October 25, 2020

Calvin on Loving Our Neighbors

By Chaplain Mike

As I have been thinking and reading about the doctrine of Vocation lately, it struck me that one of the foundations this teaching is built upon is the theology of common grace.

One group of Christians that has thought (and battled!) about common grace are the Calvinists. In fact, debates and conflicts over the doctrine in the 1920’s led to a split in Dutch-American Midwestern Reformed churches, with the Protestant Reformed Church breaking away from the Christian Reformed Church in 1925. Richard J. Mouw wrote an excellent book reflecting on disputes within Calvinism over this doctrine, called, He Shines in All That’s Fair: Culture and Common Grace.

Luther, who emphasized that good works cannot bring us into saving relationship with God, also stressed that those who have received God’s grace in Christ are called into a life of good works. Luther defines these good works as acts of love and service toward our neighbors. These works are not those done by people with special “religious” vocations, cloistered away from the world, doing their works for God. Rather, they are the practical deeds of kindness that we do for one another in society.

Lutheran teaching on Vocation stresses that God is active in the world, and one of the ways in which he is most active is through human vocations. They take a “two kingdoms” approach. God rules his spiritual kingdom and extends his grace to sinners through means—the Word and Sacraments which bring us into relationship with Christ and nurture our relationship with God and his family. God also rules his earthly kingdom by means. In this realm, he does so through human beings, both believers and unbelievers, fulfilling their vocations by his common grace.

Calvinists, on the other hand, have sometimes stressed a doctrine of antithesis so strongly—the distinction between the elect and reprobates—that they have subsumed all or most of God’s work in the world under the single umbrella of his purpose in sending people to heaven or hell. Their understanding of human depravity has been taught in such a way that little or no recognition is given to the gifts, talents, and contributions of non-Christians, and the appropriate response of Christians to the world is more or less strict separation from it.

John Calvin himself did not teach this. Passages throughout his writings reveal that he had a robust doctrine of common grace, emphasizing that the Spirit of God is active in the world and in the lives of all humans, working real good in all humankind, including religious aspirations, moral behavior, brotherly love and society, artistic and scientific achievements, and the establishment of sound systems of government and justice.

The following is a passage from Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion that emphasizes how we, as believers, should view our neighbors and serve them in love as fellow bearers of God’s image.

Therefore, whatever man you meet who needs your aid, you have no reason to refuse to help him. Say, “He is a stranger”‘ but the Lord has given him a mark that ought to be familiar to you, by virtue of the fact that he forbids you to despise your own flesh (Isa 58:7). Say, “He is contemptible and worthless”; but the Lord shows him to be one to whom he has deigned to give the beauty of his image. Say that you owe nothing for any service of his; but God, as it were, has put him in his own place in order that you may recognize toward him the many and great benefits which God has bound you to himself. Say that he does not deserve even your least effort for his sake; but the image of God, which recommends him to you, is worthy of your giving yourself and all your possessions. Now if he has not only deserved no good at your hand, but has also provoked you by unjust causes and curses, not even this is just reason why you should cease to embrace him in love and to perform the duties of love on his behalf (Matt. 6:14, 18:35, Luke 17:3). You will say, “He has deserved something far different of me.” Yet what has the Lord deserved? While he bids you forgive this man for all sins he has committed against you, he would truly have them charged against himself. Assuredly there is but one way in which to achieve what is not merely difficult but utterly against human nature: to love those who hate us, to repay their evil deeds with benefits, to return blessings for reproaches (Matt. 5:44). It is that we remember not to consider men’s evil intention but to look upon the image of God in them, which cancels and effaces their transgressions, and with its beauty and dignity allures us to love and embrace them.

• Book III, ch. VII, section 6


  1. Thanks Mike for posting this. This is a side of Calvin most folks are completely unaware of.

    • Yes, in the paragraph before CM said “John Calvin himself did not teach this” I was thinking the same thing and hoping that Calvin wouldn’t get lumped in with abusers of his theology.

      Thanks for pointing out this positive teaching of Calvin, CM.

  2. Yeah, Calvin was a big proponent of loving one’s neighbor. That is unless one has a theological disagreement with one’s neighbor. At that point one should seek to have one’s neighbor condemned as a heretic and burned at the stake.

