Calvin on Law and Gospel
Some of the most glaring distortions of Calvin’s ministry and doctrine are related to his understanding of the law. First, there is the question of the law and society: Was Calvin an ayatollah, dedicated to making Geneva a revived theocracy? Second, did Calvin embrace or depart from Luther with respect to the relation of law and gospel? Third, what, according to Calvin, is the main purpose of the law today in the lives of Christians? I can’t hope to do justice to those questions here, but will limit myself to this task: namely, to offer a brief summary of Calvin’s answers on the basis of both the Institutes and his commentaries.
Calvin and Theocracy: The Nature of the Law
Calvin never set out to be interesting, creative, or ground-breaking. He managed to be all three in spite of his intentions, but he possessed a conservative temperament, satisfied to assume traditional views that he had no exegetical reason to challenge. A good example of this is his adoption of Thomas Aquinas’ three-fold division of the law into civil, ceremonial, and moral laws.
Like Aquinas, Calvin says that the moral law summarized in the Decalogue transcends the Mosaic theocracy and in fact is “nothing else than a testimony of natural law and of that conscience which God has engraved upon the minds of men”(1) However, to this moral law God attached what Calvin calls “supplements” unique to his covenant with Israel: “by which word I mean, with respect to the First Table, the Ceremonies and the outward Exercises of Worship; with respect to the Second Table, the Political Laws…”(2)
According to Calvin, the second table of the moral law inscribed on the conscience in creation can be reduced to equity, which he understood as justice tempered with love. His sharpest rebukes toward appeals to the Old Testament civil law for modern states were directed toward the radical Anabaptists: “I would have preferred to pass over this matter in utter silence if I were not aware that here many dangerously go astray,” he writes. “For there are some who deny that a commonwealth is duly framed which neglects the political system of Moses, and is ruled by the common laws of nations. Let other men consider how perilous and seditious this notion is; it will be enough for me to have proved it false and foolish” (Institutes, 4.20.14). As natural, equity is necessarily “the same for all.” “Hence, this equity alone must be the goal and rule and limit of all laws. Whatever laws shall be framed to that rule, directed to that goal, bound by that limit, there is no reason why we should disapprove of them, howsoever they may differ from the Jewish law, or among themselves” (Institutes, 4.20.16).
It would be “malicious and hateful toward public welfare” to be “offended by such diversity” in the application of natural equity to the wide variations in the “condition of times, place, and nation.” “For the statement of some, that the law of God given through Moses is dishonored when it is abrogated and new laws preferred to it, is utterly vain.” The political laws of Moses cannot be abrogated by us, since they were never given to us in the first place. “For the Lord through the hand of Moses did not give that law to be proclaimed among all nations and to be in force everywhere; but when he had taken the Jewish nation into his safekeeping, defense, and protection, he also willed to be a lawgiver especially to it; and—as becomes a wise lawgiver—he had a special concern for it in making its laws” (Institutes, 4.20.16).
However, Calvin goes further than medieval theologians like Aquinas at least in practice with regard to the abrogation of the political laws of the old covenant. For example, even though the medieval church forbade the practice of usury (lending money at interest) as a mortal sin, and even Luther grounded his opposition of the practice in Exodus 22:25, Calvin rejected this argument: “It is abundantly clear that the ancient people were prohibited from usury, but we must needs confess that this was a part of their political constitution. Hence it follows that usury is not now unlawful, except in so far as it contravenes equity and brotherly union.”(3) Once again, Calvin thinks that the principle of general equity offers an adequate way of navigating this issue. “Heathen authors also saw this,” he wrote, “although not with sufficient clearness, when they declared that, since all men are born for the sake of each other, human society is not properly maintained except by an interchange of good offices.”(4) The exercise of equity—justice tempered by love—as the summary of God’s moral law inscribed on the conscience—remains in effect even if it is applied with considerable variety in view of the particular constitutions, histories, and vices of nations.(5) Therefore, Calvin was even more reticent than Aquinas or Luther in applying the theocratic laws of Israel to modern states. The remainder of this article focuses on the moral law.
The Three Uses of the Moral Law
As important for determining Calvin’s conception of the nature of the law is his understanding of the relation between law and gospel. Not even in this case did Calvin set out to create a new theory. However, at this point he followed Luther’s critical departure from medieval interpretation. For Aquinas, the gospel (synonymous with the New Testament) is “the new law,” superior to the old law because it brings the realities to which the typological shadows merely pointed and also because it is more gracious. And it corresponds to Old and New Testaments, respectively.
