[The following is an excerpt from John Calvin’s sermon on Deuteronomy 28:1-2, given on Tuesday, March 10, 1556, as found in The Covenant Enforced (Tyler, TX: ICE, 1990), 84-94.]
“If you will hear the voice of the Lord your God, and be careful to fulfill all the commandments I command you this day, all these blessings shall come upon you and compass you round about.”(Deuteronomy 28:1)
Concerning the first point, Moses shows what we saw before, namely that the first thing in living well is to hearken to God. For men must not have the rule over themselves, saying, “I will govern myself after my own liking.” We must not take such liberty, for he that takes too much upon himself will at the last be rejected by God for not yielding Him His due obedience, which is the foundation whereon we ought to build. Let us mark, therefore, that all they which follow their own foolish devotions (as they call them) are disliked by God. For Isaiah 1:12 must be heard: “Who has required these things from you?”
Let us acknowledge, therefore, that it is an inestimable benefit when God shows us His will, and that the state of the Papists is accursed. For when they intend to do well, they do not know which way to turn themselves, but every one follows his own fancy, saying “I hope it will turn out well, for my intention is good. And after all, common custom permits it. And again, our holy mother Church commands it.” But in the meanwhile, the law of God is forgotten. We may learn from this that there is nothing but confusion in the life of man, in which is nothing else than a mingling without order until they are taught of God, as we shall see hereafter. This is the way; walk in it.
It is said that we “must be careful.” This phrase was set down once before by Moses, and with good reason it is repeated here again. For we are warned by it that unless men are very heedful in obeying God and force themselves thereto and set their whole study thereon in good earnest, they will never attain to keep the law. And we ourselves see what weakness there is in us, even though God does govern us, and even though we are reformed by His Holy Spirit. As for the unfaithful, they are so carried away and so furious in their willful stubbornness, that a man would think they should run madly against God. Indeed, and although we are governed by the Holy Spirit, yet we are so frail that it is a pity to see. God requires a great perfection when He wishes us to love Him with all our hearts, to eschew all the vanities of this world and all our fleshly lusts, and in brief to forsake ourselves and to be altogether changed. This is a matter overly high and difficult.
Now let us consider what Satan devises and practices to tum us away from the service of God. How many sorts of temptations are there? They are infinite. Again how severe are the assaults that Satan prepares against us? When we have given consideration to all this, we may well conclude that it is with good reason that God says we must be careful, that every one of us must strengthen himself, and gather all our forces together, and not think to set forth negligently to the service of our God. For when we think to march one step forward, we shall go a hundred backward if we are not very strong and courageous, holding ourselves in awe and restraining ourselves, and gathering our wits about us so that we bend our minds wholly thereto, and even, as one might say, labor for breath in travelling about it.
And moreover, seeing we are laid about with ambushes on every side and should be soon taken, so that we might fall into the snares of Satan before we are aware, let us take heed and be watchful. That is what we are warned about here. And would to God that we would carry away this lesson with care. For then, while we are now applying our powers and all our endeavors to things not only frivolous but altogether harmful, tending to none other end than destruction, then every one of us would be vigilant to walk in the obedience of God and to give himself wholly thereto. And seeing that we are warned about it, there is no excuse. Shall we then obey our God, and show that our affection is so inclined, without deception? Let every one of us incline to what is given him in commandment, namely to be careful, vigilant, and attentive.
Authority of Office
Now he adds, “to keep all the commandments that I [Moses] set before you this day,” or that I ordain for you. Although Moses is the speaker of this, yet he takes the authority and power to command and to subdue men. This is not anything of his own invention, as if to say that it ought to be received without gainsaying because he said so. Rather it is from God, because God speaks by his mouth, and because he himself faithfully delivers the teaching that was committed to him. For that reason he speaks in such a strong way, saying that they should keep his [Moses'] statutes.
