Calvin on Law and Gospel: A Way Out of the Impasse?

There is a debate raging across the conservative Reformed world right now – a debate that is by no means new – over the nature of the Mosaic Covenant (i.e., the Law). On the one extreme is the position that claims the Mosaic Covenant was merely a legal covenant, perhaps a republication of the covenant of works grounded in creation. According to this position, the Law (i.e., Mosaic Covenant) is a completely different sort of covenant than is the covenant made with Abraham, the covenant of grace. If the latter offered unconditional promises, the former simply functioned to teach Israel its sin, thus ultimately driving Israel to Christ.

On the other extreme is the position that claims that all the major covenants in scripture were really simply one covenant. The Mosaic Covenant was as gracious as the Abrahamic Covenant. It is simply a different administration of the same covenant of grace. (Advocates of this position sometimes claim that the Noahic Covenant is also simply an administration of the covenant of grace.) According to this position, the promises of blessing for obedience and the threats of curse for disobedience found within the Law are no different from those disciplinary warnings always present within the covenant of grace.

Of course many, if not most, of the thoughtful participants in the debate hold a more nuanced position than either of these summaries suggest. But these are at least the parameters of the discussion.

The more I read Calvin, the more I have found that he provides a helpful way of breaking through the seeming impasse between these two views. By far the best book I have come across on Calvin’s view of the law is I. John Hesselink’s Calvin’s Concept of the Law. Hesselink notes that Calvin speaks of the relationship between law and gospel in three different ways.

First, he speaks of the law and the gospel as simply referring to the Old and New Testaments. In this sense, he emphasizes, the substance of the two is the same. Both are ultimately about Christ. “For ‘the covenant made with all the fathers is so much like ours in substance and reality that the two are actually one and the same.'” (Hesselink, 157)

Second, he speaks of the law and the gospel as two different administrations of this one covenant of grace. “The distinction between the old and new covenants is largely a difference in the mode in which this one covenant was administered.” (Hesselink, 157)

These two senses are often emphasized by the second group above, the group that wants to emphasize the unity and continuity within the covenants. And as Hesselink points out, this is also the perspective most prominent in the Institutes. But then he goes on:

What is not always recognized – particularly by the critics of Calvin’s view of law and gospel – is that there is not only a difference of form between the law and the gospel (or the two covenants) but also an antithesis between them in so far as the law in a narrower sense is opposed to the gospel. A case in point is Galatians 3:19, where Paul sets the law given to Moses in opposition to the promise given to Abraham. In such cases Calvin does not hesitate to speak of the accusing, killing function of the law and its threats and curse. This aspect of the law in its narrower sense is taken up in Chapter 7 of Book II of the Institutes and is discussed even more fully in Calvin’s exegetical writings on the Pauline Epistles and related texts. Here Calvin does not differ significantly from Luther, except in emphasis and direction. Calvin often points out, for example, that when Paul and other biblical writers refer to the law in this narrow sense, that is, as opposed to the gospel, it is separated from the promises of grace and is considered only from the standpoint of its ‘peculiar office, power and end.'” (Hesselink 157-158)

The law, in other words, can be considered broadly or narrowly. Broadly it is simply an administration of the covenant of grace, set within the gospel promises to Abraham and defined by innumerable sacrifices that pointed the people to Christ. Narrowly it presented the people with a mere works principle: obey my law and you will be blessed; disobey and you will be punished.

Of course, while Calvin admitted that Paul usually uses the word law in the narrower sense (hence the use I have been defending in my last two articles here and here), Calvin himself usually used it in a broader sense (which is why some of my critics erroneously thought I was misrepresenting Calvin). However, some proponents of the continuity view described above have claimed that Calvin believed Paul only spoke of the law in the narrow sense when he was interacting with the way it was used by those who rejected Christ. But this is not the case at all. As Hesselink puts it,

Calvin recognizes fully the negative function of the law. Moreover, he acknowledges that this is a proper function of the law in so far as the ministry of Moses is opposed to the ministry of Christ and the gospel. This is, of course, not the complete picture; only one aspect or part of the law is dealt with when the law is so portrayed. On the other hand, the origin of this concept of the law is not to be traced to a mere misunderstanding or misuse of the law; nor can these strong words of Paul be dismissed simply as a polemic against an abuse of the law.

There are many, many places in Calvin to which I could point to illustrate this approach (just as there are many, many places in which Calvin emphasizes the relation of law and gospel as being one of continuity). Here let me simply offer a couple of them.

In his commentary on Romans 10:5 Calvin writes,

The law has a twofold meaning; it sometimes includes the whole of what has been taught by Moses, and sometimes that part only which was peculiar to his ministration, which consisted of precepts, rewards, and punishments… But as evangelic promises are only found scattered in the writings of Moses, and these also somewhat obscure, and as the precepts and rewards, allotted to the observers of the law, frequently occur, it rightly appertained to Moses as his own and peculiar office, to teach what is the real righteousness of works, and then to show what remuneration awaits the observance of it, and what punishment awaits those who come short of it. For this reason Moses is by John compared with Christ, when it is said, ‘That the law was given by Moses, but that grace and truth came by Christ’ (John 1:17). And whenever the word law is thus strictly taken, Moses is by implication opposed to Christ.

In his commentary on 2 Corinthians 3:6 Calvin writes,

The Apostle says that the law was but for a time, and required to be abolished, but that the gospel, on the other hand, remains forever. There are various reasons why the ministry of Moses is pronounced transient, for it was necessary that the shadows should vanish at the coming of Christ, and that statement – The law and the prophets were until John (Matthew 9:13) applies to more than the mere shadows. For it intimates that Christ has put an end to the ministry of Moses, which was peculiar to him, and is distinguished from the gospel. Finally, the Lord declares by Jeremiah that the weakness of the Old Testament arose from this, that it was not engraven on men’s hearts (Jeremiah 31:32-33). For my part, I understand that abolition of the law, of which mention is here made, as referring to the whole of the Old Testament, in so far as it is opposed to the gospel, so that it corresponds with the statement – The law and the prophets were until John. For the context requires this. For Paul is not reasoning here as to mere ceremonies, but shows how much more powerfully the Spirit of God exercises his power in the gospel than of old under the law.

For Calvin, then, understood in its broader covenantal context the Mosaic covenant is part of the covenant of grace. Taken more narrowly, however, it is a covenant of law, opposed to the gospel. Paul usually refers to the law in its narrow sense, while a passage like Psalm 119 focuses on the law in its broader sense.

If Calvin is right, perhaps the problem driving the debate in Reformed circles today is that each side is grasping on to half of the truth and fighting for it as if it were the whole truth. Calvin clearly doesn’t solve all of the hard questions about the meaning and use of the law in Christian theology (I, for one, have several important disagreements with him), but on this point his general framework seems very helpful. The question is, does Calvin’s dual understanding of the Law in broad/narrow terms provide a way out of the impasse?


About Matthew J. Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga is the Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted on July 29, 2013, in Calvin, Law and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Calvin on Law and Gospel: A Way Out of the Impasse?.

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