Just as there are three divisions of the Old Testament law (civil, ceremonial, and moral), the reformers agreed that there were three uses of God’s moral law: (1) the elenctic or pedagogical use (driving sinners to despair of their righteousness); (2) the civil use (curbing evil and injustice in society); (3) the didactic or normative use in guiding believers in a life of grateful obedience.(6)
The Pedagogical Use of the Moral Law
Like Luther, Calvin challenged the identification of the Good News as “a new law” and Christ as a new Moses. However, he introduced (with Melanchthon’s help) some critical nuances. While Luther disagreed sharply with Aquinas’ characterization of the gospel as a “new law,” he often perpetuates the tendency to treat law and gospel as equivalent to Old and New Testaments. The Anabaptists pushed this further toward a Marcionite antithesis. In Calvin’s treatment, there is much greater nuance.
First, Calvin can speak of an absolute contrast of law and gospel in terms of the way in which we are justified. In this respect, Calvin was simply a Lutheran, as were Reformed theologians generally until quite recently. Luther emphasized that the law commands and threatens punishment without mercy; the gospel gives and freely absolves sinners through faith alone. The law, whether adumbrated in the Old or the New Testament, comes to kill the sinner, not to heal and reform. Legis semper accusat: “The law always accuses,” Luther insisted.
Similarly, Calvin explains that when treating the matter of justification, Paul “appropriately represents the righteousness of the Law and the Gospel as opposed to each other.” “But,” Calvin quickly adds, “the Gospel has not succeeded the whole Law in such a sense as to introduce a different method of salvation. It rather confirms the Law, and proves that every thing which it promised is fulfilled. What was shadow, it has made substance.”(7)
It is clear that Calvin is affirming the law-gospel antithesis with respect to justification (contra Rome) while also preserving the unity of the covenant of grace with respect to the Old and New Testaments (contra Anabaptists). With regard to the latter, Calvin can assert, “The law included the whole body of Scripture, up to the advent of Christ.”(8) In this sense, the law includes the gospel.(9) Especially in developing his apologetic for the unity of the covenant of grace against the Anabaptists, Calvin can also speak of a fundamental continuity, even in a Thomistic sense of lesser light and greater light, shadow and reality, severity to greater leniency, and so forth. Calvin himself acknowledges these two senses. Commenting on Romans 5:10, he wrote, “The word law is used in a two-fold sense. At times it means the whole doctrine taught by Moses, and, at times, that part of it which belonged peculiarly to his ministry, and is contained in its precepts, rewards, and punishments.” “Thus from the Law they receive nothing but this condemnation for there God demands what is due to him, and yet gives no power to perform it,” he adds in his comment on 2 Corinthians 3:7. “But by the Gospel men are regenerated and reconciled to God by the free remission of their sins, so that it is the ministration of righteousness and so of life. But by the Gospel men are regenerated and reconciled to God by the free remission of their sins, so that it is the ministration of righteousness and so of life.”
Only if we do not recognize the nuance in Calvin’s use of “law and gospel” can we conclude that he is inconsistent. Basically, it is the same two senses that we find in Romans 3:21: ““But now a righteousness from God has been manifested apart from the law, to which the law and the prophets testify.” The gospel, which is opposed to the law (as a principle of justification), is taught in the law and the prophets (as Old Testament scripture).
For clarity, let us call these the doctrinal and the redemptive-historical senses of law and gospel. In the first sense, law and gospel are absolutely opposed (contra Rome); in the second sense, they are united by the covenant of grace (contra Anabaptists). So Calvin is not indecisive on this point. With respect to the doctrinal sense, Calvin is as emphatic as Luther on the antithesis of law and gospel. In his preface to the commentary on the Pentateuch he says that the whole purpose of the old covenant law is “to shut us up deprived of all confidence in our own righteousness, so that we may learn to embrace his Covenant of Grace, and flee to Christ, who is the end of the law.”(10) As I. John Hesselink describes Calvin’s view, “Faith is not produced by every part of the Word of God, for the warnings, admonitions and threatened judgments will not instill the confidence and peace requisite for true faith.”(11)
When discussing the “fatherly indulgence of God,” Calvin explains Paul's reference to “the spirit of bondage” versus “the spirit of adoption,” in Romans 8:15. “One he calls the spirit of bondage, which we are able to derive from the Law; and the other, the spirit of adoption, which proceeds from the Gospel” (on Romans 8:15). The contrast is absolute: the one instills fear, the other assurance. Echoing Romans 3:21 explicitly, Calvin says, “Although the covenant of grace is contained in the Law, yet Paul removes it from there, for in opposing the Gospel to the Law he regards only what was peculiar to the Law itself, viz. command and prohibition, and the restraining of transgressors by the threat of death. He assigns to the Law its own quality, by which it differs from the Gospel.” In this doctrinal sense, there is no graciousness in the law. As a covenantal principle, the law offers no hope, “for it promises no blessing except on condition, and pronounces death on all transgressors.” He adds, “Note that Paul connects fear with bondage, since the Law can do nothing but harass and torment our souls with wretched discontent as long as it exercises its dominion. There is, therefore, no other remedy for pacifying our souls than when God forgives us our sins, and deals kindly with us as a father with his children.”
