One of the most discussed teachings in John Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion is his teaching on the three uses of the law (Book II, Ch. 7). Here Calvin has once again left his indelible mark upon the Christian Church. Calvin was a great theologian, and he is worthy of great admiration by us all. While there may be more uses of the law than just three (though other suggestions tend to find a place under the umbrella of one of Calvin's three) Calvin summarized the law's uses by setting forth three helpful divisions.
The first use of the law is that the law serves as a schoolmaster to lead us to Christ so that we might be justified through faith (Gal. 3:24). Calvin writes: "By exhibiting the righteousness of God,—in other words, the righteousness which alone is acceptable to God,—it admonishes every one of his own unrighteousness, [appraises], convicts, and finally condemns him. This is necessary, in order that man, who is blind and intoxicated with self-love, may be brought at once to know and to confess his weakness and impurity. For until his vanity is made perfectly manifest, he is puffed up with infatuated confidence in his own powers, and never can be brought to feel their feebleness so long as he measures them by a standard of his own choice." (Institutes, Book II, Ch. 7, Section 6) Here is a powerful articulation of what all Christians would heartily agree to. The law was given by God to show us our sin and our need for Christ. People are naturally self-righteous and think of themselves as good and morally acceptable, but God, who knows the truth, gave the law to reveal the truth about our alleged goodness. We are really unrighteous, and until we understand this - and the fact that we are condemned because of it - we will not see our need for the righteousness that is by faith in Jesus Christ. "Divesting themselves of an absurd opinion of their own virtue, they may perceive how they are wholly dependent on the hand of God; that feeling how naked and destitute they are, they may take refuge in his mercy, rely upon it, and cover themselves up entirely with it; renouncing all righteousness and merit, and clinging to mercy alone, as offered in Christ." (Institutes, Book II, Ch. 7, Section 8) Calvin is clear that this use of the law is for the unbeliever, bringing him to see his need for conversion to Christ. All true Christians will agree with him.
The second use of the law is that the law serves as a restrainer of sin in the world, a threat to those who would otherwise sin without restraint. The law of God was given so that those who hear may fear. God will punish the wicked for their wicked deeds. There is a day of judgment when all men will render an account to God. This instills fear into people's hearts so that they are not so quick and careless to rush headlong into wickedness. Calvin does not argue that sinners are in any way acting virtuously when they are restrained from wickedness in this way, but only that such restraint is necessary in order for men to live in a livable society. "This forced and extorted righteousness is necessary for the good of society, its peace being secured by a provision [without] which all things would be thrown into tumult and confusion." (Institutes, Book II, Ch. 7, Section 10) I believe Christians will essentially agree with Calvin's idea. Calvin also closely connects this use of the law with the first use, in that it also serves to bring people to Jesus Christ. For unless people know that there is a judgment day and a threatening law against them, they may become so headstrong in their sin that they forget God altogether. "For where the Spirit of God rules not, the lusts sometimes so burst forth, as to threaten to drown the soul subjected to them in forgetfulness and contempt of God; and so they would, did not God interpose with this remedy." (Institutes, Book II, Ch. 7, Section 11) Thus the first two uses of the law are for the unbeliever and are closely related.
The third use of the law is the one that has caused the most controversy and dispute, for here Calvin states that the third use of the law is the chief use of the law and that this use is applied to believers. "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." (Institutes, Book II, Ch. 7, Section 12) This brings us to the question posed above: what is the role of the law in the Christian life? What, then, according to Calvin, is the third use of the law? It is essential to understand that under the umbrella of the third use of the law Calvin puts forth not one, but two roles: "There are two ways in which [believers] still profit by the law." (Institutes, Book II, Ch. 7, Section 12)
First, the law serves to instruct the Christian in what the will of the Lord is. Calvin states his point powerfully: "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." (Institutes, Book II, Ch. 7, Section 12) A careful reading of Calvin's words here is indispensable. The important words are "learn", "knowledge", "wisdom", "instruction". What Calvin is saying is that the law of God is still useful - no, necessary - to the Christian for gaining knowledge and instruction in the will of God for living the Christian life. The law is a treasure-trove of instruction in righteousness. Believers are not so knowledgeable that they no longer need to study and meditate upon the law of God for instruction in Christian living. Since believers should desire to please the Lord their God in all things, they should therefore study the law of God in order to understand what pleases the Lord and what doesn't please the Lord. Just knowing the commands to "love the Lord your God with all your heart" and to "love your neighbor as yourself" isn't instructive enough. True, it gives us our moral compass and lays down the true motivation for serving (love), but these two commands are not sufficient to help you navigate the journey, making wise and loving decisions in the midst of all the complicated situations of life. The law has much to say about living a loving life, and Christians will do well to become students of this instruction. They should do so out of love for God and because they want to please Him.