    I wonder what Mr. Servetus would think about Calvin’s orthopraxy…

    • Do you so quickly condemn King David for his murder and adultery by ignoring the better part of the Psalms? I am not a Calvinist by any means but we are indeed all flawed creatures and sometimes we make really big mistakes.

      • That’s an improper comparison.

        David repented.

        Calvin did not.

        • How does repentance come into play? Not saying what he did was right, but conviction is in the heart of the believer and the work of the Spirit. There is a historical element and context that, while not excusing the act, conditions the response.

          The good Lord made us judge of none and brother of all. Saying I can’t learn from someone because they screwed up and didn’t say sorry is missing the point and really hinders our growth. I have learned a lot from some really un-repentant folks if only that I need to be a bit more humble. This is because if, every time someone quotes Calvin, as an Arminian I follow the cartoon linked below and shout ‘Servetus‘ than I am doing a dis-service to my brothers in Christ working out their salvation.

          I know the last thing Calvinist‘s want is an Arminian trying to defend them, so I’ll be quiet now. 🙂

          • I think that repentance matters a great deal when it comes to leadership in the church. I am not saying in any way that we should reject Calvin as a follower of Jesus and part of God’s church.

            I think people tend to place keep these scenarios at an historical distance and then lose sight of how they would truly respond.

            If your pastor applied his/her theological convictions in a manner which resulted in condemning a theological rival to burning on a stake would you still feel ethically/theologically comfortable following that pastor as a minister to God’s church?

            Would that answer change if the pastor repented of the decision?

            How about if the pastor never repented of the decision and instead went on to publish a substantial essay defending the decision as a proper Christian response (as Calvin did)?

            Back to David – Do you think David would be the prominent figure of the OT that he is if, after his actions against Uriah were made public, he responded by defending those actions the rest of life?

          • For clarification – I am not really an Anti-Calvinist. I recognize the vast theological contribution Calvin made to Christianity. I am simply examining the manner in which Calvin applied this theology in his own life. I am disturbed by the excerpt which Chaplin Mike posted here because it is directly opposed to how Calvin responded to Servetus. I completely agree that responding to every quote of Calvin by shouting, “SERVETUS” is unhelpful and uncharitable. I merely believe that in this situation it is appropriate.

    • I am not a historian by any stretch of the imagination, so please, if anyone reads this and sees error, correct it.

      That was largely a product of the times. I’m not saying that it doesn’t matter, and I’m not saying that it wasn’t wrong. It was. Obviously. But times were different, and it wasn’t just about “I’m right and if you disagree then I KEEL YOU!!!” There was a much, much higher view of Church authority back then. In fact, it was a Catholic view of church authority; only the Church had been given the right to interpret Scripture, and to disagree with her interpretation was not a matter of opinion, but serious rebellion against Christ and His earthly Kingdom. That’s something that often gets overlooked today, because the dominant view now is that everyone is entitled to interpret Scripture themselves, which means we have to give people room to disagree when they interpret it differently. Luther and Calvin both took this Catholic view of Church authority in interpreting Scripture, but they believed that the Catholic Church had screwed it up and was no longer the One True Church, and that they were getting back to it.

      And, let’s be honest, Calvin wasn’t the only one killing heretics. Again, that doesn’t absolve him at all, but it does make painting him as some particularly evil theocrat a rather unfair description.

      • Isaac (the poster formerly known as Obed) says

        And you also has a lot of church authority tied up in the temporal authority. So, in Spain, being anti-Catholic was considered to be an enemy of the Spanish Crown. And in England under Elizabeth, to be a catholic was equated with being a supporter of Elizabeth’s enemies. Just as examples. Religious freedom wasn’t highly valued in 16th and 17th Century Europe.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          So, in Spain, being anti-Catholic was considered to be an enemy of the Spanish Crown.

          Spain reacted to the Reformation Wars by defining themselves as Uber Uber Uber Uber Catholic (i.e. much more Catholic than the Pope) and firewalling it to the point of madness. Until every other word out of the King of Spain’s mouth was “Holy”.

          • Uh, yeah, and it was that 16th-century, Medieval, anti-Reformation Catholicism that was brought to the Spanish colonies in the New World. It’s been changing, though, as the RC church in Latin America has weakened in the 20th century and evangelicos have made headway.

