Calvin’s Contributions to Law in Christian Thought

Introduction

01v/11/arve/G2582/020John Calvin has contributed to Christian thought in several ways. Theologically, he has been considered the theologian of the Holy Spirit. Some consider various doctrinal foci his greatest contributions, topics as wide as Total Depravity and Election to Piety and Prayer. Others say that the Sovereignty of God consumes and marks his writing. For length constraints this shall paper shall focus on his contributions to one particular Christian doctrine not aforementioned.  This writer thinks Calvin’s contributions on law are profound and underappreciated. This paper will survey the contours of his doctrine of law and to help explain why it is a great contributio. The first part of this paper examines how Calvin defines law and explains its purpose and usefulness. Following this is a discussion of modern views of law which are contrary to Calvin’s. The purpose of this section is to highlight why Calvin’s contributions on law are much needed by the church today. Using Calvin’s model as the standard for critique I intend to prove that to abandon Calvin’s basic view of law would pose problems for both believers and unbelievers. Because the topic of God’s law is broad, this paper is focused primarily on books 1 and 2 of the Institutes, thus dealing merely with the formal aspects of law not the material.

The Law’s Purpose and Usefulness

Defining the Law

We begin by looking at Calvin’s definition of the law.  This is a crucial point in any biblical discussion of law, for the New Testament does not use the word “law” univocally[1]; nor does Calvin. The reader, therefore, must be careful to note when Calvin shifts his reference of “law.”

Calvin begins his discussion on law writing that “the law was added about four hundred years after the death of Abraham.” The purpose of this law was not “to lead the chosen people away from Christ; but rather to hold their minds in readiness until his coming; even to kindle desire for him, and to strengthen their expectation, in order that they might not grow faint by too long delay.”  He then tells us that he understands by the word “law” not only the Ten Commandments, but the form of religion handed down by God through Moses.[2] Already, we see Calvin using the term “law” in two different ways: specifically the Ten Commandments, and broadly the Mosaic administration of the covenant, which includes the Ten Commandments.

Next, Calvin speaks of the ceremonies which are another part of the Mosaic administration.  These were given not to destroy the blessings promised to Abraham, but rather to remind God’s people of the freely given covenant made to their fathers.[3] The reader already observes Calvin’s covenantal view of redemption: that the Mosaic law, far from being in contrast to the gracious promise of Christ (the seed) to Abraham, flows from it. The ceremonies of Moses, Calvin tells us, were gracious, pointing to the Savior: “Now from the grace offered the Jews we can surely deduce that the law was not devoid of reference to Christ.”[4] Calvin then states that the “tutor” in Galatians 3:24 refers to the ceremonies that guided believers to Christ.[5] Thus far Calvin has used “law” in three ways, the third in reference to the ceremonies.

Next, Calvin touches solely on the law’s moral aspects.  For Calvin, the Ten Commandments serve to point to Christ’s redemption, though this is not their exclusive purpose.  For Calvin, Christ is the “end of the law” (Rom. 10:4), and the Spirit who quickens the letter which by itself and devoid of grace is death-dealing (2 Cor. 3:6).  Free from antinomian import,  he means that “righteousness is taught in vain by the commandments until Christ confers it by free imputation and by the Spirit of regeneration.”[6] According to Calvin this interpretation is the remedy for the perverse teachers who pretended that they could merit righteousness by the works of the law apart from faith in Christ.

We can easily see Calvin’s Christ-centered approach to the law.  The Mosaic administration of the law flowed from the promise (Christ) made to Abraham, not against it. The specific ceremonial aspects of that administration pointed directly to Christ. Even the moral requirements, summarized in the Decalogue, point to and necessitate faith in Christ to escape their condemning force.

