Book 3 Chapter 17 Section 1-15
My highlight from a great weekend for British sport was Alistar Brownlee’s victory in the Hyde Park Triathlon World Championship Series. A fellow Yorkshireman, Brownlee is only 21 and already tops the world ranking. He ran a fantastic race and was simply too good for the competition.
However, the race also included an amazing error from two leading triathletes. During the 40k bike ride two riders broke away from the main pack. As they approached transition for the last time they were a long way in front, but rather than stopping, they inexplicably continued cycling round for an extra 5k lap. As everyone watched amazed at the two riders, no one had the guts to stop them and tell them their mistake.
In the end they did a complete extra lap and raced each other to finish last. You can just imagine the second guy thinking to himself “well I thought this was the last lap, but if they guy in front thinks there is another one, then I better keep going”. What a fatal assumption! What a bizarre way to go from first to last in a flash! In this chapter we see the danger of assumptions as Calvin deals with many of our false assumptions in interpreting the promises held out in the law.
Verses such as Leviticus 18.5 “Keep my decrees and laws, for the man who obeys them will live by them” (referenced in Romans 10.5 as the righteousness promised in the law) indicate that perfect obedience to the law would bring life. The question is, if God knew this was not possible then why make these promises? Is God taunting us to offer us something that is forever out of our reach, or is he promising something that he knows will never be given, or is there ultimately some contribution of our works to our salvation?
In response Calvin argues that these promises only apply to perfect obedience, and as none of us ever make this grade then they are out of our grasp. However, this does not make them fruitless for we do receive the benefits of these promises when we turn to Christ. “For what the law was unable to do in that it was weakened by sinful nature (that is bring life), God did by sending his son (Romans 8.3)”. Through Christ’s perfect obedience, and our union with Christ, we now receive the benefit of the life that results from his complete obedience.
So, thanks to Christ, we receive the blessings that rest upon those who obey perfectly, but not through the direct route of our response to the promise, but rather indirectly through our in-grafting into him. Not only that, but as we have seen earlier, God even rewards the “works of the faithful”. He does this by first of all embracing his servants in Christ, “reconciling themselves to himself without the aid of works”. Then he views the works, “not being estimated by their own worth, he, by his fatherly kindness and indulgence, honours so far as to give them some degree of value.” Finally, he extends his pardon to them, “not imputing the imperfection by which they are all polluted, and would deserve to be regarded as vices rather than virtues.”
Thus, God redeems our faltering works, “because everything otherwise defective in them being buried by the purity of Christ is not imputed.” And Calvin concludes with the profound thought that “not only ourselves, but our works also, are justified by faith alone.”
So the promises of God found in the law are not without effect. They point to the end result that God wants to give his people. However, they do not specify the means to get there. We assume it has to be our effort, but through the wonder of the gospel we can take advantage of the obedience of another – the perfect, sinless, sacrifice. The one who represented us, and more than that, united us to himself, so that his obedience was our obedience and his victory was our victory. So don’t assume that just because we are unable to meet the requirements for the promised blessings held out in the law we can never receive them – God knew we would need help when he gave these promises, and he graciously provided it.
“For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in sinful man, in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit.” Romans 8.3-4