Obedience to Rulers According to John Calvin

John Calvin (1509-1564), in his commentary on the Letter to the Romans, made two points regarding the obedience of Christians to civil governments. First, governments are appointed by God to be just and lawful. Second, if a once excellent and beneficial institution is corrupted, it is likely to be the result of the failure of the people governed.

The main thrust of Romans 13:1-8 is the obligation of Christians not to act in ways contrary to their ruler’s desire. However, since the king of France and its Roman Catholic Church wanted Calvin to return so that he could be tried and executed, Calvin needed to dig deep in Scripture to justify not obeying those who claimed the right to be his rulers and judges. For us, Calvin provided this teaching on obedience to civil governments in Institutes of the Christian Religion. He writes as follows:

“But in that obedience which we hold to be due to the commands of rulers, we must always make the exception, no, must be particularly careful that it is not incompatible with the obedience to Him to whose will the wishes of all kings should be subject, to whose decrees their commands must yield, to whose majesty their scepters must bow. And, indeed, how preposterous were it, in pleasing men, to incur the offence of him for whose sake you obey men!

“The Lord, therefore, is King of kings. When he opens his sacred mouth, he alone is to be heard, instead of all and above all. We are subject to the men who rule over us, but subject in the Lord. If they command anything against him let us not pay the least regard to it, nor be moved by all the dignity which they possess as magistrates—a dignity to which no injury is done when it is subordinated to the special and truly supreme power of God. On this ground Daniel denies that he had sinned in any respect against the king when he refused to obey his impious decree (Daniel 6:22) because the king had exceed his limits, and not only been injurious to men, but, by raising his horn against God, had virtually abrogated his own power.

“On the other hand, the Israelites are condemned for having too readily obeyed the impious edict of the king, For, when Jeroboam made the golden calf, they forsook the temple of God, and, in submissiveness to him, revolted to new superstitions (1 Kings 12:28). With the same facility posterity had bowed before the decrees of their kings. For this they are severely upbraided by the prophet (Hosea 5:11). So far is the praise of modesty from being due to that presence by which flattering courtiers cloak themselves, and deceive the simple, when they deny the lawfulness of declining anything imposed by their kings, as if the Lord had resigned his own rights to mortals by appointing them to rule over their fellows, or as if earthly power were diminished when it is subjected to its author, before whom even the principalities of heaven tremble as suppliants.

“I know the imminent peril to which subjects expose themselves by this firmness, kings being most indignant when they are contemned. As Solomon says, ‘The wrath of a king is as messengers of death’ (Proverbs 16:14) But since Peter, one of heaven’s heralds, has published the edict, ‘We ought to obey God rather than men’ (Acts 5:29), let us console ourselves with the thought, that we are rendering the obedience which the Lord requires, when we endure anything rather than turn aside from piety. And that our courage may not fail, Paul stimulates us by the additional consideration (1 Corinthians 7:23), that we were redeemed by Christ at the great price which our redemption cost him, in order that we might not yield a slavish obedience to the depraved wishes of men, far less do homage to their impiety.”

John Calvin, trans. by Henry Beveridge, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book Fourth, Chapter 20 Of Civil Government, Section 32 Obedience due only in so far as compatible with the word of God, (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers), 2008, p. 988.