One of the questions that has divided the theological world for centuries has to do with what role (if any) the Mosaic Law plays in the life of a New Covenant Christian. Many have undertaken an attempt to reconcile how the Law is “fulfilled” in Christ (Matt. 5:17) and how the Apostle Paul can say unequivocally that he is “not under the Law” (1 Cor. 9:21); while at the same time affirming that injunctions against things like adultery and murder are still in effect. Is the Law fulfilled and no longer binding? Is part of the Law fulfilled? Is none of the Law truly fulfilled and thus all of it binding on the believer? Or is it some combination of these theories?
In his voluminous work “The Institutes of the Christian Religion” 16th century reformer and theologian John Calvin attempted to answer this question with what has now become his famous “three uses of the Law.” While there is no questioning Calvin's influence on history, particularly in the realm of theology, does this of necessity mean that Calvin is correct? In this article I will propose that Calvin is not only flawed in his proposition of the three uses of the Law; but that Calvin's application of the Mosaic Law is wrong in both theory and practice, finding no basis in Scripture.
I should also note at the outset, that while I disagree with Calvin on the Law, I am in agreement with him on many other things and gladly wear the brand “Calvinist” as it pertains to soteriology and what has come to be known as the “five points of Calvinism.” On these five points, I heartily agree with the great reformer; but on the three uses of the Law; he and I must part ways.
Calvin's first use of the Law had to do with revealing God's righteous standard. In this way, Calvin taught that the Law was a mirror that reflects God's perfect righteousness. That it brings conviction to the sinner, and thus drives him to Christ. To defend this position Calvin quoted the well known passage from Galatians that states: “The Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith.” (Galatians 3:24) Calvin states: “The reward of eternal salvation, as promised by the Lord, awaits the perfect obedience of the Law.” (Institutes 2.7.3) This statement in itself is highly disputed. Did God in fact offer “eternal salvation” to Israel if they kept the Law? Did God, in fact offer theoretical salvation by works? If a Jew could somehow keep the Law to perfection? I would argue “no” based on the fact that even if perfect obedience could have been attained it would not have addressed the problem of original sin which could only be expunged by the blood of Christ. A sacrifice that was still future in Old Testament times; but a sacrifice that was nonetheless necessary for any sinner to be forgiven by a just and holy God.
Calvin cites Deuteronomy 30:19 in defense of his belief. The passage says: “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. So choose life in order that you may live, you and your descendants, by loving the LORD your God, by obeying His voice, and by holding fast to Him; for this is your life and the length of your days, that you may live in the land which the LORD swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to give them.” (Deut. 30:19-20) What is interesting about the passage is that it offers “long life” in the land of promise; rather than “eternal life” in the presence of God. No mention is made whatsoever of eternal life for obedience. While Israel is a “typological” picture of Christians and the promised land is a “typological” picture of Heaven; the Old Covenant types are not the same as the New Covenant realities. Calvin cites this passage as a Scriptural proof based on mere conjecture; much like the so called “Covenant of Works” that God supposedly made with Adam in the Garden of Eden offering the same promise of eternal life for perfect obedience. Of course we search in vain to find any reference to this promise of eternal life made to Adam; and likewise Israel. Calvin reads too much into the Deuteronomy passage rather than accepting at face value what the text actually states.
A New Testament passage that could easily be misconstrued as offering “salvation by works” can be found in Luke 10 where the lawyer asks Jesus how he can inherit eternal life. Jesus answers: “What is written in the Law? How does it read to you?” And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” And He said to him, “You have answered correctly, do this and you will live.” (Luke 10:26-28) Was Jesus offering salvation by law-keeping? Or was Jesus stating the fruit of a changed heart? To love the Lord in the way Jesus described could only be done by one who was born again. Yet even if the man was born again and truly loved the Lord he is not saved based on this fact alone. For a payment must still be made for his sins (Heb. 9:22), and the lawyer couldn't make that payment. Christ alone would make that payment and thus the Lord's statement is completely factual. But obedience alone does not lead to eternal life and neither Moses, nor Jesus taught that it did.
Nevertheless, is Calvin correct in citing Galatians 3 as proof that the Law “drives us to Christ”? To answer that question, we must first consider who Paul is addressing and consequently, who was given the Law in the first place? It was not 16th century Genevans, nor 21st century Americans who were given the Law, but rather Old Covenant Jews. And thus, it was to them that it could be rightly stated the Law served as a “tutor” (or nanny, or babysitter) that led to Christ. It would seem to be a fact of obvious historical significance to state that the Law was never given to Gentiles; and certainly couldn't be said to be a “tutor” in this way.
The clear question that Paul addresses within the context of the Galatians passage has to do with “why then the Law?” God made a promise to Abraham and God fulfilled that promise in Christ. So what does Moses have to do with it? Paul states that the Law was added “because of transgressions.” But what Calvin fails to explain is the rest of the passage that states the Law was added “until the time would come to whom the promise had been made.” (Gal. 3:19) In other words, the Law was added for a temporary amount of time “until” Christ came. Paul's conclusion in Galatians 3 turns out to be much different than Calvin's. While Calvin states this chapter as a proof for the validity and usefulness of the Law; Paul concludes that “now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor.” (Gal. 3:25) Now that the epoch of “faith” and the appearance of Christ has occurred the Jews are “no longer under a tutor.” And Gentiles never were under that tutor, for Gentiles, even in Biblical times, “did not have the Law.”(Rom. 2:14) Certainly Gentiles by Calvin's day (and ours) did not have it as a rule of conduct or a tool for evangelism. The only way to accept Calvin's interpretation of the ongoing “use” of the Law from Galatians 3 is to completely ignore what Paul himself says in the text. I therefore, feel justified in saying that Calvin's first use of the Law is incorrect, being based on a misapplication of a text that doesn't apply within the context.
