House of Israel and the Church
Jeremiah 31:31-32-33 (John Calvin)
Jeremiah proceeds with the same subject, but shews more clearly how much more abundant and richer the favor of God would be towards his people than formerly, he then does not simply promise the restoration of that dignity and greatness which they had lost, but something better and more excellent. We hence see that this passage necessarily refers to the kingdom of Christ, for without Christ nothing could or ought to have been hoped for by the people, superior to the Law; for the Law was a rule of the most perfect doctrine. If then Christ be taken away, it is certain that we must abide in the Law.
We hence then conclude, that the Prophet predicts of the kingdom of Christ; and this passage is also quoted by the Apostles, as being remarkable and worthy of notice. (Romans 11:27; Hebrews 8:8;Hebrews 10:16)
But we must observe the order and manner of teaching here pursued. The Prophet confirms what I have before said, that what we have been considering was incredible to the Jews. Having then already spoken of the benefits of God, which could have been hardly recognised by the senses of men, in order to obviate the want of fifith, he adds, that the Lord would manifest his mercy towards them in a new and unusual manner. We hence see why the Prophet added this passage to his former doctrine. For had he not spoken of a new covenant, those miserable men, whom he sought to inspire with the hope of salvation, would have ever vacillated; nay, as the greater part were already overwhelmed with despair, he would have effected nothing. Here then he sees before them a new covenant, as though he had said, that they ought not to look farther or higher, nor to measure the benefit of God, of which he had spoken, by the appearance of the state of things at that time, for God would make anew covenant.
There is yet no doubt but that he commends the favor of God, which was afterwards to be manifested in the fullness of time. Besides, we must ever bear in mind, that from the time the people returned to their own country, the faith of those who had embraced the favor of deliverance was assailed by the most grievous trials, for it would have been better for them to continue in perpetual exile than to be cruelly harassed by all their neighbors, and to be exposed to so many troubles. If, then, the people had been only restored from their exile in Babylon, it was a matter of small moment; but it behoved the godly to direct their minds to Christ. And hence we see that the Prophets, who performed the office of teaching after the restoration, dwelt on this point, — that they were to hope for something better than what then appeared, and that they were not to despond, because they saw that they did not enjoy rest, and were drawn into weary and grievous contests rather than freed from tyranny. We indeed know what Hagggai says of the future temple, and what Zechariah says, and also Malachi. And the same was the object of our Prophet in speaking of the new covenant, even that the faithful, after having enjoyed again their own country, might not clamor against God, because he did not bestow on them that happiness which he had promised. This was the second reason why the Prophet spoke of the new covenant.
As before, he now repeats the words, that the days would come, in which God would make a covenant with Israel as well as with Judah. For the ten tribes, as it is well known, had been driven into exile while the kingdom of Judah was still standing. Besides, when they revolted from the family of David, they became as it were another nation. God indeed did not cease to acknowledge them as his people; but they had alienated themselves as far as they could from the Church. God then promises that there would be again one body, for he would gather them that they might unite together, and not be like two houses.
Now, as to the new covenant, it is not so called, because it is contrary to the first covenant; for God is never inconsistent with himself, nor is he unlike himself, he then who once made a covenant with his chosen people, had not changed his purpose, as though he had forgotten his faithfulness. It then follows, that the first covenant was inviolable; besides, he had already made his covenant with Abraham, and the Law was a confirmation of that covenant. As then the Law depended on that covenant which God made with his servant Abraham, it follows that God could never have made a new, that is, a contrary or a different covenant. For whence do we derive our hope of salvation, except from that blessed seed promised to Abraham? Further, why are we called the children of Abraham, except on account of the common bond of faith? Why are the faithful said to be gathered into the bosom of Abraham? Why does Christ say, that some will come from the east and the west, and sit down in the kingdom of heaven with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? (Luke 16:22; Matthew 8:11) These things no doubt sufficiently shew that God has never made any other covenant than that which he made formerly with Abraham, and at length confirmed by the hand of Moses. This subject might be more fully handled; but it is enough briefly to shew, that the covenant which God made at first is perpetual.
