Fesko on the Third Use in Lutheranism

In the comments section of the latest post which was a piece from a Lutheran it was suggested that Lutherans might well earn their reputation for slouching toward antinomianism and that Calvinism has something of a monopoly on understanding the third use of the law. For one thing, it is helpful to remember that such charges tend to the stuff of urban legend. After all, as Horton is fond of reminding us, men were made for law, so it is easier to find a legalist than an antinomian. Indeed, do such creatures actually exist?

For another, in the 2007 Confessional Presbyterian Journal, J.V. Fesko does a fairly nice job of helping to put to bed the Lutheran epithet. Here at length is a bit of the conclusion to “The Westminster Standards and Confessional Lutheranism on Justification.”

In turning to the second half of our investigation, we must explore the question of whether the Lutheran commitment to sola fide is such that they make absolutely no place for the necessity of good works, in some sense, in the broader category of their soteriology.  In other words, is Lutheran soteriology antinomian?  There have been those in both the distant and recent past who have argued that Luther and Lutheranism only hold to two uses of the law: the political or civil, in retraining evil, and the elenctic or pedagogic, in leading people to knowledge of sin and the need of redemption.  Yet, at the same time a perusal of primary sources, including Luther’s writings, Lutheran confessions, and other Lutheran theologians evidences that Luther and Lutheranism hold to the third use of the law in some form, the didactic or normative use, regulating the life of the regenerate. One may begin with Luther’s own writings, as his writings are incorporated in the confessional corpus of the Lutheran church.

While Luther certainly divided the scriptures into the categories of law and gospel, commands and promise, just because a person became a Christian did not mean that he was now suddenly free from the demands of the law. Luther, for example, writes that

“…as long as we live in a flesh that is not free of sin, so long as the Law keeps coming back and performing its function, more on one person and less in another, not to harm but to save. This discipline of the Law is the daily mortification of the flesh, the reason, an dour powers and the renewal of our mind (2 Cor 4:16)…There is still need for a custodian to discipline and torment the flesh, that powerful jackass, so that by this discipline sins may be diminished and the way prepared for Christ.”

So long as the Christian is simil iustus et peccator, there is always a need for the law in the life of the believer. Luther’s use of the law in the life of the believer is further evidenced from his catechisms.

Luther’s Small Catechism begins with an exposition of the Decalogue. At the close of the exposition of the Decalogue in Luther’s Large catechism, Luther explains the importance of the law in the life of the believer:

“Thus, we have the Ten Commandments, a compend of divine doctrine, as to what we are to do in order that our whole life may be pleasing to God, and the true fountain and channel from and in which everything must arise and flow that is to be a good work, so that outside the Ten Commandments, no work or thing can be good or pleasing to God, however great or precious it be in the yes of the world.”

Luther saw a need for good works, but was careful, like the Reformed tradition, to teach about the proper relationship between good works and justification.  Luther addresses the proper place of the law as it relates to justification when he writes:

“The matter of the Law must be considered carefully, both as to what and as how we ought to think about the Law; otherwise we shall either reject it altogether, after the fashion of the fanatical spirits who prompted the peasant’s revolt a decade ago by saying that  the freedom of the Gospel absolves men from all laws, or we shall attribute to the law the power to justify. Both groups sin against the Law: those on the right, who want to be justified through the Law, and those on the left, who want to be altogether free of the Law. Therefore we must travel the royal road, so that we neither reject the law altogether not attribute more to it than we should.”

Luther saw a place for the law in the life of the believer. When he was explaining the doctrine of justification he said that there was no place for works or the law. In relationship, though, to one’s sanctification and the knowledge of what is pleasing to God, the Decalogue served as guide as well as a tool in the hand of God to confront the remaining sin in the believer. This careful fencing of justification from works, yet at the same time connecting justification to sanctification, is especially evident in the Lutheran confessions.

