Reading Scripture with John Calvin: 1 Peter 2.24-25

1 Peter 2.24-25

[24] “He himself bore our sins” in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; “by his wounds you have been healed.” [25] For “you were like sheep going astray,” but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.

*NB: Quotes are from Isaiah 53



Calvin comments on these three extraordinary verses in the space of three pages, but in that time he touches on some central themes in Christian soteriology and even manages to quibble a bit with the Roman Catholics of his day, whom he here calls “the Sophists in their schools.” From these verses Calvin extracts three primary points. First, “Christ by his death has given us an example of patience.” Calvin seems to be drawing upon the preceding verses for this meaning. Second, “by his death he restored us to life” for which reason “we ought cheerfully to follow his example.” Third, we find an explanation of the reason why Christ died, namely, that we “being dead to sins, ought to live to righteousness.”

The phrase that Calvin translates as “Who his own self bare our sins” becomes important, and here Calvin addresses the atonement. It should be noted that Calvin speaks of imputation and substitution, but – and here we must trust to the editor a bit more than I would like – Calvin consistently decides in favor of expiation over propitiation. As some of you may know, the former reforms more properly to the removal of sin while the latter refers more properly to the satisfaction of some controlling consideration – God’s wrath in the case of the atonement. Thus, on the basis of this text, it would be incorrect to call Calvin a supporter of the penal substitutionary understanding of the atonement. However, Calvin goes not to speak in more penal substitutionary terms: “we are reconciled to God on this condition, because Christ made himself before his tribunal…as one guilty for us, that he might suffer the punishment due to us” and, later, “not only guilt was imputed to him, but…he also suffered its punishment…” Of course, because Calvin is such a nimble thinker, these moves resolve in this very sentence back to the previous position: ““not only guilt was imputed to him, but…he also suffered its punishment, that he might thus be an expiatory victim.”

It should be noted in passing that one of the great achievements of Karl Barth mature doctrine of the atonement (Church Dogmatics IV/1) is that he maintains both concepts (expiation and propitiation) but orders them such that propitiation exists only secondarily and in service of expiation, that is, God’s wrath serves God’s love.

Now, Calvin manages to mix it up a bit with the Roman Catholics of his day on the question of whether Christ took care of our deserved guilt and punishment, or just the guilt while the punishment bit is up to us to take care of. It is easy to see from some of the quotes above that Calvin thinks that Christ took care of both. What sort of import these distinctions have for Protestant / Roman Catholic dialogues these days is beyond my ken, but I would love to be enlightened.

Of course, Calvin is always concerned with ethics. The point of our reconciliation to God is that we might live holy lives. Indeed, that is the point of our dieing to sin. Those of you who know some Reformed theology will recognize the theme of mortification, and Calvin uses that word. This mortification to sin is a benefitia Christi: “there is power in Christ’s death to mortify our flesh,” indeed, “the death of Christ is efficacious for the expiation of sins, and also for the mortification of the flesh.” It is this increasing mortification that lies at the heart of the Reformed notion of sanctification. But, it must be noted that this increasing mortification is not something that we accomplish, but is the fruit of Christ’s work on our behalf and in us through the power of the Holy Spirit.

This marks the end of 1 Peter chapter 2. We have now covered 95 pages of Calvin’s commentaries. That seems like quite a milestone to me! We have about another 60 pages to go in 1 Peter. Feel free to e-mail me with suggestions for which of Calvin’s commentaries to tackle next!


Anonymous said…
Really enjoying this series ... and looking forward to the next 60 pages!

Next? How about one of the minor prophets?
I'm glad that you are reading along and enjoying yourself, Jason.

I was thinking a minor prophet as well, specifically Micah or Malachi.
It's interesting to hear what Calvin has to say on atonement. I'm sure we'll cover that in TH222, but the ordering is very important I think. Thanks for doing this!

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