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Ministers of the New Covenant

 3

Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Surely we do not need, as some do, letters of recommendation to you or from you, do we? 2You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all; 3and you show that you are a letter of Christ, prepared by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.

4 Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God. 5Not that we are competent of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us; our competence is from God, 6who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.


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1. Do we begin It appears that this objection also was brought forward against him — that he was excessively fond of publishing his own exploits, and brought against him, too, by those who were grieved to find that the fame, which they were eagerly desirous to obtain, was effectually obstructed in consequence of his superior excellence. They had already, in my opinion, found fault with the former Epistle, on this ground, that he indulged immoderately in commendations of himself. To commend here means to boast foolishly and beyond measure, or at least to recount one’s own praises in a spirit of ambition. Paul’s calumniators had a plausible pretext — that it is a disgusting 359359     “Mal sonnante aux aureilles;” — “Sounding offensively to the ears.” and odious thing in itself for one to be the trumpeter of his own praises. Paul, however, had an excuse on the ground of necessity, inasmuch as he gloried, only because he was shut up to it. His design also raised him above all calumny, as he had nothing in view but that the honor of his apostleship might remain unimpaired for the edification of the Church; for had not Christ’s honor been infringed upon, he would readily have allowed to pass unnoticed what tended to detract from his own reputation. Besides, he saw that it was very much against the Corinthians, that his authority was lessened among them. In the first place, therefore, he brings forward their calumny, letting them know that he is not altogether ignorant as to the kind of talk, that was current among them.

Have we need? The answer is suited (to use a common expression) to the person rather than to the thing, though we shall find him afterwards saying as much as was required in reference to the thing itself. At present, however, he reproves their malignity, inasmuch as they were displeased, if he at any time reluctantly, nay even when they themselves constrained him, made mention of the grace that God had bestowed upon him, while they were themselves begging in all quarters for epistles, that were stuffed entirely with flattering commendations. He says that he has no need of commendation in words, while he is abundantly commended by his deeds. On the other hand, he convicts them of a greedy desire for glory, inasmuch as they endeavored to acquire favor through the suffrages of men. 360360     “Par la faueur et recommandation des hommes;” — “By the favor and recommendation of men.” In this manner, he gracefully and appropriately repels their calumny. We must not, however, infer from this, that it is absolutely and in itself wrong to receive recommendations, 361361     “Letres recommandatoires;” — “Recommendatory letters.” provided you make use of them for a good purpose. For Paul himself recommends many; and this he would not have done had it been unlawful. Two things, however, are required here — first, that it be not a recommendation that is elicited by flattery, but an altogether unbiassed testimony; 362362     “Enucleatum testimonium;” — “Vn vray tesmoignage rendu d’vn iugement entier auec prudence et en verite;” — “A true testimony, given with solid judgment, with prudence, and with truth.” Cicero makes use of a similar expression, which Calvin very probably had in his eye — “Enucleata suffragia;” — “Votes given judiciously, and with an unbiassed judgment.” — (Cic. Planc. 4.) — Ed. and secondly, that it be not given for the purpose of procuring advancement for the individual, but simply that it may be the means of promoting the advancement of Christ’s kingdom. For this reason, I have observed, that Paul has an eye to those who had assailed him with calumnies.

2. Ye are our Epistle. There is no little ingenuity in his making his own glory hinge upon the welfare of the Corinthians. “So long as you shall remain Christians, I shall have recommendation enough. For your faith speaks my praise, as being the seal of my apostleship.” (1 Corinthians 9:2.)

When he says — written in our hearts, this may be understood in reference to Silvanus and Timotheus, and in that case the meaning will be: “We are not contented with this praise, that we derive from the thing itself. The recommendations, that others have, fly about before the eyes of men, but this, that we have, has its seat in men’s consciences.” It may also be viewed as referring in part to the Corinthians, in this sense: “Those that obtain recommendations by dint of entreaty, have not in the conscience what they carry about written upon paper, and those that recommend others often do so rather by way of favor than from judgment. We, on the other hand, have the testimony of our apostleship, on this side and on that, engraven on men’s hearts.”

