Calvin on Merit in the Land of Canaan


One of the disputed points in the contemporary controversy on the nature of the Mosaic covenant has to do with the way Israel possessed the land of Canaan. Was it by faith, or by works? Was it by grace, or did it operate on a principle of merit?

John Calvin addressed this question extensively in his sermons on Deuteronomy, first published in English in 1583. These sermons can now be accessed online (for free!) at this website.

Calvin's argument against the Roman Catholics is simple: if Israel could not merit earthly blessings in Canaan (types of heaven), how could they merit heaven itself? The former (earthly, typological blessings) were by grace through faith. Here a few samples which show this quite clearly. I have modernized some of the spelling to make it more readable:

Now Moses commes to the second matter which we have touched, which ought to be well noted: namely, that when God has helped & succoured us, and done more for us than we looked for, or than our mind could conceive: we must yeild him his deserved glorie, so as we be not sotted with pride and ouerweening, to challenge that to ourselves which belongs only unto God: let us beware of such unthankfulness. Againe, let us not imagine that God serves his turn by us, in respect of any worthiness of ours: but let us understand that his choosing of us is only in respect of his own good will. We shall not find any deserving at all in our selves in this behalf: but it is of his only free mercy, which he will have us to magnify above all things.

True it is, that Moses speaketh here of the land of Canaan. But if men cannot deserve any thing in this world in respect of transitory things: how shall they deserve everlasting life? If I cannot win a little piece of grounde how shall I win a whole realm? So then, let us mark that of the things that are said here, we must gather a general doctrine, which is, that if the children of Israel were put in possession of the lande that had been promised them, not for their own righteousness sake, but through God's free goodness: it is much more reason that when we speak of the heavenly life, and of the inheritance of the heavenly glorie, we should not dream upon any power of our own, but acknowledge that God has uttered his righteousnesse and showed his goodness in his vouchsafing to choose us. (pages. 375-76)

After that Moses had warned the people to keep God's commandments, now he harteneth them by setting God's promises before them, as if GOD should tell them, that his will was they should not serve him but for good wages. And indeed, God perceiving how loth & slow we be to follow him, allures us to it, by promising us that we shall not lose our labor in so doing. Not that he is bound to do it, or that he intends to have us as hirelings, or that we can deserve or earn any thing at his hand: we must rid away all such imaginations. It is meet that we should yield obedience unto God, though no reward at all were behighted us. For we ought to love him for his own sake, & not for any recompense that can be looked for. Again on the other side, our affection must be frank & free, and not like theirs that will do nothing, except their profit be always before them. We must love God with a free heart. Thirdly, we can deserve nothing at all by our doings: do what we can, God is never that more bound unto us for it. For we be his already, & what can we bring which is not due to him already by nature? Yet is he contented to apply himself to our rawness, in saying that if we serve him, there is a reward ready for us, so as we shall not need to be afraid that our Labor in honoring him should be unprofitable to us if we endeavor so to honor him. Now we see what a fondness it is for men to conclude, that because God promises reward to such as keep his Law, therefore men can deserve at his hand: For that is not his meaning: but it is done for our infirmities sake because God sees that wee have need to bee quickened up. And therefore all the promises of the law are as strokes with the spur. Besides this, we must also come back to the doctrine of S. Paul, which is, that whatsoever promise with condition God doe make us in his law, (Gal. 3:10, 11, 12) it stands us in no stead. For we on our side, instead of performing the things that God commands us, do go clean back from them, and by that means are far off from all the benefit that is behighted us there. (Rom. 7:22-23). And whereas the Law says, he that does these things shall live in them: (Lev. 18:4 [sic?]) that booteth us nothing at all until God of his own free goodness be at one with us again. For then writes he his law in our hearts, (Rom. 7.22 23) and we learn to obey him: which thing we cannot do by nature. And yet for all that, (Phil. 3.12) we doe it not then perfectly, but there is still some blemish in our doings, so as God might justly reject our works, because they be altogether sinful. Nevertheless he takes them in good worth, and yielded us reward, not as of duty, but of his own good will.

Moreover he says, Let the people turn and draw towards the hill of the Amorites, & from thence invade and possess the land of Canaan, whether it be the plain Countries, or the downs, or the deserts, or the sea-coasts: for the land (saith he) is before you: that is to say at your commandment, I have delivered it into your hands, nothing shall keep you from the possession of it, if it be not long of your selves. Why so? For I have sworn (says he) to your fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob: I have promised to give it for an inheritance to them and to their seed after their decease. Here first of all we must mark the order that is set down: for God shows the cause why he gave that people the land [of Canaan:] namely for his promise sake. And thereby he betokeneth, that the land belonged not to them as by way of conquest through their own power, nor yet for any desert of theirs, but only of free gift. God then assigns this title to the children of Israel, and tells them that they shall bee as much bound to his mere goodness when they bee brought into the land of Canaan, [as they were before.] And indeed the oath that Moses speaks of here, was made four hundred and thirty years afore, even in the person of Abraham, before any of them was borne. Seeing then that GOD had promised them the land, even before they had done either good or evil, and before they were borne: it may bee concluded thereupon, that their possessing of it was not for any worthiness of theirs, as though God had been beholden to them for some service: but because he had made them heirs of it, through his own free goodness. Now if this bee verified of the earthly heritage which the children of Israel had: what is to bee aside of the kingdom of heaven? Are we able to compass it? Can we deserve at Gods hand to bee partakers thereof? No: but contrariwise, it is of his mere goodness that we be brought in thither, and shall have fruition of it at the last day: for surely all that is spoken of the land of Canaan, must serve us for a figure and shadow. (page 8)

