World Wide Wolfmueller

Law and Gospel in Joyful Clarity

Three Manifestations of the Curb of the Law

I thought "Curb your Enthusiasm" was a documentary about Martin Luther and the Radical Reformation.

It is common in Reformation Theology to speak of the first use of the law as a curb; the law keeps a general order in society. “The first use of the law,” says one Todd Wilken (the Oprah of Lutheranism, “Toprah”), “is to keep us from killing and eating each other.” The first use of the law governs behavior, prevents destructive sin, keeps order in human society. But how does it do that?

I’d like the help of you, my five blog readers, thinking through this. I think there are three manifestations of the curb of the law, three ways that the law influences and manages our behavior.

First is the legal code, the written law of the place where you live. Drive this fast, pay this much tax, don’t go there or do that, and if you do we, the state will fine you or arrest you or put you in jail or kill you. I’m not saying anything new here.

Second, though, is societal norms, the behavior accepted by our peers and neighbors. This, I am convinced, is a manifestation of the first use of the law, and perhaps the strongest of all three manifestations discussed here. There is an often unwritten code that is enforced with shame. The question “will this alienate me” governs almost every action we make. Anthropologists, I think, will tell us this is because there is a level of shame in each society, and that our own society is moving to a shame society. Exegetes, I know, will jump on this bandwagon, and talk about how we don’t understand the Bible because we grew up in a guilt society and the Old and New Testaments are shame cultures. Fine. The point here is that peer-pressure (in all it’s varied forms) is a manifestation of the first use of the law.

I also thought "Free Willy" was about the triumph of Arminianism is the United States.

The third manifestation of the first us of the law is our conscience, the internal referee that has a general sense of right and wrong from its original creation by God.

There, I’ve placed before you what I think are the three manifestations of the law’s first use. Here are a few further thoughts to poke around at why it matters.

First, the law, in each of its uses, is good. We can look at the legal code, the norms of behavior and our conscience as a gift from God to keep our sinful flesh from hurting our neighbor.

But, second, the first use of the law is “natural law,” that is, law found in nature, not the law revealed in the Scripture. This means that the various manifestations of the first use can be wrong. The legal code, societal norms and your conscience can all be wrong. This is important.

As a society (or culture or people or place or whatever you want to call it) moves farther from a right understanding of natural law that place’s legal code begins to contain more and more errors. Things that are right are forbidden and, especially, things that are wrong are permitted. Consider, if you are in the United States, how abortion is legal, adultery and divorce are legal (in most cases), and homosexual ‘marriage’ is being recognized as good by many states. We don’t need the Bible to tell us these things should not be. Natural law tells us that life is good, that the family is good, and that these things should be afforded the protection of the legal code.

Was "Despicable Me" a discussion of original sin?

The same thing is true of social norms. They can be wrong, sometimes terribly wrong. We see this most easily with the gang of teenagers that have no regard for authority. We know instinctively that their little society and its norm of rebellion hos overcome any sort of curbing affect that the legal code would enforce, and that all sorts of illegal and immoral activity will surely result. But consider other examples. It is now considered good for couples to live together before marriage (and bad for them to enter into marriage with chastity). Deviant sexual behavior is becoming more and more mainstream. Divorce is normal. Petty theft is acceptable. You watch T.V., you can finish this list.

Many of the older members of Hope remember the time when there was a higher moral code in society. It might have been legal to get a divorce or live together, but it was not acceptable. They lament the change, and they are right to do so. It is difficult enough to keep our sinful flesh in check; we need all the help we can get. When the legal code and our social norms fail us, only the conscience is left.

(It is an interesting aside that the place where natural law is most often perverted or misunderstood is with those laws governing sexuality. The sixth commandment is the first one to be marked off the legal code.)

(As a second interesting aside, it is important to note that just because a society has a good sense of right and wrong built into its cultural fabric does not mean it is a Christian society. “Everyone behaves pretty well” is not the same things as “Everyone believes in Jesus.”)

Keri thought that "Men in Black" was about pastors and their wardrobes.

We, then, live in a culture (or society or place or whatever, you know what I’m talking about) in which the curb of the law is crumbling. We need to be aware of this. (This is the third point of concluding matter.) The norms that keep us from outward good works are crashing down around us. It is important for the Lord’s people to do what we can to right the legal code and the social norms, but these take time and great effort with no promise of success. We especially must give attention to the conscience. This is the last place that the natural law exercises its good influence over our behavior. (Are you paying attention parents? Pastors who work with young adults?)

