When it came to the Law of Moses, the early reformers generally maintained that the ceremonial law was abrogated, the civil law has expired, but the moral law (Ten Commandments) has ongoing obligations. The latter is true because the decalogue represents God’s eternal law which he embedded into the fabric of nature and the conscience (e.g., Rom 2:14; Inst. 4.20.16).
The Law of Moses as Holy Scripture nevertheless remains authoritative for Christians as Christians. The ceremonial law points to Christ, and the civil law preserves love and equity. The moral law condemns and restrains as Martin Luther will argue. While Luther and others will make much of the law, it was John Calvin who more clearly among the early reformers articulated a positive use of the law in the Christian life.
Agreeing with Luther (whom he admired his whole life), Calvin spoke of a third use of the moral law.
Third Use of the Law
Calvin first sees the condemning use of the law (Inst. 2.7.6). He secondly sees the moral law as restraining sin (Inst. 2.7.10). Then thirdly he sees a positive role for the law in the Christian’s life, which he identifies as the “principle use” (Inst. 2.7.12).
He divides this third use of the law into two. First, the moral law teaches us God’s will. Second, it not only teaches us God’s will but exhorts us to obedience. In this way, the moral law helps those who have the Holy Spirit do what they desire to do: obey God. As Calvin notes, “Even for a spiritual man not yet free of the weight of the flesh the law remains a constant sting that will not let him stand still” (Inst. 2.7.12).
Calvin sees David praising the law in Psalms 19 and 119 for very similar reasons. The law is good for spiritual persons because it points to God’s will and exhorts us to obedience while we are weighed down in the flesh.
Between Legalism and Antinomianism
Calvin here puts the law in its God-given place without falling into the trap of antinomianism (being opposed to the law) or legalism (wrongly applying the law to Christians). Calvin wants to be careful when he speaks of the moral law. It no longer has the force of curse for a Christian (Rom 7:6; Inst. 2.7.14). Paul makes this very point, Calvin notes, in Galatians 3:13 (also Gal 4:4–5).
As sons, we no longer have to worry about the curse of the law nor the fear of death. In this freedom, we adhere to the moral law since murder, for example, is always sinful. We do not worry about its curse, however.
The ceremonial law points to spiritual matters but itself is abrogated according to Calvin (Inst. 2.7.1, 16). These practices are shadows (Col 2:17). The Book of Hebrews in particular makes this case as well.
It is important to hear how Calvin discusses civil law because he strikes a balance that is worth hearing in full:
Those ceremonial practices indeed properly belonged to the doctrine of piety, inasmuch as they kept the church of the jews in service and reverence to God. In like manner, the form of their judicial laws, although it had no other intent than how best to preserve that very love which is enjoined by God’s eternal law, had something distinct from that precept of love. Therefore, as ceremonial laws could be abrogated while piety remained safe and unharmed, so too, when these judicial laws were taken away, the perpetual duties and precepts of love could still remain. (Inst. 4.20.15)
Calvin sees the ceremonies as both shadows of Christ but also as useful to the Jewish people for worship. He says something similar about the civil laws. They aim to preserve love, although they still have “something distinct from that precept of love.” Hence, these laws like the ceremonial laws can be “taken away” without taking away “the perpetual duties and precepts of love.”
When it comes to civil governments today, Calvin affirms that while governments can make their own laws, they ought to follow that “perpetual rule of love” (Inst. 4.20.15).
The particular civil administration of Israel contains that rule of love but for Israel in their place and time and circumstances. So nations may have different circumstances than Israel did, but they should still try to have laws that aim to promote love.
Also, they should as Calvin explains match the equity which all people have access to in nature and in the conscience (Inst. 4.20.16). Which is another way to say nations should follow God’s moral law:
“It is a fact that the law of God which we call the moral law is nothing else than a testament of natural law and of that conscience which God has engraved upon the minds of men” (Inst. 4.20.16).
The law of God condemns, restrains, and teaches. It can no longer curse or cause the fear of death for those who are in Christ. Instead, it can aid Christians in accomplishing what they want to do by the Spirit already: obey God freely by the Spirit.
Image: Henri van Muyden (1860–1936), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons