The Civil Use of the Law
HEIDELBERG CATECHISM, LORD’S DAY 34
What does the Lord say in his law?
The Catechism lists the 10 commandments as it’s answer. They can be found in the Old Testament, in either Exodus 20:1-17 or Deuteronomy 5:6-21.
How are these commandments divided?
Into two tables. The first has four commandments, teaching us what our relation to God should be. The second has six commandments, teaching us what we owe our neighbor.
The Civil Use of the Law
Tuesday, July 25: 1 Peter 2:13-17
The Reformed faith tradition speaks of the threefold use of the law – the Civil Use, in which the law contributes to civility and justice; the Pedagogical Use, in which the law reveals sin and the human need for Christ; and, finally, the Normative Use, in which the law guides Christians in genuine gratitude for the gift of salvation. Today, our focus is on the Civil Use of the law. Negatively, the law serves to restrain sin. Though it cannot change a human heart, it can restrain evil, especially through a civil code applied as punishment by legitimate authorities against proven offenses (Romans 13:3-4). We support, therefore, laws against drunk driving, domestic violence, or theft. Positively, the law serves the purpose of God’s common grace, especially through a civil code applied to help citizens, cities and countries flourish. Here, too, we support laws that protect the unborn, the disabled, or serve justice for all. Combined, the purpose of the civil use of the law is the protection and promotion of the common good. Paul describes our Christian attitude to the common good: “For we are to God the aroma of Christ to those who are being saved and those who are perishing” (2 Corinthians 2:25). Just as Joseph served Potiphar, Daniel served Nebuchadnezzar, Israel served the good of Babylon, and Paul taught Christians to pray for all leaders and authorities, so Christians are to serve so that society in general may live in peace, safety and security. John Stott describes well the spirit of the civil use of the law: “God’s order is that we love him first, our neighbor next and ourselves last. Sin is precisely the reversal of this order. It is to put ourselves first, our neighbor next (when it suits our convenience) and God somewhere in the distant background” (Christian Basics, 21). The central question in our current therapeutic culture is, “What’s in it for me?” The civil use of the law undercuts such narcissism with a better question: “How do I serve the pursuit of a civil and just society?” Seeking a safe and just society for all people – believer or unbeliever, Christian or Muslim, American or Russian, straight or gay – is the sweet aroma that results when Christians genuinely seek to be the embodiment of God’s grace, restoration and reconciliation through prayerful obedience (1 Timothy 2:1ff). And, who knows? Perhaps such obedience may even lead some to consider faith in Christ (1 Peter 2:11-12).
Pastor Calvin Hoogendoorn