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: