Calvin on Romans 12:17-21

Clearly, John Calvin is no supporter of "Christian Anarcho-Capitalism," or "anarcho-anything else." Calvin's comments on Paul's words immediately preceding his famous dicta in Romans 13 are therefore all the more compelling. The Scripture itself is clear, but if the following comments of Calvin (left column) had been penned by some wiggy "anarchist," they would be too-easily dismissed.

Render to no man evil for evil Take thought for things honourable in the sight of all men. If it be possible, as much as in you lieth, be at peace with all men. Avenge not yourselves, beloved, but give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance belongeth unto me; I will recompense, saith the Lord. (17-19)

17. Render to no man evil for evil  There is hardly any difference between this precept and that which follows a little later, except that revenge implies more than the kind of recompense with which he is now dealing. Sometimes we render evil for evil, even when we do not exact punishment equivalent to the injury sustained, as when we treat with unkindness those who impart no benefit to us. We usually estimate the benefit which each individual can be to ourselves, or at least their capacity for being benefited by us, so that we bestow our services on those who have already obliged us, or from whom we expect a favour. Again, if anyone has denied us help when we needed it, by returning like for like (as the saying is) we shall afford him no more in time of need than we received of him. There are other examples also of the same kind in which we return evil for evil without obvious revenge.

Calvin sets a high standard here. (Actually, Scripture sets the standard; Calvin merely recognizes it.) It is not enough merely to refrain from returning evil to one who does evil to us, or even to refrain from doing evil to someone who doesn't do enough good to us. We must actively and affirmatively be Christ-bearers to those who cannot be of any benefit to us. We must impart grace to those who curse us.

Consider the table below. On the left are five types of actions. On the right are five possible reactions on our part. Calvin would move our side of the table downward, increasing the Christian character of our response to increasingly evil actions against us. We should act kindly even to one who is indifferent to us. Even to one who has harmed us. Calvin says it is not just that we don't take vengeance, but we react with positive love.




Self-sacrifice out of Christ-like love Self-sacrifice out of Christ-like love
A thoughtful gift, with expectations of reciprocity An act of kindness returned, looking for another round
Indifference  Ostracism
Evil acts of defrauding or theft; no physical violence "I don't get mad, I get even"

Sociopathic violence stemming from pathological hatred

Vengeance; The Gas Chamber; "closure"


Take thought for things honourable. I am quite satisfied with the rendering of Erasmus, 'Prepare, therefore,' but I have chosen to translate it literally. Since every man is more attentive to his own advantage or more careful to avoid loss than is just, Paul seems to call for a different care and attention. His point is that we ought to give unremitting attention so that all men may be edified by our honesty. Just as we must have innocence of conscience before God, so we should not neglect to have an honourable reputation before men. If it is proper that God should be glorified in our good works, then He loses this amount of glory when men see nothing in us that is worthy of praise. And not only is the glory of God obscured, but He is also insulted, for all the sins that we commit are brought forward by the ignorant for the purpose of dishonouring the Gospel.

But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires. 16 So do not let your good be spoken of as evil. 19 Let us then pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.
Romans 13:14,16,19

Calvin mentions "conscience," which is important in the next chapter (Romans 13).

We have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways; we refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God.
2 Corinthians 4:2 

for we aim at what is honorable not only in the Lord’s sight but also in the sight of men.
2 Corinthians 8:21 

When, however, we are bidden to take thought for things honourable in the sight of all men, we must notice at the same time the purpose of this command. This is not that men may admire and praise us, for this is a desire which Christ carefully guards us from entertaining when He bids us to exclude all men and admit God alone as the witness of our good deeds. The purpose of this command is rather that men may lift up their minds to God and give Him the praise, so that our example may arouse them to the pursuit of righteousness, and finally that they may sense the fair and pleasant fragrance from our own lives which may draw them to the love of God. If we are slandered on account of the name of Christ, even then we do not cease to take thought for things honourable in the sight of men. But when we are slandered, that saying is then fulfilled 'as deceivers, and yet true' (II Cor. 6.8).

Maintain good conduct among the Gentiles, so that in case they speak against you as wrongdoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.
1 Peter 2:12 

and keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are abused, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame.
1 Peter 3:16 

  See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all.
1 Thessalonians 5:15 

Do not return evil for evil or reviling for reviling;
but on the contrary bless, for to this you have been called, that you may obtain a blessing.
1 Peter 3:9

To have lawsuits at all with one another is defeat for you. Why not rather suffer wrong? Why not rather be defrauded?
1 Corinthians 6:7

Love is patient and kind;
1 Corinthians 13:4 

18. If it be possible. Peace of mind and a way of life so ordered as to make us beloved by all is no common endowment in a Christian man. If we will devote ourselves to this attainment, we must be endowed not only with the utmost fairness, but also with the highest courteousness and good nature, so as to win not only the just and good, but also change the hearts of the ungodly.