Let us now see why he promises to the people a new covenant. It being new, no doubt refers to what they call the form; and the form, or manner, regards not words only, but first Christ, then the grace of the Holy Spirit, and the whole external way of teaching. But the substance remains the same. By substance I understand the doctrine; for God in the Gospel brings forward nothing but what the Law contains. We hence see that God has so spoken from the beginning, that he has not changed, no not a syllable, with regard to the substance of the doctrine. For he has included in the Law the rule of a perfect life, and has also shewn what is the way of salvation, and by types and figures led the people to Christ, so that the remission of sin is there clearly made manifest, and whatever is necessary to be known.
As then God has added nothing to the Law as to the substance of the doctrine, we must come, as I have already said, to the form, as Christ was not as yet manifested: God made a new covenant, when he accomplished through his Son whatever had been shadowed forth under the Law. For the sacrifices could not of themselves pacify God, as it is well known, and whatever the Law taught respecting expiation was of itself useless and of no importance. The new covenant then was made when Christ appeared with water and blood, and really fulfilled what God had exhibited under types, so that the faithful might have some taste of salvation. But the coming of Christ would not have been sufficient, had not regeneration by the Holy Spirit been added. It was, then, in some respects, a new thing, that God regenerated the faithful by his Spirit, so that it became not only a doctrine as to the letter, but also efficacious, which not only strikes the ear, but penetrates into the heart, and really forms us for the service of God. The outward mode of teaching was also new, as it is evident to all; for when we compare the Law with the Gospel, we find that God speaks to us now openly, as it were face to face, and not under a veil, as Paul teaches us, when speaking of Moses, who put on a veil when he went forth to address the people in God’s name. (2 Corinthians 3:13) It is not so, says Paul, under the Gospel, but the veil is removed, and God in the face of Christ presents himself to be seen by us. This, then, is the reason why the Prophet calls it a newcovenant, as it will be shown more at large: for I touch only on things which cannot be treated apart, that the whole context of the Prophet may be better understood. Let us then proceed now with the words.
He says that the covenant which he will make will not be such as he had made with their fathers Here he clearly distinguishes the new covenant from the Law. The contrast ought to be borne in mind; for no one of the Jews thought it possible that God would add anything better to the Law. For though they regarded the Law almost as nothing, yet we know that hypocrites pretended with great ardor of zeal that they were so devoted to the Law, that they thought that heaven and earth could sooner be blended together, than that any change should be made in the Law; and at the same time they held most tenaciously what God had only for a time instituted. It was therefore necessary that the Law should be here contrasted with the new covenant, that the Jews might know that the favor in reserve for them would be far more excellent than what had been formerly manifested to the fathers. This, then, is the reason why he says, not according to the covenant, etc.He afterwards adds, which I made with their fathers when I laid hold of their hand, etc. Here he shows that they could never have a firm hope of salvation, unless God made a new covenant. Such was their pride, that they hardly would have received the favor of God, had they not been convinced of this truth: for this would have been always in their mouth, “Did not God shew himself a Father to his people when he redeemed them? was it not a testimony of his paternal favor? has he not elevated the condition of the Church, which he designs to be perpetual?” They would have therefore rejected the favor of God, had not the Prophet openly declared that the Law had been and would be still useless to them, and that there was therefore a necessity for a new covenant, otherwise they must have perished.We now perceive the design of the Prophet; and this ought to be carefully observed; for it would not be enough to know what the Prophet says, except we also know why he says this or that. The meaning then is, that it ought not to appear strange that God makes a new covenant, because the first had been useless and was of no avail. Then he confirms this, because God made the first covenant when he stretched out his hand to his ancient people, and became their liberator; and yet they made void that covenant. The circumstance as to the time ought to be noticed, for the memory of a recent benefit ought to be