How Do Believers Have Need of the Law - The Third and Principle Use

by John Calvin


The third and principal use, which pertains more closely to the proper purpose of the law, finds its place among believers in whose hearts the Spirit of God already lives and reigns. For even though they have the law written and engraved upon their hearts by the finger of God [ Jeremiah 31:33; Hebrews 10:16], that is, have been so moved and quickened through the directing of the Spirit that they long to obey God, they still profit by the law in two ways.

Here is the best instrument for them to learn more thoroughly each day the nature of the Lord's will to which they aspire, and to confirm them in the understanding of it. It is as if some servant, already prepared with all earnestness of heart to commend himself to his master, must search out and observe his master's ways more carefully in order to conform and accommodate himself to them. And not one of us may escape from this necessity. For no man has heretofore attained to such wisdom as to be unable, from the daily instruction of the law, to make fresh progress toward a purer knowledge of the divine will.

Again, because we need not only teaching but also exhortation, the servant of God will also avail himself of this benefit of the law: by frequent meditation upon it to be aroused to obedience, be strengthened in it, and be drawn back from the slippery path of transgression. In this way the saints must press on; for, however eagerly they may in accordance with the Spirit strive toward God's righteousness, the listless flesh always so burdens them that they do not proceed with due readiness. The law is to the flesh like a whip to an idle and balky ass, to arouse it to work. Even for a spiritual man not yet free of the weight of the flesh the law remains a constant sting that will not let him stand still. Doubtless David was referring to this use when he sang the praises of the law: "The law of the Lord is spotless, converting souls;... the righteous acts of the Lord are right, rejoicing hearts; the precept of the Lord is clear, enlightening the eyes," etc. [ Psalm 18:8-9, Vg.; 19:7-8, EV]. Likewise: "Thy word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path" [Psalm 119:105], and innumerable other sayings in the same psalm [e.g.,Psalm 119:5]. These do not contradict Paul's statements, which show not what use the law serves for the regenerate, but what it can of itself confer upon man.

But here the prophet proclaims the great usefulness of the law: the Lord instructs by their reading of it those whom he inwardly instills with a readiness to obey. He lays hold not only of the precepts, but the accompanying promise of grace, which alone sweetens what is bitter. For what would be less lovable than the law if, with importuning and threatening alone, it troubled souls through fear, and distressed them through fright? David especially shows that in the law he apprehended the Mediator, without whom there is no delight or sweetness.


Certain ignorant persons,f240 not understanding this distinction, rashly cast out the whole of Moses, and bid farewell to the two Tables of the Law. For they think it obviously alien to Christians to hold to a doctrine that contains the "dispensation of death" [cf. 2 Corinthians 3:7]. Banish this wicked thought from our minds! For Moses has admirably taught that the law, which among sinners can engender nothing but death, ought among the saints to have a better and more excellent use. When about to die, he decreed to the people as follows: "Lay to your hearts all the words which this day I enjoin upon you, that you may command them to your children, and teach them to keep, do, and fulfill all those things written in the book of this law. For they have not been commanded to you in vain, but for each to live in them" [ Deuteronomy 32:46-47, cf. Vg.]. But if no one can deny that a perfect pattern of righteousness stands forth in the law, either we need no rule to live rightly and justly, or it is forbidden to depart from the law. There are not many rules, but one everlasting and unchangeable rule to live by. For this reason we are not to refer solely to one age David's statement that the life of a righteous man is a continual meditation upon the law [ Psalm 1:2], for it is just as applicable to every age, even to the end of the world.

We ought not to be frightened away from the law or to shun its instruction merely because it requires a much stricter moral purity than we shall reach while we bear about with us the prison house of our body. For the law is not now acting toward us as a rigorous enforcement officer who is not satisfied unless the requirements are met. But in this perfection to which it exhorts us, the law points out the goal toward which throughout life we are to strive. In this the law is no less profitable than consistent with our duty. If we fail not in this struggle, it is well. Indeed, this whole life is a race [cf. 1 Corinthians 9:24-26]; when its course has been run, the Lord will grant us to attain that goal to which our efforts now press forward from afar.