Fourth, the church as a place (or culture or society or whatever) has a particularly difficult tightrope to walk. The culture, because it is a manifestation of the law, will always accuse (lex seimper accusat, the theological ‘curb-stomp’). The church is instituted by God for the forgiveness of sin, the covering of shame. The church is to be a place of refuge for sinners, a place of relief for those crushed by the law. As the world trends toward lawlessness, the church has a tendency to tighten things up. “Divorce is acceptable out there, but not in here.” This is right, so far as it goes, but we must remember that “social norms” are a use of the law, even inside the church. The accusing voice of the law must always be followed by the comforting voice of the Gospel, that our sins are forgiven. Good behavior is good. Forgiveness is better.

Reactions? I think we need to do a lot more thinking about the first use of the law, and the way it functions in the world and our congregations. Thanks, dear reader, for considering this with me and jumping in on the conversation.

Lord’s Blessings,
BW

24 Comments

  1. I haven’t had the time to read the article yet (too many toddlers around to concentrate) but the captions had me laughing out loud. πŸ™‚ I look forward to reading the rest!

  2. I haven’t had the time to read the article yet (too many toddlers around to concentrate) but the captions had me laughing out loud. πŸ™‚ I look forward to reading the rest!

  3. What’s the verse? Proverbs 20something… Train up a child in the way he should go and when he is older he will not depart from it.

    This is often used to say we have to teach our children the Christian faith. Sure. of course we do. In doing so, we have to remember that we’re not teaching them that “Jesus Loves You” only.

    The Small and Large Catechism are wonderful things. They teach all these things that you’re talking about in the article. It’s a crying shame that the “More moral generation” is the one that quit teaching their children the catechism. It got left to Pastors to do when the kids were in 7th and 8th grade. And Now no one teaches their children. Parents should be teaching the Catechism from birth. We should all be reading it daily. When scripture is an integral part of daily life, and faith is taught from birth (and not the “Jesus is a Friend of Mine” watered down faith)… only then do we get to a point where our kids are growing up into adults who know the law and that conscience part of the curb can be effective.

    I’m not sure parents can influence the “shame” part of the curb. Well, not if their kids are so integrated into society, through TV and school, and movies, and peers, that “society” has the greater influence. This gets back to the FROM BIRTH part of teaching our children. We have them for such a short time, and we waste time (me especially) when they’re young an malleable with the wrong stuff, when we should be drilling scripture (again the Small Catechism is perfect for this).

    I’ve actually had people argue that small kids need to know more about society so they should be watching TV so they understand what their peers know. WHAT? We learn garbage without even trying. We could ignore “society” for 10 years, and get caught up on what is “in” in an hour or two. It takes WAY more than an hour or two to ingrain scripture. It takes a lifetime, and then we’re still not done.

    Sorry, soapbox. I agree with your thesis. I think the first thing to go is the societal norms, then the law, then the conscience. We hold onto our private beliefs longer than our outward actions. If you’re trying to bring back a more moral time, the law can be the first to come back (if you’ve got someone with the guts to pass it). But really it stems from teaching our children properly. And that’s why we are where we are in society today. The groups that wanted what we have now, knew that it needed to be over a few generations and that it was through the children. They’ve been very effective.

    Now I’m not only soapboxing. I’m rambling. I’ll quit.

  4. What’s the verse? Proverbs 20something… Train up a child in the way he should go and when he is older he will not depart from it.

    This is often used to say we have to teach our children the Christian faith. Sure. of course we do. In doing so, we have to remember that we’re not teaching them that “Jesus Loves You” only.

    The Small and Large Catechism are wonderful things. They teach all these things that you’re talking about in the article. It’s a crying shame that the “More moral generation” is the one that quit teaching their children the catechism. It got left to Pastors to do when the kids were in 7th and 8th grade. And Now no one teaches their children. Parents should be teaching the Catechism from birth. We should all be reading it daily. When scripture is an integral part of daily life, and faith is taught from birth (and not the “Jesus is a Friend of Mine” watered down faith)… only then do we get to a point where our kids are growing up into adults who know the law and that conscience part of the curb can be effective.

    I’m not sure parents can influence the “shame” part of the curb. Well, not if their kids are so integrated into society, through TV and school, and movies, and peers, that “society” has the greater influence. This gets back to the FROM BIRTH part of teaching our children. We have them for such a short time, and we waste time (me especially) when they’re young an malleable with the wrong stuff, when we should be drilling scripture (again the Small Catechism is perfect for this).

    I’ve actually had people argue that small kids need to know more about society so they should be watching TV so they understand what their peers know. WHAT? We learn garbage without even trying. We could ignore “society” for 10 years, and get caught up on what is “in” in an hour or two. It takes WAY more than an hour or two to ingrain scripture. It takes a lifetime, and then we’re still not done.

