John Calvin said that man when compelled to weigh his life in the scales of the divine Law, is compelled to lay aside that presumptuous, that fictitious self-righteousness and he finds himself a long, long way from holiness. Calvin says he teams with a multitude of vices, while all the time finding himself to be pure and undefiled, so deep and tortuous are the recesses in which the evils of covetousness lurk. Why, he says, it disturbed the apostle Paul’s self-deceived ease. It is by the Law, by the divine Law, says Calvin, that sin is dragged from its lair or it will destroy a man so secretly he will not even feel the knife going in. So education by the Law is vital, essential, or a man will never see his need and seek after God. It reveals the sinners need to seek the grace of God. Only in the mirror of God’s Law, contemplating his weakness, learning of his iniquitous state and the curse that emanates from it, that man is left incapacitated. The Psalmist gives a threefold take on man’s sin. Transgression, iniquity and sin. In transgressing, he has crossed the line that his Creator has drawn and said, you shall not cross the line. But in contemplating the Law, says Calvin, a man finds himself not just with a toe over the line “Though I might also have confidence in the flesh. If any other man thinketh that he hath whereof he might trust in the flesh, I more: Circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, an Hebrew of the Hebrews; as touching the law, a Pharisee; Concerning zeal, persecuting the church; touching the righteousness which is in the law, blameless. But what things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ” (Philippians 3:4-7); “I had not known sin, but by the law: for I had not known lust, except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet”(Romans 7:7 ); “Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man unto whom the LORD imputeth not iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no guile”(Psalm 32:1). Rather he finds himself right over the line body and soul in forbidden territory. Sin, he has come short of the mark, not even hit the target let alone the bull’s eye. Iniquity, the immorality, the injustice, unable (totally incapacitated) to follow any righteousness as far as God’s concerned and the only conclusion he can come to is that he is utterly and completely mired in sin.
But Despair is Not the End
After the knowledge of sin, then comes the curse, the Law is thus termed by the Apostle Paul as the “ministration of death”, bringing wrath, it slays, it kills and the more the conscience is struck by the awareness of sin, the more and more iniquity grows, stubbornness is added to transgression and there remains for him nothing but wrath. The Law by itself only accuses, it only condemns, it only destroys. Calvin quotes Augustine, who says, that “if the spirit of grace is absent, the Law is present only to accuse and to kill us”. By the Law, all are proved to be sinners. Moreover, Calvin says more clearly that it reveals the righteous standards of God. But the purpose he says, of course, is not to cause utter despair, total discouragement, but having used the Law to educate us, to bring us to a knowledge and understanding of God’s righteousness, of our state in sin, the curse that we are under, and of course our need for the grace of God. It is then, and then only that the Lord comforts us through trust in his power in his mercy. Calvin is quite clear, he doesn’t mix the two, Law and gospel. He very clearly distinguishes the two. It is in Christ alone, it is in the Son of God alone, that God reveals himself as benevolent and favourable. In the Law he appears as only the rewarder of perfect righteousness, as one who judges sin, yet, in Christ, he is full of grace, gentleness, compassion shining upon miserable, unworthy and condemned sinners. The admirable display of the infinite love of God is in Christ and Christ alone who was delivered up for us. Unsurprisingly, we find that the apostle Paul underscores agreement with John Calvin. The Law’s purpose you see, pedagogical, our schoolmaster, to educate us in regards to the righteousness of God and our lamentable state in sin.
(©️ James R Hamilton, February 2020)