The whispered promises of a betrothed groom

Book 3 Chapter 18 Section 1-10

How willingly we make promises to each other when we are in love. Nothing compels us to commit ourselves to each other apart from our desire to intertwine our lives so they can never be separated. On the marriage day we say our vows that promise provision, protection and faithfulness. The promises spring from a well of love that desires to make the other person feel completely secure and safe.

The star-struck lover giving precious promises to his beloved is the image that springs to mind from this final chapter on justification by faith. Here Calvin deals with the passages in the bible where God is said to grant eternal life to those who act graciously and uprightly (e.g. Matthew 25.31-46) and reward those who have acted well in this present life (e.g. 2 Corinthians 5.10). Rather than demonstrating that our works are the ground for our salvation Calvin argues that these passages indicate “not the cause, but the order of sequence.” Eternal life is given to those who have previously been adopted into the family of God for “the kingdom of heaven is not the hire of servants, but the inheritance of sons.”

More than that, we can see that God promises a reward to our works in order to motivate us to keep going. Knowing how weak we are and prone to giving up he promises rewards for our efforts. “For in order to animate us in well-doing, he allows no act of obedience, however unworthy of his eye, to pass unrewarded.” But such rewards are subsequent to salvation, for as Augustine says “To whom could the righteous Judge give the crown if the merciful Father had not given grace…and how could these be paid as things due were not things not due previously given?”

Thus our reward is certain, not because we deserve such a reward, but entirely because God has promised to give us what we don’t deserve. Again Calvin quotes from Augustine, “faithful is the Lord, who hath made himself our debtor, not by receiving anything from us, but by promising us all things.”


We are used to thinking that God is no man’s debtor – that He more than rewards those who give up or sacrifice things for him. However, in an important sense God has put himself in debt to his children to give them what he has promised in his word. Everything God gives us is sourced from his infinite mercy – from our adoption as sons to the rewards for our service. God is not in the least indebted to us in anyway, but he makes himself indebted because he wants to. His rewards are the promised gifts of a lover not the wages of a servant.

There is nothing within us that means we should ever expect a reward for our vain attempts at good works. The basis for our blessing lies entirely within the promises made from a free and sovereign God. Nothing external compelled God to give us these promises – they are founded on the love of a lover for his beloved. It is as if we are the betrothed bride listening to the whispers of our lover, telling us what he will do for his most precious possession.

In Jewish culture the betrothal was a definite and binding agreement upon both groom and bride, who were considered as man and wife in all legal and religious aspects, except that of actual cohabitation. It was a joining of two people that guaranteed marriage at a later stage. Thus God puts himself in our debt, the God who is completely free brings himself under obligation to his bride. He adorns us with sweet promises, the fulfillment of the promises are certain, because of his character and because of his betrothal to us.

“Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law.” Romans 13.8

Father, we rejoice in the many great and precious promises you have showered upon us. Thank you that you take delight in your people, help us to live in the light of this grace and be people of mercy and compassion. Help us to respond in loving obedience, not for fear of punishment or hope of reward, but out of love for the one who has captured our hearts. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

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