Ordained Servant Online

Calvin’s Kline

David W. Inks


I was a Dillard dodger while attending Westminster Theological Seminary in the late 1970s. By the time I migrated to Westminster Seminary California in the fall of 1982 to complete my fourth and final year of seminary I had avoided the dreaded Old Testament Introduction (OTI) with Professor Raymond Dillard and thus, all the rest of the OT curriculum. Looking back on it, as I see it, my cowardly tactics were strangely rewarded. The year was laden with OT studies, and my only OT professors shared the same last name—Kline. That was a “glory-cloud” experience and a truly rewarding conclusion to my seminary trek. The covenant-kingdom map from the senior Kline (Meredith G.) is now a dog-eared fixture in my frontal lobe. Son Meredith M. Kline’s locating Ecclesiastes on that grid, with his own artistic brush, proved to be an “a-ha” moment prolonged into several weeks.

Having since had the privilege of leading several small reading groups through Calvin’s Institutes, I have come to realize that, despite Dr. Kline’s creativity, he was unoriginal in his understanding of the law-grace antithesis. It has become clear to me, contrary to the Barthian school, that Calvin operated out of that very antithesis which later became codified in the Westminster Confession of Faith. It has also become clear that Kline’s contention that the Mosaic covenant contained a works principle in its covenantal administration was not innovative but true to Calvin’s sentiments. This article will attempt to demonstrate that Calvin operated out of a law-grace antithesis and that he also preceded Kline in locating this antithesis in the Mosaic covenant. Consequently, it’s Calvin’s visage that is genuinely reflected in Kline; his paradigm preceded and shaped Kline’s formulations. So besides being chic, that’s why I have dubbed this little piece, “Calvin’s Kline.”

In the following, I wish to document for the interested reader a two-fold interconnected thesis mutually shared by both Calvin and Kline. The thesis is: that the Mosaic covenant suspended its sanctions upon works, not grace, and therein provided the platform for grasping the meaning and benefits of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection as proclaimed in the gospel.

Meredith G. Kline

I tend to assume that my thesis is accepted as commonplace regarding Dr. Kline’s outlook and without contestation. But ad fontes we must go to alleviate any doubts in the reader. Regarding the works principle in the Mosaic covenant, note the following quotations.

Also contradicting the contention that no divine covenants have ever been governed by the works principle is the irrefutable biblical evidence that the Mosaic economy, while an administration of grace on its fundamental level of concern with the eternal salvation of the individual, was at the same time on its temporary, typological kingdom level informed by the principle of works. Thus, for example, the apostle Paul in Romans 10:4ff and Galatians 3:10ff (cf. Rom 9:32) contrasts the old order of the law with the gospel order of grace and faith, identifying the old covenant as one of bondage, condemnation, and death (cf. 2 Cor. 3:6–9; Gal. 4:24–26). The old covenant was law, the opposite of grace-faith, and in the postlapsarian world that meant it would turn out to be an administration of condemnation as a consequence of sinful Israel’s failure to maintain the necessary meritorious obedience.[1]

At the same time, Paul affirmed that the Mosaic Covenant did not annul the promise arrangement given earlier to Abraham (Gal. 3:17). The explanation for this is that the old covenant order was composed of two strata and the works principle enunciated in Leviticus 18:5 and elsewhere in the law, applied only to one of these, a secondary stratum.[2]

Leviticus 18:5, in stating that the man who performed the covenant stipulations would live in them, declared that individual Israelites must observe the requirements of the law to enjoy the blessings of the typological kingdom community.[3]

That these sanctions played out only in the temporal and earthly level confines them to the typological. As Kline says:

The works principle of the Law was rather the governing principle in the typological sphere of the national election and the possession of the first level kingdom in Canaan. It is this works principle that explains the otherwise inexplicable termination of the typological kingdom of Israel through judgment curse.[4]

