The Ten Commandments
The Apostle Paul tells us that the Christian is not under law,
but under grace (Ro.6:15). But if this is true, what use is the
Law of Moses? How ought Christians to relate to the Ten
commandments? John Calvin (1509 - 1564), the great French
Reformer, addressed that question in his "Institutes of the
Christian Religion," Bk.2,ch.7, secs.6-13.
THREE USES OF THE LAW
by JOHN CALVIN
LET US SURVEY BRIEFLY THE FUNCTION AND USE OF WHAT IS CALLED the
"moral law." Now, so far as I understand it, it consists of three
1. The first part is this: while it shows God's righteousness,
that is, the righteousness alone acceptable to God, it warns,
informs, convicts, and lastly condemns every man of his own
unrighteousness. For man, blinded and drunk with self-love, must
be compelled to know and to confess his own feebleness and
If man is not clearly convinced of his own vanity, he is
puffed up with insane confidence in his own mental powers, and
can never be induced to recognize their slenderness as long as he
measures them by a measure of his own choice. But as soon as he
begins to compare his powers with the difficulty of the law, he
has something to diminish his bravado. For, however remarkable an
opinion of his powers he formerly held, he soon feels that they
are panting under so heavy a weight as to stagger and totter, and
finally even to fall down and faint away. Thus man, schooled in
the law, sloughs off the arrogance that previously blinded him.
Likewise, he needs to be cured of another disease, that of
pride, with which he is sick. So long as he is permitted to stand
upon his own judgment, he passes off hypocrisy as righteousness;
pleased with this, he is aroused against God's grace by I know
not what counterfeit acts of righteousness. But after he is
compelled to weigh his life in the scales of the law, laying
aside all that presumption of fictitious righteousness, he
discovers that he is a long way from holiness, and is in fact
teeming with a multitude of vices, with which he previously
thought himself undefiled.
So deep and tortuous are the recesses in which the evils of
covetousness lurk that they easily deceive man's sight. The
apostle has good reason to say: "I would not have known what sin
was except through the law. For I would not have known what it
was to covet if the law had not said, 'Do not covet'" (Ro.7:7).
For if by the law covetousness is not dragged from its lair,
it destroys wretched man so secretly that he does not even feel
its fatal stab.
THE LAW STILL HAS POSITIVE VALUE
The law is like a mirror. In it we contemplate our weakness, the
iniquity arising from this, and finally the curse coming from
both - just as a mirror shows us the spots on our face. For when
the capacity to follow righteousness fails him, man must be mired
in sins. After the sin comes the curse. Accordingly, the greater
the transgression of which the law holds us guilty, the graver
the judgment to which it makes us answerable.
The apostle's statement is relevant here:
"through the law we become conscious of sin" (Ro.3:20). Them he
notes only its first function, which sinners as yet unregenerate
experience. Related to this are those statements:
"The law was added so that the trespass might increase" (Ro.
5:20), and thus it is "the ministry that brought death" (2 Cor.
3:7), that "brings wrath" (Ro.4:15), and slays. There is no doubt
that the more clearly the conscience is struck with awareness of
its sin, the more the iniquity grows.
For stubborn disobedience against the Lawgiver is then added
to transgression. It remains, then, to the law to arm God's wrath
for the sinner's downfall, for of itself the law can only accuse,
condemn, and destroy. As Augustine writes:
"If the Spirit of grace is absent, the law is present only to
accuse and kill us."
CONDEMNATION TO ALL BY LAW
The wickedness and condemnation of us all are sealed by the
testimony of the law. Yet this is not done to cause us to fall
down in despair or, completely discouraged, to rush headlong over
the brink provided we duly profit by the testimony of the law. It
is true that in this way the wicked are terrified, but because of
their obstinacy of heart.
For the children of God the knowledge of the law should have
another purpose. The apostle testifies that we are indeed
condemned by the judgment of the law, "so that every mouth may be
silenced and the whole world held accountable to God" (Ro.3:19).
He teaches the same idea in yet another place: "For God has bound
all men over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them
This means that, dismissing the stupid opinion of their own
strength, they come to realize that they stand and are upheld by
God's hand alone; that, naked and empty-handed, they flee to
His mercy, repose entirely in it, hide deep within it, and seize
upon it alone for righteousness and merit. For God's mercy is
revealed in Christ to all who seek and wait upon it with true
faith. In the precepts of the law, God is but the rewarder of
perfect righteousness, which all of us lack, and conversely, the
severe judge of evil deeds. But in Christ His face shines, full
of grace and gentleness, even upon us poor and unworthy sinners.
THE LAW MAKES US SEEK GRACE
Augustine often speaks of the value of calling upon the grace of
His help. For example, he writes to Hilary: "The law bids us, as
we try to fulfill its requirements, and become wearied in our
weakness under it, to know how to ask the help of grace." Again,
to Innocent of Rome: "The law commands; grace supplies the
strength to act"
Again Augustine writes, "The law was given for this purpose:
to make you, being gnat, little; to show that you do not have in
yourself the strength to attain to righteousness, and for you,
thus helpless, unworthy, and destitute, to flee to grace."
Afterward he addresses God: "So act, 0 Lord; so act, O
merciful Lord. Command what cannot be fulfilled. Rather, command
what can be fulfilled only through thy grace so that, since men
are unable to fulfill it through their own strength, every mouth
may be stopped, and no one may seem great to himself. Let all be
little ones, and let all the world be guilty before God."
