Calvin on the Great Usefulness of the Law

Institutes of the Christian Religion, Beveridge Translation In his Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin talks about three parts, or uses, of the law (I.II.VII.6-12).  First, he said, the law “warns, informs, convicts, and lastly condemns, every man of his own unrighteousness. …The law is like a mirror.  In it, we contemplate our weakness….”  Second, Calvin said the law restrains people by the fear of punishment: “The law is like a halter to check the raging and otherwise limitlessly ranging lusts of the flesh.”  What did he say about the third use of the law?

“The third use of the Law (being also the principal use, and more closely connected with its proper end) has respect to believers in whose hearts the Spirit of God already flourishes and reigns. 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 in the Law.”

The “two ways” Christians can profit from the law are:

 1) It teaches us the will of the Lord.  “It is the best instrument for enabling them daily to learn with greater truth and certainty what that will of the Lord is which they aspire to follow.  …Let none of us deem ourselves exempt from this necessity, for none have as yet attained to such a degree of wisdom, as that they may not, by the daily instruction of the Law, advance to a purer knowledge of the Divine will.”

2) It exhorts us to and encourages us in obedience: “The servant of God will derive this further advantage from the Law: by frequently meditating upon it, he will be excited to obedience, and confirmed in it, and so drawn away from the slippery paths of sin.  On this theme, Calvin says that in Psalm 119 the prophet “proclaims the great usefulness of the law: the Lord instructs by their reading of it those whom he inwardly instills with a readiness to obey.  He lays hold not only of the precepts, but the accompanying promise of grace, which alone sweetens what is bitter.”

I appreciate how Calvin said the third use of the law is the principle part, or use.  This is one reason why the Reformed/Presbyterian catechisms have a large section on the 10 commandments as they apply to the Christian life.

Tomorrow I’ll note what Calvin said about those who want to do away with the law in the Christian life – the antinomians.  Stay tuned…

shane lems
hammond, wi

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