The Law Drives Us Into Despair and Moves Us to Seek Grace - First Use

By John Calvin

But, in order that our guilt may arouse us to seek pardon, it behooves us, briefly, to know how by our instruction in the moral law we are rendered more inexcusable. If it is true that in the law we are taught the perfection of righteousness, this also follows: the complete observance of the law is perfect righteousness before God. By it man would evidently be deemed and reckoned righteous before the heavenly judgment seat. Therefore Moses, after he had published the law, did not hesitate to call heaven and earth to witness that he had "set before Israel life and death, good and evil" [ Deuteronomy 30:19 p.]. We cannot gainsay that the reward of eternal salvation awaits complete obedience to the law, as the Lord has promised. On the other hand, it behooves us to examine whether we fulfill that obedience, through whose merit we ought to derive assurance of that reward. What point is there to see in the observance of the law the proffered reward of eternal life if, furthermore, it is not clear whether by this path we may attain eternal life. At this point the feebleness of the law shows itself. Because observance of the law is found in none of us, we are excluded from the promises of life and fall back into the mere curse. I am telling not only what happens but what must happen. For since the teaching of the law is far above human capacity, a man may indeed view from afar the proffered promises, yet he cannot derive any benefit from them. Therefore this thing alone remains: that from the goodness of the promises he should the better judge his own misery, while with the hope of salvation cut off he thinks himself threatened with certain death. On the other hand, horrible threats hang over us, constraining and entangling not a few of us only, but all of us to a man. They hang over us, I say, and pursue us with inexorable harshness, so that
we discern in the law only the most immediate death.


Therefore if we look only upon the law, we can only be despondent, confused, and despairing in mind, since from it all of us are condemned and accursed [Galatians 3:10]. And it holds us far away from the blessedness that it promises to its keepers. Is the Lord, you will ask, mocking us in this way? How little different from mockery is it to show forth the hope of happiness, to invite and attract us to it, to assure us that it is available, when all the while it is shut off and inaccessible? I reply: even if the promises of the law, in so far as they are conditional, depend upon perfect obedience to the law — which can nowhere be found — they have not been given in vain. For when we have learned that they will be fruitless and ineffectual for us unless God, out of his free goodness, shall receive us without looking at our works, and we in faith embrace that same goodness held forth to us by the gospel, the promises do not lack effectiveness even with the condition attached. For the Lord then freely bestows all things upon us so as to add to the full measure of his kindness this gift also: that not rejecting our imperfect obedience, but rather supplying what is lacking to complete it, he causes us to receive the benefit of the promises of the law as if we had fulfilled their condition. But since we will have to discuss this question more fully under the heading of justification by faith, we will not pursue it farther for the present.


We have said that the observance of the law is impossible. Since this is commonly looked upon as a very absurd opinion — Jerome does not hesitate to anathematize it — we ought at once to explain and confirm it in a few words. I do not tarry over what Jerome thinks; let us rather inquire what is true. Here I shall not weave long circumlocutions of various kinds of possibilities. I call "impossible" what has never been, and what God's ordination and decree prevents from ever being. If we search the remotest past, I say that none of the saints, clad in the body of death [cf. Romans 7:24], has attained to that goal of love so as to love God "with all his heart, all his mind, all his soul, and all his might"[Mark 12:30, and parallels]. I say furthermore, there was no one who was not plagued with concupiscence. Who will contradict this? Indeed, I see what sort of saints we imagine in our foolish superstition; the heavenly angels can scarcely compare with them in purity! But this goes against both Scripture and the evidence of experience. I further say that there will be no one hereafter who will reach the goal of true perfection without sloughing off the weight of the body. For this point there are enough manifest testimonies of Scripture. "There is no righteous man upon the earth who... does not sin," said Solomon [ Ecclesiastes 7:21, Vg.; cf. 1 Kings 8:46 p.]. Moreover, David says: "Every man living will be unrighteous before thee" [Psalm 143:2]. Job affirms the same idea in many passages [cf.Job 9:2; 25:4]. Paul expresses it most clearly of all: "The flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit lusts against the flesh" [ Galatians 5:17]. That all those under the law are accursed he proves by no other reason, except that "it is written, 'Cursed be every one who will not abide by all things written in the book of the law'" [Galatians 3:10; Deuteronomy 27:26]. Here he is obviously intimating, in fact assuming, that no one can so abide. But whatever has been declared in Scripture it is fitting to take as perpetual, even as necessary. The Pelagians plagued Augustine with such subtleties as these. They claimed that it was doing an injustice to God to assume that he demanded more of believers than they were able to carry out through his grace. He, to escape their slander, admitted that the Lord could indeed, if he so willed, elevate mortal man to angelic purity; but that he had never done, nor ever would do anything contrary to what he had declared in the Scriptures.

