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SermonIndex.net : Christian Books : 2 Corinthians 3:4-11

Commentary On Corinthians Volume 2 by Jean Calvin

2 Corinthians 3:4-11

4. And such trust have we through Christ to God-ward:

4. Fiduciam autem eiusmodi per Christum habemus erga Deum:

5. Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think any thing as of ourselves; but our sufficiency is of God;

5. Non quod idonei simus ex nobis ad cogitandum quicquam, tanquam ex nobis: sed facultas nostra ex Deo est.

6. Who also hath made us able ministers of the new testament; not of the letter, but of the spirit: for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.

6. Qui nos fecit idoneos ministros Novi testamenti, non literae, sed Spiritus: nam litera quidem occidit: Spiritus autem vivificat.

7. But if the ministration of death, written and engraven in stones, was glorious, so that the children of Israel could not stedfastly behold the face of Moses for the glory of his countenance; which glory was to be done away:

7. Quodsi ministerium mortis in literis insculptum in lapidibus fuit in gloria, ita ut non possent intueri filii Israel in faciem Mosis propter gloriam vultus eius, quae aboletur:

8. How shall not the ministration of the Spirit be rather glorious?

8. Quomodo non magis ministerium Spiritus erit in gloria?

9. For if the ministration of condemnation be glory, much more doth the ministration of righteousness exceed in glory.

9. Si enim ministerium damnationis, gloria: quomodo non magis abundet (vel, excellat) ministerium iustitiae in gloria?

10. For even that which was made glorious had no glory in this respect, by reason of the glory that excelleth.

10. Etenim quod glorificatum fuit, in hac parte, non fuit glorificatum propter antecellentem gloriam.

11. For if that which is done away was glorious, much more that which remaineth is glorious.

11. Si enim quod aboletur, per gloriam: multo magis quod manet, erit in gloria.

4. And such confidence As it was a magnificent commendation, that Paul had pronounced to the honor of himself and his Apostleship, lest he should seem to speak of himself more confidently than was befitting, he transfers the entire glory to God, from whom he acknowledges that he has received everything that he has. |By this boasting,| says he, |I extol God rather than myself, by whose grace I am what I am.| (1 Corinthians 15:10.) He adds, as he is accustomed to do by Christ, because he is, as it were, the channel, through which all God's benefits flow forth to us.

5. Not that we are competent. When he thus disclaims all merit, it is not as if he abased himself in merely pretended modesty, but instead of this, he speaks what he truly thinks. Now we see, that he leaves man nothing. For the smallest part, in a manner, of a good work is thought. In other words, it has neither the first part of the praise, nor the second; and yet he does not allow us even this. As it is less to think than to will, how foolish a part do those act, who arrogate to themselves a right will, when Paul does not leave them so much as the power of thinking aught! Papists have been misled by the term sufficiency, that is made use of by the Old Interpreter. For they think to get off by acknowledging that man is not qualified to form good purposes, while in the mean time they ascribe to him a right apprehension of the mind, which, with some assistance from God, may effect something of itself. Paul, on the other hand, declares that man is in want, not merely of sufficiency of himself, (autarkeian,) but also of competency (hikanoteta,) which would be equivalent to idoneitas (fitness), if such a term were in use among the Latins. He could not, therefore, more effectually strip man bare of every thing good.

6. Who hath made us competent. He had acknowledged himself to be altogether useless. Now he declares, that, by the grace of God, he has been qualified for an office, for which he was previously unqualified. From this we infer its magnitude and difficulty, as it can be undertaken by no one, that has not been previously prepared and fashioned for it by God. It is the Apostle's intention, also, to extol the dignity of the gospel. There is, at the same time, no doubt, that he indirectly exposes the poverty of those, who boasted in lofty terms of their endowments, while they were not furnished with so much as a single drop of heavenly grace.

