Calvin's Defense of Politics

Institutes of the Christian Religion
Book IV, Chap. XX

  1. Divine appointment of Magistrates. Effect which this ought to have on Magistrates themselves.

6. Magistrates should be faithful as God's deputies

This consideration ought to be constantly present to the minds of magistrates since it is fitted to furnish a strong stimulus to the discharge of duty, and also afford singular consolation, smoothing the difficulties of their office, which are certainly numerous and weighty. What zeal for integrity, prudence, meekness, continence, and innocence ought to sway those who know that they have been appointed ministers of the divine justice! How will they dare to admit iniquity to their tribunal, when they are told that it is the throne of the living God? How will they venture to pronounce an unjust sentence with that mouth which they understand to be an ordained organ of divine truth? With what conscience will they subscribe impious decrees with that hand which they know has been appointed to write the acts of God? In a word, if they remember that they are the vicegerents of God, it behaves them to watch with all care, diligences and industry, that they may in themselves exhibit a kind of image of the Divine Providence, guardianship, goodness, benevolence, and justice. And let them constantly keep the additional thought in view, that if a curse is pronounced on him that "does the work of the Lord deceitfully" a much heavier curse must lie on him who deals deceitfully in a righteous calling. Therefore, when Moses and Jehoshaphat would urge their judges to the discharge of duty, they had nothing by which they could more powerfully stimulate their minds than the consideration to which we have already referred, - "Take heed what ye do: for ye judge not for man, but for the Lord, who is with you in the judgement. Wherefore now let the fear of the Lord be upon you; take heed and do it: for there is no iniquity with the Lord our God, nor respect of persons nor taking of gifts," (2 Chron. 19: 6, 7, compared with Deut. 1: 16, &c.) And in another passage it is said, "God standeth in the congregation of the mighty; he judgeth among the gods," (Psalm 82: 1; Isaiah 3: 14,) that they may be animated to duty when they hear that they are the ambassadors of God, to whom they must one day render an account of the province committed to them. This admonition ought justly to have the greatest effect upon them; for if they sin in any respect, not only is injury done to the men whom they wickedly torment, but they also insult God himself, whose sacred tribunals they pollute. On the other hand, they have an admirable source of comfort when they reflect that they are not engaged in profane occupations, unbefitting a servant of God, but in a most sacred office, inasmuch as they are the ambassadors of God.


This argument was mentioned briefly in our analysis of the previous section. We argued that the function of these titles of honor given to the State was not to limit citizen efforts to reclaim personal responsibility and reduce the power of the State, but was to motivate politicians to greater godliness. Calvin now expands on this point, and we don't disagree with any of it. Divine commands to politicians to be more Godly does not prove that we cannot eliminate them (non-violently) and entrust their efforts at planning to the Free Market. Study the Functions of Biblical Rhetoric.

If a politician took seriously the 8th Commandment ("Thou shalt not steal") would he send armed thugs from the IRS out amongst the people to achieve "revenue enhancement" objectives? Would he seize property because he declared it a "wetlands?"

If a politician took seriously the 6th Commandment ("Thou shalt not kill") would he drop bombs on third world peasants? 

We certainly agree with Calvin that politicians ought to take God's Law seriously, and we agree that many of the passages he cites were designed to accomplish that. What we disagree on is what would happen if politicians kept on taking God's Law seriously. We believe they would eventually resign.



Psalm 82 is not a comfort to politicians. In fact, many passages sound like encouragements to righteousness are actually threats of judgment.




It is not just politicians who are to be ambassadors of God (2 Corinthians 5:20)