Full Text for Luther's Threefold Use of the Law (Text)
tby Concordia Theological Quarterly
A Confessional Response to North American
Mark Mattes ............................................................................................ 3
Father, Son, and Spirit Is God: What Is the Point?
William C. Weinrich ............................................................................. 27
icals God as Secondary Fundamental Doctrine in Missouri Synod Theology
also David P. Scaer ....................................................................................... 43
Luther and Calvin on God: Origins of Lutheran and Reformed Differences 606;
Roland F. Ziegler .................................................................................. 63the
Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin on the Significance of Christ's Death
John A. Maxfield ................................................................................... 91
our Post-Reformation Lutheran Attitudes
:les, Toward the Reformed Doctrine of God
( at Benjamin T.G. Mayes ......................................................................... 111
Luther's Threefold Use of the Law
,tion Edward A. Engelbrecht ..................................................................... 135
;.5.) Gerhard Forde's Doctrine of the Law: A Confessional Lutheran Critique)on Jack Kilcrease ...................................................................................... 151
lted Theological Observer ...................................................................................... 180
A Pro-Life Prayer
Volume 75:1-2 JanuaryJApril2011
Table of Contents
CTQ 75 (2011): 135-150
Luther's Threefold Use of the Law
Edward A. Engelbrecht
Although students of Luther agree that the doctrine of the use of the
law is a cornerstone in his thought laid early in the Reformation, several
scholars since the mid-twentieth century have claimed that Luther taught
only two uses of the law,l even though Luther explicitly described a
"threefold usefulness of the law" (dreyerley brauch des gesetzes) in 1522 and
a "third office ... of the law" (3. officium . .. legis) in 1528.2 Scholars of the
only-two-uses consensus have not examined these two passages side-by
side, nor have they viewed Luther's teaching in light of the medieval
exegetical tradition. Consequently, it will be argued below that the only
two-uses consensus is not properly grounded in history. This article will
examine Luther's writings on the threefold use and third office of the law,
viewing the passages in the context of the ancient and medieval exegetical
tradition, and interacting with the detailed studies of Gerhard Ebeling and
Martin Schloemann.3 It will demonstrate that Luther indeed taught a
threefold use of the law, an insight that would become standard in
1 Wilhelm Maurer provided an impressive list, which William Lazareth included in
"Antinomians: Then and Now," Lutheran Forum 36, no. 4 (Winter 2002): 19. The list
includes Paul Althaus, Heinrich Bornkamm, Gerhard Ebeling, Werner Elert, Ragnar
Bring, Anders Nygren, Lennart Pinomaa, Regin Prenter, Gustaf Wingren, Karl Heintz
zur Mtihlen, Oswald Bayer, Bengt Hagglund, Lauri Haikola, Gerhard Heintze, Wilifried
Joest, and Martin Schloemann. To this list can be added the American scholars Timothy
Wengert, Lowell Green, Gerhard Forde, and perhaps others.
2 Martin Luther, Luthers Werke: Kritische Gesamtausgabe [Scriftenl, 65 vols. (Weimar:
H. Bohlau, 1883-1993), 10.1:456-457; 26:17. There is also a passage from Luther's second
Antinomian Disputation (1538) that mentions a third use of the law, but Werner Elert
concluded that this example was a later addition to the text and reflected not Luther's
teaching but Melanchthon's. Werner Elert, "Eine theologische F1!lschung zur Lehre vom
tertius usus legis," Zeitschrift for Religions- und Geistesgeschichte 1 no. 2 (1948): 168-170.
3 Gerhard Ebeling, "On the Doctrine of the Triplex Usus Legis in the Theology of the
Reformation," Word and Faith (London: SCM Press Ltd., 1963), 62-73. Martin
Schloemann, Natiirliches und gepredigtes Gesetz bei Luther: eine Studie zur Frage nach der
Einheit der GesetzesaufJassung Luthers mit besonderer Beriicksichtigung seiner
Auseinandersetzung mit den Antinomern (Berlin: Alfred Topelmann, 1961).
4 For more on this topic, see my forthcoming book, Edward A. Engelbrecht, Friends
of the Law: Luther's Use of the Law for the Christian Life (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing
Edward A. Engelbrecht is Senior Editor of Professional and Academic Books and
Bible Resources at Concordia Publishing House, St. Louis, Missouri.
136 Concordia Theological Quarterly 75 (2011)
I. Origins of the usus legis Terminology
Scholars have struggled to explain how the sixteenth-century
reformers developed the technical term "use of the law" (usus legis).5 The
terminology can be traced back to Augustine (354-430), who was a major
contributor to the doctrine of the use of the law.6 In a letter to Asellicus and
a sermon on Romans 8:12-17, Augustine employed the expression utilitas
legis, the "benefit" or /I usefulness of the law," an expression that he began
to use consistently.? Medieval writers used the term in interpretations of
Romans 2:15, Galatians 3:19, and 1 Timothy 1:8-9. Peter Lombard8 and
Thomas Aquinas9 enumerated four uses of the law, while Petrus Aureoli10
and Nicholas of Lyrall settled on three. On Galatians 3:19, Nicholas wrote,
"Here [Paul] responds to the question by showing the threefold usefulness of
the law."12 The same expression appears in the early Luther.
