This article looks at John Calvin's view on the task of the government, judicial laws and lawsuits.

Source: Reformed Perspective, 1985. 6 pages.

John Calvin and Civil Government

In our previous article we looked at Luther's view of the role of the Christian in regard to civil disobedience. We approached the matter by means of a review of his description of civil government.

In this article we shall proceed as promised and look at John Calvin's view. It will not be possible to cover the entirety of this subject in one article, however. For the most part, we shall be using the definitive 1559 edition of the Institutes because the changes on this subject between the first edition of the Institutes (1536) and the last are negligible. Due to the great expansion of material in the constant reworkings of the Institutes, however, one must recall that Book 4.20 is actually a continuation of Book 3.19 (Christian freedom) in the last edition. Where pertinent we shall make use of certain commentaries of Calvin.


When we begin our exposition of Calvin's view of the civil government we must note that he is not an original thinker in this regard. I intentionally began this series of articles with Luther in order to demonstrate Calvin's dependence on Luther in the development of his own views on government. Actually, I could have gone further back into history, for both Luther and Calvin were dependent on church father Augustine (A.D. 354- 430), especially Augustine's work, The City of God. In this book Augustine divides mankind into a kingdom of God (civitas Dei) and a kingdom of the earth (civitas terrena). Augustine clearly states that one of the primary tasks of the State is to maintain peace. It is somewhat unfortunate that the positive value of the State is not as clearly recognized by Augustine as one might like. Nonetheless, one of the aspects upon which both Luther and Calvin drew was the distinction between the two kingdoms and the notion of the maintenance of peace. With this as background, we will look at Calvin's view of the State.


Calvin begins Book 4.20.1 of the Institutes (Civil Government) with a warning. He says,

For although this topic seems by nature alien to the spiritual doctrine of faith which I have undertaken to discuss, what follows will show that I am right in joining them β€” in fact, that necessity compels me to do so. This is especially true since, from one side, insane and barbarous men furiously strive to overturn this divinely established order; while, on the other side, the flatterers of princes, immoderately praising their power, do not hesitate to set them against the rule of God himself.

So we observe at the outset that Calvin is drawing the boundaries against two extremes. On the one hand, the Christian cannot aver that the government is not needed. Historically, he was speaking out against the Anabaptists, who viewed the government as superfluous. On the other hand, the existing governments must not be viewed as autonomous. They are all under God's rule.

The second warning Calvin issues in that same section has to do with the danger of mingling the kingdom of God and the kingdom of earth. He says, "...we must keep in mind that distinction which we have previously laid down [cf. Institutes, 3.19.16; 4.10.3-6 β€” RG] so that we do not (as commonly happens) unwisely mingle these two, which have a completely different nature." Calvin wants to ensure that his reader remains aware that these two kingdoms have a completely different nature, but yet he goes on to introduce a type of "tension" in his description. He tells us that even though the two kingdoms are completely different, they are not antithetical. Although he does not expressly mention Luther at this point, the similarities with Luther are too great to be coincidental. He says, "Yet this distinction does not lead us to consider the whole nature of government a thing polluted, which has nothing to do with Christian men."

His own particular position becomes clear when he goes on to define the task of civil government. At this point there is a change to be found between the 1536 and 1559 editions of the Institutes. The description in the 1536 edition reads as follows: "Yet civil government has as its appointed end, so long as we live among men, to adjust our life to the society of men, to form our social behaviour to civil righteousness, to reconcile us with one another, and to promote and foster general peace and tranquility." In the 1559 edition we read: "Yet civil government has as its appointed end, so long as we live among men, to cherish and protect the outward worship of God, to defend sound doctrine of piety and the position of the church...," the rest remaining identical with the 1536 edition. Calvin's influence is easily discernible in the original text of the Belgic Confession, Article 36: "Their task of restraining and sustaining is not limited to the public order but includes the protection of the Church and its ministry in order that all idolatry and false worship may be removed and prevented, the kingdom of antichrist may be destroyed, the kingdom of Christ may come, the Word of the gospel may be preached everywhere, and God may be honoured and served by everyone, as He requires in His Word." The italicized words were rightly deleted by the Reformed Churches in Holland at their General Synod of 1905 at Utrecht.


