The Formula reflected the Lutheran view of man as living under the Law in four different conditions: the original created state of moral innocence, the fallen state of sin, the state of regeneration, and the final state of resurrection. The Law in its third function is directed to man in the state of regeneration. Seeing man in these four different phases is essential for a fuller understanding of the Lutheran view of the Law and particularly its Third Use. The Lutheran view dismisses the idea that the Law undergoes any change as it is the expression of God’s immutable will (FC SD VI, 15). The four different situations are accounted for by man’s differing relationships to God and thus also to the Law. Man, as he is a sinner, can only envisage the Law with prohibitions and penalties as a negative intrusion into his life. It is difficult for man to imagine the original state of moral innocence in which he found positive direction for his life in the Law. In this original condition he needed neither prophet nor Scripture since man’s communion with God’s creation was itself participation in God’s revelation. In the sinless condition man viewed nature and God’s revelation as one entity. No special revelation beyond nature was needed. Man in moral innocence needed no Law as a curb for the gross manifestations of evil or for a reflection of his own sin. He needed no special direction of the Law as nature provided a constant, regular communication of the Law. Only in the fallen state is the original positive function of the Law replaced by negative prohibition. Law, understood originally as a description of man’s positive relationships to God, to his fellow men, and to his environment becomes with the entrance of sin a negative description of man’s broken relationships to God, his fellow men, and his environment. In the first condition, the indicative was merged with the imperative. The Law served as a description of what man was and what he was to do and what he, indeed, could do. There was no tension between what man did and what man could, must, and should do. Now in the state of sin what man must do and should do is not what he can do and does do. The Law becomes a compelling and restraining force against man’s rebellious nature. What man once did naturally he is now forced to do against his will. The unregenerate man hates the performance of the Law with an intensity comparable to the first man’s love for its performance. The sinner cannot remain morally neutral to the Law. He performs the Law which he hates and he knows that failure to perform its requirements brings penalties. Where he fulfills the Law, he is goaded by the promise of rewards and threats of its punishments. The Law makes the sinner’s life miserable (SD VI, 19).
When the sinner becomes a Christian, the Law begins to take on a new, different character for him. His new condition as a Christian means a new relationship with God and His Law. The Law in this Third Use is addressed to the sinner who has become a Christian but still remains in part under the control of sin (SD VI, 9). Understanding the Law in this Third Use is predicated on understanding the Lutheran view of the regenerate Christian.
Essential to Lutheran anthropology is the internal strife within the Christian. He is torn between that part of him which wants to obey God’s will and the part that feels more comfortable with the older ways of sin. Though this internal struggle is never over in this life, the promise of victory is assured in the resurrection. Several terms express these two opposing forces within the Christian. The part belonging to God is designated as the inner man, the Spirit’s temple, and the regenerated man, the man who has been born again (FC SD VI, 5). The part which resists God is designated as the old Adam, the flesh, and in other Lutheran writings the old man. The Law of God remains one and immutable, but as it approaches the Christian, its positive directions apply to the converted part and its negative prohibitions with the threats of punishments are directed to the unregenerated condition.
The Christian only so far as he is regenerate is free from the threats and curses of the Law (SD VI, 23) and he recognizes this Law as God’s will for his life (SD Vi, 12). The Formula uses picturesque language in describing the Christian’s response to the Law. In this renewed condition he “does everything from a free and merry spirit” (SD VI, 17). Such good works are motivated by the Holy Spirit and flow from faith, but they are all in accordance with the Law, which is also the Spirit’s product (SD VI, 12). Works flow from faith as water comes from a spring, but these works flow down channels established by the Law. This positive direction of the Law without prohibition or fear of punishment is what is essentially meant by the Third Use of the Law.
Law as a positive direction in the life of the Christian is both a restatement of the original paradisical condition and a preview of the future state of glorification. In Paradise man knew the Law of God perfectly and rejoiced in it. Also in the final state of glorification man will not need or hear the negative aspects of the Law. So even now the regenerate man hears the Law of God, rejoices in it with his inner being, and performs it without thought of reward. His only motiviation is that he wants to please God.
