach the DISTINCTION between law and gospel; we preach the PASSAGES, clearly distinguishing between law and gospel. It’s certainly true from the New Testament that Christ delivers us from the curse of the law only to wed us to himself and therefore to his commands as well as promises. It would be blasphemous to suggest that we could be married to lawlessness. To be united to Christ is to love his Word—the law as well as the gospel. Yes, we make only “a small beginning” in sanctification in this life, but as the HC also reminds us, every believer begins at the moment of conversion to turn from sin and follow Christ.

The danger of law-gospel-law, though, is that it can turn the gospel into a means to a supposedly greater end. The gospel becomes a brief rest stop where God is good, Christ is sufficient, justification is complete, and then we leave it behind on our steep ascent of sanctification. The gospel always has the last word over a believer. Always.

To be continued…