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Calvin on the proper and the accidental office of the gospel

Last week Dave Kirkman helped me to distinguish between what Luther called God's 'alien work' and His 'proper work'.

Death is the alien work.  Life through death is gospel and God's proper work.  But it's extremely important not to view death and life as equivalents in God's eyes.  One is the alien work, transformed by the proper work of resurrection.  This has many implications for theodicy - the study of God's justice in the face of evil.  The LORD may indeed kill and make alive, yet He is not so capricious that they are both alike to Him.  Rather, they belong together as one redeeming work - the former being the alien, the latter being the proper. (cf Isaiah 28:21)

Anyway, I came across Calvin using a similar distinction between the 'proper' and the 'accidental' office of the gospel.  (And again 2 Corinthians 3 was important - just as it was to Luther).  Calvin discusses the fact from 2 Corinthians 2:15-16 that the gospel hardens unbelievers.  This we know.  But we also ought to know that this is not its proper work.  It's proper work is as a 'ministry of life' (2 Cor 3:6).  How do these relate?  The last sentence is fascinating.

The term odor is very emphatic. Such is the influence of the Gospel in both respects, that it either quickens or kills, not merely by its taste, but by its very smell. Whatever it may be, it is never preached in vain, but has invariably an effect, either for life, or for death.”  “We are the savor of death unto death. But it is asked, how this accords with the nature of the Gospel, which we shall find him, a little afterwards, calling the ministry of life? (2 Corinthians 3:6.) The answer is easy: The Gospel is preached for salvation: this is what properly belongs to it; but believers alone are partakers of that salvation. In the mean time, its being an occasion of condemnation to unbelievers — that arises from their own fault. Thus Christ came not into the world to condemn the world, (John 3:17,) for what need was there of this, inasmuch as without him we are all condemned? Yet he sends his apostles to bind, as well as to loose, and to retain sins, as well as remit them. (Matthew 18:18; John 20:23.) He is the light of the world, (John 8:12,) but he blinds unbelievers. (John 9:39.) He is a Rock, for a foundation, but he is also to many a stone of stumbling — “Of offense and stumbling.” (Isaiah 8:14.) We must always, therefore, distinguish between the proper office of the Gospel,  — “The proper and natural office of the Gospel.” and the accidental one (so to speak) which must be imputed to the depravity of mankind, to which it is owing, that life to them is turned into death.

Calvin on 2 Corinthians 2:15 in his commentary:


19 thoughts on “Calvin on the proper and the accidental office of the gospel

  1. Dave K

    Very helpful. He was a wise guy that Calvin.

    Interesting that the way I was describing things in my comments on my post was that the condemnation was transformed into grace by the gospel, and Calvin seems to be saying the gospel is transformed into condemnation by sinful humanity. Admittedly the subject was different in each case, but nevertheless....

    I'll have to think about that.

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  4. theoldadam

    My pastor also sspeaks of God's alien (or starnge) work, but usually he uses it in conjucnction with explaining the work of the law.

    Sine the law brings death, I guess that lines up fairly well with what Calvin is talking about.

    Interesting stuff!


  5. Glen

    OldAdam and Dave - I think 2 Corinthians 3 is the link explaining much of this.

    It links Calvin and Luther, it links law and death and it links the way even gospel can be heard under law and yield death (cf 2 Cor 4:4).

  6. codepoke

    I wondered whether you see a connection between this point of view and my differentiation about the timing of God's decrees? The natural office of the gospel is, was, and always will be to make alive. The accidental office is death. The decree of election was supralapsarian. The "decree of reprobation" was infralapsarian.

  7. Glen

    Yes, interesting. The big problem with being supra is you have the Lord damning men as men before they are even considered as sinners. To put reprobation after the fall is obviously much to be prefered.

    But I think to split election and reprobation moves you out of the classical frame in which this debate is traditionally held. If God elects some particular individuals then (you can argue sematics but) basically His passing over the others is their reprobation. In the classical frame, that kind of split doesn't really work. But then - maybe the frame is wrong.

    It was for these kinds of reasons that Barth proposed a 'purified supralapsarianism' in which Christ is made more explicitly front and centre as Reprobate and Elect - and predestined to be so before any consideration of the fall. His is the one true case in which Man is damned as man and not as sinner (the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world). So you truly can keep reprobation and election together and have them before the fall.

