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Michael Horton,
John Calvin, and
“Law & Gospel”

A Review of Michael S. Horton’s “Calvin and the Law-Gospel Hermeneutic” (Pro Ecclesia Vol.6 No.1: 27-42.)

Bill DeJong

Copyright © 2002
One of the ways in which the doctrinal standards of Lutheran churches differ from those of Reformed ones is the explicit mention of what Michael Horton calls the Law-Gospel hermeneutic.[1] Unlike its Reformed counterparts, the Lutheran Formula of Concord, for example, devotes an entire article to the subject of Law and Gospel (art.5) in which it asserts, among other things, that the Gospel is “properly nothing else than a certain most joyful message and preaching full of consolation, not convicting or terrifying, inasmuch as it comforts the conscience against the terrors of the Law . . .”Since one’s theological vocabulary is often determined largely by one’s ecclesiastical confessions, it is not surprising that Lutherans have made more of the Law-Gospel dynamic in their preaching and teaching than the Reformed have. But is this difference merely one of confessional heritage or does it stem farther back in history
to a divergence in thought between Martin Luther and John Calvin? In his essay, Michael Horton vigorously contends that Luther and Calvin were soul-mates both on the Law-Gospel hermeneutic and, relatedly, on the priority of the second or the pedagogical use of the law.

Horton begins his treatment on Calvin’s alleged embrace and employment of Luther’s Law-Gospel hermeneutic by correctly noting that the terms ‘Law’ and ‘Gospel’ have various referents in Calvin’s writing. In many cases ‘Law’ and ‘Gospel’ simply denote what Horton calls eschatological categories: the Law refers to the Old Covenant; the Gospel to the New. In other places, the terms denote what Horton calls theological categories: the Law issues commands and threats of judgment; the Gospel issues promises of justification (28, 29).

We could also formulate this distinction, at least in relation to the law, in terms of its universal or broad office and its peculiar or narrow office. Calvin states, “The word law is used in a two-fold sense. At times it means the whole doctrine taught by Moses, and, at times, that part of it which belonged peculiarly to his ministry, and is contained in its precepts, rewards and punishments” (emphasis mine; Comm. Rom.10:5).

This distinction could also be stated, as Horton rightly suggests, in terms of totus lex and nuda lex, the former referring the law in its context of the covenant of grace and the latter to the law as bare law. In commenting on the comfort of the law expressed in Psalm 119:142, Calvin writes: “As this could not be true of the bare commandments which, so far from alleviating us rather fill us with anxiety, there is no doubt that by ‘commandments’ he comprehends in a word the whole doctrine of the law in which God not only requires what is right but in which also, calling his elect ones to the hope of eternal salvation, he opens the door of perfect happiness” (emphasis mine).

Horton acknowledges that in their broad referents the Law is not antithetical to the Gospel since Calvin strongly affirmed the unity of the covenants while acknowledging a difference in administration (Inst.2.10.2). In their narrow referents, however, the Law and the Gospel are antithetical for Calvin, Horton alleges, just as they were for Luther (29, 31).

To substantiate his case, Horton amasses a selection of quotations from Calvin in which Law, as nuda lex, is opposed to Gospel, including his comments on Romans 8:15 and Galatians 3:10. This point simply cannot be disputed. It is clear that Calvin believed strongly that the Law, as nuda lex, only convicts and that the Gospel, in its narrow referent, only heals.

But was that the extent of the Law-Gospel hermeneutic for Calvin? Horton alleges it was insofar as Calvin was “far from adopting a Law-Gospel-Law approach” (32). The so-called “Law-Gospel-Law” approach, however, is simply an ethic which acknowledges a third use of the law. Later in the essay, Horton himself concedes that “Gospel must precede Law when employing the third use” (34) and Calvin would most certainly agree.

Horton highlights several passages in which the second use of the law is underscored by Calvin. But Calvin was always quick to deny that this was its only use. Even in his commentary on Galatians, as Horton concedes (31), Calvin warns about those who might restrict the law’s functions to its second use: “[Paul] did not propose to inquire in how many ways the Law is of advantage to men. Readers must be put on their guard in this matter; for I see that many make the mistake of acknowledging no other use of the Law than what is expressed here” (Comm, Gal.3.19). This clearly implies that there are uses of the Law which are not antithetical to the Gospel.