Uses of the Moral Law

Having briefly defined the moral law we now turn to its function.  Since the Bible reveals several uses of the moral commandments, Christians traditionally have attempted to label them.  Some have listed as many of eight or nine uses of the law[7], and there may be more. These functions have been traditionally  categorized  as the “three uses.”[8]

Calvin says that the first use of the moral law shows God’s righteousness and as a result “warns, informs, convicts, and lastly condemns, every man of his own unrighteousness.” Like a mirror, the moral law of God shows man his moral helplessness. The law is the sure tool to cure him of his self-righteousness as it diminishes his bravado, and kills his pride.[9] But this pedagogical purpose does more than merely teach man his moral bankruptcy: it drives him to Christ, teaching him justification by faith.  Left helpless before a holy God, Calvin says the law stops every mouth, holding all accountable before God (Rom. 3:19) that God may have mercy upon all (Rom. 11:32).[10] This important use of the law Calvin has described beautifully:

This means that dismissing the stupid opinion of their own strength, they come to realize that they stand and are upheld by God’s hand alone; that, naked and empty-handed, they flee to his mercy, repose entirely in it, hide deep within it, and seize upon it alone for righteousness and merit.  For God’s mercy is revealed in Christ to all who seek and wait upon it with true faith.  In the precepts of the law, God is but the rewarder of perfect righteousness, which all of us lack, and conversely, the severe judge of evil deeds.  But in Christ his face shines, full of grace and gentleness, even upon us poor and unworthy sinners.[11]

This function of the law is not merely for the elect but is fruitful for even the reprobate.  This moral law, says Calvin, serves to strike them with terror and hold them in despair.  The law to the reprobate, then, serves to “show forth the equity of the divine judgment.”[12]

Calvin now turns to deal briefly with the second use of the law.  He identifies this use as its function to restrain the wicked from their deeds by the law’s threat of punishment.  Here, the wicked do not obey the law voluntarily, but are provoked by fear against their will.[13] It is for the good of the public community that the law should function this way in its enforcement of righteousness.  Calvin sees this political use of the law in Paul’s teaching when he says that the law is to be used for the “unjust and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for murders of parents, for manslayers, fornicator, perverts, kidnapers, liars, perjurers, and what ever else runs counter to sound doctrine” (1 Tim. 1:9-10).[14] This is significant because Paul’s reference is to the Old Testament penal law.  If Calvin teaches the perpetuity of this use of the law, then he seems to suggest that those same penal sanctions are perpetual.[15]

Positively, this use of the law can also be seen as a tutor.  Calvin says that some men “have need of a bridle to restrain them from slackening the reins on the lust of the flesh to fall clean away from all pursuit of righteousness.” By this he means that before their calling the law fearfully teaches the elect “true godliness according to their capacity”  in preparation for their later wholehearted love to God.[16]

The third use for Calvin is its principal use.[17] As the law’s didactic use, it is likely the most beneficial for the church today, though perhaps the most neglected in pulpits and practice.   This “proper use of the law… finds its place among believers in whose hearts the Spirit of God already lives and reigns,” writes Calvin.   This use is purely positive for the believer, and thus for his profit. Calvin says the law is the instrument through which the believer may come to know God’s will.  For Calvin, no believer may escape the necessity to draw daily instruction from the law.[18] This point will receive considerable attention later, for it seems that any reference today of a Christian using  God’s law for instruction is quickly judged as legalism.  Not so with Calvin.  Because of the believer’s life-long struggle with the flesh, Calvin says that the believer must use the law by “frequent meditation…to be aroused to obedience, be strengthened in it, and be drawn back from the slippery path of transgression.[19] Calvin quotes as support David’s reference to the law as “spotless, converting souls,” “rejoicing hearts,” and “enlightening the eyes” (Psalms 18:8-9; 19:7-8).  To those who would relegate the moral law to a purely condemning function, bidding farewell its positive use to believers, Calvin had strong words: “Banish this wicked thought from our minds!”[20] Calvin insisted that the moral law have a more excellent use among believers; in it is the perfect pattern of righteousness, and to depart from its use in this way is forbidden.[21] To make clear its perpetual use Calvin says the law “is just as applicable to every age, even to the end of the world.”[22]

A few summarizing comments about Calvin’s general view of the law’s uses are in order.  First, he does not see the law in purely negative terms.  While the law does condemn, inflame rebellion, etc., it also has its positive functions, such as leading sinners to Christ and guiding the believer’s sanctification.  Secondly, the law is useful to both believers and unbelievers as we have already seen.  Lastly, the law is useful both generally for society, and particularly for piety.