And I do not deny this, but yet add that it is ill-advised to pit God's might against his truth. Therefore, if someone says that what the Scriptures declare will not be, cannot be, such a statement is not to be scoffed at. But suppose they dispute about the Word itself. The Lord, when his disciples asked, "Who can be saved?" [ Matthew 19:25], replied: "With men this is indeed impossible, but with God all things are possible" [ Matthew 19:26]. Also, Augustine compeningly contends that in this flesh we never render to God the love we lawfully owe him. He says: "Love so follows knowledge that no one can love God perfectly who does not first fully know his goodness. While we wander upon the earth, 'we see in a mirror dimly' [ 1 Corinthians 13:12]. Therefore, it follows that our love is imperfect." Let us be quite agreed, then, that the law cannot be fulfilled in this life of the flesh, if we observe the weakness of our own nature; as will, moreover, be shown from another passage of Paul [ Romans 8:3]. (The law shows the righteousness of God, and as a mirror discloses our sinfulness, leading us to implore divine help, 6-9)


But to make the whole matter clearer, let us survey briefly the function and use of what is called the "moral law." Now, so far as I understand it, it consists of three parts. The first part is this: while it shows God's righteousness, that is, therighteousness alone acceptable to God, it warns, informs, convicts, and lastly condemns, every man of his own unrighteousness. For man, blinded and drunk with self-love, must be compelled to know and to confess his own feebleness and impurity. If man is not clearly convinced of his own vanity, he is puffed up with insane confidence in his own mental powers, and can never be induced to recognize their slenderness as long as he measures them by a measure of his own choice. But as soon as he begins to compare his powers with the difficulty of the law, he has something to diminish his bravado. For, however remarkable an opinion of his powers he formerly held, he soon feels that they are panting under so heavy a weight as to stagger and totter, and finally even to fall down and faint away. Thus man, schooled in the law, sloughs off the arrogance that previously blinded him.

Likewise, he needs to be cured of another disease, that of pride, with which we have said that he is sick. So long as he is permitted to stand upon his own judgment, he passes off hypocrisy as righteousness; pleased with this, he is aroused against God's grace by I know not what counterfeit acts of righteousness. But after he is compelled to weigh his life in the scales of the law, laying aside all that presumption of fictitious righteousness, he discovers that he is a long way from holiness, and is in fact teeming with a multitude of vices, with which he previously thought himself undefiled. So deep and tortuous are the recesses in which the evils of covetousness lurk that they easily deceive man's sight. The apostle has good reason to say: "I should not have known covetousness, if the law had not said, 'You shall not covet'" [ Romans 7:7]. For if by the law covetousness is not dragged from its lair, it destroys wretched man so secretly that he does not even feel its fatal stab.


