Book 2 Chapter 7 Section 1-17
What relevance is the law to the Christian? If we are “not under law but under grace” (Romans 6.14) can we just ignore the law? Also, if some of the law clearly doesn’t apply (such as the sacrificial system), then how do we know which bits to ignore and which bits to keep today? It is to these questions that Calvin addresses himself in Chapter 7 of Book 2. He is setting the scene to ensure we have a correct understanding of the use and purpose of the law before we get to his exposition of the 10 commandments in Chapter 8.
Calvin outlines the office and use of the law in three parts:
1. The law brings knowledge of sin – like a mirror held up to our face, the law reveals our true nature. Though we are “blind and intoxicated with self-love” as long as we we measure ourselves with the standard of our own choice, as soon as we behold the perfect law we begin to understand our own sinfulness. In fact, of itself, this knowledge can only lead to a conviction of a certain judgement. Thus, we can either rush headlong into despair, or cast ourselves on Christ for mercy.
2. The law curbs outward depravity – like a bridle placed on the head of a horse to control its movement, the threatenings of the law can curb the natural inclinations of the wicked by the fear of punishment. While they may be restrained from external acts “they are not on this account either better or more righteous in the sight of God”. Indeed, “the more they restrain themselves, the more they are inflamed”. Their outwards obedience betraying their inner hatred. However, Calvin recognises that this “forced righteousness is necessary for the good of society”.
3. The law presents a perfect pattern of righteousness – the law is our schoolmaster or teacher to bring us to Christ. This works on two levels, firstly to humble those who have “excessive confidence in their own virtue” and secondly once they are believers to “learn with greater truth and certainty what the will of the Lord is which they aspire to follow, and to confirm them in this knowledge”. Calvin argues that if the law “contains a perfect pattern of righteousness, then unless we ought not to have any proper rule of life, it must be impious to discard it”. Indeed, “there are not various rules of life, but one perpetual and inflexible rule”, and if David exhorts us to spend our whole like meditating on it (Psalm 1.2), “we must not confine to a single age, an employment which is most appropriate to all ages, even to the end of the world”.
Calvin finishes off the chapter by considering how we distinguish between what parts of the law have been fulfilled and thus no longer apply and those parts that remain in force (sections 14-17). He reminds us that we are not under the curse of disobedience to the law. This is Paul’s point in the Romans passage quoted above. The demands of the law have been fully met in Christ.
He then turns his attention to the case of “ceremonies” of the sacrificial system, which have been fulfilled in their use, but not their effect. For “as these ceremonies would have given nothing to God’s ancient people but empty show, if the power of Christ’s death and resurrection had not been prefigured by them – so, if the use of them had not ceased, it would, in the present day, be impossible to understand for what purpose they were instituted”.
Reading the mosaic law in the 21st century can seem very bewildering at times, particularly the laws about ceremonial cleanness and unclean animals. Many laws obviously do not apply for new testament believers and the discussion in Acts 15 regarding circumcision is a good example of believers working through the implications of their faith against traditional Jewish culture and laws. We also know that Jesus and the NT authors reaffirmed many of the old testament laws in their teaching, often with a fuller explanation of the spirit of the law.
What Calvin is arguing for here is that we do not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Although we rightly see the fulfilment of many types and patterns by Christ in the law, what remains is an expression of the character of God. If we want to find out what pleases the Lord, as we are exhorted in Colossians 1.10, then where better to learn what He desires than by studying His commands?
What God’s people have recognised throughout the ages is that we do not try to keep these laws in order to gain acceptance with God, but rather that by them we learn that we need His mercy. And if we have received the Spirit of obedience (Galatians 5.16) how can we not seek to keep those laws that we know will please our heavenly Father out of a thankful heart? Should love not be a greater motivation than fear, particularly now that our wills have been released from bondage to sin?
It reminds me of when I was dating my wife. I would buy her flowers and presents and make myself look presentable in order to impress her and win her love. Now that I know she loves me should I not bother buying her flowers? By no means, my gifts of flowers are one of the ways I express my love for her, not as an act of duty but an act of love.
“Direct me in the path of your commands, for there I find delight “- David. Psalm 119.35
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them” – Jesus. Matthew 5.17
“We know that we have come to know Him if we obey His commands. The man who says “I know Him” but does not do what He commands is a liar and the truth is not in him. But if anyone obeys His word, God’s love is truly made complete in Him” – John. 1 John 2.3-5