Book 3 - Chapter 18 (Parts 1-2)
In this chapter, Calvin deals with the issue of the use of the term "reward" in the scriptures. He does so because he has elsewhere argued that everything we receive (love, forgiveness, salvation) come as free, unearned gifts from God and thus nothing we can do will earn us any "reward"; especially as it pertains to our salvation.
Summary: Calvin begins with one of the more difficult verses (at least for Calvin’s understanding of works) in Paul's letter to the church at Rome. "God will render unto every person according to their works." These words would seem to imply that there is a correlation between what we do, our works, and what God will do in the end, save/not save us. Calvin tries to maneuver around this by offering two other passages. The first passage, from Romans 8 states, "God calls those whom God chooses; those God calls, God justifies (saves); those whom God justifies, God glorifies (means transforms them into people who can do good works)”. The second passage is from Philippians 2:12, where Paul tells people to "work out their salvation with fear and trembling." Calvin's conclusion from these two passages is that Paul has an order, or sequence of salvation (God chooses, saves, transforms). Once this sequence has been completed, we are called to and empowered for a life of good works (which is what working out our salvation refers to). Even so, Calvin does not offer his readers a full explanation of why they are not judged by their works.
Calvin’s next step in this chapter is to examine the word, “reward” itself. He reminds his readers of his belief that “…the Kingdom of Heaven is not servants wages but a son’s inheritance which only they who have been adopted as sons of the Lord shall enjoy” (pg. 822). Even though Calvin offers several passages in which “the Holy Spirit promises everlasting glory as a reward for works” (pg. 822) those promises, he argues, are always tied to the idea of an inheritance. He continues, “We see how, as it were, in prescribed terms, they (those passages) carefully warn us not to credit everlasting blessedness to works but to our adoption by God” (pg. 822). The theme Calvin is working with in this chapter is that of God always calling people to God’s own self. Scripture never has people out searching for, and then finding God. Scripture always has God seeking and calling people (Abraham, Moses, John the Baptist, the disciples, etc.). Thus, if it is God who calls and adopts people in general, then God must adopt and save them in particular.
At this point, Calvin returns to the connection between good works and rewards. “Still, the Lord does not trick or mock us when he says that he will reward works with what he had given free before works” (pg. 823). For Calvin, the reward for good works is not salvation, as noted above, but is the ability to become more and more Christ-like. In other words, the more good works we do, the more we get to become like Christ, or perhaps, the more we become like the people we are supposed to be; those whose lives are completely aligned with God’s will for humanity. He refers to this reward as the “fruition” (pg. 824) of our faith.
Reflection: As is often the case with Calvin, he wants to be clear that we as human beings do not either earn rewards, or punishments, by our works. The difficulty with his argument is that it appears to ignore the plain meaning of scripture; that there are both good and bad consequences of our actions. This certainly appears to be what Paul means when he writes that God will render unto every person according to his works. The struggle for those of us in the 21st century is how we hold these two concepts in tension; how we live with the sometimes ambiguous nature of scripture when it comes to God’s sovereignty and our freedom.
In this chapter, Calvin deals with the issue of the use of the term "reward" in the scriptures. He does so because he has elsewhere argued that everything we receive (love, forgiveness, salvation) come as free, unearned gifts from God and thus nothing we can do will earn us any "reward"; especially as it pertains to our salvation. In addition, he deals with the concepts of good works and love.
Summary: Calvin is very aware of the human desire to possess; possess things, power and people. He uses the second half of this chapter to reflect on the proper use of possessions and the role they play in good works.
He begins by quoting a series of scriptures which warn against persons storing up treasures for themselves here on earth rather than in heaven. His conclusion is that “-as children of this age are wont to be intent upon getting things that make for delight in the present life, so believers ought to see to it that, after they learned that this life will soon vanish like a dream, they transfer the things they want truly to enjoy to a place where they will have life unceasing” (pg. 827). He continues, “We ought, then, to imitate what people do who determine to migrate to another place, where they have chosen a lasting abode. They send before them all their resources and do not grieve over lacking theme for a time, for they deem themselves the happier the more goods they have where they will be for a long time” (pg. 827). In other words, as the scriptures proclaim, we ought to transfer our treasures to heaven…but the question is, how do we do this?
The answer for Calvin, as to how we transfer our treasures to our eternal home, is “…by providing for the poor” (pg. 127). He writes, “…whatever is paid out to them (the poor), the Lord reckons has been given to himself…for what is devoted to our brothers out of the duty of love is deposited in the Lord’s hand. He, as a faithful custodian, will one day repay it with plentiful interest.” (pg. 827). Almost immediately however, Calvin reminds his readers that the reward for good works is not salvation (which comes as a free gift) but it is knowing that we are pleasing God.
The second issue Calvin takes up is that of love. Evidently some of his opponents argued that people are justified (saved) by love more so than by faith; meaning that love as a “good work” saves us. He argues against this by stating that when the Apostle Paul speaks of love as being greater than faith, he does so because love is not more “meritorious” but because love “…is more fruitful, because it extends farther, because it serves more, because it flourishes forever, while the use of faith continues only for a time…indeed he stresses this one point: that we should edify one another in the Lord with mutual love” (pg. 828-9). What Calvin is doing is differentiating faith and love, based on their purposes. Faith is intended to open us to God’s saving work. Our love is intended to share God’s love with those around us.
Reflection: One of the critiques of Calvin is that his theology allows people to ignore good works. If, as Calvin claims, we are chosen, adopted and saved by God’s actions and not our own, why then ought we to do good works? If good works do not contribute to our salvation, why bother? The answer for Calvin, is that they please God. What this means is that they please God because they are what God calls us to do. Thus good works, especially toward the poor, are our appropriate response to what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. Just as God has given us everything (life, hope, salvation), we are to give everything to those in need.