Commenting on Romans 13:1 Calvin states, "...for they (magistrates) have not ascended by their own power into this high station, but have been placed there by the Lord's hand... The reason why we ought to be subject to magistrates is because they are constituted by God's ordination. For since it pleases God thus to govern the world, he who attempts to invert the order of God, and thus to resist God himself, despises his power; since to despise the providence of him who is the founder of civil power, is to carry on war with him. Understand further, that powers are from God ... because he has appointed them for the legitimate and just government of the world." This does not mean that God ordained disorder or evil governments. The essence of what Calvin is saying is that the right of government is ordained by God for the wellbeing of mankind. To put it another way: Power is from God, the abuse of power is from what is evil in men. The magistrate has divine boundaries placed upon his actions. As well, he is encumbered with responsibility to God. On verse 4 Calvin comments,

Magistrates may hence learn what their vocation is, for they are not to rule for their own interest, but for the public good; nor are they endued with unbridled power, but what is restricted to the wellbeing of their subjects; in short, they are responsible to God and to men in the exercise of their power.

When Calvin treats 1 Peter 2:13 we hear analogous sounds: "...obedience is due to all who rule, because they have been raised to that honour not by chance, but by God's providence." Speaking on verse 14 concerning the Christian's attitude towards civil authority, Calvin uses the words, "reverently" and "with respect" because "it has been appointed by the Lord for the common good of mankind; for we must be extremely barbarous and brutal, if the public good is not regarded by us ... Since God keeps the world in order by the ministry of magistrates, all they who despise their authority are enemies to mankind."

Lastly we want to look briefly at what Calvin has to say in regard to a text such as 1 Timothy 2:1ff. Among other things, Paul exhorts the Christians to pray for all men. Calvin says, "First, he speaks of public prayers, which he enjoins to be offered, not only for believers, but for all mankind. Some might reason thus with themselves: 'Why should we be anxious about the salvation of unbelievers, with whom we have no connection? Is it not enough, if we, who are brethren, pray mutually for our brethren, and recommend to God the whole of his Church? for we have nothing to do with strangers.' This perverse view Paul meets, and enjoins the Ephesians to include in their prayers all men, and not to limit them to the body of the Church." This statement is so self-evident that it needs no elaboration. The following quotation taken from Calvin's comments is somewhat lengthy, but serves our purposes so well that I shall quote him in full:

He expressly mentions kings and other magistrates, because, more than all others, they might be hated by Christians. All the magistrates who existed at that time were so many sworn enemies of Christ; and therefore this thought might occur to them, that they ought not to pray for those who devoted all their power and all their wealth to fight against the kingdom of Christ, the extension of which is above all things desirable. The apostle meets this difficulty, and expressly enjoins Christians to pray for them also. And, indeed, the depravity of men is not a reason why God's ordinance should not be loved. Accordingly, seeing that God appointed magistrates and princes for the preservation of mankind, however much they fall short of the divine appointment, still we must not on that account cease to love what belongs to God, and to desire that it may remain in force. That is the reason why believers, in whatever country they live, must not only obey the laws and the government of the magistrates, but likewise in their prayers supplicate God for their salvation.

It could very well be that we have forgotten this Biblical admonition. It could very well be that we have become so emotionally involved in current ethical issues that we have forgotten to use our minds. But Calvin is quite clear on what our attitude toward civil authority ought to be. And this attitude manifests itself in the obedience that we render to the State in both small and great matters. It manifests itself in the maintaining of the posted speed limits and in our peaceful demonstrations and in the paying of our taxes. The above quotation calls upon the Christian to think and to pray in a distinct manner. In the case of an evil magistrate we are called upon to pray in earnest for his salvation, but to pray against the evil that he is performing.


We turn our attention once again to the Institutes, for it is there that Calvin speaks of the various components within civil government. They are: the magistrate, the laws, and the people. In this article we shall examine the role of the magistrate, and in a subsequent article we shall complete Calvin's view by focusing our attention on the laws and the people. For the sake of clarity, we shall listen to the simple descriptions which Calvin gives.

The magistrate is the protector and guardian of the laws; the laws are that by which the magistrate governs; and the people are those who are governed by the laws and obey the magistrate.

