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Year A  October 18, 2011
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Desperately Seeking the First Use of the Law

by Sarah Wilson March 22, 2011

At the midpoint now of my biblically allotted threescore and ten, I have come to the sad conclusion that anybody is capable of anything. I have also, not coincidentally, come to the conclusion that one of the worst failures of our Lutheran churches has been the widespread abandonment of preaching on the first use of the law. I can’t remember ever, since childhood, hearing a Lutheran sermon simply expositing the Ten Commandments, telling me in plain speech that this action is pleasing to God while that action is not...

At the midpoint now of my biblically allotted threescore and ten, I have come to the sad conclusion that anybody is capable of anything. I have also, not coincidentally, come to the conclusion that one of the worst failures of our Lutheran churches has been the widespread abandonment of preaching on the first use of the law. I can’t remember ever, since childhood, hearing a Lutheran sermon simply expositing the Ten Commandments, telling me in plain speech that this action is pleasing to God while that action is not.

We Lutherans can manage to preach Christ as gospel (well, some of the time… look for an article in the summer 2011 issue calling even this into question). We can manage to preach the second use of the law. Actually, though, I think we’re a little intoxicated with the second use. We see so many people whose lives are falling apart, from their own doing or as victims of others’ misdeeds, and quite naturally we want to offer them solace and hope. It is a good and holy thing to reach out to the suffering—even suffering because of their own self-chosen sin—with Christ’s forgiveness and the chance at a regenerate life.

But what happens when we only do that? What if the first use is abandoned or silenced? For one thing, it makes it very hard for the sinners to see why, exactly, what they did was so bad. In our hyper-psychologized culture, there is a pervasive sense that the only real sin is malice, deliberately doing evil for evil’s sake. Certainly, there are those who are guilty of this kind of sin. Augustine’s story of loving the transgression of stealing the pears sheerly because it was transgressive points to that reality.

But I doubt there are really very many who love evil for its own sake. Most of us pursue our loves, and the problem is that our loves, falling short of the love of God and not being ordered by the love of God, compete with each other. One love loses out to another; a lower love displaces a higher. (Example: when love of country usurps love of all people in God’s image, we are saddled with the sin of nationalism, even though it is not wrong in itself to love our country.) With no first use of the law to tell us what God desires in our dealings with one another, we are left with a free-for-all among our competing loves.

If our sins are the by-product of our loves, then it also means that nearly all of our sins are understandable. Another tacit myth of our psychologized culture is that if a sin is understandable, then it can’t really be all that bad, or it can at least be excused. Without the first use of the law, there is little incentive to recognize that the horribleness of sin is exactly how one sin, however understandable, gives rise to ten more, not only in the first sinner but in all those affected by his sin. Witness the terrible frequency with which children grow up to commit the exact same sins of their parents. Understandable, isn’t it, that they copy what they saw? Or that the hurt react by hurting others? That the trapped lash out and the powerful guard their power in fear of the coming retaliation? The understandableness of sin is good cause for mercy, but it is also good cause for countering sin’s logic with the logic of God’s law. Those people tempted or victimized by understandable sins have other options; they can follow God’s way instead of sin’s way. And, astonishing thought, proclaiming this law might just prevent the outbreak of such sins in the first place, along with all their collateral damage!

For really, if a church preaches only the second use and never the first, what has it become? It has become a predator on human misery. A church that cannot say how God intends human souls and communities to be—loving and fearing God above all things, honoring parents, remaining faithful to spouses, restraining the urge to steal and covet, speaking truthfully about others—is like a scavenger lying in wait for the wounded to fall. Then it pounces, at no risk to itself, to snap up all the shattered pieces. It can offer little more than a spiritual bandaid to the damage and has no way of helping to reconstruct what has been destroyed and lost, no vision of God’s good intentions to guide that reconstruction. It has done absolutely nothing to prevent the fall of the wounded in the first place.

And defending this absence of the first use in the name of Luther is certainly a violation of the Eighth Commandment. In the preface to the Large Catechism, after citing Psalm 1:2 (“blessed are those who meditate on God’s law day and night”) and Deuteronomy 6:7-8 (how we should meditate on God’s precepts at all times), Luther concludes: “Oh, what mad, senseless fools we are! We must ever live and dwell in the midst of such mighty enemies like the devils, and yet would despise our weapons and armor, too lazy to examine them or give them a thought!”

