In "Keeping the Commandments" (November 2003) Robert Louis Wilken presents an erudite survey of the role played by the Ten Commandments in civil and ecclesiastical life. Although he refers to Calvinists and the Puritans, he does not mention John Calvin himself, who may have understood the Ten Commandments better than anyone else in the past five hundred years. Calvin's three uses of the Law are especially pertinent in the current debate.
The first use of the Law has two parts: 1) the Law convicts humans of their depravity; 2) the Law convinces humans that they cannot remedy their depraved condition and therefore must turn to God. Even in this first use, Calvin emphasizes God's righteousness and His grace.
The second use of the Law concerns civil matters. Human society needs rules in order not to devolve into chaos. Calvin recognizes that few people will aspire to God's righteousness because they love Him; most people need the "fear of punishment" to persuade them that conformity to the Law is preferable to nonconformity. The grace in the second use of the Law is that men and women who would not voluntarily seek the holiness demanded by God are helped toward it even against their wills.
It is vital to understand that Calvin deems the third use of the Law to be the most important: the Law guides humans toward the holiness of Christ in Christ.
Calvin's distinctions are useful to Christians in the present...