The Uses of the Divine Law


Philip Melanchthon (from the 1535 Loci Communes)

Translated by Scott L. Keith and Edited by Kurt Winrich


Before we begin it is imperative to remind the reader that the Law of God requires the perfect obedience of the human nature. Further, because the human nature cannot perform this perfect obedience, it follows that men are not pronounced righteous before God on account of the Law—our nature always clings to sin. Therefore, the Apostle Paul speaks against justification by the law in our corrupted nature[1]. We briefly point this out before delving into the uses of the Divine Law so as not to infer that the Law justifies us. In fact, afterward, these passages will be treated in their entirety.

The Functions, or Offices, of the Law


What are the offices of the Law in this corrupted nature? They are three in number.

The First Office of the Law


The first is the civil office, namely, that all men are restrained and contained by a certain discipline. Of this office, Paul speaks in 1 Timothy 1:9: “understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers.

To establish and accomplish this discipline, God has ordained: (1) magistrates; (2) the law; (3) common instruction; (4) punishments; and (5) human suffering.[2] Also pertinent are sayings of Paul from Galatians 3:24: “So then, the law was our guardian[3] until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith.

Thus this discipline, which Paul calls the pedagogy in Christ, is to be praised—certainly because this institution serves to habituate us to what is good, but also because this discipline imposes a certain orderliness on society which in turn enables us to hear and discern the Gospel. This wonderful praise [of the civil office of the Law] ought to stimulate the intellect of the moderate, so that this discipline is not refused. Yet, as I have said above, do not succumb to the opinion that such discipline can merit the forgiveness of sins.

The Second Office of the Law


The second office—the chief office—of the Divine Law is this: it shows us our sin, and accuses us, petrifies us, and condemns the conscience. The Apostle Paul speaks frequently of this function, such as when he says in Romans 1:20: “since through the law comes knowledge of sin. Or when he says in Romans 4:15: “For the law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no transgression. And in 1 Corinthians 15:56: “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. This understanding similarly teaches that the Law terrifies the conscience, because it always accuses us. And not only does it make accusations against us, it exposes our natural weakness and condemns us of our ignorance towards God, our contempt of God, and our similar mistaken affections.

Thus, it almost goes without saying that those who fervently attempt to appease the wrath of God apart from the knowledge of His gracious mercy make no progress, but instead are more and more driven to doubt and despair. We can see this in the example of Saul, who, though he sought to be saved by the sacrifices of good works apart from faith, nevertheless could not rest, but remained in doubt and despair.

On the other hand, we do not have the law apart from this function, that is, that it is the final mortal blow to men, as Paul says in Romans 7:9.[4] Thus, “I was once alive apart from the law,” that is, I was a hypocrite and unworried. But afterwards I perceived my weakness and my sin, and I was terrified. This was how the Law was used on King David in 2 Samuel 12:13, when he was reproved by the prophet Nathan on account of his adultery, and was petrified.[5]

In short, “contrition,” which is called in such cases “repentance,” can be clearly understood if we know that these kinds of terrors are real. In other words, these terrors—that are the end of all men—strike out against us not only so we see that we will perish, but also so we know we need the kindness and mercy of Christ toward us. As Paul says in Romans 11:32: “For God has consigned all to disobedience, that He may have mercy on all.

This knowledge, then, is a great consolation: when we conclude that we are under sin, the Law accuses us, not so that we perish, but so that we seek the mercy of God. And to be clear that such a great consolation belongs to us personally, the universal saying is added, so all may conclude that His mercy is indeed for all.

The Third Office of the Law


            The third office of the Law in those who are justified by faith is that which teaches them about good works, about what works are pleasing to God, and about certain commandments in which obedience to God is exercised. For though we are free from the Law as far as justification is concerned, the Law remains with regard to obedience. But now that we are justified, we are bound to obey God; and indeed, we will begin to do at least some part of the Law. And it pleases Him that this obedience is begun in us, since we are pleasing to God on account of Christ.



What is given here appears to be sufficient regarding the uses, or offices, of the Law. Now, regarding justification: it must be said again that it belongs to the second use of the Law. And again I say the third use belongs in the topic of our works; of the abrogation of the Law.



[1] e.g., Romans 3:20, Galatians 2:16, Galatians 3:11, etc.