Calvin's second use of the Law is that it restrains evil; and once again we have reason for pause when considering his Biblical rationale. Historically speaking, there is no question that the Mosaic Law under the Old Covenant restrained evil. And did it ever! With commandments that dictated everything from clothes to food to marriage to Sabbath restrictions; the Law touched every aspect of a Jew's life. Furthermore the punishments prescribed for disobedience were heavy-handed and often violent. And this by God's decree. No one can rightly deny this evident fact. However, the question as it pertains to the argument at hand, is whether or not the Mosaic Law still functions in this civil capacity? And as New Covenant believers I think we should offer a relieved answer of “no.”
In my view, Calvin's error in this regard is by advocating a purpose of Law in general, by using the example of Mosaic Law in specific. And in this way, Calvin is really comparing apples to oranges. Certainly governmental laws exist to restrain evil; but is this specifically the Law of Moses? While examples of “good and evil” and “justice and injustice” and “punishment and restitution” can be seen in the Mosaic covenant; the Mosaic Law itself is not our model when setting up earthly, temporal governments. We do not live in a theocracy as the Old Covenant nation of Israel did. Some nations have longed to set up a Christian theocracy and try to institute the Law of Moses in modern times. In fact, Calvin himself was essentially a church-state dictator in Geneva. But the New Testament does not prescribe earthly governments to be instituted based on Mosaic Law. Old Covenant Israel? Yes. 16th century Geneva? No. 21st century America? No. While there is certainly overlap between Mosaic Law and modern law (murder, thievery, etc.) there is also a clear distinction. For example, we do not give the government the power to enforce punishment for idolatry. We do not give the government power to force church attendance. Nor should we, unless we long to see the purity of the church tainted by the unregenerate attending under the threat of legal reprisal. Mosaic Law is not intended to be “used” today to restrain evil; and thus Calvin's second “use” of the Law is invalid.
As a proof of this, try walking into a bar someday and telling the drunk reprobate on the bar stool that he deserves to be arrested for violating the Law of Moses. And let me know how that works for you. You would likely be laughed out of the room, if not worse. And rightly so. While evangelistically we might wish to point out the sinfulness of the drunkard's life and encourage him to repent and turn to Christ; he has not committed a crime based on the Mosaic Law because he is not under the Mosaic Law. Indeed he never was. And any effort to try and establish a modern day, earthly government under Mosaic Law would be erroneous and dangerous. Not to mention biblically indefensible. The Mosaic Law exited to govern the Old Covenant nation of Israel under a covenant that no longer exists.
Calvin's third use of the law is his most popular and by his own admission the most common use of the law; which is to teach believers how to please God. Yet this didactic aspect of the Law has no basis in Scripture. Was the Mosaic Law intended to sanctify the believer? Was the Mosaic Law intended to whip the backside of lazy Christians into a forced obedience against their will? Calvin said yes. Here's what he said: “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 sluggish ass, to arouse it to work.” (Institutes 2.7.12) As appealing as Calvin's reference to Christians as “idle and sluggish asses” is; it falls short of how Jesus described his followers. Rather than comparing us to lazy donkeys, Jesus called his followers “sheep” and declared that his sheep “hear his voice and follow him.” (John 10:27) Indeed Christians delight to do the will of the Lord. Calvin is certainly right to point out that Christians often stumble and fall. But is the Mosaic Law intended to be a tool to “whip” them into obedience? That would seem extremely odd when Calvin is referring to a Law that Paul claimed Christians were not under. And that the Jerusalem Council determined to be a Law that should not be heaped upon Gentiles (Acts 15:1-21).
Is there benefit in studying the Old Testament scriptures? Certainly, for the New Testament scriptures testify that “all scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching.” (2 Tim. 3:16) But Old Testament teaching will not be “profitable” when it's taken out of context and used as a whip rather than a teaching tool. New Covenant Christians might very well gain insight in reading and studying the Old Covenant Law and God's dealings with Old Covenant Israel; but we don't study it as though we were “under” the Law, nor born into the Old Covenant nation of Israel. New Covenant Christians are free from the Law and in fact were never under it. Therefore Calvin's third use of the Law is equally invalid.
In conclusion, I find Calvin's writings to be beneficial and edifying in many ways. If a Christian attempts to study Calvin in depth he is likely to glean many beneficial observations from the great reformer. But all theologians should be read with “Berean eyes” (Acts 17:10-11) knowing that “the best of men are men at best” and that no human teacher is without his faults. Calvin was right on numerous things. But wrong on some as well. His famous “three uses of the Law” stand on the foundation of a shaky rock that does not hold up when scrutinized under the lens of New Testament teaching. The so-called “5 points of Calvinism” are Biblically accurate and helpful in understanding salvation; but the so-called “3 uses of the Law” are bogus and should be graciously rejected for the man-made creations that they are. Faulty conclusions based on a faulty hermeneutical principle of taking Old Testament passages out of context, while failing to apply New Testament revelation that explains the proper standing of a New Covenant saint. Christians are “free from the Law” and it's a “happy condition” (as the old hymn states). We have also been freed from sin's power and Christ has paid for sin's penalty. We look to Jesus as both savior and sanctifier, since he is both “author and finisher” of our faith (Heb. 12:2). Moses doesn't disciple us. Jesus does. And thus Calvin's “uses of the Law” must be rejected.