5 See, e.g., Ebeling, "Doctrine of the Triplex Usus Legis," 73; Holsten Fagerberg, A
New Look at the Lutheran Confessions, 1529-1537, trans, Gene J. Lund (St. Louis: Concordia
Publishing House, 1972), 82.
6 Victor Ernest Hasler, Gesetz und Evangelium in der alten Kirche bis Origenes
(Zurich/Frankfort am Main: Gotthelf-Verlag, 1953), documents examples of the early
Christians' enduring interest in biblical teachings on the law,
7 Patralogia cursus completus: Series latina, 217 vols., ed. J.-P. Migne (Paris: Migne,
1844-1864),33:892; 38:851 [henceforth PLj. For English translations, see Letter 196:2, 5-6,
in The Works of Saint Augustine: A Translation for the 21st Century, Letters (156-210) (Hyde
Park, New York: New City Press, 2004), 312-313; Sermon 156:3, TIle Works of Saint
Augustine: A Translation for the 21st Century, Sermons (148-183) (New Rochelle, New
York: New City Press, 1992), 98-99. One may see in Augustine's expression the basis of
the "theological terminus technicus" that Ebeling sought. The development of this
expression likely stemmed from 1 Tim 1:8-9.
B PL 192:127. "Quid igitur lex? id est cur a Deo data est lex? Quae est ejus utilitas?"
The text includes bracketed and parenthetic references to Augustine and Ambrose, from
whom Peter drew his insights.
9 Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on Saint Paul's Epistle to the Galatians, tans. F.R.
Larcher, Aquinas Scripture Series 1 (Albany, NY: Magi Books, Inc., 1966).
10 See Gal 3 in Compendium Biblie totius (Argentinae: 1514). This text and others were
brought to the attention of modern scholars by Heinrich Denifle, Die abendliindischen
Schriftausleger bis Luther iibeT Justitia Dei (Rom. 1,17) und Justificatio (Mainz: Kirchheim &
Co., 1905), 202.
11 Nicholas de Lyre, Postilla super totam Bibliam (de Venetiis: impensis Octaviani
Seoti, 1488). Nicholas's method is thought to have significantly influenced Luther, who
exhibits clear dependence upon Nicholas of Lyra's Postilla in, e.g., his 1515 Lectures on
Romans, available in Martin Luther, Luther's Works, American Edition, 55 vols., ed.
Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann (Philadelphia: Fortress
Press; St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1955-1986), 25 [henceforth LW].
12 "Hie respondet ad q[uaesti]onem ostendens triplicem legis utilitatem" (emphasis
Engelbrecht: Luther's Threefold Use of the Law
In 1509, 1510/11, and 1516, Luther had opportunity to encounter this
terminology in his studies of Augustine, Peter Lombard, medieval glosses
on Paul's letter to the Galatians,B and perhaps other theological writings.
Timothy Wengert suggests that Luther's earliest expression for the use of
the law came in 1521.14 In view of the ancient and medieval teaching,
however, we may see the matter differently.
In his scholia on Romans (c. late 1515), Luther revealed his
indebtedness to Paul and to the medieval theology of the use of the law.15
In commenting on Romans 3:20, a classic passage for defining the
theological use of the law, Luther wrote of the "work of the law" (opus
legis; Rom 2:15) and described the law as "useful" (quod non inutilis sit; also
utilisV6 relating Paul's "work of the law" (Vulgate, opus legis) to the
medieval theological term "usefulness of the law" (utilitas legis). The
1515/16 lectures on Romans demonstrate Luther's theological maturation
and how the doctrine of the law relates to the doctrine of the gospel,17
Luther's scholion on Romans 14:1 includes references to 1 Timothy 1,18
a passage which, according to Luther, presents as Paul's opponents Jewish
teachers who insist on the necessity of fulfilling legal requirements for
salvation. Luther links Romans 14 to other Pauline passages on the
abrogation of Jewish laws, including the Law of Moses, Luther also
condemns a medieval antinomian movement, the "Picards/' who
emphasized the abrogation of rules and practices. This is important for
understanding that Luther was from early on opposed to antinomianism
and did not intend to introduce it when describing the abrogation of the
Law of Moses. Luther still used the medieval expression nova lex (new law)
to describe the New Testament, though his understanding of the
distinction between law and gospel was already at work.19
In the glosses to his 1516/17 Lectures on Galatians, Luther provided
the following heading for the third chapter: liThe Galatians are rebuked
13 Kurt Aland, ed., Hilfsbuch zum Lutherstudium, 4th ed. (Bielefeld: Luther-Verlag,
1996) lists collections of Luther's marginal notes on these texts during those years,
14 Timothy Wengert, Law and Gospel: Philip Melanchthon's Debate with John Agricola of
Eisleben over Poenitentia (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1997), 191.
