John Calvin on the Decalogue

John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Library of Christian Classics, vols. 20-21; McNeill / Battles; Westminster, 1960), 2.8.3.
“First, by comparing the righteousness of the law with our life, we learn how far we are from conforming to God’s will. And for this reason we are unworthy to hold our place among his creatures – still less to be accounted his children. Secondly, in considering our powers, we learn that they are not only too weak to fulfill the law, but utterly nonexistent. From this necessarily follows mistrust of our own virtue, then anxiety and trepidation of mind. For the conscience cannot bear the weight of iniquity without soon coming before God’s judgment. Truly, God’s judgment cannot be felt without evoking the dread of death. So also, constrained by the proofs of its impotence, conscience cannot but fall straightaway into deep despair of its own powers. Both these emotions engender humility and self-abasement. Thus it finally comes to pass that man, thoroughly frightened by the awareness of eternal death, which he sees as justly threatening him because of his own unrighteousness, betakes himself to God’s mercy alone, as the only haven of safety. Thus, realizing that he does not possess the ability to pay to the law what he owes, and despairing in himself, he is moved to seek and await help from another quarter.”
This is the kind of passage that some people would point to in an attempt to indict Calvin’s teaching as being psychological damaging. The emphasis on guilt and human depravity, they might claim, is akin to psychological abuse. God, they might assert, loves us and is interested in our flourishing, not in our being damaged by such obviously unbalanced theologians.

Suffice it to say that I think that this line of argument is unhelpful, and I would like to draw your attention to the fact that, as can be seen above, the emphasis on guilt and human depravity is not an end in itself, but is ordered toward salvation and God’s mercy. It is true that God is interested in our flourishing because God loves us. But it is no less true that in our sinful state, we are unable to truly flourish unless we recognize our unrighteousness and find salvation in God’s mercy as given to us in Christ.

On this note, may you all enjoy a blessed Easter as we celebrate Jesus Christ, on whom God's judgment fell once and for all, so that we might be reconciled to God in Christ.


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