Calvin on Romans 13


This page analyzes John Calvin's comments on the thirteenth chapter of the Apostle Paul's letter to the Romans.

Real World Context: on average, 10,000 people were deliberately killed each and every day during the 20th century by "organized governments." These forces plan to kill several times as many people in the 21st century to avoid "anarchy" and other calamities, calamities which are arguably caused by the institutionalization of violence which we call "the State."

Christians justify the existence of institutionalized violence by recourse to the 13th chapter of Paul's letter to the Romans. John Calvin has had a tremendous influence in America and the Western world. Calvin's comments on this passage are found here:

http://www.ccel.org/c/calvin/comment2/ro10-16.htm

Our question, in light of the millions of people who have died at the hands of "the State," and in light of the trillions of dollars in property and wealth which have been seized or destroyed by organized (and less-than-organized) governments, is:

Can this Institution be Biblically Justified?

We have argued that it cannot: vengeance and violence are prohibited by God's Law, and nowhere in Scripture does God command men to form "the State." The purpose of this page is to see if Calvin has refuted these claims by finding justification for the State in Romans 13.

Chapter 13

1. Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God.
2. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God; and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation.
Calvin's Commentary Our Analysis
1. Let every soul, etc. Inasmuch as he so carefully handles this subject in connection with what forms the Christian life, it appears that he was constrained to do so by some great necessity which existed especially in that age, though the preaching of the gospel at all times renders this necessary. We believe that Romans 13 is a continuation of the argument in Romans 12. The Apostle Paul was there telling Christians to leave vengeance to God, and not to return evil for evil, but to do good even to those who do us evil. Here the Apostle turns to the largest doer of evil, the State. He applies that same principle, but more forcefully, because the State so frequently drives men to violent revolution, and such violence is more destructive than the violence of our own individual vengeance. Violent revolution against the state is hereby prohibited.
There are indeed always some tumultuous spirits who believe that the kingdom of Christ cannot be sufficiently elevated, unless all earthly powers be abolished, and that they cannot enjoy the liberty given by him, except they shake off every yoke of human subjection. The Christian has full liberty in Christ even if he is a slave, and his slavedriver is a tyrant (1 Peter 2:18). Those "tumultuous spirits" who cannot submit to authority lack Christian maturity, and need to pray for God's grace.
This error, however, possessed the minds of the Jews above all others; for it seemed to them disgraceful that the offspring of Abraham, whose kingdom flourished before the Redeemerís coming, should now, after his appearance, continue in submission to another power.

The Jews were correct: it was "disgraceful" that they should be under an occupation government of pagans. But this was the judgment God promised them for their faithlessness (Deuteronomy 28:15). The only thing more disgraceful than for God's people to be under a pagan government is for them to vote for one.

There was also another thing which alienated the Jews no less than the Gentiles from their rulers, because these rulers all not only hated piety, but also persecuted religion with the most hostile feelings. Hence it seemed unreasonable to acknowledge them for legitimate princes and rulers, who were attempting to take away the kingdom from Christ, the only Lord of heaven and earth. Calvin's followers rightly concluded that a ruler who hates piety, persecutes true religion with the most hostile feelings, and attempts to destroy the Kingdom of Christ, cannot be said to be a "legitimate" ruler.

Nevertheless, followers of Christ are not permitted to hire a contract killer to eliminate such an illegitimate ruler.

This is a critical point, not to be overlooked. Caesar did not have legitimate rule over Israel. He was a conqueror, a usurper, and a tyrant. He had no Biblical right to set up occupation forces in Israel. No political scientist since 1776 would call his occupation "legitimate." It was evil. But Jesus says "resist not evil" (Matthew 5:39).

"Resist not" does not negate "evil." We are not to resist (use violence against) illegitimate government. 