15 Luther's scholia on Romans are available in WA 56 and LW25.
16 LW 25:240; WA 56:253-254.
17 Robert Kolb, Martin Luther: Confessor of the Faith (Oxford: Oxford University
Press, 2009), 51,
18 LW 25:485-488. This pOint provides helpful context for understanding Luther's
1528 Lectures on 1 Timothy at the end of this article.
138 Concordia Theological Quarterly 75 (2011)
and the apostle; showing the imperfection of the Law of Moses; says that
righteousness is by faith; with a consideration of the usefulness of the
law."20 Here one sees again Luther's law and gospel distinction as well as
the use of the law within that distinction. Another early reference to the
usefulness of the law appeared in the 1519 Lectures on Galatians; where
Luther provided a detailed explanation of how the law increases
transgression. Luther asked, "Who would ever have expected such an
answer, one that is certainly opposed to all who are wont to speak
intelligently about the usefulness of the Law?"21 He followed with a long
argument associating Galatians 3:19 with Romans 5:20, engaging with the
interpretation of Jerome, whose commentary on Galatians focused on the
civil use of the law when answering Paul's question of Galatians 3:19.22
In 1521 Luther wrote about the offidum legis (office of the law),23 an
expression that he would consistently use interchangeably with "use of the
law" in later writings.24 Luther's terms utilitas legis and offidum legis show
the influence of medieval commentators and canon law on his theological
development. Although the term utilitas legis was foundational to Luther's
doctrine of the law, scholars of the only-two-uses consensus have failed to
In the Weihnachtspostille (Christmas Postil) of 1522, Luther provided his
most extensive early explication of the use of the law.25 The elector
commissioned these sermons to guide evangelical preachers. The Weimar
Edition of Luther's works lists twenty-six German printings (1522-1544)
20 "Increpantur Galatae ac ostendens apostolus imperfectionem legis Mosaicae
dicit iusticiam esse ex fide: annectendo legis utilitatem." WA 57.H:20. Elsewhere in this
chapter, Luther provided a second reference to the use of the law: regarding Paul's
question in Gal 3:19, he wrote, "Obidt sibi ipsi aliorum motivum: videtur enim lex
superflua, immo inutilis, si non iustificat." (He poses to himself the others' argument.
For the law appears unnecessary, or rather useless, if it does not justify.) WA 57.H:26.
21 LW 27:269; W A 2:522 has de utilitate legum.
22 Cf. Peter Lombard's emphasis on Rom 5:20 in PL 192:127.
24 Melanchthon used the expression earlier in his 1521 Loci Communes (CR 29:154).
The same expression appeared in the first pages of Gratian's Decretum, which Luther
and Melanchthon would have read early in their careers. It appears that Luther or
Melanchthon adapted this term from canon law for describing the uses and effects of the
Law of Moses. Luther purchased a copy of corpus iuris canonici in 1505 when he began
study of canon law. Ironically, he burned volumes of canon law after Roman officials
began burning his books; E.G. Schwiebert, Luther and His Times (51. Louis: Concordia
Publishing House, 1950), 20.
23 Unfortunately, this passage is rarely considered by current advocates of the only
Engelbrecht: Luther's Threefold Use of the Law
and two printings of Martin Bucer's Latin translation (1525 and 1526).26
These sermons were among Luther's most widely distributed - and
therefore influential- writings. They were in constant use throughout
Lutheran regions, spreading his views on the use of the law.
Historians of doctrine have focused on a portion of Luther's 1522
sermon that described a twofold use of the law,27 but have largely
neglected or not understood a particularly significant passage with explicit
reference to a "threefold use of the law." In Luther's sermon for New
Year's Day on Galatians 3:23-29,28 we see three attitudes toward the law,
that is, three ways in which man conducts himself with reference to it.
Some utterly disregard it, boldly opposing it by a dissolute life. To them it
is practically no law. Others, because of the law, refrain from such a course
and are preserved in an honorable life. But while outwardly they live
within the law's prohibitions, inwardly they are enemies of their tutor. The
motive behind their conduct is the fear of death and hell. They keep the
law only externally, or rather, it keeps them. Inwardly they neither keep it
nor are kept by it. Still others observe it both externally and with the heart.
Those who keep the law in this manner are the true tables of Moses,
written upon outwardly and inwardly by the finger of God himself.
The Lenker edition, cited here, obscures Luther's reference to the use
of the law. Luther begins this passage with the expression dreyerley brauch
des gesetzes, which is the German equivalent to Nicholas of Lyra's triplicem
legis utilitatem.29 Luther provides a much more extensive explanation of the
26 WA 10.1:viii-ix.
27 See, e.g., Ebeling, "Doctrine of the Triplex Usus Legis," 64.
2Il Martin Luther, The Complete Sermons of Martin Luther, trans. John Nicholas Lenker
and Eugene F.A. Klug (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2000), 6:272-274; WA 10.1:457-458
[henceforth Lenker]. Legal historian John Witte Jr. writes, "Luther also touched lightly
on a third use of the law. This use, grounded in St. Paul's discussion of the law as 'our
schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ' (Galatians 3:24), became known in the Protestant
world as the 'educational,' 'didactical,' or 'pedagogical' use of the law. Law, in this
sense, serves to teach the faithful, those who have already been justified by faith, the
good works that please God. Luther recognized this concept without explicitly
expounding a doctrine of the third use of the law. He recognized that sermons,
commentaries, and catechism lessons of the many Old Testament passages on law are
directed, in no small part, to teaching the faithful the meaning of God's law." John Witte
Jr., Law and Protestantism: The Legal Teachings of the Lutheran Reformation (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 2002), 103-104.