Calvin argues this point more extensively in his sermon on Galatians 3:19-20: “Furthermore, when Saint Paul said that the Law was given because of transgression, it came not in his mind to rehearse all the fruit and profit which the Law bringeth with it: for (as I have already said) it serveth also for our instruction, that we might learn to discern between good and evil, and again it quickeneth us up, as though God should give us strokes with the spur, to make us apply ourselves the more diligently unto him.”[2]

All of this is closely related to Horton’s second thesis that for Calvin the second use of the law was the primary one.[3] He introduces his thesis by citing Calvin’s famous words on the third use, “The third, and principle use, which pertains more closely to the proper use of the law, finds its place among believers in whose hearts the Spirit of God already lives and reigns” (Inst.2.7.12). Horton then amasses a number of quotations from Calvin designed to balance this assertion, such as: “The peculiar office of the Law [is] to summon consciences to the judgment-seat of God” (quoted on p.36) and “The special function of the Law was not to incline people’s hearts to the obedience of righteousness. The office of the Law, rather, was to lead people step by step to Christ that they might seek pardon from him and the Spirit of regeneration” (quoted on p.36).

But there are several factors which militate against this thesis. It is clear from his commentaries, first of all, that for Calvin the condemning function of the law was “accidental” to its true purpose, whereas for Luther it was principle (see Luther, Comm. Gal.3.19). In his commentary on 2 Corinthians 3:7, Calvin writes, “To kill is thus a perpetual and inevitable accident (accidens) of the Law.” This point is made more elaborately in his comments on Romans 7:10, “We need to make this distinction between the nature of the law and our own wickedness. It follows from this that it is an accident that the law inflicts a mortal wound on us, just as if an incurable disease were rendered more acute by a healing remedy. The accident, I admit, is inseparable from the law, and for this reason the law, as compared with the Gospel, is elsewhere referred to as ‘the ministration of death’. The point, however, holds good, that the law is not injurious us to by its own nature, but because our corruption provokes and draws upon us its curse.”

Another factor which militates against Horton’s thesis is the place of the law in his catechisms.[4] In his 1541 Catechism of the Church of Geneva, the law is treated after faith and salvation. This order is acknowledged by Horton (who refers erroneously to Calvin’s 1536 Catechism), but minimized in view of the larger space Calvin allegedly gives to the pedagogical use of the law (38).

Horton regards question 225, for example, which follows Calvin’s treatment of the ten commandments, as demonstrative of Calvin’s unflinching commitment to the pedagogical use (37). The question asks: “Why then does God require a perfection which is beyond our ability?” Immediately after quoting this question, Horton remarks, “If the moral use had been uppermost in his mind, it would have been much more natural for him to have stopped short of constantly leading his catechumen to despair” (emphasis mine, 37).

The answer to this question, however, does nothing to lead his catechumen to despair. Rather, it encourages him to obey in spite of his failings. It states: “He requires nothing which we are not bound to perform. Nevertheless, provided we take care to conform our life to what we are told here, although we are very far from reaching perfection, the Lord does not impute our faults to us” (emphasis mine). [5] Calvin says nothing about the law leading us to despair; rather we are “to take care to conform our life” to the law.

Calvin does refer to the pedagogical use in answer 226 and the first half of answer 227. But in dealing with the use of the law for the believer in answer 228, he stresses that law can be obeyed provided God gives “strength and power” (cf. 226) and that it is “a kind of bridle by which [believers] are kept in the fear of God.” Furthermore, in question 229 the catechumen is encouraged “to strive continually,” according to the grace of God, towards perfection, “and to advance day by day” (emphasis mine).

Even if Calvin had devoted more space to the pedagogical use of the law compared to the moral use—he does not—it’s clear that he wants his catechumens to understand the law primarily in terms of its third use. The question (# 131) which introduces his section on the law asks, “What rule has He given us by which we may direct our life?” The answer is, “His Law.” And by “our life” Calvin undoubtedly has in mind “the Christian life” (cf. question 129). All ten commandments are to be understood in this way, as the rule God has given by which to direct one’s life.

That the third use of the law is primary for Calvin is also demonstrable from the place it received in his liturgy—something Horton acknowledges, but minimizes (34). Initially, while in Geneva, Calvin followed Farel’s practice of reading the law before the confessional prayer. Upon his arrival in Strassbourg, however, he reversed the order so as to instruct the congregation to view the law as the rule of life.This reversal is significant: Calvin evidently wanted his parishioners to hear the law in its third use every week and thus become acquainted with it as a moral guideline for the pardoned and redeemed.

