Third Use of the Law and Sanctification

—by Lucas V. Woodford

There is debate going among conservative confessional Lutheran circles regarding the nature and use of the Law, particularly its Third Use, as well as the issue of antinomianism and the sanctified life under the Gospel.

I normally don’t do this on these forums. I know it is a bit risky. But perhaps it might offer some clarity and shed some collegial and pastoral light upon this ongoing debate. I’ve published a number of things pertaining to this indirectly and directly, with two more journal articles coming out this spring and summer. In any case, here’s my take:

What I have observed is that in many instances the differences are really a turf war. In other words, there are those who have a theological and/or spiritual turf they are trying to assert or a position they are trying to protect over against a threat to that position or theological truth. But sometimes in so doing one excludes a corollary and very important truth. I believe it was the good doctor Luther who said there are two sides to fall off a horse.

For example, one group appears to be aiming to reach disaffected evangelicals who have been repeatedly bludgeoned by the law. They want to “liberate” them from the bonds of the law and teach them how to “hold fast” to Christ and the “radical” freedom the Gospel affords. Thus, they begin to speak in terms of limited categories.

Others, wanting to protect against licentious living and “soft antinomianism” or outright antinomianism, assert the language of the Lutheran confessions that speak in terms of “increase” when it comes to sanctification, or more specifically, the good works of believers. (I haven’t yet noted any article of faith that actually uses the word “progressive” but I could be wrong). Therefore, the 3rd Use of the Law is invoked as a corrective to the perception of those pushing a “radical Gospel” and making it appear that the law only accuses (though, of course, it has two other functions). Although these groups may not necessarily openly say the law only accuses, the very clear appearance to many is that this is the only issue they are dealing with (i.e. they are constantly only dealing with the accusing nature of the law and the radical freedom of the Gospel).  

However, a third perspective, (and one that I assert) comes from those of us who desire to retain the clear Lutheran confession of the truth regarding sanctification (and really the whole life of the believer), which is the result of Christ and his Spirit in action in the life of the believer. In other words, one cannot progress in degree of holiness when that holiness is always borrowed and received from the one and same Christ and his Spirit.

To be sure, this position retains that if all things were to remain equal, wherein the life of a believer is lived out in a mildly docile and uneventful life, the believer will ordinarily decrease in vice and evil desires and increase in good works as they live out their baptismal identity and life in daily contrition and repentance (as both the Small and Large Catechisms teach). However, once the devil and his lies of darkness afflict and oppress a believer, in many cases extraordinarily so, that trajectory of faith will invariable have peaks and valleys as the devil, the world, and the sinful flesh contaminate, afflict, and defile the soul. At times an increase of good works might be detectable, at other times it might be a decrease in vice and evil desires. However, depending upon the particular defilement or contamination of sin a soul is dealing with at any given time, an increase may not necessarily be the case for a season of life. But yes, in general, the sanctified Christian life moves away from vice and toward an increase of the fruits of the Spirit.

But even so, to speak in the abstract, apart from the reality of souls living in sin and dealing with their sin, is a dubious business when it comes to asserting one must increase in good works. Yes, the confessions speak this way, but not merely for abstract purposes, but for the real life lived in faith.

What seems to be the common thread in all of these positions is how works are being viewed by each position. The first position deals primarily from the angle of justification, and wants to free believers from the accusation of the law, so much so that they seem to routinely ignore or do not treat the other elements of the sanctified Christian life. Again, they appear only to be dealing with justification and are constantly trying to dispel the need of works in view of the Gospel.


Though perhaps well intentioned, and maybe having a particular disaffected evangelical audience in mind, this tends to seem like a repetitious single note being played over and over again, and is often aided by the sensationalism of digital media, and corresponding bumper sticker-like slogans, complete with all kinds of catchy sound bites. It may be well received by the specific audience they desire to hear it, but the legs seem to be falling off the saddle for the rest of us.

The second position wants to fight this radicalism by (at times myopically) focusing on the good works of sanctification. But unfortunately at times these works end up being called sanctification, to the exclusion of what actually sanctifies (Christ and His Spirit). Thus, this position has a tendency to set forth quotes from the confessions that assert an increase in sanctification. However, in my opinion this position really means to say an increase in good works, which are the fruit of sanctification. In an eagerness to fight the licentious life, which must certainly be done, there is the danger of falling off the horse on the other side.

What is more, if I were to say something like “there is no such thing as progressive sanctification” to someone of this second position, they would likely have an adverse reaction. They would not necessarily hear that phrase with the baggage of evangelicalism with which I hear it, i.e., the belief that one actually increases and climbs a latter of holiness the further they go in the Christian life. Rather, they would hear me saying sanctification will not create an increase of good works (which I would not, in fact, be saying) and thus flat out think I am an antinomian.

However, the term “progressive sanctification” is not in the Lutheran confessions. And sanctification proper refers directly to the holiness we receive from Christ, wherein the only progress we make is one of constant return to Christ and His holiness, but yet wherein the power of the Gospel is such that it will certainly bring cleansing, healing, forgiveness, holiness, and subsequently an increase of fruit (works), as well as a decrease in evil desires and vice. To be sure, the law can certainly instruct and even guide, but it can never deliver or create these good works.

Nonetheless, to put such good works or the Gospel on a quantifiable continuum or measureable scale will never do. (Whose scale will it be?) The Gospel is never measurable in the sense that we want it to be. “It is not quantifiable,” to quote a beloved professor of many. In other words, Jesus forgives us more sins than we’ve got. Yes, the Confessions certainly speak of an increase in works, but that must understood as relative to the Gospel and not to someone else’s predetermined numerical calculation or quantification.

Thus, in the end, it’s my contention that it does us well to see our theology pastorally and through the care of souls as they deal with the devil, the world, and their sinful flesh on a daily basis, rather than from only a position of theological abstractions or theological sound bites.

Again, my aim has been to shed some collegial and pastoral light upon this ongoing debate. I mean no ill will, nor do I mean to antagonize or demonize anyone or any one position. If I have misspoken, I am open to correction and clarification.          


The Rev. Lucas V. Woodford serves Zion Lutheran Church, Mayer, Minnesota and is author of Great Commission, Great Confusion, or Great Confession.

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