Olevian: Law, Gospel, and Justification

R. Scott Clark wrote a very solid piece on Caspar Olevian (one of the authors of the Heidelberg Catechism) called Caspar Olevian and the Substance of the Covenant (Edinburgh: Rutherford House, 2005).  In this book, Clark discusses the main points of Olevian’s life as well as some of the high points of Olevian’s Reformation teaching (the Trinitarian doctrine of God and Federalist Christology as well as justification and sanctification – the double benefit of the covenant of grace).

Here’s a section from the chapter on justification.

“He [Olevian] began his definition of law by turning to creation.  The moral law (lex moralis) is written (inscripta) in the hearts of ‘all men’ in every time.  The law has been known from the time of Adam.  The Sinaitic law and the teaching of the patriarchs and prophets were only a re-publication and sealing of the same.  Its primary function is to prosecute sinners.  Because of its universality, no one is excusable and because of our primeval corruption no one is ‘able to be justified, i.e. able to obtain from God forgiveness of sins and eternal life, by their natural goodness and actions according to the law of nature.’  In our natural state, rather than making moral progress, we are more grossly contaminated by horrendous sin.

“‘At any event, the justice which can stand before God’s most righteous judgment ought to be perfect in all respects.’  ‘The law,’ however, ‘does not give righteousness, but requires it.'”

“The gospel promises, however, are equally ancient: the seed of the women will crush the head of the serpent.  The key to keeping law and gospel in proper order is to remember their respective purposes.  The purpose of the law was not to justify, but to drive sinners to Christ.  The purpose of the gospel was to justify and liberate sinners from sin and death.”

“Because law and gospel have different purposes, they perform distinct functions.  The law only condemns, and only the gospel justifies.”

Clark goes on to show how Olevian explained justification in a forensic way, as “a matter of God’s binding, legal declaration of the sinner’s justification, as opposed to justification by infused grace (gratia infusa) or justification through sanctification.  ‘Justification’ is ‘the pronouncement that we were absolved of our sins in the body of Christ.'”  The legal ground of our righteousness before God is Christ’s law-keeping, not ours.  Olevian clearly taught the imputation of Christ’s active obedience.  ‘The justified’ are those ‘clothed with Christ’s righteousness’ (induti iustitia Christi).  ‘Only Christ’s righteousness is true righteousness.'”

Quotes taken from pages 150-152; the quotes above within the quotes are Olevian’s words, mostly from his commentary on Romans.  Additional note: Reformation Heritage Books recently reprinted this book.  Click here for the link.

shane lems

sunnyside wa

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