Calvin’s Institutes – 2.7.1 – By the Law, I understand the whole system of religion delivered by the hand of Moses

Calvin at first defines the law to be the sum total of everything commanded by Moses. He also gives his opinion on what is required by the law for righteousness.

This is part of my series on Calvin’s Institutes.


By the Law, I understand not only the Ten Commandments, which contain a complete rule of life, but the whole system of religion delivered by the hand of Moses. Moses was not appointed as a Lawgiver, to do away with the blessing promised to the race of Abraham; nay, we see that he is constantly reminding the Jews of the free covenant which had been made with their fathers, and of which they were heirs; as if he had been sent for the purpose of renewing it. (Calvin, Instit. 2.7.1)

But in order that a sense of guilt may urge us to seek for pardon, it is of importance to know how our being instructed in the Moral Law renders us more inexcusable. If it is true, that a perfect righteousness is set before us in the Law, it follows, that the complete observance of it is perfect righteousness in the sight of God; that is, a righteousness by which a man may be deemed and pronounced righteous at the divine tribunal. Wherefore Moses, after promulgating the Law, hesitates not to call heaven and earth to witness, that he had set life and death, good and evil, before the people. Nor can it be denied, that the reward of eternal salvation, as promised by the Lord, awaits the perfect obedience of the Law (Deut. 30:19). Again, however, it is of importance to understand in what way we perform that obedience for which we justly entertain the hope of that reward. For of what use is it to see that the reward of eternal life depends on the observance of the Law, unless it moreover appears whether it be in our power in that way to attain to eternal life? Herein, then, the weakness of the Law is manifested; for, in none of us is that righteousness of the Law manifested, and, therefore, being excluded from the promises of life, we again fall under the curse. (Calvin, Instit. 2.7.3)


I agree for the most part the ‘law’ (especially in Paul) refers to all the commands of Moses. But as per my series on the law, this in an incomplete understanding.

Soon after his initial statements Calvin seems to change his association of the law with the entire law of Moses. He tends to think of the law in terms of its moral requirements and thinks everyone is under the same law. He is mistaken. The law of Moses was given specifically to the Jews, not to the Gentile nations.

Calvin also claims the law requires ‘perfect righteousness’ in the sight of God for a declaration of righteous at the divine tribunal. This is wrong. It is true to be justified in the sight of God one has to be righteous. But this does not mean perfection. Rather keeping the law, making a practice of righteousness, being blameless. Calvin has not understood what it means to be righteous according to the law (cf. Phil 3.6).

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