Category Archives: David P. Scaer

David P. Scaer on The Ticklish Question of The Third Use of the Law

Confusion on the what is meant by the third use [of the law] has lead to its rejection by certain Lutheran theologians (See the Braaten-Jenson “Christian Dogmatics”, 2:275). This is somewhat of an internal embarrassment, since the third use of the law is entitled to a separate article in the Formula of Concord, the definitive confessional document for Lutherans. For others the third use of the law has been interpreted simply to mean that the first and second uses of the law remain in force. Such a view is not the Lutheran one, even though some Lutherans have claimed this definition. The introduction of the law into the life of the Christian seems a legalistic intrusion denying the freedom of the gospel or turning the gospel into law because the gospel requires or demands certain types of behavior. In answering this ticklish question for Lutherans, I would like to make reference to Luther’s understanding of the Ten Commandments in his Small Catechism as a way out of this dilemma. The reformer’s explanations of the commandments, with the exception of the first and sixth, have two parts: negative prohibitions and positive requirements. Thus the one on killing prohibits bodily harm to our neighbor and requires providing for his physical needs. The one on stealing prohibits any attempt, even if it legal, to obtain the neighbor’s property. Rather he is required to help the neighbor improve it. Luther by not mentioning outward robbery and murder assumes that the Christian simply will not do these things. Gross immorality is out of range for the Christian, but refraining from it does not even begin to fulfill the commandments. Any harm to the neighbor breaks the commandments. You may not rob the neighbor, but if you manipulate law or contract to deprive him of his property, you stand condemned. Perhaps Luther’s delineation of the law of God to less than blatant transgressions is acceptable by all. But Luther reverses the negative prohibition into the positive requirement of helping the neighbor, especially in his distress. The prohibition against cursing God becomes a requirement to pray. Instead of saying foul things about our neighbor, even if they are true, we are to put the best construction on everything. Luther’s explanation of the first and sixth commandments have no prohibitions whatsoever. He turns the first commandment around so that the prohibition against idolatry becomes an invitation to faith. What was law is now gospel. About the sixth commandment Luther makes no mention of adultery, but says that spouses should honor and love one another.

In my estimation Luther’s positive intensification of the commandments is the work of theological genius. His explanation of the commandments are addressed to Christians, not non-Christians. They have nothing to say to civil law. Rather they are addressed to Christians as sinners and saints. Man as a sinner cannot escape the negative prohibitions of the law, but at the same time the Christian is addressed as a saint, taken back to that original paradise situation in which he loves God and his neighbor. The Christian, since he is in Christ and Christ in him, even before he becomes aware of the possibility of fulfilling the law, is actually fulfilling the law.

Has Luther manipulated the Ten Commandments beyond their recognition by following the negative prohibitions with positive suggestions? Here is the law in its pristine sense as positive requirement as it was known before the fall into sin. Here is the law as it was fulfilled in Christ. All of the positive descriptions of the law in the Christian’s life are really only Christological statements, things which Jesus did and which reached their perfection in him. The fulfilled law is Christological, as it is the account of the life and death of Jesus. He loved God with his whole heart, he prayed to God, he heard the word of God and kept it, he honored his parents, he helped those in bodily distress, he lived a life of pure thoughts, he provided for those in financial distress, he spoke well of others, he had no evil desires. Christ is the fulfillment of the law not only in the sense that all the Old Testament prophets spoke of him, but he is the positive affirmation of what God requires of us and what God is in himself. In Christ the tension of the law and the gospel is resolved.

Luther’s understanding of the commandments as positive Christological affirmations are similar to the parable of the Good Samaritan, though I could hardly demonstrate any influence this pericope was on the reformer’s mind. The commandments are not really fulfilled by refraining from the prohibited evil, but helping the stricken traveler. Thus Christians should be embarrassed into making any unwarranted claim to moral perfection for themselves. They should be so engaged in positive good that they have no time to think about their personal morality or holiness.

