John Calvin, in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, famously set out what he saw as the three uses of the law. By the term “law,” Calvin explains, “[b]y the Law, I understand not only the Ten Commandments, which contain a complete rule of life, but the whole system of religion delivered by the hand of Moses.”1 Here, in this excerpt,2 Calvin explains the first of these:
The First Use of the Law
That the whole matter may be made clearer, let us take a succinct view of the office and use of the Moral Law. Now, this office and use seems to me to consist of three parts. First, by exhibiting the righteousness of God,—in other words, the righteousness which alone is acceptable to God,—it admonishes every one of his own unrighteousness, certiorates, convicts, and finally condemns him. This is necessary, in order that man, who is blind and intoxicated with self-love, may be brought at once to know and to confess his weakness and impurity.
For until his vanity is made perfectly manifest, he is puffed up with infatuated confidence in his own powers, and never can be brought to feel their feebleness so long as he measures them by a standard of his own choice. So soon, however, as he begins to compare them with the requirements of the Law, he has something to tame his presumption. How high soever his opinion of his own powers may be, he immediately feels that they pant under the heavy load, then totter and stumble, and finally fall and give way.
He, then, who is schooled by the Law, lays aside the arrogance which formerly blinded him. In like manner must he be cured of pride, the other disease under which we have said that he labours. So long as he is permitted to appeal to his own judgment, he substitutes a hypocritical for a real righteousness, and, contented with this, sets up certain factitious observances in opposition to the grace of God.
But after he is forced to weigh his conduct in the balance of the Law, renouncing all dependence on this fancied righteousness, he sees that he is at an infinite distance from holiness, and, on the other hand, that he teems with innumerable vices of which he formerly seemed free. The recesses in which concupiscence lies hid are so deep and tortuous that they easily elude our view; and hence the Apostle had good reason for saying, “I had not known lust, except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet.” For, if it be not brought forth from its lurking-places, it miserably destroys in secret before its fatal sting is discerned.
Thus the Law is a kind of mirror. As in a mirror we discover any stains upon our face, so in the Law we behold, first, our impotence; then, in consequence of it, our iniquity; and, finally, the curse, as the consequence of both. He who has no power of following righteousness is necessarily plunged in the mire of iniquity, and this iniquity is immediately followed by the curse. Accordingly, the greater the transgression of which the Law convicts us, the severer the judgment to which we are exposed. To this effect is the Apostle’s declaration, that “by the law is the knowledge of sin,” (Rom. 3:20.) By these words, he only points out the first office of the Law as experienced by sinners not yet regenerated. In conformity to this, it is said, “the law entered that the offence might abound;” and, accordingly, that it is “the ministration of death;” that it “worketh wrath” and kills, (Rom. 5:20; 2 Cor. 3:7; Rom. 4:15.)
For there cannot be a doubt that the clearer the consciousness of guilt, the greater the increase of sin; because then to transgression a rebellious feeling against the Lawgiver is added. All that remains for the Law, is to arm the wrath of God for the destruction of the sinner; for by itself it can do nothing but accuse, condemn, and destroy him.
Thus Augustine says, “If the Spirit of grace be absent, the law is present only to convict and slay us.” But to say this neither insults the law, nor derogates in any degree from its excellence. Assuredly, if our whole will were formed and disposed to obedience, the mere knowledge of the law would be sufficient for salvation; but since our carnal and corrupt nature is at enmity with the Divine law, and is in no degree amended by its discipline, the consequence is, that the law which, if it had been properly attended to, would have given life, becomes the occasion of sin and death.
When all are convicted of transgression, the more it declares the righteousness of God, the more, on the other hand, it discloses our iniquity; the more certainly it assures us that life and salvation are treasured up as the reward of righteousness, the more certainly it assures us that the unrighteous will perish. So far, however, are these qualities from throwing disgrace on the Law, that their chief tendency is to give a brighter display of the divine goodness. For they show that it is only our weakness and depravity that prevents us from enjoying the blessedness which the law openly sets before us.
Hence additional sweetness is given to divine grace, which comes to our aid without the law, and additional loveliness to the mercy which confers it, because they proclaim that God is never weary in doing good, and in loading us with new gifts.
But while the unrighteousness and condemnation of all are attested by the law, it does not follow (if we make the proper use of it) that we are immediately to give up all hope and rush headlong on despair. No doubt, it has some such effect upon the reprobate, but this is owing to their obstinacy. With the children of God the effect is different.
The Apostle testifies that the law pronounces its sentence of condemation in order “that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God,” (Rom. 3:19.). In another place, however, the same Apostle declares, that “God hath concluded them all in unbelief;” not that he might destroy all, or allow all to perish, but that “he might have mercy upon all,” (Rom. 11:32:).
In other words, that divesting themselves of an absurd opinion of their own virtue, they may perceive how they are wholly dependent on the hand of God; that feeling how naked and destitute they are, they may take refuge in his mercy, rely upon it, and cover themselves up entirely with it; renouncing all righteousness and merit, and clinging to mercy alone, as offered in Christ to all who long and look for it in true faith. In the precepts of the law, God is seen as the rewarder only of perfect righteousness, (a righteousness of which all are destitute,) and, on the other hand, as the stern avenger of wickedness.
But in Christ his countenance beams forth full of grace and gentleness towards poor unworthy sinners.
Calvin’s second and third uses of the law will follow in the next installments.
Tyler Robbins is a graduate of Maranatha Baptist Seminary, a DMin student at Central Seminary (Plymouth, MN) and a pastor at Sleater Kinney Road Baptist Church, in Olympia WA. He’s also an Investigations Program Manager with the State of Washington. He blogs as the Eccentric Fundamentalist and is the author of What’s It Mean to be a Baptist?