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says

            If the Evangelicos are bringing “Evangelicalism” a la Benny Hinn or Hal Lindsay to third-world Latin America, that’s not going to be an improvement. Prosperity Gospel, Grinning Apocalyptism, and/or Me Sheep You Goat theological blood feuds are just going to mess them up like they did us Norteamericanos.

          • Let’s pray that more of a Jesus-Shaped-Spirituality form of evangelicalism develops in Latin America than what you described, HUG. Sadly, it appears that it isn’t the case.

          • Funny you should mention Benny Hinn, HUG. My oldest daughter did a college semester in the Dominican Republic a couple of years ago and she used to hang out with some friends of ours, a Haitian pastor and his family there in the DR. They took her into Santo Domingo to a Benny Hinn event, probably to be nice to her. She was apalled, without having the heart to break it to them, and my hope is that Hinn didn’t translate well into Spanish. I had never heard of the guy until she mentioned him, now he’s showing up all the time, especially on internetmonk.com.

            Most of the evangelicalismo that I’m involved with is pretty straightforward stuff, in Ecuador and also the DR. Baptists, pretty similar to home, with a Latin American style. Interestingly but not surprisingly, they don’t worship their flag and country like Evangelicals in the US do (they have had their disappointments with government) and I’ve even heard a sermon from an independent Baptist pastor denouncing one of GW Bush’s wars, but I forget which one (the war, not the pastor). Impossible from an independent Baptist here.

            Also refreshing is the Canadian presence on some of our trips. Evangelicals north of the border (at least the ones who travel with us south of the border) act like they’re from a parallel universe, God bless ’em. They do bring silly hats with red maple leaves on them and try to convert us to Canadianism, but they don’t quite “get” our confusion of gospel with flag and the obligatory pre-emptive strike mentality that accompanies said flag.

            This has almost nothing to do with Calvin.

        • Religious freedom was VERY highly valued by some Christians 16th and 17th century Europe. That was the cry of every martyred Anabaptist.

          • “That was the cry of every martyred Anabaptist.”

            And it was their cry because every other group liked to kill Anabaptists …

            Without absolving Calvin, I think its wise to remember that virtually no one believed in religious tolerance at the time — the only question was who would be in power in a polity, and who would be at risk for persecution.

          • Danielle,
            Actually the Anabaptists really did believe in religious tolerance. They actually didn’t want political power as they believed the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of this world could not mix. It is a hallmark of the Anabaptist tradition. Anabaptist did not participate in the state in any way so they certainly would not be involved with politically prosecuting someone for religious beliefs.

          • Oh yes — I wasn’t disagreeing with you, just pointing out that one of the things that really cemented anabaptist views of religion and state was their experience with this fact.

          • Alright. That makes sense. I would definitely say that their main ideas were formed primarily by the Gospels (Sermon on the Mount in particular). However, I think you have a point that it was the response to their ideas by other reformers that gave them some real experiences to hang their theology on.

      • I don’t think I painted him as a “particularly evil theocrat.” I was simply pointing out that he boldly acted to cause the murder of a man he disagreed with theologically.

        Is burning someone at the stake because of a theological dispute an appropriate way of loving ones neighbor?

        The idea that others acted similarly may help to paint a picture of what a tragic period of time Calvin was living in but it does not serve to make his crime any more palatable.

    • Calvin openly said that all truth resides in no one person, himself included. His words are often fiery and they bother me even as a supporter. But he came from a passionate era where people around him really were slaughtered for their faith and strong words don’t seem that out of place. I also note that he was a devoted friend of Melancthon, one of the stalwarts of Lutheranism, even though he disagreed with him on many points. And in addition, even though Luther never really warmed to Calvin, Calvin said he would always honor Luther as a man of God though he (Luther) were to call him (Calvin) a devil. I think those sentiments show the real Calvin.

  3. As mentioned here Calvin had very different view about common grace and how God can use even non-Christians. I think this was in his theology and also very much from the culture of his time. Community and things like hospitality was very important virtue back than. But i think the problem was that Calvin recorded his theology but never deconstructed and recorded his culture for people of the future to understand. So when we just take his written theology without understanding his culture, we can easily come away with everything about heaven and hell and nothing about common grace. just a thought.