The Law’s Abrogation

A discussion of God’s law is inadequate without discussing the issue of its abrogation. The three above uses of the law are perpetual, but are all parts of the law forever binding?  The extent to which the law been abrogated is the issue Calvin now addresses. Calvin preludes the discussion by appealing to Christ’s words that prefaced his ethical sermon on the mount:

When the Lord testifies that he “came not to abolish the law but to fulfill it” and that “until heaven and earth pass away…not a jot will pass away from the law until all is accomplished” [Matt. 5:17-18], he sufficiently confirms that by his coming nothing is going to be taken away from the observance of the law…Therefore through Christ the law remains inviolable…[23]

Here Calvin sees a fundamental moral continuity between Moses and Christ.  This is the foundation for his discussion on the law’s abrogation. Calvin essentially sees two ways in which the law (Mosaic) has been abrogated.  First, the law has been abrogated in its power to bind the conscience with the fear of death.  Christ was made subject to the law that he might redeem those under the law (Gal. 4:4, 5).  Secondly, the ceremonial law has been abrogated.  Since it was the purpose of these ceremonies to point to Christ’s atonement, they have been “terminated not in effect, but only in use.”[24] This difference is significant and, again, Calvin explains it best:

Let it be regarded as fact that, although the rites of the law have ceased to be observed, by their termination one may better recognize how useful they were before the coming of Christ, who in abrogating their use has by his death sealed their force and effect.[25]

Calvin teaches us that Christ, by putting the ceremonies out of effect, has established their meaning (Heb. 10:9-11; Gal. 2:21).

Contrasting Modern Views of the Law

Having surveyed Calvin’s general approach to God’s law we now turn to look at some modern views which detract from Calvin. As noted earlier the detractions from Calvin’s view are many and the results of such detractions create as many problems. Since different views of God’s law are voluminous, the paper can only treat those which are common and which are in stark contrast to Calvin.  Thus, viewing opposing views will hope to clarify the superiority of Calvin’s.[26]

Common to most departures from Calvin’s view of the law is a  presumed discontinuity of moral law between the Old and New covenants.  Therefore, we will first examine how such views argue for this discontinuity.  Second, granting the abrogation of the moral law we will look at which new law code should guide the believer.  Lastly, we will look at how God’s law should be related to the general, unbelieving world.

The Mosaic Law as Invalid for Today

It is this author’s conviction that much of the divergence on the subject of law is due to presuppositional considerations, rather than exegetical. Wayne Strickland writes, “The question is often asked whether the guiding hermeneutic should be to hold the Mosaic principles as legally binding unless explicitly repealed in the New Testament or to treat the Mosaic law as non-binding unless repeated in the New Testament.”[27] This is indeed the question.

Charles Ryrie, in his Basic Theology, opts for discontinuity.  Drawing on 2 Corinthians 3:7-11 Ryrie tells his readers that “the law that was written on stones (the Ten Commandments) was done away.”[28] Christ “terminated the Law and provided a new and living way to God.”[29] Failing to appreciate Paul’s nuanced usage of “law”, Ryrie is left with (at least) an abrogation of the Ten Commandments—something which Calvin explicitly denied.[30] What is more, now we have a contradiction in Paul as we read from his pen that “by faith we establish the law” (Rom. 3:31).  It seems that the Ryrie’s discontinuity is based on a misconception of Paul’s negative language about “law”.

But even Ryrie sees that there is a problem: “If Christ ended the Law, then why does the New Testament include some laws from the Mosaic Law in its ethic? How could the unit end but still have specifics which bind the Christian?”[31] Rejecting Calvin’s answer that only the ceremonies and the moral curse of the law are removed, Ryrie’s answer is interesting:

The only solution (which I have never seen proposed by anyone else) that seems to do full justice to the plain sense of these various Scriptures distinguishes between a code and the commandments contained therein. The Mosaic Law was one of several codes of ethical conduct that God has given…There have also been other codes…The Mosaic code contained all the laws of the Law.  And today we live under the law of Christ (Gal. 6:2) or the law of the Spirit of life in Christ (Rom. 8:2)…The Mosaic Law was done away in is entirety as a code. It has been replaced by the law of Christ[32]