This law-gospel antithesis is repeated throughout his writings, but, as one might expect, is especially pronounced in his Galatians commentary, where he says especially of the third chapter that it is “an argument from contradictions, for the same fountain cannot yield both hot and cold.”
“The Law holds all men under its curse. From the Law, therefore, it is useless to seek a blessing.” In this sense, law and gospel are “irreconcilable” (on Galatians 3:10). “The contrast between Law and Gospel is to be understood, and from this distinction we deduce that, just as the Law demands work, the Gospel requires only that men should bring faith in order to receive the grace of God” (on Romans 10:8). For one thing, he declares in his commentary on John, “The peculiar office of the Law [is] to summon consciences to the judgment-seat of God” (Commentary on John, Vol. 2, 140). We have already noted the many references to Calvin's explanation of the purpose of the law that make the pedagogical use central. In fact, “Moses had no other intention than to invite all men to go straight to Christ” (Commentary on John, Vol. 1, 217). The whole purpose of the law was to drive people to Christ. This is especially apparent in a sermon on Isaiah 53:11, where he basically echoes Luther’s maxim, “The law always accuses”:
The Law only begets death; it increases our condemnation and inflames the wrath of God....The Law of God speaks, but it does not reform our hearts. God may show us: ‘This is what I demand of you,’ but if all our desires, our dispositions and thoughts are contrary to what he commands, not only are we condemned, but, as I have said, the Law makes us more culpable before God....For in the Gospel God does not say, ‘You must do this or that,’ but ‘believe that my only Son is your Redeemer; embrace his death and passion as the remedy for your ills; plunge yourself beneath his blood and it will be your cleansing.’
Furthermore, whenever Calvin describes the purpose of the law in one given passage, it is almost always the pedagogical use that he describes: “The Law is like a mirror, in which we behold, first, our impotence; secondly, our iniquity which proceeds from it; and lastly, the consequence of both, our obnoxiousness to the curse, just as a mirror represents to us the spots on our face.”(12) “Paul, by the word law, frequently intends the rule of a righteous life, in which God requires of us what we owe to him, affording us no hope of life, unless we fulfill every part of it, and, on the contrary, annexing a curse if we are guilty of the smallest transgression.”(13) “The life of the Law is man's death.”(14) This raises the question of the proper function of the law.
The Third (Didactic) Use of the Moral Law
So far I have underscored what the reformers referred to as the elenctic use of the law: driving sinners to despair of their righteousness so that they will flee to Christ. Especially when provoked by the antinomian controversy, Luther affirmed the law’s normative (or didactic) use. It was Melanchthon who first formulated the “third use of the law”: that is, its didactic use in guiding believers in God’s moral will. In fact, Article 6 of the Formula of Concord explicitly affirms the third use. If Calvin and his heirs more fully elaborated this use, it is just as true that they not only agreed with but in fact appropriated the Lutheran formulation.
For all of his emphasis on the terrors of the law, Calvin warns against concluding that this is the only service it renders.nders.(15) Nevertheless, Calvin insists (expounding Romans 3:21) that even believers after they are justified must be vigilant in distinguishing the law and gospel; otherwise, they will, with Augustine, conclude that the righteousness that they have before God, though a gift of regenerating grace alone, is inherent in the believer. “But it is evident from the context that the apostle includes all works without exception, even those which the Lord produces in his own people.” “That peace of conscience, which is disturbed on the score of works, is not a one-day phenomenon, but ought to continue through our whole life.”(16) Since we are ever-assaulted by the fear inculcated by the law, we must be ever-assured of the promises of the gospel.
The law no longer represents God as Judge, but God as Father to the justified. “Here Calvin does not differ significantly from Luther, except in emphasis and discretion,” notes Hesselink.(17) In the Institutes, Calvin observes that one “may indeed view from afar the proffered promises, yet he cannot derive any benefit from them.”
Therefore this thing alone remains: that from the goodness of the promises he should the better judge his own misery, while with the hope of salvation cut off he thinks himself threatened with certain death. On the other hand, horrible threats hang over us, constraining and entangling not a few of us only, but all of us to a man. They hang over us, I say, and pursue us with inexorable harshness, so that we discern in the Law only the most immediate death (2.7.4).
The law covenants conditionally, while the Gospel covenants on the basis of Christ's fulfillment of all conditions in the believer's stead. “The promises of the Law depend on the conditions of works while the Gospel promises are free and dependent solely on God's mercy” (Institutes, 3.11.17).
Contrary to what is often supposed, then, Calvin did not embrace the law-gospel hermeneutic for conversion, only to place believers back under the law as a method for obtaining righteousness in sanctification.