Calvin's instinct appears to be sound, and shouldn't be resisted. This is not to say that Augustine's maxim, "Love, and do what thou wilt", is untrue. It is true that love is the wellspring of all good works, and our motivation for all our works is to be love. For if our motivation is not love, whatever we do, even if it is the right thing, ceases really to be good; yet if our motivation is love, whatever we do, even if it is the wrong thing, really remains good. However, there are times, lots of times, when "Love, and do what thou wilt" is simply not sufficient. Imagine a man whose loved ones have been taken hostage by some maniac, and when he seeks council from the police as to what to do, they say, "Love, and do what thou wilt!" Of course it is true that whatever he does in love will be good concerning his own intentions, but that guarantees nothing concerning his family's well-being! Unless he is further instructed he will not know what will really help his family. This is an extreme case. Suppose someone you love is coming over for dinner and because you love them you want to serve them food that will please them. Now you could go learn what food they like and don't like so that when your friend comes you won't set on the table something your friend considers inedible; or you could just reason within yourself that whatever you set on the table, so long as it is motivated by love, will be on your part morally good. After all, "It's the thought that counts" (a modern rendition of Augustine's maxim). But while it is true that it is the thought that counts, morally speaking, it is the food that counts in accomplishing the goal of pleasing your friend. As Calvin wrote above, the desire to please (which desire is motivated by love) ought to lead one to study the one who you want to please, so that you may actually please; and this requires instruction. We are all not wise enough to know everything. We all need to learn. And is not studying to know what pleases the one who we want to please itself also loving? Yet we are not all very bright and need to be taught even this! Calvin's point is therefore wise and demonstrable: we all have much to learn about Christian living, and the law is a treasure-trove of instruction.
If this first role of the third use of the law is controversial, the second role is even more.
Second, Calvin argues that the law also serves to motivate the Christian to do good works. "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." (Institutes, Book II, Ch. 7, Section 12) Understanding Calvin's point here is much more difficult than understanding his points above. The key words are "exhortation", "excited", "urging", "stimulus". The idea is that the law not only fulfills a role of instruction in the Christian life (with the motivation already being provided from elsewhere), it also fulfills a role of motivator. Calvin isn't saying that the law is the only motivator in the Christian life, nor does he deny that Christians are motivated and stimulated to obedience by the love of God. For example, he writes at the beginning of the Institutes: "By piety I mean that union of reverence and love to God which the knowledge of his benefits inspire." (Institutes, Book I, Ch. 2, Section 1) Again: "For, until men feel that they owe everything to God, that they are cherished by his paternal care, and that he is the author of all their blessings, so that [nothing] is to be looked for away from him, they will never submit to him in voluntary obedience." (Institutes, Book I, Ch. 2, Section 1) And again: "No one, indeed, will voluntarily and willingly devote himself to the service of God unless he has previously tasted his paternal love, and been thereby allured to love and reverence Him." (Institutes, Book I, Ch. 5, Section 3) In these sayings, not law, but God's love, is the source of "inspiration" and motivation to voluntary obedience. Nevertheless, Calvin is arguing that the law too serves the role of motivator. The great question is: how?
Before addressing that question, it is important to see why this is so important to Calvin, and also to appreciate the difficulty that is involved in his position. Calvin is anxious to maintain that the law is not only a source of instruction in the Christian life, but is also a source of motivation. He does not want Christians to think that they may now treat the law nonchalantly, like a game's instruction manual, which you may pick up and read whenever you feel like playing the game. To say that a Christian is not condemned by the law does not mean that a Christian may now treat the law with casual interest, as if he were not still duty-bound to keep it. Christians must still keep the law! "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." (Institutes, Book II, Ch. 7, Section 15) Calvin is clear: the curse of the law is gone, but the law is not, and the law must continue dictating to the Christian what his duty is with the same authority as ever before. Calvin was not the only one who was concerned to maintain the law's motivating role in the Christian Church: Martin Luther and many other important Reformers shared his theological concern. With the Reformation well underway and the doctrine of justification through faith alone being proclaimed and believed all over Europe, there were inevitably cases of new sects springing up which taught that the doctrine of justification abrogated the law entirely, to the end that now the law was a 'no-thing' to the Christian. Not just it's curse is gone, but also it's relevance. The law has nothing more to do with the Christian from here on out, neither for motivation nor even for instruction. It no longer matters how a Christian lives his life, for he is justified and heaven-bound all apart from his own works. Right behavior is now completely irrelevant. This horrified Calvin and the other Reformers (as it should horrify us as well) and they reacted accordingly in order to preserve the doctrine of justification through faith from reproach.
But the problem lies in how they reacted. Not wanting the gospel to be an open door to such reckless behavior, and believing that the truth should rather lead to holiness of life, the Reformers answered by saying that the law's commands must still be binding in the Christian life. However, it is a difficult thing to hold that a Christian is not under the curse of the law yet is still under obligation to keep the law. If I am not cursed for not keeping it, is this not just saying that I am not under obligation to keep it? Obligation implies some punishment if I do not fulfill my obligation, but if there is no punishment for law-breaking, how then can it be said that I am under the obligation of law-keeping? In essence, Calvin and the Reformers wanted to say with the New Testament that a Christian was not under the law, while at the same time maintain that a Christian was still under law. They wanted to hold both of those things as true, but this is not possible. Either a Christian is under the law and therefore is obligated to it or he is not under the law and is therefore not obligated to it. To argue that 'not being under law' only means 'not being under the curse of the law' and to say that such a condition does not mean freedom from being obligated to the law is to entirely miss the nature of the relationship between obligation and punishment, and the inseparable connection between being 'under the law' and 'under the curse'. The New Testament clearly states that Christians are not under the law (Rom. 6:14). It does not say that they are simply not under the curse of the law, but that they are not under the law itself. It does not say that Christians are under the law but shouldn't be frightened by the curse any longer, but that Christians don't need to be frightened by the curse any longer because they are no longer under the law (Rom. 4:15, Gal. 3:10,13, 23-25). Being under the law means being in big trouble, for being under the law means being obligated to the law, which means being punished with the punishments that the law threatens if you do not obey it.