  4. A contemporary and more succint restatement of Calvin’s words comprises one of my favorite C.S. Lewis quotes from “The Weight of Glory”:

    “You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations — these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit — immortal horrors or everlasting splendours.”

    Jesus’ words were even more concise: “Love thy neighbor.” Not much wiggle room there.

    • You would be surprised how some extremists-fundamentalist ‘Christians’ have limited the idea of the Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of Mankind, and ‘who is my neighbor’.

      I have listened to some who only accept as ‘brothers’ and ‘neighbors’ their own kind. They have used the Scriptures to argue a ‘logical’ case for negativity and mean-spirited treatment of ‘others’ that they call ‘truth in love’.
      The exposure to that kind of thing has left me shaken, as I feel like I am looking into the abyss.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        You would be surprised how some extremists-fundamentalist ‘Christians’ have limited the idea of the Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of Mankind, and ‘who is my neighbor’.

        “Us Four,
        No More
        (and I’m not sure about the other three),

      • What surprises me is how we bend language to suit our purposes. The command to “Love thy neighbor” is both extreme and fundamental. I wish we could find some other names to call those extremists-fundamentalists you refer to.

        The Lewis quote makes an important corollary point about corporate beings vs. individuals …corporates are as gnats to us and are surely mortal. To my mind, that would include cults, denominations, political parties and religious/philosophical pigeon holes. Don’t let the gnats get to you. Deal with them one at a time. Name names. Hold the individual accountable, as will God himself. Poor and evil decisions are made by people, not companies, committees or congregations.

        But I know who you mean, Christiane, and their sometimes warped interpretation of scripture does not surprise me, but only dismays. The corruption of original doctrine is not unique to Christianity, but seems to be rampant wherever “religion” tends to wander. (Buddha had no god, but his followers have millions of ’em!) The abyss is real …so don’t look down. Chin up, so to speak. Or, in my case, both of ’em. :>)

        • For me, ‘extremist-fundamentalist’ describes those of ANY religion that ‘teaches hatred of the religious/ethnic ‘others’ (see David Gushee’s remarks below, as they are ‘spot one’):

          “I remember the first time it became crystal clear to me that there is no such thing as Christianity, but only competing Christianities. It was when I was working on my doctoral dissertation on Christians who rescued Jews during the Holocaust. During that time I attended a most remarkable conference in New York on hidden children of the Holocaust. This gathering brought together the now-grown adults who had hidden from the Nazis to survive. Some of these children were saved by Christian families.

          The most memorable speaker for me was a hidden child, and now a sociologist, named Nechama Tec. A Polish Jew, she survived the war hiding with Christians. She was asked after her address whether it was Christianity that motivated her rescuers. Her unforgettable response went like this: “It wasn’t just any kind of Christianity that would motivate a rescuer. Only a certain kind of Christianity would lead someone to risk their lives for us.

          A certain kind of Christianity — the phrase stayed with me. It is enormously helpful. From hard experience, young Nechama Tec learned the difference between versions of Christianity that teach hatred of the religious/ethnic other and versions that teach sacrificial and inclusive love. Her very survival depended on being able to tell the difference between these competing Christianities and the people who embodied them. ” David Gushee

          from David Gushee’s article:

          ‘Extremist-fundamentalist ‘Christianity’ is NOT THE SAME as the religion of Christianity that teaches us that ‘greater love hath no man that he lay down his life for another’.
          I have no doubt that extremist-fundamentalist ‘Christianity’ is a religion unto itself, very introverted and contorted into something that is ‘not of Christ’.

  5. Randy Thompson says

    So, is Calvin a Calvinist? I tend to think not.

  6. I’ve heard it said that Calvin and Luther met once and agreed on all theology except the Lord’s Supper. I’ve also heart that used to argue that Luther was a Calvinist and Lutheran’s get all their theology from that other dude (M something). But here it seems a little more likely to me that Calvin was a Lutheran!

    • Steve Newell says

      It was Zwingli that Luther met with not Calvin. Calvin’s writings came after Luther began the Reformation. Calvin didn’t break away from Rome until 1530.