Which is known and read It might also be read — “Which is known and acknowledged,” owing to the ambiguity of the word ἀναγινωσκεσαι, 363363     Calvin has had occasion to notice the double signification of this word when commenting on 2 Corinthians 1:13. An instance of the ambiguity of the word occurs in Matthew 24:15, where the words ὁ ἀναγινώσκων νοείτω are understood by Kypke as the words, not of the evangelist, but of Christ, and as meaning — “He who recognises this, (that is, the completion of Daniel’s prophecy by the ‘abomination of desolation standing where it ought not,’) let him take notice and reflect, while most other interpreters consider the words in question as an admonition of the evangelist to the reader — “Let him that readeth understand or take notice.” — Ed. and I do not know but that the latter might be more suitable. I was unwilling, however, to depart from the common rendering, when not constrained to do so. Only let the reader have this brought before his view, that he may consider which of the two renderings is the preferable one. If we render it acknowledged, there will be an implied contrast between an epistle that is sure and of unquestionable authority, and such as are counterfeit. 364364     “Celles qui sont attitrees et faites à plaisir;” — “Such as are procured by unfair means, and are made to suit convenience.” And, unquestionably, what immediately follows, is rather on the side of the latter rendering, for he brings forward the Epistle of Christ, in contrast with those that are forged and pretended.

3. Ye are the Epistle of Christ Pursuing the metaphor, he says that the Epistle of which he speaks was written by Christ, inasmuch as the faith of the Corinthians was his work. He says that it was ministered by him, as if meaning by this, that he had been in the place of ink and pen. In fine, he makes Christ the author and himself the instrument, that calumniators may understand, that it is with Christ that they have to do, if they continue to speak against him 365365     “De son apostre;” — “Against his apostle.” with malignity. What follows is intended to increase the authority of that Epistle. The second clause, 366366     “Le dernier membre de la sentence;” — “The last clause of the sentence.” however, has already a reference to the comparison that is afterwards drawn between the law and the gospel. For he takes occasion from this shortly afterwards, as we shall see, to enter upon a comparison of this nature. The antitheses here employed — ink and Spirit, stones and heart — give no small degree of weight to his statements, by way of amplification. For in drawing a contrast between ink and the Spirit of God, and between stones and heart, he expresses more than if he had simply made mention of the Spirit and the heart, without drawing any comparison.

Not on tables of stone He alludes to the promise that is recorded in Jeremiah 31:31, and Ezekiel 37:26, concerning the grace of the New Testament.

I will make, says he, a new covenant with them, not such as I had made with their fathers; but I will write my laws upon their hearts, and engrave them on their inward parts. Farther, I will take away the stony heart from the midst of thee, and will give thee a heart of flesh, that thou mayest walk in my precepts.
(Ezekiel 36:26, 27.)

Paul says, that this blessing was accomplished through means of his preaching. Hence it abundantly appears, that he is a faithful minister of the New Covenant — which is a legitimate testimony in favor of his apostleship. The epithet fleshly is not taken here in a bad sense, but means soft and flexible, 367367     “Vn cœur docile et ployable, ou aisé à ranger;” — “A heart that is teachable and flexible, or easy to manage.” as it is contrasted with stony, that is, hard and stubborn, as is the heart of man by nature, until it has been subdued by the Spirit of God. 368368     “Jusques à ce qu’il soit donté et amolli par le sainct Esprit;” — “Until it has been tamed and softened by the Holy Spirit.”

4. And such confidence As it was a magnificent commendation, that Paul had pronounced to the honor of himself and his Apostleship, lest he should seem to speak of himself more confidently than was befitting, he transfers the entire glory to God, from whom he acknowledges that he has received everything that he has. “By this boasting,” says he, “I extol God rather than myself, by whose grace I am what I am.” (1 Corinthians 15:10.) He adds, as he is accustomed to do by Christ, because he is, as it were, the channel, through which all God’s benefits flow forth to us.