[2] Here Melanchthon uses “calamitates humanas” (human calamity or suffering), saying that such is encompassed in the first office of the Law. He is using this in the same sense as Paul in Romans 5:1–5 (ESV): “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom He has given us.”

[3] παιδαγωγὸς – paidagōgós (from país, “a child under development by strict instruction”) – properly, a legally appointed overseer, authorized to train (bring) up a child by administering discipline, chastisement, and instruction, i.e., doing what was necessary to promote development.

[4] Romans 7:9 (ESV): “I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died.”

[5] 2 Samuel 12:13 (ESV): “David said to Nathan, ‘I have sinned against the LORD.’ And Nathan said to David, ‘The LORD also has put away your sin; you shall not die.’”

Concerning the Gospel

By Philip Melanchthon (From the 1535 Loci Communes)

Translated by Scott L. Keith and Edited by Kurt Winrich



The term “Gospel” is extant in the oldest Greek authors. In Homer, the word signifies one who collects a reward by proclaiming happy news[1]. In Aristophanes and Isocrates[2] this word signifies a reward given because of something that was done well, or because of a report of happy events. The Apostle [Paul] himself uses this beneficial announcement.


But the term Gospel came to mean a new kind of proclamation so that the Law and the new doctrine [Gospel] are distinguished in such a way that the new doctrine gains primary influence.

Law & Gospel Are Distinguished

Indeed, this distinguishing between the Law and the Gospel is the primary consideration. I will not hide behind long explanations or grand arguments but rather provide the necessary distinctions. To wit, it is necessary to distinguish between

·      the commandments and the forgiveness of sins,

·      the moral precepts and the promises, and also between

·      those that are free promises and those that are not free.


Now, as was noted previously, it is the Law that demands perfect obedience to God. The Law does not remit sins freely, and the Law does not pronounce one righteous (that is, acceptable to God) unless the Law is itself satisfied. Sure, the Law contains promises, however, it requires the condition that the Law be fulfilled (see “not free” above).


On the contrary, even though the Gospel speaks of repentance and good works, the benefits that are given are contained in the promise of Christ. This—the promise of Christ—is the fundamental and proper doctrine of the Gospel. That’s because in Christ the satisfaction of the Law for the remission of sins is given freely. Further, the Gospel declares us righteous, even though we do not satisfy the Law.

Law & Gospel Are Not Separated

But how are Law & Gospel harmonized? The short answer: the Gospel is equally preached with the Law and repentance, and yet the promise of grace should be expounded in the right way. Let me elaborate.


As most of you know, the Law also has promises. Yet the distinction of the promises should be observed. That is, promises are of two kinds in the Holy Scriptures. The first kind pertains to the Law, and has the conditions of the Law. Said another way, they are put forward—promised—on condition of fulfilling of the law. Thus, the promises of the Law are conditional.


For example, the Law teaches that God is good and merciful, but this goodness and mercy is extended only to those who are without sin. By the way, this is the same thing that human reason teaches, which means that through reason itself one can have a certain knowledge of the Law. Here, then, everyone can consult himself, for the natural man will find within himself a certain judgment concerning God, namely, that He is merciful, yet only to those who are worthy (i.e., to those who are without sin). The natural man will also conclude—if he’s honest—that he can never please God, seeing that he is unclean and unworthy. Thus, the Law and its promises—whether discerned through Scripture or through reason—leave the conscience in doubt because the promises are conditional.


The second kind of promise is of the Gospel proper. Such promises do not have as a cause the condition of the Law. That is, they are not promised on account of the fulfillment of the Law, but freely on account of Christ.


In particular, this is the promise of which the Gospel most clearly speaks: the remission of sins [and imputed righteousness] (also referred to as reconciliation, or justification). For with the Gospel these benefits are certain, and not dependent upon the condition of fulfilling the Law. If we understand [believe] this, then finally we actually have the remission of sins. But when satisfaction of the Law was required, remission of sins was given up as hopeless.


All this means that remission of sins and reconciliation (i.e., justification) is a free gift and is not on account of our dignity, or self-righteousness. And yet it was necessary for justice that there be some victim [propitiation] for us. Therefore, Christ was given for us, and He became this victim so that on account of Him we become pleasing to the Father.