29"Aus Lyra hat namlich der Autor die dreifache utilitas legis genommen .... Lyra
selbst war aber hierin abhangig von Pet. Aureoli." (From Lyra, of course, the author
[Luther] has taken the threefold uti/itas legis. ... Lyra himself, however, was dependent
in this on Petrus AureolL) Denifle, Die abendliindische Schriftausleger, 202. Denifle
140 Concordia Theological Quarterly 75 (2011)
threefold use as it relates to Galatians 3 and broader Pauline theology.
Before considering more of this passage, however, a closer examination of
the history of its interpretation will be presented.
II. Ebeling's Assessment
Although Gerhard Ebeling was well aware of Luther's reference to a
dreyerley brauch des gesetzes as a potential source for the Reformation
doctrine of a third use of the law, he dismissed the possibility of a
connection between Luther's teaching here and the dogmatic tradition of a
The threefold use of the law which Luther speaks of here, bears solely
on the question of fulfilling the law .... Luther expressly describes this
third method in a way that excludes the tertius usus legis as
Melanchthon understands it. ... This distinction of a threefold use of
the law is only inserted by Luther in the form of a parenthesis in a
context where the real topic is as plainly as may be the duplex usus
legis, in the sense that there are said to be "two things for which the
law is necessary and good, and which God expects of it." ... Our
conclusion therefore is, that the formula "threefold use of the law" is
indeed found in Luther for the first time, yet it only expresses a
passing thought and is then dropped again, while at the same time the
doctrine of a twofold use of the law is already established in essence
and still awaits only its final conceptual formulation.3D
Note well that Ebeling assesses this passage based on what was to
come about twelve years after it was written - Melanchthon' s
understanding expressed in the 1535 Loci Communes-rather than on the
broader history of Western Christian thought. Ebeling seems to have been
unaware of the ancient and medieval tradition on the use of the law.31 He
also seems to have dismissed prematurely the relevance of this passage
because it does not speak in the same manner as Melanchthon or later
dogmatic theologians. Ebeling's focus on finding the mature dogmatic
expression of the Reformation prevents him from taking into account the
manner in which Luther taught the doctrine of the law.32
published his research in the era during which Luther scholars such as Kawerau
supported the idea that Luther taught a threefold use of the law. The next generation of
scholars, such as Elert and Ebeling, somehow missed this historical insight as they
worked to establish the two-uses consensus.
30 Ebeling, "Doctrine of the Triplex Usus Legis/' 64-65.
31 Ebeling, "Doctrine of the Triplex Usus Legis," 73.
32 Ebeling also characterizes Luther's threefold teaching as II the form of a
parenthesis," which allows him to dismiss its importance. Yet it is noteworthy that other
Engelbrecht: Luther's Threefold Use of the Law
Ebeling's assessment does, however, provide helpful caveats. Earlier in
the text, for example, Luther does indicate that he will write about two
responses to the law.33 Ebeling is correct in noting that within this passage
Luther distinguishes what "God expects of [the law]" and what man does
with the law. The following table summarizes Luther's teaching in this
Divine and Human Uses of the Law (1522)
Divine use one: Preservation of discipline
Divine use two: Humbling through the granting
Human (mis)use one: Bold opposition by a dissolute life
Human (mis)use two: Outward keeping of the law, or
being kept by the law
Human use three: Outward and inward keeping of
Modern scholarship, influenced by the dogmatic tradition, has tended
to describe only the divine use of the law, that is, the manner in which the
Holy Spirit uses the law in a person's life. In this passage, however, Luther
clearly has in mind the manner in which man uses and misuses the law,
which was a topic for earlier theologians, as found in the Glossa Ordinaria34
and even Paul in 1 Timothy 1:8-9. In fact, Luther wrote about the divine
and human uses of the law alongside one another throughout his career.
Because Luther does not explicitly enumerate a third divine use in this
passage, Ebeling rejects it as an example of the teaching of a third use. Not
all scholars, however, have agreed fully with Ebeling's assessment. The
historians have characterized 1521-1522 as especially important for Luther's
development of the doctrine of the law and the distinction between law and gospeL See,
e.g., Berhard Lohse, Martin Luther: An Introduction to His Life and Work, trans. Robert C.
Schultz (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986), 52. Lohse explains that the conflict with
Karlstadt in the winter of 1521-1522 caused Luther to reflect deeply on the uses of the
law and the dialectical relationship between law and gospel. Lohse sees Luther writing
especially about the civil use of the law at this time.
33 "Alszo sehen wyr disze tzwey stuck auch ynn allen menschen." (Thus we see
these two parts also in all men.) WA 10.1:452. The Lenker translation added the heading
"The Office of the Law." Complete Sermons 6:270.
M "Lege autem legitime utendi multiplex est modus, ut secundum aliud justus, et
secundum aliud injustus recte dicatur legitime uti lege." (Now, there are many ways of
lawfully using the law, so that the righteous are correctly said to be lawfully using the
law in one way, and the unrighteous in another way.) PL 114:625.
