Posted by: joelrbeeke | August 11, 2008

John Calvin on Piety – Part Six

The Ecclesiological Dimensions of Piety

Piety through the Church

Calvin’s pietas is not independent of Scripture nor the church; rather, it is rooted in the Word and nurtured in the church. While breaking with the clericalism and absolutism of Rome, Calvin nonetheless maintains a high view of the church. “If we do not prefer the church to all other objects of our interest, we are unworthy of being counted among her members,” he writes.

Augustine once said, “He cannot have God for his Father who refuses to have the church for his mother.” To that Calvin adds, “For there is no other way to enter into life unless this mother conceive us in her womb, give us birth, nourish us at her breast, and lastly, unless she keep us under her care and guidance until, putting off mortal flesh, we become like the angels.” Apart from the church, there is little hope for forgiveness of sins or salvation, Calvin wrote. It is always disastrous to leave the church.

For Calvin, believers are engrafted into Christ and His church, because spiritual growth happens within the church. The church is mother, educator, and nourisher of every believer, for the Holy Spirit acts in her. Believers cultivate piety by the Spirit through the church’s teaching ministry, progressing from spiritual infancy to adolescence to full manhood in Christ. They do not graduate from the church until they die.  This lifelong education is offered within an atmosphere of genuine piety in which believers love and care for one another under the headship of Christ.  It encourages the growth of one another’s gifts and love, as it is “constrained to borrow from others.”

Growth in piety is impossible apart from the church, for piety is fostered by the communion of saints. Within the church, believers “cleave to each other in the mutual distribution of gifts.”  Each member has his own place and gifts to use within the body.  Ideally, the entire body uses these gifts in symmetry and proportion, ever reforming and growing toward perfection.

Piety of the Word

The Word of God is central to the development of Christian piety in the believer. Calvin’s relational model explains how.

True religion is a dialogue between God and man. The part of the dialogue that God initiates is revelation. In this, God comes down to meet us, addresses us, and makes Himself known to us in the preaching of the Word. The other part of the dialogue is man’s response to God’s revelation. This response, which includes trust, adoration, and godly fear, is what Calvin calls pietas. The preaching of the Word saves us and preserves us as the Spirit enables us to appropriate the blood of Christ and respond to Him with reverential love. By the Spirit-empowered preaching of men, “the renewal of the saints is accomplished and the body of Christ is edified,” Calvin says.

Calvin teaches that the preaching of the Word is our spiritual food and our medicine for spiritual health. With the Spirit’s blessing, ministers are spiritual physicians who apply the Word to our souls as earthly physicians apply medicine to our bodies. Using the Word, these spiritual doctors diagnose, prescribe for, and cure spiritual disease in those plagued by sin and death. The preached Word is used as an instrument to heal, cleanse, and make fruitful our disease-prone souls.   The Spirit, or the “internal minister,” promotes piety by using the “external minister” to preach the Word. As Calvin says, the external minister “holds forth the vocal word and it is received by the ears,” but the internal minister “truly communicates the thing proclaimed . . . that is Christ.”

To promote piety, the Spirit not only uses the gospel to work faith deep within the souls of His elect, as we have already seen, but He also uses the law. The law promotes piety in three ways:

1.    It restrains sin and promotes righteousness in the church and society,
preventing both from lapsing into chaos.

2.    It disciplines, educates, and convicts us, driving us out of ourselves to Jesus Christ, the fulfiller and end of the law. The law cannot lead us to a saving knowledge of God in Christ; rather, the Holy Spirit uses it as a mirror to show us our guilt, shut us off from hope, and bring us to repentance. It drives us to the spiritual need out of which faith in Christ is born. This convicting use of the law is critical for the believer’s piety, for it prevents the ungodly self-righteousness that is prone to reassert itself even in the holiest of saints.

3.    It becomes the rule of life for the believer. “What is the rule of life which [God] has given us?” Calvin asks in the Genevan Catechism. The answer: “His law.” Later, Calvin says the law “shows the mark at which we ought to aim, the goal towards which we ought to press, that each of us, according to the measure of grace bestowed upon him, may endeavor to frame his life according to the highest rectitude, and, by constant study, continually advance more and more.”

Calvin writes about the third use of the law in the first edition of his Institutes, stating, “Believers… profit by the law because from it they learn more thoroughly each day what the Lord’s will is like…. It is as if some servant, already prepared with complete earnestness of heart to commend himself to his master, must search out and oversee his master’s ways in order to conform and accommodate himself to them. Moreover, however much they may be prompted by the Spirit and eager to obey God, they are still weak in the flesh, and would rather serve sin than God. The law is to this flesh like a whip to an idle and balky ass, to goad, stir, arouse it to work.”

