Calvin on Civil Order


John Calvin’s influence upon Western culture in general, and theology in particular, is enormous. He was central to the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation in continental Europe. His Institutes of the Christian Religion and biblical commentaries are classics. The following selection is from Calvin’s commentary on the book of Romans, where Paul discusses civil government—“for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil” (Rom. 13:4). Accordingly, Calvin argues that government is both ordained of God and responsible to Him. The state appropriately bears and exercises the sword and other sanctions, but only within the bounds of God’s justice. Neither tyranny nor anarchy is an option.

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 . . .

It is another part of the office of magistrates, that they ought forcibly to repress the waywardness of evil men, who do not willingly suffer themselves to be governed by laws, and to inflict such punishment on their offences as God’s judgment requires; for he expressly declares, that they are armed with the sword, not for an empty show, but that they may smite evil-doers . . .1

May God provide wisdom to eschew both extremes–tyranny and anarchy–having courage to address governing authorities with a prophetic word, while humbly and submissively regarding their divinely-appointed position.


1 John Calvin, “Commentaries on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans,” trans. and ed. John Owen, in Calvin’s Commentaries: 22-Volume Set, vol. 19, Acts 14-28 and Romans 1-16 (Reprint; Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 2003), 481.

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