I want to briefly revisit them and put them in my own words, not because Calvin said it wrong, but because my own words reflect how I processed and understood them. Sometimes it just helps the processing to put 500 year old language in your own words. You may find helpful what I found helpful. Here is one way I now describe the three continuing uses of the law:
1) The Law reveals our sin and need for Christ.
2) The Law protects the innocent.
3) The Law exemplifies love.
Still another way to say these three uses of the Law is:
- The Law reveals how we fail to love.
- The Law protects others even when we do not love.
- The Law shows us what love should look like.
The first use is the most obvious to me. The Law cannot save; but it does reveal our need for salvation. Romans 7 explains this and then provides a vivid first-person illustration of what this looks like in real life.
The second use took some processing because I was stuck on the idea that if the Law cannot save, then what good is it? If we are not punished for what Christ was punished for on the cross, then what is left to keep us on the straight and narrow? Then I realized that even when it does not spiritually benefit the obedient, it definitely benefits everybody else. In fact, it does not matter whether I receive any spiritual benefit whatsoever. Obedience to the law is not about me; it is about everyone else. Always about others. Is it more important to me that I not be a thief, or that my neighbor not have his stuff stolen by me? Obedience that is about me is selfish. Obedience that is about others is loving.
The last way took the most thought for me. Some express this as "The Law is a guide," and that is true. However, it is wrong to say that the Law is "just a guide." As in, you know, "The Pirate Code be more like . . . guidelines than actual rules. Arr."
Instead, I would argue that the rules remain as firm and fixed as ever. They are like, to begin mixing metaphors, spokes in a wheel, or rebar in concrete, or studs in a wall. They provide necessary form and structure, but they do not fill in all the gaps. The gaps are filled in with Wisdom, and both Wisdom and Law flow from a heart of love for God and others. Law is absolute; Wisdom is more situational. Both are necessary for the obedience that flows from love.
God could have given us a wall that was all studs, or a wheel that was all spokes, or a driveway that was all rebar, but in terms of the Law that would have resulted in an unmanageable, huge, ever-growing handbook of endless rules to cover every situation. Not possible. Not necessary. What is necessary is that we 1) love from a transformed heart on the inside, and 2) know what that love is supposed to look like when it makes its way from the inside to the outside.
So, God gave us a small handbook to show us what love looks like, and then changed our hearts so that we could begin the process of naturally loving and doing right all the time, even when no rules exist.
Again, this is where wisdom comes in. In this analogy, the spokes extend out from the center of a regenerate, loving heart, so that love fills in all the gaps between the spokes. The spokes are absolute and fixed for all time. But obedience in the gaps, where things are not spelled out, where there are no spokes, is the realm of wisdom. Both Law and Wisdom flow from a regenerate heart of love. And between the two, they cover all the bases, both the studs and the space between the studs, to form a complete wall, wheel or driveway.
I hope you don't get lost in all the metaphors mixed in above.