Now, the law has power to exhort believers. This is not a power to bind their consciences with a curse, but one to shake off their sluggishness, by repeatedly urging them, and to pinch them awake to their imperfection. Therefore, many persons, wishing to express such liberation from that curse, say that for believers the law — I am still speaking of the moral law — has been abrogated.f241 Not that the law no longer enjoins believers to do what is right, but only that it is not for them what it formerly was: it may no longer condemn and destroy their consciences by frightening and confounding them. Paul teaches clearly enough such an abrogation of the law [cf. Romans 7:6]. That the Lord also preached it appears from this: he would not have refuted the notion that he would abolish the law [ Matthew 5:17] if this opinion had not been prevalent among the Jews. But since without some pretext the idea could not have arisen by chance, it may be supposed to have arisen from a false interpretation of his teaching, just as almost all errors have commonly taken their occasion from truth. But to avoid stumbling on the same stone, let us accurately distinguish what in the law has been abrogated from what still remains in force. When the Lord testifies that he "came not to abolish the law but to fulfill it" and that "until heaven and earth pass away... not a jot will pass away from the law until all is accomplished" [ Matthew 5:17-18], he sufficiently confirms that by his coming nothing is going to be taken away from the observance of the law. And justly — inasmuch as he came rather to remedy transgressions of it. Therefore through Christ the teaching of the law remains inviolable; by teaching, admonishing, reproving, and correcting, it forms us and prepares us for every good work [cf. 2 Timothy 3:16-17]


What Paul says of the curse unquestionably applies not to the ordinance itself but solely to its force to bind the conscience. The law not only teaches but forthrightly enforces what it commands. If it be not obeyed — indeed, if one in any respect fail in his duty — the law unleashes the thunderbolt of its curse. For this reason the apostle says: "All who are of the works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, 'Cursed be every one who does not fulfill all things'"[ Galatians 3:10; Deuteronomy 27:26 p.]. He describes as "under the works of the law" those who do not ground their righteousness in remission of sins, through which we are released from the rigor of the law. He therefore teaches that we must be released from the bonds of the law, unless we wish to perish miserably under them.

But from what bonds? The bonds of harsh and dangerous requirements, which remit nothing of the extreme penalty of the law, and suffer no transgression to go unpunished. To redeem us from this curse, I say, Christ was made a curse for us. "For it is written: 'Cursed be every one who hangs on a tree.'" [ Galatians 3:13; Deuteronomy 21:23.] In the following chapter Paul teaches that Christ was made subject to the law [ Galatians 4:4] "that he might redeem those under the law" [ Galatians 4:5a, Vg.]. This means the same thing, for he continues: "So that we might receive by adoption the right of sons" [ Galatians 4:5b]. What does this mean? That we should not be borne down by an unending bondage, which would agonize our consciences with the fear of death. Meanwhile this always remains an unassailable fact: no part of the authority of the law is withdrawn without our having
always to receive it with the same veneration and obedience.

The ceremonies are a different matter: they have been abrogated not in effect but only in use. Christ by his coming has terminated them, but has not deprived them of anything of their sanctity; rather, he has approved and honored it. Just as the ceremonies would have provided the people of the Old Covenant with an empty show if the power of Christ's death and resurrection had not been displayed therein; so, if they had not ceased, we would be unable today to discern for what purpose they were established.

Consequently Paul, to prove their observance not only superfluous but also harmful, teaches that they are shadows whose substance exists for us in Christ [ Colossians 2:17]. Thus we see that in their abolition the truth shines forth better than if they, still far off and as if veiled, figured the Christ, who has already plainly revealed himself. At Christ's death "the curtain of the temple was torn in two" [ Matthew 27:51] because now the living and express image of heavenly blessings was manifested, which before had been begun in indistinct outline only, as the author of The Letter to the Hebrews states [ Hebrews 10:1]. To this applies Christ's utterance: "The law and the prophets were until John since then the good news of the Kingdom of God is preached" [ Luke 16:16]. Not that the holy patriarchs were without thepreaching that contains the hope of salvation and of eternal life, but that they only glimpsed from afar and in shadowy outline what we see today in full daylight. John the Baptist explains why the church of God had to pass quite beyond these rudiments: "The law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ" [ John 1:17]. For even though atonement for sins had been truly promised in the ancient sacrifices, and the Ark of the Covenant was a sure pledge of God's fatherly favor, all this would have been but shadowf242 had it not been grounded in the grace of Christ, in whom one finds perfect and everlasting stability. Let it be regarded as a fact that, although the rites of the law have ceased to be observed, by their termination one may better recognize how useful they were before the coming of Christ, who in abrogating their use has by his death sealed their force and effect.