Pastors: preach the whole law, in all its uses, to your congregations; arm them! Parents: teach your children the Ten Commandments, discuss them, practice them! All Christians: offer your friends, your colleagues, your neighbors, your distant relatives and your near ones, your fellow churchgoers, offer them all the words of the Word of Life, the law that protects and guides life, the law that drives us to Christ, the gospel of forgiveness of sins, the gospel of the Holy Spirit given for a new life!

Thank you.

Posted by Peggy Hoppes at March 22, 2011 15:20
Thank you so much for this article. I was shocked and dismayed when my pastor recently preached in his sermon that 'we' no longer talk about sin because no one thinks they are sinners, and we should focus on love rather than on forgiveness. Instead of "believing in Him" God sent His Son so that we can "belove one another." He seems to think that we'll build the church on a foundation of this love that ignores the reality of our separation from God. I was in tears for the rest of the service because everything else had no meaning if that's what we are supposed to teach. Christ had no reason to die, the Eucharist is pointless. Even baptism has no meaning if we have no need for a Savior. If the problem with the dying church is that the world does not understand or accept "church language" as he preached in his sermon, then we might as well get rid of all things liturgical and sacramental. This is the logical next step, isn't it? I'm now having a crisis, not of faith, but of church. I'm heartbroken to see my church devalue God's word in such a blatant manner.

So, thank you for speaking the words that have been burning in me, not only since the sermon but for a number of years.

First or Third?

Posted by Frank Rothfuss at March 22, 2011 18:03
I agree whole-heartedly with the position that you take in this article. But I was thinking all the way through that you were really talking about the third use of the law (usus didacticus). While I understand that there are some Lutherans who reject a third use of the law, they end up merging uses one (politicus) and two (elenchticus or theologicus). However, our Lutheran Confessions clearly affirm a third use -- and clearly identify it's function as instructing Christians how to live according to God's will. I fear that this tendency to reject or merge the third use of the law has contributed to the very failings you lament in your article.


Posted by readselerttoo at March 22, 2011 19:22
If you read the cited cases where the 3rd use is referred: in the Formula of Concord, they are addressing a situation that could exist only if we "had arrived" in terms of the new life. Since that situation has not occurred we are pointed back to the first and seconded uses because we are sinners and need to be convicted and judged as well as curbed. IE. the 3rd use is only a dream. Besides, a third use presupposes that one could view a totally reborn individual apart or at least on the other side of death, which, again, has not arrived. As defined at least in the Confessions, a 3rd use presupposes that a regenerated human (who is no longer a sinner)would be an actuality. At the same time that it is presupposed, it is only offered as a possibility not as if there were fully regenerated individuals walking around. God's law always accuses yet teaches us what God wants of us but at the same time does not give us the power to do what God the law comes the knowledge of sin, see Romans 3.

First Use of the Law

Posted by Robert at March 22, 2011 17:19
Dr. Wilson,

Thank you so much for this. Yes, we need to recapture teaching about the first use of the law, or the natural law. You correctly point out that Luther identifies the first use of the law as (a) didactic; and (b) equivalent to the Ten Commandments.

Such thoughts, while classically Lutheran, are indeed refreshing today!

God's blessings,

Rev. Robert C. Baker
General Editor, Natural Law: A Lutheran Reappraisal (CPH, 2011)

good article

Posted by readselerttoo at March 22, 2011 18:01
As children of Adam and Eve there is no going back to Eden. Death (which is the wages of sin) reigned from Adam to Moses. According to St. Paul in Romans 3, "...with/through the law comes the knowledge of sin." (no improvement of the sinner can happen through the law). To preach the first use of God's law must also include the fact that with that preaching we are inevitably led to the the second use (lex semper accusat). Also the first use as civil use is God's wonderful gift which curbs us from doing harm to one another, esp. to the neighbor. So yes, preach the first use but keep in mind that it only leads one deeper into the maelstrom.