This goes for individuals as well as nations. If nation X threatens to invade nation Y, and change nation Y's system of government from A to B, why is this worth killing over? Israel had been invaded by Caesar, and occupation forces stationed throughout the nation. It was religious idolatry and political tyranny. Paul said not to resist it. But it was still evil, and God would hold Caesar accountable for his political sins.

By these reasons, as it is probable, Paul was induced to establish, with greater care than usual, the authority of magistrates, and first he lays down a general precept, which briefly includes what he afterwards says: secondly, he subjoins an exposition and a proof of his precept. Paul's purpose is not to establish the "legitimacy" of tyrants and the organized force of occupation armies. His purpose is to apply the ethical standards of Romans 12 to the State.
He calls them the higher powers, not the supreme, who possess the chief authority, but such as excel other men. Magistrates are then thus called with regard to their subjects, and not as compared with each other. And it seems indeed to me, that the Apostle intended by this word to take away the frivolous curiosity of men, who are wont often to inquire by what right they who rule have obtained their authority; but it ought to be enough for us, that they do rule; for they have not ascended by their own power into this high station, but have been placed there by the Lordís hand. And by mentioning every soul, he removes every exception, lest any one should claim an immunity from the common duty of obedience.
He calls them "higher powers" because that is how we are to view them.
Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better [higher - same word] than themselves.
Philippians 2:3
To inquire into the legitimacy of government is not "frivolous curiosity," for such inquiry gave birth to the United States of America. To conclude that a government is illegitimate, however, does not justify violence against it. We are still to respond to illegitimate governments in a manner befitting a follower of the Prince of Peace (Matthew 5:41).
For there is no power, etc. The reason why we ought to be subject to magistrates is, because they are constituted by Godís ordination.
No, the reason why we ought to be subject to magistrates is because by so doing we become more like Christ.
For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.
1 Peter 2:21
Peter applies this reasoning to harsh slavemasters and political tyrants. Neither have ethical legitimacy, but as followers of the Executed Christ we submit to both.
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. God's providential government is indeed the key. But Providence is not the same as ethical approval. The State does not have God's ethical approval. Those who live by the sword will die by the sword.
Understand further, that powers are from God, not as pestilence, and famine, and wars, and other visitations for sin, are said to be from him; but because he has appointed them for the legitimate and just government of the world. We have disputed this assertion here:

God Sends EVIL!

That essay consists of dozens of Scripture passages which refute Calvin's assertion. That page is must-reading in this debate. This is the central issue in the debate. "The State" is "ordained" by God in the same way pestilence, famine, war, the destruction of Job's Household by Satan, and organized crime are all "ordained" by God. God is in control. But these events are evil. God Ordains Evil. 

The parallels between pestilence, famine, wars, and the State are striking and continuously asserted by Scripture. Indeed, "wars" are simply the instrument of the State. (How could Calvin miss this obvious point?) "War" is "the sword."

Further, throughout Scripture, the demonic powers that animate pestilence and famine are said to be the same "powers" that animate the State. This point is inescapable. Calvin needs to muster a great deal more evidence to refute our exposition. Here are just a few of the verses which could be cited to refute Calvin's assertion. Read his assertion again, then consider the following:

  • Leviticus 26:25 And I will bring a sword upon you, that shall avenge the quarrel of my covenant: and when ye are gathered together within your cities, I will send the pestilence among you; and ye shall be delivered into the hand of the enemy.
  • 2 Kings 19:7 Behold, I will send a blast upon him, and he shall hear a rumour, and shall return to his own land; and I will cause him to fall by the sword in his own land.
  • 2 Chronicles 20:9 If, when evil cometh upon us, as the sword, judgment, or pestilence, or famine, we stand before this house, and in thy presence, (for thy name is in this house,) and cry unto thee in our affliction, then thou wilt hear and help.
  • Jeremiah 9:16 I will scatter them also among the heathen, whom neither they nor their fathers have known: and I will send a sword after them, till I have consumed them.
  • Jeremiah 24:10 And I will send the sword, the famine, and the pestilence, among them, till they be consumed from off the land that I gave unto them and to their fathers.
  • Jeremiah 25:27,29 Therefore thou shalt say unto them, Thus saith the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel; Drink ye, and be drunken, and spue, and fall, and rise no more, because of the sword which I will send among you. {29} For, lo, I begin to bring evil on the city which is called by my name, and should ye be utterly unpunished? Ye shall not be unpunished: for I will call for a sword upon all the inhabitants of the land, saith the LORD of hosts.
  • Jeremiah 29:17 Thus saith the LORD of hosts; Behold, I will send upon them the sword, the famine, and the pestilence, and will make them like vile figs, that cannot be eaten, they are so evil.
  • Jeremiah 42:17 So shall it be with all the men that set their faces to go into Egypt to sojourn there; they shall die by the sword, by the famine, and by the pestilence: and none of them shall remain or escape from the evil that I will bring upon them.
  • Jeremiah 44:27 Behold, I will watch over them for evil, and not for good: and all the men of Judah that are in the land of Egypt shall be consumed by the sword and by the famine, until there be an end of them.
  • Jeremiah 49:37 For I will cause Elam to be dismayed before their enemies, and before them that seek their life: and I will bring evil upon them, even my fierce anger, saith the LORD; and I will send the sword after them, till I have consumed them:
  • Ezekiel 5:17 So will I send upon you famine and evil beasts, and they shall bereave thee; and pestilence and blood shall pass through thee; and I will bring the sword upon thee. I the LORD have spoken it.
  • Ezekiel 14:21 For thus saith the Lord GOD; How much more when I send my four sore judgments upon Jerusalem, the sword, and the famine, and the noisome beast, and the pestilence, to cut off from it man and beast?
  • Ezekiel 28:23 For I will send into her pestilence, and blood into her streets; and the wounded shall be judged in the midst of her by the sword upon her on every side; and they shall know that I am the LORD.
  • Amos 9:4 And though they go into captivity before their enemies, thence will I command the sword, and it shall slay them: and I will set mine eyes upon them for evil, and not for good.
  • Isaiah 10:5-7   O Assyrian, the rod of mine anger, and the staff in their hand is mine indignation. {6} I will send him against an hypocritical nation, and against the people of my wrath will I give him a command, to take the spoil, and to take the prey, and to tread them down like the mire of the streets. {7} Howbeit he meaneth not so, neither doth his heart think so; but it is in his heart to destroy and cut off nations not a few.
  • Acts 4:26-29   The kings of the earth stood up, and the rulers were gathered together against the Lord, and against His Christ. {27} For of a truth against thy holy child Jesus, whom thou hast anointed, both Herod, and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles, and the people of Israel, were gathered together, {28} For to do whatsoever Thy hand and Thy counsel determined before to be done. {29} And now, Lord, behold their threatenings: and grant unto thy servants, that with all boldness they may speak Thy Word,
  The sword is sent by God, and is His minister. The State never bears the sword in vain. God is always in control.

Calvin has really lost the war on this point. The links above completely shift the burden of proof to those who would legitimize the State. Unfortunately, Calvin is no longer around to engage the arguments above. Will one of his followers take up the gauntlet?

For though tyrannies and unjust exercise of power, as they are full of disorder, are not an ordained government; yet the right of government is ordained by God for the wellbeing of mankind. As it is lawful to repel wars and to seek remedies for other evils, hence the Apostle commands us willingly and cheerfully to respect and honor the right and authority of magistrates, as useful to men: for the punishment which God inflicts on men for their sins, we cannot properly call ordinations, but they are the means which he designedly appoints for the preservation of legitimate order. Now Calvin completely contradicts himself -- and Paul. Paul's message (and ours) is that God "ordains" all governments, even evil and tyrannical governments, and we are to submit to them. They are not ethically legitimate, and these rulers should repent, and resign their tyranny. But until they repent, we submit. It is not the case that "good" governments are "ordained" and we "submit" to them, while "bad" governments are not "ordained," and we need not "submit" to them; all governments are put in place by God, all of them are evil, and all are to be un-resisted. In fact, it makes no sense to command anyone to "submit" to anything but a bad government. Who would not submit to a government edict that one granted in advance was "good?"