In the last edition of the Institutes (1559), Calvin is more emphatic about how believers profit from the law. First, he says, “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.” And second, it causes “frequent meditation upon it to be aroused to obedience, be strengthened in it, and be drawn back from the slippery path of transgression.”  Saints must press on in this, Calvin concludes. “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?”

Viewing the law primarily as an encouragement for the believer to cling to God and obey Him is another instance where Calvin differs from Luther. For Luther, the law is primarily negative; it is closely linked with sin, death, or the devil. Luther’s dominant interest is in the second use of the law, even when he considers the law’s role in sanctification. By contrast, Calvin views the law primarily as a positive expression of the will of God. As Hesselink says, “Calvin’s view could be called Deuteronomic, for to him law and love are not antithetical, but are correlates.”  The believer follows God’s law not out of compulsory obedience, but out of grateful obedience. Under the tutelage of the Spirit, the law prompts gratitude in the believer, which leads to loving obedience and aversion to sin. In other words, the primary purpose of the law for Luther is to help the believer recognize and confront sin. For Calvin, its primary purpose is to direct the believer to serve God out of love.



  1. Yes, the Law is holy, righteous, and good. Romans 7:12. Yes, I should obey the Law. They are commandments. Deuteronomy Chapter 5 and Exodus Chapter 20. Yes, I should be grateful. Hebrews 12:28.

    But, the problem remains which is the sin within me. “But sin, taking opportunity through the commandment, produced in me coveting of every kind; for apart from the Law sin is dead.” Romans 7:8.

    As strange as it does seem, the solution provided by the Bible is not “grateful obedience” to the Law. The solution is that we were made to die to the Law and were given the Spirit which will produce fruit against which there is no law. “Therefore, my brethren, you also were made to die to the Law through the body of Christ, so that you might be joined to another, to Him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit for God. For while we were in the flesh, the sinful passions, which were aroused by the Law, were at work in the members of our body to bear fruit for death. But now we have been released from the Law, having died to that by which we were bound, so that we serve in newness of the Spirit and not in oldness of the letter.” Romans 7:4-6.

    The whole book of Galatians builds on this theme.

    From the pledge of allegiance of Galatians 2:19-21: “For through the Law I died to the Law, so that I might live to God. “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me. “I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly.”

    Through the quest of perfection of Galatians 3:3-5: “Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? Did you suffer so many things in vain–if indeed it was in vain? So then, does He who provides you with the Spirit and works miracles among you, do it by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith?”

    Through the warnings and curses of Galatians 3:10-13: “For as many as are of the works of the Law are under a curse; for it is written, “CURSED IS EVERYONE WHO DOES NOT ABIDE BY ALL THINGS WRITTEN IN THE BOOK OF THE LAW, TO PERFORM THEM.” Now that no one is justified by the Law before God is evident; for, “THE RIGHTEOUS MAN SHALL LIVE BY FAITH.” However, the Law is not of faith; on the contrary, “HE WHO PRACTICES THEM SHALL LIVE BY THEM.” Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us–for it is written, “CURSED IS EVERYONE WHO HANGS ON A TREE”–”

    Through the study of historical supremacy of the promise over the Law as written in Galatians 3:17: “What I am saying is this: the Law, which came four hundred and thirty years later, does not invalidate a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to nullify the promise.”

    Through the inadequacy of the Law of Galatians 3:21: “Is the Law then contrary to the promises of God? May it never be! For if a law had been given which was able to impart life, then righteousness would indeed have been based on law.”

    Through the analogy of the Law as our temporary tutor and the fact of our “graduation” to Christ of Galatians 3:24-25: “Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor.”

    Through the allegory of the bondage of the Law versus the freedom through the promise written in Galatians 4:21: “Tell me, you who want to be under law, do you not listen to the law? For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the bondwoman and one by the free woman. But the son by the bondwoman was born according to the flesh, and the son by the free woman through the promise. This is allegorically speaking, for these women are two covenants: one proceeding from Mount Sinai bearing children who are to be slaves; she is Hagar. Now this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem above is free; she is our mother.”

    Through the ultimate warning of being severed from Christ written in Galatians 5:4: “You have been severed from Christ, you who are seeking to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace.”