The truth is, Christians are not in any way, shape or form under the law any longer. They are absolutely free from all obligation to keep the law of God, and this is precisely why there is now no condemnation for them. Nevertheless, Calvin's concern for Christians not to fly into careless living is a true concern (even if his solution was wrong), and the New Testament abounds with exhortations for Christians to pursue holiness in their daily lives. There is no sense in the apostolic writings whatsoever of carelessness regarding the Christian life, and most importantly, there is no sense of any irrelevancy of the law of God - the law is even invoked by the apostles to confirm and strengthen apostolic instructions (1 Cor. 9:8-9, 14:34). Just because good works do not matter for our salvation does not mean that good works do not matter at all. Calvin is therefore correct when he states that the law of God still has a role in the Christian life. "If it cannot be denied that [the law] 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, we must not confine to a single age, an employment which is most appropriate to all ages, even to the end of the world." (Institutes, Book II, Ch. 7, Section 13) This is an excellent point. The law does contain a perfect pattern of righteousness. It's moral standard is nothing other than the righteousness of God. The essence of the law is perfect love, which is nothing more and nothing less than the very nature of God Himself. Therefore Christians ought to delight in the law of God! Christians ought to seek to conform their lives to this perfect love, seeking to be holy for God is holy, all the while knowing that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. But to say that we must do it - that we are still bound to obey the commands of the law - is to say too much, to speak too strongly in reaction against the opposite error, and to misrepresent the freedom of the Christian. It is the bizarre yet beautiful fact that we are not bound to obey the law that makes our pursuit of holiness so beautiful and sacred. It is precisely our liberty that gives significance to our service. The pressure is off, so that now we may serve our God acceptably and without fear2. If we are not motivated by love for our God on account of His love for us in Christ, then whatever service we might do may be religious and useful to society, but it is not distinctively Christian service (that is, it isn't service that a Muslim or a Jew could not render).
Finally, returning to the question: how does the law motivate us according to Calvin? I must admit, Calvin is a little confusing on this point, and it seems as if he is struggling against the difficultly of holding his awkward position. The analogy Calvin employs doesn't seem very pleasant, does it? The law motivates a Christian like a whip motivates a lazy, sluggish ass. It "pricks" us forward when we would indulge in sloth. This does not sound very inspiring! Let us ask ourselves how, when we are feeling lazy and inclining toward sin, the law then helps motivate us. Perhaps a better questions is: does the law help motivate us at those times at all? Do we at those times, due to the law, feel "excited to obedience"? As we read on in the seventh chapter of the Institutes Calvin seems to present conflicting opinions and is not very clear. Immediately after his analogy of the whip Calvin cites two Psalms of David (Ps. 19:7-8 and Ps. 119:105) which extol the benefit of the law as an instructor. Then he mentions how the promises annexed to the precepts of the law make the law sweet, without which the law would be bitter. I personally cannot find a straightforward answer. When we jump ahead to his further treatment of the same subject in Book III, chapter 19, we run into the same problems: the Christian is free from condemnation yet has no liberty to disobey the law.
In conclusion, Christians should understand that the law of God still has an important and relevant role in the Christian life. The relationship of Christians to the law is not one of obligation, however, and as awesome and holy as the pattern of righteousness contained in the law truly is, we are in no way bound to obey it, for to be bound to obey it must bring with it the threat of punishment if we do not obey it. "It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery." (Gal. 5:1) This freedom is nothing less than total freedom from being under the law with its obligations and punishments. Yet this freedom in no way suggests that holy behavior is now irrelevant to Christians, and the apostles constantly exhort Christians to be zealous for good works, and even continue to use the law as a source of instruction. Christians should therefore recognize the beauty and usefulness of the law of God and should pursue love for their God and neighbor, all the while knowing that they are free. While there are many motivations that could motivate us to do what we do (there are too many number), the true and distinctively Christian motivation is love and gratitude to God which is inspired by His incomprehensible love for us revealed in the gospel of Christ. Let us therefore love our wonderful God who has loved us, and saved us, and bestowed upon us everlasting blamelessness through the blood of His Son, learning to please Him through the study of His law!
1 By "law of Moses" I here do not mean the ceremonial aspect of the law which was fulfilled and done away with in Christ, but the moral aspect of the law.
2 Some might object to this on the basis of Hebrews 12:28, but I am referring to the fear of punishment, and I do not believe that having the true fear of God is incompatible with having freedom from the fear of punishment. See Luke 1:74 for the Scripture reference that I had in mind.