Calvin on War

Written by David T. Crum |
Wednesday, January 17, 2024

Since the fall of mankind, the Lord has been carrying out judgment on wickedness, often resulting in death in battle or wars. When disasters occur, or wars start, rest assured that the Lord is at work. It may be humanly impossible for us to ascertain the purpose, but Christians can find solace in knowing God remains in control.

This is a remarkable passage for the purpose of providing 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 God’s vengeance, he obeys his commands. Contend then do they with God who think it unlawful to shed the blood of wicked men.
—John Calvin

It is true that Christians should abhor war. Imitating the teachings of the Lord, believers are called to live a life of peace. A valuable example occurred when Jesus ordered Peter to put down his sword (Matthew 26:52). Much the same, Stephen sought prayers for those stoning him to death (Acts 7:60), not vengeance.

However, the concept and call to peace do not negate the fact that warfare is present in this fallen world. And it is clear through war that the Lord’s providence occurs.

Among the great Reformers, John Calvin garnered wide recognition for upholding a reputation of peace. John Knox, famous for carrying the Bible in one hand and a sword in the other, remained a bit fierier than his mentor (Calvin). Luther, like Knox, defended his own movement aggressively. Luther commented on war, “For if the sword were not on guard to preserve peace, everything in the world must go to ruin because of lack of peace. Adding, “When men write about war, then and say that it is a great plague, that is all true; but they should also see how great the plague is that it prevents.”[1]

Luther and Knox had merit for their aggressive response to the Papacy and darkness needing to be confronted by the sword. Calvin frequently discussed war, too. He wrote:

He (God) bids us to live chastely and refrain from all violence. However, when wars break out in the world, when there is bloodshed and countless acts of rape, will we say when these occur that God failed in his counsel to consider what was right? Do we think that he would let fortune prevail, as if he were asleep in heaven, or was enjoying a delightful rest? What a blasphemous idea! It would be like making God into an idol…If God did not determine everything in this world and keep Satan and all his evildoers in check, we would most certainly be doomed to perish a hundred times every minute of the day. Moreover, unless we realize that wars and similar things are judgments which God uses to punish our sins, we would surely not be brought to repentance.[2]

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