Calvin not only prized the third use of the law, but Christian obedience in general. He was not, as Horton alleges, “less confident about the new man” than Luther was (40). Calvin accused interpretations of Isaiah 64:6 which alleged that the text applied to all Jews without exception, including the faithful ones (as Luther maintained) of “torturing” the passage (Comm. Isa.64.6).

The divergence between Calvin and Luther on the value of inherent righteousness is also apparent in their respective reactions to the conclusions of the Diet of Regensburg (1541). Whereas Luther concluded that it was a “defiled thing” and “all wrong,” [6] Calvin observed, in his letter to William Farel on May 11, 1541 that the delegates “retained also the substance of the true doctrine, so that nothing can be comprehended within it which is not be found in our writings.” [7]

Michael Horton’s contention that Calvin adopted Luther’s law-gospel hermeneutic is untenable, largely because it denies Calvin’s understanding of the accidental characterof the second use of the law, the priority of the third use, as seen especially in his theological writings, catechetical instruction and liturgical preferences, and the value of inherent Christian righteousness.


[1] By confessions of the Reformed churches I have in mind especially the so-called Three Forms of Unity adhered to by various ecclesiastical bodies in North America—namely, the Belgic Confession (1561); the Heidelberg Catechism (1563) and the Canons of Dort (1618-1619). Admittedly, there are other Reformed confessions which do mention the Law-Gospel dynamic explicitly, including Bullinger’s popular Confessio Helvetica Posterior(1566). The Westminster Confession of Faith (1648) states that the uses of the law “sweetly comply” with the gospel (19:7).[2] John Calvin, Sermons on Galatians. Trans. Arthur Golding (New Jersey: Old Paths, 1995): 443. These sermons were preached between 1557 and 1558 in Geneva.

[3] Horton’s assertion that the distinction between the triplix usus legis was not established until Melanchthon’s 1535 Loci Communes is factually incorrect. Melanchthon introduced the distinction in his third edition of the Scholia in 1534. See Timothy J. Wengert, Law and Gospel: Philip Melanchthon’s Debate with John Agricola of Eisleben over Poenitentia (Grands Rapids: Baker, 1997) 177.

[4] Calvin’s first catechism of 1538 also deals with “The Law of the Lord” (chapter 8) after “How We are Restored to Salvation and Life (chapter 7), but before dealing with faith and justification (chapters 12-16).

[5] I used the edition in Thomas F. Torrance, ed., trans., The School of Faith: The Catechisms of the Reformed Church. Oregon: Wiph & Stock, 1996 [1959].

[6] D. Martin Luther’s Briefwechsel, Neunter Band (Hermann Bohlaus Nachfolger/Weimar, 1941) NR.3616, 407.

[7] Selected Works, IV:260.

Copyright © 2002
For Further Reading:

The Binding of God: Calvin’s Role in the Development of Covenant Theology / Peter Lillback

1 Comment »

  1. Osteen’s message lacks the fire and brimstone of fundamentalism and eschews doctrinaire interpretation of the Bible. His extremely positive message, delivered to 42,000 attendees each week in his Lakewood church in Houston and in books and speaking tours, is attacked by theologians for being too optimistic and easy. “I think it’s a cotton candy gospel,” says Dr. Michael Horton, theology professor at Westminster Seminary in Escondido, Calif.

    In regards to that comment I can only tell you this Mr Horton:Galatians Chapter 6
    2 Bear one another’s burdens, and so you will fulfill the law of Christ. 3 For if anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he is deluding himself. 4 Each one must examine his own work, and then he will have reason to boast with regard to himself alone, and not with regard to someone else; 5 for each will bear his own load. 6 One who is being instructed in the word should share all good things with his instructor. 7 Make no mistake: God is not mocked, for a person will reap only what he sows, 8 because the one who sows for his flesh will reap corruption from the flesh, but the one who sows for the spirit will reap eternal life from the spirit. 9 Let us not grow tired of doing good, for in due time we shall reap our harvest, if we do not give up. 10 So then, while we have the opportunity, let us do good to all, but especially to those who belong to the family of the faith.

    Have a Blessed rest of your life.

    Comment by carlos alfaro — October 16, 2007 @ 9:28 am

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