The Augsburg Confession is the first official Lutheran confession, and was largely written by Luther’s lieutenant, Philip Melanchthon (1497-1560).  The Augsburg Confession carefully explains that justification is by faith alone: “Our works can not reconcile God, or deserve remission of sins, grace, and justification at his hands, but that these we obtain by faith only, when we believe that we are received into favor for Christ’s sake, who alone is appointed the Mediator and Propitiatory, by whom the Father is reconciled.”  Yet, at the same time the confession gives an apology against antinomianism: “Ours are falsely accused of forbidding good works. For their writings extant upon the Ten Commandments, and others of the like argument, do bear witness that they have to good purpose taught concerning every kind of life, and its duties; what kinds of life, and what works in every calling, do please God.”

The confession even goes so far as to say that Lutherans “teach that it is necessary to do good works,” but it specifies that “not that we may trust that we deserve grace by them, but because it is the will of God that we should do them. By faith alone is apprehended remission of sins and grace.  And because the Holy Spirit is received by faith, our hearts are now renewed, and so put on new affections, so that they are able to bring forth good works” (Augsburg Conf., ¶ 20, in Schaff, Creeds, 3.24-25). So, here, in this Lutheran confession we see the emphasis upon justification by faith alone but also the need for good works, informed by the law. While this is not precisely the same nomenclature that one finds in the Westminster Standards [it] is nonetheless parallel to the Standards’ emphasis on the third use of the law (WLC qq. 95-97; WCF 19.6; cf. Belgic Conf., ¶ 25; Heidelberg Cat., q. 93).  What we find in inchoate forms in the Augsburg Confessions, however, emerges quite clearly in the formula of Concord.

…It is in the Formula of Concord that the Lutherans, legendary for their insistence upon justification by faith alone, also state that “good works must certainly and without all doubt follow a true faith (provided only it be not a dead faith but a living faith), as fruits of a good tree” (Formula of Concord, ¶ 4, in Schaff, Creeds, 3.122.). It is in article six, “Of the third use of the law,” where the document makes its most pronounced statement about the importance of the law and good works: “We believe, teach, and confess that although they who truly believe in Christ, and are sincerely converted to God, are through Christ set free from the curse and constraint of the Law, they are not, nevertheless, on that account without the Law (Formula of Concord, ¶6, in Schaff, Creeds, 3.131.). The document goes on to state that “the preaching of the Law should be urged not only upon those who have not faith in Christ, and do not yet repent, but also upon those who truly believe in Christ, are truly converted to God, and regenerated and are justified by faith” (Formula of Concord, ¶6, in Schaff, Creeds, 3.132.). So, then, it appears from primary sources such as Luther, the Augsburg Confession, and the Formula [of] Concord that Luther and Lutheranism places a heavy emphasis upon justification by faith alone but not to the exclusion of the importance and necessity of good works or the third use of the law. This is not a unique conclusion.

J.V. Fesko in The Confessional Presbyterian, Volume 3, 2007, pgs. 22-24.

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17 Responses to Fesko on the Third Use in Lutheranism

  1. John Yeazel says:

    Nice quote Zrim- there seems to have been a great misunderstanding between Lutherans and Calvinists since the days the Lutherans forged their confessional statements in the heat of battle with the Catholics and Anabaptists. Although I have not read Scott Clark’s essay on how the Calvinists and Lutherans developed an identity crisis with each other, I have read bits and pieces of his thinking on this and it seems to make sense. It has been passed on between the two groups through writings of various scholars in each camp. I have encountered this type of thinking in some Calvinists I have dialoged with occasionally. I think Echo is expressing this type of identity crisis with Lutherans that Scott Clark develops in his essay. I have also encountered this in GAS who claimed us Lutherans were synergists. I never was able to get to the real reasons why GAS thought this was so but he did say that. I have also read many remarks from Lutheran writers and pastors who pass on the bias between the two groups.

    Fesko goes to the sources of Lutheran and Calvinist thought and finds it hard to find significant differences in what the Lutherans and Calvinists thought about justification and sanctification. The differences in the sacraments are what divided the two groups which Melanchthon tried to reconcile in his dialogs with Calvin. From what I have read, Beza tried to meet with Luther about the sacramental issues, but the dialog never went anywhere and both groups were still battling their major enemies in the cities throughout Europe so the differences remained.