How did Luther come to such a radical contradiction which required that the Christian think of himself as total sinner and as a person who accomplished only the good things which Christ did? He took the first commandment with its prohibition against idolatry and turned it into an invitation to faith: “We should fear, love, and trust in God above all things.” The first commandment is transformed into a statement of the gospel. But the reformer was not playing fast and free with the commandments, as in Exodus the commandments really begin with a statement of redemption: “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the land of bondage.”

– David P. Scaer, “The Law and the Gospel in Lutheran Theology”

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David P. Scaer on Law and Gospel As A Homiletical Device

Law and gospel must also be understood as the basic homiletical device in the church. The sermon must reflect the tension created by the God who condemns and redeems the Christian at the same time. The hearer must never be allowed to fall back on the laurels of his own morality or spiritual accomplishments. The listener is pummeled continuously by the law and the gospel. Testimonies of spiritual greatness must be replaced by the proclamation of God’s fulfilling of his own law in Christ and the freedom which is now given the Christian in Christ. The law and the gospel should be seen as the key to man’s existential self-dilemma in understanding himself and his relationship to God. If the universal atonement means anything, it means that God had satisfied all of the law’s requirements, its demands and penalties, in the person of God’s Son, Jesus Christ. The law no longer can describe how God views man. The gospel can never be nullified. The gospel is never conditional, since incarnation and atonement are permanent realities with God. Our moral and spiritual failures do not trigger a negative response in God so that he returns to the old covenant. The former agenda of penalty is not reinstated. This has been satisfied once and for all. For what reason is anyone now condemned, if the law is not in effect? A great condemnation awaits those who reject God’s free gift in Christ. Under the covenant of the law, we failed to do what God required. Those who reject the gospel have not failed to fulfill a requirement, that would make the gospel only another law, they have rejected what God has freely done. Sinners are accepted by Christ. Those who reject him are not.

Two sayings are attributed to Luther. He promised a doctor’s cap to any one who could rightly distinguish between the law and the gospel. Even theologians who can dogmatically distinguish between them cannot preach it. The other has to do with good works. The Christian does not need the motivation of the law simply because he is so busy doing good works. Still the motivation of the law is there, but not law as demand, punishment, and reward, but law as fulfilled in Christ. In spite of the terrible spiritual agony Luther experienced as long as he lived, he was not a dour, gloomy or sullen person, as some other reformers were reputed to be. Quite to the contrary he never overcame some of his crude peasant speech, which today would be looked upon by some as signs of an unsanctified life. When faced with his own greatness, he said that God brought about the Reformation while he and Melanchthon drank beer. He was annoyed with Melanchthon’s obsession with minor sins and urged him to do something really sinful: “sin boldly.” As a hymn writer, where the brine of the middle ages merged with the sweet waters of the Reformation, Luther was unmatched. He spoke about the Christian merrily going about his business and doing good. The law and the gospel is the secret to understanding Luther. No longer is my chief concern restraining from moral evil and then coming to the conclusion that I have lived a sanctified life and thus triumphed. Christians are never free from sin, but they are so busy doing good, that even when they fall into sin as they do good, this is all covered by grace.

David P. Scaer, “The Law and the Gospel in Lutheran Theology

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David Scaer on The Gospel and The Command to Love

As long as the commands to love God and the neighbor are classified as demand and threat – that is, the second use of the law – a contradiction exists between the gospel and the fulfillment of the command to love as the chief content of the Scriptures. This contradiction is resolved in the person of Jesus…and also is capable of a trinitarian resolution. Commands to love God and neighbor cannot be isolated from love as the fundamental unity by which the three persons of the Trinity are bound to each other (Jn 15:9-10, 12-13; 17:24). This love in which the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit exist motivates and expresses itself in the incarnation and redemption and gives form to the gospel’s content (Jn 3:16). In loving God we are to have the same attitude which the three divine persons have among themselves and which they have as Trinity toward us. Thus the command to love God or the neighbor is not simply an arbitrary regulation, the most important law, or a summary of all laws with their prohibitions and threats. Love belongs to God’s trinitarian life, and the command to love is an invitation to participate in this love of the Trinity. Jesus’ command to love God is an invitation to believe in Him who Himself is love, and on that account God can be approached only in love rather than with fear over impending wrath for our transgressions. The command to love creates ex nihilo what it demands. This the first two uses of the law cannot do. Our ability to love God is contained in the command itself and so it comes not from within ourselves but from God. Loving God is not something in addition to faith or a superior form of faith but describes faith’s total devotion to God. Jesus’ three questions to Peter about whether he loved Him had to do with faith (Jn 21:17-19). With his affirmative responses, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you,” Peter was following the commands of Jesus to love God by putting his total trust in Him.