a most powerful motive to obedience. For how base an ingratitude it was for those, who had been delivered by the wonderful power of God, to reject his covenant at a time when they had been anticipated by divine mercy? As then they had made void even at that time the covenant of God, it may with certainty be concluded, that there had been no time in which they had not manifested their impiety, and had not been covenant-breakers.He adds, I however ruled over them, or was Lord over them. Though some confine the verb בעלתי bolti, to the rule exercised by a husband, and this would not be unsuitable, as God not only ruled then over his people, but was also their husband, a similitude which is often used; yet I know not whether this view can be satisfactorily sustained we ought therefore to be satisfied with the general truth, that God had the people under his own authority, as though he had said, that he only used his own right in ruling over them and prescribing to them the way in which they were to live. At the same time the word covenant, was more honorable to the people. For when a king enjoins anything on his people, it is called an edict; but God deals with his own people more kindly, for he descends and appears in the midst of them, that he may bind himself to his people, as he binds the people to himself. We hence see, in short, why God says that he ruled over the people, even because he had purchased them for himself, and yet he had not enjoyed his own right on account of the untameable and perverse disposition of the people. (53)It ought at the same time to be observed, that the fault is here cast on the people, that the Law was weak and not sufficiently valid, as we see that Paul teaches us in Romans 7:12. For as soon as the weakness of the Law is spoken of, the greater part lay hold of something they deem wrong in the Law, and thus the Law is rendered contemptible: hence the Prophet says here that they had made God’s covenant void, as though he had said, that the fault was not to be sought in the Law that there was need of a new covenant, for the Law was abundantly sufficient, but that the fault was in the levity and the unfaithfulness of the people. We now then see that nothing is detracted from the Law when it is said to be weak and ineffectual; for it is an accidental fault derived from men who do not observe nor keep their pledged faith. There are still more things to be said; but I now, as I have said, touch but briefly on the words of the Prophet. It then follows, —“Which my covenant,” in the previous clause, is the Vulg.; but according to the Sept., the Syr., and theTarg., it is, “because they have broken my covenant,” etc. אשר is not used, as given in our version, in connection with a noun that follows, though it is so used with pronouns. — Ed
He now shews a difference between the Law and the Gospel, for the Gospel brings with it the grace of regeneration: its doctrine, therefore, is not that of the letter, but penetrates into the heart and reforms all the inward faculties, so that obedience is rendered to the righteousness of God.A question may however be here moved, Was the grace of regeneration wanting to the Fathers under the Law? But this is quite preposterous. What, then, is meant when God denies here that the Law was written on the heart before the coming of Christ? To this I answer, that the Fathers, who were formerly regenerated, obtained this favor through Christ, so that we may say, that it was as it were transferred to them from another source. The power then to penetrate into the heart was not inherent in the Law, but it was a benefit transferred to the Law from the Gospel. This is one thing. Then we know that this grace of God was rare and little known under the Law; but that under the Gospel the gifts of the Spirit have been more abundantly poured forth, and that God has dealt more bountifully with his Church. But still the main thing is, to consider what the Law of itself is, and what is peculiar to the Gospel, especially when a comparison is made between the Law and the Gospel. For when this comparison ceases, this cannot be properly applied to the Law; but with regard to the Gospel it is said, that the Law is that of the letter, as it is called elsewhere, (Romans 7:6) and this also is the reason why Paul calls it the letter in 2 Corinthians 3:6,“the letter killeth,”etc. By “letter” he means not what Origen foolishly explained, for he perverted that passage as he did almost the whole Scripture: Paul does not mean there the simple and plain sense of the Law; for he calls it the letter for another reason, because it only sets before the eyes of men what is right, and sounds it also in their ears. And the word letter refers to what is written, as though he had said, The Law was written on stones, and was therefore a letter. But the Gospel — what is it? It is spirit, that is, God not only addresses his word to the ears