    Fesko’s book on Baptism shows that Luther’s original thought on baptism did not include any ideas of baptismal regeneration. It was the Lutherans who wrote the Saxon Visitation articles, after Luther and Melanchthon, who developed the ideas of baptismal regeneration which became part of the Lutheran confessions.

  2. RubeRad says:

    I found this Luther quote Walther’s 13th lecture on Law and Gospel:

    Furthermore, in his treatise Concerning Councils and Churches Luther writes (St. L. Ed. XVI, 2241 f.) : “My friends the Antinomians preach exceedingly well — and I cannot but believe that they do so with great earnestness — concerning the mercy of Christ, forgiveness of sin, and other contents of the article of redemption. But they flee from this inference as from the devil, that they must tell the people about the Third Article, of sanctification, that is, of the new life in Christ. For they hold that we must not terrify people and make them sorrowful, but must always preach to them the comfort of grace in Christ and the forgiveness of sin. They tell us to avoid, for God’s sake, such statements as these: ‘Listen, you want to be a Christian while you are an adulterer, a fornicator, a swill-belly, full of pride, avarice, usurious practises, envy, revenge, malice, etc., and mean to continue in these sins?’ On the contrary, they tell us that this is the proper way to speak: ‘Listen, you are an adulterer, fornicator, miser, or addicted to some other sin. Now, if you will only believe, you are saved and need not dread the Law, for Christ has fulfilled all.’ Tell me, prithee, does not this amount to conceding the premise and denying the conclusion? Verily, it amounts to this, that Christ is taken away and made worthless in the same breath with which He is most highly extolled. It means to say yes and no in the same matter. For a Christ who died for sinners who, after receiving forgiveness, will not quit their sin nor lead a new life, is worthless and does not exist. According to the logic of Nestorius and Eutyches these people, in masterful fashion, preach a Christ who is, and is not, the Redeemer. They are excellent preachers of the Easter truth, but miserable preachers of the truth of Pentecost. For there is nothing in their preaching concerning sanctification of the Holy Ghost and about being quickened into a new fife. They preach only about the redemption of Christ. It is proper to extol Christ in our preaching; but Christ is the Christ and has acquired redemption from sin and death for this very purpose that the Holy Spirit should change our Old Adam into a new man, that we are to be dead unto sin and live unto righteousness, as Paul teaches Rom. 6, 2 ff., and that we are to begin this change and increase in this new life here and consummate it hereafter. For Christ has gained for us not only grace (gratiam), but also the gift (donum) of the Holy Ghost, so that we obtain from Him not only forgiveness of sin, but also the ceasing from sin. Any one, therefore, who does not cease from his sin, but continues in his former evil way must have obtained a different Christ, from the Antinomians. The genuine Christ is not with them, even if they cry with the voice of all angels, Christ! Christ! They will have to go to perdition with their new Christ.”

  3. John Yeazel says:

    I know, I read that too Rube and it shook me up a bit. That is happening a lot to me lately. I fear sometimes Rod Rosenbladt and other Lutherans come close to talking like that. And I have come close to talking like that too. I know that quickening which caused me to depart from my sins when I was 18 years old. What happens when we go to churches that are not instilling in us good Law and Gospel teaching week in and week out? Does’nt it follow that if we are not getting that we will become weary in doing good and easily fall into sin again? It is about time churches get their acts together, repent and preach harsh Law and pure Gospel sermons again. Maybe it wil cause the congregants, who are comfortable in their sins, to repent too. Repentance and faith are gifts which God gives to us to make us persevere until Christ returns.

  4. Zrim says:

    Perhaps Luther didn’t do himself any favors by calling James an epistle of straw?

  5. John Yeazel says:

    I know there are problems with Lutherans view of the atonement too. It tries to bypass that Christ only died for the elect by stating that Christ died for all sinners. There then becomes problems with answering these questions:

    1) Who imputed my sin to Christ?
    2) When did this happen?
    3) Is it still happening?
    4) Is there a possibility that this imputing might stop happening?
    5) What could cause the imputing of my sin to Christ to stop happening?