As preaching God's law leads ideally to a deeper awareness of sin (or further entrenchment in one's presumed righteousness...another sad turn) as well as its result: ie. death, will make the Gospel rightly taught sweeter than honey from the honeycomb! Gospel here is Christ's exchange of his life and death for the sinner's life and death! see Galatians 2:19-20

Thanks for the article

Use in Worship

Posted by David Charlton at March 22, 2011 20:49
I have begun to wonder if it might be as simple as our weekly liturgy. Of the three texts included in the Catechism for memorization (along Baptism, the Keys and the Lord's Supper), the Decalogue is the only one that is not recited on a regular basis. I've noticed that children and adults have little problem reciting the Apotle's Creed and the Lord's Prayer. The Ten Commandments are another matter. Would it make sense to include the Decalogue in the Brief Order of Confession and Forgiveness as the Book of Common Prayer allows?

Liturgical Use of the Ten Commandments

Posted by Paul Hinlicky at March 22, 2011 22:17
Inspired by the BCP, I used to have responsive reading of the Ten Commandments and their explanations according to the Small Catechism in Lent as a more than Brief Order of Confession.

Addendum to Hinlicky

Posted by Pr. Dan Biles at March 23, 2011 02:49
I have done the same.

Well put

Posted by Pr. an Biles at March 23, 2011 02:48
A very fine article. Reading it, I was reminded of something I read not long ago, written by John Steinbeck 50 years ago. His observations were quite prescient. Already then we were sowing the seeds of destruction in the preaching of our churches....(below):

Sunday morning, my last in New England .... I looked for a church to attend. Several I eliminated for reasons I do not now remember, but on seeing a John Knox church I pulled into a side street and parked. I took my seat in the rear of the spotless, polished place of worship. The prayers were to the point, directing the attention of the Almighty to certain weaknesses and undivine tendencies I know to be mine and could only suppose were shared by the others gathered there.

The service did my heart and I hope my soul good. It had been long since I had heard such an approach. It is our practice now, at least in the large cities, to find from our psychiatric priesthood that our sins are not really sins at all, but accidents set in motion by forces beyond our control. There was no such nonsense in this church. The minister ... opened with a prayer and assured us that we were a pretty sorry lot. And he was right..... He spoke of hell as an expert, not the mush-mush hell of these soft days, but a white-hot hell served by technicians of the first order.

For some years now God has been a pal to us, practicing togetherness...but this Vermont God cared enough about me to go to a lot of trouble kicking the hell out of me. He put my sins in a new perspective. Whereas they had been small and mean and nasty and beset forgotten, this minister gave them some size and bloom and dignity.... I wasn’t a naughty child but a first-rate sinner, and I was going to catch it.

All across the country I went to church on Sundays, a different denomination every week, but nowhere did I find the quality of that Vermont preacher. He forged a religion designed to last, not some predigested obsolescence.

John Steinbeck
Travels With Charley

not sure it's First Use

Posted by Peter at March 23, 2011 03:15
I don't think First Use is the main problem, "Love your neighbor" and "love your enemy" have First Use applications, and we're told all of the Law and Prophets is built upon that. Going from there can take you straight to social justice in many circles, which is largely exposition on the First Use.

The problem is that we let legal exposition get in the way of proclaiming Christ crucified and risen-- the purpose is always a legal one, whether "conservative" or "liberal". It's always about what we ought to be doing, and not about what God has done for us or how that brings healing.

There is also a season...

Posted by Mick Lee at March 23, 2011 18:03
Ah, but Peter, the heart is a deceitful thing. Much mischief can come of what we tell ourselves is "loving". We need to be confronted with "specifics". Luther famously remarked that the Christian has no need of the Law; but the creature does.

there are specifics

Posted by Peter at March 23, 2011 18:31

There are specifics. Look at the social statements, look at this latest wellness and health stuff, look at all of these political stands the ELCA takes. This is all First Use in action. Same with the social justice that is loved by many in the ELCA; it's primarily a demonstration of First Use.

Posted by Mick Lee at March 24, 2011 14:21
The social statements do nothing more than make those who write them feel good. For the most part, to the larger public, they elicit little more than a yawn and aren't worth the paper they are written on. And we shouldn’t fool ourselves. “Social Justice” mostly is politics dressed up in religious garb. Partisanship by other means.