Not of the letter but of the spirit He now follows out the comparison between the law and the gospel, which he had previously touched upon. It is uncertain, however, whether he was led into this discussion, from seeing that there were at Corinth certain perverse devotees of the law, or whether he took occasion from something else to enter upon it. For my part, as I see no evidence that the false apostles had there confounded the law and the gospel, I am rather of opinion, that, as he had to do with lifeless declaimers, who endeavored to obtain applause through mere prating, and as he saw, that the ears of the Corinthians were captivated with such glitter, he was desirous to show them what was the chief excellence of the gospel, and what was the chief praise of its ministers. Now this he makes to consist in the efficacy of the Spirit. A comparison between the law and the gospel was fitted in no ordinary degree to show this. This appears to me to be the reason why he came to enter upon it.

There is, however, no doubt, that by the term letter, he means the Old Testament, as by the term spirit he means the gospel; for, after having called himself a minister of the New Testament, he immediately adds, by way of exposition, that he is a minister of the spirit, and contrasts the letter with the spirit. We must now enquire into the reason of this designation. The exposition contrived by Origen has got into general circulation -- that by the letter we ought to understand the grammatical and genuine meaning of Scripture, or the literal sense, (as they call it,) and that by the spirit is meant the allegorical meaning, which is commonly reckoned to be the spiritual meaning. Accordingly, during several centuries, nothing was more commonly said, or more generally received, than this -- that Paul here furnishes us with a key for expounding Scripture by allegories, while nothing is farther from his intention. For by the term letter he means outward preaching, of such a kind as does not reach the heart; and, on the other hand, by spirit he means living doctrine, of such a nature as worketh effectually (1 Thessalonians 2:13) on the minds of men, through the grace of the Spirit. By the term letter, therefore, is meant literal preaching -- that is, dead and ineffectual, perceived only by the ear. By the term spirit, on the other hand, is meant spiritual doctrine, that is, what is not merely uttered with the mouth, but effectually makes its way to the souls of men with a lively feeling. For Paul had an eye to the passage in Jeremiah, that I quoted a little ago, (Jeremiah 31:31,) where the Lord says, that his law had been proclaimed merely with the mouth, and that it had, therefore, been of short duration, because the people did not embrace it in their heart, and he promises the Spirit of regeneration under the reign of Christ, to write his gospel, that is, the new covenant, upon their hearts. Paul now makes it his boast, that the accomplishment of that prophecy is to be seen in his preaching, that the Corinthians may perceive, how worthless is the loquacity of those vain boasters, who make incessant noise while devoid of the efficacy of the Spirit.

It is asked, however, whether God, under the Old Testament, merely sounded forth in the way of an external voice, and did not also speak inwardly to the hearts of the pious by his Spirit. I answer in the first place, that Paul here takes into view what belonged peculiarly to the law; for although God then wrought by his Spirit, yet that did not take its rise from the ministry of Moses, but from the grace of Christ, as it is said in John 1:17 --

The law was given by Moses;
but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.

True, indeed, the grace of God did not, during all that time, lie dormant, but it is enough that it was not a benefit that belonged to the law. For Moses had discharged his office, when he had delivered to the people the doctrine of life, adding threatenings and promises. For this reason he gives to the law the name of the letter, because it is in itself a dead preaching; but the gospel he calls spirit, because the ministry of the gospel is living, nay, lifegiving.

I answer secondly, that these things are not affirmed absolutely in reference either to the law or to the gospel, but in respect of the contrast between the one and the other; for even the gospel is not always spirit. When, however, we come to compare the two, it is truly and properly affirmed, that the nature of the law is to teach men literally, in such a way that it does not reach farther than the ear; and that, on the other hand, the nature of the gospel is to teach spiritually, because it is the instrument of Christ's grace. This depends on the appointment of God, who has seen it meet to manifest the efficacy of his Spirit more clearly in the gospel than in the law, for it is his work exclusively to teach effectually the minds of men.

