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John Calvin’s Institutes (ICR) > Book 2, Chapter 8, Section 2 to Book 2, Chapter 8, Section 34

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In this session, we will study Calvin’s exposition of the moral law.


2. Our disobedience to God’s law is our own fault. “We cannot pretend the excuse that we lack ability and, like impoverished debtors, are unable to pay… Whatever he requires of us (because he can require only what is right), we must obey out of natural obligation. But what we cannot do is our own fault” (p. 369).

3. This is the process of conversion: the law brings us to realize our unworthiness and drives us to God for his mercy. “First, by comparing the righteousness of the law with our life, we learn how far we are from conforming to God’s will. And for this reason we are unworthy to hold our place among his creatures — still less to be accounted his children. Secondly, in considering our powers, we learn that they are not only too weak to fulfill the law, but utterly nonexistent… Thus it finally comes to pass that man, thoroughly frightened by the awareness of eternal death, which he sees as justly threatening him because of his own unrighteousness, betakes himself to God’s mercy alone, as the only haven of safety” (pp. 369-370). In desperation, we look to God.

4. God supplies promises and threats, pertaining to the present life and the life to come, in order to reinforce his law. The promises are given to reveal his kindness; threats are issued to remind us of his holiness. “In order to imbue our hearts with love of righteousness and with hatred of wickedness, he has added promises and threats. For because the eye of our mind is too blind to be moved solely by the beauty of the good, our most merciful Father out of his great kindness has willed to attract us by sweetness of rewards to love and seek after him... And to urge us in every way, he promises both blessings in the present life and everlasting blessedness to those who obediently keep his commandments. He threatens the transgressors no less with present calamities than with the punishment of eternal death” (p. 370).

This is not to say that God owes us blessings for obedience as if it was an obligation on his part. No, rather it is a testimony of his generosity. We are indebted to God, not the other way around. “For since we, with all that is ours, are deep in debt to his majesty, whatever he requires of us he claims with perfect right as a debt. But the payment of a debt deserves no reward. He therefore yields his own right when he offers a reward for our obedience” (p. 370).

5. The law instructs us on what pleases God. Our duty is to observe God’s law. Take note, there is no need to invent new ways to please God. “Men always delight in contriving some way of acquiring righteousness apart from God’s Word” (p. 371). God reminds us: “What I command you, this only you are to do... ; you shall not add to it or take from it” (Deuteronomy 12:32). “The law has been divinely handed down to us to teach us perfect righteousness; there no other righteousness is taught than that which conforms to the requirements of God’s will; in vain therefore do we attempt new forms of works to win the favor of God, whose lawful worship consists in obedience alone; rather, any zeal for good works that wanders outside God’s law is an intolerable profanation of divine and true righteousness” (p. 372).

6. & 7. We are bound to inward obedience. In contrast to human courts which are satisfied with regulating outward behavior, God requires nothing short of obedience from the heart. “God, whose eye nothing escapes, and who is concerned not so much with outward appearance as with purity of heart, under the prohibition of fornication, murder, and theft, forbids lust, anger, hatred, coveting a neighbor’s possessions, deceit, and the like. For since he is a spiritual lawgiver, he speaks no less to the soul than to the body” (p. 372). Indeed, “Christ… declares an unchaste glance at a woman to be adultery [Matthew 5:28]. He testifies that ‘anyone who hates his brother is a murderer’ [1 John 3:15]” (p. 373). Rather than adding to the law, Christ “restored it to its integrity” by clarifying its true meaning (p. 374).

8. to 10. The Ten Commandments have broader application than what is narrowly written in the text. Calvin refers to them as synecdoches (i.e., one part is named but it represents the whole—for example, in common language, “wheels” can be used to refer to an entire vehicle or car, not just the tires). In order to understand the fullness of God’s law, Calvin asks us to consider the intention underlying each commandment and the positive/negative corollaries: “if this pleases God, the opposite displeases him; if this displeases, the opposite pleases him; if he commands this, he forbids the opposite; if he forbids this, he enjoins the opposite” (p. 375).

When something is forbidden, God expects that we not only abstain from it, but that we express the positive virtue as well. Calvin provides an example: “in this commandment, ‘You shall not kill,’ men’s common sense will see only that we must abstain from wronging anyone or desiring to do so. Besides this, it contains, I say, the requirement that we give our neighbor’s life all the help we can… God forbids us to hurt or harm a brother unjustly, because he wills that the brother’s life be dear and precious to us. So at the same time he requires those duties of love which can apply to its preservation” (p. 375-376).

