Category Archives: The Law

From fading glory to surpassing glory

Screen Shot 2017-12-29 at 14.44.32Book 2 Chapter 11 Section 1-14

During the last few chapters Calvin has been at pains to stress the unity and connection between the Old and New Testaments. However, now he focuses on how they are different. He concludes that the major differences lie principally in the mode of administration between the two covenants rather than the substance. Calvin groups these into five points:

  1. In the Old Testament the future inheritance is foreshadowed by earthly blessings, in the New it is more clearly revealed in the gospel and the physical evidences are no longer necessary. Calvin argues that although the Jews were encouraged to regard Canaan as their promised inheritance, the physical land was not the totality of their inheritance. Indeed, God was trying to build the concept of an eternal inheritance through the giving of a temporal land. “He promised them the land of Canaan for an inheritance, not that it might be the limit of their hopes, but that the view of it might train and confirm them in the hope of the true inheritance, which, as yet, appeared not.”
  2. Types are used in the Old Testament, whereas the reality is found in the New Testament.  The idea here is that the God introduced concepts through the Old Testament that were physical expressions of spiritual truths that were later explained and fully realised in the New Testament. An example would be the Scapegoat – where a goat would be symbolically portrayed as receiving the sins of the community and then being taken outside the camp. On one level this illustrated the removal of the sins from the community by God, but as a “type”, this law reveals something of the real scapegoat – the Lord Jesus, on whom our sin was placed and who received the judgement of God.
  3. The Old Testament is literal, the new is spiritual. The former relies on the letter of the law, the latter on the Spirit of the lawgiver. The Old brought death and condemnation, the New life and freedom. Calvin summarises the Old Testament this way: “it commands what is right, prohibits crimes, holds forth rewards to the cultivators of righteousness, and threatens transgressors with punishment, while at the same time it neither changes nor amends that depravity of heart which is naturally inherent in all.”
  4. The Old Testament brings bondage, the new freedom. The Old breeds fear, the New confidence and security. Indeed, the former “filled the conscience with fear and trembling” the latter “inspires it with gladness.”
  5. The Old Testament belongs to one people only, the new to all. Calvin is here referring to the bringing in of the Gentiles to God’s plan of salvation through the preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

In light of the significant differences between the two testaments, and the subsequent confusion that blights many believers when studying the Old Testament, in the final section Calvin considers why God bothered to use two testaments at all. Why didn’t God go straight to the New Testament without the introduction of the Old? Why bother with physical illustrations of types and figures rather than going straight to the reality and underlying spiritual truths? Indeed, some have become so confused that they claim that the God of the Old Testament was different to the God of the New Testament.

  • Firstly, because in His infinite wisdom God saw fit to use this means to glorify Himself and tutor His children in the depths of His grace and mercy. God was pleased to use earthly blessings to reflect spiritual blessings and physical punishments to reflect the horror of spiritual punishments.
  • Secondly, God should not be criticised because He adapts different forms to different ages. Calvin uses the methods employed by a father to instruct his children compared to those he uses when they have reached adulthood – different methods for different times.
  • Thirdly, as a wise and loving Creator, God is pleased to adopt the best method at the right moment in history. We should not wonder that God used a different set of signs to prepare for Christ’s first coming than He uses now that Jesus has been manifested to the world.


It seems to me that many believers today are confused about the place and value of the Old Testament. Over the last few chapters we have thought about how the two testaments are similar and different. When Calvin draws the connections between the Old and New Testaments he draws out the beauty in the former and enables us to see the jewels scattered broadly throughout the law and the prophets. When he now turns to show us the greatness of the New in comparison to the Old he helps us to see that the beauty of the Old is like shiny copper compared to the sparkling emerald of the New.

“Now if the ministry that condemns men is glorious, how much more glorious is the ministry that brings righteousness! For what was glorious has no glory now in comparison with the surpassing glory. And if what was fading away came with glory, how much greater is the glory of that which lasts!” 2 Corinthians 3. 9-11


The shadow and the substance

Book 2 Chapter 9 Section 1-5

This chapter forms an introduction to the subsequent two chapters, which deal with the similarities (Chapter 10) and differences (Chapter 11) between the Old and New Testaments. The main thrust of this short chapter is to demonstrate that although Christ is only fully revealed in the New Testament, he was known to the believers in the Old Testament, albeit as a foretaste to what was to come.

Even Abraham, who lived before the law was given, understood something of the promised messiah (John 8.56). “For though the event being remote, his view of it was obscure, he had full assurance that it would one day be accomplished”. The giving of the law and the ministry of the prophets shed further light upon our eternal inheritance.

Throughout these chapters Calvin is keen to stress the close relationship between promise and fulfillment in scripture. In particular Calvin mentions the teaching of Servetus, who “abolishes the promises entirely” from a misguided desire to promote the greatness of Christ. Servetus goes on to teach that as all the promises are fulfilled in the gospel then “we are now put in possession of all the blessings purchased by him”. But as Paul says “who hopes for what he already has?” (Romans 8.24). It is true that we have received many blessings, but many promises are as yet unfulfilled and we wait for their fulfillment patiently (1 John 3.1).

