Reading Scripture with John Calvin: Malachi 3:15–17

Malachi 3.15–17

[15] “Now we count the arrogant happy; evil-doers not only prosper, but when they put God to the test they escape.” [16] Then those who revered the LORD spoke with one another. The LORD took note and listened, and a book of remembrance was written before him of those who revered the LORD and thought on his name. [17] They shall be mine, says the LORD of hosts, my special possession on the day when I act, and I will spare them as parents spare their children who serve them.


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COMMENTARY: To begin this section of his exposition, Calvin takes a backwards look to the hypocrisy that he has been expounding – by way of Malachi – for some time. I mention it again, however, because he has a great line in his description here. While hypocrites may appear to be upstanding, moral, good, etc., it is all an act: “they have only the guise or mask of religion” (italics mine; 598)! And this is not the last memorable line that Calvin provides in this section of his commentary. Calvin’s point here, of course, is that the sort of behavior and worship that is pleasing to God is motivated by love rather than fear or self-serving calculation.

The second great line comes in his discussion of verse 16. Calvin takes the mention of those who “revered the LORD and thought on his name” here as evidence that Malachi’s “doctrine had not been without fruit” (602). This is an interesting line in itself because most folks these days (I suspect) do not think of doctrine in these terms. That is, we don’t think of doctrine as the sort of thing that bears fruit. But for Calvin, proper teaching about God has consequences in life. (On this point, see the discussion of Calvin in Ellen Charry’s By the Renewing of Your Mind.) But this fruit is not the result of creaturely activity or power; it is the result of God’s action. Then comes the line: “we are by nature slothful and tardy, until God as it were plucks our ears” (italics mine)! What a great image – there we are, lazy, perhaps napping, and God walks by and flicks us on the ear to wake us up and get moving. And how does God do it? Through doctrine, perhaps? One thinks of Romans 12.2.

The theme of hope also plays an important role for Calvin here, especially in connection with verse 17. God makes a promise in this verse to the remnant mentioned in verse 16, but this promise goes against their experience of the world. That is, their position has not changed concretely even if God has made this promise. Calvin writes, “When therefore se seem to serve God in vain, let us know that the obedience we render to him will come to an account, . . . though he may not immediately stretch forth his hand to us” (605). The promise is there to engender hope and trust, and that is necessary because there is a delay between the faithfulness of the remnant and God’s intervention on their behalf. This gap requires that hope be joined with patience—“the Prophet in these words exhorts us to patience” (606)—so that faith can be given primacy over sight, as it were: “let us then arm ourselves for this contest, and be satisfied with the inward testimony of the Spirit, though outward things do not prosper” (607–08).

Finally, the “practical syllogism” (the idea that it is possible to be confident of your election based on evidence of grace in your life) kept tugging at the back of my mind while reading this section. For instance, Calvin say “it is an evidence of true repentance” when one works to bring one’s friends to repentance (603). Then, when discussing the last half of verse 17, where God promises to spare the remnant identified in verse 16, Calvin identifies two aspects of this promise. First, those “who remained alive would render obedience to God, by which they would prove themselves to be children indeed, and not in name only” (608). Here again, as with the earlier line quoted, we seem to have actions of obedience identified as ways to secure confidence of one’s salvation. However, Calvin’s second aspect undermines this: “God would forgive them, that is, . . . he would exercise pardon in receiving their services, which could not otherwise please him” (italics Calvin’s) His point here is that even if obedience indicates one’s soteriological status, that obedience never secures that status. And furthermore—and this is the key bit—that obedience is never unambiguous. Calvin goes on to disparage those “sophists” who “daringly prattle about merits” because “even when we devote ourselves with all possible effort and zeal to God’s service there is yet something always wanting” (609). An honest self-examination of the sort that Calvin recommended in his previous section of commentary, where he exhorted his readers to remember that God always has plenty of reasons to “chastise” believers, even if those reasons aren’t obvious to them.


(Calvin concludes each of his lectures on Malachi with a prayer.)
Grant, Almighty God, that as Satan strives to draw us away from every attention to true religion, when things in the world are in a state of disorder and confusion,—O grant, that we may know that thou carest for us; and if we perceive not this by what we find in the world, may we rely on thy word, and doubt not but that thou ever watchest over our safety; and being supported by this confidence, may we ever go on in the course of our calling: and as thou hast deigned to make us partakers of that evidence of thy favour, by which we know that we are reconciled to thee in thine only-begotten Son; and being thus made his members, may we never hesitate cheerfully to offer to thee our services, however defective they may be, since thou hast once promised to be a propitious Father to us, so as not rigidly to try what we offer to thee, but so graciously to accept it, that we may know that not only our sins, which justly deserve condemnation, are forgiven and remitted to us, but that thou also bearest with our infirmities and our defects in our imperfect works, that we shall at length receive the reward which thou has promised, and which we cannot attain through our merits, but through the sanctification of thy Spirit, and through the sprinkling of the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.—Amen.



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