Beckett: The Fear of the Lord as Filial Fear – Part IV. Threefold Use of the Law

This entire series is my 30-paged bachelor thesis I submitted to the theology department at Concordia University-Ann Arbor—a higher Lutheran education university—as part of the requirement to graduate from the Pre-Seminary programme. It has been reformatted to fit this blog.

As I argued in part three, filial fear relies on God’s promise in our justification by faith through Christ our Lord, which enables us to approach God in confidence rather than terror. Yet this does not answer how the Christian exercises filial fear in the practical sense. What I have discussed up to this point is the condition of the Christian being the reason for why we can approach God without terror. Through the threefold use of the Law we see how filial fear is practised in repentance.

Repentance “consists of two parts: one is contrition or the terror that strikes the conscience when sin is recognized; the other is faith, which is brought to life by the gospel or absolution. This faith believes that sins are forgiven on account of Christ, consoles the conscience, and liberates it from terrors” (Kolb, 44, AC XII 3-5). The threefold use of the Law brings the Christian to contrition, and it is by faith that the Christian believes “that on account of Christ their sins are freely forgiven” (Kolb, 192, Ap XII 35). Luther verifies the purpose of the Law is not for “the remission of sins and righteousness” but rather “to restrain” (Engelbrecht, 145). He affirms using the Law for both believers and unbelievers, but he appropriately insists it not be given the power of justification. He writes that it has “a double function: in an external way to repress violence and spiritually to reveal sins” (Engelbrecht, 145). At first, it appears Luther gives only two uses of the Law. Yet as he continues, Luther reveals the following pattern: “(1) the first use restrains sinners, (2) the second use reveals sin, (3) the law is misused by Satan, wicked theologians, and natural reason, and (4) righteous men battle against confidence in works” (Engelbrecht, 145). It seems to me this is where the famous Lutheran threefold use of the Law comes from: curb (1), mirror (2), and guide (4). (I recognise this is not how the Confessions talk about the Law as guide. In fact, Luther does not give a specific list of the threefold use of the Law as it is traditionally understood today. Yet I believe there is a third use of the Law because of how Luther uses the Law, not because of what he says about the Law. The third “use” listed appears to be a misuse of the Law. The fourth in the list appears to me to be the guide since it is traditionally understood as guiding us how to lead holy lives, which is precisely the righteous battling confidence in works. Thank you to my senior seminar instructor, Rev. Dr. Theodore Hopkins, for this insight into Luther’s use of the Law.)

The Law acts as a curb to restrain sin, a mirror to reveal our sin and our need for mercy and forgiveness; and the guide, which shows us how to live holy lives while our flesh battles with the Spirit—putting confidence in the works of Christ rather than our own. According to Luther, the Law always acts as a restraint and revealer of sin—lex semper accusat—yet it cannot take sin away (Engelbrecht, 146). Therefore, since the Law as a mirror reveals to us our sin, it also reveals to us the need for mercy, which can only be found in the Gospel of Christ that removes our sin. However, there appears to be a seeming contradiction in Luther’s sermon that needs to be discussed. He says that for the Christian, the Law “cannot restrain, because there is nothing to restrain; it cannot reveal, because [the Christian] has done nothing concealed” (Engelbrecht, 146). At first it appears Luther is contradicting himself until one remembers Luther’s doctrine of simul iustus et peccator (simultaneously saint and sinner). Being saints and sinners simultaneously, the Law restrains and reveals the sin of the Christian while he or she still struggles with sin in this life, yet as a saint it has nothing to restrain and reveal since Christians are judged according to God’s grace in Christ and not His wrath (Colossians 1:22). In this life we will still suffer the effects and temptations of sin, thus the Law must restrain our sin and reveal it to us. Yet at the same time, we are justified in the blood of Christ right now, and there is no sin to restrain and reveal insofar as the Christian is considered to be in Christ Jesus. Thanks be to God!

The present reality of the Christian’s justification in Christ is the filial relationship Christ moves the Christian into, thus filial fear is now made possible. Filial fear enables repentance because of what the word filial itself implies: one who is in a family-like relationship. This is why God as our Father is an important image for the Christian. Even in our earthly relationships, we are supposed to approach our father with confidence and trust, even when we are in trouble. When I was a child, I could tell my earthly father my wrongs even though I feared the consequences, yet he still forgave me because of his love for me (of course, as a sinner, I did not always reveal my wrongs to my father, and my father as a sinner wouldn’t always forgive me so quickly). Out of love for our fathers, we generally have faith that our earthly father will forgive us. After all, as father, he has the God-given responsibility to love us and care for us, whose love causes us to trust him as a result of our filial fear for our father and our love for him. In the same way, though we may fear the consequences, we can approach our Father in Heaven who offers unconditional forgiveness of sins for the sake of His Son, Jesus Christ. Because of our trust (faith) in God, whose love moves us to fear and love Him, we confess our sins before Him as He grants forgiveness of sins according to His promise in Christ. As the Lutheran Confessions testify, “Moreover, love follows faith… And thus it is possible to define clearly filial fear as an anxiety that has been joined with faith, that is, where faith consoles and sustains the anxious heart. In servile fear faith does not sustain the anxious heart” (Kolb, 193, Ap XII 38). It is this filial fear that enables repentance because it is practised by faith in Christ.

To be continued on: The Centrality of Wisdom (Conclusion)
Bibliography given at conclusion.

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