142 Concordia Theological Quarterly 75 (2011)
1986 Bekenntnisschriften follows a reference to this passage with the word
"triplex," meaning that the editors take the passage from the
Weihnachtspostille as teaching a threefold use of the law.35 Also, there was
in the early twentieth century a scholarly consensus on this question,
whose adherents included Gustav Kawerau, Reinhold Seeberg, Friedrich
Loofs, Karl Aner, and Heinrich Denifle.36
Readers should note the fact that Luther does provide three positive
statements of the law's use, with the third being the use of the law by the
believer. There is also a divine action under this third category: "This class
are [sic] the tables of Moses, written upon outwardly and inwardly by the
finger of God himself."37 Luther remarkably describes the believer's
outward life and inward heart as the "tables of Moses," making the
righteous man an embodiment of the divine law. He follows with
extensive comment on man's use and abuse of the law, which also requires
careful assessment, since Luther continues to comment on the use of the
law throughout this passage.
III. The Pattern of Luther's Teaching
Luther's dialectical and rhetorical approach in the Weihnachtspostille is
to present a contrast between those who misuse God's law and those who
use it properly. He first describes three classes of those who use or misuse
the law.38 He then repeats the teaching by illustrating it with an extended
analogy based on Israel's responses to the Law of Moses.39 We shall
consider these passages in order, beginning with the description of the
three classes of mankind:
The first class are righteous neither without nor within; the second are
only outwardly pious and not in heart; but the third are thoroughly
righteous. Upon this point Paul says (1 Tim 1,8), "But we know that
the Law is good, if a man use it lawfully." But in what way is it
lawfully used? I answer, "Law is not made for a righteous man, but
for the lawless" (verse 9). And what are we to understand by that?
Simply that he who would preach the Law aright must be governed
by these three classes. He must not by any means preach the Law to
the third class as an instrument of righteousness; this were perversion.
35 Die Bekenntnisschriften der evangeUsch-lutherischen Kirche, 10th ed. (Gottingen:
Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1986), 962n2; the reference is to W A 10.1:457,2-458,18.
36 See Werner Elert, "The Question of the Law's 'Third Function,'" in Law and
Gospel, trans. Edward H. Schroeder (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1967).
37 Lenker 6:273.
38 WA 10.1:456,19-457,13.
39 WA 10.1:457,14-458,14.
Engelbrecht: Luther's Threefold Use of the Law
But to the first class such preaching is in order. For them is the Law
instituted. Its object is that they may forsake their dissolute life and
yield themselves to the preserving power of their tutor. However, it is
not enough for them to be guarded and kept by the Law; they must
learn also to keep it. So, in addition to the Law and beyond it, the
Gospel must be preached, through which is given the grace of Christ
to keep the former. There is a considerable difference between
observing the Law and being preserved by it; between keeping and
being kept. The first class neither keep it nor are kept; the second are
kept; and the third keep it.40
Luther then extends and applies the threefold usefulness of the law,
emphasizing the use of the three classes as a guide to preachers. Knowing
the audience(s) should help preachers to proclaim the law appropriately.
Luther then follows with his biblical analogy. The Lenker edition again
hides Luther's theological term "use of the law" by not including the term
"use" in its translation. Luther literally introduces the analogy as "three
attitudes toward the use of the Law" (drey weyse am brauch des gesetzs).41
Luther's analogy includes a time when the law is given, that is, twice
under Moses, and a time when the Law of Moses is not given, that is, the
time of Joshua, when the law is fulfilled by faith.42
As noted above, Ebeling emphasizes that Luther's entire discussion of
the threefold use of the law occurs in the context of his teaching about two
offices or uses of the law. Ebeling, however, does not seem to have
considered the larger dialectical and rhetorical pattern of Luther's
teaching, which is summarized as follows: (1) first use, (2) second use, (3)
first misuse, (4) second misuse, (5) third use, and (6) an analogy illustrating
the earlier points. Because Luther describes the use of the law in terms of a
contrast, he naturally divides his teaching on the third use of the law from
the first two uses. As one explores later passages from Luther, one should
watch for this contrast and pattern of teaching.43
Ebeling makes an additional point on Luther's sermon on Galatians
3:23-29: "The exposition of Gal. 3.23-29 in the Weihnachtspostille of 1522 ...
does in fact contain the expression 'three-fold use of the law,' which Bucer
40 Lenker 6:273; WA 10.1:456-457.
41 Lenker 6:273-274; W A 10.1:457-458.
42 Luther's concept of the "time of the law" is important for understanding how he
wrote about the use of the Law of Moses, especially as he interpreted Ga13.
41 Cf. also the progreSSion in the Glossa Ordinaria for 1 Tim 1:8-9, where two
purposes of the law are plainly presented, followed by a digression on the human need
for and use of the law.
144 Concordia Theological Quarterly 75 (2011)
in his Latin translation of 1525 renders literally as triplex usus legis."44
Ebeling is correct in his claim that this is the earliest appearance of usus
legis yet noted, the term Luther would later use in his 1531 Lectures on
Galatians and that Melanchthon would use in the 1535 Loci Communes.45
Since Luther delivered his Galatians lectures and Melanchthon wrote the
Loci in Latin, it is tempting to conclude that both consulted Bucer's Latin
translation of Luther's sermon on Galatians and so settled on the term usus
legis rather than the ancient and medieval utilitas legis. Yet the possibility
remains that it was a medieval theologian that coined the term usus legis.