The law is like a mirror. In it we contemplate our weakness, then the iniquity arising from this, and finally the curse coming from both — just as a mirror shows us the spots on our face. For when the capacity to follow righteousness fails him, man must be mired in sins. After the sin forthwith comes the curse. Accordingly, the greater the transgression of which the law holds us guilty, the graver the judgment to which it makes us answerable. The apostle's statement is relevant here: "Through the law comes knowledge of sin" [ Romans 3:20]. There he notes only its first function, which sinners as yet unregenerate experience. Related to this are these statements: "Law slipped in, to increase the trespass" [ Romans 5:20], and thus it is "the dispensation of death" [2 Corinthians 3:7] that "brings wrath" [ Romans 4:15], and slays. There is no doubt that the more clearly the conscience is struck with awareness of its sin, the more the iniquity grows. For stubborn disobedience against the Lawgiver is then added to transgression. It remains, then, to the law to arm God's wrath for the sinner's downfall, for of itself the law can only accuse, condemn, and destroy. As Augustine writes: "If the Spirit of grace is absent, the law is present only to accuse and kill us." But when we say that, we neither dishonor the law, nor detract at all from its excellence. Surely if our will were completely conformed and composed to obedience to the law, its knowledge alone would suffice to gain salvation. Yet, since our carnal and corrupted nature contends violently against God's spiritual law and is in no way corrected by its discipline, it follows that the law which had been given for salvation, provided it met with suitable hearers, turns into an occasion for sin and death. For, since all of us are proved to be transgressors, the more clearly it reveals God's righteousness, conversely the more it uncovers our iniquity. The more surely it confirms the reward of life and salvation as dependent upon righteousness, the more certain it renders the destruction of the wicked. These maxims — far from abusing the law — are of the greatest value in more clearly commending God's beneficence. Thus it is clear that by ourwickedness and depravity we are prevented from enjoying the blessed life set openly before us by the law. Thereby the grace of God, which nourishes us without the support of the law, becomes sweeter, and his mercy, which bestows that grace upon us, becomes more lovely. From this we learn that he never tires in repeatedly benefiting us and in heaping new gifts upon us.


The wickedness and condemnation of us all are sealed by the testimony of the law. Yet this is not done to cause us to fall down in despair or, completely discouraged, to rush headlong over the brink — provided we duly profit by the testimony of the law. It is true that in this way thewicked are terrified, but because of their obstinacy of heart. For the children of God the knowledge of the law should have another purpose. The apostle testifies that we are indeed condemned by the judgment of the law, "so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God" [ Romans 3:19]. He teaches the same ideain yet another place: "For God has shut up all men in unbelief," not that he may destroy all or suffer all to perish, but "that he may have mercy upon all" [ Romans 11:32]. This means that, dismissing the stupid opinion of their own strength, they come to realize that they stand and are upheld by God's hand alone; that, naked and empty-handed, they flee to his mercy, repose entirely in it, hide deep within it, and seize upon it alone for righteousness and merit. For God's mercy is revealed in Christ to all who seek and wait upon it with true faith, In the precepts of the law, God is but the rewarder of perfect righteousness, which all of us lack, and conversely, the severe judge of evil deeds. But in Christ his face shines, full of grace and gentleness, even upon us poor and unworthy sinners.


Augustine often speaks of the value of calling upon the grace of His help. For example, he writes to Hilary: "The law bids us, as we try to fulfill its requirements, and become wearied in our weakness under it, to know how to ask the help of grace." He writes similarly to Asellius: "The usefulness of the law lies in convicting man of his infirmity and moving him to callupon the remedy of grace which is in Christ." Again, to Innocent of Rome: "The law commands; grace supplies the strength to act." Again, to Valentinus: "God commands what we cannot do that we may know what we ought to seek from him." Again: "The law was given to accuse you; that accused you might fear; that fearing you might beg forgiveness; and that you might not presume on your own strength." Again: "The law was given for this purpose: to make you, being great, little; to show that you do not have in yourself the strength to attain righteousness, and for you, thus helpless, unworthy, and destitute, to flee to grace." Afterward he addresses God: "So act, O Lord; so act, O merciful Lord. Command what cannot be fulfilled. Rather, command what can be fulfilled only through thy grace so that, since men are unable to fulfill it through their own strength, every mouth may be stopped, and no one may seem great to himself. Let all be little ones, and let all the world be guilty before God."

But it is silly of me to amass so many testimonies, since that holy man has written a work specifically on this topic, entitled On the Spirit and the Letter. He does not as expressly describe the second value of the law,either because he knew that it depended upon the first, or because he did not grasp it thoroughly, or because he lacked words to express its correct meaning distinctly and plainly enough. Yet this first function of the law is exercised also in the reprobate. For, although they do not proceed so far with the children of God as to be renewed and bloom again in the inner man after the abasement of their flesh, but are struck dumb by the first terror and lie in despair, nevertheless, the fact that their consciences are buffeted by such waves serves to show forth the equity of the divine judgment. For the reprobate always freely desire to evade God's judgment. Now, although that judgment is not yet revealed, so routed are they by the testimony of the law and of conscience, that they betray in themselves what they have deserved.

Excerpt from The Institutes of Christian Religion by John Calvin

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