Thursday, August 1, 2013

John Calvin & Isaiah 64:6 -- "All our righteousness is as filthy rags"

Commenting on Isaiah 64:6, John Calvin writes:
Some commentators torture this passage, by alleging that the Prophet, when he speak of the pollutions of sins, describes the Jews without exception, though there still remained some of them who were sincere worshippers of God. But there are no good grounds for this; for the Prophet does not speak of individuals but of the whole body, which, being trodden under foot by all men, and subjected to the utmost indignity, he compares to a filthy garment.
There are some who frequently quote this passage, in order to probe that so far are our works from having any merit in them, that they are rotten and loathsome in the sight of God. But this appears to me to be at variance with the Prophet's meaning, who does not speak of the whole human race, but describes the complaint of those who having been led into captivity, experienced the wrath of the Lord against them, and therefore acknowledged that they and their righteousness were like a filthy garment.1

To understand better what Calvin is describing, Isaiah 64:6 (ESV) reads as follows:
We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like wind, take us away.

Commenting further on God's acceptance of man's works, Calvin writes:
The Lord having rescued man from the pit of perdition, has through the grace of adoption set him apart for his own. Thereupon, because he has begotten him anew and conformed him to a new life, he now embraces him as a new creature endowed with the gifts of the Spirit. This is that "acceptance" which Peter mentions2 whereby believers are, after their call, approved of God also in respect of works. For the Lord cannot fail to love and embrace the good things that he works in them through his Spirit. But we must always remember that God "accepts" believers by reason of works only because he is their source, and graciously, by way of adding to his liberality, deigns also to show "acceptance" toward the good works he has himself bestowed.3

1.  Peter A. Lillback, The Binding of God: Calvin's role in the development of covenant theology [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic; 2001] p. 185
2.  Acts 10:34
3.  Peter A. Lillback, The Binding of God: Calvin's role in the development of covenant theology [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic; 2001] p. 186

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