Has John Calvin Confused the Lie of Sin with Salvation?

John Calvin may be typical of, or his view comes to typify, those who read Romans 7 as primarily a description of the regenerate, so that Paul’s description of his struggle with sin, his incapacity to carry out what he knows to be right, his alienation within himself, and his existence and identity in the body of death or the body of sin, this “wretched man that I am” (7:24), is as good as it gets on earth. As Calvin explains, “this conflict, of which the Apostle speaks, does not exist in man before he is renewed by the Spirit of God.” The Christian is one who is made aware of his sin condition, and he mainly hopes for a future rescue (when the flesh is gotten rid of) but meanwhile he is made to agonize over his sin and to feel, precisely in his redemption, the acuteness of sin’s effect. Final rescue is focused on deliverance from the wrath of God, provoked by the breaking of the law which contains his righteous decree. In this understanding, Christ died to meet the requirements of the law, and his death is not directly connected to explanation or necessity of an immediate reconstituting of the human Subject, such that he is rid of the sin principle. My argument is that (as depicted in Romans and elsewhere in the New Testament) Christ did not die, primarily, to meet a requirement of the law but to displace a deception which involved the law and in exposing this deception, the Subject described in Romans 8 is born: a Subject no longer controlled by sin and its deception. This means that it is not the law which explains Christ’s death, but sin as it is oriented to the law, and the point of his death is not to save from a future wrath (working according to the law) but from the present tense sin problem (which will certainly pertain to the future).

Is Sin’s Deception Resolved Through the Law or is it Confounded with the Law?

The two readings revolve around the concept of deception in Romans 7:11. I believe Paul depicts sin’s deception in regard to the law as key to understanding the human predicament. Calvin, in his Commentary on Romans, passes over sin’s deception in regard to the law and presumes that the law exposes the deception. It is, according to Calvin, “through the light which the law throws on the turpitude of sin” that sin is revealed. This does not explain why there is the possibility, as Paul presents it, of confusing sin and the law or why or how the law is the means of death and deception. Paul says explicitly (vs. 10), “The very commandment that promised life proved death to me.” Paul is describing how sin distorts the law in its relation to the sinful self. The “command which promised life” serves as an explanation for the content of the deception connected with sin.

James Dunn maintains that life is not to be had in the law (due to sin), while Günther Bornkamm thinks this positing of life directly in the law is the deception which sin always works.[1] Calvin maintains a separation between the deception and the law, and seems to miss what commentators like Dunn and Bornkamm are pointing to – sin distorts the law, such that we imagine that it contains life and righteousness in itself. As Calvin puts it (without reference to the deception), “the commandment shows to us a way of life in the righteousness of God.”

 The obstacle contained within sin, according to Calvin, is “corruption.” But Calvin presumes this corruption pertains to the breaking of the law (which results in death) and not to an attempt to gain life through the law (where avoiding death is the motivating factor). He says, “it is incidental that the law inflicts on us a deadly wound, as when an incurable disease is more exasperated by a healing remedy.” The law then, in Calvin’s explanation, is part of the cure and not intertwined with sin and death in the human imagination. This leaves corruption something of a mystery, while Paul’s point seems to be to explain how sin works through the law by means of a deception.

Calvin renders deception as that which “led me out of the way” of the law. Rather than the law being the occasion for sin, which is Paul’s point, Calvin explains the verse as saying, “as we begin then only to perceive our erroneous course, when the Lord loudly reproves us . . .” That is, he is separating the “erroneous course” and the law, preserving the law from its entanglement with the deception. He renders the verse as making precisely the opposite of Paul’s point: “Paul says rightly, that we are led out of the way, when sin is made evident by the law.” Paul is not saying sin is made evident by the law, he is saying sin uses the law to obscure its sinfulness (holding out the promise of life in the face of death). Calvin’s explanation makes nonsense of Paul’s explanation, as why would sin being made evident by the law be the occasion for sin? Calvin seems to mean that sin was already present prior to the law but the giving of the law exposed what was already present. This is a perfectly logical thing to say, but it is not Paul’s point and does not accord with Paul’s overall argument. Paul is not explaining an easy thing or a thing that comes naturally, but the opposite; he is explaining how sin’s deception works through the law.