Law understood in this Third Sense as positive direction and guidance in the life of the Christian presupposes the Gospel. In each of its uses the Law is both didactic and imperative. It is not constructed to change man from a sinner to a saint and cannot effect regeneration. The Spirit’s working through the Gospel is the cause of regeneration. But the Gospel presupposes the Law, just as the Law in the life of the Christian presupposes the Gospel. The Gospel is the proclamation that Jesus has fulfilled the Law’s demands and suffered its penalties in man’s stead. This message alone effects regeneration. The Law is the skeleton on which the life and death of Jesus is sketched out. The skeleton of the Law as it is framed in the Gospel message comes to the sinner having its structures completely filled out by Jesus. The Law’s negative demands have been satisfied in Jesus so that its force becomes positive in the life of a person who has faith in Jesus. The Law’s unfilled requirements have been fulfilled in Jesus. Christ has divested the Law of its negative requirements and He presents it to Christians as positive direction.
But the Law which comes as positive direction to the regenerate part of the Christian also comes with its negative prohibition to the Old Adam (FC SD VI, 17, 18, 19). Part of the Christian is never converted. He resists believing that God has fulfilled the Law in Jesus Christ. The old man left unchecked would eventually bring man to final ruin and destruction. According to Lutheran theology the unregenerate self must be forced and coerced with threats of the Law. The unregenerate part of a Christian is on the same level as the unconverted who “are driven and coerced into obedience by the threats of the law” (FC SD VI, 19). Not only does he fight against fulfilling God’s Law, but when he does finally comply with the divine prohibitions in an external sense he becomes a hypocrite as he thinks he has fulfilled God’s requirements and earned for himself salvation (FC SD VI, 21). To keep the unregenerate part of man under control, the Christian pastor must preach the negative aspects of the Law. Such works coerced by the preaching of the Law to unregenerated man, even if he is a Christian, have no validity before God for salvation. But the Christian, so far as he is regenerate, performs works from faith which are acceptable to God. These conform to the Law and God finds these acceptable. Though such works are always imperfect, they are acceptable to God because they are performed from faith which is centered in Christ Jesus and not from threats of the Law (FC SD VI, 23).
It is the preaching of the Law and not the Gospel which alerts the Christian to the tension within himself. The same Law which is an expression of God’s will in the life of the Christian remains a severe condemnation on his unregenerate nature. This tension, a dualism within the Christian, finds its real cause not in the Law but within the Christian himself. The work of the new man committed to Christ is countered by the old man who only gives up the struggle at death. Underlying the Lutheran concept of the old man is the Lutheran doctrine of original sin. The man who is totally unregenerate is brought struggling and kicking to faith. When a new life has been created, he continues to struggle, kick, and fight against God, The old man is not to be handled in a gentle and kindly way and then treated to the good news of salvation, but he is to be forced and threatened by the Law. The Formula puts it strongly (SD VI, 24):
For the Old Adam, like an unmanageable and recalcitrant donkey, is still a part of them and must be coerced into the obedience of Christ, not only with the
instruction, admonition, urging and threatening of the law, but frequently also with the club of punishment and miseries, until the flesh of sin is put off entirely and man is completely renewed in the resurrection.
In this life there is no hope for an end to the conflict. The Christian can revert to hypocrisy by believing that he is by himself fulfilling the Law perfectly or he can abandon the Law and become a libertine. But then he is no Christian. The hope for fulfillment in the Christian is not in this life but in the resurrection. Then he will need the preaching of neither the Law nor the Gospel, for he will be in God’s presence. In heaven, the Third Use of the Law will be perfectly realized. There Christians “will do His will spontaneously without coercion, unhindered, perfectly, completely, and with sheer joy, and will rejoice therein forever” (FC SD VI, 25). Even in the final condition, it is not the nature of the Law that has changed but rather that man has become totally regenerated.
– Formula of Concord Article Six: The Third Use of the Law, Concordia Theological Quarterly 42:2 (April, 1978), pages 150-154