Even individuals who were elect in terms of eternal salvation would be cut off from that temporal, typological realm as the penalty for various serious infractions of the law.... What we have found then is that once the typological kingdom was inaugurated under the Mosaic Covenant, Israel’s retention of it was governed by a principle of works applied on a national scale.[5]

The old covenant’s works principle begs for fulfillment, and in fulfillment, replacement by a covenant that announces that the law’s curse is removed and the righteousness acquiring life is realized. Christ is that one who embraces both sanctions, cursing in his death and blessing/resurrection due to his righteousness. The new covenant is “new,” partially, in how we achieve the blessing. It is by faith in Christ and his work not by our works. (Under the old covenant’s typological administration, blessing was contingent upon obedience/works, though the ordo salutis strata was by faith.) As Kline argues, “God honors his original covenant of law in its abiding demand for obedience as the condition of life and with the curse of death for the covenant breakers.”[6] That is why the coming of Christ and his work is indeed a new day. He will “offer himself up to the curse of the covenant.”[7] And with regard to the blessing sanction he says, “Now if it is the obedience of the one that is the ground of the promise-guarantee given to the many, then clearly the principle of law is more fundamental than that of promise even in a promise covenant.”[8]

I trust this sufficiently shows that my thesis accurately represents Kline’s views. But does Calvin agree with Kline’s paradigm? The Torrances, Federal Vision advocates, and others wish to insist that, for Calvin, the old covenant did not operate with a principle of works as contrary to grace in the new covenant. For them, it’s all of grace in both old and new covenants, one preceding and the other following the cross. It’s my contention that they wrongly read Calvin as supporting this absence of a works covenant before the coming of Christ. I would wish now to document that Kline is not Calvin’s ventriloquist but rather his successor in this profound dynamic of discontinuity between the old and new covenants.

Calvin’s Institutes

When it comes to ferreting out Calvin’s theology, the first and best place to go is the Institutes. He called them “a key to open a way for all children of God into a good and right understanding of Holy Scripture.”[9] Though citations will be limited to the Institutes I believe it will, nonetheless, provide us with a clear grasp of Calvin’s thought on the topic at hand.

The Promises of the Law vs. The Promises of the Gospel

Calvin uses the word “promise” regarding the law. What does he mean? “We cannot gainsay that the reward of eternal salvation awaits complete obedience to the law, as the Lord has promised.”[10] “Because observance of the law is found in none of us, we are excluded from the promises of life, and fall back into the mere curse.”[11] “I reply: even if the promises of the law, in so far as they are conditional, depend upon perfect obedience to the law—which can nowhere be found—they have not been given in vain ... From it all of us are condemned and accursed (Gal. 3:10). And it holds us far away from the blessedness that it promises to its keepers.”[12] “In the precepts of the law, God is but the rewarder for perfect righteousness, which all of us lack.”[13] We tend to be unaccustomed to hearing the word “promise” employed with regard to the law. In reality it is no different than using the word “covenant” insofar that a sanction is promised depending upon which condition is fulfilled.[14] Obey, and God promises life. Disobey, and God promises death. From this soil it should not surprise us that the covenants of works and grace sprouted in the next century, not in contradiction to Calvin, but in coherence with Calvin. Though rarely noted, Calvin does call this works arrangement a covenant of law.[15] Any attempt to draw out of Calvin a “grace in law, and law in grace” formula on the grounds of his using “promise” with regard to “law” should immediately be identified as a tendentious distortion. Calvin poses gospel promises in contrast to law promises. Yet, he is perfectly clear that “what is promised” is the same thing in both cases—eternal life!

From this we infer that we must seek from Christ what the law would give if anyone could fulfill it.... For if righteousness consists in the observance of the law, who will deny that Christ merited favor for us when, by taking that burden upon himself, he reconciled us to God as if we had kept the law?[16]

Elsewhere he says, “The reward of eternal salvation awaits complete obedience to the law, as the Lord has promised”; and “he causes us to receive the benefit of the promises of the law as if we had fulfilled their condition.”[17] Thus, the law precedes the gospel in holding out the same goal but through different means. And yet for Christ, the means are the same, obedience, so that we might attain eternal life through faith because Christ has fulfilled the terms initially set down by the law. This becomes even more obvious below. As for the contrast between law and gospel promises, notice the following citations.