Freely on Account of Christ

So in the Gospel, we have the promise of reconciliation. This promise is distinctly legal (forensic) because the promise is “freely, on account of Christ.” The Apostle Paul explicitly uses this particle “freely”[3]. Hence we diligently and carefully emphasize “freely”. See, for example, Romans 4:16: “Therefore freely by faith, so that the promise is sure.[4]


Now this particle, “freely on account of Christ,” is what distinguishes Law and Gospel. If we do not notice this particle of the free promise, doubt will remain in our minds, and the Gospel will be transformed into Law, and nothing will communicate to our consciences the remission of sins or justification. If we do not notice this particle of the free promise, then all we have is our natural judgment (our reason), which is the Law, not Gospel.


Therefore, our adversaries, even if they cry that they are teaching the Gospel, still leave the conscience in doubt because they do not teach that reconciliation is free, and in place of the Gospel they teach the Law, as in Hesiod[5] (i.e., the judgment of natural reason).


Thus, this particle, in our eyes and minds, is to be understood as emphasizing “freely.” To this end, it is necessary that we teach that this is a gracious promise. Our objective is threefold: that the promise is certain, that the conscience is set free from doubt, and that we have firm consolation from true terrors. For in these things it is truly realized that this work is a gracious promise. Most of all, though, it is our contention that this is the chief doctrine to which all others are referred.


Yet it ought to be noted: the promise should be received. Paul teaches this in Romans 4:16: “Therefore freely by faith so that the promise is sure.” And 1 John 5:10 says: “Whoever does not believe God has made him a liar” etc. Accordingly, the term “freely” does not exclude faith, but removes the condition of our dignity [self-righteousness], and transfers the cause to our benefit in Christ. Neither is our obedience excluded, yet the total cause of the benefit is transferred from our obedience to Christ so that the benefit is certain. Therefore, even though the Gospel preaches repentance so that the reconciliation is certain, we teach that the remission of sins and God's pleasure do not come to us on account of the dignity [righteousness] or the “newness” of our repentance. This is necessary for the consolation of faithful consciences. And hence it is easily judged how these things agree, that we can teach the Gospel of repentance, and still preach the free promise of reconciliation. But I will say more about this comparison a little bit later.


Christ, in the Gospel of Luke, gives the ultimate definition of the Gospel clearly as a verbal artist, when He describes it in chapter 24, verse 47: “and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in His name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” This is the preaching of the Gospel repentance and promise, which reason does not naturally grasp, but God reveals it when He promises that He remits our sins on account of Christ, and we are pronounced righteous after receiving the Holy Spirit and eternal life as a gift. This He promises freely, so that it is certain.


Let this then be the definition of the Gospel, in which three components are embraced as the proper benefits of the Gospel, namely that:

(1)  our sins are freely forgiven for the sake of Christ;

(2)  we are graciously pronounced righteous [on account of Christ]; and

(3)  we are reconciled and are received as heirs of eternal life [on account of Christ].


These three components we will explain a little later. Here, it is only necessary to remember the proper benefit of the Gospel, which can be otherwise be summed up in one word: justification.




[1] Odyssey Book 14, Line 152: “εὐαγγέλιον δέ μοι ἔστω...” That is: “And let me have a reward for bearing good tidings...” Homer, The Odyssey, ed. G. P. Goold, trans. A. T. Murray, 2 volumes in the Loeb Classical Library [No. 104], (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1919-1998). See also, A Greek-English Lexicon, Ninth Edition with a Revised Supplement, ed. H. G. Liddell and Robert Scott (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996). “εὐαγγέλιον: the reward of good tidings, given to the messenger; in the Christian sense, the Glad Tidings.”

[2] εΰαγγέλνα θυειν, Sacrifice for good tidings. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, ed. Gerhard Kittel, trans. Geoffery W. Bromily, vol. 2, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964), 723. “In religious usage, the message is again so highly valued that it is equated with the actuality. On the occasion of these messages sacrifice is offered not merely for the message (εΰαγγέλνα θυειν) but for the event proclaimed. εΰαγγέλνα is thus estimated as a fact in the oracles of the imperial cult.”

[3] Particula Exclusiva: exclusive particles; indicates the radical exclusion of works from salvation by grace and the radical exclusion of merit by the gracious application of Christ’s merit to believers; e.g., grace without works.

