Calvin on Legal Righteousness
Over the past three decades there have been a litany of attempts--within Reformed and evangelical circles--to refine our understanding of the believer's relationship to the Law of God for justification before God. It would do us a world of good to dig deeply into the writings of the Reformers themselves to see how they unpacked the teaching of Scripture in light of their own interaction with Roman Catholic teaching on justification. For instance, it has become increasingly common to hear men in Reformed churches deny the so-called "hypothetical theory" of the Law. This was the common understanding that what Paul taught in such places as Romans 2:13, Galatians 3:12, etc. was that if a man could keep the Law of God he would merit legal righteousness. Because the Scriptures clearly emphasize the inability of sinners to keep God's law, Reformed theologians have historically insisted that when Paul says such things as "doers of the law shall be justified" he was taking a "hypothetical" approach in his polemic against the Jewish idea that righteousness was attainable by law-keeping. Douglas Moo notes, in his statements on Romans 2:13 in his Romans commentary, that Paul was merely agreeing with the Jewish belief that the Law could "in theory" be kept, but that no man is able keep the law "in reality;" therefore another means of justification had to be given--namely that which is by faith alone in Jesus Christ. Here, Moo states the same thing as that which Calvin refers in his notes on Galatians 3:12. In that place, Calvin makes the categorical distinction between legal and evangelical righteousness. He contrasts legal and evangelical righteousness when he wrote:
"The law evidently is not contrary to faith; otherwise God would be unlike himself; but we must return to a principle already noticed, that Paul’s language is modified by the present aspect of the case. The contradiction between the law and faith lies in the matter of justification. You will more easily unite fire and water, than reconcile these two statements, that men are justified by faith, and that they are justified by the law. “The law is not of faith;” that is, it has a method of justifying a man which is wholly at variance with faith.
But the man who shall do these things. The difference lies in this, that man, when he fulfills the law, is reckoned righteous by a legal righteousness, which he proves by a quotation from Moses. (Leviticus 18:5.) Now, what is the righteousness of faith? He defines it in the Epistle to the Romans,
'If thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved.' (Romans 10:9.)
And yet it does not follow from this, that faith is inactive, or that it sets believers free from good works. For the present question is not, whether believers ought to keep the law as far as they can, (which is beyond all doubt,) but whether they can obtain righteousness by works, which is impossible. But since God promises life to the doers of the law, why does Paul affirm that they are not righteous? The reply to this objection is easy. There are none righteous by the works of the law, because there are none who do those works. We admit that the doers of the law, if there were any such, are righteous; but since that is a conditional agreement, all are excluded from life, because no man performs that righteousness which he ought. We must bear in memory what I have already stated, that to do the law is not to obey it in part, but to fulfill everything which belongs to righteousness; and all are at the greatest distance from such perfection."1
1. John Calvin Commentary on Galatians and Ephesians (http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/calcom41.iii.v.iii.html)