Now, to be sure, the law itself has its own promises. Therefore, in the promises of the gospel there must be something distinct and different unless we would admit that the comparison is inept. But what sort of difference will this be, other than that the gospel promises are free and dependent solely upon God’s mercy, while the promises of the law depend upon the condition of works?[18]

“But the law is not of faith; rather, the man who does these things shall live in them (Gal. 3:11–12).”[19]

Calvin then comments on this Galatian text saying: “The law, he says, is different from faith. Why? Because works are required for law righteousness. Therefore it follows that they are not required for faith righteousness”.[20] The law for Calvin, among other things, made promises of eternal life upon condition of works. And this covenant stood in antithetical relationship to the covenant of grace.[21]

The Law is Fulfilled in Christ

How does Calvin understand that Christ has fulfilled the law? The answer is simple. The law set forth two sanctions, blessing/life and cursing/death. Christ achieved the first sanction through his righteousness, meriting eternal life.[22] Christ bore the second on the cross. Thus, the law is fulfilled through the work of Christ and our consequent deliverance from the curse and entrance into life is now offered through faith, not works. Since Christ has fulfilled the law there is logically nothing left for us to do but to receive it as a gift through the empty hand of faith. When we say that Christ fulfilled the law in this way we also are necessarily saying that the law as a covenant of works explains to us the meaning of the work of Christ. Apart from this we cannot understand what the work of Christ did. This is the tragedy of denying the law as a covenant of works. This is the tragedy of blindly insisting that for Calvin “grace came before law.” The following are a few of the many passages available to decipher Calvin’s view.

With regard to the Ten Commandments we ought likewise to heed Paul’s warning: “Christ is the end of the law unto salvation to every believer” (Rom. 10:4) ... he means that righteousness is taught in vain by the commandments until Christ confers it by free imputation and by the Spirit of regeneration. For this reason, Paul justly calls Christ the fulfillment or end of the law.[23]

“Christ became a curse for us,” (Gal. 3:13). It was superfluous, even absurd, for Christ to be burdened with a curse, unless it was to acquire righteousness for others by paying what they owed.[24]

For this reason the apostle defines the redemption in Christ’s blood as “the forgiveness of sins” (Col. 1:14). If we are justified through the works of the law, then “Christ died for nothing” (Gal. 2:21). From this we infer that we must seek from Christ what the law would give if anyone could fulfill it; or, what is the same thing, that we obtain through Christ’s grace what God promised in the law for our works: “He who will do these things, will live in them” (Lev. 18:5). This is no less clearly confirmed in the sermon delivered at Antioch, which asserts that by believing in Christ “we are justified from everything from which we could not be justified by the law of Moses”(Acts 13:39). For if righteousness consists in the observance of the law, who will deny that Christ merited favor for us when, by taking that burden upon himself, he reconciled us to God as if we had kept the law? What he afterward taught the Galatians has the same purpose: “God sent forth his son ... subject to the law, to redeem those who were under the law”(Gal.4:4–5). What was the purpose of this subjection of Christ to the law but to acquire righteousness for us, undertaking to pay what we could not pay? Hence, that imputation of righteousness without works which Paul discusses (Rom. ch.4). For the righteousness found in Christ alone is reckoned as ours.[25]

Typological Sanctions Conditioned Upon Works

Calvin saw the Old Testament sanctions (blessings and curses) in the land as typological of future spiritual realities.