[4] So the promise is received by faith. It is given as a free gift. And we are all certain to receive it, whether or not we live according to the Law of Moses if we have faith like Abraham’s. For Abraham is the father of all who believe.” (Romans 4:16)

[5] The Oxford Classical Dictionary, eds. M. Cary et al (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1949), 423. “Hesiod – Ἡσίοδος – son of an unsuccessful citizen of Cyme in Aeolis, who with his two sons, Hesiod and Perses, migrated to Greece and settled at Ascra on the slopes of Helicon. Sometime after the father’s death Perses, who had already obtained more than his share of the estate, tried, with the help of the rulers, to obtain still more. It is not known how the dispute was settled, but it appears to have lead Hesiod to begin a series of moral admonitions in hexameter verse which afterward resulted in the poem Works and Days. Herodotus makes him a contemporary of Homer, but later antiquity is uncertain. The modern opinion generally regards him as later than Homer, but there is no agreement on the date.”

Justification and Faith


As I have said previously, the Gospel is the highest teaching of repentance and remission of sins on account of Christ. Therefore, concerning justification, I say predominantly this: The Gospel wars with sin and teaches that we need Christ to be our Mediator, for it is on account of Christ we are granted remission of sins and reconciliation.

If such is the case, it follows unavoidably: one cannot speak of justification without also speaking of remission of sins. Sadly, there are some (buffoons, I say!) who, with many words, have explained justification, all while making no mention of the remission of sins—as if it had no bearing on the matter! And yet these same people believe that God moves the hearts of infants and sanctifies them when they are brought to Him in baptism!

But we digress. Here we are speaking of adults, who, according to the teaching of the Gospel, are those who must believe in accordance with the express will of God. That is, their terrified mind must rest in the knowledge that sins are forgiven freely, through mercy and grace, on account of Christ. And they must similarly know that this free forgiveness is not given on account of the dignity, sincerity or strength of their contrition, or their love, or any other of their works. In this way, God changes our minds by faith and gives reconciliation and the forgiveness of sins.

If this is not the case—and the judgment finally is that it is sufficient that we have remission of sins as a result of our contrition or our love—our minds would be driven to despair, never knowing if we have enough contrition or love. Therefore, that we may have a sure and firm consolation, free remission of sins does not depend on us at all, but solely on the mercy and grace promised, on account of Christ.

These concepts would be nothing absurd, difficult, or complicated if the Scriptures were regularly and sufficiently engaged in the churches. If so, it would be well known that attributing any merit to our works serves only to make the remission of sins uncertain. Even better, the people of our churches would be comforted in the fact that remission of sins is a gift—not dependent on our works—and therefore is completely certain.

So, in that spirit of engagement, let us look more deeply at the word “justification”, which we contend points to the cause. We say justification signifies remission of sins and reconciliation (or acceptance) of the person to eternal life. Is this what the Scriptures mean?

To start, note that for the Jews of Jesus’ time, justification was a forensic word, “forensic” meaning having to do with judgments in courts of law. So, if I said, “Scipio has been justified from the accusations of the tribunals and the Roman people,” that would indicate that he has been pronounced righteous or absolved. [1] Therefore, when Paul uses the words “to be justified,” we take these to mean, according to the 1stcentury Jewish understanding, reconciliation and the remission of sins (i.e., absolution). Furthermore, when God remits sins, He simultaneously gives the Holy Spirit, who creates new virtues in the faithful. So we freely believe, teach and confess—and with a clear voice—that it is not only faith that should exist in the faithful, but also more fruit of the Spirit. But that’s another topic, of which we shall speak later. For now, it seems clear that this forensic understanding of justification means remission of sins is ours neither because of our decision nor because of our dignity or merit. Rather, it is a gracious pronouncement, apprehended through faith.

Doubtless, for Paul, faith—as this “cause” of justification—signifies trust in promised mercy on account of Christ. Even while some (cheaters and fools, I say!) thoroughly and loudly protest and deny that faith means to trust in mercy and grace, I doubt, however, that any of them appeal to learned and virtuous men for this opinion. Jan van Campen, a wise man (even though he sometimes criticizes us in this discussion), rather prudently sees this. That is, in Paul, [faith] must be understood as this same confidence in mercy. [2]This demonstrates that my interpretation is fair. Of course we do not exclude the knowledge of the history of Christ and His saving person and work, as some falsely accuse us of doing. For when we say confidence in mercy promised on account of Christ, I certainly embrace all the articles of faith, and we certainly too refer to that article that is the history of Christ, which brings to mind the benefits of Christ, that is, the forgiveness of sins. Therefore, this [faith] includes both trust and knowledge of Christ the Son of God, as well as action (or habit) of the will, by which it receives the promise of Christ, and thus, acquiesces in Christ. This sets aside fancy rhetoric. This faith, therefore, signifies trust in the mercy of God, which by example bears witness. [3]


