Friday, November 26, 2010

The Fourth Use of the Law


Lutheran theology divides the Word of God into two distinct categories: Law and Gospel. Gospel is the good news of forgiveness by God's unmerited grace revealed in Jesus Christ. The Law is all of the rules and regulations, the shoulds, and shalts and shalt-nots that the Word of God places upon us.

Theologians talk about three "uses" of the Law. Without getting too technical, the first use of the Law is to give order to our life in community. Drive on the right (or left)  side of the road. Thou shalt not steal. Thou shalt not commit murder. Clean up after your dog. We need the Law to prevent chaos. This civil use of the Law is sometimes described as a "compass" because it directs our actions.

The second use of the Law is to convict us of our sinful nature. If we examine our conscience in the light of God's Law, especially as it is interpreted by Jesus in Matthew 5, we find ourselves coming up short. Unable to meet the Law's demands, we are driven to seek God's grace. This pedagogical use of the Law is sometimes described as a "mirror," because in it we see ourselves for the sinners we truly are.

The third use of the Law is to teach us, once we have been justified by grace, to live in ways that are pleasing to God. This third use is controversial among Lutherans. Some argue that even for those who have been justified it is impossible to keep the Law. To me it seems that the third use of the Law will always return us to the second. Since Christians are both saints and sinners we will not be able to keep the Law wholly. We will always transgress. We will always be driven back to repentance. This third, pedagogical, use of the Law is sometimes described as a "gift."

I have discovered a fourth use of the Law, one that seems to have escaped the attention of theologians. The fourth use of the Law is to make us feel better about ourselves by condemning others. Other people may be fornicators, dancers, drunkards, homosexuals, Pharisees, gum-chewers, or what-have-you but not us. We're better than that. A friend and colleague describes the fourth use of the Law as a "weapon."

The only problem with the fourth use of the Law is that it is entirely illegitimate. Saying "You hypocrite! Take the beam out of your own eye before you pick at the speck in your neighbor's eye," Jesus roundly condemns the fourth use of the Law.

Why, then, are Christians so fond of it?

I would like to wish a slightly belated "Happy Thanksgiving" to my U.S. readership, and a much belated "Happy Thanksgiving" to any Canadians who are reading this. I cribbed the pic of Charlton Heston playing Moses from the Washingtonian's website, here.