THE LAW RESTRAINS WRONG-DOERS
2. The second function of the law is this: at least by fear of
punishment to restrain certain men who are untouched by any
care for what is just and right unless compelled by hearing the
dire threats in the law. But they are restrained, not because
their inner mind is stiffed or affected, but because, being
bridled, so to speak, they keep their hands from outward
activity, and hold inside the depravity that otherwise they would
wantonly have indulged. Consequently, they are neither better nor
more righteous before God. Hindered by fright or shame, they dare
neither execute what they have conceived in their minds, nor
openly breathe forth the rage of their lust.
Still, they do not have hearts disposed to fear and
obedience toward God. Indeed, the more they restrain themselves,
the more strongly are they inflamed; they buRN and boil within,
and are ready to do anything or burst forth anywhere - but for
the fact that this dread of the law hinders them. Not only that -
but so wickedly do they also hate the law itself, and curse God
the Lawgiver, that if they could, they would most certainly
abolish Him, for they cannot bear Him either when He commands
them to do right, or when He takes vengeance on the despisers of
His majesty. All who are still unregenerate feel - some more
obscurely, some more openly - that they are not drawn to obey the
law voluntarily, but impelled by a violent fear do so against
their will and despite their opposition to it.
But this constrained and forced righteousness is necessary
for the public community of men, for whose tranquility the Lord
herein provided when He took care that everything be not
tumultuously confounded. This would happen if everything were
permitted to all men. Nay, even for the children of God, before
they are called and while they are destitute of the Spirit of
sanctification, so long as they play the wanton in the folly of
the flesh, it is profitable for them to undergo this tutelage.
THE PRINCIPAL USE OF THE LAW
3. The third and principal use, which pertains more closely to
the proper purpose of the law, finds its place among believers in
whose hearts the Spirit of God already lives and reigns. For even
though they have the law written and engraved upon their hearts
by the finger of God (Jer.31:33; Heb.10:16), that is, have been
so moved and quickened through the directing of the Spirit that
they long to obey God, they still profit by the law in two ways.
Here is the best instrument for them to learn more
thoroughly each day the nature of the Lord's will to which they
aspire, and to confirm them in the understanding of it. It is as
if some servant, already prepared with all earnestness of heart
to commend himself to his master, must search out and observe his
master's ways more carefully in order to conform and accommodate
himself to them. And not one of us may escape from this
necessity. For no man has heretofore attained to such wisdom as
to be unable, from the daily instruction of the law, to make
fresh progress toward a purer knowledge of the divine will.
Again, because we need not only teaching but also
exhortation, the servant of God will also avail himself of this
benefit of the law; by frequent meditation upon it to be aroused
to obedience, be strengthened in it, and be drawn back from the
slippery path of transgression.
In this way 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 balky ass, to arouse it to work. 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.
Doubtless David was referring to this use when he sang the
praises of the law: "The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the
soul. The statutes of the LORD are trustworthy, making wise the
simple. The precepts of the LORD are right, giving joy to the
heart. The commandments of the LORD are radiant, giving light to
the eyes" (Ps.19:7-8).
Likewise: "Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my
path" (Ps.119:105), and innumerable other sayings in the same
Psalm (e.g., Ps.119:5).
These do not contradict Paul's statements, which show not
what use the law serves for the regenerate, but what it can of
itself confer upon man. But here the prophet proclaims the great
usefulness of the law: the Lord instructs by their reading of it
those whom He inwardly instills with a readiness to obey. He lays
hold not only of the precepts, but the accompanying promise of
grace, which alone sweetens what is bitter. For what would be
less lovable than the law if, with importuning and threatening
alone, it troubled souls through fear, and distressed them
through fright? David especially shows that in the law he
apprehended the Mediator, without whom there is no delight or
THE LAW MOST NOT BE DONE AWAY
Certain ignorant persons, not understanding this
distinction, rashly cast out the whole of Moses, and bid farewell
to the two tables of the law. For they think it obviously alien
to Christians to hold a doctrine that contains the "ministry of
death" (2 Cor.3:7).
Banish this wicked thought from our minds! For Moses has
admirably taught that the law, which among sinners can engender
nothing but death, ought among the saints to have a better and
more excellent use. When about to die, he decreed to the people
as follows: "Take to heart all the words I have solemnly declared
to you this day, so that you may command your children to obey
carefully all the words of this law. They are not just idle words
for youth, they are your life. By them you will live long in the
land you are crossing the Jordan to possess" (Dt.32:46-47).
But if no one can deny that a perfect pattern of
righteousness stands forth in the law, either we need no rule to
live rightly and justly, or it is forbidden to depart from the
law. There are not many rules, but one everlasting and
unchangeable rule to live by. For this reason we are not to refer
solely to one age David's statement that the life of a righteous
man is a continual meditation upon the law (Ps.1:2), for it is
just as applicable to every age, even to the end of the world.
We ought not to be frightened away from the law or to shun
its instruction merely because it requires a much stricter moral
purity than we shall reach while we bear about with us the prison
house of our body. For the law is not now acting toward us as a
rigorous enforcement officer who is not satisfied unless the
requirements are met. But in this perfection to which it exhorts
us, the law points out the goal toward which throughout life we
are to strive. In this the law is no less profitable than
consistent with our duty. If we fail not in this struggle, it is
well. Indeed, this whole life is a race Q Cor. 9:24-26); when its
course has been run, the Lord will grant us to attain that goal
to which our efforts now press forward from afar.
Adapted from John Calvin, "The Institutes of the Christian
Religion," trns. Ford Lewis Battles, ed. John T. McNeill
(Philadelphia, Pa.: Westminster Press, 1977), Vol.1, pp, 354-362.
John Calvin understood the purpose of the Law, that it is NOT Law
OR Grace, but it is Law AND grace.
Now you need to study my study called "Saved by Grace."
Entered on this Website March 2008