Why Christians Need to Hear the Law
The end of chapter 7 of Book 2 presents a very convincing and powerful argument for the centrality of the third use of the law. Calvin argues from the situation of the church under the Old Covenant that the third use is most connected to the law’s original purpose. I’ve often heard from some Reformed Christians that the law is entirely powerless to do anything positive for the Christian. It is certainly true that the law is powerless to effect reconciliation with God since there is no man who can obey even one iota of the law from the heart. Nevertheless, Calvin does speak of the law as possessing a sort of sanctifying power, a power which instructs us and encourages us. In words that might make some contemporary Reformed Christians cringe, Calvin argues that the law, for the believer, arouses the heart to greater obedience. And lest anyone misunderstand Calvin, he is speaking to believers upon whose hearts the law has been engraved through regeneration.
“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 (Inst. 2.7.7).”
While it’s not my intention to pick a fight in this context, I will say that this understanding of the law is very different from some negative formulations of the law which have recently been popularized and advocated by Reformed and Presbyterian pastors. I understand the desire to keep the cross central, to glory in the indicatives of the gospel, and to avoid at all costs the paralyzing kind of legalism which ruins so many lives and churches. But the answer is not to run away from the law or to downplay or ignore its instructive use. For Calvin, the law, within the context of the gospel promises and the presence of the Spirit, should arouse, strengthen, and draw us back from sin.