IV. The January 15,1528 Lecture on 1 Timothy
Luther reflected again on the use or office of the law on January 15,
1528. His comments are complex and even contradictory at points, which
is likely why scholars have overlooked them. One scholar who did
examine this passage was Martin Schloemann, who considered the
development of Luther's doctrine of the law by studying Luther's
interpretation of 1 Timothy 1:8-9. Schloemann expressed surprise that
other scholars had not studied Luther's comments on the law in the
lectures on 1 Timothy, since he saw in them a repudiation of the third use
of the law.46 Schloemann seems, however, to have misunderstood Luther's
comments in the lectures because he was not familiar with the ancient and
medieval teaching about the uses of the law, and also because he did not
include in his research Luther's observations from the 1522
Weihnachtspostille - Luther's most extensive early commentary on the topic,
which cited and interacted with 1 Timothy 1.
In the Lectures on 1 Timothy, Luther wrestles with the opinions of his
opponents and the question of how to describe the role of the law in the
life of a believer.47 His main point was made in commenting on1 Timothy 1 :8.
To sum up all of this: Use the Law as you wish. Read it. Only keep this
use away from it, that you credit it with the remission of sins and
44 Ebeling, "Doctrine of the Triplex Usus Legis/' 62-63.
45 Desiderius Erasmus (c. 1469-1536) used the term usus legis in later commentaries,
but I have not determined when the expression first appeared in his writings! since a
limited number of editions are available to me. Erasmus's In epistolam Pauli ad Galatas
Paraphrasis (Argentina, 1520)! 49, assumes awareness of the medieval expression utilitas
legis; see also the 1522 Paraphrases in Novum Testamentum, in Opera Omnia (Lugduni:
Petri Vander, 1706),954.
46 Schloemann! NaWrliches und gepredigtes Gesetz bei Luther! 26n73.
47 See LW 28:231n17. In the broader context, Luther referred to his 1524 treatise
Against the Heavenly Prophets. The concerns of that treatise reemerged in the 1 Tim
Engelbrecht: Luther's Threefold Use of the Law
righteousness. Beware of making me righteous by the Law. Rather use
it to restrain. You must not give the Law the power and virtue to
Here Luther voices his chief concern. He supports the use of the law
for both believers and unbelievers, but is concerned that no one ascribe to
the law the power to justify. liThe Law is abused when I assign to the Law
more than it can accomplish. Good works are necessary and the Law must
be kept but the Law does not justify."49
Luther next comments on 1 Timothy 1:9, which stirs further reflection
on the same subject:
The Law frightens and causes trembling-these are the spiritual
effects of the Law. It really has a double function: in an external way
to repress violence and spiritually to reveal sins. It restrains the
wicked to prevent their living according to their own flesh, and it
shows the Pharisees their sins to keep them from pride. Satan, every
wicked theologian, and even nature cannot bear to have their works
condemned. Those who have the firstfruits of the Spirit have the battle
to fight against confidence in our own works.50
Luther's pattern of thought is as follows: (1) the first use restrains
sinners, (2) the second use reveals sin, (3) the law is misused by Satan,
wicked theologians, and natural reason, and (4) righteous men battle
against confidence in works. This, stated in brief, is a pattern of argument
similar to the one used in his 1522 sermon. Luther pairs up a description of
the first and second uses of the law, followed with a description of the
misuse of the law.
Luther closes that day's lecture by commenting on the Christian life:
The Law is laid down for the lawless. This gives the Law both its civil
and spiritual functions: that wicked man is restrained and is led to a
knowledge of himself. Those are the two functions. By its civil
function it restrains crass sinners who rush in before they reveal all
things as free. This must be the Law with its own punishment. Many
people are greedy, and yet they live with a beautiful and holy
appearance. Paul in Rom. 1 assails the Gentiles for their crass and
manifest sins. In chapter 2 he assails the very decent-appearing Jews
who beneath their hypocrisy kept encouraging the worst sins so that
50 LW 28:233. The statement "Good works are necessary" would later get1m Melanchthon in trouble with both the Antinomians and the Gnesio-Lutherans.
146 Concordia Theological Quarterly 75 (2011)
these holy sinners are put to shame. Rom. 2. There we have the true
use, and you should not assign more to the Law than to restrain and
humble the proud saints that they may be led to understanding. When
this occurs, there is no further function of the Law.51
In this lecture Luther presents a new biblical analogy based on Paul's
argument in Romans, which condemned first the Gentiles and then the
Jews with the first and second uses of the law. At this point he even
concludes that there are no other uses. He then attacks an unidentified
opponent for misusing the law, typical of his pattern of argument
presenting use then misuse for contrast:
Why, then, do you preach that one is justified thereby? The just man
ought not have the Law except as a restraint and to reveal sin. But it
does not take away sin. But in the case of manifest sinners, it restrains;
in the case of secret sinners, it reveals. In the case of the just man, it
cannot restrain, because there is nothing to restrain; it cannot reveal,
because he has done nothing concealed. It is the good use of the Law
to restrain and to reveal sin; but it is misuse thereof to say that it takes
He does not state who these false preachers are, but the scholia on Romans
indicates thatthey were likely the Jewish teachers described in1 Timothy 1.53
A potential cause of confusion, however, is Luther's assignment of the
twofold use of the law to "proud saints," believers addressed in Romans,
and the "just man rather than the unjust." He then seems to contradict this
point by stating that the just man has nothing to restrain or conceal,
remembering the wording of 1 Timothy 1:9. Luther fails to include a clear
statement of how simul justus et peccator factors into the use of the law. The
day's lecture closed in a most confusing way, illustrating that Luther had
not finally and clearly settled on one way to talk about the role of the law
in the life of a believer, though he knew what he did not want to say - that
the law justifies sinners.