The State is an instrument of God's providential judgment.

2. And they who resist, etc. As no one can resist God but to his own ruin, he threatens, that they shall not be unpunished who in this respect oppose the providence of God. Let us then beware, lest we incur this denunciation. And by judgment, I understand not only the punishment which is inflicted by the magistrate, as though he had only said, that they would be justly punished who resisted authority; but also the vengeance of God, however it may at length be executed: for he teaches us in general what end awaits those who contend with God. The problem is illustrated in our day by "tax protesters," who refuse to show hospitality to the stranger, and want government agents at the border keeping them out, but then are surprised when these jackbooted thugs start terrorizing the tax protesters and not just foreigners. The State is God's judgment. Our duty is repentance, not resistance.

Romans 13:3-4

3. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? Do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same:
4. For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.

3. For princes, etc. He now commends to us obedience to princes on the ground of utility; for the causative for is to be referred to the first proposition, and not to the last verse. Now, the utility is this, ó that the Lord has designed in this way to provide for the tranquillity of the good, and to restrain the waywardness of the wicked; by which two things the safety of mankind is secured: for except the fury of the wicked be resisted, and the innocent be protected from their violence, all things would come to an entire confusion. Since then this is the only remedy by which mankind can be preserved from destruction, it ought to be carefully observed by us, unless we wish to avow ourselves as the public enemies of the human race.

It is a myth that government brings tranquility. It is a myth that God sends armed thugs to bring tranquility. God sends the State to bring disorder. It is evil.

It is submission and Christlike morality that brings tranquility. The message of Romans 12-13 is that we respond do disorder with tranquility, we render good to those who bring evil.

Of course, no government claims to bring evil; they all claim to be "benefactors." And since they are all created in the Image of God, no ruler is 100% evil. We should applaud and encourage them when they speak the truth.

And he adds, Wilt not thou then fear the power? Do good. By this he intimates, that there is no reason why we should dislike the magistrate, if indeed we are good; nay, that it is an implied proof of an evil conscience, and of one that is devising some mischief, when any one wishes to shake off or to remove from himself this yoke. But he speaks here of the true, and, as it were, of the native duty of the magistrate, from which however they who hold power often degenerate; yet the obedience due to princes ought to be rendered to them. For since a wicked prince is the Lordís scourge to punish the sins of the people, let us remember, that it happens through our fault that this excellent blessing of God is turned into a curse. Chattel slavery is wrong. Jesus proclaimed perpetual emancipation. The slave owner who is not taking steps to move his slaves toward freedom and personal responsibility is sinning. The slave who is not preparing for freedom and personal responsibility is sinning. The State is in this same context. We should dislike slavemasters and tyrants, but we should serve them both, "Not with eyeservice, as menpleasers; but as the servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart" (Ephesians 6:5-6)

A good prince is an impossibility. The essential features of the State are evil. Rulers are only relatively less wicked.

Let us then continue to honor the good appointment of God, which may be easily done, provided we impute to ourselves whatever evil may accompany it. Hence he teaches us here the end for which magistrates are instituted by the Lord; the happy effects of which would always appear, were not so noble and salutary an institution marred through our fault. Evil government is indeed "our fault," but this does not mean tyrants should not repent. But our first focus should be on our own faults, not the speck in our emperor's eye.
At the same time, princes do never so far abuse their power, by harassing the good and innocent, that they do not retain in their tyranny some kind of just government: there can then be no tyranny which does not in some respects assist in consolidating the society of men. This is an argument which cannot be proven from Scripture. It rests on the assumptions and myths of secular political science. It claims that the elimination of any tyranny would result in more evil, greater disorder, increased lawlessness; that a tyrannical government does a better job of providing social order than no government at all. A number of hypotheticals can be raised to question this belief. If Joseph Stalin, his nomenklatura, and all agents of the KGB were "beamed up" to the brig of the U.S.S. Enterprise, and Christian capitalists and missionaries put in their place, would more people be sent to the gulags simply because there was no Soviet? Communist governments have murdered hundreds of millions of their own people. How could evil increase if these governments disappeared and laissez-faire capitalism were put in its place?