    But His death is always to be a death on the way to resurrection. The goal - the proper event - is resurrection from the dead. And so the journey which all are called to take is one through reprobation to election.

    "God has bound all men over to disobedience so that He may have mercy on them all." (Rom 11:32)

    Reprobation is not an ultimate end for the Lord - (Hell is for the devil and his angels). His eternal purpose is cross THEN resurrection - life for all. Those who remain on the cross side of things are (per accidens) stumbling on the stumbling stone that is properly intended as a Rock of refuge.


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  9. codepoke

    > Maybe the frame is wrong.

    Thanks for the thought. I know I'm breaking the standard framework, but I can't get past the tensions I see.

    > His is the one true case in which Man is damned as man and not as sinner (the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world).

    A beautiful thought. I will hang on to this one and see what comes of it. I'm not comfortable with it because I cannot see a path from here to anywhere but universalism, except the path I've already chosen. And if I head toward a limited atonement, this thought doesn't really gain me anything.

    I'm always uneasy with theological thoughts that are more than a level or two removed from the direct statement of scripture, and this one has to be a good four levels removed. There simply is no verse that directly states Jesus was preordained to be Reprobate. It can be proven, perhaps, but not without lashing together a raft made of logical conclusions from other conclusions from interpretations.

    Scripture says directly that after the fall Eve's conceptions would be multiplied and increase in pain. It says God ordained some before the foundation of the world. Splitting the decrees is the simplest answer I can find.

  10. Glen

    "I’m always uneasy with theological thoughts that are more than a level or two removed from the direct statement of scripture."

    ... said the blogger wanting to discuss the order of the decrees... ;-)

    I share the unease. Which is why I'm seeking to make Christ Himself central to our soteriology and not decrees. I think things like Rev 13:8 and John 10:17 together with any verse you like on penal substitution speak powerfully toward the pre-ordained reprobation of Christ.

    My most recent post speaks to issues of effectual atonement, universal atonement and avoiding universalism.

  11. pgjackson

    "His is the one true case in which Man is damned as man and not as sinner (the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world). "

    Sorry to butt in to your discussion with Codepoke, but aren't there pretty massive problems with this? As in, similar 'justice' ones to the ones raised about God damning men as men and not as sinners. Surely Christ, though not a sinner, was damned as our representative and substitute? The idea that that wasn't 'in play' during the decree of his predestination to death etc. creates a problem doesn't it?

    [Btw, I find myself thinking and acting with a general 'supra' tendency - as I think that fronts the Father's glorification of the Son through the plan of redemption and makes creation about that, not the other way round. But I've no idea how to put things together to avoid what seems a real problem with God decreeing to damn people without consideration to them as sinners]

  12. codepoke

    :-D !!

    > I think things like Rev 13:8 and John 10:17 together with any verse you like on penal substitution speak powerfully toward the pre-ordained reprobation of Christ.

    I don't see the cause for your confidence. Who says Jesus' death before the foundation of the Earth was driven by penal substitution? There was no sin before the foundation of the Earth, and I've never heard of a judge extracting a penalty prior to the actual execution of the crime.

    Jhn 12:24 Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.

    There's no penal substitution in this verse, but there is death. If the Father, Son and Spirit decreed they would bring forth much fruit, then subsequently they must decree the corn of wheat would die - regardless of whether there was or was not ever to be sin.

    The penal aspect of the cross is significant, but Genesis 1 comes before Genesis 3. Genesis 1 tells about seeds and kind after its kind within itself. If we are to be partakers of the divine nature, kind after His kind, He must be planted.

    The scripture doesn't tell us a lot about the pre-creation state of God or of any decrees. Anything we say is a construction rather than a revelation, but there's places I'd call a bridge too far. Calling Christ reprobate is one of them. There was a moment in which He became sin for us, in which He was roasted in the Father's wrath and was wholly consumed, but equating that with the theological term reprobation is too unstable for me.

