Calvin's Third Use of the Law

In this excerpt, Calvin explains the third use of the law:1

The third use of the Law (being also the principal use, and more closely connected with its proper end) has respect to believers in whose hearts the Spirit of God already flourishes and reigns. For although the Law is written and engraven on their hearts by the finger of God, that is, although they are so influenced and actuated by the Spirit, that they desire to obey God, there are two ways in which they still profit in the Law.

For it is the best instrument for enabling them daily to learn with greater truth and certainty what that will of the Lord is which they aspire to follow, and to confirm them in this knowledge; just as a servant who desires with all his soul to approve himself to his master, must still observe, and be careful to ascertain his master’s dispositions, that he may comport himself in accommodation to them.

Let none of us deem ourselves exempt from this necessity, for none have as yet attained to such a degree of wisdom, as that they may not, by the daily instruction of the Law, advance to a purer knowledge of the Divine will. Then, because we need not doctrine merely, but exhortation also, the servant of God will derive this further advantage from the Law: by frequently meditating upon it, he will be excited to obedience, and confirmed in it, and so drawn away from the slippery paths of sin. In this way must the saints press onward, since, however great the alacrity with which, under the Spirit, they hasten toward righteousness, they are retarded by the sluggishness of the flesh, and make less progress than they ought.

The Law acts like a whip to the flesh, urging it on as men do a lazy sluggish ass. Even in the case of a spiritual man, inasmuch as he is still burdened with the weight of the flesh, the Law is a constant stimulus, pricking him forward when he would indulge in sloth. David had this use in view when he pronounced this high eulogium on the Law:

  • The law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul: the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple. The statutes of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart: the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes (Ps. 19:7, 8)


  • Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path,” (Ps. 119:105).

The whole psalm abounds in passages to the same effect. Such passages are not inconsistent with those of Paul, which show not the utility of the law to the regenerate, but what it is able of itself to bestow. The object of the Psalmist is to celebrate the advantages which the Lord, by means of his law, bestows on those whom he inwardly inspires with a love of obedience. And he adverts not to the mere precepts, but also to the promise annexed to them, which alone makes that sweet which in itself is bitter.

For what is less attractive than the law, when, by its demands and threatenings, it overawes the soul, and fills it with terror? David specially shows that in the law he saw the Mediator, without whom it gives no pleasure or delight.

Some unskilful persons, from not attending to this, boldly discard the whole law of Moses, and do away with both its Tables, imagining it unchristian to adhere to a doctrine which contains the ministration of death. Far from our thoughts be this profane notion.

Moses has admirably shown that the Law, which can produce nothing but death in sinners, ought to have a better and more excellent effect upon the righteous. When about to die, he thus addressed the people:

  • Set your hearts unto all the words which I testify among you this day, which ye shall command your children to observe to do, all the words of this law. For it is not a vain thing for you; because it is your life (Deut. 32:46, 47).

If it cannot be denied that it contains a perfect pattern of righteousness, then, unless we ought not to have any proper rule of life, it must be impious to discard it. There are not various rules of life, but one perpetual and inflexible rule; and, therefore, when David describes the righteous as spending their whole lives in meditating on the Law, (Psalm 1:2) we must not confine to a single age, an employment which is most appropriate to all ages, even to the end of the world.

Nor are we to be deterred or to shun its instructions, because the holiness which it prescribes is stricter than we are able to render, so long as we bear about the prison of the body. It does not now perform toward us the part of a hard taskmaster, who will not be satisfied without full payment; but, in the perfection to which it exhorts us, points out the goal at which, during the whole course of our lives, it is not less our interest than our duty to aim.

It is well if we thus press onward. Our whole life is a race, and after we have finished our course, the Lord will enable us to reach that goal to which, at present, we can only aspire in wish.

Since, in regard to believers, the law has the force of exhortation, not to bind their consciences with a curse, but by urging them, from time to time, to shake off sluggishness and chastise imperfection,—many, when they would express this exemption from the curse, say, that in regard to believers the Law (I still mean the Moral Law) is abrogated: not that the things which it enjoins are no longer right to be observed, but only that it is not to believers what it formerly was; in other words, that it does not, by terrifying and confounding their consciences, condemn and destroy.

It is certainly true that Paul shows, in clear terms, that there is such an abrogation of the Law. And that the same was preached by our Lord appears from this, that he would not have refuted the opinion of his destroying the Law, if it had not been prevalent among the Jews. Since such an opinion could not have arisen at random without some pretext, there is reason to presume that it originated in a false interpretation of his doctrine, in the same way in which all errors generally arise from a perversion of the truth.

But lest we should stumble against the same stone, let us distinguish accurately between what has been abrogated in the Law, and what still remains in force. When the Lord declares, that he came not to destroy the Law, but to fulfil, (Matt. 5:17), that until heaven and earth pass away, not one jot or tittle shall remain unfulfilled; he shows that his advent was not to derogate, in any degree, from the observance of the Law.

And justly, since the very end of his coming was to remedy the transgression of the Law. Therefore, the doctrine of the Law has not been infringed by Christ, but remains, that, by teaching, admonishing, rebuking, and correcting, it may fit and prepare us for every good work.

What Paul says, as to the abrogation of the Law, evidently applies not to the Law itself, but merely to its power of constraining the conscience. For the Law not only teaches, but also imperiously demands. If obedience is not yielded, nay, if it is omitted in any degree, it thunders forth its curse. For this reason, the Apostle says, that “as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse: for it is written, Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them,” (Gal. 3:10; Deut. 27:26.)

