We theology nerds talk quite a bit about the Second Use of the Law (the theological use, the “mirror,” which convicts us of sin and drives us to the Gospel), and we argue about the Third Use of the Law (the didactic use, the “guide,” which shows Christians how to live). We don’t usually say much about the First Use of the Law (the civil use, the “curb,” which enables sinners to live in societies).
The First Use of the Law concerns only external righteousness. There is no merit to it, no question of earning salvation by external compliance. Jesus teaches us that we violate the commandment against murder when we hate our brother, and we violate the commandment against adultery when we lust after someone in our hearts. That inner state is where our status as sinners is evidenet, and it is this inner condition that the Gospel addresses. But it is also important not to murder anyone externally or to actually commit adultery. This external righteousness is absolutely necessary if human beings are to live together in families, nations, and societies. Even someone boiling over with sinfulness on the inside can, on the outside, be a good citizen.
Our sinful nature has to be “curbed.” The Law achieves this by means of things like parental discipline, the state’s legal system, and social sanctions. The Law’s first use can make us feel guilt and shame. We would be ashamed to actually do some of the things we fantasize about. Many harmful enterprises are held back when the question arises, What if someone finds out? Being held back by such considerations does not make us a moral person–we shouldn’t have had those fantasies in the first place–but they make civil society possible. [Read more…]