    Sorry, soapbox. I agree with your thesis. I think the first thing to go is the societal norms, then the law, then the conscience. We hold onto our private beliefs longer than our outward actions. If you’re trying to bring back a more moral time, the law can be the first to come back (if you’ve got someone with the guts to pass it). But really it stems from teaching our children properly. And that’s why we are where we are in society today. The groups that wanted what we have now, knew that it needed to be over a few generations and that it was through the children. They’ve been very effective.

    Now I’m not only soapboxing. I’m rambling. I’ll quit.

  5. I think a 4th manifestation of the 1st use of the law is–I’m unsure how to phrase it–“natural selection”. If you do something wrong, you die. If you live a morally chaotic life, you’re often more likely to die sooner.

    “That it may go well with you and you may live long in the land your God is giving you…”?

  6. I think a 4th manifestation of the 1st use of the law is–I’m unsure how to phrase it–“natural selection”. If you do something wrong, you die. If you live a morally chaotic life, you’re often more likely to die sooner.

    “That it may go well with you and you may live long in the land your God is giving you…”?

  7. Looks like a Pharisee list more than anything else. Trying to enumerate the manifestations of the 1st Use Of The Law is a microcosm of trying to enumerate the Law itself. No matter what good intentions you have, someone’s going to get the idea that this is some kind of exclusive list and will exclude all other possibilities of things being 1st Use Of The Law.

    If it wasn’t a good idea to reduce the Law down to 600-something do’s and don’ts, this is in the same league as that and isn’t a good idea either. The definitions of the uses of the Law should be kept vague so they can cover anything that falls under their umbrella when it comes to Curb, Mirror, and Rule.

  8. Looks like a Pharisee list more than anything else. Trying to enumerate the manifestations of the 1st Use Of The Law is a microcosm of trying to enumerate the Law itself. No matter what good intentions you have, someone’s going to get the idea that this is some kind of exclusive list and will exclude all other possibilities of things being 1st Use Of The Law.

    If it wasn’t a good idea to reduce the Law down to 600-something do’s and don’ts, this is in the same league as that and isn’t a good idea either. The definitions of the uses of the Law should be kept vague so they can cover anything that falls under their umbrella when it comes to Curb, Mirror, and Rule.

  9. Very good points about the use of the Law as a curb. I like your point that the Church is not only a place to stress good behavior, but also, and more importantly, a place to grant forgiveness through Christ. I believe the phrase β€œThe first use of the law is to keep us from killing and eating each other,” that you attribute to Pastor Wilken (P-Toprah) is actually something said by Dr. John Warwick Montgomery on the highly-acclaimed “Issues, Etc” program starring Todd, Jeff, and Craig.

  10. Very good points about the use of the Law as a curb. I like your point that the Church is not only a place to stress good behavior, but also, and more importantly, a place to grant forgiveness through Christ. I believe the phrase β€œThe first use of the law is to keep us from killing and eating each other,” that you attribute to Pastor Wilken (P-Toprah) is actually something said by Dr. John Warwick Montgomery on the highly-acclaimed “Issues, Etc” program starring Todd, Jeff, and Craig.

  11. Because society is crumbling and therefore the first use, this has serious implications for preaching. It means that preachers will need to explore what the third use of the law means in the lives of believers. How does the first and second use of the law apply to the believer? What does this look like practically and in preaching? Just some thoughts.

  12. Because society is crumbling and therefore the first use, this has serious implications for preaching. It means that preachers will need to explore what the third use of the law means in the lives of believers. How does the first and second use of the law apply to the believer? What does this look like practically and in preaching? Just some thoughts.

  13. I think suffering is another manifestation. Even for Christians, who are “disciplined” by the Lord.

    btw, just posting now after being inspired by TTR #138. Evan did a good job.

  14. I think suffering is another manifestation. Even for Christians, who are “disciplined” by the Lord.

    btw, just posting now after being inspired by TTR #138. Evan did a good job.

  15. What about civil religion? All flavors of civil religion, even corrupted Christianity. God is not the source of civil religion, but it is there, and it generally curbs people from going around killing and eating each other. The deist enlightenment founders of America recognized religion as useful to an ordered society, and they weren’t thinking about the church instituted by God for the forgiveness of sin.

  16. What about civil religion? All flavors of civil religion, even corrupted Christianity. God is not the source of civil religion, but it is there, and it generally curbs people from going around killing and eating each other. The deist enlightenment founders of America recognized religion as useful to an ordered society, and they weren’t thinking about the church instituted by God for the forgiveness of sin.

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