Of course, laissez-faire capitalism would not last long in a nation full of slaves, socialists, and thieves. They would soon create a new regime of institutionalized theft.

He has here noticed two things, which even philosophers have considered as making a part of a well-ordered administration of a commonwealth, that is, rewards for the good, and punishment for the wicked. The word praise has here, after the Hebrew manner, a wide meaning. Better than any government, and completely peacefully, laissez-faire capitalism rewards the good and punishes the evil. When people don't judge evil, take personal responsibility and apply sanctions, then God sends a State to judge them for their lazy disobedience.
4. For he is Godís minister for good, etc. 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 well-being of their subjects; in short, they are responsible to God and to men in the exercise of their power. For as they are deputed by God and do his business, they must give an account to him: and then the ministration which God has committed to them has a regard to the subjects, they are therefore debtors also to them. And private men are reminded, that it is through the divine goodness that they are defended by the sword of princes against injuries done by the wicked. Adolph Hitler, Saddam Hussein, and Osama bin Laden all "served" (diakoneo) God's purposes, and were therefore God's "ministers" (diakonoi).

We certainly agree with Calvin that all rulers should compare their actions with Biblical principles of morality, and that some rulers do this better than others. But this does not answer the question, Is it immoral to abolish the State and establish laissez-faire capitalism?

For they bear not the sword in vain, etc. 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 offenses as Godís 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. The "sword" is God's judgment. Calvin rightly indicated above that the context of Paul's teaching in Romans 13 is the armed invasion and occupation of Israel by Rome. This sinful act was God's judgment on sinful Israel. God sent the sword in His wrath and anger. This message of Paul is the message of the Prophets, but not the message of the political scientists.
And then he says, An avenger, to execute wrath, etc. This is the same as if it had been said, that he is an executioner of Godís wrath; and this he shows himself to be by having the sword, which the Lord has delivered into his hand. This is a remarkable passage for the purpose of proving the right of the sword; for if the Lord, by arming the magistrate, has also committed to him the use of the sword, whenever he visits the guilty with death, by executing Godís vengeance, he obeys his commands.
  • Acts 13:27-28 For they that dwell at Jerusalem, and their rulers, because they knew Him not, nor yet the voices of the prophets which are read every sabbath day, they have fulfilled them in condemning Him. {28} And though they found no cause of death in Him, yet desired they Pilate that He should be slain.

Calvin's words are correct, but his point is not proven. The magistrate has a duty to repent and resign.

Contend then do they with God who think it unlawful to shed the blood of wicked men.
  • Isaiah 10:12 Wherefore it shall come to pass, that when the Lord hath performed His whole work upon mount Zion and on Jerusalem, He will punish the fruit of the stout heart of the king of Assyria, and the glory of his high looks.

God arms His servants with the sword and commands them to do evil, then punishes them for doing so. It is remarkable that Calvin the predestinarian did not put these pieces of the puzzle together.

Romans 13:5-7

5. Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake.
6. For, for this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are Godministers, attending continually upon this very thing.
7. Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor.
 
