The Functions of the Law


God gave His Law to the people of Israel, in which He revealed His will to man (Exod. 20). Breaking the Law brought a curse and observing it brought a blessing. Neither was the will of God foreign to earlier people, for God had pressed it into man's innermost already in Creation (Rom. 2:14-16). But when man fell into sin, his will yielded to evil and he was no longer a doer of God's will. On the contrary, he wanted to silence the voice of God that he heard inside himself. Moses hewed the Law into two stone tablets so that the will of God would not be forgotten.

Scripture uses the word, “Law,” in many senses. In addition to the Ten Commandment Law, the Law refers to the Books of Moses (the Torah) in the Old Testament. They also contain the ordinances of the Law, which are social in nature, as well as those that refer to the Old Testament's divine worship service. Sometimes in the Old Testament, the word, Law, also means the written Word of God.

The New Testament and the Law

In the New Testament, the Gospels relate that Jesus respected and followed the Law. He said that He has not come to destroy the Law, but to fulfill it (Matt. 5:17). On the other hand, Jesus often found himself on a collision course with the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law regarding those guides to the Law's interpretation which were called the traditional commandments.

The acts and epistles of the Apostles tell how the early congregation related to the Law. The Christian faith was born in the bosom of Judaism, but very soon it received supporters from among the Gentiles. The need arose to clarify the relationship of believers to the Law. At the meeting of the apostles (Acts 15), it was decided that the Gentile believers did not need to have themselves circumcised, neither did they otherwise need to fulfill the ordinances of the Law that the Jews followed. Paul's epistles clearly teach that Christians are not under the Law because Christ has fulfilled the Law. Paul shows that the function of the Law is not to help man to salvation, but to show him to be a sinner. The Law leads man to Christ to be pardoned.

The Reformation and the Law

Righteousness by faith and the related question of the function and use of the Law were pivotal questions at the time of the Reformation. It opened to Luther what Paul meant, when he wrote to the Romans, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek. For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, the just shall live by faith” (Rom.1:16,17). After this discovery, Luther wanted to cleanse from the teaching of the church all the works of man that had adhered to it. The core content of the Reformation crystallized into, “Alone by faith, alone by grace, and alone for the sake of Christ.”

The Formula of Concord is the last of the confessional books. It was composed after the death of Luther. It differs from the other confessional books in the fact that it resolves doctrinal differences that had arisen among the Lutherans. This document also deals with the question of the function of the Law. According to it, the Law has three separate functions or uses: First, with the aid of God's Law, “unruly and undisciplined persons are kept within the realm of outward order and decency.” Second, the Law of God teaches all people to recognize their sins. Third, the Law also guides those people who have turned to God and have received the grace of new birth. They also must live “within the Law of God.”

Now, we will proceed to examine these three functions more extensively.

The First Function of the Law

In the beginning, we noted that the Law of the Old Testament also contained the temporal law of the nation of Israel. Its basis was the Ten Commandment Law. It had been given not only to reveal God's will, but also to protect man. According to Scripture, the believing person understands that society and the government have been established by God. The Word of God instructs us, “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God.…Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake. For, for this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God's ministers, attending continually upon this very thing. Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour” (Rom. 13:1-7).

Luther's teachings of the two regiments or governments are connected with the first function of the Law. According to Luther, God has established two types of government among men. The spiritual government is founded on God's Word. With its help, people are intended to become righteous or justified, so that by this righteousness they would attain eternal life. He cares for this righteousness with His Word, which He has entrusted to the care of preachers. The earthly government is established upon the sword. In this manner, even those, who do not want to become righteous by the Word and justified for eternal life, are forced to be righteous before the world. God maintains this social righteousness with the assistance of the sword. Although He does not reward it with eternal life, He wants it to remain in force to preserve peace among the people. God rewards temporal righteousness with temporal benefits. The two governing authorities must not be confused or connected to each other.

The first function of the Law guides a person to societal righteousness. In its sphere, Christians also are “under the Law.” We do not respect the Law out of fear of punishment, but, above all, for the sake of a good conscience. Societal righteousness must be carefully separated from righteousness by faith. Also, the most law-abiding and exemplary person is sinful and godless, unless he believes the merit of Christ as his own.

The Second Function of the Law

The Law promises that whoever fulfills it will be saved. The Fall into sin, however, so corrupted man that he could not fulfill the Law. Because of sin, it is impossible for us to reach eternal life by way of the Law. But sin did not invalidate the will of God; the Law continues to be in force. Its duty remained to show every person to be a sinner. Luther said, that the Law is like a “hound” that chases the sinful person to Christ.

Paul describes the second use of the Law in this way, “Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3:20). Scripture also teaches that God's Word is like a two-edged sword (Heb. 4:12). The Law's edge awakens the consciousness of sin in an unbelieving listener. The other, the Word's edge, the gospel, proclaims to the person awakened by the Law that Christ has fulfilled the Law on his behalf. For that reason, the sinful person can believe his sins forgiven because of Christ's merit.

The Third Function of the Law

It is mentioned in the Formula for Concord that there had been contention regarding the third function of the Law. The comment refers to the so-called Antinomians, against whom Luther had to struggle. They approved only the first function of the Law. According to their teachings, the grace of God was taken as a cover for the permissiveness of sin and the freedom of the flesh.

The third function of the Law means that, in the believer's life, the Law should reveal sin and teach good deeds. Paul rejected this concept. He wrote to the Galatians, “Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after that faith is come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster” (Gal. 3:24,25). According to the formal principle of the Reformation, the Holy Word of God rises in this manner above the confessional books.

The Law and how it functions also has been discussed in Laestadianism's circles. This has taken place especially during times of schism. The disagreements have concerned the third use of the Law. This was a central subject of contention in the discussions at the end of the 1800s and beginning of the 1900s, when the New Awakened and Firstborn separated from the original Laestadianism. Conservativism retained the original understanding of Laestadianism: the Law does not belong to a Christian. Also, during the schism of the 1930s, the third function of the Law was one of the reasons for disagreement, though more covertly.

Grace as a Teacher

Rejection of the third function of the Law has not led the children of God to permissiveness of sin. We have received another teacher in place of the Law, for God has given us His Spirit to be our home tutor (Rom. 6:14-18; Gal. 2:19-21; Gal. 5:13). The grace of God has come to guide us, instead of the Law, “For the grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men, teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world (Tit. 2:11,12).

The wholesome grace of God that brings salvation does not teach one to commit sin but gives strength to fight against it. Grace does not teach differently than the Ten Commandment Law. However, the judgment and curse of the Law have been removed because Christ has fulfilled the Law.

The apostles wrote to the people of their time many words of instruction, teaching, and rebuke. We, too, need the instructions of love contained in the gospel. They are not the Law. They are not given to us so that, by following them, we would become acceptable or righteousness before God. The instructions are necessary so that we would be able to preserve the righteousness of Christ, which we have received through faith without our own achievements and merits. The instructions strengthen and support the teaching of wholesome grace, which we hear as the voice of the conscience.

Believers want to journey as children of the light. The wholesome grace of God leads us to the light. Paul uses beautiful descriptive language, when he emphasizes the value of the gospel, “For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6). In the gospel's shining light, not even the best endeavorer will accrue merits. Our security is the forgiveness of sins because of Christ's merit.

The Treasure Hidden In a Field, Juhani Uljas