The next chapter in White’s new translation of Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion concerns the law. At about 40 pages it is short in comparison to the chapter on free will. It is, however, no less significant.
In part the law helps us in terms of self-knowledge. It is necessary for our humility, to discover the illusions we have about our moral courage & strength. It will lead us, properly understood, “to abandon all trust in our own righteousness.”
He begins with the notion of the inner law, written upon each person’s heart. The corruption we receive from Adam, and our own transgressions flowing from it, tend to smudge said internal law as well as dull our conscience. Therefore, God found it appropriate to give the people of Israel (and by extension us) the written law. This has an important consequence: “we are not free to follow our heart’s desires wherever they may lead, but that we are wholly reliant on our God and must keep only to what pleases him.”
He briefly interacts with the Pelagian notion (sometimes expressed by our Arminian brothers) that God would not give a law we could not keep. They have a very man-centered view of the law. It is not a measure of our ability, but of God’s glory. It reflects His character, and what ours ultimately will be. Being his creatures by creation, and children by redemption, we have a duty to obey.
“The Lord, however, is not content to teach us only to revere his righteousness. He seeks to train our hearts to love it and to hate iniquity, and thus adds both promises and threats.”
We struggle to keep God’s law. We struggle with resting in His righteousness, but keep trying to establish one of our own doing. Our standards, not simply our strength. We try to confine the law to outward action, not seeing (or wanting to see) that it is about inward desire and spiritual righteousness. So, God not only condemns murder but also the unrighteous anger and hatred from which it flows even if we don’t carry through with the act. Jesus exposes the Pharisaical externalization of the law in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus is not a second Moses, introducing a new law. He is explaining the law He gave through Moses.
In rightly understanding the law we need to consider both command and prohibition. This means we consider the “good and necessary consequence” of the law. He explains it this way:
“… we will first look at the content of each commandment, and then, on the basis of what it says, we will attempt to formulate a contrary argument alone these lines: if this thing pleases God, the opposite must displease him; if this thing displeases him, the opposite must please him…”
This approach finds its culmination in the Westminster Larger Catechism‘s section on the law. He notes “The Lord forbids that we should injure or hurt our neighbor, because he wants our neighbor’s life to be dear and precious to us.” In this way the sin we have grown accustom to is exposed so it can be rooted out in the power of the Spirit. Your flesh will always try to evade the truth.
Calvin then enters the aforementioned process and discusses the Ten Commandments from this perspective. There are some helpful discussions, like images, the sins of the fathers, multi-generational mercy, the shift from Saturday to Sunday regarding the day of rest, etc. On the last point, many misunderstand Calvin’s view of the Sabbath since it is fairly nuanced. I recommend Gaffin’s book on the subject.
“Their claim that Christians are under the law of grace does not mean that they should lead unruly lives, free as it were of restraint. Rather they are engrafted into Christ, by whose grace they are delivered from the curse of the law, and by whose Spirit they have the law written in their hearts.”
By this last thought we see that in the New Covenant, the law is (re)written upon our hearts. This is important because it was so smudged and distorted by our sinful nature.
Each sin deserves condemnation. In this Calvin attacks the Roman view of venial and mortal sins. The fact that each sin of the saint doesn’t “kill grace” is due to God’s mercy, not on account of the nature of the particular sin. Our justification means that we continue to have peace with God even though our sins may still be many (Romans 5).
Calvin sums up the law’s curses and promises in this way:
“My answer is that the law’s promises were not given in vain, but that they are conditional, and can only be fulfilled for those who have accomplished all righteousness- a righteousness not to be found among men. Once we understand that they can do nothing for us unless in God in his goodness freely receives us apart from our works, and once we by faith embraced his goodness which he offers us in the gospel, these same promises, conditional as they are, are not in vain.”
He is beginning to introduce us to the 3 functions or uses of the law. This is a most important concept. … (to be continued)