“Confessional Lutheran Dogmatics: Law and Gospel and The Means of Grace”, pages 74-75

David Scaer on “Moral Improvement”

Reformed theology rightly sees the third use of the law as the ultimate goal for the Christian in this world, but this definition includes conscious improvement and lacks the christological dimension which characterizes the Lutheran approach. In Lutheran theology the law can also be seen as the goal of Christian life, but it must be defined as a completed law which is fulfilled in Christ without demands and which expresses itself in Christian life. Paradoxically the Christian has no internal evidence or feeling within himself that he is fulfilling the law. Rather than seeing himself making progress toward a greater holiness, which he may be, he becomes increasingly aware of his standing before God, coram deo, as a sinner (FC SD VI.8, Romans 7:18; 7:15; 7:23; Galatians 5:17). As faith increases so does the awareness of sin and he loses all sense of an internal, personal righteousness. This condition belongs to the Christian according to his existence as simul iustus et peccator (SD VI.7-9). Hardly unique to the Formula of Concord, this teaching is already present in the Apology: “Fifth, if we had to believe that after our renewal we must become acceptable not by faith on account of Christ but on account of our keeping of the law, our conscience would never find rest (Ap. IV.164A). Any definition of the third use of the law in terms of progress toward moral perfection must be dismissed, as it would hardly be different from how the Pharisees understood and used the law. Lutheran theology has a doctrine of Christian and spiritual perfection but defines this as the increase of both faith and sorrow over sins. By faith they hear from the gospel that they are being perfected in Christ and in Him are receiving, sharing, and doing His righteousness (third use), but within the reality of their own experience they see themselves more and more as sinners condemned by the law’s accusations (second use). They live and die as sinners (second use), pleading only for God’s mercy in Christ (gospel). At this point the pivotal difference between Reformed and Lutheran theology becomes evident. For Calvin, God created and saves man for His glory, which is seen in the proper moral behavior of believers and of society in general. Sadly, the Geneva reformer also sees divine glory in the fate of the damned. Lutheran theology begins and ends with the pity of God for sinners (law and gospel), as is evident in the first five articles of the Augsburg Confession. He orders all things to accomplish their salvation, and hence justification, not divine sovereignty, is at the heart of Lutheran theology. The Lutheran doctrine of the third use of the law is rooted in the article of justification and confirms the article on good works: “For we do not abolish the law, Paul says [Romans 3:31], but we establish it, because when we receive the Holy Spirit by faith the fulfillment of the law necessarily follows, through which love, patience, chastity, and other fruits of the Spirit continually grow” (Ap. XX.15).

“Confessional Lutheran Dogmatics: Law and Gospel and The Means of Grace”, pages 83-84

David Scaer on Law and Gospel and Proclamation

Law and gospel is the framework according to which a sermon should be constructed and preached. The sermon is not simply a publicly offered speech providing religious information or a lecture on Christian doctrine, though in some cases it might be just that and no more. Rather the sermon addresses the hearer so that he finds himself in the sermon as one condemned by God (law), but who in the next moment hears that he has been redeemed by that same God in Christ (gospel). Preaching extends the historical events of Israel and Christ’s life and their interpretation by the prophets into the lives of His people whom God desires to save. It addresses the unbeliever and believer in the same way, since the believer remains a sinner for as long as he lives (FC SD VI.7-8). The believer is caught in the despair brought on by his own sins, but then he hears God’s promises and by faith he possesses everything Christ by His death has won for him. What happened as a one-time historical act and then was written in the Scriptures by prophets and apostles is now proclaimed by preachers for the salvation of their hearers.