When Paul, however, calls himself a Minister of the Spirit, he does not mean by this, that the grace of the Holy Spirit and his influence, were tied to his preaching, so that he could, whenever he pleased, breathe forth the Spirit along with the utterance of the voice. He simply means, that Christ blessed his ministry, and thus accomplished what was predicted respecting the gospel. It is one thing for Christ to connect his influence with a man's doctrine. and quite another for the man's doctrine to have such efficacy of itself. We are, then, Ministers of the Spirit, not as if we held him inclosed within us, or as it were captive -- not as if we could at our pleasure confer his grace upon all, or upon whom we pleased -- but because Christ, through our instrumentality, illuminates the minds of men, renews their hearts, and, in short, regenerates them wholly. It is in consequence of there being such a connection and bond of union between Christ's grace and man's effort, that in many cases that is ascribed to the minister which belongs exclusively to the Lord. For in that case it is not the mere individual that is looked to, but the entire dispensation of the gospel, which consists, on the one hand, in the secret influence of Christ, and, on the other, in man's outward efforts.

For the letter killeth. This passage was mistakingly perverted, first by Origen, and afterwards by others, to a spurious signification. From this arose a very pernicious error -- that of imagining that the perusal of Scripture would be not merely useless, but even injurious, unless it were drawn out into allegories. This error was the source of many evils. For there was not merely a liberty allowed of adulterating the genuine meaning of Scripture, but the more of audacity any one had in this manner of acting, so much the more eminent an interpreter of Scripture was he accounted. Thus many of the ancients recklessly played with the sacred word of God, as if it had been a ball to be tossed to and fro. In consequence of this, too, heretics had it more in their power to trouble the Church; for as it had become general practice to make any passage whatever mean anything that one might choose, there was no frenzy so absurd or monstrous, as not to admit of being brought forward under some pretext of allegory. Even good men themselves were carried headlong, so as to contrive very many mistaken opinions, led astray through a fondness for allegory.

The meaning of this passage, however, is as follows -- that, if the word of God is simply uttered with the mouth, it is an occasion of death, and that it is lifegiving, only when it is received with the heart. The terms letter and spirit, therefore, do not refer to the exposition of the word, but to its influence and fruit. Why it is that the doctrine merely strikes upon the ear, without reaching the heart, we shall see presently.

7 But if the ministry of death. He now sets forth the dignity of the gospel by this argument -- that God conferred distinguished honor upon the law, which, nevertheless, is nothing in comparison with the gospel. The law was rendered illustrious by many miracles. Paul, however, touches here upon one of them merely -- that the face of Moses shone with such splendor as dazzled the eyes of all. That splendour was a token of the glory of the law. He now draws an argument from the less to the greater -- that it is befitting, that the glory of the gospel should shine forth with greater lustre, inasmuch as it is greatly superior to the law.

In the first place, he calls the law the ministry of death. Secondly, he says, that the doctrine of it was written in letters, and with ink. Thirdly, that it was engraven on stones. Fourthly, that it was not of perpetual duration; but, instead of this, its condition was temporary and fading. And, fifthly, he calls it the ministry of condemnation. To render the antitheses complete, it would have been necessary for him to employ as many corresponding clauses in reference to the gospel; but, he has merely spoken of it as being the ministry of the Spirit, and of righteousness, and as enduring for ever. If you examine the words, the correspondence is not complete, but so far as the matter itself is concerned, what is expressed is sufficient. For he had said that the Spirit giveth life, and farther, that men's hearts served instead of stones, and disposition, in the place of ink

Let us now briefly examine those attributes of the law and the gospel. Let us, however, bear in mind, that he is not speaking of the whole of the doctrine that is contained in the law and the Prophets; and farther, that he is not treating of what happened to the fathers under the Old Testament, but merely notices what belongs peculiarly to the ministry of Moses. The law was engraven on stones, and hence it was a literal doctrine. This defect of the law required to be corrected by the gospel, because it could not but be brittle, so long as it was merely engraven on tables of stone. The gospel, therefore, is a holy and inviolable covenant, because it was contracted by the Spirit of God, acting as security. From this, too, it follows, that the law was the ministry of condemnation and of death; for when men are instructed as to their duty, and hear it declared, that all who do not render satisfaction to the justice of God are cursed, (Deuteronomy 27:26,) they are convicted, as under sentence of sin and death. From the law, therefore, they derive nothing but a condemnation of this nature, because God there demands what is due to him, and at the same time confers no power to perform it. The gospel, on the other hand, by which men are regenerated, and are reconciled to God, through the free remission of their sins, is the ministry of righteousness, and, consequently, of life also.