    Lutherans believe that there is a possibility that the imputing might stop happening and that is unbelief. But if God gave the gift of faith at the imputation then how could it be taken away? Another problem is, what if I continue to sin when I know I should not be doing it? What if I am still bothered about it but still do it? So, I am not really comfortable in my sin? Isn’t that what Romans 7 is all about?

  6. John Yeazel says:

    This Mark McCulley guy is challenging me about my Lutheran beliefs too. He does not go to an institutional church and does not think it is necessary to do so. He leads a home bible study- that is his church. He has a very low view of the Church and a low view of the sacraments. He also had this to say about the Lutheran view of faith: “The unbiblical ideas about faith are 1. the idea that God imputes faith itself (or Christ indwelling with the faith indwelling) as righteousness. No, the righteousness is Christ’s death for the elect. It was only accomplished for the elect. 2. Even though you agree that faith is a gift (Arminians do also), you don’t see that faith is a result of the righteousness. Ie, Christ earned the gift. Christ purchased faith for the elect at the cross. (This is not about timing: whether faith is given before or after the imputation, it’s a result of Christ’s death). This means that all for whom Christ died will be given faith. John 6,10–you do not believe, because you are not sheep, and Christ died only for the sheep. Romans 8:32–Lutherans suggest that Christ died for a sinner, but then doesn’t deliver that death to the sinner, since that sinner is never given the gospel and faith. But if Christ died for a sinner, that sinner will be given the gospel and faith.”

    What’s up with this? I am not sure if Lutherans teach this or not. I am wavering on if it is that significant (the elect thing). I do not know how or when God imputed my sin to Christ and Christ’s righteousness to me. I know I had a conversion experience when I was 18 and turned from indifference to things about Christ, the Bible and the Church to an all consuming desire to know a lot about these things and an increased sensitivity to my indwelling sin. I attended evangelical and charismatic churches faithfully between 1975 to 1994. I also know that when my marriage dissolved in 1995 that I thought I was doomed and that is why I quit going to church for 10 years. Plus I was driving back and forth from Grand Rapids to Chicago every weekend to spend time with my kids which made it difficult to go to church. My ex-wife quit going too and my kids started having problems after all this. But it was during that time that I began reading Modern Reformation magazine, reading tons of reformational theology from both Calvinists and Lutherans and listening to the White Horse Inn on a regular basis. I could go on about the conflicts I started having with my brothers and the production manager at work plus a few relationships I probably should not have gotten involved in (one who I was with for 4 years almost destroyed me) and you have the mess that I am still recovering from. My Lutheran pastor has been helping me through this but now I am having some problems with Lutheran theology. Enough said- we all have our problems don’t we?

  7. John Yeazel says:

    On top of all this two of my daughters have been diagnosed with Addisons disease which is a disease which causes the adrenal glands to stop producing hormones. It took a long time for the doctors to diagnose my one daugter and they misdiagnosed her on numerous occasions. We could not figure out what was going on with her. She almost died a couple of times and has been in and out of the hospital a lot. The one had an auto-immune problem which caused her pancreas to be attacked and it no longer produces insulin. The poor kids have gone through hell. It is hard to regulate their hormone levels and when they get into stressful situations they can go into a condition called Addisonian crisis where their potassium levels get out of whack and it causes all sorts of problems.

  8. John Yeazel says:

    I just shot Richard Muller’s essay on the five-points of Calvinism over to Mark McCulley but he has not responded back to me yet. It is hard to refute the high view of the Church and the sacraments that Muller gives in this essay. This still makes Lutherans a lot closer to Calvinists than the particular Baptists. I think McCulley is close to Gill in regards to his understanding of the 5-points. This is why the 5 points, when they do not include the context of the covenant community (or church), can be deceptive. The Muller essay should be read carefully and thoughtfully. Here it is:


  9. John Yeazel says:

    Mullers conclusion is that there are really 10 main points of Calvinism. And these 10 main points are premised on the assumption that salvation does not arise out of human merit but by grace (properly defined herein). I get the impression that Muller believes they are critical issues to the Reformed faith too. One cannot belong to a confessional Reformed church if you do not believe these things. Someone correct me if I am wrong.

