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Law and Gospel According to Calvin



Law and Gospel According to Calvin


[1]  Jesus Christ is the substance of the law.  (Compare C. on scripture: JC is the substance of both testaments) – otherwise, God speaks with a forked tongue.


Note C’s characteristic remarks throughout his commentaries:

e.g., the law was given for the purpose “of keeping the ancient people in the faith of Christ.” (Gal. 3:19;
Heb. 8:5)

e.g., the design of the law is that through it we should come to know “God’s paternal favour” (Jer.
31:33), which paternal favour is known only in Christ (passim in C.)

e.g., “God brings forward in the gospel nothing new but what the law contains.” (Jer. 31:33)

e.g., the New Testament contains “nothing but a simple and natural explanation of the law and the
prophets.”  (2 Tim. 3:17; 1 Cor. 14:21)


The cult (ceremonial law), no mere “holding action” to differentiate Israel from absorbing the surrounding paganism, was to “foster hope of salvation in Christ” (Inst. 2.7.title)



Since the law aims at quickening faith in the Mediator, therefore legalism and moralism were never the purpose of the law.  (Torah isn’t essentially a code.)





[2]   First Use of the Law


Law, like gospel, is both gift and claim.


To whom is the law given?  “We are so driven by the power of sin that our whole mind, our whole heart and all our actions are inclined to sin….We are so addicted to sin that we can do nothing of our own accord but sin.” (Rom. 7:14 )  (NB the Reformers’ understanding of Total Depravity.)


When the law meets our sin, the nature of the law doesn’t change but its function does.

Now the law renders us aware of our condition and our condemnation.

This function of the law is “accidental”; yet even as “accidental” it is part of the purpose of the law. (Deut. 10:12)


But since JC is blessing only, and since he is the substance of the law, therefore the law, even in its “slaying” function, is given for life.  (Even though the sinner, terrified by the law, may not come to life.)


When C speaks of law and gospel as contradictory he always has in mind the law denatured, abstracted from the gospel, reduced to a code by which we attempt to achieve our own righteousness: “the bare law in a narrow sense.” (2.7.2.)

This misrepresentation of the law C speaks of as “letter”: the letter is the law minus the grace of adoption. (James 1:25)



[3]  The Second Use of the Law  (First for Luther)


The second use is to inculcate fear of punishment so as to constrain malfeasance and therein promote social order.

By schooling people in civil obedience (i.e., obedience to a code) it acquaints them with a form of obedience which they will then fill with the specific content of obedience to the person of Jesus when they come to faith.





[4]  The Third Use of the Law  (Philip Melanchthon was the first to speak of this.)


The third use is the chief use: that by which believers obey JC and are conformed to him.



The believer is motivated twice over to obey the law;

(a)    as creatures we are under obligation to the Creator

(b)    as beneficiaries of God’s mercy we are everlastingly grateful.



Note: while the command of God ever remains command (not suggestion or recommendation), since mercy is the ground of God’s claim, believers find the claim not an imperious demand but an invitation: “God chooses rather to invite his people by kindness than to compel them to obedience from terror. (Deut. 7:9)

while we are “alarmed by the majesty of God” we are also “gently attracted, so that the law might be more precious than gold or silver, and at the same time sweeter than honey.” (Exod. 20:1)



[5]  Do Believers Need the Law?


While sin doesn’t rule believers (Christ reigns in them), sin is still present.


Believers continue to need the law as “bridle” and “spur”. (Gal. 3:25)

We venerate Christ only to the extent that we venerate the law. (2.7.15)

Not to be serious about the law is to reject Christ’s love (John 15:10), because [a] we can’t have Christ’s love without Christ’s law, Christ being indivisible, [b] the law, however irksome (at times), is an expression of his love.


Either we aspire with all our heart to obey the law, or we are fixed in a “deadly sleep”. (2 Tim.2:25)


Believers love the law (because they love JC, its substance) and “embrace” the law “with sincere affection” (Deut. 11:18 ), with “prompt and cheerful affection” (Psalm 19:7)



[6]  This Obedience is not Conformity to a Code


The nature of our obedience (to the law) is appraised by the “character” (ingenium, disposition) of God.  God’s “character” is not that of legislator (in the legal sense) or codifier, but self-giving love.  Then self-giving love is what believers must render to the person of God through their obedience to the law.


Law, for C, is a standard impersonally only when it is abstracted from Christ.  “God himself” guides believers. (Psalm 119:59)



[7]  The Rewards of the Law


Since no one observes the law wholly, do believers forfeit the rewards promised to law-keeping?

The rewards promised to law-keeping accrue to believers inasmuch as they cling to the obedience of Christ; i.e., inasmuch as they cling to the obedience that Jesus Christ, as covenant-keeper (the only covenant-keeper), renders his Father.

Reverend V. Shepherd