11. The Ten Commandments consist of two tables: “the first part to those duties of religion which particularly concern the worship of [God] his majesty; the second, to the duties of love that have to do with men” (pp. 376-377). It is important to acknowledge that our duty to God is primary. “Apart from the fear of God men do not preserve equity and love among themselves. Therefore we call the worship of God the beginning and foundation of righteousness” (p. 377). Christ “summarizes the whole law under two heads: that ‘we should love the Lord our God with all our heart, and with all our soul, and with all our powers’; and ‘that we should love our neighbor as ourselves’ [Luke 10:27; Matthew 22:37,39]. You see that of the two parts in which the law consists, one he directs to God; the other he applies to men” (p. 377).

12. Here, Calvin points out how the Roman Catholic Church and the Reformed number the Ten Commandments differently. Simply put, Roman Catholics combine “Thou shalt have no other gods before me” and “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image” together and consider them both to be the first commandment. Then, they divide “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's wife” from “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's house… nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour's” and list these as the ninth and tenth commandments, respectively.

Calvin explains that Roman Catholics “give three precepts to the First Table and relegate the remaining seven to the Second, [and therefore] erase from the number the commandment concerning images, or at least hide it under the First. There is no doubt that the Lord gave it a distinct place as a commandment, yet they absurdly tear in two the Tenth Commandment about not coveting the possessions of one’s neighbor” (p. 378).

Sections 13 to 16 exposit the first commandment:

13. to 15. In the preface to the Ten Commandments, God declares himself to be Jehovah (Yahweh) to distinguish himself from idols and invented gods. He claims authority over us by right of creation and redemption. Apart from him, we cannot exist. Without him, we would still be in bondage. “We must regard the Egyptian bondage of Israel as a type of the spiritual captivity in which all of us are held bound, until our heavenly Vindicator, having freed us by the power of his arm, leads us into the Kingdom of freedom… So today all those to whom he professes himself their God he releases from the devil’s deadly power — foreshadowed by that physical bondage. For this reason there is no one whose mind ought not to be kindled to heed the law, which has come forth, he hears, from the highest King” (p. 381). In this regard, we need to align our attitude to God rightly. “A son honors his father, and a servant his lord... If I am a lord, where is your fear?... If I am a father, where is your love?” (Malachi l:6).

16. For each commandment, Calvin follows a similar pattern where he expounds on its purpose, its positive requirements, and its negative prohibitions—beginning with the first commandment. “The purpose of this commandment is that the Lord wills alone to be pre-eminent among his people, and to exercise complete authority over them. To effect this, he enjoins us to put far from us all impiety and superstition, which either diminish or obscure the glory of his divinity” (p. 382). There are four categories of things that we owe to God as positive requirements: adoration (i.e., worship and submission to this greatness), trust (i.e., reposing ourselves in communion with him in recognition of his sweet attributes), invocation (i.e., relying on him along for our support), and thanksgiving (i.e., ascribing praise to him for all things). “As the Lord suffers nothing of these to be transferred to another, so he commands that all be rendered wholly to himself” (p. 382). In terms of negative prohibitions, “we are to drive away all invented gods and are not to rend asunder the worship that the one God claims for himself. For it is unlawful to take away even a particle from his glory” (pp. 382-383).

To this commandment, God adds the phrase “before my face” in order to remind us that “whatever we undertake, whatever we attempt, whatever we make, comes into his sight. Therefore, let our conscience be clean even from the most secret thoughts of apostasy, if we wish our religion approved of the Lord. For the Lord requires that the glory of his divinity remain whole and uncorrupted not only in outward confession, but in his own eyes, which gaze upon the most secret recesses of our hearts” (p. 383).

Sections 17 to 21 exposit the second commandment:

17. “The purpose of this commandment, then, is that [God] does not will that his lawful worship be profaned by superstitious rites” (p. 383). As a positive requirement, God demands us to “conform to his lawful worship, that is, a spiritual worship established by himself” (p. 383). The negative prohibitions are to abstain from ever representing God (who is an incomprehensible Spirit) in any physical form or to worship any images. “Whatever visible forms of God man devises are diametrically opposed to His nature; therefore, as soon as idols appear, true religion is corrupted and adulterated” (p. 384).