For Ryrie, the reason that the Christian is not under Mosaic Law is that he is under a new code (the New Covenant), and thus only the laws delineated in that code (written in the New Testament) apply.  Again, we see the unspoken presumption of discontinuity between the Mosaic and New Covenants. Ryrie assumes what he never proves.  The reader of the New Testament must settle for nothing less than a scriptural endorsement for the hermeneutical method Ryrie espouses.  We remember that Calvin saw in Christ’s potent words a presumption of continuity: “not one stroke of the law shall pass… (Matt. 5:17ff)”

The passages that confuse most Christians should not be handled any differently than other difficult passages, with the rule of faith.  The puzzling law passages in the New Testament such as 2 Corinthians 3 and Hebrews 7 which Ryrie says support the law’s abrogation[33] are best explained by Calvin’s treatment—namely, the fulfillment of the law’s ceremonies and moral curse for the New Covenant believer. For example, concerning Colossians 2:14 about the written bonds against us, Calvin writes, “We hold that ceremonies, considered in themselves, are very appropriately called ‘written bonds against’ the salvation of men.  For they were, so to speak, binding legal documents, which attested men’s obligation.”[34] And elsewhere:

[M]any persons, wishing to express such liberation from that curse, say that for believers the law…has been abrogated. Not that the law no longer joins believers to do what is right, but only that it is not for them what it formerly was: it may no longer condemn and destroy their consciences by frightening and confounding them.[35]

This is a crucial point, for no doubt the New Testament seems to speak of the “law” in contrast to the faith, spirit, or grace in the New Testament.[36] But a contrast is not an antithesis.  Many of these passages are best interpreted in light of the redemptive-historical progression found in the New Covenant, not a contrived antithesis the New has to the Old. This point calls for further comment.  Rather than inappropriately associating the proper and principle use (Calvin’s third) of the moral law with that which the New Testament authors are condemning, we should learn from Calvin’s insight. With reference to the above Colossians passage he writes:

When the false apostles wanted to bind the Christian church again to observe [the ceremonies], Paul with good reason, more profoundly restating their ultimate purpose, warned the Colossians into what danger they would slip back if they allowed themselves to be subjugated to the ceremonial law in this way…For at the same time they were deprived of the benefit of Christ, since, when once he had carried out the eternal atonement, he abolished those daily observances, which were able only to attest sins but could do nothing to blot them out.[37]

As noted earlier, defining the law and carefully noting the word’s diverse usages is crucial.[38] Failure to scrutinize the seemingly antinomian texts found in the New Testament can lead to a false discovery of a discontinuity of the moral law.  The result is at worse a wholesale abrogation of the Mosaic law, and at best an overworked Law/Gospel distinction which brings as much confusion. Given the many clear statements of moral continuity in both testaments, such aberrant views seem hastily drawn and without careful employment of the rule of faith.

The New Guide for Christian Ethics

To reject the Mosaic Law, which Calvin forbade, is to affirm another law.  Neutrality on ethical standards is impossible.  Some law must and will be followed.  In light of Christ’s endorsement of the Mosaic Law, and given other viable ways of handling seemingly problem passages about the law, we have seen how an assumption of discontinuity between the Mosaic and New covenants does not stand. But, granting the popular teaching that the Mosaic law “is no longer binding on the church-age believer”[39], which law should be the New Covenant believer’s guideline?

Ryrie has hinted at the “law of Christ”, but what is this, and how does it differ from the Mosaic Law? He writes:

All the laws of the Mosaic code have been abolished because the code has.  Specific Mosaic commands that are part of the Christian code appear there not as a continuation of part of the Mosaic Law, or in order to be observed in some deeper sense, but as specifically incorporated into that code, and as such they are binding on believers today.  A particular law that was part of the Mosaic code is done away; that same law, if part of the law of Christ, is binding.[40]

Ryrie obviously assumes that the new law code is made up of the laws stated throughout the New Testament. But why would one need to look for “new” moral laws given the change of a redemptive administration of God’s covenant? Again, commentators seem to be confused about Paul. Arguing similarly to Ryrie, Wayne Strickland misplaces the antithesis when he writes:

Paul describes the law as ‘the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus’ (Rom. 8:2 RSV). Again, this law is clearly different from the former Mosaic law discussed in Romans 8: 2-3.  Elsewhere, Paul refers to the law of the present period as ‘the law of Christ’ (Gal.6:12).[41]