Law and gospel is a distinctively Lutheran principle for theology and for interpreting the Bible. Francis Pieper is right in his claim that only Lutheran theology centers in the gospel, as even many non-Lutherans acknowledge. Roman Catholics place the law after the gospel. The Reformed know the principle and interpret it differently, as is particularly evident in their definition of the third use of the law, as shown above, but even with this different understanding it is not at the center of their theology. Baptists show little interest in the topic. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, found Luther’s distinction blasphemous. Where preachers of other Christian traditions preach law and gospel, they do not do it because it has been articulated for them by their theologians but because they have followed the Scriptures.

We have already noted that some Lutherans can articulate the distinction between the law and the gospel but many not be able to preach or practice it. Other Lutherans may know the distinction but have dismissed it as having no purpose in their preaching. Some non-Lutheran preachers may have no acquaintance with it. Preaching which uses the law as a motivation for Christian living or sanctification is a denial of the law-gospel principle. This happens among Lutherans when they hold that the third use of the law allows them to apply the strictures and threats of the law to Christians as they are believers. Interpreting the Scriptures by the law and the gospel does not mean that their content is fully exhumed and exhausted by this principle or that the principle itself comprises the entire biblical truth, a position advocated by Rudolph Bultmann in the last century and which was taken over into Lutheranism in America. For him Scriptures were true only insofar as they proclaimed forgiveness through the law and the gospel. His position was not unrelated to Barth’s in locating the revelation in the moment of faith. Law and gospel describe the saving purpose of the Scriptures, but the history of Israel and Jesus provide the historical substance through which faith is created. The Scriptures are documents intended for proclamation, but they are also historical accounts given first to Israel and then to the church. When the history of Jesus – especially His crucifixion and resurrection, in which redemption is enacted and on which justification is based – is denied or regarded as inconsequential, the law and the gospel can no longer perform their task in bringing the believer into God’s redemptive acts. Gospel is more than a proclamation of forgiveness, but finds its presupposition in the historical reality of Israel and Jesus. The law and the gospel are standards neither for judging the truthfulness of the Scriptures nor for setting down minimal doctrinal specifications, as if a person need believe only that he is both condemned and forgiven by God.

“Confessional Lutheran Dogmatics: Law and Gospel and The Means of Grace”, pages 60-61

David Scaer on The Endless Cycle of Law and Gospel

The theological interpretation of the law, as it applies to the internal condition of the sinner, is more severe than the civil use. Man can make restitution for violating the civil law, but he cannot do this in regard to the law’s condemnation of him as a sinner accountable to God. Luther’s explanations of the Ten Commandments are theological masterpieces which locate that moment when the law is fulfilled in Christ and then proceed to involve Christians as the are in Christ. Removing Christ from the equation of the sanctified life and the law results in people who are either morally self-satisfied or terrified by the law’s demands. Christians are not immune to moral self-satisfaction, but in the moment they come face to face with the accusations of the law self-confidence evaporates into dissatisfaction. So the Christian repents and in Christ he again fulfills the law in its positive dimensions. This is an endless cycle relieved only by death. In one moment the Christian is addressed as a sinner who cannot escape the negative prohibitions of the law, but at the same time the commandment addresses him as a saint who is taken back to the situation which existed in Paradise, in which he loves God and his neighbor. Since he is in Christ and Christ is in him, even before he becomes aware of the possibility of fulfilling the law, the Christian is actually doing so.