5. Not that we are competent. 370370     “Non point que soyons suffisans;” — “Not that we are sufficient.” When he thus disclaims all merit, it is not as if he abased himself in merely pretended modesty, but instead of this, he speaks what he truly thinks. Now we see, that he leaves man nothing. For the smallest part, in a manner, of a good work is thought. In other words, 371371     “Pour le moins;” — “At least.” it has neither the first part of the praise, nor the second; and yet he does not allow us even this. As it is less to think than to will, how foolish a part do those act, who arrogate to themselves a right will, when Paul does not leave them so much as the power of thinking aught! 372372     See Institutes, volume 1. — Ed. Papists have been misled by the term sufficiency, that is made use of by the Old Interpreter. 373373     Wiclif (1380) following, as he is wont, the Vulgate, renders the verse as follows: “Not that we ben sufficiente to thenke ony thing of us as of us: but oure sufficience is of God.” — Ed. For they think to get off by acknowledging that man is not qualified to form good purposes, while in the mean time they ascribe to him a right apprehension of the mind, which, with some assistance from God, may effect something of itself. Paul, on the other hand, declares that man is in want, not merely of sufficiency of himself, (αὐτάρκειαν,) but also of competency (ἱκανότητα,) 374374     “La disposition, preparation, et inclination;” — “Disposition, preparation, and inclination.” which would be equivalent to idoneitas (fitness), if such a term were in use among the Latins. He could not, therefore, more effectually strip man bare of every thing good. 375375     Charnock, in his “Discourse on the Efficient of Regeneration,” makes an interesting allusion to Calvin’s exposition of this verse. “Thinking,” says he, “is the lowest step in the ladder of preparation; ‘tis the first act of the creature in any rational production; yet this the Apostle doth remove from man, as in every part of it his own act, (2 Corinthians 3:5)
   Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think any thing as of ourselves, but our sufficiency is of God.

   The word signifies — reasoning: no rational act can be done without reasoning; this is not purely our own. We have no sufficiency of ourselves, as of ourselves, originally and radically of ourselves, as if we were the author of that sufficiency, either naturally or meritoriously. And Calvin observes, that the word is not αὐτάρκεια, but ἱκανότη” — not a self ability, but an aptitude or fitness to any gracious thought. How can we oblige him by any act, since, in every part of it, it is from him, not from ourselves? For as thinking is the first requisite, so it is perpetually requisite to the progress of any rational act, so that every thought in any act, and the whole progress, wherein there must be a whole flood of thoughts, is from the sufficiency of God.” — Charnock’s Works, volume 2, p. 149. — Ed.

6. Who hath made us competent. 376376     “Lequel aussi nous a rendus suffisans ministres;” — “Who also hath made us sufficient ministers.” He had acknowledged himself to be altogether useless. Now he declares, that, by the grace of God, he has been qualified 377377     It is justly observed by Barnes, that the rendering in our authorized version — “Who hath made us able ministers” — “does not quite meet the force of the original,” as it “would seem to imply that Paul regarded himself and his fellow — laborers as men of talents, and of signal ability; and that he was inclined to boast of it,” while instead of this “he did not esteem himself sufficient for this work in his own strength, (2 Corinthians 2:16; 2 Corinthians 3:5); and he here says, that God had made him sufficient: not able, talented, learned, but sufficient, (ἱκάνωσεν ἡμᾶς); he has supplied our deficiency; he has rendered us competent or fit; — if a word may be coined after the manner of the Greek here, ‘he has sufficienced us for this work.’” The unhappy rendering referred to had originated (as is shown by Granville Penn) in the circumstance, that the Vulgate having rendered the expression — qui idoneos nos fecit ministros, Wiclif translated it as follows: which made us also able mynystris, and that, while Erasmus suggested that it should be rendered — qui idoneos nos fecit ut essemus ministri, quasi dicas, idoneavit — who fitted or qualified us to be ministers — and while, besides, in the first translation from the original Greek, in 1526, Tyndale rendered — made us able to minister, Wiclif’s original version from the Latin was recalled, and is now the reading of our authorized version. — Ed. for an office, for which he was previously unqualified. From this we infer its magnitude and difficulty, as it can be undertaken by no one, that has not been previously prepared and fashioned for it by God. It is the Apostle’s intention, also, to extol the dignity of the gospel. There is, at the same time, no doubt, that he indirectly exposes the poverty of those, who boasted in lofty terms of their endowments, while they were not furnished with so much as a single drop of heavenly grace.

