Calvin's Defense of Politics

Institutes of the Christian Religion
Book IV, Chap. XX

  1. Objections of Anabaptists to this view. These answered.

10. The magistrates' exercise of force is compatible with piety

But here a difficulty and, as it seems, a perplexing question arises. If all Christians are forbidden to kill, and the prophet predicts concerning the holy mountain of the Lords that is, the Church, "They shall not hurt or destroy," how can magistrates be at once pious and yet shedders at blood?

This is certainly an important question, given the fact that in the 20th century civil magistrates put over 10,000 people to death per day. The question is better put, however: is it Biblical for the State to put even one person to death, intentionally and premeditatedly?
But if we understand that the magistrate, in inflicting punishment, acts not of himself, but executes the very judgements of God, we shall be disencumbered of every doubt. The law of the Lord forbids to kill; but, that murder may not go unpunished, the Lawgiver himself puts the sword into the hands of his ministers, that they may employ it against all murderers. It belongs not to the pious to afflict and hurt, but to avenge the afflictions of the pious, at the command of God, is neither to afflict nor hurt. I wish it could always be present to our mind, that nothing is done here by the rashness of man, but all in obedience to the authority of God. When it is the guide, we never stray from the right path, unless, indeed, divine justice is to be placed under restraint, and not allowed to take punishment on crimes. But if we dare not give the law to it, why should we bring a charge against its ministers? "He beareth not the sword in vain," says Paul, "for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath on him that does evil," (Rom. 13: 4.) Wherefore, if princes and other rulers know that nothing will be more acceptable to God than their obedience, let them give themselves to this service if they are desirous, to approve their piety, justice, and integrity to God. Doubt remains, because God says it is HIS prerogative to take vengeance (Romans 12).

God never commanded man to kill as a means of "punishing." God said that if anyone sheds innocent blood, his blood must be shed. Not for punishment, but for atonement, to cleanse the land. This is a theological issue which deserves further study.




"The sword" is a metaphor for war. Saddam Hussein does not bear the sword in vain, but he sins when he kills. Every State-sanctioned death is a sin, but every murder by the State serves God's purposes. Assyria was God's "minister" when she murdered and raped Israel. But Assyria sinned by doing what God predestined, just as Judas Iscariot did. This is a profoundly important concept, deserving more study.

This was the feeling of Moses when, recognising himself as destined to deliver his people by the power of the Lord, he laid violent hands on the Egyptian, and afterwards took vengeance on the people for sacrilege, by slaying three thousand of them in one day. This was the feeling of David also, when, towards the end of his life, he ordered his son Solomon to put Joab and Shimei to death. Hence, also, in an enumeration of the virtues of a king, one is to cut off the wicked from the earth, and banish all workers of iniquity from the city of God. To the same effect is the praise which is bestowed on Solomon, "Thou lovest righteousness, and hatest wickedness."

How is it that the meek and gentle temper of Moses becomes so exasperated, that, besmeared and reeking with the blood of his brethren, he runs through the camp making new slaughter? How is it that David, who, during his whole life, showed so much mildness, almost at his last breath leaves with his son the bloody testament, not to allow the grey hairs of Joab and Shimei to go to the grave in peace? Both, by their sternness, sanctified the hands which they would have polluted by showing mercy, inasmuch as they executed the vengeance committed to them by God. Solomon says, "It is an abomination to kings to commit wickedness; for the throne is established by righteousness." Again, "A king that sitteth in the throne of judgement, scattereth away all evil with his eyes." Again, "A wise king scattereth the wicked, and bringeth the wheel over them." Again, "Take away the dross from the silver, and there shall come forth a vessel for the finer. Take away the wicked from before the king, and his throne shall be established in righteousness." Again "He that justifieth the wicked, and he that condemneth the just, even they both are abomination to the Lord." Again, "An evil man seeketh only rebellion, therefore an evil messenger shall be sent against him." Again, "He that saith unto the wicked, Thou art righteous; him shall the people curse, nations shall abhor him."

What was the feeling of the elders of the city in Deuteronomy 21:1-9 when they shed the blood of a heifer to atone for the shedding of innocent blood by an unknown murderer? What would be the feeling of a town council that chose to obey that passage today? Would it not be a feeling that the blood of Christ was ineffectual to cleanse their city of the bloodguiltiness of an unsolved homicide? Should anybody shed the blood of a heifer to bring civic atonement? Then why shed the blood of a human being?

You shall not pollute the land in which you live; for blood pollutes the land, and no atonement can be made for the land, for the blood that is shed in it, except by the blood of the one who shed it.
Numbers 35:33

It does no good to pile on verses which order magistrates to "do justly" and condemn the guilty, if it hasn't been proven that shedding blood would be justice after Christ's work on the Cross.

Is it just to shed the blood of a heifer in the case of an unsolved homicide? Is this what God requires in our day? If we solve the case and identify the murderer, does God require us to make atonement by shedding the killer's blood?

Now, if it is true justice in them to pursue the guilty and impious with drawn sword, then to sheath the sword, and keep their hands pure from blood, while nefarious men wade through murder and slaughter, so far from redounding to the praise of their goodness and justice, would be to incur the guilt of the greatest impiety; provided, always, they eschew reckless and cruel asperity, and that tribunal which may be justly termed a rock on which the accused must founder. For I am not one of those who would either favour an unseasonable severity, or think that any tribunal could be accounted just that is not presided over by mercy, that best and surest counsellor of kings, and, as Solomon declares, "upholder of the throne," (Prov. 20: 28.) This, as was truly said by one of old, should be the primary endowment of princes.

The magistrate must guard against both extremes; he must neither, by excessive severity, rather wound than cure, nor by a superstitious affectation of clemency, fall into the most cruel inhumanity, by giving way to soft and dissolute indulgence to the destruction of many. It was well said by one under the empire of Nerva, It is indeed a bad thing to live under a prince with whom nothing is lawful, but a much worse to live under one with whom all things are lawful.

Is it true justice to draw the sword? That is the question Calvin assumes rather than answers.

But let us assume that God does in fact require the shedding of blood to make atonement. Where does Scripture say that only the State can draw the sword? If a murder is witnessed by a dozen people, what prevents them from drawing the sword right then and there and shedding the killer's blood in order to effectuate a hasty atonement? Why allow bloodguiltiness to pollute the land while we wait for the State? Where does God order a monopoly in the hands of "the State?"



Given the barbarity of some magistrates in Calvin's day, his advice is appropriate. In the 21st century it is time, however, to ask new questions: Does God require the shedding of blood in our day? Nobody is qualified for public service who has not wrestled with these questions.