18. to 20. God is jealous and therefore attaches a threat to this commandment. Idolatry is adultery. God commonly identifies himself as a “true and faithful husband” and “in return he demands love and conjugal chastity.” Calvin points out, “The more holy and chaste a husband is, the more wrathful he becomes if he sees his wife inclining her heart to a rival” (p. 385). Furthermore, the reason that God is able to justly punish multiple generations within the family is because children imitate their parents’ sin and are therefore become liable for their own offenses. As such, they are not being judged for another person’s sin, but for their own wickedness.

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21. God also promises to show mercy to thousands of generation to those who keep this commandment. In other words, children of the righteous are blessed with a godly heritage (Proverbs 20:7). “This is not only because of their holy upbringing, which is surely of no little importance; but because of this blessing promised in the covenant, that God’s grace shall everlastingly abide in the families of the pious” (p. 387). The threats and promises given here are general patterns given for instruction. “This is not, however, contradicted by the fact that the offspring of the wicked sometimes reform; those of believers sometimes degenerate. For the Lawgiver desired here to frame no such perpetual rule as might detract from his election” (p. 387). Even so, the emphasis is placed on God’s grace rather than his wrath. In this commandment, “[God] commends to us the largeness of his mercy, which he extends to a thousand generations, while he has assigned only four generations to his vengeance” (p. 388).

Sections 22 to 27 exposit the third commandment:

22. “The purpose of this commandment is: God wills that we hallow the majesty of his name” (p. 388). The negative abstention demanded is that “we are not to profane his name by treating it contemptuously and irreverently. To this prohibition duly corresponds the [positive requirement] that we should be zealous and careful to honor his name with godly reverence. Therefore we ought to be so disposed in mind and speech that we neither think nor say anything concerning God and his mysteries, without reverence and much soberness that in estimating his works we conceive nothing but what is honorable to him” (p. 388). We are not to abuse God’s sacred name, Holy Word, or his works.

23. to 27. The third commandment has particular relevance to oaths. The primary meaning of an oath is to call God as a witness to confirm the truth of our word. When we invoke the name of God to be a witness, we are confessing him to be the standard of eternal and immutable truth. “We call upon him not only [to be] the fit witness of truth above all others, but also the only affirmer of it, who is able to bring hidden things to light; [and] as the knower of hearts [1 Corinthians 4:5]. For when men’s testimonies fail, we flee to God as our witness” (p. 389). Furthermore, “we cannot call God to be the witness of our words without asking him to be the avenger of our perjury if we deceive” (p. 390). When we swear falsely or needlessly, we profane his name.

This is not to say that oaths can never be made. Contrary to the Anabaptists who refused to swear oaths of any kind, Calvin explains that “God not only permits oaths as a legitimate thing under the law… but commands their use in case of necessity [Exodus 22:10-11]” (p. 391). Christ did not forbid oaths, but only those made unlawfully (cf. Matthew 5:36-37). Examples of acceptable oaths include public oaths as required by a magistrate, or those needed to resolve human quarrels (Hebrews 6:16); private oaths can sometimes be legitimate too, provided that they are “undertaken soberly, with holy intent, reverently, and in necessary circumstances” (pp. 393-394).

Calvin summarizes: “Thus I have no better rule than for us so to control our oaths that they may not be rash, indiscriminate, wanton, or trifling; but that they may serve a just need — either to vindicate the Lord’s glory, or to further a brother’s edification. Such is the purpose of this commandment of the law” (p. 394).

Sections 28 to 34 exposit the fourth commandment:

28. & 29. Calvin considers this commandment to be different than the other nine and refers to it as a foreshadowing of sorts with its outward expression changing when Christ came. “The purpose of this commandment is that, being dead to our own inclinations and works, we should meditate on the Kingdom of God, and that we should practice that meditation in the ways established by him” (p. 394). There are three aspects to the commandment: (1) it is meant to represent a spiritual rest; (2) it is for the public assembly of God’s people to hear the Word, worship, and to be trained in piety; and (3) it provides respite from toil.