    The offerings are "corban," wholly dedicated to God, but not reprobate. It seems Barth (I've not read much of him, so I'm going only on your quote) was struggling to avoid having God selecting men before they'd acted. So he wraps the entire election process in Christ, and allows God to treat Christ like Schroedinger's Cat. He's not really either elect or reprobate for a man until you open the box at the moment of judgment. I'll grant that makes elegant sense once you've got the mental pathways for quantum actions open in your mind, but it seems like way too much logic and a huge stretch.

    If God decrees the world with the elect and the Lamb is slain for them THEN man falls and as part of the curse more men are decreed explicitly, there's a lot less juggling. The predestination verses make a lot more sense to me this way, and the only thing that doesn't sit well intuitively is that the reprobate did not exist in any decree until the fall. My division is counter-intuitive, but reading Eph 1, Romans 9, John and 1st John this way makes them all work more easily. And without saying something the scripture never says, that Christ was reprobate.

  13. Glen

    Yes welcome to the muck Pete.

    I dunno. I think we've all admitted there are problems with every view.

    I wonder whether dislike of 'reprobate' as a term for Christ could turn into semantics. Reprobation is basically 'Jacob I loved, Esau I hated.' Christ became Esau on the cross. "My God, My God, why have you *forsaken* me?" That's reprobation language surely. Forsaken, abandoned, rejected - Scripture uses this language. Not to mention: 'punished', 'cursed', ''crushed', 'slain', 'given up', 'became sin', 'drank the cup' etc - these all seem to be equally shocking and not significantly different to 'reprobated'. Is 'reprobated' really a bridge too far?

    I wonder whether what we really need is a good *evangelical* doctrine of time. And I aint got one. We don't want eternity to swallow up the gospel events as though they are accidental or elaborate pageantry. We want a doctrine of time which can handle John 17:5: the cross *is* the glory of the eternal God. There isn't 6 feet of insulation between the cross and God's eternal glory. There's not even 6 inches of insulation. There it is - there HE is, lifted up as the Lamb.

    Which is another thing - Christ is the *Lamb* chosen (1 Pet 1:20) and slain (Rev 13:8) from the foundation of the world. Not the Seed chosen and planted. That should cause much pause for thought. L a m b. (see how I've helped you mull it over?)

    There is an assumption here that the death of creatures with the breath of life in them might not be some kind of judgement. (Our doctrines of creation might be behind all this), but I'm not sure we can say that. We don't know 'what might have been'. Which brings me to a major bone of contention...

    I just don't think we can do counter-factual theology. We can't do the whole 'What if Adam never sinned' thing. To me such an enterprise is far more speculative than anything I'm putting forward. We just don't know what death for men might have meant apart from sin, etc.

    We do know that the Israelites were told about the blessings for obedience and the curses for disobedience before entering the land (Deut 27-29). And then they are told explicitly that they *will* disobey (Deut 30), and this is what to do and sing when they are exiled under the curse (Deut 32). We know that the LORD therefore is not averse to setting things up this kind of way because ultimately it is the glory of the Son to take Israel's fate on His own shoulders, bear the curse, and burst through into resurrection blessing.

    We do know that the Lamb lifted up is the glory of eternal God.

    We know that the Son is perfected through suffering.

    We know that He has bronze feet in Daniel 10, but bronze feet 'refined in a furnace' in Rev 1.

    I agree we must hold onto the fall as a fall and not a 'push' - there are justice issues to be wrestled with. But, I dunno...

    I've thrown out a lot of dots. I don't know how to connect them. But that's some of my thinking. I'm off to bed

  14. codepoke

    Lots of dots. Well said. And as for your arguments regarding, "Lamb not Seed", I deleted a couple paragraphs echoing your thoughts. I agree that's a tough point, and my unused paragraphs wandered around and concluded I'd nothing to conclude. At least you helped me mull it further. :-)

    Someday I'm sure you'll return to the evangelical view of time. I look forward to it.

    The bronze feet transformation was a new one to me. I love it. Thank you.

    And thank you for not handling my thoughts as I suspect Mr. Calvin might have done. ;-)

  15. Glen


    Well I think if Calvin handled your thoughts according to the proper/accidental point the post began with, it would be a very good answer indeed. Mulling it over today I think that this distinction helps in these discussions more than any shuffling around of the decrees.

    And please do teach me on 'time'. I need wisdom...

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