On the other hand, admonitions against theft, adultery, lying and envy strike far closer to home in our daily lives. Like what? The pulpit can speak volumes to us men just in what it means to be a Christian husband to our wives. You want to "afflict the comfortable"? Try that one on for size.

so it's more a question of 'which laws'

Posted by Peter at March 26, 2011 02:45
First Use is for structuring society and restraining sin. All of our involvement in the government is covered by it. So I'm not sure how saying 'these policies have set up a system of death' falls outside of the Law. Maybe it makes some uncomfortable when the church speaks out against their politics, but weren't you just talking about "afflicting the comfortable"?

IIRC, for all that we reduced the sexuality statement to 'homosexuality is/is not a sin', there was plenty in there about adultery and other sexual sins. The Genetics one probably touches on envy, greed, body as a temple, and other Law stuff too. You'll note, I'm not a fan of it, but that's because I see the problem in the Law not striking deep enough there (to our rebellion against God from which we cannot escape) and in the Gospel not being the grounding for our statement.

What it sounds like to me is that it isn't the lack of First Use, so much as a desire to focus on different First Uses. Really, the First Use chosen should hit the community where it needs it. That doesn't address the problem of lack of proclaiming Christ crucified for us, though, which I see as a far greater problem in the church.

In matters of “I and thou”

Posted by Mick Lee at March 26, 2011 22:38
My own thoughts on the Church and politics are that She should tread very lightly. Anytime the word “justice” has an adjective in front it ceases to be justice but something else. The Church has much to say about justice to the flock; but, when it gets into the specifics of politics, She has no special expertise. Instead, each Christian must apply his best prudential judgment to civil questions guided by their understanding of Law and Gospel and work from there.

It very appropriate for Christians to gather together in such organizations such as “Lutherans for Life”, “Lutherans for Reproductive Choice”, “Lutherans for Peace”, or “Lutherans for a Balance Budget” for that matter. I see no call for a political quietism among us. The Church must speak out forthrightly on the evil of abortion (for instance); but whether abortion is an issue best addressed by the State is a matter each Christian must pursue according his own assessment.

Civil affairs are always surrounded by the fog of what is known and what is unknown. The Church is filled with those whose beliefs range from Communist, Liberal, Conservative and Monarchist. It is not only on the solutions we disagree; we disagree on what the problems are and the urgency of their priority. Exactly what constitutes “justice” in any issue before us is a complicated matter which I hope we can grant that “gentlemen may disagree”.

Given the polarization we are currently experiencing in the body politic, the Church must be the one place where all can put their differences aside and join together in fellowship without partisan conflict breaking out or one side taken advantage of and cowed into silence for the sake of fellowship. In this regard, the pulpit should be tolerant and restraint should be the word.

What of Bonheoffer? In my opinion, much of what is said of Bonheoffer is ahistorical and has fathered a great deal of mischief. Nazi Germany was an extreme situation and Nazism itself was a direct attack on Christianity itself—something Hitler made no bones about. To use Bonheoffer’s martyrdom and that of all other Christians who fell under the Nazi heel as justification to use the Church as a platform for political advocacy is an insult to their memory.

As you might imagine, I have little patience for those who invoke the mantra of “this isn’t politics, it’s the Gospel”. Even the most “sainted” among us should be more humble than that. Inviting “what would Jesus do?” presumes way too much. Even if angels assure us of the righteousness of our cause, we do well to remember that the Lord has His own purposes.

Thus, I don’t see this matter as wanting to focus on one set of sins over another. Nor do I see taking both tables of the Law and narrowing them down to “for structuring society and restraining sin”. In any case, the Law applies whatever structure society may take. The truth is for most things in life the personal is not political. Today, in matters of “I and thou”, we have forgotten (often willfully) what sin is.

still First Use

Posted by Peter at March 27, 2011 03:05
I agree that the church should be careful when it comes to politics. It needs to be careful, though, in proclaiming the Law generally, because as you note, justice is a very complicated matter. To use your example from before, even preaching about what it means to be a Christian spouse can be very tricky, especially if congregants are a range from divorced, being divorced, doing the divorcing, in an abusive relationship, issues over kids, whether or not to have them, considering marriage, etc, etc. When the church does speak about politics (or anything else), it needs to do so in a way that Second Use follows so that the Gospel may ultimately be proclaimed.

This remains First Use, though. I'm not saying we should only be concerned about political issues or even social issues. We do need to be concerned with personal issues as well. But that isn't a lack of First Use, just a different focus of it. Also, a lot of social justice does begin with personal issues. Ending bullying, for example, starts with you and me, and how we comport ourselves and how we treat others. In all of this discussion of the Law, however, we need to keep in mind that it is Law, not Gospel, and the Gospel is not just some tool for achieving social justice or even perfect personal behavior.