V. The January 20, 1528 Lecture on 1 Timothy
When Luther begins the next lecture, he expresses himself with greater
clarity and confidence. This transition from one lecture to the next is
53 Luther was not rebuking his colleagues Agricola and Melanchthon, with whom
he had recently discussed the use of the law. They had disputed about the role of the
law in repentance; neither of them had argued that one is made righteous through the law.
Engelbrecht: Luther's Threefold Use of the Law
significant for understanding the flow of the passage, yet Schloemann
seems to have overlooked it in his analysis. Luther states:
We have treated these two points: the Law is good, and it was not laid
down for the just. I have also mentioned that we understood those
two points as characteristic for recognizing Christians. The wicked do
not understand that the Law is not for the just man. Against this, Rom.
13:10 proclaims that love is the critical point of the Law, and beyond
that it says (Rom. 7:16): "The Law is good." The two functions of the
Law are to reveal sinners and restrain them.54
As in the previous lecture, Luther here defines the first two offices or
functions of the law as ways in which the law acts upon those who hear it.
The work of the Holy Spirit is to use the law to restrain sinners and reveal
sin, driving a person to despair of his own righteousness. Luther also notes
that the wicked do not understand the use of the law, which leads them to
misuse it; this is in keeping with Luther's typical pattern of argument.
Luther then defines a third office of the law. He makes this point at the
beginning of this lecture, after he has collected his thoughts and can speak
more clearly. Rather than describing the prophetic use of the law or II the
law of the gospelll as a late-medieval theologian would do, Luther
describes a use of the law passively and negatively:
The third function, however, to remove sin and to justify, is limited to
this: The Lamb of God, and not the Law, takes away sin. It is Christ
who removes sin and justifies. Consequently, we must distinguish
between the function of the Law and that of Christ. It is the Law's
function to show good and evil, because it shows what one must do
and reveals sin, which one must not commit. The Law therefore is
good because it shows not only evil but also the good which one must
do. But beyond that it does not go. It does not kill Og and King Sihon.
It merely reveals good and bad; Joshua [does the rest].55
The law does not justify or remove sin. Christ fulfills this office for the
hearer's sake. Luther does not speak first of the Spirit using the law, nor
does he speak of the law's effect on the one hearing it. Yet he emphasizes
that the law still reveals good and evil for the believer. This basic use of the
law does not go away. In this explanation, Luther safeguards the office of
Christ to justify and the office of the law to reveal right and wrong.
Though fulfilled by the office of Christ, the law still stands .
54 LW28:235 .
• f the
148 Concordia Theological Quarterly 75 (2011)
In this description of the third function of the law, Luther returns to
the analogy used in his 1522 sermon. There Luther used a three-part
biblical analogy, including (1) the golden calf incident, (2) the veil incident,
and (3) the conquest under Joshua. Here, Luther skips the first two parts of
the analogy to focus directly on the third: "[The law] does not kill Og and
King Sihon. It merely reveals good and bad; Joshua [does the rest]." In this
analogy, Luther links his earlier thoughts about a threefold use/ misuse by
mankind with the three offices of the law described in the 1 Timothy
lectures. In other words, this is another connection and point of
consistency in Luther's thinking about a threefold use of the law. This again
calls into question Ebeling's conclusion that the 1522 sermon did not have
to do with Luther's teaching of a threefold use of the law. In both passages,
Luther writes about the human use/misuse and the divine use of the law.
In studying these passages, in which Luther explicitly mentions a threefold
use of the law and three offices of the law, a broader picture of Luther's
thinking about the law emerges, which is illustrated in the following table:
Luther's Uses or Offices of the Law
Divine Use 1: Restrain Misuse 1: Bold Righteous man's use
(INA 10.1.:454-455; opposition (WA 1: Live together in
26:16; LW 28:234-235) 10.1:456,10-11; 26:16; peace (INA
Lenker 6:272; LW 10.1:454,17; Lenker
28:234) 6:271); forsake the
dissolute life (WA
Divine Use 2: Bring Misuse 2: Mere Righteous man's use
about knowledge of outward obedience 2: Self-knowledge
sin (WA 10.1:454-455; (WA 10.1:456,15; leading to repentance
Lenker 6:270-271; Lenker 6:273); self (INA 10.I:455,5-6;
WA 26:16; LW28:234) justification and Lenker 6:271-272;
hypocrisy (INA WA 26:16; LW28:234)
Divine Use 3: Write Misuse 3: Return to Righteous man's use
tables of Moses both the law for 3: Observe and keep
inwardly and justification (not the law both
outwardly (INA specifically inwardly and
10.1:456,18; Lenker enumerated by outwardly (INA
6:273); reveal good Luther) 10.1:256,17; 257,13;
and evil (INA 26:17; Lenker 6:273)
Engelbrecht: Luther's Threefold Use of the Law
Augustine provided the term utilitas Legis (usefulness of the law). The
medieval theologians drew on the classical, biblical, and patristic traditions
to arrive at enumerations of the usefulness of the Law of Moses. This effort
appears to have begun at the University of Paris in the thirteenth century,
some two hundred years before Luther and Melanchthon. The medieval
glosses supplied everything necessary for the Reformation-era doctrine of
the law: (1) biblical basis, (2) distinction of uses, (3) introduction of
technical terms, and (4) enumeration of uses. This is evidence that a mature
doctrine of the use of the law predated the Reformation.56 In view of this,
the Reformers did not create a new doctrinal category. They interacted
with deep, carefully considered teachings of earlier theologians.