of men and sets it before their eyes, but he also inwardly teaches their hearts and minds. This is then the solution of the question: the Prophet speaks of the Law in itself, as apart from the Gospel, for the Law then is dead and destitute of the Spirit of regeneration.He afterwards says, I will put my Law in their inward parts By these words he confirms what we have said, that the newness, which he before mentioned, was not so as to the substance, but as to the form only: for God does not say here, “I will give you another Law,” but I will write my Law, that is, the same Law, which had formerly been delivered to the Fathers. He then does not promise anything different as to the essence of the doctrine, but he makes the difference to be in the form only. But he states the same thing in two ways, and says, that he would put his law in their inward parts, and that he would write it in their hearts(54) We indeed know how difficult it is that man should be so formed to obedience that his whole life may be in unison with the Law of God, for all the lusts of the flesh are so many enemies, as Paul says, who fight against God. (Romans 8:7) As then all our affections and lusts thus carry on war with God, it is in a manner a renovation of the world when men suffer themselves to be ruled by God. And we know what Scripture says, that we cannot be the disciples of Christ, except we renounce ourselves and the world, and deny our own selves. (Matthew 6:24; Luke 14:26) This is the reason why the Prophet was not satisfied with one statement, but said, I will put my Law in their inward parts, I will write it in their hearts.
We may further learn from this passage, how foolish the Papists are in their conceit about free-will. They indeed allow that without the help of God’s grace we are not capable of fulfilling the Law, and thus they concede something to the aid of grace and of the Spirit: but still they not only imagine a co-operation as to free-will, but ascribe to it the main work. Now the Prophet here testifies that it is the peculiar work of God to write his Law in our hearts. Since God then declares that this favor is justly his, and claims to himself the glory of it, how great must be the arrogance of men to appropriate this to themselves? To writethe Law in the heart imports nothing less than so to form it, that the Law should rule there, and that there should be no feeling of the heart, not conformable and not consenting to its doctrine. It is hence then sufficiently clear, that no one can be turned so as to obey the Law, until he be regenerated by the Spirit of God; nay, that there is no inclination in man to act rightly, except God prepares his heart by his grace; in a word, that the doctrine of the letter is always dead, until God vivifies it by his Spirit.
He adds, And I will be to them a God, and they shall be to me a people Here God comprehends generally the substance of his covenant; for what is the design of the Law, except that the people should call upon him, and that he should also exercise a care over his people? For whenever God declares that he will be our God, he offers to us his paternal layout, and declares that our salvation is become the object of his care; he gives to us a free access to himself, bids us to recumb on his grace, and, in short, this promise contains in itself everything needful for our salvation. The case is now also at this day the same under the Gospel; for as we are aliens from the kingdom of heaven, he reconciles us by it to himself, and testifies that he will be our God. On this depends what follows, And they shall be my people; for the one cannot be separated from the other. By these words then the Prophet briefly intimates, that the main object of God’s covenant is, that he should become our Father, from whom we are to seek and expect salvation, and that we should also become his people. Of these things there is more to be said again; but I have explained the reason why I now so quickly pass over things worthy of a longer explanation. He adds, —
There is in many copies a ו before נתתי, “I have put,” by which it is turned into a future, “I will even put.” This seems to be the true reading, —
I will even put my law in their inmost part,
And on their heart will I write it.
It is the same as if it was said, “I will put my law in the inmost part of each of them:” the persons are individualized, in order to shew that the act extends to every one alike. — Ed.
This promise held the first place in the restoration of the Church; for had the Jews been filled to satiety with wealth and plenty, and all variety of blessings, their condition would still have been by no means superior, had they not been the people of God; for men have no happiness, if they live only on the good things of this earthly and frail life, or on its pleasures and delights. Most truly it is said in the Psalms,
“Happy is the people whose God is Jehovah.”
