John Calvin offered three modern day "uses" of the Law of Moses. In a previous article I wrote a summation for why I think he was wrong on the three uses in general. In this article I propose to offer why I think his second use of the Law is incorrect. Calvin claims that it is supposed to restrain evil, stating, “The second office of the Law is, by means of its fearful denunciations and the consequent dread of punishment, to curb those who, unless forced, have no regard for rectitude and justice.” (Institutes 2.7.10) Thus Calvin sees a legitimate, modern day use of the Law of Moses to be a governing example to restrain today's criminals. It seems that Calvin is comparing apples to oranges in this regard by confusing a use of governmental law in general with the Mosaic Law in specific. None would question that a basic tenet of any governmental law is to restrain evil. And the Mosaic Law is clearly an example of a written code given to a particular nation (Israel) at a particular time (Old Covenant). But is the Mosaic Law intended to have a modern day “use” in governing sinners, indeed criminals today? That would seem to be a stretch. Albeit one Calvin gladly takes.
The question is easily asked, which of the laws proscribed by Moses are to be used today? All of them? Some of them? Ten of them? This is where Calvin's argument begins to break apart because Calvin himself, following Thomas Aquinas, divides the Law into three sections (moral, civil, and ceremonial). Would Calvin have us follow the “ceremonial” aspects of the Law, including the dietary restrictions? Shall we pass laws against pork consumption, for example? Calvin would argue “no” based on the fact that the ceremonial aspects of the Law have been fulfilled and are no longer binding. Where Calvin finds a Biblical justification for dividing the Law is unrecorded. Because no such Biblical justification exists.
Are the so-called “civil laws” of the Mosaic code to be our model? Should we pass laws demanding death by stoning to adulterers? What about those who are “adulterers in their heart” as Jesus spoke of? (see Matthew 5:27-28) Should we stone anyone who admits to having a lustful thought about a women who is not their wife? While there is no denying the sin of this act, should we have a civil law requiring execution for it?
Or do we simply stick to Calvin's so-called “moral law” (i.e., the ten commandments)? It goes without saying that many modern Americans believe in some way that our civil laws are based on Mosaic Law, specifically the ten commandments. This leads to numerous court cases each year, that come about because of Mosaic monuments on courthouse lawns. And while the “separation of church and state” issue is beyond the scope of this article, it is sufficient to say many revere the Decalogue as the basis of government. But is it? And an even deeper question is, should it be? Does God intend our laws to be based on the Mosaic code? If so, it's odd that Paul would declare this same Law to be abolished (Eph. 2:14-15). And the writer of Hebrews would call it obsolete. (Hebrews 8:13)
First of all, I would point out that the Decalogue is not near as prominent in our nation's laws as many seem to think. Certainly we have laws against murder, but what about idolatry? Do we have laws against that? SHOULD we have laws against that? I would argue “no” based on the fact that idolatry laws only favor whichever religion happens to be in power. If a conservative Christian reigns, then he will govern against what he defines as idolatry. But this is likewise true if a Muslim ascends to the throne. Or a Hindu. Or a Buddhist. Perhaps a better alternative is to avoid laws against idolatry, and instead have a government that protects the right of the people to worship as they please. And this is what the United States has done. Far from enshrining the ten commandments as the law of the land, America has created a governmental system that allows for disagreement, and even protects it, in the realm of religion.
It should also be mentioned that many of the “moral law” zealots of colonial America sought to abolish any notion of the separation of church and state and enshrine Congregationalism as the “state religion” of the new nation. This would have included such federal laws as a ban on believer's baptism, along with fines for not participating in the state church. Thus a heavy-handed adherence to Moses, leads to a heavy-handed enslavement of fellow citizens. Except for the fact that this group didn't win the day. But I digress.
If God truly intended for the Mosaic Law to have a modern day “use” for civil government, then He would not have declared this Law obsolete in the New Covenant. To understand this in a deeper way, we need to ask the question, “why was the Law added” in the first place. Thankfully, the Apostle Paul tells us in his letter to the Galatians.
In Galatians, Paul argues that a promise originally made to Abraham is not nullified by the Law which came 430 years later. Paul writes: “Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. He does not say, “And to seeds,” as referring to many, but rather to one, “And to your seed,” that is, Christ. What I am saying is this: the Law, which came four hundred and thirty years later, does not invalidate a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to nullify the promise. For if the inheritance is based on law, it is no longer based on a promise; but God has granted it to Abraham by means of a promise. Why the Law then? It was added because of transgressions, having been ordained through angels by the agency of a mediator, until the seed would come to whom the promise had been made” (Gal. 3:16-19)
The question is, what does Paul mean when he says “the Law was added because of transgressions”? Does this mean, as Calvin seems to think, that the Law was added to restrain evil? While that might be a secondary reality, the primary purpose of the law being added “because of transgression” is that the Law codified sin. It made the Jews even more guilty than before because it defined sin in a way that the Pre-Sinai world did not.
