Calvin's Commentaries, Vol. 5: Harmony of the Law, Part III, tr. by John King, [1847-50], at sacred-texts.com
The Use of the Law
Inasmuch as in the Law the difference between good and evil is set forth, it is given for the regulation of the life of men, so that it may be justly called the rule of living well and righteously. This object of the Law is known to almost all men, because all confess without controversy that God here prescribes what is right, lest we should wander all our lifetime in uncertainty; for since His will is the perfect law of righteousness, it can alone direct us to the mark. The knowledge of good and evil is indeed imprinted by nature on men, whereby they are rendered inexcusable; nor has any amount of barbarism ever so extinguished this light as that no form of law should exist. But, since the main principle of righteousness is to obey God, it was by special privilege that He deposited with His elect people the rule of living aright as a pledge of His adoption. Hence the declarations which so often occur in the writings of Moses: I command thee to keep and to do, etc. But, since we are “carnal, sold under sin,” (Ro 7:14,) we are so far from being able to fulfill the Law, which is spiritual, that all our imaginations are at enmity with its righteousness, as Paul teaches elsewhere. (Ro 7:7.) Those, therefore, who 188 content themselves with using it for instruction, do wrong in confining themselves to this one point, since no advantage can hence be derived from it, as long as we shall remain in our corrupt nature. Nay, as soon as the Law presents itself before us, the curse of God falls upon our heads, as if He smote us with a thunder-bolt from heaven. I will not heap together all the testimonies to this effect; let one peculiarly striking passage suffice:
“The law (says Paul) is holy, and the commandment holy and just and good: but sin, that it might appear sin, worketh death in me by that which is good.” (Rom. 7:12, 13.)
What he elsewhere says, that “the law worketh wrath,” (Ro 4:15,) and that “it was added because of transgressions,” (Ga 3:19,) seems harsh indeed to profane persons, who only judge as philosophers; yet this is the theological use of the Law, for, by discovering our unrighteousness, it can bring nothing but death. Here, however, 189 rebellious questions arise, what use there could be in prescribing what we are unable to perform: why God should mock miserable men by imposing a burden whereby they are totally overwhelmed: how it is consistent that a law should be given for us to keep, and yet that we should be devoid of strength to do so: if we have not liberty to choose good or evil, why it should be brought in accusation against us that we yield to the sin to which we are naturally addicted? The enemies of God are very ingenious in amassing such calumnies, and eloquent in exaggerating them; but when they have disgorged all that their rabid dishonesty has dictated, their own conscience will always abundantly refute them; for they will be compelled to acknowledge that the Law is just, and that, when they transgress it by voluntary impulse, they are deservedly condemned. Let them, then, rave against God as they like, that He unjustly imposes upon them a heavier burden than they are able to bear, their natural reason will retain them under the conviction, that whatever God commands to be done for Him is His due. We must now see where the blame lies, that they are unable to satisfy Him. Surely their efforts to relieve themselves from it will be vain, because conscience will again make itself felt on the opposite side, and will hold them fast in the bond of condemnation, from which there is no escape. But the whole of Scripture teaches that it arises from the corruption of our nature that all our affections are repugnant to the Law, and also that, on the other hand, the Law is against us; for Adam, being alienated from God the fountain of all righteousness, ruined himself and us; and hence it comes that not only our strength is insufficient to perform the service we owe to God, but that we are impelled by a blind and headlong impetus to shake off His yoke. From this Paul infers that we are “under the curse,” because the Law pronounces all transgressors to be accursed. (Ga 3:10.) For ridiculous will be the objection that it is in the power of every one’s free-will not to transgress, because there is nothing to be found in us which is not corrupt; and, in fact, the stupidity of those is most shameless who suppose that nothing impossible is commanded, whereas in every trifle, not merely our weakness, but our ἀδυναμία (powerlessness) betrays itself. But, although Paul says that the Law 190 is deadly to us, (2Co 3:6,) yet he vindicates it from all objection, when he shews that this evil is accidental, and therefore must be imputed to ourselves. Let it therefore be established, that the Law was given not only for instruction, so that men might follow what they had learnt from it to be right, but also to convict them of their iniquity, that they might acknowledge themselves to be lost; as if they saw in a mirror their destruction through the just vengeance of God. Now this knowledge would by itself overwhelm all with horrible despair if they did not emerge from the deep abyss; for, since they are puffed up with vain confidence, and arrogate to themselves the merit of living righteously, it is necessary that they should be humbled; first of all, that, being condemned, they may learn to fly for refuge to God’s mercy; and secondly, that being convinced of their infirmity, they may implore the aid of the Holy Spirit, which in their security they had before neglected. Hence it appears that it is expedient for them to be slain by the Law, and that the death which it inflicts is life-giving. And this occurs in two ways; for, first, being stripped of the false opinion of their righteousness, wherein they prided themselves, they begin to seek in Christ what they mistakenly supposed might be found in themselves, so as to please God by gratuitous reconciliation, whereas they had previously sought to propitiate Him by the merit of their works; secondly, they learn that they are not sufficient to perform a single tittle of the Law, unless, being regenerated by God’s Spirit, they who were the slaves of sin live unto righteousness. And hence, in fine, the utility and fruit of the teaching of the Law proceeds; for, until we are renewed and God has given us hearts of flesh instead of hearts of stone, in vain are precepts dinned in our ears, since in our natural depravity we cordially reject them; but when He has engraved His law within our hearts, its outward instruction also profits us; for He so governs His children by the Spirit of reconciliation, as at the same time to will that they should be attentive and obedient to His voice. Still, because they are always far from attaining to perfect observance of it, they not only learn from it what is right, but also that they have need of His gratuitous mercy, that they may please Him through indulgence and grace, although they are still conscious of much infirmity.