For though God commands his own blessings, and designs them as testimonies of his paternal favor towards the godly, yet he will not have them to live as it were on these; but he raises up their minds by means, as it were, of these steps to the spring-head of true felicity, the very fountain itself, so that they may know that they are under his protection, and that he will ever be a Father to them.
We hence see that the Prophet, when he spoke of the restoration of the people, propounded to them the chief and the most desirable thing, even to know that God was reconciled to them, and that they were become thus his people.
We hence learn, that though God in his kindness bore with the infirmities of his ancient people, and so mentioned the fruitfulness of the land and other things, yet the end of all the promises was spiritual; nor would have this promise been true, were it explained only of God’s temporal blessings. For we must bear in mind that saying of the Prophet,
“Thou art our God, we shall not die.”
And doubtless the Prophet in the Psalm which we have just quoted, meant to distinguish the Church of God from all heathen nations, and meant also to distinguish the felicity of the Church from all the pleasures, honors, and those advantages, by which men persuade themselves they can be made happy, provided they obtain them. Since then the Prophet there marks the difference between the felicity of the Church and all the fleeting and empty things wished for by those who look no higher than to this world and the present life, it follows, that whenever these words are mentioned, “I will be your God,” the hope of an eternal and a celestial life is set before us.
There is another thing to be noticed, — that whatever we seek as to the things of this world can yield us no real good, except God be reconciled to us. When therefore we have all things in abundance, when nothing is wanting as to every kind of pleasure, when we are favored with great wealth, when peace and security are granted to us, yet all this, as I have said, will prove ruinous to us, except God owns us as his children, and becomes a Father to us. Therefore when we seek to become happy, we must direct our minds to the principal thing, even to be reconciled to God, so that we may be able with confidence to call him our Father, to hope for salvation from him, and ever to flee to his mercy. Ungodly men desire this and that, as their own cupidity leads them: the avaricious wishes for a large quantity of money, wide farms, and great revenues; the ambitious seeks to subdue the whole world; the man of pleasure wishes for everything that may satisfy his lusts, and even he who seems to be moderate, yet desires what is suitable to his disposition; and thus God is neglected, and also his grace. Let us then know that the wishes of men are wholly unreasonable, when they anxiously seek anything in this world except what flows from this fountain, even from the gratuitous favor of God, and when they do not prefer this singular privilege to all blessings, even that God may be reconciled to them.
We now apprehend the meaning of the words, when God declares that the Jews, after their return to their own country, would become his people, and that he would be their God.
Let us at the same time observe, that though God possesses the sovereignty of the whole world, he is not yet properly called the God of any, but of his chosen people; for as he gathers the Church for himself as a peculiar treasure, as he speaks everywhere, so this privilege cannot exist without a mutual relationship, that is, exept men know that God is their God, and are also fully persuaded that they are counted by him as his peculiar people. Now follows an explanation of this verse, which, on account of its brevity, might seem somewhat obscure.
He more clearly explains the last verse; for he mentions the effects of the favor referred to. God indeed includes everything in one word, when he declares that he will be our God, for he thus adopts us as his children. Hence comes the certainty as to our heavenly inheritance, and also as to his mercy, which is better than life. There is then nothing that can be desired beyond this benefit, that is, when God offers himself to us, and deigns to receive and embrace us as his people.
But as I have already said, we do not fully comprehend the benefit of this doctrine; for, first, we are very tardy and dull, we perceive not what God means by this expression, and then we know how much our nature is prone to diffidence, so far is the distance between us and God. Hence this doctrine has need of explanation. Therefore the Prophet, after having pointed out the cause and the beginning of all blessings, now mentions the effects, which more fully confirm what he had said. Hence he says, I willgive to them one heart and one way, that they may fear me for ever: for God does not otherwise own us as his people, nor can he be our Father, except he regenumtes us by his Spirit; for it is of regeneration that the Prophet here speaks. But I must defer the rest until to-morrow.