Our goal is to change hearts. There is a form of "peace" in a graveyard. Our goal is living peace, rebellious hearts converted, freewill offerings (Psalm 110) in the service of the Executed Christ.

Far too many "Christian" defenders of the State are motivated to a large degree by hatred and vengeance. They desire death rather than conversion and sanctification of evil-doers.

Two words, however, must here be stated in warning. We are not to strive to attain the favour of men in such a way that we refuse to incur the hatred of any for the sake of Christ, as often as this may be necessary. There are, it is true, some who, though deserving of universal admiration on account of their pleasant manner and peace of mind, are nonetheless hated even by their nearest relations on account of the Gospel. The second caution is that good nature should not degenerate into compliance, so that for the sake of preserving peace we are complaisant to men's sins. 

17 For the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit; 19 Let us then pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.
Romans 14:17, 19

that no man transgress, and wrong his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, as we solemnly forewarned you.
1 Thessalonians 4:6 


Since, therefore, it is not always possible for us to be at peace with all men, he has added two exceptive phrases, if it be possible, and as much in you lieth. We shall have to determine what the exception is on the basis of the duty required by godliness and love, so that we may not violate peace, unless compelled by one or other of these two causes. It is fitting that we should tolerate much, forgive offences, and willingly pardon the extreme rigour of the law for the sake of cherishing peace, provided that we are prepared, as often as necessity requires, to fight courageously. The soldiers of Christ cannot have lasting peace with the world, which is ruled by Satan. Calvin is uncharacteristically pessimistic here. All authority and power have been given to Christ. Our expectations should be of blessing, conversion, and peace. Immanuel: God is with us.
  "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
Matthew 5:5 

"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
Matthew 5:9

Salt is good; but if the salt has lost its saltness, how will you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another."
Mark 9:50 

But if the unbelieving partner desires to separate, let it be so; in such a case the brother or sister is not bound. For God has called us to peace.
1 Corinthians 7:15

Finally, brethren, farewell. Mend your ways, heed my appeal, agree with one another, live in peace, and the God of love and peace will be with you.
2 Corinthians 13:11

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,
Galatians 5:22

19. Avenge not yourselves. The evil which he here corrects is, as we have suggested, more serious than the one which he has just mentioned above

You shall not take vengeance or bear any grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.
Leviticus 19:18

Do not say, "I will repay evil"
wait for the LORD, and he will help you.
Proverbs 20:22

Do not say, "I will do to him as he has done to me;
I will pay the man back for what he has done."
Proverbs 24:29

But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also;
Matthew 5:39

And yet both arise from the same source, viz. an inordinate love of self and an innate pride, which makes us very indulgent to our own faults while being ruthless to those of others. Since, therefore, this disease creates in almost all men a frenzied desire for revenge when they have suffered even the slightest injury, he commands us here not to seek revenge, however grievously we may have been hurt, but to commit revenge to the Lord. And because those who have once been seized by this unruly passion cannot easily be bridled, he restrains us by referring to us in persuasive terms as beloved. The injury suffered by Jesus was not "the slightest," but was enormous. But He did not attempt to take vengeance, and His life is our model:  

For even hereunto were ye called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow His steps:
1 Peter 2:21

When a politically correct victim suffers anything even approaching the injuries Jesus suffered, those who take His Name too frequently stir themselves up into a "frenzied desire for revenge." 

The precept, then, is that we should not revenge nor seek to revenge injuries which have been done to us, because we are to give place unto wrath. To give place to wrath is to entrust the Lord with the power of judgment. Those who attempt revenge deprive Him of this power. If, therefore, it is wrong to usurp the office of God, we are not allowed to exact revenge either, because in so doing we anticipate the judgment of God, who has willed to reserve this office for Himself At the same time Paul intimates that those who wait patiently for His help will have God to vindicate them, while those who anticipate His vengeance leave no place for His help.

This desire for revenge is faithlessness. It assumes the office of God and executes vengeance which God reserves for Himself, because it assumes that God is powerless to right wrongs. We forget the almost innumerable promises from God that He will act -- presently, in time and space -- as the Omnipotent Judge. Some of those Biblical texts are collected here:

Anarchism and National Security

since indeed God deems it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you,
2 Thessalonians 1:6

Do not rejoice when your enemy falls,
and let not your heart be glad when he stumbles;
lest the LORD see it, and be displeased,
and turn away his anger from him.
Fret not yourself because of evildoers,
and be not envious of the wicked;
Do not say, "I will do to him as he has done to me;
I will pay the man back for what he has done."