Commentators like Calvin, wishing to preserve the idea that the law is still binding on the believer for the purposes of sanctification, argue that the Christian’s freedom is from the condemnation of the law.  It seems, however, that Paul is speaking of much more than deliverance from condemnation.  He is suggesting a wholesale shift in jurisdictions, from a period where the law had jurisdiction to a new period where the Spirit reigns…The church age, characterized by the Spirit, has replaced the Mosaic era.[42]

For Strickland  the “Mosaic Law has faded or come to and end,” and “is no longer binding on the church-age believer for sanctification.”[43] The believer now needs a new code or law.   A description of this new law of Christ is found where Strickland writes:

It is no new rephrasing of the Mosaic law, for it consists not of a concrete corpus of demands, but rather of basic principles, for each believer is promised permanent indwelling by the Holy Spirit.  Since the Holy Spirit ministers in the life of the New Testament believer on behalf of Jesus Christ, there is no need for any lengthy, detailed, codified, external means of restraint as in the Mosaic law.[44]

We can summarize the views of Ryrie and Strickland respectively by saying that the new Law of Christ is either those laws stated in the New Testament (Ryrie’s view), or the loving ones neighbor through the Holy Spirit’s promptings of the unwritten “basic principles” of law.

There are several problems with these statements.  First, claiming that the Church age believer is not under the demands of the Mosaic Law is difficult when one considers that the apostles cited the Mosaic law as binding.[45] Not to mention that the New Testament’s Golden Rule is the “Law and the Prophets” (Matt. 7:12), or that law keeping is important for sanctification.[46] Second, is it not also true that the same spirit which characterizes the church age, also guided Old Testament believers as it worked with the Law? In Psalm 51, the commandment-breaking David prays that God would create a new spirit in him and not take His spirit from him.  This comports with Romans 8 which teaches that the law is fulfilled by those who walk in the spirit, and with Hebrews 8 which teaches that the well-known Mosaic Law would be written on the hearts of believers.   Third, when Strickland writes that because of the Holy Spirit’s active role now, “there is no need for any lengthy, detailed, codified, external means of restraint as in the Mosaic law,” one wonders why the Old Testament believers needed the written law:  they surely had the spirit.[47] Lastly, to say that this new law consists not of a concrete corpus of demands is to offer a question-begging fallacy, rather than an argument.  The point at issue must be proven and not merely asserted.

Perhaps some need reminded that Paul’s contrast was drawn not between spirit and law, but between spirit and flesh (Romans 8:4).  The spirit works (and always has) to bring believers to obedience to God’s objective law (1 John 3:24). Notions of a contrast between Law and Spirit have the notorious tendency toward subjectivism.  Calvin chided the Libertines for this as he belabored the point that the word and spirit are inseparably joined.[48] Reiterating Calvin, “[b]ut if no one can deny that a perfect pattern of righteousness stands forth in the law, either we need to no rule to live rightly and justly, or it is forbidden to depart from the law.”[49] Calvin gave a simple answer to those who argued like his detractors do today when he wrote, “…we are not to refer solely to one age David’s statement that the life of a righteous man is a continual meditation upon the law [Ps. 1:2]…”[50]

The Guide for General Ethics

Calvin says that the Mosaic Law is applicable to every age.  Does this mean that only Christians should obey it?  What about the pagan world?  What is the ethical standard outside of God’s church?   Dr. Kenneth Gentry writes, “In broad evangelicalism today, as in the past, there is a tendency to reduce or deny the role of the Mosaic law in discussions of social righteousness. In fact, there is widespread antipathy to the Mosaic law.  Yet a strong and compelling case can be made for its use today.”[51] Before  such a case can be made, we need to look at the relationship between the laws revealed in scripture, and those revealed naturally.

