alien righteousness

John Calvin – The Law

“Now before beginning to treat each heading individually, it is good first to know what pertains to understanding all of it.  For the first, let it be resolved that human life ought to be ruled by the law not only as regards external honorableness but also as regards inward and spiritual righteousness.  However, this latter, although, although it cannot be denied, is considered by very few because people do not consider the Lawgiver, for the nature of the law should be valued according the nature of the Lawgiver.  If some king prohibited fornication, murder, and robbery by edict, I admit that someone who only conceived in his heart some desire to fornicate, or steal, or murder, without acting on it and without any attempt to put it into action, would not be bound by the penalty established for breaking the law.  Becausae the provision of the mortal lawgiver doe not extend beyond external honorableness, his ordinances are not violated unless the evil is put into action.  But God — before whose eye nothing is hidden and who does not stop short with external appearance of good but goes to purity of the heart — when forbids fornication, homicide, and stealing, He is prohibiting all carnal concupiscence, hatred, coveting of someone else’s goods, deceit, and everything else like these.  For since He is a spiritual Lawgiver, He speaks to the soul as much as to the body.  Now wrath and hatred are murder, as far as the soul is concerned; coveting is stealing; ill-regulated love is fornication.

But someone could say: “Human laws are concerned with the reason and will of people just as well, and not with fortutious happenings.”  I admit that, but the human laws mean the will which is expressed in action; for they consider with that intention each act was done but they do not inquire about secret thoughts.  That is why someone who abstains from outward transgression satisfies the laws of the government.  On the contrary, because God’s law is given to our souls, if we want to keep it well, it is out souls which must be principally be rebuked.  Now, even when they want to hide the fact that they despise the law, the majority of people in some way train their eyes, feet, hands, and other parts of the their bodies to keep what it commands, but their heart remains completely opposed to obeying it.  So they think they have well discharged their debt if they have hidden from people what appears before God.  They hear: “You shall not murder, you shall not commit fornication, you shall not steal,” so they do not take out their sword to kill, they do not mess around with lovers, they do not set hands on someone else’s goods.  All that is good.  But their heart is full of murder and burns with carnal concupiscence; they can only see their neighbor’s goods crookedly, devouring them with coveting, and so they are lacking what is the chief part of the law.  From where does such torpor come, I ask you, unless they ignore the Lawgiver and accomodate the righteousness to their own understanding?  St. Paul cries out loudly and strongly against this view, saying that “the law is spiritual” (Rom. 7[14]).   By that he means that not only does it require obedience from the soul, the understanding, and the will, but also an angelic purity which is cleansed of every carnal spot so that it savors of nothing but spirit.

In saying that this is the meaning of the law, we are not bringing forward a new exposition of our own but we are following Christ, who is a very good expositor of it.  For becauase the Pharisees had sown among the people the perverse view that one who did not commit any external act against the law was one who kept it well, He rebukes this error by saying that “an indecent look at a woman is fornication and all those who hate their brothers are homicides” (Matt. 5[22ff, 28ff]).  For He makes all who have simple conceived some anger in their heart, guilty of judgment; and all who by murmuring show some offense of heart, guilty before the consistory; and all who by doing harm have openly declared their evil intent, guilty of the Gehenna of fire.  Those who have no understood this imagined that Christ was a second Moses who brought the gospel law to supply what was lacking in the Mosaic law.  That is where this popular saying came from, that “the perfection of the gospel law is much greater than that of the former law.”  This is a very perverse error.  For when we later summarize the precepts of Moses it will appear by his very words what great insult they do to God’s law in saying this” 

-John Calvin.  Taken from John Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion: 1541 French Edition. The First English Edition, translated by Elsie Anne Mckee, pages 119-120.  

  “Removing, then, mention of law, and laying aside all consideration of works, we should, when justification is being discussed, embrace God’s mercy alone, turn our attention from ourselves, and look only to Christ….If consciences wish to attain any certainty in this matter, they ought to give no place to the law.”   (Calvin Institutes 3.19.2, quoting via Horton’s Covenant and Salvation: Union with Christ).

Three Uses of the Law on the White Horse Inn

Michael Horton: Well, what do we do then about the Law in terms of its different uses? What are the different uses of the Law? Is the law there only to tell us that we haven’t kept it? Are there any other uses of the Law?

 Rod Rosenbladt: The Reformers talked of three uses. Both the Lutherans and the Reformed talk of three uses of the Law. Luther and, I think, Calvin would have agreed that the major use of the Law was what you referred to from Galatians—to break all source of false images we have of our self and bring us to dust. Our self-righteousness is dying on the floor in arriving heap. As a preparation to drive us to Christ who has died for us in the place of all of our rebellion.

 Then, they also talked about a first use of the law, the civil use of the law that they said applied to everybody. That this would be true of everybody on earth, some sort of basic Romans 2:14 and 15, basic, basic, basic Law put into every human being, not a full tilt ethics but the basics, so that our systems of judges and jails and all of that should reflect that first use of the law and keep me from killing my neighbor in order not to steal his wife or his speedboat. There will be jails and courts to deal with that and that’s God’s good gift to keep sinners from doing what we would do by nature.

 And then a third use of the Law; that’s for Christians only. That fleshes out what is it that I am to reflect as a Christian if I’m not free in the sense of libertine. What is the Christian life to look like? And it was to flesh that out. This is what it’s to look like—it was content, it was “this is what it would look like.” Is it still Law? Yeah, it’s still Law and if that use of the Law is killing you, you go back to the second use and go to Christ again. This is why in the White Horse Inn and the MR we have as a theme “Christ death is great enough to even save a Christian.” Christ death could even save a Christian. And I think both of us—our traditions could easily get into that, that third use stuff for most of the sermon, and we ought not do that. (italics mine)

“This transcription of “Rightly Dividing the Word: Law and Gospel” is a
broadcast of the White Horse Inn radio program that originally aired on May
22, 2005 and is posted with permission. The White Horse Inn exists to equip
Christians to “know what you believe and why you believe it.” For more
information about the White Horse Inn, please visit or
call (800) 890-7556 .

To get the White Horse Inn quotes above in context go here

and especially here (questions and answers 1-21).

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