Proverbs 24:17-19, 29

Therefore the Lord says,
the LORD of hosts,
the Mighty One of Israel:
"Ah, I will vent My wrath on My enemies,
and avenge Myself on My foes.

Isaiah 1:24

According to their deeds, so will He repay,
wrath to His adversaries, requital to His enemies;
to the coastlands He will render requital.

Isaiah 59:18

Paul prohibits us here not only from taking revenge with our own hands, but also from allowing our hearts to be tempted by such a desire. To make a distinction here between public and private revenge is therefore superfluous. The man who seeks the aid of a magistrate with a heart that is malevolent and desirous of revenge is no more to be excused than if he devises means for taking revenge by himself. Indeed, as we shall see presently, we are not even always to ask God to avenge us. If our petitions arise from personal feelings and not from the pure zeal of the Spirit, we do not make God our judge so much as the servant of our corrupt desire.

These comments are extraordinary. While Calvin elsewhere justifies the existence of the State, and he would surely say that there exists an ethically legitmate motivation for asking the State to engage in public revenge, Calvin's comments here force us to consider the origin of the State as an act of sinful rebellion against God's Commands. 

Is there any legitimate reason to form a State? Is the State not always an instrument of private vengeance, which is clearly prohibited by Biblical Law?

  • If I am not allowed to take vengeance, am I allowed to look up "Mafia Hit-men" in the YellowPages™ and hire a contract killer to take down my enemy? After all, I am not taking vengeance, it's the hit-man who does it!
  • If we are not allowed to take vengeance, are we allowed to "vote" for a friend of ours who promises that he will call himself "the State" and take vengeance for us? On what possible ground?

From a Christian perspective, upon what other ground can a man ask a magistrate to take vengeance on his enemy than the one which Calvin calls "malevolent?" 

To repeat, Calvin does not agree with our Anarchism, but his comments are logical: the distinction between "private" vengeance and "public" vengeance -- especially in a "participatory democracy" based on the "consent of the governed" -- is a pure fiction (that is, a sinful one). Christians have an ethical obligation to abolish this system of institutionalized public vengeance, or at least to stop "voting" for it.

We give place to wrath, therefore, only when we wait patiently for the proper time for our deliverance, praying in the meantime that those who now trouble us may repent and become our friends.

There is much in these challenging comments that can be obscured by a faulty eschatology. Pessimillennialism assumes that God has predestined the present age to increasing lawlessness and unbelief until Christ returns. Calvin's postmillennialism recognized the promises of God to cause true worship to cover the earth as the waters cover the sea. God will convert our enemies, to His Glory.

For it is written, Vengeance belongeth unto me. Paul takes his proof from the song of Moses, Deut. 32.35, where the Lord declares that He will avenge His enemies. God's enemies are all those who oppress His servants without any cause. 'He who touches you', He says, 'touches the apple of Mine eye.' Let us, therefore, be content with the consolation that those who cause us trouble when we do not deserve it will not escape unpunished, nor shall we make ourselves more liable or exposed to the injuries of the wicked by enduring them. We shall, rather, provide the Lord, Who is our only Judge and Deliverer, with the opportunity of bringing us help.

Vengeance is mine, and recompense,
for the time when their foot shall slip;
for the day of their calamity is at hand,
and their doom comes swiftly.
"‘See now that I, even I, am he,
and there is no god beside me;
I kill and I make alive;
I wound and I heal;
and there is none that can deliver out of my hand.
"Praise his people, O you nations;
for he avenges the blood of his servants,
and takes vengeance on his adversaries,
and makes expiation for the land of his people."
Deuteronomy 32:35,39,43

"Thus says the Lord GOD: Because Edom acted revengefully against the house of Judah and has grievously offended in taking vengeance upon them,
Ezekiel 25:12

but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
Matthew 6:15

When a man’s ways please the LORD,
he makes even his enemies to be at peace with him.
Proverbs 16:7

Although we ought not to pray to God to avenge our enemies, but should pray for their conversion, so that they may become our friends, yet if they continue in their wickedness, the same thing will happen to them as will happen to all the others who despise God. Paul, however, does not quote this passage as though it were right for us to burn with anger as soon as we are injured, and demand in our prayers that God should avenge our injuries in proportion to the urgings of our flesh. He teaches us, first, that it is not our task to exact revenge, unless we want to usurp the responsibility of God. And second, he intimates that we are not to fear that the wicked may rage with greater ferocity when they see us bearing our sufferings with patience, for God does not take upon Himself the office of exacting vengeance in vain.

Upon reflection, it becomes clear that the formation of the State is an act of rebellion and faithlessness. The 20th century saw the murder of an average of 10,000 people per day, murders which were legalized, subsidized, or perpetrated by the various civil magistrates, which legitimized and institutionalized the sin of vengeance.