    Through the preemption by the Spirit of Galatians 5:18: “But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the Law.”

    Finally, to the fruit of the Spirit of Galatians 5:22-23: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.”

    After all this, how can we go back to the Law whether we call it “compulsory obedience” or “grateful obedience” or loving obedience (“For Calvin, its primary purpose (of the Law) is to direct the believer to serve God out of love.”)???

  2. Like the priesthood of all believers the doctrine of dying to the law is one of the great lost doctrines.

  3. In addition to suggested readings in Calvin’s Commentary on Galatians, where we do see how God out of love does not have the believer neglect the law, I also offer up my favorite quote from Calvin, that clearly summarizes the THIRD USE OF THE MORAL LAW:

    “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.” (Calvin, Institutes, II.7.12, 360-1)

  4. Just don’t enter Bunyan’s Village of Morality. It is a detour off the Way.

  5. Thanks Steven!

    What is Bunyan’s Village of Morality? I presume it is from his book Pilgrim’s Progress. Can you either copy and paste a quote from the book or explain or provide a link? Thank you.


  6. “On his way to the Wicket Gate, Christian is diverted by Mr. Worldly Wiseman into seeking deliverance from his burden through the Law, supposedly with the help of a Mr. Legality and his son Civility in the village of Morality, rather than through Christ,”

    The above from the Wikipedia page on Pilgrim’s Progress.

    I agree with you, Mr. Hornbeck, and though you described the subtlety of the matter very well.

  7. Thank you Steven!

    It encourages me that I am not the only Christian who is willing to speak out and clearly on this important doctrine on the limited role of the Law. Sometimes, it seems that way, and I should be therefore cautious about my interpretation of this Scripture (Romans and Galatians).

    But, Scripture seems more and more clear to me, the more I study it.

    Some Christian preachers and teachers just generally talk about the Law so as to give the impression that Galatians and Romans is only talking about the Jewish ceremonial law and related rituals. There are no Christians now who want to go back to the Jewish ceremonial law and related rituals, so what is the importance (blessings and warnings) of Romans and Galatians to all of us if that belief is true?!

    Romans 7:7 was one of the important verses that proved to me that “the Law” in Romans and Galatians included the Ten Commandments, and thus it showed the importance (blessings and warnings) of Romans and Galatians.

    There are some Christian preachers and teachers just generally talk about the Law, because they fear it will lead to antinomianism. Certainly that is a danger. “What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? May it never be! Do you not know that when you present yourselves to someone as slaves for obedience, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin resulting in death, or of obedience resulting in righteousness? But thanks be to God that though you were slaves of sin, you became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching to which you were committed, and having been freed from sin, you became slaves of righteousness.” Romans 6:15-18.

    If Romans and Galatians were only talking about Jewish ceremonial law and rituals, this warning would not be here!

    Some Christian preachers and teachers are influenced by philosophy such as taught by Plato and others that the form is higher than substance. They believe that the Law is higher than Christ. They believe that Christ is righteous, because He complies with the Law, more than they believe that the Law is righteous, because it complies to Christ. Therefore, they don’t quite trust the gift of righteousness nor the work of the Spirit. They are constantly bringing back the Law to try to prove their own self-righteousness. And, the more they are perceived as a Christian leader, the more they feel compelled to perfect themselves according to the flesh.

    I am just a layman, but that is my view. Thanks again for your quote and encouragement.

    But, in conclusion, I would also welcome other readers to meditate on these Scripture verses that I state in these comments (particularly my first comment) and all of the comments and then “weigh in” on this very important topic by their comments.

  8. It’s a difficult subject because nobody in the Village of Morality really is aware they are there and take offense at the suggestion that they may be there.

    Also, it seems to most that a fair reply is: “So what, afterall, do you have against the law of God? Hm?”

    The response should be: the perfect law of God is perverted by fallen man into moralism and worse.

    A regenerate Christian follows the ten commandments *not* because those two tables are as a chain about their neck but because it is now what their very heart is. That law emanates from their heart.

    Not that regenerate Christians don’t fall in the course of their progressive sanctification, but they know it when they do fall. And they don’t desire to stay in the fallen condition.

  9. Practically speaking the danger of not dying to the law and coming alive in Christ is you will find yourself in the tyranny of the devil’s kingdom such as the Roman Catholic system; and it always leads, inexorably, to the burying and suppressing of the very things – the Word and the Spirit – that can only quicken a fallen human being. And as the Word and the Spirit get suppressed inevitably man and ritual get exalted.

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