Of slightly greater difficulty is the point noted by Paul: "And you, when you were dead through sins and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven you all your sins, havingcanceled the written bond which was against us in the decrees, which was contrary to us. And he bore it from our midst, fixing it to the cross," etc. [ Colossians 2:13-14, cf. Vg.]. This statement seems to extend the abolition of the law to the point that we now have nothing to do with its decrees. They are mistaken who understand it simply of the moral law, whose inexorable severity rather than its teaching they interpret as abolished.f243 Others, more carefully weighing Paul's words, perceive that these apply properly speaking to the ceremonial law; and they point outthat the word "decree" is used in Paul more than once. For he also addresses the Ephesians thus: "He is our peace, who has made us both one... abolishing... the law of commandments resting upon decrees, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two" [ Ephesians 2:14-15, cf. Vg.].f244 There is no doubt that this statement concerns the ceremonies, for he speaks of them as a wall that divides the Jews from the Gentiles [ Ephesians 2:14]. Hence, I admit that the second group of expositors rightly criticizes the first. But the second group also still does not seem to explain the meaning of the apostle very well. For I am not at all happy about comparing the two passages in every detail. When Paul would assure the Ephesians of their adoption into the fellowship of Israel, he teaches that the hindrance which once held them back has now been removed. That was in the ceremonies. For the ritual cleansings and sacrifices, whereby the Jews were consecrated to the Lord, separated them from the Gentiles. Now who cannot see that a loftier mystery is referred to in the letter to the Colossians? The question there concerns the Mosaic observances, to which the false apostles were trying to drive the Christian people. But as in the letter to the Galatians he carries that discussion deeper — reverting, so to speak, to its starting point — so he does in this passage. For if you consider nothing else in the rites than the necessity of performing them, what is the point in calling them "the written bond against us" [ Colossians 2:14]? Moreover, why lodge nearly the whole of our redemption in the fact that they are "blotted out"? Therefore, the thing itself cries out that we should consider it as something more inward.

But I am sure that I have come upon the true understanding of it — provided the truth be granted of what Augustine somewhere most truly writes, or rather takes from the apostle's clear words: in the Jewish ceremonies there was confession of sins rather than atonement for them [cf. Hebrews 10:1 ff.; also Leviticus 16:21]. What else did the Jews accomplish with their sacrifices than to confess themselves guilty of death, since they substituted purification in place of themselves? What else did they accomplish with their cleansings but confess themselves unclean? They thus repeatedly renewed the "written bond" of their sin and impurity. But in giving such proof there was no release from it. The apostle, for this reason, writes: "Since Christ's death has occurred, redemption from the transgressions which remained under the old covenant has been accomplished" [ Hebrews 9:15 p.]. The apostle rightly, therefore, calls the ceremonies "written bonds against" [ Colossians 2:14] those observing them, since through such rites they openly certify their own condemnation and uncleanness [cf. Hebrews 10:3].There is no contradiction in the fact that they also were partakers in the same grace with us. For they attained that in Christ; not in the ceremonies that the apostle in that passage distinguishes from Christ, inasmuch as these, then in use, obscured Christ's glory. We hold that ceremonies, considered in themselves, are very appropriately called "written bonds against" the salvation of men. For they were, so to speak, binding legal documents, which attested men's obligation. When the false apostles wanted to bind the Christian church again to observe them, Paul with good reason, more profoundly restating their ultimate purpose, warned the Colossians into what danger they would slip back if they allowed themselves to be subjugated to the ceremonial law in this way [ Colossians 2:16 ff.]. For at the same time they were deprived of the benefit of Christ, since, when once he had carried out the eternal atonement, he abolished those daily observances, which were able only to attest sins but could do nothing to blot them out.

From The Institutes of Christian Religion by John Calvin

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