Three Uses of the Law (Part 1)

We can divide Scripture into two parts – the law and the gospel. The law is what God demands, and the gospel is what God provides. The law shows us what God expects from us, and the gospel shows us how God has met that expectation in us.

Looked at this way, the law of God is strewn across the Bible because God’s demands (or commandments) are present everywhere in the Bible. However, we find a summary of God’s law especially in one place – the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5). Every commandment of God present anywhere else in the Bible is basically a derivation of the Ten Commandments or a particular application of them. So, when we speak of God’s law, we should have the Ten Commandments in mind.

Civil Use

Now, theologians distinguish between three uses of God’s law. The first use of the law is called the civil use. By this use, the law restrains human evil and curtails crime in the society. Evil is rampant in our society and crimes abound in our cities. Yet, if God had not written his law in every human heart, human society would have deteriorated and would have eventually destroyed itself (Romans 2:15). The law of God engraved in the human hearts finds an imperfect expression in the laws of the nations, and these laws curtail crime (Romans 2:14). This use of the law, then, is the civil use.

Pedagogical Use

The second use of the law is called the pedagogical use. The adjective pedagogical means teaching. The law teaches us something. What does it teach us? The law teaches us about the perfect holiness of God, and as a corollary, about our sin and misery. God’s law exposes the huge chasm between God’s holiness and our sinfulness. But the law of God does not merely expose our sin and leave us there; the law also points us to Christ who bridge this chasm. Hence Paul says that the law is our “schoolmaster” to drive us to Christ (Galatians 3:24; KJV).

Normative Use

The third use of the law is called the normative use. We call this use the normative because this use is the original motive with which God gave us the law. God gave us the law so that we may know how we may please him. God said to Adam, “You may eat of the tree in the garden, but out of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you may not eat. For in the day you eat of it, you shall surely die. These words were God’s law to Adam. By it, Adam knew how to please God. The civil and the pedagogical uses had not come into effect because Adam had not yet sinned. Had Adam not sinned, only the normative use would have ever been known to him and his progeny. Today, normative use applies only to believers (1 John 5:3). Believers keep the law of God to please God as their father (1 Corinthians 7:19). Even in heaven, only the normative use of the law would apply. There, perfected believers will keep the perfect law of God to please God perfectly.

The above then is a summary of the three uses of the law. In our next post, it will become evident why it is important to make this distinction.