Three Uses of the Law (Part 2)

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.

Normative Use?

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.

Civil Use?

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!

Pedagogical Use

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.

Learn more:-

Threefold use of the Law by R.C.Sproul

Law, Gospel, And The Three Uses of the Law by R.Scott Clark




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.