Luther’s interpretations of the Ten Commandments return them to their pristine sense as positive commands as they were known before the fall into sin. Law broken is not law fulfilled in Christ. All positive descriptions of the law in the Christian’s life are christological statements, things which Jesus did and which reached their perfection in Him. No Christian can achieve this in himself but only as he is in Christ. Fulfilled law is Christology as it describes the life and death of Jesus. He loved God with His whole heart, He prayed to God, He heard the Word of God and kept it, He honored His parents, He helped those in bodily distress, He loved the church as His bride, He lived a life of pure thoughts, He provided for those in distress, He spoke well of others, He had no evil desires. Jesus’ own description of Himself can in a certain sense be a description of the Christian’s life, the life lived under the third use of the law: “the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear” (Matthew 11:5). Christian works of charity to the disabled are continuations of Christ’s works of mercy and certainly fulfill what Luther intends by saying that we should help our neighbors in their physical distress. Christ is the fulfillment of the law not only in the sense that all the Old Testament prophets spoke of Him, but He is the affirmation of what God requires of us and of what God is in Himself. In Christ the tension of the law and the gospel is resolved, and resolved also is the problem of how the law (third use) can be God’s last word to man.

Luther’s understanding of the commandments as christological affirmations recalls the parable of the Good Samaritan. He fulfilled the commandments not simply by refraining from a prohibited evil but by helping the the stricken traveler. Claims to moral perfection have little to do with understanding of the law, but the willingness to help those in distress, those who cannot provide help for themselves, belongs to the essence of the law in its purest form and to Christology. Law and gospel are distinct in diagnosing man as sinner and saint, but by being fulfilled in the gospel the law comes to the believer as a description of what he already is in Christ and as the promise of a perfect sanctification at death. Christ’s righteousness becomes his, and he performs good works with a cheerful spirit (third use). Thus one could say that the Christian wants to fulfill the law which is already part of his being by faith.

“Confessional Lutheran Dogmatics: Law and Gospel and The Means of Grace”, pages 68-69

David Scaer on The Three Uses of the Law

For Lutherans Law is the standard of good works as suggested by the Latin phrase usus didacticus seu normaticus (teaching use or standard) for the Third Use, but does not motivate them (Cf. FC SD VI:18). One influential Reformed theologian understands the Lutheran position that the Law as regulation and condemnation serves only to keep believers as sinners in check (Second Use) and does not promote holiness. Another theologian claims that for Lutherans Christ and not the Law is the norm of righteousness and so antinomianism lurks in Lutheran theology, a not infrequent accusation from Rome. For Lutherans the Law does not stand alone, but fulfilled in and by Christ it is normative for Christian life and can be fulfilled (Third Use). As sinners, Christians like others are threatened by the law to do works that may be good according to external standards, but from faith they also do works pleasing to God. They are the works of Christ spontaneously motivated by the Spirit flowing from faith (SD VI:17). Divine wrath as a motivation for works pleasing to God is for Lutherans a confusion of the Law with the Gospel. The Law’s prohibitions and threats belong in the Second Use and not the Third, according to which Law is transformed by Christ so that it expresses God’s original intentions to the world. Christians as unbelievers can never escape the Law’s prohibitions and threats (SD VI:23-24). Simultaneously and often with the same deeds they live under the Law and the Gospel as enemies and friends of God. They live a Nestorian-like existence with two incompatible forces at war with no communication between saint and sinner: simul iustus et peccator (SD VI:7-9).* Ironically one work can flow from two motivations. Calvin sees the Christian as a composite person who is not zealous to do good works and needs the Law to prod. Conversely in Lutheran theology the sinner is caught between two realities: the same God who rejects him accepts him in Christ. He believes but is never relieved from divine accusation. Conversion is a one-time occurrence but its experience of going from unfaith to faith is repeated each day. He never moves far from Baptism but each time the old man is drowned a new man comes forth. For the Reformed conversion initiates a process of moral improvement advanced by both the Law and the Gospel and can be charted. In contrast the Lutherans hold that the Law as prohibition and condemnation provides neither a negative nor a positive motivation for the specifically Christian life. As sinner he remains subject to divine wrath (Second Use), but as a believer his works are not motivated by the Law’s threats but by faith (Third Use). Sanctification is characterized not so much as absence of moral blemish (which is impossible), but by the freedom to do good works to assist and help the neighbor. He begins again to live that life destines for him in paradise (the first “First Use”) and helps others as God in Christ did (Third Use). Good works are those God destined for him in creation and done by Christ and then by the believer. Sanctification is rooted in creation and redemption and displays both.

