3 Uses of the Law from Calvin

As Christians we affirm that we are saved by grace through faith. That our salvation is not of ourselves, but rather it is a gift of God, not of works so that none of us can boast. We rejoice in this truth, for we know that if we played a role in winning our own salvation we would remain forever lost.

But if we are saved by grace, why is so much Scripture devoted to laws and rules? What are we to do with the long Old Testament books that repetitively give restrictions of "Thou Shalt Not"? (I am not speaking here of the Jewish ceremonial and societal laws which we understand to be no longer part of the new covenant, but to the moral laws anchored in the Ten Commandments)

Many Christians make the mistake of throwing out the law entirely. This is what is called "antinomianism" or "against the law". They reason that if the law contributes nothing to our salvation, and legalism is such a frequent temptation--why don't we do away with it and simply live under grace? Let's have no more rules, and simply just love one another. After all does not Jesus say that the entire law and the prophets consist of the two basic commandments of 1) Love the Lord your God with all your Heart, and 2) love your neighbor as yourself? If we can do those two we should be good!

But Jesus also says in Matthew 5:17 that he came not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. And further adds that not one iota, or stroke of a pen, will be removed from it. So what role should the moral law of the old testament, those rules that restrict and bind us, play in our lives today? Are they of any use to us at all, or should we wash are hands of these external restraints and simply embrace grace?

John Calvin gives 3 uses of the law in book 2 of the Institutes of the Christian Religion that I found very helpful. I have jotted them down below:

1. The law is a mirror that leads us to Christ. Calvin writes:
The doctrine of the Law transcending our capacity, a man may indeed look from a distance at the promises held forth, but cannot derive any benefit from them. The only thing, therefore, remaining for him is, from their excellence to form a better estimate of his own misery, while he considers that the hope of salvation is cut off, and he is threatened with certain death. (2.7.3)

If we take an honest look at ourselves and compare that picture to heaven's standard revealed in the Law, we will see ourselves as we truly are. And it is not flattering. As Calvin says it only gives us a better estimation of our own misery! Where we may have achieved a select portion of God's external commandments, internally we have broken them over and over again, even taking pleasure in the act of breaking them. The law therefore is like a revealing mirror: "As in a mirror we discover any stains upon our face, so in the Law we behold, fist, our impotence; then, in consequence of it, our iniquity; and, finally, the curse, as the consequence of both." (2.7.7)

It is important however that once we get to this point through the Law's assistance we do not stay in the broken discouragement, but proceed to go towards the source of healing. As Calvin later quotes Augustine: "The utility of the law is, that it convinces man of his weakness, and compels him to apply for the medicine of grace, which is in Christ." Paul writes in Romans 3:20, "Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God's sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin." It is therefore this consciousness of sin through the law that is a vital bridge to our salvation.

2. The law restrains general wickedness. Though the law lacks the power to save, it does have the power to restrain external wickedness. So while inwardly we may be the most depraved of sinners, because of the law and its checks on our behavior--we fortunately do not act out in fullness externally on our base desires. This then means that on a temporal level our actions are restrained and we do far less harm to others and society than we would have without the law. As Calvin points out: "This forced and extorted righteousness is necessary for the good of society, its peace being secured by a provision but for which all things would be thrown into tumult and confusion" (2.7.10). We then need the Law and even those Old Testament commandments to help enforce the decency necessary for earthly societies to function appropriately.

3. The law pushes us to pursue righteousness. This third use of the Law is what Calvin calls the most appropriate use which respects the elect:
For although the Law is written and engraven on their hearts by the finger of God, that is, although they are so influenced and actuated by the Spirit, that they desire to obey God, there are two ways in which they still profit from the Law. For it is the best instrument for enabling them daily to learn with greater truth what that will of the Lord is which they aspire to follow, and to confirm them in this knowledge; just as a servant who desires with his whole soul to approve himself to his master, must still observe, and be careful to ascertain his master's dispositions, that he may comport himself in accommodation to them." (2.7.12)

Calvin is using here an illustration of a servant who loves his master. Just because this servant has a genuine love for his master by no means implies that he should then ignore his master's commands or desires. On the contrary, the more the servant loves his master, the more he should learn about what His master desires of him--and work to achieve those desires.

All that to say: the moral law and commandments, while powerless to save us, reveal the heart of the God who does save us. They show us what he requires and what he desires of us. We would do well to meditate on that law as the Psalmist advises: "day and night", so that we may better know of the God who entrusted it to us, and be pricked by those commandments to follow him with greater fervor and intensity.

“How can a young person stay on the path of purity? By living according to your word. I seek you with all my heart do not let me stray from your commands. I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you.”

- Psalm 119: 9-11


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