Geerhardus Vos on the Three Uses of the Law

I was recently pointed to Vos’s Shorter Writings and some of the articles contained therein. The quotation below is taken from the chater “Doctrine of the Covenant in Reformed Theology” which begins on page 234 of the Shorter Writings.

The law holds an essentially different place for the Lutherans than for the Reformed. Theoretically both agree in the threefold use of the law … (i.e (1) the law as the rule of civl righteousness; (2) the law as a pedagogue leading to Christ; (3) the law as a rule of life for the regenerate). The difference lies in the fact that the Lutherans ony relate this thid use of the law to the remnants of the old nature of the believer, while the Reformed relate it to the new man, who finds in the law a positive rule of life. This difference comes to light especially in practice. In the Reformed chruches the law is read every Sunday, a usage with which Lutherans apparently are not familiar. It is treated extensively in the Heidelberg Catechism and in Calvin’s Genevan Catechism under the heading of gratitude. Lutheran catechisms deal with the commandments at the beginning; that is to say, the law is considered chiefly as the means to arouse repentance, as pedagogue leading to Christ. The Reformed use it for the same purpose, but its highest and abiding purpose lies elsewhere for them. With reference to man’s knowledge of his misery, the Heidelberg Catechism refers to the law of God only to summarize its main teaching (Q.4) and not to to treat the separate commandments. Only under the teaching on gratitude is each commandment dealt with separately. (Vos, footnote 9, p 255)

Vos clearly differentiates two traditions here, two different trajectories and two different perspectives on the law. For the Lutheran the primary use is as a pedagogue, to arouse repentance. The Reformed (Vos cites both Heidelberg and Calvin) also views it as such, but primarily sees the law from a perspective of redemption, or to use Vos’s language “gratitude”.

To me,  there are three clear manifestations of this more Lutheran perspective in the church today (I speak of “Reformed” and “Presbyterian” churches). First a general degrading of the law in the eyes of the average Chrsistian. For many it seems that law is “something that drove me (past tense) to Christ, but now I am under grace”. The problems here are obvious.   The second problem is that of preaching: if the pedagogical use of the law is at the forefront of preaching, then the law will rarely be presented in any other way. The message from the puplit will be deficient. It will always say “The Law drives you to Christ, the Law drives you to Christ!” This message, though welcome and central (and perhaps we could wish we heard it more often!), is not the whole picture – for Christ himself stated that commandment-keeping was a necessary demonstration of one’s love for Christ. And for Paul, huge chunks of his epistles are given over to the imperatives of the faith. It seems that this must be reflected in our preaching.  The third problem is found in those churches that actually read the law weekly – which practice I would support. How many churches that read the law, immediately follow it with a corporate confession of sin or prayer of confession (again, another practice which is suitable for corporate worship)?  I wonder how many churches read the law from a perspective of gratitude and look to it to refresh and instruct the believer in holy living? I’m guessing, but I would think very few.

Perhaps these three factors (I’m sure there are more) contribute to the widespread apathy towards the Law of God. Vos certainly saw the “highest and abiding purpose” of the law as resting in a response to redemption. So too does the Westminster Confession of Faith. Examine the treatment of the “Of Law of God” and its position in the Confession: after “Of Christ the Mediator” (Ch 8), after the doctrines “Of Effectual Calling” (Ch 10), after “Of Justification” (Ch11), after “Of Repentance Unto Life” (Ch 15) and after “Of the Assurance of Grace and Salvation”. Not only its position in the confession, but the chapter’s content also demonstrates this point. Chapter 19:6 of the Confession places the third use of the law in the place of pre-eminence before the pedagogical use.

I’m not advocating an “either … or” position on the law, nor is Vos or the Confession. But the reality of the situation seems that we have slipped, or are slipping into a Lutheran perspective on the Law of God.

3 Responses

  1. Hi Matt,
    I consider myself one who is still learning about reformed worship, believe it or not, and I find your article quite timely as we have recently been thinking about the place of the Law in our church. Good stuff!


  2. Matthew Holst

    Hi Stephen

    Yes, I’m reflecting more and more on what is necessary and appropriate in worship. I’m sure many things (in a non-Frame sort of way) are appropriate in worship, but are not necessarily explicitly commanded in Scripture. Even by good and necessary consequence, I find some arguments for worship practice (such as the apostolic greeting, which I like)are not such strong arguments. As Sinclair Ferguson said at the Banner Conference this year (to some consternation) there is no order of service laid out for us in the NT. He is right. I find that some of the good names of the Reformed world are far too rigid in their worship “rules” – “don’t sing the same hymn/psalm more than twice a year” – I mean where do you find that in Scripture?

    Anyway glad the article was of some help.

    Sorry I missed you at Presbytery, I had wanted to be there to say a final farwell, but I was still recovering from surgery. I hope the work at Solihull is being propspered by the LORD.



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