When You Fail to Distinguish Second and Third Use of the Law–A Response to Tullian Tchividjian

Michael J. Kruger

Posted on

May 9, 2014

Last week, Jen Wilkin wrote a very helpful article on TGC entitled “Failure is not a Virtue.”  The purpose of her article was to push back against those who advocate what she calls “celebratory failurism.” She says, “Celebratory failurism asserts that all our attempts to obey will fail, thereby making us the recipients of greater grace. But God does not exhort us to obey just to teach us that we cannot hope to obey.”

Put differently, Jen was concerned about those who view the law only negatively (as a means of exposing failure), and rarely discuss how Christians are empowered to obey it.

Just recently, Tullian Tchividjian has offered quite a strong response, coming down pretty hard on Jen’s article.  He accuses her of “theological muddiness,” of having “deep theological confusion”, and of mixing law and gospel in a way which “prevents the reader from hearing (and being relieved by) the real good news.”

But, I have to say, in Jen’s defense, that I think Tullian’s criticisms really miss the mark here.  Indeed, as I read his response I was struck by how little interaction there was with Jen’s actual article.  I could only find one place where her specific words were quoted.  The vast majority of the article was simply a lengthy discussion of how dangerous it is to confuse law and gospel, without demonstrating that Jen was, in fact, guilty of that very mistake. It was almost like large portions of his response could have been clipped from some other article written for an entirely other purpose.

For this reason, much of Tullian’s response did not seem relevant to what Jen actually wrote. For instance, Tullian argues forcefully that “Nowhere does the Bible say that the law carries the power to change us.”  Presumably this was written in response to Jen’s article, but nowhere in her article does she claim the law, in and of itself, is able to change us.

On the contrary, she says that God is calling us to the “kind of godly obedience that is impossible for someone whose heart has not been transformed by the gospel in the power of the Holy Spirit.”  Does this sound like someone who believes that the law by itself is enough?  She expressly says that we need the power of the Holy Spirit before we can obey the law rightly.

Again, Tullian declares that it is “theologically and existentially simplistic and naive when we assume that simply telling people what they need to do has the power to make them want to do it.”  Maybe we are reading two different articles, but I found no place where Jen says such a thing.

Tullian also spends an inordinate amount of time showing how mixing law and gospel inevitably lowers and softens the law–“grace for many Christians is the reduction of God’s expectation of us.”  But, again, I could not find Jen advocate such a position anywhere.  On the contrary, she says, “Rather than abolish the Law, Jesus deepened his followers’ understanding of what it required, and then went to the cross to ensure they could actually begin to obey it.”  It doesn’t sound like she is lowering the perfect standard of the law.

Perhaps, in all of these statements Tullian wasn’t really responding to Jen. Perhaps it is just the person “out there” who misunderstands grace. If so, then this goes back to my earlier point: his response interacts very little with her actual article. It raises a concern about whether he is really trying to listen to (and understand) the important points she was trying to raise.

Indeed, Jen goes out of her way to be balanced, offering nuances and qualifications to her view.  She laments, like Tullian, the moralism and legalism in our churches; she speaks against any idea that our obedience would “curry favor with God”; and expressly affirms that we “obey out of joyful gratitude.”

So, what’s really going on here?  I wonder if the real missing distinction here is not the distinction between law and gospel (as Tullian suggests), but the distinction between the second use and third use of the law (a distinction Tullian never addresses).

The clear focus of Tullian’s response article was on the “second use” of God’s moral law, namely that the law functions to expose our sinfulness, reveal our failure, and to drive us to Christ.  It is this second use of the law that is the antidote to legalism.  Tullian’s focus on the second use is exemplified by his repeated references to Paul’s awareness of his sin in Romans 7.

And Tullian is 100% right about the importance of the second use of the law.  It is critical to a proper understanding of the gospel.  The problem is that this was not the point of Jen’s article.  Although she didn’t use the phrase, her article was focusing on the importance of the “third use” of the law, namely that for the believer with a new heart, the law is a positive, wonderful, and delightful guide to how to live the Christian life.  Put differently, the law is not just something that condemns (second use), but it is also, for the believer, a necessary guide to holiness (third use).

And this third use needs to play an important (though not the only) role in our ministries.

What is surprising about Tullian’s article is the absolute silence about the third use. I know he must believe in the third use, but his sharp distinction between law and gospel does not allow for much room to discuss it.  And I think this is perhaps the reason he misunderstood Jen’s article.  If one thinks mainly in “second use” categories, then her call to obedience might sound like a call to legalism.

In the end, if Tullian had written this same article as a stand alone piece on the importance of the second use of the law, then I would have said “Amen.”  But, as a response to Jen’s initial article, and without a clear distinction between second and third use, it might be guilty of the very charge it originally made: “theological muddiness.”

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