But if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him to drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire upon his head. Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good. (20-21)

20. But if thine enemy hunger, feed him. He now shows how we may truly fulfill the precepts against taking revenge and returning evil for evil. We are not only to refrain from doing injury but also to do good to those who have done wrong to us. There is a kind of indirect retaliation when we fail to treat with kindness those who have injured us. By the words food and drink we are to understand kindness of every sort. According, therefore, to our ability we are to help our enemy in any matter in which he shall stand in need of either our resources, advice or efforts. By enemy he does not mean those whom we treat with hatred, but those who entertain enmity towards us. If they are to be helped in their bodily needs, much less ought we to oppose their salvation by invoking evil on them.

Additional commands along these lines are collected by the Westminster Divines (1647) in the Larger Catechism's exposition of the 6th Commandment ("Thou shalt not kill"). Study those verses here.

"If you meet your enemy’s ox or his ass going astray, you shall bring it back to him. If you see the ass of one who hates you lying under its burden, you shall refrain from leaving him with it, you shall help him to lift it up.
Exodus 23:4-5 4

When David had finished speaking these words to Saul, Saul said, "Is this your voice, my son David?" And Saul lifted up his voice and wept. {17} He said to David, "You are more righteous than I; for you have repaid me good, whereas I have repaid you evil. {18} And you have declared this day how you have dealt well with me, in that you did not kill me when the LORD put me into your hands. {19} For if a man finds his enemy, will he let him go away safe? So may the LORD reward you with good for what you have done to me this day.
1 Samuel 24:16-19

Then Saul said, "I have done wrong; return, my son David, for I will no more do you harm, because my life was precious in your eyes this day; behold, I have played the fool, and have erred exceedingly."
1 Samuel 26:21

"If I have rejoiced at the ruin of him that hated me,
or exulted when evil overtook him

Job 31:29 

He who mocks the poor insults his Maker;
he who is glad at calamity will not go unpunished.

Proverbs 17:5 

Do not rejoice when your enemy falls,
and let not your heart be glad when he stumbles;

Proverbs 24:17

If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat;
and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink;

Proverbs 25:21 

Thou shalt heap coals of fire upon his head. Paul shows the benefit which we may derive from treating our enemies with acts of courtesy, because we do not willingly squander our time and trouble in vain. Some interpret coals to mean the destruction which is heaped on the head of our enemy, if we treat the unworthy with kindness and act differently towards him than he has deserved at our hands. We shall thus double his guilt. Others prefer to take the view that when our enemy sees himself so kindly treated, his mind is drawn to love us in return. I take the simpler view. His mind will be torn in one of two ways Either our enemy will be softened by kindness, or, if he is so ferocious that nothing may assuage him, he will be stung and tormented by the testimony of his conscience, which will feel itself overwhelmed by our kindness.

"But I say to you that hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To him who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from him who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.
Luke 6:27-29

21. Be not overcome of evil This sentence seems to have been written by way of confirmation. In this life our whole struggle is against wickedness. If we try to retaliate, we admit that we have been defeated by it. But if; on the other hand, we return good for evil, we display by that very act an invincible constancy of mind. And this is truly the most glorious kind of victory, and its reward is not just imagined, but really experienced, while the Lord grants greater success to their patience than any they could wish for. On the other hand, anyone who attempts to overcome evil with evil will perhaps surpass his enemy in doing harm, but it will be to his own ruin, for by so acting he is fighting the devil's battle.


Calvin says above

"To make a distinction here between public and private revenge is therefore superfluous. The man who seeks the aid of a magistrate with a heart that is malevolent and desirous of revenge is no more to be excused than if he devises means for taking revenge by himself."

Then how can we justify the voluntary formation and maintenance of the Civil Magistrate? (It is one thing to "submit" non-violently to such an Empire when it conquers your homeland, as was the case with Israel at the time of Christ. It is quite another to voluntarily form a Roman Empire and conquer yourself; it is quite another thing to "vote" for vengeance.)

The most frequent answer to this question can be phrased thus: "God commands man to shed the blood of the capital criminal (Gen 9:4-6)."

This issue will be covered in our survey of the Scriptures, but for those who feel an urgent need to explore this issue, a discussion of capital punishment is here. Even if we are still required in the New Testament to shed the blood of capital criminals as "Noah and his sons" were commanded, there is nothing in Scripture which removes this command from "private citizens" and monopolizes this responsibility in the hands of "the State."

The case for Christian Anarchism is primarily a study of ethics, not merely politics. This page has links to approximately 200 Scripture passages. These are classic texts, texts like those from the Sermon on the Mount, which are identified even in the minds of unbelievers as being at the heart of Christian ethics. This pacifist-anarchist ethical framework is presupposed as we go through the Bible in search of the command or commands from God to form "the State." That search begins here.

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