The Magistrate is the Living Lawβ†β€’πŸ”—

Calvin borrows the analogy that the magistrate is the living law from the writings of the nonbeliever, Cicero. More important for Calvin, as we have seen above, is that the magistrate is ordained by God. "The Lord has not only testified that the office of magistrate is approved by and acceptable to him, but he also sets out its dignity with the most honourable titles and marvelously commends it to us." Hereafter Calvin uses the same texts that we find being used by Luther in this connection: Exodus 22:8; Deuteronomy 1:16, 17; 2 Chronicles 19:6; Psalm 82:1, 6; John 10:35. Just as Luther, Calvin has great praise for the magistrate, not simply for his person, but for his calling.

Accordingly, no one ought to doubt that civil authority is a calling, not only holy and lawful before God, but also the most sacred and by far the most honourable of all callings in the whole life of mortal man.

These words might shock our senses somewhat, but they are not simply meant as laudatory remarks, but serve to instil in the magistrate the grave sense of responsibility which is inherent in his calling. Government authorities are "ordained protectors and vindicators of public innocence, modesty, decency, and tranquility, and ... their sole endeavour should be to provide for the common safety and peace of all." Calvin further defines the calling of the magistrate thus: "…to receive into safekeeping, to embrace, to protect, vindicate, and free the innocent. But judgment is to withstand the boldness of the impious, to repress their violence, to punish their misdeeds." He is to pay close attention to the pitfalls of the extremes of undue clemency and undue cruelty. "Yet it is necessary for the magistrate to pay attention to both, lest by excessive severity he either harm more than heal; or, by superstitious affectation of clemency, fall into the cruellest gentleness, if he should (with a soft and dissolute kindness) abandon many to their destruction."

Ultimate Responsibilityβ†β€’πŸ”—

We summarize what we have said in this manner: In Calvin's view of civil government one finds a great dependence on both Augustine and Martin Luther. Calvin makes a clear distinction between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of the earth without setting the two in an antithetical relationship. The harmony is achieved by both being creations of God and subject to His rule. Calvin divides the government into three aspects: the magistrate, the laws, and the people. The magistrate is divinely appointed and answerable to God for the laws which he makes and defends. In many of the current ethical controversies, Calvin would be actively engaged in reminding magistrates that even though they have been elected by popular vote, their ultimate responsibility is to God and His Law (primus usus legis)

We previously already noted that Calvin depended on both Luther and Augustine. We saw that the resemblance between the first edition of the Institutes and Luther's doctrine of the two regiments was rather striking. When discussing the tasks and burdens of civil government, Calvin spoke of the triad of

  • the magistrate, who is the protector and guardian of the laws;

  • the laws, according to which he governs; and

  • the people, who are governed by the laws and obey the magistrate.

We observed that Calvin viewed the magistrate as ordained by God to fulfill the task to which he had been called. He says of them, "...they have a mandate from God, [they] have been invested with divine authority, and are wholly God's representatives, in a manner, acting as his vice-regents" (Institutes 4.20.4). This definition poses a grave responsibility on both the magistrate and his subjects. Since both "regiments" are the creation of God, they are responsible to Him for acting in the manner He has decreed.

Looking at the second part of Calvin's triad we notice an inextricable bond between the magistrate and the laws. Calvin states, "…the law is a silent magistrate; the magistrate, a living law" (Institutes 4.20.14). So then, all that can be said concerning the divine appointment of the magistrate and his responsibility before God can also be said, mutatis mutandi, concerning the laws. They are to be made and upheld in regard to God who has clearly revealed Himself to man. Calvin then speaks of the "common division" of the whole law of God published by Moses. This common division includes three parts: moral, ceremonial, and judicial (Institutes 4.20.4).

God's moral law is contained under two headings:

  1. one which simply commands us to worship God with pure faith and piety; and

  2. one that commands us to embrace men with sincere affection.

One could say that the moral law is the umbrella, the overall guiding principle in Calvin's thought at this point. Man is a moral, responsible creature made in the image of God. Since man is and remains the imago Dei even after the Fall, God's moral law continues to function in his life as the norm that God established and maintains for his creatures.

The ceremonial law was the tutelage of the Jews by which God trained His people until the fulness of time came (Galatians 4:3, 4).