Natural Law and Scripture

If, as Calvin has argued, God’s law is binding on all people today, then how do they have access to that law? What is the relationship between the law written on the hearts of men and the law written down by God in the Scriptures?  Calvin’s answer is simple.  That inward law, “engraved on the hearts of all, in a sense asserts the very same things that are to be learned from the two Tables [Ten Commandments].”  But due to sinful man’s arrogance and dullness, “the Lord has provided us with a written law to give us a clearer witness of what was too obscure in the natural law, shake off our listlessness, and strike more vigorously our mind and memory.”[52]

It is important to understand that Calvin did not see natural law as worthless.  Though he was clear that it should not take the place of scripture, he did see it as useful.  First, as a negative aspect it condemns men, rendering him guilty before God.[53] Through it, man knows right from wrong so that his sinfulness is without excuse (Rom. 1:20). Secondly, it is useful in constructing civil government. [54] As a positive aspect natural law can assist in the prevention of total civil decay of a society.  This is not to say that a society can rule rightly without God’s revealed ordinances, but that whatever outward good is achieved apart from God’s word, is due to the God-bestowed natural gifts that remain in men.

Not all agree with Calvin.  It is popular today, even within reformed traditions that follow Calvin, to draw improper distinctions between natural revelation and special revelation.   We remember that Calvin saw the difference in terms of lucidity: natural revelation is a sin-obscured edition of special revelation.[55] Some, differing from Calvin, have argued that biblical law cannot be used with unbelievers. Based on an overworked distinction between the redeemed community and the non-redeemed, one reformed seminary professor has argued:

God has not given covenantally the revelation of Scripture to the world at large.  The “indicatives” in Scripture—the things which tell us who we are—are not true of the world at large.  And if the “indicatives” do not apply to the unbelievers, the “imperatives” cannot be taken from Scripture and placed upon them.  …Generally speaking, at least, argument and discussions with our unbelieving neighbors ought to occur in terms of the natural moral law, not in terms of Scripture—although, of course, Scripture gives us as believers important information and instructions about our lives in various realms. [56]

Pastor Roger Wagner appropriately criticizes this when he writes, “The presence or absence of God’s redemptive purpose with respect to an individual or group of human beings does not effect [sic] their need to be directed by the law of God in its verbally revealed expression.”[57] Wagner is right. But assuming that he is not, in a non-redeemed world without access to a publicly verifiable (objective) law, to which law does one appeal when disputes arise over the delineation of natural law?  Any natural law theory which allows the definition of its laws to run unchecked by God’s objective word is riddled with flaws.  Arbitrariness cannot be avoided, and a flight into subjectivism is inevitable.  Such a natural/scriptural distinction grants men autonomy to legislate law.

Following Aquinas, Norman Geisler also argues a similar distinction between natural and inscripturated law.  Natural law is “the light of reason by which we discern what is right and wrong.  It is the law written on human hearts… [teaching] us to do good and shun evil.” By what standard is good and evil measured? Geisler answers, “should be set in the context of what is proper to human beings as human, their rational and moral life.”[58] Different in purpose from natural law, Divine law (or special revelation) is to lead people to God:

Divine law, therefore, is not given to unbelievers but to believers.  Natural law is for unbelievers. Divine law is binding on the church, but natural law is binding on all society.  Natural law is directed toward temporal good, but divine law is directed toward eternal good.  Inasmuch as natural law reflects the very character of God, it cannot change.  Divine law, however, is based on God’s will and therefore does change….This is reflected in God’s change in divine law from the Old Testament to the New Testament.  The natural law remains the same from age to age and from person to person.[59]

Hopefully, after seeing the obvious problems with denying the textually verified law of God one can see that the task of codifying natural law in Geisler’s terms is difficult.  Here again, regarding expressions and applications of natural law we have the same problem of arbitrariness as above.  If natural law is not informed by God’s written law then man becomes autonomous in his endeavors to define law. Moreover, to disagree with Calvin that man’s natural capacity to understand is “transitory” and in need of “a solid foundation of truth,” is to affirm the sufficiency of natural law to guide a man apart from the scriptures.  This is lawlessness (James 4:11).