Those he describes as under the works of the Law, who do not place righteousness in that forgiveness of sins by which we are freed from the rigour of the Law. He therefore shows, that we must be freed from the fetters of the Law, if we would not perish miserably under them. But what fetters? Those of rigid and austere exaction, which remits not one iota of the demand, and leaves no transgression unpunished.

To redeem us from this curse, Christ was made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree, (Deut. 21:23, compared with Gal. 3:13, 4:4.) In the following chapter, indeed, he says, that “Christ was made under the law, in order that he might redeem those who are under the law;” but the meaning is the same. For he immediately adds, “That we might receive the adoption of sons.”

What does this mean? That we might not be, all our lifetime, subject to bondage, having our consciences oppressed with the fear of death. Meanwhile, it must ever remain an indubitable truth, that the Law has lost none of its authority, but must always receive from us the same respect and obedience.


1 John Calvin and Henry Beveridge, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Edinburgh: The Calvin Translation Society, 1845), 2.7.12-15.

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There are 5 Comments

josh p's picture

Thanks for posting this Tyler. It was interestingly a little less emphatic than some reformed theologians about the third use of the law. In a sense you could say that he is begging the question by appealing to David and Moses to make his point because that assumes that the law that they are under is the law we are under. True only if the Israeli remnant was the Old Testament Church.
Also, my understanding of Christ’s being born under the law is a reference to His Jewish birth not his being bound to obey the Law.

G. N. Barkman's picture

If Jesus was indeed a Jew, born under the Law at a time when all Jews were bound to obey the Law, doesn't that mean that Jesus was also required to obey the Law?   (Perhaps "required" is too strong.)  Doesn't His birth indicate that He voluntarily placed Himself under the requirements of the Law?

G. N. Barkman

josh p's picture

Yes G.N. I should have been more clear about that. I do believe that He voluntarily placed Himself under the law, I just don’t think that passage is teaching that He was bound to obey the law. 

TylerR's picture


Josh, I see what you mean about Calvin seeming milder than some contemporary Reformed folks. To the sources!

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and works in State government. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

ScottS's picture

Calvin makes some good parallels, but I think he gets off track from the start, and that affects some of his discussion. Now I don't have time to relay a minutia of detail, but I think Calvin misses some big points:

  1. The Mosaic Law is a unit: So his splitting out only the "Moral Law" to discuss (even though as Tyler quoted in the 1st and 2nd installments of this series that Calvin said he meant "the whole system of religion delivered by the hand of Moses," he does not discuss it as the whole), he fails to bring a full understanding of the issues. While I agree that some of the Mosaic Law was based on character aspects and righteous actions (which laws are grounded on the fact that prior to the Mosaic Law, humanity was made to be like God, Gen 1:26, and held accountable for that, Gen 6:5, Rom 2:12-14, 5:13-14), the whole Law, by being Law for Israel, was "moral" (to disobey in any point of the Law was a moral infraction, because by being Law, it created the standard that was to be lived by).
  2. The Mosaic Law points to the need for atonement: Probably in part because Calvin fails at #1, he does not clearly address how the Law functioned to keep Israel in right relation to God prior to Christ (by the atoning sacrifices, which he would have classified as Ceremonial Law [e.g. Institutes, 2.11.8]). The animal sacrifices done for atonement functioned to temporarily cleanse God's dwelling place in the midst of them (Lev 16:16, 19) and Israel from iniquity (Lev 16:30; Heb 9:13) while God dwelled with them, so that they would not have to be put to death. So they served a very moral and practical purpose. This real function also pointed to the need for the ultimate atonement in Christ's sacrifice (which relates to Gal 3:24; and Calvin does address that aspect of the "ceremonial law" being a shadow in the location cited previously).
  3. The Law is more than just the Mosaic Law proper: To the Jews, the Law was the first five books, the Pentateuch. So Genesis is included, and as such, the Law contains the role of righteousness coming by faith within it (Gen 15:6), along with the promises to Abraham, etc. So behind the Law from Sinai is the "law" of keeping the faith of Jacob, of Isaac, of Abraham, of Noah, of Enoch, and I believe of Adam and Eve as they were looking for the promised seed (Gen 3:15, 4:1, 25). So the Law as a tutor leading to faith in Christ (Gal 3:24) begins its instruction before the events of Israel in obtaining a "whole system of religion delivered by the hand of Moses." Now I realize that there is still a distinction of this aspect of the Law with the Law proper (Rom 3:21-22).

I don't want to dismiss some of the good points and parallels I think Calvin does make about how the Law does exhibit God's righteousness and our sinfulness, restrain bad behavior through fear of consequence, and that it reveals aspects of God's will and a prod to the hearts of believers that desire to follow after God's righteousness; but I don't believe the Law has a part that "still remains in force" as Law (only as instruction and example) unless one chooses to put themselves under it (God judges people by their own standards they have set, and people still fail, Rom 2:12-14; but if they want to be under the Law, they need to be under it all, Jam 2:10, and they will fail, Rom 3:19, and it is not good, Gal 3:10); what does remain in force is humanity's design to be like God, which God expects of every person, and so every one fails and is counted unrighteous (Ps 14:1-3, 53:1-3; Rom 3:10-12).

Scott Smith, Ph.D.

The goal now, the destiny to come, holiness like God—
Gen 1:27, Lev 19:2, 1 Pet 1:15-16

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