If this is so, then how do we reconcile Calvin’s repeated insistence that the main purpose of the law is to drive us to Christ by its threats (the first use) and his statement that the third use is “the principal use” (Institutes, 2.7.12)? Interpreters often fail to recognize that for Calvin the difference lies in the believer’s relation to God and therefore to his law. The law’s imperative drives the sinner to the indicative of the gospel announcement. But once the believer is justified, this order must be reversed to avoid works-righteousness and, in fact, is reversed in the scriptures. What is abolished in the law for Calvin is not its precepts, but its condemnation (maledictio legis). “Being thus led to despair of attaining any righteousness of their own, they were to flee to the haven of divine goodness—to Christ himself. This was the purpose of the ministry of Moses” (on Romans 10:5).
Even when believers are reminded by the terrors of the law to flee to Christ, they are simultaneously reminded that they are beyond the reach of its condemnation. Now, instead of speaking of three uses that can be applied to everyone, he introduces a two-fold office of the law: one for believers and another for unbelievers. He makes this point explicitly in his 1536 catechism: “For among unbelievers it does nothing more than shut them out from all excuse before God. And this is what Paul means when he calls it the ministry of death and condemnation.” Nevertheless, “In regard to believers it has a very different use.” The law cannot condemn believers, but it still reminds them that “it requires of them much more than they are able to perform.” It “urges them to seek strength from the Lord, and at the same time reminds them of their perpetual guilt, that they may not presume to be proud.” This third use also exhibits the boundaries of Christian liberty, keeping in check our natural tendency toward both legalism and antinomianism. Thus, even in its third use, the goal is to lead us to Christ as much as to guide us under his reign, but it does not drive us to Christ with threats and punishments as it does unbelievers. For all who trust in themselves, the threatening office of the law is not only its principal but its exclusive use. When the question of our justification is in view, “If consciences with to attain any certainty in this matter, they ought to give no place to the law” (Institutes, 3.19.2). Thus, Calvin’s emphasis on the third use actually emphasized more than Luther the end of the law’s condemning power over the believer’s conscience. “For the law is not now acting toward us as a rigorous enforcement officer who is not satisfied unless the requirements are met,” but is rather pointing out “the goal toward which throughout life we are to strive.” Before, the law only accused, but now it has a different purpose: “Now, the law has power to exhort believers. This is not a power to bind their consciences with a curse,” but to point the way toward divinely-approved service (Institutes, 2.7.12-13). I would suggest that Calvin reckoned even more fully than Luther with the decisive change that justification brings in the believer’s relationship with God.
When seeking righteousness, duty is a legal preoccupation, but once the law’s thunder is silenced, God uses the law to discipline his children and recall them to their former course. Nevertheless, the law cannot do anything more than prod—and by this, Calvin means nothing more than reminding us of our duty. Only the evangelical promises can move us to grateful obedience: “He lays hold not only of the precepts, but the accompanying promise of grace, which alone sweetens what is bitter. For what would be less lovable than the Law if, with importuning and threatening alone, it troubles souls through fear, and distressed them through fright? David especially shows that in the Law he apprehended the Mediator, without whom there is no delight or sweetness” (Institutes, 2.7.12).
2 John Calvin, Preface, Commentaries on the Four Last Books of Moses, Vol. 1, trans. Charles W. Binham (rep., Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996), p. xvii.[back to text]
3 John Calvin, Preface, Commentaries on the Four Last Books of Moses, 132[back to text]
4 Ibid., 126[back to text]
5 Ibid., 128[back to text]
6 On these three uses, see Calvin, Institutes 2.7.6-12.[back to text]
7 John Calvin, Institutes 2.9.4[back to text]
8 Calvin, in the Pringle translation of the Commentary on Corinthians, Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984), 452. All references to the New Testament are from this set and are cited in the text of my article.[back to text]
9 Calvin, "The Preface to the Prophet Isaiah," in the Pringle translation of the Old Testament Commentaries (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984), Volume 1 of Isaiah, p. xxvi. [back to text]
10 John Calvin, Preface, Commentaries on the Four Last Books of Moses, Vol. 1, xviiiz[back to text]
11 I. John Hesselink, Calvin's Concept of the Law (Allison Park, PA: Pickwick, 1992), 28[back to text]
12 The Isaiah 53:11 reference is cited by Hesselink, 212 n.188; cf. Institutes, 2.7.7.[back to text]
13 Calvin, Institutes 2.9.4[back to text]
14 John Calvin, Four Last Books of Moses, Vol.1, 316[back to text]
15 John Calvin on Galatians 3:19[back to text]
16 John Calvin on Romans 3:21[back to text]
17 I. John Hesselink, 158[back to text]
First published in Evangelium, Vol. 7, Issue 1
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