Conclusion

We have seen the clarity with which Calvin has addressed God’s law.    He taught us that the law, both natural and special, is not merely negative, but very positive and useful to both believers and unbelievers.  God has been gracious, not harsh, in giving us his written and objective law; it is only an enemy to those who abuse or break it. Though Christ has accomplished redemption and changed the form of Mosaic restorative law, the moral law of God stands unmoved and a friend to God’s people. Calvin’s proper antithesis teaches us that those who leave the written and specific details of this law will invariably make their own. But, “there is no right at all in them, all is awry, all is crooked.”[60]

Nevertheless, in today’s theological climate there is disagreement with this view of God’s law. Many of these modern views have surfaced within the last few hundred years, and therefore I believe it has been helpful to return to the fifteenth century to examine the issue via a sound Church titan and fearless reformer whose contributions here are first-class.  But even in the thick of the controversies surrounding God’s law, we should pay heed to Calvin about the seriousness of attending to the matter: God’s law should be heard, studied, and obeyed for it has an antithesis; one need only be slack in his attentiveness to God’s law and he insidiously will have chosen the latter. I conclude with the following quote from John Calvin in which he shows the inexorable glory of God’s law.

[T]he Lord, in giving the rule of perfect righteousness, has referred all its parts to his will, thereby showing that nothing is more acceptable to him than obedience.  The more inclined the playfulness of the human mind is to dream up various rites with which to deserve well of him, the more diligently ought we to mark this fact.  In all ages this irreligious affectation of religion…has manifested itself and still manifest itself; for men always delight in contriving some way of acquiring righteousness apart from God’s Word.  Hence, among what are commonly considered good works the commandments of the law are accorded too narrow a place, while that innumerable throng of human precepts occupies almost the whole space.  Yet what else did Moses intend but to restrain such wantonness, when after the proclamation of the law he addressed the people as follows: “Observe and heed all these words which I command you, that it may go well with you and with your children after your forever, when you do what is good and pleasing in the sight of your God” [Deut. 12:28].[61]


[1]”nomos” in the scripture can refer to a general principle (Rom. 3:27; 7:21), the moral law, (Rom. 13:10) the Pentateuch (Matt. 22:36; 1 Cor. 9:9), the entire Old Testament (Matt. 5:18; cf. 12:5), the Old Testament minus the prophets (Matt. 5:17), the ceremonial law (Rom.3:28; Gal. 3:23), legalism (Gal. 2:19; Phil. 3:6), and the Mosaic covenant (Gal. 3:17), that I am aware of.

[2] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, The Library of Christian Classics, vol. 20 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1993),  2.7.1; 348

[3] Ibid., 2.7.1; 348

[4] Ibid., 2.7.1; 349

[5] Ibid.,  2.7.2; 350 This point should be seriously pondered. Several Law/Gospel schemes and even evangelizing methodologies have been built on the view that the moral (not ceremonial) law is the tutor, and that this tutor humbles one in order to lead him to the grace in Christ. Whether or not the moral law can serve this purpose, Gal 3:24 is not a clear proof text for it.

[6] Ibid., 2.7.2; 351

[7] Greg L. Bahnsen, Theonomy in Christian Ethics, Third Edition (Nacogdoches, Texas: CMP, 2002),  263-272.  Bahnsen lists eight functions of the law for fallen man; it: declares God’s character and demand, defines sin, exposes infractions, incites rebellion, condemns transgression, drives us to Christ, restrains evil, and guides sanctification.  The ninth function concerns its pre-fall use to justify man by his perfect conformity to it.

[8] Calvin will discuss these uses in a different order than the traditional order of Political, Pedagogical, Didactic.  Calvin addresses them, Pedagogical, Political, Didactic.

[9] Calvin, Institutes, 2.7.6; 354,355

[10] Ibid., 2.7.8; 356

[11] Ibid., 2.7.8; 356,357

[12] Ibid.,  2.7.9; 358

[13] Ibid., 2.7.10; 358,359

[14] Ibid., 2.7.10; 359

[15] The point may seem forced.  Nevertheless, I believe it is valid.  See John Calvin, Sermons on Deuteronomy, (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1987) ; and for a good discussion, Chris Strevel’s article, “Theonomic Precedent in the Theology of John Calvin”  in The Standard Bearer: A Festschrift for Greg L. Bahnsen, Steven M. Schlissel., Ed. (Nacogdoches: Covenant Media Press, 2002) pp. 319-368

[16] Calvin, Institutes, 2.7.11; 359,360

[17] Ibid., 2.7.12; 360

[18] Ibid.,  2.7.12; 360

[19] Ibid.,  2.7.12; 360,361

[20] Ibid.,  2.7.13; 361

[21] Ibid.,  2.7.13; 362

[22] Ibid.,  2.7.13; 362

[23] Ibid.,  2.7.14; 363

[24] Ibid.,  2.7.16; 364

[25] Ibid.,  2.7.16; 364,365

[26] This is not to say that Calvin’s views may not be improved, but juxtaposed to many modern theories of God’s law, Calvin shines as a beacon of light.