It does not lie in the power of a mortal man to bind the consciences of people. And yet that is the very thing that has wholly corrupted the Church, in that men have usurped the office of God in making laws and statutes for the spiritual government of men’s souls. And it is a point of high treason against God for the creature to usurp to himself what pertains only to God, whom the prophet Isaiah termed the Lawgiver (Is. 33:22), and also St. James (James 4:12), so that we should learn to hearken to Him, and wholly to depend on His word. Let us mark well then, that it is not lawful for men to enjoin laws for the souls of other men.
But when Moses says, “I ordain to you,” he presupposes that he is not setting out anything of his own or forging any law out of his own brain; nor is he adding anything to what God had committed unto him; but only that inasmuch as he performed his office faithfully, he might well say, “I ordain for you.” Just as when we set forth the pure Word of God, the very same Word is a sovereign commandment. Now this does not mean that we should usurp any dominion or sovereignty over men’s souls, but that in doing service to God, we may command in His name and in His person. Thus we see here what Moses’ meaning was.
And indeed, does it lie within us to promise men life everlasting or to denounce against them the vengeance of God? And yet we do it nevertheless, but we go no further than the Word of God, as it is put into our mouths. We have His testimony that we are His witness and His heralds. By His “witnesses” I mean we assure the faithful of the grace and salvation promised to them, and as His “heralds” we pronounce and publish His sentence against all the unbelieving and against all rebels. Therefore in brief God meant to show forth the majesty of His Word when He appointed Moses to speak in that manner.
This was so that we should receive the Word of God with more lowliness and reverence when it is preached unto us, not respecting the person (as if someone should say, “He is but a man that is speaking; he is just like us; as we are, so is he”), but as though we thought thus with ourselves: “It is God who speaks by the mouth of this man; therefore, let us tremble at His presence. Let us stoop, and receive what He says, and seeing He calls us before Him, let it serve to bring us to such obedience that we do Him homage, to show thereby that we receive what proceeds from His majesty.” Let us keep that in mind from this text.
Comprehensive Obedience Enjoined
Now here a question might be put forth, why it is said “When you have kept all His commandments.” For it is impossible for us to fulfill the law as long as we stand clothed with this mortal flesh. As I said before, we shall always be full of vices and imperfections. It seems, then, that it is to no purpose for God to require such a fulfilling of the law, seeing it is impossible. But here we must remember what has been spoken before, which is that God in His law does not respect our might, power, or ability, but our duty, and after what manner our life ought to be governed. And the same ought to suffice us, inasmuch as we say a man will never attain to the perfect obedience of God, but that we are always far from the end of our way. The cause of this is our corrupt nature, which is so infected through original sin that when we think on God we are troubled with many evil fancies, and when we have any good motion we are by and by plucked back from it, and we do not need any other thing to draw us to the complete antithesis.
But, does the impossibility of our doing it discharge us of our service that we are bound to perform for God? No. For the evil comes from ourselves. It is no marvel, then, that God in His law should have no regard to man’s ability or inability, but rather to the duty we owe Him. Nor is it surprising that He should require the right that belongs to Him, for where is the man that can deny it to Him? God cannot change His nature. If we are rebellious, what does He have to do with our stains and filthiness? But He sets forth such a righteousness that we are not able to reply against.
And in His law He sets down a righteousness of a sort different from what He has in Himself. He does not have respect to His own righteousness, but to the righteousness that ought to be in His creatures, namely such as is in His angels. If we had continued in our integrity, and not been perverted and corrupted through sin, then should we have been able to discharge all that God requires of us in His law. That is certain. Now then, we see how it is with good reason that God will have us to keep His whole law. And though it is true that we are not able to perform it, the default proceeds from the sin that dwells in us, as I have showed before.
Now, with all this we have to note that since God promises nothing except to those that have obeyed all the law, it would be too incredibly stupid to suppose that we can merit or deserve by doing this or that thing. We must first of all have kept all the law, which is impossible. The Papists, however, praise their merits, which they think enable them to purchase the kingdom of heaven. They think that when they have done anything good in their own eyes, God is bound to them. “Oh,” they say. “I have been devoutly at Mass.” It is certain that they provoke the wrath of God by so doing, for we know that it is a devilish abomination. Again, “I have served such and such a Saint, my patron. I have such and such a chapel.” And they think that by so doing they earn heaven. Truly all these things are but a despising of God. They are Satanic superstitions by which the service of God is thoroughly defaced.
