If Book II of Calvin’s Institutes is about ‘The Knowledge of God the Redeemer in Christ’, as its title suggests, then why do we need to wait until page 100 (of 294) for the Redeemer even to be introduced?
I think the answer is that Calvin wants to make us acutely aware of the truth of the title of chapter 6: that ‘Fallen Man Ought to Seek Redemption in Christ’. Thus chapters 1–5 are about our need for redemption in Christ.
Rather than getting too far out of my depth, let me simply list a few reasons Calvin might give as to why we have such a desperate need of redemption.
1. We ought to seek redemption in Christ because ‘The whole human race perished in the person of Adam’.
Those words, taken from the start of chapter 6, really summarise the whole of the first five chapters, particularly chapter 1.
Although God had generously given us so much in our original creation (which is still a cause for gratitude), yet we now find ourselves in a ‘miserable condition after Adam’s fall’. The awareness of this, ‘when all our boasting and self-assurance are laid low, should truly humble us and overwhelm us with shame’ (II.i.1). Taken together, this shows to man, first, ‘the nature of his duty’, and second, ‘the extent of his ability [i.e., his inability] to carry it out’ (II.i.3).
Through our connection with Adam, we have an ‘inherited corruption’ (II.i.5), which is such that ‘we are so vitiated and perverted in every part of our nature that by this great corruption we stand justly condemned and convicted before God’. Thus ‘this is not liability for another’s transgression’, but it can be said of each one of us, even from infancy, that our ‘whole nature is a seed of sin’ (II.i.8).
2. We ought to seek redemption in Christ because we are unable to set ourselves free from our sinful desires.
When people speak of having ‘free will’, they often follow that by saying, ‘I’m not a robot!’ In other words, we speak of having ‘free will’ if we act willingly, not out of compulsion. But does that mean we are able to set ourselves free from our love of sin? Not at all:
Man will then be spoken of as having this sort of free decision, not because he has free choice equally of good and evil, but because he acts wickedly by will, not by compulsion. Well put, indeed, but what purpose is served by labeling with a proud name such a slight thing? A noble freedom, indeed—for man not to be forced to serve sin, yet to be such a willing slave that his will is bound by the fetters of sin! (II.ii.7)
To take a contemporary example, it is beyond doubt, surely, that no more vile concoction has emerged from the schemes of man than the filth that is Marmite. And yet some people consume it on a regular basis, not of compulsion, but willingly! They ‘freely’ choose to fill their stomachs with such poison, because they actually love it! They have free will—they are not robots—but are they free to reject the evil and choose the good? Are they free to change their appetites, so that they begin to detest Marmite, and love decent food instead? No, they are not!
Nor are we free, of our own power, to begin to detest sin and love Christ instead.
3. We ought to seek redemption in Christ because even the good things we do as non-Christians do not show that we need Christ any less.
Calvin speaks in exalted terms of the knowledge and understanding given to unbelievers:
If we regard the Spirit of God as the sole fountain of truth, we shall neither reject the truth itself, nor despise it wherever it shall appear, unless we wish to dishonor the Spirit of God’ (II.ii.15).
But this is restricted to their understanding of ‘earthly things’ (an understanding which, though corrupted, is still present), and doesn’t extend to their grasp of ‘heavenly things’:
I call ‘earthly things’ those which do not pertain to God or his Kingdom, to true justice, or to the blessedness of the future life; but which have their significance and relationship with regard to the present life and are, in a sense, confined within its bounds. I call ‘heavenly things’ the pure knowledge of God, the nature of true righteousness, and the mysteries of the Heavenly Kingdom (II.ii.13).
Included in the first category are those principles that enable societies to function well:
Of the first class the following ought to be said: since man is by nature a social animal, he tends through natural instinct to foster and preserve society. … Hence arises that unvarying consent of all nations and of individual mortals with regard to laws (II.ii.13).
But this kind of knowledge does not take away our need for Christ’s redemption:
It therefore remains for us to understand that the way to the Kingdom of God is open only to him whose mind has been made new by the illumination of the Holy Spirit (II.ii.20).
With the ‘bad news’ of the gospel made clear, the way is now open for the ‘good news’ of the gospel: our redemption in Christ.