Many of the Jews of Paul's day thought they were justified because of their meticulous law-keeping. Certainly this is what Paul thought prior to his conversion (see Philippains 3:6). Paul would later argue vehemently against this thought. The Law didn't' justify. Indeed it could not. So when Paul argues that the Law was added because of transgressions, does he mean that it provided a way to be justified by keeping it? Or that it primarily was added to restrain evil? Or that it primarily was added to codify sin? Paul argues for the latter. Notice what he says to the Romans: “For the promise to Abraham or to his descendants that he would be heir of the world was not through the Law, but through the righteousness of faith. For if those who are of the Law are heirs, faith is made void and the promise is nullified; for the Law brings about wrath, but where there is no law, there also is no violation.” (Rom. 4:13-15) Paul certainly isn't' saying that apart from a written code there is no SIN. But he IS saying that apart from a written code there is no breaking of a written code. This is what the Law did. It provided a written code and thus amplified the sin and the transgression. Paul went on to say, “If the ministry of death, in letters engraved on stones, came with glory, so that the sons of Israel could not look intently at the face of Moses because of the glory of his face, fading as it was, how will the ministry of the Spirit fail to be even more with glory? For if the ministry of condemnation has glory, much more does the ministry of righteousness abound in glory. (2 Cor. 3:7-9) Notice how he refers to the Law. He calls it a “ministry of death” and a “ministry of condemnation.” The Law did restrain evil, but that was not it's primary purpose. It's primary purpose was to codify sin and condemn the Jew who was under it. And this was what the Law did, until the coming of Christ. For once Christ came and completed his work, the Law was no more. “But before faith came, we were kept in custody under the law, being shut up to the faith which was later to be revealed. Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor.” (Galatians 3:23-25) Now that “faith” (in Christ) has come, the Jews are no longer under the “tutor.” And the Gentiles never were under that tutor for they were not given the Law.
So if the Law was a temporary reality for the Jewish people only, then how could it have a modern day “use” as the model for civil government, as Calvin states? How would Calvin himself deal with Galatians 3 and the temporal nature of the Law? Calvin tells us himself. In his commentary on Galtians he writes, “Now, what is the import of the phrase, because of transgressions? It agrees with the saying of philosophers, that "The law was made for restraining evil-doers," and with the old proverb, "From bad manners have sprung good laws." But Paul's meaning is more extensive than the words may seem to convey. He means that the law was published in order to make known transgressions, and in this way to compel men to acknowledge their guilt.” But Paul says otherwise. And Calvin seems to “correct” Paul by telling us what Paul really meant. This is an error on Calvin's part. The Law's primary purpose was not to “restrain the evil doer” but rather to codify sin and cause the guilt to abound. Calvin was part right and part wrong. Regardless, his claim that the 2nd use of the Law is to restrain evil by providing the model for civil government is refuted by both Scripture and common reason, for the so-called “civil laws” are more heavy-handed than their modern counterparts; and the ceremonial laws are a foreign concept today. As for the “moral law” it is, for the most part, not a part of our legal system. Murder is a crime. Idolatry is not.
My conclusion then is this: Calvin's belief that the 2nd applicable use of the Law of Moses is to restrain evil is based on comparing “apples to oranges.” Governmental “Law” in general is used to restrain evil. And Mosaic Law is an example of a “governmental law.” But it must also be stated that Mosaic Law is obsolete (Heb. 8:13). So, while there is overlap between Mosaic Law and modern day governmental Law it is erroneous to see Mosaic Law as an applicable “use” for today.
Why does this matter? Because an unintended consequence of misusing Mosaic Law is that those in power might wish to EXPAND it beyond simply “thou shalt not kill” type laws to include religious laws. And a theocratic society is only good for those in power at the time. Calvin enjoyed such power in Geneva. But most of us do not, nor should we wish to. “For our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” (Philippians 3:20) While I agree with Calvin on many things, he is wrong on his 2nd use of the Law and his views on Law in general. You cannot stand with both Calvin and Paul for they clash on the issue of the Mosaic Code. I stand with Paul (who was inspired by the Holy Spirit) in his writings. Calvin was not and thus must be rejected in this case. Moses is not the standard of the Christian, nor the example in terms of civil law. This is an illegitimate “use” of the Mosaic Law and as such it should be rejected.