Calvin is keen to stress the unity of God’s plan of salvation across the entire scriptures. He complains against those who “in comparing the Law with the Gospel, represent it merely as a comparison between the merit of works and the gratuitous imputation of righteousness”. In contrast he states “the Gospel has not succeeded the whole Law in such a sense as to introduce a different method of salvation. It rather confirms the Law and proves that everything which is promised is fulfilled. What was shadow, it has made substance”.


There has only ever been one means of salvation, from Adam to Abraham to David to Daniel. Each has come to God by faith alone through grace alone in Christ alone. No one was ever saved through obeying the law, indeed, those born before the advent of Christ who were the true children of Abraham have always understood this. When Christ came, he did not introduce an alternative means of salvation but made possible the one means promised to Adam in Genesis 3.15. Christ satisfied the righteous demands of the law that we might be accepted in Him. We are made righteous through His blood and come into fellowship with God through His Son.

What we see in the Old Testament is, as it were, the base colours God paints across the canvass of salvation. Once the foundation is in place He adds the fine detail on top of the base colours through the life and ministry of Christ and the apostles.  As Christians we should value and treasure the Old Testament as we see Christ portrayed in types and symbols. To only study the finer details of the picture is to miss something of the beauty and wonder of the entire canvass.

“But when the time had fully come God sent His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive the full rights of sons”. Galatians 4.4

Father, enable us to see your plan of salvation across the entire scriptures, that we may not neglect to meditate on any part of your word. Open our eyes to help us see Christ in all the scriptures, for His sake, Amen.

I am not a liar

Book 2 Chapter 8 Section 1-58

As I write this post Lewis Hamilton, the youngest Formula 1 Champion in the history of the sport is having to confess to giving “misleading information” to race stewards following his race last Sunday. Apparently he deliberately withheld information about an illegal move during the race that led to another competitor being (wrongly) penalised. For this action Hamilton was disqualified from the race and his boss was sacked, after 35 years with McLaran. In his defence Hamilton shifts the blame onto his boss who, he said, asked him to withhold the information. Despite being caught red-handed, Hamilton said “I am not a liar or a dishonest person”.

It’s interesting to consider his reasoning after just reading Calvin’s chapter on the 10 commandments. I’m not sure the logic would not have convinced Calvin. Hamilton seems to be implying that although he has been caught lying on tape he is not the kind of person who lies routinely. His explanation also seems to imply that because he only withheld information and didn’t say something that was false he didn’t lie. While both these things may be true, the law says he is a liar. For he who keeps all the law but breaks it in one place is a lawbreaker, and he who has never lied before, but lies once is a liar. The law stands there in black and white as a timeless testimony of God’s character. No matter what modern secular man thinks of the 10 commandments, the 9th commandment (“You shall not bear false testimony against thy neighbour”) is still as powerful today as it ever has been.

Perhaps we think that we would not have done the same thing. Perhaps we think we are not liars?

Calvin states the purpose of the 9th commandment is to teach us to “cultivate unfeigned truth towards each other”. That not only should we not say things that untrue about our neighbour, but that we must “faithfully assist each one, as far as in us lies, in asserting the truth, for the maintenance of his good name and his estate”. This is a proactive goodness and generosity to our neighbour. It is not good enough to stand by and not speak up for our neighbour in his support, should circumstances require our testimony. We should employ the tongue “in maintenance of truth, so as to promote both the good name and prosperity of our neighbour”.

Calvin finishes this commandment by increasing the magnification of our sin under God’s microscope. He says “let us not imagine it is a sufficient excuse to say that on many occasions our statements are not false”. Ouch! I guess I am a liar too. Have I not many times injured my neighbour’s name and reputation by complaining against him, even if it is true? What appeared like a simple and straightforward command – not to lie against a neighbour – is really a call from God to live wholeheartedly for the good of all people with a sincere heart. Which of us can claim not to be a liar now?


This mammoth chapter is one of the longest in the Institutes but is full of interesting insights into the most famous laws in the world.

The example above shows how prone we are to try and wriggle out of the full demands of the 10 commandments. Indeed, while some may seek to play down the implications of the 10 commandments, in a futile attempt to “manage” our sin, Calvin is careful to stress that we should not limit the application of these laws by our ability to keep them. Rather we must allow God to set the standards, even if they are so far above our reach that it is impossible for us to attain them.

Calvin repeatedly comes back to his theme of Why are we given these commands? What is God trying to tell us through them? His answer is that God has chosen specific examples to illustrate divine principles. In some cases He has chosen the most extreme example of a particular sin (e.g. murder) to illustrate a broader principle of holding each person sacred. Or He chooses an example we are most inclined to obey (e.g. honouring our parents) in order to illustrate the principle of cultivating a respect for authority of all kinds.

This is exactly how Jesus understood the law and how explained its demands, drawing our attention to the underlying spiritual requirements of the written law. Unfortunately, while this deeper understanding of the law deepens our knowledge of what God requires, it also deepens our failure to live up to His standards. There was only ever one man who lived His entire life in every word, deed and thought to promote the truth and the good of His neighbour.  He is the only one who can help us, as we will see in the next chapter.

“Having loved his own who were in the world, he now showed them the full extent of His love”. John 13.1

Father, thank you for the penetrating light of your word. As we gain a better understanding of its truths we are exposed as guilty before you. I thank you that there is forgiveness at the cross for everything we have done, everything we have left undone. Fill us with your Spirit of truth to think, speak and act only for the good of our neighbour, Amen.

Don’t stop buying the flowers!

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