The judicial law, given to them for civil government, imparted certain formulas of equity and justice, by which they might live together blamelessly and peaceably.Institutes 4.20.15

Laws should then be framed with a view to equity. "Whatever laws shall be framed to that rule, directed to that goal, bound by that limit, there is no reason why we should disapprove of them, howsoever they may differ from the Jewish law, or among themselves."Institutes 4.20.16

The laws so framed ought to, with one voice, "pronounce punishment against those crimes which God's eternal law has condemned, namely, murder, theft, adultery, and false witness."Institutes 4.20.16

It is rather obvious that Calvin is basing these judgments on the revealed will of God and using that as his starting point to describe the place of government and politics. The sequential order is exceedingly important for Christians to note. One of the reasons why we are failing in the mandate to be active in the world is that we have lost the truth of the threefold use of the law of the Lord; we have failed to see the thoroughgoing implications for all of life of the Sermon on the Mount. When we take the time to return to our Reformed heritage, we note how central the Ten Commandments (or the ten words) and the Sermon on the Mount were for people such as Augustine, Luther, and Calvin.

Christians and Law Courtsβ†β€’πŸ”—

We are well aware that Christians ought not to take other Christians to court, (1 Corinthians 6:7). But there is yet another question, "Is it permissible for Christians to make use of litigation for other reasons?" In light of what was said before concerning the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount, it ought not to surprise us that Calvin would be concerned also about the attitudes of those making use of litigation. He says,

There are very many who so boil with a rage for litigation that they are never at peace with themselves unless they are quarreling with others. And they carry on their lawsuits with bitter and deadly hatred, and an insane passion to revenge and hurt, and they pursue them with implacable obstinacy even to the ruin of their adversaries.Institutes 4.20.17

Concretely this means: "For this must be a set principle for all Christians; that a lawsuit, however just, can never be rightly prosecuted by any man, unless he treat his adversary with the same love and goodwill as if the business under controversy were already amicably settled and composed."Institutes 4.20.18

This statement manifests the radicality of the attitude of him who lives in the light of the Sermon on the Mount, and must be taken seriously by Christians in the 20th century, especially now, since there is a growing interest in social and political issues; especially now, when many of the old foundations are beginning to crumble; especially now, since the government is constantly preaching about the separation of Church and State, while yet making decisions that affect the "spiritual regiment." Christians are more and more finding themselves involved in matters of litigation. Calvin ends that 18th section from which we just quoted with this warning: "But when we hear that the help of the magistrate is a holy gift of God, we must more diligently guard against its becoming polluted by our fault."

This brings us again to the question of what the Christian is to do in the case of unjust laws. He is reminded of the fact that the magistrate is responsible to God and that the laws are a silent magistrate. What must the Christian then do in the face of unjust laws? In this regard we hear the strong echoes of Luther's influence on our Reformed tradition when Calvin says,

For truly, Christians ought to be a kind of men born to bear slanders and injuries, open to the malice, deceits, and mockeries of wicked men. And not that only, but they ought to bear patiently all these evils. That is, they should have such complete spiritual composure that, having received one offense, they make ready for another, promising themselves throughout life nothing but the bearing of a perpetual cross.Institutes 4.20.20

It is precisely here that we note the same "tension" that we found in Luther's theology. This is not simply a beam in the structure of either the theology of Luther or Calvin; it is a window through which they both look at reality. For in essence what we have been looking at in these articles is the whole question of Christian ethics. And we know, as Christians, that ethics do not function in a vacuum, but in a fallen world. We, too, are partakers in that fall, as is every other structure. Our government participates in the fall and its baneful effects, too. So, on the one hand, we must praise the government and be thankful for it, for it fulfills an indispensible role in the worldly regiment. It can and must have our support and loyalty β€” in that regiment!

On the other hand, the government as participant in the fall, is sinful. This means that, if we are looking for hard and fast rules to which we can readily adhere, we are going to be disappointed. However, there is a rule of thumb: " will give every man the best counsel" (Institutes 4.20.21).

It goes without saying that Calvin's doctrine of the civil government is closely connected with his doctrine of providence. Throughout the 20th chapter of Book 4 of the Institutes there are many references to the role of God's providence in both "regiments." It is not so that God is providentially controlling the matters of the spiritual regiment while leaving the worldly regiment to itself. In Calvin's doctrine of civil government there is the notion that because the magistrate is the "vice-regent" of God on earth, a wicked king is the Lord's wrath upon the earth (Institutes 4.20.25; cf. Job 34:30; Hosea 13:11; Isaiah 3:4, 10:5; Deuteronomy 28:29). God is in control of His creation and He is moving it towards its appointed end. Until that end arrives we must be resigned to live in both "regiments" as Christians making our positive contribution to each, knowing that each has its proper place in the one world that God is redeeming.

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