    1) Infant Baptism
    2) Total inability of humans to have a solution to the sin problem and the problem of God’s wrath due to our sin
    3) Unconditional election
    4) Limited efficiency of Christ’s satisfaction- for the elect alone
    5) Irresistable grace
    6) justification by grace alone through faith
    7) the necessity of a thankful obedience consequent on our faith and justification (sanctification)
    8) the identification of sacraments as the means of grace- they hold out the promise of the divine work of grace- washing, purifying and cleansing our souls, renewing our hearts and filling them with all comfort
    9) perseverance of the saints
    10) an amillenial view of the end of the world- has to do with how Satan has been bound and what he can and cannot do to God’s elect as a result of Christ’s work between the first and second advents.

  10. John Yeazel says:

    I did not mean to put that smiley face in there. I meant to hit 8 but must have hit a wrong key.

  11. "Michael Mann" says:

    John, regarding the ten points: eh, it’s a list. Most are not really subject to quibbling. I have never conceived of amillenialism as mandatory even if it is my position. I might have included a little more to buttress the role of the church. I might also preclude the possibility of congregationalism. But, as lists go, it’s OK.

  12. John Yeazel says:


    From what I know, Muller is considered an authoritative voice among contemporary reformed theologians. You are right, a full confession and dialog within the reformed community is a much better theological guide than short lists. It did seem to me though, after reading the full essay by Muller, that he consider amillenialism as pretty critical to the Reformed faith. Of course, not as critical as Gospel issues (the ordo salutis). Are you just trying to put down my schtick or what MM? Please don’t take me seriously. I know I am probably getting to long winded lately and probably should shut up for awhile. It was good to hear from you though.

  13. John Yeazel says:

    Also, my main point was trying to show Mark McCulley that his 5-point Calvinism, without the context of the church, was not true Calvinism. He see’s a lot of danger in the concept of sacraments containing the true presence of the body and blood of Christ. He somehow relates that to Contantinianism, sacralism and dominionism. He also has a very low view of the church. If you read the whole essay there also is a section on the paticular Baptists (5-point Calvinists) who see election and imputation (I think) taking place in the decrees which diminishes the importance of the church and the sacraments. Mark never responded back to me but I think that is the position he holds. He also is really against infant baptism, asking how can infants be part of the church. I have never talked to anyone with such a mixture of Calvinistic and Anabaptist theology. He knows his stuff though. Is this common among you Calvinists. He was also vehemently against Lutherans and hinted that they were not really justified (or saved to use the evangelical term) because they have a faulty view of the atonement, imputation and faith.

  14. Zrim says:

    John, I don’t think Muller is trying to do anything exhaustive in that piece. I think he’s trying to make a rather simple point actually: there is more to confessional Calvinism than the finer points of soteriology. It also includes a sacramentology, ecclesiology, eschatology and doxology. If predestinarianism was all Calvinism was cracked to be then Aquinas was a Calvinist. But many Roman Catholic scholars will admit that “Calvin was Augustine perfected,” yet know enough to know that doesn’t make Aquinas, or them, a Calvinist. Lutherans, as I understand it, are cold on TULIP and yet we both historically consider each other our closest theological relatives.

    Personally, I find Baptists a fairly difficult group to understand.

  15. "Michael Mann" says:

    I wasn’t trying to be dismissive, John – just giving you my two cents.
    As far at Muller being authoritative, maybe he is, but I just don’t know. I know dead guys better than live guys.

  16. John Yeazel says:


    I have not dialoged with Baptist’s much, but after sending emails back and forth with Mark McCulley, his theological views are difficult to understand and somewhat confusing.

  17. John Yeazel says:

    I know you don’t know MM- that is why I told you to read the essay. You would not have been so impulsive in your response if you would have known that. You just like making me look bad. I am laughing while I am typing this.

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