[27] Stanley N. Gundry, ed.,  Five Views on Law and Gospel, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1996), 262,263

[28] Charles Ryrie, Basic Theology, (Chicago, Illinois: Moody Press, 1999), 350

[29] Ibid., 349

[30] Calvin, Institutes,  2.7.13; 362

[31] Ryrie, Basic Theology, 350

[32] Ibid., 351, 352

[33] Ibid., 352

[34] Calvin, Institutes, 2.8.17; 366

[35] Ibid., 2.7.14; 363 (italics mine)

[36] See for example Romans 6:14; 10:4; 2 Cor. 3:7-18; Heb. 7:18,19; Gal.3:10-14 for a few.

[37] Calvin, 2.8.17; 366. There are other interpretations of this passage which do see the moral law in view here, without, however, pushing for its abrogation. Doug Wilson argues that “the law has discontinuity in the sense that the resurrection changes the meaning and nature of everything…In the death of Jesus, the law of God dies.  In the resurrection of Jesus, the law of God rose from the dead.”  I take Wilson’s interpretation to be commensurate with WCF 19.5 “Neither doth Christ, in the Gospel any way dissolve, but much strengthen this obligation [the law’s demands]. Douglas Wilson Reformed is Not Enough, (Moscow: Cannon Press, 2002), p. 164

[38] Paul (and Calvin) never used “law” in a univocal sense; if he had, then Paul would easily be found in contradiction with himself.  For example Paul in Romans 6:14 would be contradicting his teaching in Rom. 3:31

[39] Stanley N. Gundry, ed.,  Five Views on Law and Gospel, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1996), Wayne Strickland’s essay, “The Inauguration of the Law of Christ with the Gospel,” 247, 273

[40] Ryrie, Basic Theology p. 352

[41] Stanley N. Gundry, ed.,  Five Views on Law and Gospel, 247

[42] Ibid; 259

[43] Ibid; 273

[44] Ibid; 277.  Here Strickland footnotes B. Wintle, “Paul’s Conception of the Law of Christ and Its Relation to the Law of Moses,” RTR 38 (1979), 43

[45] A few examples: Rom. 10:6-6 cites Deut. 30:11-13; 2 Cor. 6:14 cites Deut 22:10; 1 Tim. 5:17 cites Deut. 25:4.

[46] 1 John 2:3,4; 5:3; 1 Cor. 7:19

[47] Examples are abundant.  A few are appropriate: Joseph was well recognized for his wisdom which came by God’s spirit (Gen. 41:38); God’s spirit empowered the Jew’s worship Ex 35:21; Moses sees God’s spirit as the difference between the wise elders and grumbling congregation (Num. 11:29); Joshua had God’s spirit (Num. 27:18); God’s spirit instructs the covenant people (Neh. 9:20).

[48] Calvin, Institutes 1.9.3

[49] Ibid.,  2.7.13; 362

[50] Ibid.,  2.7.13; 362

[51] Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr.,  He Shall Have Dominion, 2nd Edition, (Tyler Texas: Institutes for Christian Economics, 1997), 134

[52] Calvin, Institutes,  2.8.2; 368; see also 1.6.1

[53] Ibid., 2.2.22; 282

[54] Ibid., 2.2.13; 271-273

[55] Bahnsen, Theonomy In Christian Ethics, 387; see Calvin Institutes, 1.6.1

[56] Roger Wagner, Penpoint, Christ Transforming Culture: An Analysis of the Sandlin-Van Drunen “Dialogue” on the Relevance of God’s Law (vol 15, number 8, Dec 2004). See also See also VanDrunen’s fuller discussion in, David VanDrunen, A Biblical Case for Natural Law, (Grand Rapids:Acton Institute, )

[57] Ibid

[58] Norman L. Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1999), 415

[59] Ibid, 416

[60] John Calvin, Sermons on Deuteronomy, (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1987), p. 122.

[61] Calvin, Institutes,  2.8.5; 371

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