Using the Law Lawfully

In the library I work at, from time to time, the group that sells the used and donated books will thin out their collection and set some books out to be recycled. I love digging through these books…I’ve really found a couple of good old theology books that way, but living in a town with four Lutheran (LCMS) churches in it it’s bound to happen. (Though, lately it seems like we’ve only been getting books from Methodists–not that there’s anything wrong with that.) One of the books I picked up is called Law: Its Nature, Function and Limits if you’re saying to yourself, “Wow, that sounds like really dry reading.” You’re correct, it is. But, keeping in mind that this is a used book, it has the original owner’s notes scrawled all over it, making it, at least to me, more interesting. Especially interesting to me is the limit of the law…the things it cannot do. For example citing the example of public education the authors admit that because an education is not a thing one acquires, it’s a process in which one participates, just because all have the opportunity to go to school doesn’t mean everyone makes the most of it, because not everyone can or will participate. As a student of theology you can actually learn a lot about grace by studying the law. And the use of the law is good, not only for society, but for preaching as well, but in preaching it has to be done correctly. As it says in 1st Timothy:

Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully,

We know Paul here is speaking directly about the Mosaic law, to Timothy, his young protégé. Why do we to use it lawfully, you ask, the answer are is again in 1st Timothy:

The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.

There are three legal, or proper, uses of the law: the rule, the mirror and the curb (or curve, as I call it to make it make more sense for some.)

First Use: (the Rule). This first use of the law is to restrain evil in society. It is good for, generally speaking, pretty much everyone. When thinking of the Ten Commandments, think: do not steal, do not murder, etc…they are good rules for society in general. Another good Biblical companion to this would be Romans 13.

Second Use: (the Mirror). The second use of the law helps us to see ourselves as we really are. In our case it should make us realize God’s perfect standard, and how far we are from it, even on our best days. This use of the law should drive us to Christ. The Law should make you feel utterly helpless. There is no way we will ever enter heaven on these criteria. It is impossible. We need Christ! This should drive us to the Lord!

“For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23).

“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.’ (Matthew 5:48)

“For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.” (James 2:10)

Third Use: (the Curb). The third and final, lawful use of the law is a guide for Christian living. It frees us to live in good and right ways, pleasing to the Lord. Just as I pointed out in my post the other day about progressive sanctification, we should be pursuing a life that is pleasing to the Lord, this third use of the law, answers the “how” of that problem. I once heard a preacher explain it this way: “The law forces us to the gospel, and the gospel (rightly understood) forces us to the law.” The curb keeps us out of the two ditches of Christless christianity, legalism and licentiousness. We do not follow the law under this use in order to gain our salvation, but out of a heart overflowing with joy towards our great Savior!

Just as there are 3 proper uses of the law there are five improper, or illegal, uses of the law that we are all guilty of doing at some time or another. For those I refer you to this excellent essay by Rev. Bryan Wolfmueller.

More often than not the law of God is misused. Instead of the Lord using the law on us, we take up the law and use it ourselves, on God or on our neighbor. We could call this the “illegal use of the law”. Here are five examples to consider.

The Cosmetic Use (or the Mary-Kay Use). This is where the law is used to make us look good, all my blemishes are covered up. I dress myself up in outward righteousness so that my neighbor (or worse, God) would say, “My, look at how holy that fellow is!” Jesus calls this the “White-Washed Tomb Use”.

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.” (Matthew 23:27-28)

Instead of covering up our sinfulness, the Lord desires that we would confess our sins and hear His promise of forgiveness.

The Pedestal Use. Perhaps the worse misuse of the law, this is where I place myself on a pedestal of good works in order to gain God’s approval. This illegal use of the law has people saying, “I know I’ll go to heaven. I’m a good person.” But this works-righteousness is called out in the Scriptures:

For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. (Romans 3:20)

Rather than lift us up, the law casts us down so that the Gospel can lift us up and give us life.

The Parking Validation Use. How do I know that I’m saved, that I’m a Christian, that the Lord’s loves me? Instead of looking to the Gospel and the means of grace, the Parking Validation Use of the Law looks to my works and obedience to find the answers to these questions. This illegal use of the law looks for comfort and consolation in good works. It is true that our works of love flow from faith, we do not look to the fruit of faith for comfort. To find comfort we look to the source of faith. St Paul excludes this illegal use of the law when he says things like this:

For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh– though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: … as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. (Philippians 3:3-7)

We, with Paul, put no confidence in the flesh and avoid the Parking Validation Use of the Law. Our confidence is in Christ Jesus and His promise of forgiveness.

Measuring Stick Use. The law always counts and measures. We misuse the law when we use it like a measuring stick to see how much better I am than you. This illegal us of the law is always comparing, putting things in the balance, judging if things are fair, and it is always fixing the scales so that I come out on top. It keeps track of every sin committed against us. This misuse of the law fails to see the planks in our own eye, but sees very clearly the specks in our neighbor’s eye. If your goal is to be better than your neighbor, the measuring stick will see to it. Jesus is speaking against this misuse of the Law when He says:

“Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye. (Matthew 7:1-5)

We apply the law first to ourselves, and we do not measure up. No matter how deep our sin, the Lord’s love is deeper still.

The Telescopic Use. A telescope will help you see clearly things that are very far away. When we use the law like a telescope we are examining the sins of others very closely while keeping a safe distance. While this use is similar to the measuring stick use, it is not comparing ourselves with sinners, but avoiding them. This misuse is often found in the pulpit where the law is preached about those “other people out there”, about the worldlings who are dead in sin. The Telescopic Use forgets that we, too, are sinners, that Jesus came to the earth for all of us sinners. The Telescopic Use gives the illusion that there is holiness in distance, in separation, but the Scriptures teach holiness is found in Christ. The Pharisees pull out their telescopes on Jesus, but Jesus destroys them with His parable of repentance.

And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable: “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. (Luke 15:2-7)

We are not given to find delight in other people’s sin, but rather in the mercy and Love of Jesus.

All of us are experts at misusing the law. This is bad. Each and every misuse of the law steals honor from Christ and comfort from us. But praise be to God, the Holy Spirit wields the law perfectly to us. He convicts us of our sin, even our sin of misusing the law, and then He brings to us the blood of Jesus which cleanses us from every sin.

May the Holy Spirit continue to wield with us His precious law and Gospel, that we would know His joy and peace. Amen. (source)


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