In the last post, we considered the three uses of the law. In this post, we will see how the knowledge of this theological category becomes important in interpreting a biblical text.
Let us consider Mark 10:13-22. Here we read about a rich young ruler who comes to Jesus and poses to him an interesting question: “Good Teacher, what shall I do so that I may obtain eternal life?” Jesus’s answer is instructive. Jesus says, “You know the commandments, ‘You shall not commit murder; You shall not commit adultery …'” Jesus simply quotes the the latter part of the Ten Commandments and leaves it there.
What did Jesus mean by simply quoting the commandments? Which use of the law was Jesus employing? If Jesus were employing the normative use, he would be implying that the rich young ruler is a believer. There is no indication for that assumption in the text. Moreover, if we interpret Jesus’s use of the law as normative, we would have to conclude that a believer’s inheritance of eternal life is predicated upon his obedience to the law. But we know that eternal life is a gift, not a wage for a believer’s obedience (Romans 6:13). So, the normative use of the law in this case is ruled out.
Jesus also could not have been employing the civil use. Jesus was not trying to restrain this man from becoming a criminal. Evidently, this man had good civic virtues according to his own confession. If Jesus were employing the law in its civil use, he would be implying that to inherit eternal life all one has to do is to keep himself from committing crimes. Such an interpretation would send David to hell and the self-righteous Pharisee to heaven!
Therefore, in this passage, Jesus was not employing the normative use or the civil use of the law but rather the pedagogical. By quoting the Ten Commandments, Jesus was commanding the man to keep the law perfectly. Jesus was saying something to this effect: “If you want to do something to earn eternal life, then go and keep God’s law perfectly without any spot or blemish. Make sure that you not only abstain from adultery, but also keep your heart from lusting at a woman. Make sure that you not only avoid murder, but also hatred in your heart towards anyone.”
In other words, Jesus was exposing the hollowness of this man’s righteousness. This man had a very high view of his own righteousness and a very low view of God’s holiness. By putting this man’s “righteousness” under the scanner of God’s law, Jesus was teaching the rich young ruler that it was impossible for him to earn his way into heaven.
What does this incident teach us? It teaches us at least two lessons. First, God’s law is perfect and it demands perfect righteousness. None of us can meet the demands of God’s law. Only the God-man Jesus Christ has met the law’s demands, and it is his obedience to the law that God reckons to us as righteousness when we trust in Jesus. Second, we must carefully distinguish between the three uses of the law lest we heap upon ourselves a burden too heavy to bear. We as believers obey God’s law out of gratitude to please God, not to earn righteousness before him, nor even to “maintain” the possession of eternal life.
Threefold use of the Law by R.C.Sproul
Law, Gospel, And The Three Uses of the Law by R.Scott Clark