Further, because Paul seems to abrogate the Law, as if now-a-days it did not concern believers, we must now see how far this is the case. And, first, indeed, it is easy to perceive that he does not treat of the Law in the abstract, but sets it forth invested with those of its qualities, wherein it is opposed to the Gospel; for, inasmuch as his controversy was with those who interpreted it amiss, he could not help contrasting the Law with the Gospel, as if they were in opposition to each other: not that they were really so, if their respective doctrine be dexterously applied to its proper object, but because such a conflict arose from the absurd mixture, which the false apostles introduced. They asserted that men are justified by the works of the Law, and, if this were admitted, the righteousness of faith was destroyed, and the Gospel fell to the ground. They, moreover, restored the yoke imposed on the ancient people, as if no liberty had been obtained by the blood of Christ. In this discussion it was necessary for Paul to advert only to that which is peculiar to Moses, and distinct from Christ; for although Christ and Moses perfectly accord in the substance of their doctrine, still, when they are compared with each other, it is fitting to distinguish what is peculiar to each. In this respect Paul calls the Law “the letter,” 191 because Moses had no other charge than to speak in the name of God, (2Co 3:6;) and this in itself is not only useless, but also deadly; for when the word resounds in the ears only, it produces nothing but condemnation. Besides, he considers the Law as connected with promises and threatenings. Whence it follows, that salvation can only be procured by it if its precepts be exactly fulfilled. Life is indeed promised in it, but only if whatever it commands be complied with; whilst, on the other hand, it denounces death against its transgressors, so that to have offended in the slightest point is enough to condemn and destroy a person; and thus it overwhelms all men with despair. Lastly, because the ceremonies by which God prepared His ancient people as by puerile and elementary instruction for the faith of the Gospel, 192 were annexed to the Law, Paul embraces those also in his comparison between the Law and the Gospel. Hence it follows that, in so far as Moses is distinguished from Christ, his ministration has ceased, although his embassy was identical with that which Christ afterwards discharged. As regards the ceremonies, we must consider that an end was put upon them by Christ’s coming, in such a way as to establish their truth more firmly than as if they still remained in use: for we acknowledge that in them, as in a mirror, was formerly shewn to the Fathers, what is now displayed to us in its reality. Whence it appears that they are greatly mistaken who altogether reject as useless that instruction which we read in the writings of Moses; and that the squeamishness of those who despise it is also intolerable. 193 Let my readers seek in the Second Book of my Institutes, Chapter 7., what further tends to the explanation of this subject.
“Ceux doncques qui ne cherchent en la Loy, sinon de savoir, comment on doit servir a Dieu, s’abusent, etc.;” those, therefore, who only search in the law to know how we ought to serve God, deceive themselves, etc. — Fr.
“Or ici les esprits fantastiques s’escarmouchent en demandant.” — Fr.
“The letter killeth.” — A.V.
“By the term letter he means outward preaching, of such a kind as does not reach the heart; and, on the other hand, by spirit he means living doctrine, of such a nature as worketh effectually (1Th 2:13) on the minds of men, through the grace of the Spirit. By the term letter, therefore, is meant literal preaching, that is, dead and ineffectual, perceived only by the ear. By the term spirit, on the other hand, is meant spiritual doctrine, that is, whatever is not merely uttered with the mouth, but effectually makes its way to the souls of men with a lively feeling.” — C. on 2 Corinthians 3:6, Cal. Soc. edit., vol. 2, p. 172.
“Comme par un a, b, c, de petits enfans.” — Fr.
“Et que ceux, qui le meprisent comme superflu, sont aussi a condamner comme trop delicats;” and that those who despise it as superfluous are to be condemned as too fastidious. — Fr.