Calvin and Edwards on “Works of the Law”

I find it strange that much of the teaching of the New Perspective(s) on Paul has been received so favorably in the Protestant world since one of its principle arguments is one and the same with the Roman Catholic “old perspective” on works of the Law. Proponents of the New Perspective on Paul act as though their interpretation of works of the law is altogether new when in fact they have simply popularized what they have learned from the Roman Catholic scholars they read. Jonathan Edwards, 250 years prior to Krister Stendahl and George Howard, answered the argument that Paul is doing something other than combating Jewish legalism when he uses the phrase works of the law in contrast with faith in Christ. Edwards could answer this argument because he was familiar with the use of it in the writings of his Roman Catholic opponents. Edwards wrote:

The apostle doesn’t only say that we aren’t justified by works of the law, but that we are not justified by works, using a general term; as in our text it is said, “unto him that worketh not, but believeth on Him who justifieth,” etc. and in the sixth verse, “God imputeth righteousness without works.” And in ch. 11, v. 6, “And if by grace, then it is no more of works, otherwise grace is no more grace: but if it is of works, then it is no more of grace; otherwise work is no more work. So Eph. 2:8-9, “For by grace are ye saved through faith, not of works.” By which, there is no reason in the world to understand the apostle [to mean] any other than works in general, as correlates of a reward, or good works, or works of virtue and righteousness. When the Apostle says we are justified or saved not by works, without any such term annexed as the law, or any other addition to limit the expression, what warrant have any to confine it to works of a particular law, or institution, excluding others? Are not observances of other Divine laws works, as well as of that? To say the Apostle means one thing when he says we haven’t been justified by works, another when he says we haven’t been justified by works of the law, when we find the expressions mixed, and used in the same discourse, and when the Apostle is evidently upon the same argument, is very unreasonable; it is to dodge, and fly from Scripture, rather than to open and yield ourselves to its teachings.1

A few hundred years before Edwards, John Calvin, in his commentary on Galatians, explained the origin and deficiency of the view that “works of the law” were simply ceremonial boundary markers. Calvin wrote:

The first thing to be noticed is, that we must seek justification by the faith of Christ, because we cannot be justified by works. Now, the question is, what is meant by the works of the law ? The Papists, misled by Origen and Jerome, are of opinion, and lay it down as certain, that the dispute relates to shadows; and accordingly assert, that by the works of the law are meant ceremonies. As if Paul were not reasoning about the free justification which is bestowed on us by Christ. For they see no absurdity in maintaining that no man is justified by the works of the law, and yet that, by the merit of works, we are accounted righteous in the sight of God. In short, they hold that no mention is here made of the works of the moral law. But the context clearly proves that the moral law is also comprehended in these words; for almost everything which Paul afterwards advances belongs more properly to the moral than to the ceremonial law; and he is continually employed in contrasting the righteousness of the law with the free acceptance which God is pleased to bestow.2

[1] Jonathan Edwards The Works of Jonathan Edwards (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001) vol. 19 p.

[2] John Calvin Galatians and Ephesians 

5 Responses

  1. Joseph Randall

    Amen brother! Calvin makes the same point in the Institutes!

    Calvin: “The Law, therefore, has no part in its and their objection to the exclusive word alone is not only unfounded, but is obviously absurd. Does he not plainly enough attribute everything to faith alone when he disconnects it with works? What I would ask, is meant by the expressions, ‘The righteousness of God without the law is manifested;’ ‘Being justified freely by his grace;’ ‘Justified by faith without the deeds of the law?’ (Rom_3:21, Rom_3:24, Rom_3:28). Here they have an ingenious subterfuge, one which, though not of their own devising but taken from Origin and some ancient writers, is most childish. They pretend that the works excluded are ceremonial, not moral works. Such profit do they make by their constant wrangling, that they possess not even the first elements of logic. Do they think the Apostle was raving when he produced, in proof of his doctrine, these passages? ‘The man that does them shall live in them’ (Gal_3:12). ‘Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things that are written in the book of the law to do them’ (Gal_3:10). Unless they are themselves raving, they will not say that life was promised to the observers of ceremonies, and the curse denounced only against the transgressors of them. If these passages are to be understood of the Moral Law, there cannot be a doubt that moral works also are excluded from the power of justifying. To the same effect are the arguments which he employs. ‘By the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin’ (Rom_3:20). ‘The law worketh wrath’ (Rom_4:15), and therefore not righteousness. ‘The law cannot pacify the conscience,’ and therefore cannot confer righteousness. ‘Faith is imputed for righteousness,’ and therefore righteousness is not the reward of works, but is given without being due. Because ‘we are justified by faith,’ boasting is excluded. ‘Had there been a law given which could have given life, verily righteousness should have been by the law. But the Scripture has concluded all under sin, that the promise by faith of Jesus Christ might be given to them that believe’ (Gal_3:21, Gal_3:22). Let them maintain, if they dare, that these things apply to ceremonies, and not to morals, and the very children will laugh at their effrontery. The true conclusion, therefore, is, that the whole Law is spoken of when the power of justifying is denied to it.” Institutes 3.11.19

  2. Mr. Batzig,

    I found this post to be incredibly helpful. The thing that I don’t understand about NPP proponents is their utter ignorance with the Reformers. Why did they not bother to read them before they critiqued them?

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