According to Calvin, the chief purpose of the Sabbath is spiritual rest. “The Sabbath is a sign whereby Israel may recognize that God is their sanctifier [Ezekiel 20:12]. If our sanctification consists in mortifying our own will, then a very close correspondence appears between the outward sign and the inward reality. We must be wholly at rest that God may work in us; we must yield our will; we must resign our heart; we must give up all our fleshly desires. In short, we must rest from all activities of our own contriving so that, having God working in us [Hebrews 13:21], we may repose in him [Hebrews 4:9]” (p. 396).

30. & 31. The Sabbath is operational in perpetuity. “The Lord thus indicated that the Sabbath would never be perfected until the Last Day should come. For we here begin our blessed rest in him; daily we make fresh progress in it… The Lord through the seventh day has sketched for his people the coming perfection of his Sabbath in the Last Day, to make them aspire to this perfection by unceasing meditation upon the Sabbath throughout life” (p. 396).

The positive requirements of the commandment are to aspire to our eternal rest, to spend the day in meditation upon God, and to imitate the Creator. Simply put, “the Lord ordained a certain day on which his people might, under the tutelage of the law, practice constant meditation upon the spiritual rest. And he assigned the seventh day, either because he foresaw that it would be sufficient; or that, by providing a model in his own example, he might better arouse the people; or at least point out to them that the Sabbath had no other purpose than to render them conformable to their Creator’s example” (p. 397). It is negatively prohibited of us to continue in our labors or personal affairs, as God declares: “If you turn back your foot from the Sabbath, so as not to do your pleasure on my holy day, and call the Sabbath a delight and the holy day of the Lord of glory; if you glory in it, not going your own ways, and do not find your pleasure in your own talk; then you shall take delight in the Lord,” etc. [Isaiah 58:13-14]” (p. 397).

The ceremonial aspect of the Sabbath was abrogated in Christ’s coming. “For this reason [it is said] that the Sabbath [Colossians 2:16] was “a shadow of what is to come; but the body belongs to Christ” [Colossians 2:17]” (p. 397).

32. Although the ceremonial aspects of the Sabbath have been abrogated, we are still bound to observe the Sabbath in these two ways: “(1) to assemble on stated days for the hearing of the Word, the breaking of the mystical bread, and for public prayers [cf. Acts 2:42]; (2) to give [relief] from labor to servants and workmen” (p. 398). A fixed day each week must be appointed for God’s people to assemble together publically. For Calvin, the exact day of the week is of lesser importance: “I shall not condemn Churches that have other solemn days for their meetings, provided there be no superstition” (p. 400). By common agreement, however, Christians have chosen Sunday to gather together regularly. This is a practical arrangement. The day cannot be entirely arbitrary or subject to change on a whim (e.g., Sunday one week but Tuesday the next), otherwise it would be confusing and impossible to come together as an organized body. Calvin notes, “How can such meetings be held unless they have been established and have their stated days? According to the apostle’s statement, ‘all things should be done decently and in order’ among us [1 Corinthians 14:40]” (p. 398). While it is not possible to meet corporately every day for practical reasons, we should still aspire to worship daily at home.

33. & 34. In distinction to the Westminster Confession of Faith (chapter 21, paragraph 8), which teaches that the Christian Sabbath is a simple continuation of the Jewish Sabbath—Calvin regards the Christian Sabbath to be a distinct institution given to maintain church order and spiritual health (p. 399; fn. 41). There are several reasons why the Christian Sabbath is observed on a different day than the traditional seventh day. First, “to overthrow superstition, the day sacred to the Jews was set aside”; and second “the purpose and fulfillment of that true rest, represented by the ancient Sabbath, lies in the Lord’s resurrection [on the eighth day which inaugurated the new creation]” (p. 399). “In order to prevent religion from either perishing or declining among us, we should diligently frequent the sacred meetings, and make use of those external aids which can promote the worship of God” (p. 401).

In summary: “First, we are to meditate throughout life upon an everlasting Sabbath rest from all our works, that the Lord may work in us through his Spirit. Secondly, each one of us privately, whenever he has leisure, is to exercise himself diligently in pious meditation upon God’s works. Also, we should all observe together the lawful order set by the church for the hearing of the Word, the administration of the sacraments, and for public prayers. In the third place, we should not inhumanly oppress those subject to us” (p. 400).

This concludes our study of the first table of the law. Next time, we will continue our study of Calvin’s fine exposition of the Ten Commandments with the second table.

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