But let us suppose that the papists did well in their dallying with such garbage, would God be bound to them for it? It is needful for them to consider what court their evidence must pass before. For it is not for us to bridle Him, or to tie Him to the stake, or to subdue Him to our fantasies. It must proceed from His own good will. Now then, what has He said? “When you will have kept all My commandments, then shall these blessings come upon you.” Let every one of us look at how he has kept the commandments of God. Let the Papists brag as much as they like, can they say that they have accomplished a hundredth part of them? If they have kept one of God’s commandments, they have offended Him in a hundred sins for it; and if there be but one fault committed, though it be ever so small, they are faulty in all, as St. James says (James 2:10) that he who breaks the law in only one point is guilty of having broken all of it.
Seeing then that they are offenders, they are deprived and banished from all the blessings that God has set forth, even from those that concern only this present transitory life; and much less are they able to earn the kingdom of heaven (as they imagine), being not able to deserve one morsel of bread to put into their mouths. They are thus shut out of all. And why? Because God has not promised anything except to them that keep all of His entire law.
God as Judge and Father
How shall we live, then? We must hear God speak after some other fashion; that is, we must hear Him speak the free promises He offers to us in our Lord Jesus Christ. God in the Holy Scripture uses a double kind of speech, by which I do not mean that He contradicts Himself, or that He is contrary to Himself, or that one of His sayings is repugnant to any other, for God always remains the same and, as I have said before, He changes not. All the words that proceed from Him agree together very well, without any contradiction. Nevertheless, concerning His law, there He has spoken as a judge, and not as a father. In His law He speaks as a judge, saying: “He who lives as he ought will not be deceived. He will not lose his labor. For when you have done Me service, I will cause you to prosper.” In such a way does God speak in the person of a judge. And when we have received this word, behold, we are confounded, no matter how things stand. And why? Because we do not have the ability to obtain the grace that is offered to us, and we cease not to kindle God’s wrath against us, and therefore we shall all be damned.
What is to be done, then? God comes, speaking as a father, and says, “Well, I am content to forbear this rigor, which I might execute upon you by My law, even though that rigor is not overly great, for I have given Myself so far to you as to promise what is not your due. I have been willing, as it were, to entice you by friendly means, but I have won nothing thereby because of your perversity. What is the remedy, then? I come now to tell you that if you will believe in My Son, I will release you of all your debts. If you will receive Him as your Shepherd, that He may guide you quietly, you will perceive that I do not desire to win you in any way other than by gentle and friendly dealings. It is as if I should say, ‘Come to me, and I will forgive you all your sins, and accept you into favor.’ And although you are miserable creatures, deserving utter damnation, yet I will completely forget and bury all your offenses. And when I have done that, I promise to beget you anew by My Holy Spirit. And this grace shall be given to you by means of My only Son, if you labor to come to Him. And then, even though you are driven to strive against many temptations and at first encounter you will not have full victory over them but will be surrounded with many spots and vices, yet I shall not lay any of these things to your charge. I forgive you your sins, and the good that you do shall be acceptable to Me through My favor, even though it deserves nothing.” See here the second kind of speech that God uses toward us in the Holy Scripture.
Let us note, therefore, that when we hear the voice of God and know what we owe Him, and hear the promises that He has made to us in His law, we must stand confounded and condemned since none of those things can avail us because of our unthankfulness. Thus, we must have our refuge in the free mercy offered to us in our Lord Jesus Christ, and hearken to God when He speaks to us, which He does both in the law and in the prophets as well as in the gospel, saying, “I of My own mere goodness have become your Savior, and you must seek your salvation from some place other than in yourselves.”
