Luther and the Third Use of the Law

A Rose by Any Other Name

There has long been an attempt (by some) in Academia to attempt to create a breach between Luther and the Book of Concord; this attempt employs several tactics, or lines of argument, but the most common is the contention that Luther never employed the Third Use of the Law — a contention that is readily proven false. However, some more crafty academics will argue that Luther never employed the concept of the Third Use of the Law instead of simply arguing that he never employed the Third Use at all; this is more savvy, but the end goal appears (often, anyway) to be the same — the creation of a supposed breach between the Book of Concord and Luther (in this case, through outright sophistry, incidentally). Let us take these two positions in turn:

The Third Use of the Law is commonly called the Guide; it is the use to which we — regenerate Christians — put the Law in our lives. In the words of the Solid Declaration: »when people have been born anew by God's Spirit, converted to the Lord, and Moses' veil has been lifted from them, they live and walk in the Law.« Over and against the Enthusiasts, we hold that the Law remains and that Christians are to be instructed in and from it; this is the teaching of the Church, this is the teaching of the Book of Concord, and it is the teaching of the Teacher of the Church — St. Martin Luther von Wittenberg. We may look to the Small Catechism to see this clearly: Every explanation of the Commandments is an instance of Third Use.

»Thou shall have no other gods.«

False religions must be suppressed (Curb); you have idols, other gods (Mirror); you must abandon your false gods (Guide).

»We should fear, love, and trust in God above all else.«

All trust in and worship of false gods must be suppressed (Curb); you do not fear, love, and trust God as you ought (Mirror); you must fear, love, and trust in God above all things (Guide).

This continues through the Small Catechism and is expanded in the Large Catechism. To contend that Luther did not employ the Third Use is patently absurd.

Now, for those more subtle sophists, we must first highlight a truth before we extend our conclusion from the last section to those who claim that Luther never employed the Third Use as concept. A singular concept may be addressed by multiple terms. This is apparent not least of all in the fat that there are multiple languages — 'Katze' and 'cat' are not the same word, but they reference the same thing, the same concept. In the German of the Confessions, original sin is called 'hereditary' or 'ancestral sin', but such terms very clearly reference the same concept in German as "original sin" does in English.

It would be ridiculous to contend that the German versions of the Confessions deny the concept of original sin because they employ different terms. Similarly, it is ridiculous — at best — to assert that the Third Use is not found in Luther. No, he does not1 employ the term "Third Use", but, as has already been shown, supra, he most certainly does employ the concept. Thus, those who would deny that Luther held to and taught the Third Use are engaged in mere word games, in sophistry.

That the Law has three uses is the teaching of Scripture; it is the teaching of the Confessions; and it is the teaching of St. Martin Luther. May the tongues of any who deny this be struck mute and their pens run dry and clog. The desire to appear wise or knowledgeable before men is often pernicious and should be suppressed by all faithful teachers.

  1. To the best of my present knowledge. ↩︎
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