He willed that, for the time during which he gave his covenant to the people of Israel in a veiled form, the grace of future and eternal happiness be signified and figured under earthly benefits, the gravity of spiritual death under physical punishments.[26]

And to urge us in every way, he promises both blessings in the present life and everlasting blessedness to those who obediently keep his commandments. He threatens the transgressors no less with present calamities than with the punishment of eternal death. For that promise “He who does these things shall live in them” (Lev.18:5) and its corresponding threat “The soul that sins shall itself die” (Ezek.18:4–20) without doubt have reference to either never-ending future immortality or death. Wherever God’s benevolence or wrath is mentioned, under the former is contained eternal life, under the latter eternal perdition.[27]

The typological sanctions, which also “contain” in them the eternal sanctions, Calvin sees as administered under the law by way of works not grace. Again, Calvin says, “We cannot gainsay that the reward of eternal salvation awaits complete obedience to the law, as the Lord has promised”.[28] Kline, as seen, emphasizes a works principle on the typological level of the Mosaic covenant’s administration. Calvin presses it further to the eternal. Both make a profound connection between Israel’s situation and the situation of fallen mankind. Israel’s story of law, fall, and judgment is a picture of us all. This story in both arenas is administered by a covenant of works. Calvin does not speak of a “typological covenant of works” per se. However, he clearly employs all the content of it and then freely moves from the temporal to the spiritual/eternal operations of the law as a covenant of works.

Why is it important to see this working in the Old Testament? It is important for two reasons. First, this brings our sins, our despair, and consequent condemnation into sharp focus. We have sinned against God as seen in the standard of the law as given to Israel. And we are cursed as seen in the sanctions of the law as applied to Israel. Second, this provides the foundation for looking to a new covenant in redemptive history and for understanding the work of Christ and its application to us in the gospel. In understanding the nature of fulfillment we understand why the gospel is indeed “good news” in contrast to the law and its exposure of sin and administration of the curse. This antithetical point of discontinuity highlights the redemptive story line to consummate in magnifying God’s grace. Because of this, Israel’s history provides a protracted argument for the depth of human disobedience as despised by God’s wrath. The old covenant drama of the sanctions strained with prophetic anticipation of a redemption that would “hush the law’s loud thunder” and a righteousness that would inherit life. Those who feel compelled to resist Kline’s insistence of this works principle (and Calvin’s) reinterpret out of view the large planks of Old Testament legal roadway which lead us to Christ’s finished/telos work in his passive and active obedience. They turn a story line of judgment under the law to falling from grace, since they contend there is no covenant of works operative in Moses.

Christian preaching from the Old Testament story line becomes diverted from “fleeing to Christ our redeemer from the curse and righteousness unto life” to warnings about apostasy from grace which, unbeknownst to them, are about the law. Unwittingly, new covenant saints then are placed under the strains of the law and the pulpit defaults to “working on our sanctification” coupled with eccentric threats of cursing for disobedience. Using the same OT text in a proper Christocentric fashion will orbit us back to Christ and his finished work in fulfilling the covenant of works as grounds for the new covenant. Such will rivet us to Christ through refreshing faith in him rather than the smothering fray with the tar baby of personal progress under duress.

Contrary efforts to reduce this law-grace antithesis/contrast to a continuum or combination blur: first, the crucial point of discontinuity between the two administrations, then, what Christ has actually achieved for us in fulfilling the law, and consequently, the sight of and rest of faith by those seeking closure with God. A swinging continuum is not how Calvin conceived of the redemptive historical program regarding law and grace. By retaining the antithesis Calvin magnifies Christ work in dispatching the law as a covenant of works, and clarifies our response as one of faith not of law/works. If you muddle the law, you will muddle the gospel. That is the tragic truth, not only of the past, but of the present assortment of muddling models whether they come from Barth, Federal Vision, or even a Reformed journal.


I trust that this handful of Kline and Calvin citations will satisfy the reader of their essential agreement on three points. First, the covenantal and antithetical relationship between law promises and grace promises. Second, the typological nature of the sanctions of the law as administered in a covenant of works environment. Third, that Christ culminates this redemptive historical story line in fulfilling the law’s demands, both in bearing the curse, and through his righteous obedience in bringing about eternal life. For generations the law bore down on Israel in conviction and condemnation, begging for its covenant of works structure to be fulfilled. This Christ did, fulfilling it both in its typology and in its eternal demands as it weighed down upon guilty sinners.