* In Luther’s theology saint and sinner are distinct realities within one person. For the Reformed these personal realities are blended so that Luther’s distinction plays no role. Within the dimension of this “Eutychian” definition of human personality so that the Christian as Christian is not distinct from his sinful nature, Law can be used to prod the believer….

David P. Scaer, “Third Use of the Law” Resolving the Tension” in “You, My People, Shall Be Holy: A Festschrift in Honour of John W. Kleinig”, pages 248-250

David P. Scaer on Antinomianism

Recently an emeritus pastor claimed that some pastors, whom he identified as confessional, are antinomian in not giving enough attention in their sermons to Christian sanctification, which he described as crucifying the flesh, putting down the old man and putting on the new man (See “Antinomian Aversion to Sanctification” CTQ 67:3&4, p. 379-381). Without names or details, we can only respond to how he defines antinomianism. Crucifying the flesh and putting down the old man are never past tense, but they are the work of the Law. Putting on the new man is the work of Christ (Gospel) and is the real sanctification. We do not put on an abstract holiness or morality, but we put on Christ – His life, His works, His Sacraments, His death, His absolution, His resurrection, ascension, and session at the Father’s right hand. These things are ours by a Baptism into His death and resurrection and by faith we are sanctified. The things of Christ which are ours by faith have nothing to do with the Law’s threats. Guilt is prior to and necessary for faith and sanctification, but has no place in faith and sanctification by which Christ lives in us and we live in Him. After coming to faith by the Gospel, the Christian is revisited by the Law and his sense of guilt will increase especially in light of Christ’s holy life. The Spirit’s opus alienum increases his sense of inadequacy and makes him more miserable as he copes with a reality he cannot escape.

David P. Scaer, “Third Use of the Law: Resolving the Tension” in You, My People, Shall Be Holy: A Festschrift in Honour of John W. Kleinig, page 244

DP Scaer

David P. Scaer on the “Perfect Law of Liberty”

[James 1:25] is the only New Testament reference to “Law” as perfect. Here again James is grossly misunderstood if this is seen as a reference to the lack of imperfections in the divine law. This is not a hymn praising God’s written revelation. The word for perfect (τέλειος) and its cognates suggests bringing something to perfection or completion, as discussed in connection with James 1:17. James in all citations (1:4, 17, 25; 2:22; 3:2) is consistent in understanding perfection as bringing something to completion. For James the perfect law carries with it the concept of Christ’s fulfillment of God’s requirements through His holy life and His atoning death. The Law has been fulfilled not through a divine sovereign act of arbitrary abrogation but by Christ’s satisfying the divine requirements of the Law with its demands. Thus the Law is not presented to the Christian with its demands only, but also with the fulfillment of these demands. To the non-Christian the Law appears revealing the wrath of God because he has not yet recognized Christ as the Law’s perfect answer. But to the Christian the Law appears with Christ as its perfect, completed answer. Christ has absorbed the accusations of the Law together with its wrath into Himself, and the Law without its threats appears to the Christian as providing guidelines for His life. In traditional dogmatic theology this is called the third use of the Law. In Christ the tension between the Law’s threats and the Gospel’s promises is resolved.

The Law now answered and fulfilled in Christ is not only called “the perfect law” but also “the law of liberty,” since the Christian is free from the Law’s accusations even when he fails. The Christian’s failure is already resolved by Christ’s fulfillment of the Law’s demands by His life and His payment of the Law’s penalties by His death. Christian freedom means a certain recklessness in doing good. Without the fear of the Law’s accusation in his life, the Christian becomes uninhibited in accomplishing what God wants done in His law. The Law without Christ is constricting and burdensome, but with and in Christ a new positive dimension is opened. It is really a different kind of law. Christ has made it radically different.

James: The Apostle of Faith, pages 67-68