After all, the Redeemer promised by God was always kept before the minds of men, that they might rest on Him. That is why the sacrifices were ordained in the time of the law. For although Christ was not yet displayed openly to the whole world, yet did the Jews understand that all the hope of their salvation depended upon their reconciliation to God by means of the sacrifice that was to be offered. They brought brute beasts to the Temple. Was that to cleanse the uncleanness of their souls? No, of course not. But under these figures the Jews saw how they would be delivered from the curse of God and admitted into His favor, and should be acceptable to Him. And now we have a more certain testimony of this in the gospel, for there we see the thing itself fully accomplished for us, namely that although we have not kept the commandments, Jesus Christ has kept them. And why did He do so? Because He was subject to it? No, but He became subject to the law for our sakes.
So then, let us have our recourse unto our Lord Jesus Christ, and let us hear God speaking in such a way that He not only says, “These are the things that I command you, and if you do them then you shall prosper and be blessed;” but also where He says, “Behold, I am your Father. Come to Me, but come in the name of My only Son, whom I have appointed to be your mediator. And acknowledge that there is nothing else in you but corruption. And do not trust in your own power or in your own free will, but casting away all foolish fantasies of vain presumption, come with lowliness to see the grace of My Spirit. Then you will be sure that I always uphold you by My goodness, and from day to day confirm you in My fear and make you to walk in My ways, so that I will not lay to your charge the faults of your works; they shall not hinder My blessing towards you. Not that you should not confess your transgressions, and always acknowledge before Me that you are sinful, but that your sin shall not be laid to your charge, even though there might come occasions why they should be called to reckoning to be reproved by Me.” Such is the second voice of God, to which we must hearken if we desire to become partakers of the blessings that are here contained.
Here by the way we must note as a conclusion that although the faithful are exempted from the curse of God, so that He will not deal rigorously with them but rather uphold them and make them to enjoy the blessings He has promised in His law as though they had fully accomplished the same, yet they cease not to suffer many stripes of His rod, and our Lord chastises them continually, exercising some after one manner and some after another so that all are smitten. And all the chastisements God sends us are curses, every one of them, at least to outward appearance. If we are sick; if we are hungry or thirsty; if we are tormented in this present world; if we are troubled and persecuted; all these are the curses of God. Our enemies scoff at us. We are in reproach, in poverty, in vexation, and in many anguishes. One is troubled in his house by his wife; another by his children; and another by his neighbor. Finally, the faithful are in many ways deprived of the blessings of God. It is certainly so.
This, however, does not prevent us from being ever more blessed by Him, because we have a continual taste of His goodness, to allure us to Him. Let us note well, therefore, that when He cuts off His blessings and does not give them as we wish, this is for our profit because He sees that we have need of some quickening to make us come to Him. And since every one of us will fall asleep on our sins, God is determined to awaken us, and to make us feel that as soon as we withdraw from His service He will also absent Himself from us, and that His grace will be taken away from us and we stand dispossessed of it—never, however, so utterly that the blessings of God will not overcome so that we may rejoice therein, acknowledging Him to be merciful and waiting upon His fatherly goodness, which will be shown more amply when He will take us again to Himself.
Thus you see how we may possess and enjoy the blessings of God, which are set forth for us in His law. And when we see that our Lord interlaces these blessings with many afflictions and corrections, as though He had cursed us, we must realize that His purpose in this is to provoke us day by day to repentance, and to keep us from falling asleep in this present world. We know that our pleasures make us drunken and unmindful of God unless He constrains us by pricking and spurring us forward. Thus you see how things that at first sight seemed contraries agree very well in fact. And in that respect does Moses say that these blessings shall light upon us and encompass us round about, as if he had said that we will always be certain of God’s favor—so certain of it that it shall never fail us if we serve Him.
For the word “encompass,” or to light upon us [“overtake,” Dt. 28:2], indicates that the grace of God is not fleeting, as though it fell at random and as though we would not be able to catch it. No, says Moses, you shall be surrounded or encompassed with it. And therefore let us assure ourselves that the goodness of our God shall never fail us, so that we can never come to that goodness unless He draw us to Himself. And since we are subject to so many infirmities and vices, He, by bearing with us, shows us that we must have recourse to His free goodness for the forgiveness of our sins by the reconciliation that He has made in our Lord Jesus Christ, and that we, in straining ourselves to do His will, shall perceive that the goodness of God does not cease to be free to us, without owing us anything at all.