Not of the letter but of the spirit He now follows out the comparison between the law and the gospel, which he had previously touched upon. It is uncertain, however, whether he was led into this discussion, from seeing that there were at Corinth certain perverse 378378     “Mauuais et inconsiderez;” — “Wicked and reckless.” devotees of the law, or whether he took occasion from something else to enter upon it. For my part, as I see no evidence that the false apostles had there confounded the law and the gospel, I am rather of opinion, that, as he had to do with lifeless declaimers, who endeavored to obtain applause through mere prating, 379379     “Il auoit affaire auec des gens qui sans zele preschoyent l’Euangile, comme qui prononceroit vne harangue pour son plaisir, et n’ayans que le babil, pourchassoyent par cela la faueur des hommes;” — “He had to do with persons, who without zeal preached the gospel, like one that makes a harangue according to his own liking, and while they had nothing but mere talk, endeavored by this means to procure the applause of men.” and as he saw, that the ears of the Corinthians were captivated with such glitter, he was desirous to show them what was the chief excellence of the gospel, and what was the chief praise of its ministers. Now this he makes to consist in the efficacy of the Spirit. A comparison between the law and the gospel was fitted in no ordinary degree to show this. This appears to me to be the reason why he came to enter upon it.

There is, however, no doubt, that by the term letter, he means the Old Testament, as by the term spirit he means the gospel; for, after having called himself a minister of the New Testament, he immediately adds, by way of exposition, that he is a minister of the spirit, and contrasts the letter with the spirit. We must now enquire into the reason of this designation. The exposition contrived by Origen has got into general circulation — that by the letter we ought to understand the grammatical and genuine meaning of Scripture, or the literal sense, (as they call it,) and that by the spirit is meant the allegorical meaning, which is commonly reckoned to be the spiritual meaning. Accordingly, during several centuries, nothing was more commonly said, or more generally received, than this — that Paul here furnishes us with a key for expounding Scripture by allegories, while nothing is farther from his intention. For by the term letter he means outward preaching, of such a kind as does not reach the heart; and, on the other hand, by spirit he means living doctrine, of such a nature as worketh effectually (1 Thessalonians 2:13) on the minds of men, 380380     “Es cœurs des auditeurs;” — “In the hearts of the hearers.” through the grace of the Spirit. By the term letter, therefore, is meant literal preaching — that is, dead and ineffectual, perceived only by the ear. By the term spirit, on the other hand, is meant spiritual doctrine, that is, what is not merely uttered with the mouth, but effectually makes its way to the souls of men with a lively feeling. For Paul had an eye to the passage in Jeremiah, that I quoted a little ago, (Jeremiah 31:31,) where the Lord says, that his law had been proclaimed merely with the mouth, and that it had, therefore, been of short duration, because the people did not embrace it in their heart, and he promises the Spirit of regeneration under the reign of Christ, to write his gospel, that is, the new covenant, upon their hearts. Paul now makes it his boast, that the accomplishment of that prophecy is to be seen in his preaching, that the Corinthians may perceive, how worthless is the loquacity of those vain boasters, who make incessant noise 381381     “Crient et gazouillent;” — “Cry and chirp.” while devoid of the efficacy of the Spirit.

It is asked, however, whether God, under the Old Testament, merely sounded forth in the way of an external voice, and did not also speak inwardly to the hearts of the pious by his Spirit. I answer in the first place, that Paul here takes into view what belonged peculiarly to the law; for although God then wrought by his Spirit, yet that did not take its rise from the ministry of Moses, but from the grace of Christ, as it is said in John 1:17

The law was given by Moses;
but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.

True, indeed, the grace of God did not, during all that time, lie dormant, but it is enough that it was not a benefit that belonged to the law. 382382     “Il suffit, que ce n’estoit point par le moyen de la loy: car elle n’auoit point cela de propre;” — “It is enough that it was not by means of the law; for it did not belong peculiarly to it.” For Moses had discharged his office, when he had delivered to the people the doctrine of life, adding threatenings and promises. For this reason he gives to the law the name of the letter, because it is in itself a dead preaching; but the gospel he calls spirit, because the ministry of the gospel is living, nay, lifegiving.