Here, however, a question arises: As the gospel is the odor of death unto death to some, (2 Corinthians 2:16,) and as Christ is a rock of offense, and a stone of stumbling set for the ruin of many, (Luke 2:34; 1 Peter 2:8,) why does he represent, as belonging exclusively to the law, what is common to both? Should you reply, that it happens accidentally that the gospel is the source of death, and, accordingly, it the occasion of it rather than the cause, inasmuch as it is in its own nature salutary to all, the difficulty will still remain unsolved; for the same answer might be returned with truth in reference to the law. For we hear what Moses called the people to bear witness to -- that he had set before them life and death. (Deuteronomy 30:15.) We hear what Paul himself says in Romans 7:10 -- that the law has turned out to our ruin, not through any fault attaching to it, but in consequence of our wickedness. Hence, as the entailing of condemnation upon men is a thing that happens alike to the law and the gospel, the difficulty still remains.

My answer is this -- that there is, notwithstanding of this, a great difference between them; for although the gospel is an occasion of condemnation to many, it is nevertheless, on good grounds, reckoned the doctrine of life, because it is the instrument of regeneration, and offers to us a free reconciliation with God. The law, on the other hand, as it simply prescribes the rule of a good life, does not renew men's hearts to the obedience of righteousness, and denounces everlasting death upon transgressors, can do nothing but condemn. Or if you prefer it in another way, the office of the law is to show us the disease, in such a way as to show us, at the same time, no hope of cure: the office of the gospel is, to bring a remedy to those that were past hope. For as the law leaves man to himself, it condemns him, of necessity, to death; while the gospel, bringing him to Christ, opens the gate of life. Thus, in one word, we find that it is an accidental property of the law, that is perpetual and inseparable, that it killeth; for as the Apostle says elsewhere, (Galatians 3:10,)

All that remain under the law are subject to the curse.

It does, not, on the other hand, invariably happen to the gospel, that it kills, for in it is

revealed the righteousness of God from faith to faith, and therefore it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth. (Romans 1:17,18.)

It remains, that we consider the last of the properties that are ascribed. The Apostle says, that the law was but for a time, and required to be abolished, but that the gospel, on the other hand, remains for ever. There are various reasons why the ministry of Moses is pronounced transient, for it was necessary that the shadows should vanish at the coming of Christ, and that statement --

The law and the Prophets were until John --
(Matthew 11:13)

-- applies to more than the mere shadows. For it intimates, that Christ has put an end to the ministry of Moses, which was peculiar to him, and is distinguished from the gospel. Finally, the Lord declares by Jeremiah, that the weakness of the Old Testament arose from this -- that it was not engraven on men's hearts. (Jeremiah 31:32,33.) For my part, I understand that abolition of the law, of which mention is here made, as referring to the whole of the Old Testament, in so far as it is opposed to the gospel, so that it corresponds with the statement -- The law and the Prophets were until John. For the context requires this. For Paul is not reasoning here as to mere ceremonies, but shows how much more powerfully the Spirit of God exercises his power in the gospel, than of old under the law.

So that they could not look. He seems to have had it in view to reprove, indirectly, the arrogance of those, who despised the gospel as a thing that was excessively mean, so that they could scarcely deign to give it a direct look. |So great,| says he, |was the splendor of the law, that the Jews could not endure it. What, then, must we think of the gospel, the dignity of which is as much superior to that of the law, as Christ is more excellent than Moses?|

10. What was rendered glorious. This is not a correction of what goes before, but rather a confirmation; for he means that the glory of the law is extinguished when the gospel comes forth. As the moon and stars, though in themselves they are not merely luminous, but diffuse their light over the whole earth, do, nevertheless, disappear before the brightness of the sun; so, however glorious the law was in itself, it has, nevertheless, no glory in comparison with the excellence of the gospel. Hence it follows, that we cannot sufficiently prize, or hold in sufficient esteem the glory of Christ, which shines forth in the gospel, like the splendor of the sun when beaming forth; and that the gospel is foolishly handled, nay more, is shamefully profaned, where the power and majesty of the Spirit do not come forth to view, so as to draw up men's minds and hearts heavenward.

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