Calvin on Law & Gospel

While preparing to teach on II Cor 3:16, I ran across a great passage from Calvin’s commentary on II Cor 3:7.  And since my blog has been in a dearth lately, I thought a little cut & paste would be in order.  Commenting on the phrase “ministry of death,” Calvin turns to the question, isn’t the Gospel also a ministry of death?  Take it away, Johnny C!

Here, however, a question arises: As the gospel is the odor of death unto death to some, (2 Cor 2:16,) and as Christ is a rock of offense, and a stone of stumbling set for the ruin of many (Luke 2:34; 1 Pet 2:8) why does he represent, as belonging exclusively to the law, what is common to both? Should you reply, that it happens accidentally that the gospel is the source of death, and, accordingly, it the occasion of it rather than the cause, inasmuch as it is in its own nature salutary to all, the difficulty will still remain unsolved; for the same answer might be returned with truth in reference to the law. For we hear what Moses called the people to bear witness to — that he had set before them life and death. (Deut 30:15) We hear what Paul himself says in Rom 7:10 — that the law has turned out to our ruin, not through any fault attaching to it, but in consequence of our wickedness. Hence, as the entailing of condemnation upon men is a thing that happens alike to the law and the gospel, the difficulty still remains.

My answer is this — that there is, notwithstanding of this, a great difference between them; for although the gospel is an occasion of condemnation to many, it is nevertheless, on good grounds, reckoned the doctrine of life, because it is the instrument of regeneration, and offers to us a free reconciliation with God. The law, on the other hand, as it simply prescribes the rule of a good life, does not renew men’s hearts to the obedience of righteousness, and denounces everlasting death upon transgressors, can do nothing but condemn. Or if you prefer it in another way, the office of the law is to show us the disease, in such a way as to show us, at the same time, no hope of cure: the office of the gospel is, to bring a remedy to those that were past hope. For as the law leaves man to himself, it condemns him, of necessity, to death; while the gospel, bringing him to Christ, opens the gate of life. Thus, in one word, we find that it is an accidental property of the law, that is perpetual and inseparable, that it killeth; for as the Apostle says elsewhere, (Gal 3:10) “All that remain under the law are subject to the curse.” It does, not, on the other hand, invariably happen to the gospel, that it kills, for in it is revealed the righteousness of God from faith to faith, and therefore it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth. (Rom 1:17-18).

It remains, that we consider the last of the properties that are ascribed. 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 for ever. 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” (Matt 11:13) — 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. (Jer 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.

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