I left off my discussion of the law and Calvin on the verge of talking about the uses of the law in The Institutes of the Christian Religion, the Essentials Edition.
The first function of the law is to convince us of sin. The law comes to us as sinners, and reveals us as sinners. Fundamentally, it reveals the righteousness of God but then necessarily exposes our own unrighteousness. We tend to be blind to our sin. We easily recognize other people’s sin, particularly when we are hurt by other people. But sin has corrupted our hearts, and the law of God written there. As a result we struggle to accurately discern right from wrong. As sinners, we also struggle to see ourselves as we really are. So God gave us the law to address this great need in us.
“For man, who is otherwise blinded and drunk with self-love, must be compelled to recognize and confess both his weakness and impurity.”
We are used to our evil desires. Sin also seeks to deceive us, posing as righteousness through our fear and pride. The law sheds light on the situation, helping us to see through the lies we’ve believed. It reveals that we really are guilty and should feel guilty.
God is not trying to make us miserable, for misery’s sake. “For we know that he never tires of doing good to us, and always heaps blessing upon blessing.” So this knowledge of self thru the law is really for our good, should we repent and believe. The misery is meant to promote our repentance when we see the mercy of God in the gospel. “His purpose, then, is that men, renouncing all belief in their own strength, should acknowledge that it is only his hand that sustains them…”.
Ultimately, of course, we are blessed only in (union with) Christ. “In Christ, however, his face shines upon us full of grace and sweetness, despite the fact that we are poor, unworthy sinners.” Exposed as weak & sinful, we are also driven to Jesus to gain life and contentment. This doesn’t happen without the law.
The second function is to restrain sin. Some people live in fear of punishment. You know, they slow down when they see a police car. The law, which includes sanctions, discourages sin in most people. This is not the same as obedience, since it is driven by slavish fear of punishment, not by faith and gratitude with an eye toward the glory of God. Shame and fear make society more peaceable, but they are not what God’s is aiming for, which is conformance to Christ who obeyed the Father out of love (for Him and us).
As a pastor and parent, there are times I am glad that some sin is restrained in the lives of my congregation and children. I’d rather the congregation, family and individuals involved not have to suffer the consequences of sin. I’m okay with someone avoiding sexual sin out of fear of pregnancy, STDs etc. For awhile. I would like to move them to faith, hope and love as motives for obedience. All things in due time.
The third, and controversial, use of the law is to encourage obedience in Christians. The power of obedience is the Holy Spirit, not the law. The law provides direction: this is what pleases God. The law provides promises to encourage. Sadly, when this is discussed, people opposed to the 3rd use of the law hear us saying that law has power to enable obedience. Reformed teachers don’t say this, but point to the Spirit. Here’s Calvin, “believers whose hearts are already ruled and quickened by God’s Spirit.” It is the Spirit who, in fulfillment of the New Covenant promise, writes the law on our hearts. Further, “led by the Holy Spirit they are moved by the wish to obey” which is also promised in the New Covenant. While we see law and grace as opposing principles with regard to justification, they are not with regard to sanctification. They work together! The law provides direction to grace. Grace provides desire and power to fulfill the law. Meditating on the law (think Psalm 119) is used by the Spirit to stir us toward obedience, “to persevere in obedience and to turn away from his faults.”
We are still burdened with the flesh, which resists obedience. So each of us needs the law to “be a constant goad to him, to stop him growing sleepy or dull.”
Calvin then begins to defend his position. Some people, and theological systems, “rashly reject Moses and would have us ignore the law.” He asserts that we are not bound by random rules and principles, if we want to be holy, but the permanent and unchanging moral law which is a reflection of God’s righteous character. Paul asserts as much in 2 Timothy 3. The OT, which was the Scriptures he was referring to, is useful to admonish, rebuke, correct and train the righteous man for good works.
“In urging upon us the perfection to which it calls us, it shows us the goal at which we should aim our lives. Provided we persevere in that aim, that is enough. Our whole life is like a race; when we reach its end the Lord will bless us by letting us reach the goal we presently pursue, even though we are still a long way off.”
Calvin argues that the curse of the law, not the law itself, was abrogated by Christ. The Christian is no longer, or should no longer, be fearful of God because Christ has borne the curse for us. We have been adopted as sons, and have the Spirit of sonship not the spirit of slaves. Justified, we are at peace with God and our subsequent sins do not destroy that peace purchased by Christ if we are truly united to Christ. Jesus changes our relationship to the law.
Part of the law, or a type of law, has been abrogated. The ceremonial law has not only fulfilled, but our attempts to keep it are a winding back of redemption. Our redemption’s goal is to make us like Jesus in character, which is reflected in the law. The ceremonial law addresses guilt and pollution, the very things Jesus removed through His propitiation on the cross. To still obey that part of the law (offering sacrifices) is to say that the work of Jesus did not deal with our guilt and pollution. Those Mosaic sacrifices did not really remove their guilt and pollution, but were provisional in nature until the Son came to actually remove our guilt and pollution, and to prepare God’s people for that time.
“Such observances obscured his glory once the gospel had been revealed.”