I have attempted to set before the reader that Kline is in line with Calvin regarding the works principle operative in the Mosaic economy. As a matter of fact, Calvin is even more multifaceted on the issue in stating that the law held out eternal death and eternal life in its sanctions. Kline, on the other hand is more reserved, confining himself to the typological when speaking of the law’s sanctions. Kline, despite all his creativity, is unoriginal in seeing lines of discontinuity (antithesis), between the old covenant promises of the law and the new covenant promises of the gospel. His law-grace hermeneutic for redemptive history, the work of Christ, and gospel proclamation agree with Calvin. He images Calvin on this score even as Calvin images the Bible.

Those tempted to think that Kline is inimical to Reformed theology or at odds with the confession need to consider the gallery of Reformed men who stand with him and Calvin. Men like Thomas Boston[29] and Charles Hodge,[30] to name two worthies, also saw these parallel antithetical principles at work during the Mosaic economy. I doubt that they ever sensed any conflict with their ministerial vows. I am certain, contrary to some of our contemporaries, that Calvin would have embraced Kline as one of his successors. Kline stands downstream from Calvin in the same law-gospel hermeneutic.[31] Thus, he was one of his kin, of the same ilk. I realize that one man’s sense is another man’s nonsense. But as I see it, my esteemed teacher of the glory-cloud was “Calvin’s Kline”.


[1] Meredith G. Kline, Kingdom Prologue (S. Hamilton, MA: Meredith G. Kline, 1993), 68.

[2] Ibid., 196.

[3] Ibid., 197.

[4] Meredith G. Kline, God, Heaven, and Har Magedon (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2006), 97.

[5] Kingdom Prologue, 197.

[6] Meredith G. Kline, By Oath Consigned (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1968), 30.

[7] Ibid., 58.

[8] Ibid., 31.

[9] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, LCC, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, ed. John T. McNeil, vol. 1 (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1977), 7.

[10] Ibid., 2.7.3, 351.

[11] Ibid., 2.7.3, 352.

[12] Ibid., 2.7.4, 352.

[13] Ibid., 2.7.8, 357.

[14] Ibid., 4.14.6, 1280, “the Lord calls his promises ‘covenants.’ ”

[15] Ibid., 3.17.3, 805; 3.17.15, 820.

[16] Ibid., 2.17.5, 533.

[17] Ibid., 2.7.3, 351; 2.7.4, 352.

[18] Ibid., 3.11.17, 747.

[19] Ibid., 3.11.18, 747.

[20] Ibid., 3.11.18, 747.

[21] Ibid., 3.17.15, 820 for the phrase “covenant of grace.”

[22] Ibid., 2.17.3, 530–31. “By his obedience, however, Christ truly acquired and merited grace for us ... then he acquired salvation for us by his righteousness, which is tantamount to deserving it.” Such statements should not be attributed to a residual medieval merit scheme but to a coherent law-gospel construct.

[23] Ibid., 2.7.2, 351.

[24] Ibid., 2.17.4, 532.

[25] Ibid., 2.17.5, 533.

[26] Ibid., 2.11.3, 453.

[27] Ibid., 2.8.4, 370.

[28] Ibid., 2.7.3, 351.

[29] Edward Fisher with notes by Thomas Boston, The Marrow of Modern Divinity (Scarsdale, NY: Westminster Publishing House, no date), 56–58.

[30] Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975), 375.

[31] Jeong Koo Jeon, Calvin and the Federal Vision (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2009). The first two chapters are replete with documentation/exposition in support of the interpretation of Calvin argued for here.

David W. Inks serves as pastor of Westminster Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Monroe, Washington. Ordained Servant Online, August 2012.

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