The medieval theologians also consistently presented a prophetic use
of the law, noting that the Law of Moses proclaimed the coming of Christ.
For them there was no contradiction in speaking of "the law of the gospel"
or of describing the New Testament as a "new law." These ways of
speaking, however, contributed to confusion about the doctrines of
repentance and justification, which sparked the Reformation.
Luther taught about the usefulness of the law in substantial agreement
with earlier commentators. His terminology and order of uses stemmed
directly from his predecessors. Unlike medieval commentators, however,
Luther's comments in the Weihnachtspostille of 1522 changed the third use
of the law from a prophetic use, announcing the coming of Christ, to a
righteous man's use of the law. He emphasized that justification changes
the believer's attitude toward and use of the law so that the believer no
longer keeps the law from compulsion. The law, kept by Christ, can now
be kept by those who are righteous through Christ, an insight noted in the
56 It seems that the medieval exegetical tradition preserved and defined the
doctrine of the usefulness of the Law. The doctrine did not receive the same emphasis in
the dogmatic tradition. If these observations prove true, they could explain why modern
scholars did not recognize that Luther drew his views from earlier theologians since
modern scholars have tended to focus on the dogmatic writings for creating histories of
doctrine. Gabriel Biel (d. 1495) wrote about the law in his commentary on Peter
Lombard's Sentences. See Collectorium circa quattuor libros Sententiarum, Wilfridus
Werbeck and Udo Hofmann, eds. (Ttibingen: J.CB. Mohr, 1979), Book III, Dists. 37 and
40. His comments do not clearly anticipate the Reformation doctrine of the use of the
law. Johann von Staupitz, Luther's mentor in the Augustinian Order, does not appear to
have written on the doctrine of the use of the law. A summary of von Staupitz's
teaching is provided by Franz Posset, The Front-Runner of the Catholic Reformation: The
Life and Works ofJolumn von Staupitz (Hants, England: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2003),
150 Concordia Theological Quarterly 75 (2011)
Glossa Ordinaria on 1 Timothy 1:8-9. This thought and the terminology
attending it reappeared in the 1528 lectures on 1 Timothy, in which Luther
urged his hearers to use the law as they wished and briefly described a
third office of the law that always reveals what is good and what is evil.57
The righteous man, who has been given the Spirit and has the law written
on his heart, gladly takes up the law and uses it. This recalls the advice for
morning prayer in the Small Catechism, in which the believer goes joyfully
to work singing a hymn on the Ten Commandments.58
Although Luther removed the prophetic use from the list of uses
taught by Petrus, Nicholas, and others, he did not abandon the prophetic
use. For the sake of clarity, Luther relabeled the prophetic use as promise
and ultimately as gospel. We may see in these changes the significance of
the doctrine of the use of the law to the refinement of the law-gospel
distinction.59 Whereas scholastic theologians had consistently written
about "the law of the gospel" or the New Testament as "the new law,"
Luther saw the need to label the doctrines of law and gospel in order to
distinguish clearly the doctrines of justification and sanctification. His
theology and terminology for the threefold use of the law and a third office
of the law influenced Melanchthon60 and the writers of the Formula of
Concord, with the result that a third use of the law became standard
teaching in Reformation theology.
In view of the history, it seems inappropriate to state that Luther
taught only two uses of the law or that Melanchthon added a third. A
broad consideration of Luther's language concerning the uses and offices
of the law urges a different consensus. The third use of the law is a
category espoused not only by later Lutherans, but by Luther himself.
57 WA 26; LW28.
58 Scholars have recognized that a third use of the law appears in Luther's teaching,
but have had difficulty describing it and relating it to the doctrine in the Formula of
Concord. See, e.g., Paul Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther, trans. Robert C Schultz
(Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966), 273.
59 The distinction, of course, has independent existence from the enumeration of
uses of the law, and deep roots in Pauline and Western theology. See the timeline in
CF.W. Walther, Law and Gospel: How to Read and Apply the Bible, trans. Christian C
Tiews, ed. Charles P. Schaum, John R. Hellwege Jr., and Thomas E. Manteufel (St. Louis:
Concordia Publishing House, 2010), liv-Ixiii.
60 Melanchthon did not write about a third use of the law until 1534, twelve years
after Luther introduced the thought and the attendant terminology. As was the case
with the medieval theologians and Luther, Melanchthon's observation appeared first in
his exegetical work, the scholia on Colossians, rather than in a dogmatic treatise. See
Wengert, Law and Gospel, 177.