Welcome to the Lutheran Church, Sarah!

Posted by Henry at March 23, 2011 14:48
After reading your excellent piece, Sarah, one is truly at a loss as to whether to laugh or to cry. Part of me wants to shout praises of joy, while the other part of me wants to sob in despair.

Let's deal with the joy first. You have put your finger on the something we all need to hear, which hopefully most "Lutherans" have heard about sometime in the past, maybe during their catechesis: Our conscience desparately needs direction from God's Righteous Will, His Law. You, and hopefully others, have discovered this truth. It does no one any good to hear about about sin being simply "brokeness" (wish I had a nickel every time I heard this term used in sermons over the years). . .a sad state of affairs in the world where no-one is really, ever guilty. . . A no-fault world where we're all just victims. Dr. Laura and Dr. Phil have discovered it. . .It's about time we rediscovered it!

Now the despair. . .How is it, Sarah, that you feel that the Lutheran Church has taught or can teach the 2nd use of the Law without teaching the 1st use? How is it you feel that the 2nd use can even be understood exclusive of the 1st? How can terror emerge from non-demands? It is impossible!

For the 2nd use emerges out of the 1st use and, although they are distinct, they cannot be separated within the heart. If you think that the pastors who have used a "sans 1st" approach within the Lutheran Church have effectively taught their congregations the 2nd use, and are somehow preparing hearts for hearing the true Gospel, you are sadly mistaken! What I fear has happened is that in order not to offend, or come across as a "legalist" or a "fundamentalist", some pastors have tried, by their silence on the 1st use, to artfully separate the uses, hoping that each individual conscience would somehow "know" God's Righteous Will on their own (if, of course, their hearts have not already been hardened). After all, we must keep an open mind about such things as historical, contextual relevance of texts, bound consciences, and such. And, of course, everything's relative! But such an approach has simply created antinomian hearers where no one is really guilty of anything!

If the 1st use hasn't been preached, then people have never really heard the 2nd use either. And neither have they heard the true Gospel! The message that has been, and is being heard all too often, Sunday after Sunday, is that we're all just unfortunate "victims" with an enabling Christ, not a Redeeming One!

But for those who, like you, are now waking up to this tragedy, realize that not all churches who have "Lutheran" on the sign are truly Lutheran, and seek to join a church that teaches the whole counsel of God, then all I can say is: Welcome to the Lutheran Church!

Well then

Posted by Chris Enstad at March 24, 2011 03:50
I will look forward to some Lutheran Forum social statements. The law is, indeed, necessary in aligning ourselves with the needs of our neighbors. Might we see critiques, then, of the latest budget cuts both here, in the U.S., and abroad?

RE: Well then

Posted by Brian at March 24, 2011 17:11
Let me see if I get your premise. Government budget cuts equal not loving one's neighbor. Conversely, government expansion must equal loving one's neighbor. So the ultimate means of loving one's neighbor would be for government to obtain and control all property and means of production and distribute the resulting products and income equally per capita?

@ Brian RE: Well then

Posted by Kim at March 25, 2011 03:03
Great response Brian!

Acts 2 & 4

Posted by Brian S at April 15, 2011 17:45
Collecting all the wealth and distributing it as individual needs arose is what the early church did. However, by Acts 5 that economic system began falling apart -- and "deacons" were appointed in chapter 6 to try and resolve inequalities in the distribution of money/food. The economic system of sharing is sound. Our human sinfulness makes it impossible to practice for any length of time.

In an ideal, Christ-centered community, communal sharing of wealth for the sake of others is the appropriate way of living. However, we live in a sinful, greedy, world where selfishness thwarts any efforts for such an economic sharing system.

Desperately Seeking the First Use of the Law

Posted by Bruce Kokko at November 07, 2011 22:07
Well said. This is why in my teaching the history of doctrine in my church, and in my book, A Final Word on Love, I emphasize the critical importance of holding love in tension with holiness. Indeed, this tension is core to the Divine nature. And as with all tensions, if one diminishes or removes one side of the tension, all is lost. We cannot properly love outside of holiness; nor can we be holy without love.

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