5. It is therefore necessary, etc. What he had at first commanded as to the rendering of obedience to magistrates, he now briefly repeats, but with some addition, and that is, ó that we ought to obey them, not only on the ground of necessity arising from man, but that we thereby obey God; for by wrath he means the punishment which the magistrates inflict for the contempt of their dignity; as though he had said, ďWe must not only obey, because we cannot with impunity resist the powerful and those armed with authority, as injuries are wont to be borne with which cannot be repelled; but we ought to obey willingly, as conscience through Godís word thus binds us.Ē We ought to obey Hitler, Stalin, and Saddam Hussein:
  • Servants, obey in all things your masters according to the flesh; not with eyeservice, as menpleasers; but in singleness of heart, fearing God:
    Colossians 3:22

This command does not legitimize any slaveholder or czar.

Though then the magistrate were disarmed, so that we could with impunity provoke and despise him, yet such a thing ought to be no more attempted than if we were to see punishment suspended over us; for it belongs not to a private individual to take away authority from him whom the Lord has in power set over us. This whole discourse is concerning civil government; it is therefore to no purpose that they who would exercise dominion over consciences do hence attempt to establish their sacrilegious tyranny. Suppose we were conquered, and our ungodly, tyrannical conqueror, in a fit of egoism, cock-sure of his popularity, offered to put his entire rule up for a vote. Should we vote against him, and put the tyrant out of office? Calvin says no. (Though he elsewhere would say yes; he is bound here by a faulty interpretation of Romans 13, based more on Aristotle than the Law and the Prophets.) Caesar had no moral right whatsoever to impose military occupation on Israel. But God sent Caesar, and Caesar was God's minister.
6. For this reason also, etc. He takes occasion to introduce the subject of tributes, the reason for which he deduces from the office of magistrates; for if it be their duty to defend and safely preserve the peace of the good, and to resist the mischievous attempts of the wicked, this they cannot do unless they are aided by sufficient force. Tributes then are justly paid to support such necessary expenses. God says "Thou shalt not steal." This means taxation is immoral. Romans 13 says nothing to detract from that logic. All Romans 13 says is that when someone named Caesar attempts to violate the 8th Commandment at our expense, we should not return evil for his evil.
But respecting the proportion of taxes or tributes, this is not the place to discuss the subject; nor does it belong to us either to prescribe to princes how much they ought to expend in every affair, or to call them to an account. It yet behooves them to remember, that whatever they receive from the people, is as it were public property, and not to be spent in the gratification of private indulgence. For we see the use for which Paul appoints these tributes which are to be paid ó even that kings may be furnished with means to defend their subjects. This is amazing, but logical, given Calvin's Aristotelian premises. This is a complete denial of "consent of the governed." Anyone who has ever voted against a bond measure or against a candidate because he might raise taxes has violated Calvin's injunction. But Calvin is wrong. He is wrong because the entire political presupposition upon which he bases his exposition of Romans 13 is wrong. Our purpose is to destroy that presupposition and replace it with one of "Anarcho-Theocracy."
7. Render then to all what is due, etc. The Apostle seems here summarily to include the particulars in which the duties of subjects towards magistrates consist, ó that they are to hold them in esteem and honor, that they are to obey their edicts, laws, and judgments, ó that they are to pay tributes and customs. By the word fear, he means obedience; by customs and tributes, not only imposts and taxes, but also other revenues. Jesus says "give to him who asks." Jesus says "resist not evil." "Resist not" does not negate "evil." Taxation is theft, even if Christ commands us to pay.
Now this passage confirms what I have already said, ó that we ought to obey kings and governors, whoever they may be, not because we are constrained, but because it is a service acceptable to God; for he will have them not only to be feared, but also honored by a voluntary respect. Peter says Christians are to "honour all men" (1 Peter 2:17), not just the king. Paul says this command applies to the king no matter how ungodly he may be.
  Calvin is correct to take a conservative stand as against those "tumultuous spirits who believe that . . . they cannot enjoy the liberty given by Christ, except they shake off every yoke of human subjection." The question being asked on this website is not what our duties are to the powers that be, but what duties Christians have when they are given the choice to expand the power of the State. If given the choice, they ought to abolish it.


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