So we speak here of faith in the context of justification. And we reiterate that this is from the teachings of Paul. Paul conveys the promise of grace and faith, and we take hold of this promise through faith. Furthermore, this faith is trust in the mercy of God. Trust, in this whole debate, looks down on our merit, and requires confidence in a righteousness not of ourselves—an alien righteousness—namely, the righteousness of Christ. Now if Paul thought that man was righteous (i.e., acceptable to God or reconciled) on account of his dignity, qualities, or works, he would have taught that he had confidence in his own merit. On the contrary, it is known that he says in Romans 3:27: “Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded.” Again, he calls us to Psalm 32:1: “Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.” And so, we are immediately pronounced righteous when we believe that our sins are forgiven. Now this faith, which confesses that sins are remitted, is the trust of which we speak. Also with what is said in Romans 5:1: “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” For this is contrasted with the knowledge of the law, of which it is said in Romans 4:15: “For the law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no transgression.”

Although the arguments from works are common and natural, faith is contrasted in that it always signifies trust in the mercy of God, promised on account of Christ. We certainly believe in this article as the remission of sins. Furthermore, the “common and natural” opinion is reprehensible, because it delivers nothing but doubt about whether we have remission of sins. Faith, therefore, is intimately connected to God’s mercy: indeed, God’s mercy is the object of faith. This is why it is said that we are justified by faith. So that the figure of speech may be rightly understood, let me say it this way: justification is by the mercy of God promised on account of Christ, but this mercy is grabbed hold of by faith. I encourage you to read again Romans chapter 3, where Paul says that man is reconciled not on account of the dignity or qualities of their works, but by trust in an alien righteousness.


[1] The Oxford Classical Dictionary, eds. M. Cary, et al (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1949), 815. “Scipio Africanus Major, Publius Cornelius (236–184 B.C.), son of Publius. In 199 Scipio was elected censor and became princepes senatus. A keen supporter of a philhellinic policy, he prudently but vainly urged in his second consulship (194) that Greece should not be completely evacuated lest Antiochus of Syria should invade it. In 193 he was sent to Carthage to investigate a frontier dispute between Carthage and Masinissa. When his brother Lucius was given command against Antiochus (190), Africanus, who could not constitutionally yet be reelected consul, was ‘associated’ with the command. After crossing to Asia, where he received back from Antiochus his captured son Lucius, Scipio fell ill and took no active part in his brother’s victory at Magnesia (189). Meanwhile in Rome, political attacks, led by Cato, were launched on Scipios, culminating in the ‘Trials of the Scipios,’ on which the ancient evidence is conflicting. Africanus intervened when Lucius was accused in 187; whether he himself was formally accused either in 187 or 184 is doubtful. But his influence was undermined and he withdrew embittered and ill to Liternum where he died soon afterwards (184).” See also: W. Schur, Scipio Africanus und die Begründung der römischen Weltherrschaft (1927); H. H. Scullard, Scipio Africanus in the Second Punic War (1930).

[2] Melanchthon uses the Latinized version of his name “Campensis.” See Peter G. Bietenholz, and Thomas Brian Deutscher, Contemporaries of Erasmus—A Biographical Register of the Renaissance and Reformation, 3 vols. in The Collected Works of Erasmus(Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1995), vol. 1, 255. “Jan van Campen (Campensis), who was descended from a respected family from Kampen, in Overijssel, completed his education in the University of Louvian, where he may have been preparing for a theological degree and the priesthood as early as 1509. The independent and scholarly bent of his mind led him to focus on the study of the Bible and of Hebrew. He had shown interest in the early works of Luther and Melanchthon, but it does not seem that even the Louvain theologians found any reason to question his orthodoxy.”

[3] For Melanchthon, saving faith (fides salvifica or fides propria) is a true personal faith made of three parts: (1) notitia or knowledge of the historical Christ and His saving person and work; (2) assensus, assent to the intellectual truth of that knowledge; and (3) fiducia, or trust; that is, a faithful confidence which, by an act of the changed will, appropriates savingly the mercy of God shown on those who trust in Him on account of Christ. Saving faith cannot, therefore, be merely historical or intellectual—it is volitional.