Set in the context of Genesis, the majority consensus as to understanding what law Paul is referencing and who the “I” is, there is not a time prior to the prohibition. The logical sequence of vv. 10-11 is that of Genesis 3: the prohibition posed the possibility of life; sin or the serpent deceived me; and “I” died. The prohibition or law is itself the indicator (the opportunity – ἀφορμὴν– the base of operations) that something more (life beyond God) is available – it points out the opportunity for life and knowledge. “You shall not die” (Gen. 3.4) indicates God is the liar and the prohibition a cover warding man away from enjoying the privileges of God. The serpent’s lie (3.4) negates death but then the negation is negated under a supposed truth (3.5) of life in the broken law (what Paul calls “the law of sin and death”). The serpent, which Paul simply calls sin, deceives in regard to the prohibition (“You won’t die, you will be like God”).  Breaking the law or manipulating the law or making the law one’s own, in the depiction of the serpent/sin, will provide access to life without resort to God or to the tree of life.

The prohibition was only life-giving in the sense that it kept open access to God’s life, but the law per se is not life giving. The perception that ἐντολὴ ὴ εἰς ζωήν is the promise of life in the law is skewed by sin so as to remove the necessity of God as the giver of life. According to Dunn, to still imagine, after sin, that life is in the law, reflects a common Jewish misconception (is it also Calvin’s misconception?). Dunn raises the possibility that the law contains life: “Does Paul mean that the commandment was intended to bring about life, to lead to life (NEB, NJB), that is, a life not yet possessed?” Such a reading, he maintains, does not fit with Paul’s understanding of the law as stated elsewhere but reflects a misreading which Paul is repudiating. What is not to be missed, he concludes, “is the implied sharp reverse to and rebuttal of the traditional Jewish assumption that the law/commandment promoted life.” The correct nuance is to understand that the law keeps one in a life-giving relationship with God, but it is this relationship to God (and not with the law or the negative prohibition of Genesis) that is the true source of life.[2]

 Calvin concludes that “we do nothing but wander from the right course, until the law shows to us the way of living rightly.” Paul’s depiction of how the law is distorted through sin, seeming to hold out life and in its deception producing death, is passed over by Calvin. He works with a blunt notion of sin that simply contrasts flesh and spirit, and equates being in the flesh or body as an incapacity to keep the law. In his explanation, all of human life stands outside of the spirit in its transgressive relationship to the law. In Paul’s version, according to Ernst Käsemann, the lie is embraced under the presumption that life is to be had in the law (7.10) through spiritual achievement – yet it is not clear how Calvin’s depiction of spiritual achievement (through Christ) is a departure from this lie.[3]

At a minimum, Calvin misses Paul’s explanation of the specific function of sin through the law and how this gives rise to a world of deception. The lie of sin is not simply a problem of the heart (though it is that); it poses itself as an alternative epistemology or means of gaining life and truth through knowing (the knowledge of good and evil). The lie of sin undermines truth: even God’s truth as given in the oracles of the law (Rom. 3.3) is subject to the deceit of sin. What truth can stand the distortion of the lie? This distortion is inclusive of the truth of the “I” or ἐγὼ; the most intimate truth, that of human identity. The human project is set upon saving the self, but the deception obscures access even to what a self might be. The notion that I have immediate access to myself or the law cannot stand in light of Paul’s picture of the delusion.

Does Christ Save from Sin and Death or from God?

If I am correct in my understanding of Paul, this also means that Calvin sets aside the work of Christ in defeating the lie of sin. By imagining a transparent access to God through the law and picturing the wretched man of chapter 7 as regenerate man, Calvin seems to be conflating Paul’s depiction of the problem with the solution. If the majority of commentators are correct, in seeing chapter 7 in connection to the portrayal of Adam, then Calvin is confusing the self-torturing sinful mind with a depiction of salvation. This fits with his notion of penal substitution, which reduces the work of the cross to a function within the economy of the law, which goes all the way with the lie that there is life in the law. This seems to miss that the biblical focus is upon salvation from sin and death, not deliverance from the wrath of the Father.

Taking into account that the original lie of the serpent was that the law could be manipulated so as to produce life and that God was perceived to be the obstacle to life, Calvin, in passing over the deception, seems to have reproduced it. By confusing the problem with the solution, is it possible that Calvinism is (at least at this point of confusion) a manifestation of the problem from which Christ saves?  

[1] Dunn, Romans, 383. Bornkamm, Early Christian Experience, 90. Thanks to Matt Welch for editing and discussing this article.

[2] Dunn, Romans, 384.

[3] Käsemann, Commentary on Romans, 198