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Calvin on God's Paternal Clemency

Calvin on God's Paternal Clemency

I am thoroughly enjoying Peter Lillback's The Binding of God. The depth of study across Calvin's expansive writings reveals many insights. One particular point for Lillback is the "letter-spirit" hermeneutic of Calvin as opposed to the law-gospel hermeneutic of Luther.

This "letter-spirit" hermeneutic ties together the old and new covenant in a unique way for Calvin. It resonates most clearly in Calvin's view on the law in the Christian life. Historically, Calvin was attempting to walk a line between Lutherans and Rome on the value of works in the new covenant. Rome claimed that God covenanted with man — through Jesus Christ — such that our works become meritorious. Calvin denied this. But he still saw works as essential through the "letter-spirit" paradigm. This distinction allows Calvin to speak highly of the righteousness of works as a requirement in the covenant of grace. Calvin goes so far as say that God provides the blessings attached "to the observance of the law,"

"But when the promises of the gospel are substituted, which proclaimed the free forgiveness of sins, these not only make us acceptable to God, but also render our works pleasing to him. And not only does the Lord judge them pleasing; he also extends to them blessings which under the covenant were owed to the observance of the law. I therefore admit that what the Lord has promised in his law to the keeper of righteousness and holiness is paid to the works of believers." (194; Inst, III.XVII.III)

Calvin is not stating that our works are upright or righteous in their own effort — though using the words "keeper of righteousness and holiness." These works are considered such on the basis of God's covenant faithfulness and Fatherhood. In fact, this concept of "adoption" underlies all of Calvin's understanding,

"Moreover, we do not deny that for believers uprightness, albeit partial and imperfect, is a step toward immortality. But what is its source except that the Lord does not examine for merit the works of those whom he has received into the covenant of grace but embraces them with fatherly affection?" (196; Inst, III.XVIII.VII)

Our entrance into the covenant of grace changes the meaning of the law in the Believer on the basis of God's "fatherly affection" and the giving of the Holy Spirit. Our "uprightness" is not merely the result of immortality, but Calvin says it "is a step toward" eternal life. It is solely the righteousness of Christ that permits God to accept what He would otherwise reject. Calvin says the Scriptures speak thus rightly of individual "righteousness" in the cases of Noah, Zecharias, Elizabeth, etc.,

"For the faithful are reckoned just before God, and their works are also reckoned just—not by any inherent merit—not because they bring any perfection of that kind before God which may conciliate his favor, and in which they can stand; but because God pardons them indulgently through his own paternal clemency, and so approves their righteousness, which might be deservedly rejected." (199; Commentary on Ezekiel 14:14)

There is no merit, merely Godly indulgence. But this is not enough to say these people were "righteous" merely because of justification by faith alone. God truly does look down at their works and reckon them justice. By faith, the works of Noah can be considered righteous. And it is on this basis, Calvin says our works have an impact on our heavenly reward,

"Yet because he examines our works according to his tenderness, not his supreme right, he therefore accepts them as if they were perfectly purer; and for that reason, although on merited, awarded with infinite benefits, both of the present life and also of the life to come. For I do not accept the distinction made by learned and otherwise godly men that good works deserve praises that are conferred upon us in this life, while everlasting salvation is the root word of faith alone. For the Lord almost always lodges in heaven the reward of toil and the crown of battle." (199; Inst, III.XV.IV)

Some Protestants may take issue with this type of language — at least the Reformed sort. Calvin's "letter-spirit" hermeneutic has more or less been replaced by a more law-gospel hermeneutics fitting the covenant of works (conditional)/covenant of grace (unconditional) dichotomy that has pervaded reformed theology. Calvin does not deny the law-gospel distinction with respect to justification. Instead, Lillback sees Calvin as walking a historically fine line between Romanists and Lutherans on the necessity of good work in the covenant of grace,

"Calvin obviously failed to convince either the Lutherans or the Catholics. The Lutherans still insisted on the law/gospel distinction. The Romanist still required the doctrine of merit. But, those who emerged in the tradition of Calvin recognized the covenant context justification." (208)

Given recent discussions about the Reformed used of "law/gospel," one has to wonder if Calvin has even convinced them.

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