  7. david carlson says

    Calvinists have been rewriting Calvin ever since his death.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      There’s an apocryphal story told about both Charles Darwin and Karl Marx. Late in their lives (after their ideas had taken off and developed intense followings), Darwin said “I am not a Darwinist” and Marx said “I am not a Marxist.”

  8. david carlson says

    Just in case anyone contends that this post is a characture of Calvinists, please see the series of posts on social justice by Kevin DeYoung, which in his conclusion states

    (3) We should note that almost all the references to caring for the poor in the Bible are references to the poor within the covenant community. The “least of these” in Matthew 25 are our brothers in Christ, most likely traveling missionaries in need of hospitality. Paul was eager to help the poor, but his concern was for the impoverished church in Jerusalem. It is simply not accurate to say, in the words of one popular book, “The Bible is clear from the Old Testament through the New that God’s people always had a responsibility to see that everyone in their society was cared for at a basic-needs level.” You can make a good case that the church has a responsibility to see that everyone in their local church community is cared for, but you cannot make a very good case that the church must be the social custodian for everyone in their society. Christians are enjoined to do good to all people, but the priority is “especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Gal. 6:10).

    Only to a calvinist does the plain reading of scripture turn especiallyinto only


    • Perhaps “especially” Calvinists but not “only.”

      I’ve heard the same lamentable argument from a Wisconsin synod Lutheran pastor in the Southwest and the pastor of an independent, dispensational Baptist church in the Northwest. The Baptist took it so far as to say that if you were to come across, say, a car accident wtih several victims, you should try first to discern which victims are Christians and help them first. Chew on that for awhile. The Lutheran didn’t go that far, but he saw the ‘household of faith’ as his synod. It should come as no suprise that both pastors were hostile to the idea of social justice.

      I’m positive many, many Lutherans and Baptists repudiate the views I just mentioned. I write this only to note that, in my experience, exclusivity among Christians crosses denominational lines.

      • Uhhh… even if you agreed with the “especially” concept, wouldn’t a certain logic in Baptist “soul-winning” compel you to give priority in survival aid to the accident victim who was not yet ready to meet their maker?

    • SearchingAnglican says

      Don’t think the lepers or Samaritans or whoever were “in community”, either.

    • I’ve heard an interpretation of this (not sure where) in which the “least of these” are those of the Christian community, as above, and those being judged are not Christians, and possibly not even individuals, but rather governments, organizations, those who came in contact with Christians in distress, etc. In other words, Jesus is judging everybody else by how they treated His church.

      • Actually, that is close to my own understanding of the passage. But a robust understanding of loving our neighbors does not depend on this passage. There are dozens of others that serve just as well.

  9. “In pre-capitalistic economy the rich man showed his riches in glorious living: he built castles or mansions, or patrician houses – -and we still enjoy building houses today. But that is not the way in which Calvinism tried to show the people how to use their wealth. It should be partly used for endowments; as it is in this country, in which practically all culture is rooted (I. e. , through endowment) and partly for new investments. And this indeed is one of the best ways of supporting the capitalistic form of economy, namely to make the profits into investments, I. e., means for new production, etc., instead of wasting them, as the Calvinists would say, in glorious living.” – Paul Tillich, from “The History of Christian Thought”.

    • I really think the recent economic melt-down was caused by a pursuit of “glorious living”. The speculative investments that fueled the collapse were driven by greed and personal bonuses and profits, not in the greater good of society. If we still followed a true Calvinistic work ethic, both the Machiavellian greed and socialistic tyranny would be very rare. That has a direct impact on ones neighbor.

      • There is an interesting article in the September 2010 Christianity Today addressing the influence of Ayn Rand over American finances, and that ethics play little role in financial investments – even for evangelicals. A Calvinistic view of finances is very antithetical to this new play on the greed-is-good formula.

  10. Buford Hollis says

    Does it matter for his love of neighbor that he turned Geneva into a theocratic police state? But perhaps he thought the ban on dancing, card-playing, and thoughtcrime (shades of Southern Baptist-ism!) were for the neighbors’ own good.

    By the way, apparently his original name was Cauvin. Does anybody know why it got changed? (French and German speakers also know him as “Calvin.”)

  11. Just wondering at all the discussion about “love your neighbor”, with so little said about “love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you”…