When there is any talk of doing good or of serving God, the Papists imagine by and by that men earn the kingdom of heaven by their owne deserts or merits: but the holy scripture holds the clean contrary order, as we see here. Why? It is not said that men bind God to them by their meritorious deeds: but after that the inheritance is set before them, and that of free gift: and after it is shown to them, that nothing bears sway in that behalf but only God's goodness: then is it said unto them, March forward. And so we learn to do good, and to give our selves to the service of God, & to become holy through his righteousness: not with the purpose to make him beholden unto us, but to follow his holy calling, lest we should reject his grace, howbeit that we cannot stir one finger without God's working in us by his holy spirit. For wheras it is said, Get ye hence and march foreward: it is not because the people was able so to doe: but when God has once encouraged us, he prints his doctrine in our hearts, and to the intent the same should not be unavailable, he quickens us up: and to be short, he works so mightily in us, that after he has once given us willingness, he gives us also performance therewithall, according as S. Paul avouches in the second to the Philippians (Phil. 2.13). Yet for all this, we must bear well in mind the thing that I have touched already: which is, that God's offering of his grace unto us, is not to the end we should as it were fall asleep and make none account of it: but to the end we should be quickened up to do good. (pages 10-11)

Well, there are a lot more to put up. But you can read the sermons for yourself. Just check the index for merit, or deserts, and similar words.

In his Harmony of the Law, Calvin also addresses this issue:

On Deut. 9:1: “The whole of this passage contains an eulogy on the gratuitous liberality of God, whereby He had bound the people to Himself unto the obedience of the Law. But this (as we have already seen) ought to have been a most pressing stimulus to incite the people, and altogether to ravish them to the worship and love of God, to whom they were under so great obligation. The design of Moses, then, was to shew that the Israelites, for no merit of their own, but by the signal bounty of God, would be heirs of the land of Canaan; and that this entirely flowed from the covenant and their gratuitous adoption; in order that, on their part, they should persevere in the faithful observation of the covenant, and so should be the more disposed to honor Him.”

On Deut. 5:9: “But this is the proof of His inestimable kindness, and even indulgence, that He deigns to bind Himself to His servants, to whom He owes nothing, so far as to acknowledge, in His favor towards them, their seed also for His people. For hence it appears, that it is wrong to infer merit from the promised reward, because He does not say that He will be faithful or just towards the keepers of His Law, but merciful. Let then the most perfect come forward, and he can require nothing better of God than that He should be favorable to him on the grounds of His gratuitous liberality. For ???, chesed, is equivalent to kindness, or beneficence; but when it is applied to God, it generally signifies mercy, or paternal favor, and the blessings which flow from it.

In his Sermons on Galatians (Banner of Truth, 1997), on Gal. 3:15-18 he writes:

“Let us now come to the central teaching of our text, which is that the inheritance is not by the law but by faith. When Paul put these two terms together so that they accompany one another, it is to draw a contrast between them, as we have seen. It is not that the law and faith are somehow contrary to one another. No, but when it is a question of justification, and of receiving the mercy of God, this cannot be intended for that purpose (as we shall see in our next sermon). Indeed, its function is quite the reverse! Since our inheritance is obtained by faith, we must therefore, conclude that our works are of no value, and that we are expected to come empty-handed, like poor beggars. We come asking God to fill us because we do not possess one drop of goodness in and of ourselves. These are the implications of Paul's words when he says that the inheritance is acquired by faith and not through the law, just as Abraham's inheritance was by faith.

Now, if we cannot even merit our physical nourishment, how can we deserve to inherit the kingdom of heaven? Surely, perishable meat is nothing compared to the glory of heaven? We have been told that we will see the glory of our God and that he will be our all in all (1 Cor. 15:28). Yet, at present we have been told that we will see the glory of our God and that we have no right to a piece of bread, for the inheritance is by faith; in other words, all that God has promised men is due to his free bounty alone. How, then, can we speak of deserving the kingdom of heaven? What pride there must be in man that he should hope to reach paradise through his own virtue! Surely such people will be swept away by the fiery wrath of God? By saying that Abraham received everything by faith, Paul clarifies and explains what we have been seeking to establish: that is, that nothing is contributed on the part of man--salvation is free...”



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