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Four Uses of the Law

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Why was the law given? As Catholics, we affirm that the OT saints were not and could not be justified by the working of the precepts of the law, so why was it given? Was it superfluous? It could not be. Is there any use of the law in the Christian life? The NT writers affirm so, yet “we are not saved by the works of the law.” Why, then, did law rule Israel, and why does law continue to be applicable in the Christian life.

S. Bede, the early 8th century English Benedictine monk and theologian, helpfully and succinctly answers these quandaries for us by relating the law to the nature of sin. For St. Bede, there are four consequences of sin, wickedness, weakness, passion, and ignorance. The law was given to correspond to these four consequences, namely, to suppress them.


First, the law was given to suppress wickedness. Wickedness, for Bede, is that continued inclination to further sin. Sin begets sin, and the law restrains this vicious cycle. It does so in two ways. First, after a positive manner, it forbids sin, and in the obedience to the ordinances of the law, we do not sin, and where we do not sin, sin is not begotten, and wickedness is restrained. Second, after a negative manner, it punishes sin. This is able to restrain outward acts of sin in that we do not want to be punished more than we wish to sin.

Forbidding draws men away from sinning and towards not sinning, and punishing drives men away from sinning and towards sinning. These act as a vice grip towards wickedness.

As the Apostle says, the law “was added because of transgressions,” that is, the law was added to prevent transgressions (which is done by restraining wickedness, which leads to further transgressions).

The law acts as a force against the habituation, which is wickedness. It must be noted, with the apostle, that “the law is not made for a righteous man, but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and for sinners, for unholy and profane.” Those without this habit of wickedness (those in a state of grace) are in a different position towards the law than those in a state of grace. As St. Thomas says, “men who are well disposed, are inclined to act well of themselves so that fatherly admonitions are enough for them: hence they do not need a law.” There is, for these, “a law written on their hearts,” that is, a well formed conscience and habitude.

In order to understand this, we must understand the nature of conscience. As Ligouri teaches, the conscience is the proximate rule of moral living. Those with a well formed conscience have, as Newman teaches, the voice of God speaking to them. There is, therefore, not an absolute reliance on the law for these in the area of restraining wickedness. For, the conscience is greater than outward ordinances (yet, it still must be admitted that the outward ordinances aid in the formation of conscience and detect a faulty conscience).


Further, the law was given to show forth our weakness—men glory in their knowledge and their power. God left man without a written law, and they fell to their weakness, and ignorant of the law, sinned. In this, we were convinced of the necessity of the lumen of God to enlighten them with divine revelation.

So, God gave them the law as their regula. Yet, in their pride, they presumed on their power. They believed that in the law, they would be able to be obedient, “All that the Lord hath said will we do, and be obedient.” Yet, by this law only came “the knowledge of sin,” grace did not come by the law. Testing his strength to obedience, he came to realize his weakness and the necessity of grace, and in this, he yearned for grace to avoid sin, not from pride in his own powers.

In this, the sick man no more denies the remedy of his illness yet longs for it. So too, in our weakness, we no more presume on our strength, yet we seek the remedy for our weakness, the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Yet, we see that this is a path, sadly, not always trodden. For the Judaizers, presuming on their own strength, hardened their heart to what was meant to soften; inflamed their pride with what was meant to quench it. As St. Francis de Sales says, they “confused the cause for the end.”


Third, the law was given to tame the passions. For, the Jews were a people geared to fall into idolatry. God’s restraining hand in the law restrained this and set forth a regula that would not lead to such external idolatry.

This use of law has important applications, and many lessons can be learned from the failure of the Jews. Again, they misunderstood the means for the end, turning worship of the hands into idolatry of the heart. For, the law is meant to restrain man’s passions, not (merely) man’s hands.

In our liturgical regulations, we, too, must keep these two things in mind. First, that due to our weakness and passions, and the weakness and passions of many, a regula is necessary. Man, left to his own devices, not guided by the Spirit, the Scriptures, the tradition, and Holy Mother Church, is liable to suffer the fate of outward idolatry.

Yet, we must not confuse the means for the ends. Liturgical law does not exist for its own sake but for a higher end. Liturgical worship constrains us towards the contemplation of God. It disposes us to receive the grace of the sacraments.

The same St. Augustine who wrote, “For it is quite possible that a man may be possessed of the genuine Sacrament and a corrupted faith,” also wrote, “What does it avail a man to be baptized if he is not justified?”


Fourth, the law was given because of ignorance. The law was a “shadow of the good things to come.” In the contemplation of the various ordinances of the law, the gospel is set forth. Allegorically, the law speaks of the person and work of Christ.

In a similar way, are we to contemplate the gospel. For, just as the law sets forth in types the grace, so also does grace set forth in types glory. What is now is not what will be. As St. Paul reflects, “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.”

In gazing upon the face of Christ, we are to contemplate not only the humanity but also the very vision of the face of God. In contemplating the bread of the Holy Eucharist, we are not to contemplate merely the sacrament, as blessed as it is, but that age wherein sacraments will be done away with, and we will be with Christ, not under the species of bread and wine, but in Himself. In contemplating the infusion of the grace of God, we are not merely to contemplate that grace itself but also its perfection in the eschatological, beatific love wherein we will see God.

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