I answer secondly, that these things are not affirmed absolutely in reference either to the law or to the gospel, but in respect of the contrast between the one and the other; for even the gospel is not always spirit. When, however, we come to compare the two, it is truly and properly affirmed, that the nature of the law is to teach men literally, in such a way that it does not reach farther than the ear; and that, on the other hand, the nature of the gospel is to teach spiritually, because it is the instrument of Christ’s grace. This depends on the appointment of God, who has seen it meet to manifest the efficacy of his Spirit more clearly in the gospel than in the law, for it is his work exclusively to teach effectually the minds of men.

When Paul, however, calls himself a Minister of the Spirit, he does not mean by this, that the grace of the Holy Spirit and his influence, were tied to his preaching, so that he could, whenever he pleased, breathe forth the Spirit along with the utterance of the voice. He simply means, that Christ blessed his ministry, and thus accomplished what was predicted respecting the gospel. It is one thing for Christ to connect his influence with a man’s doctrine. 383383     “Au ministere de l’homme qui enseigne;” — “To the ministry of the man that teaches.” and quite another for the man’s doctrine 384384     “La doctrine de l’homme, c’est à dire, son ministere;” — “The doctrine of the man, that is to say, his ministry.” to have such efficacy of itself. We are, then, Ministers of the Spirit, not as if we held him inclosed within us, or as it were captive — not as if we could at our pleasure confer his grace upon all, or upon whom we pleased — but because Christ, through our instrumentality, illuminates the minds of men, renews their hearts, and, in short, regenerates them wholly. 385385     The reader will find the same subject largely treated of by Calvin, when commenting on 1 Corinthians 3:6. See Calvin on the Corinthians, vol. 1, pp. 128-9. — Ed. It is in consequence of there being such a connection and bond of union between Christ’s grace and man’s effort, that in many cases that is ascribed to the minister which belongs exclusively to the Lord. For in that case it is not the mere individual that is looked to, but the entire dispensation of the gospel, which consists, on the one hand, in the secret influence of Christ, and, on the other, in man’s outward efforts.

For the letter killeth. This passage was mistakingly perverted, first by Origen, and afterwards by others, to a spurious signification. From this arose a very pernicious error — that of imagining that the perusal of Scripture would be not merely useless, but even injurious, 386386     “Dangereuse;” — “Dangerous.” unless it were drawn out into allegories. This error was the source of many evils. For there was not merely a liberty allowed of adulterating the genuine meaning of Scripture, 387387     “De corrompre et desguiser le vray et naturel sens de l’Escriture:” — “Of corrupting and disguising the true and natural meaning of Scripture.” but the more of audacity any one had in this manner of acting, so much the more eminent an interpreter of Scripture was he accounted. Thus many of the ancients recklessly played with the sacred word of God, 388388     “Can you seriously think the Scriptures,” says Revelation Andrew Fuller, in his Thoughts on Preaching, “to be a book of riddles and conundrums, and that a Christian minister is properly employed in giving scope to his fancy in order to discover their solution? [...] All Scripture is profitable in some way, some for doctrine, some for reproof, some for correction, and some for instruction in righteousness, but all is not to be turned into allegory. If we must play, let it be with things of less consequence than the word of the eternal God.” — Fuller’s Works, volume 4, p. 694. The attentive reader cannot fail to observe, how very frequently our author exposes, in the strongest terms, the exercise of mere fancy in the interpretation of the Holy Scriptures. See Calvin on the Corinthians, vol. 1, p. 294. — Ed. as if it had been a ball to be tossed to and fro. In consequence of this, too, heretics had it more in their power to trouble the Church; for as it had become general practice to make any passage whatever 389389     “Vn propos et vn mot;” — “A passage and a word.” mean anything that one might choose, there was no frenzy so absurd or monstrous, as not to admit of being brought forward under some pretext of allegory. Even good men themselves were carried headlong, so as to contrive very many mistaken opinions, led astray through a fondness for allegory.

The meaning of this passage, however, is as follows — that, if the word of God is simply uttered with the mouth, it is an occasion of death, and that it is lifegiving, only when it is received with the heart. The terms letter and spirit, therefore, do not refer to the exposition of the word, but to its influence and fruit. Why it is that the doctrine merely strikes upon the ear, without reaching the heart, we shall see presently.




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