The Most Sacred and Honourable Calling, According to John Calvin

John Calvin, in the 1559 version of his Institutes of the Christian Religion, wrote this about a particular vocation or calling: “Wherefore no man can doubt that [this vocation or calling] is, in the sight of God, not only sacred and lawful, but the most sacred, and by far the most honourable, of all stations in mortal life (4.20).”

I think upon reading that quote, and hearing that it was written by John Calvin, the great Reformer, pastor, and theologian, the natural assumption that most of us would make is that he is speaking of the office of pastor.  However, he most emphatically is not.  In fact, this assumption shows just how far we have fallen into the pit of the “secular-sacred” distinction.

Yesterday’s post addressed this so-called “secular-sacred” distinction that has come to dominate the American church.  In that post, I discussed this view and its origins in early church history.  I also noted that it has more to do with Gnosticism and Greco-Roman philosophy than Biblical Christianity.  As I stated there, this view gripped the church for over a thousand years, and it was one of the many false teachings from which the Reformers rescued the church.

So, Calvin does not think that the most honourable and sacred of all stations in mortal life is the pastor.  Can you guess what Calvin thinks it is? 

Calvin was actually writing of the civil magistrate, those in civil authority.  Here is a little more to give you a fuller context of the quote:

With regard to the function of magistrates, the Lord has not only declared that he approves and is pleased with it, but, moreover, has strongly recommended it to us by the very honourable titles which he has conferred upon it.  To mention a, few.  When those who bear the office of magistrate are called gods, let no one suppose that there is little weight in that appellation. It is thereby intimated that they have a commission from God, that they are invested with divine authority, and, in fact, represent the person of God, as whose substitutes they in a manner act.  . . .  [Paul] says that “there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God;” that rulers are the ministers of God, “not a terror to good works, but to the evil” (Rom. 13:1, 3).  To this we may add the examples of saints, some of whom held the offices of kings, as David, Josiah, and Hezekiah; others of governors, as Joseph and Daniel; others of civil magistrates among a free people, as Moses, Joshua, and the Judges.  Their functions were expressly approved by the Lord.  Wherefore no man can doubt that civil authority is, in the sight of God, not only sacred and lawful, but the most sacred, and by far the most honourable, of all stations in mortal life.

Clearly Calvin had a high view of the vocation of what today we might call the politician.  We moderns might tell ourselves that we rightly have a low view of this office in our day.  Given the poltroons that we as a people so foolishly elect to represent us, I am tempted to agree.

However, there were poltroons in Calvin’s day as well.  He had fled France to avoid a persecution that the government of France was unleashing on Protestants.  This persecution was certainly a “poltroonish” thing to do that eventually caused many of the best and brightest of French society to flee the country; a persecution which  ultimately pointed France toward the judgment of God in the form of the French Revolution.  (A revolution that was, contra modern Enlightenment thinking on Western Civilization, very different from the American Revolution, I would hasten to add.)

We must understand that Calvin is not speaking about the specific person holding the office, but rather he is speaking of the office or calling itself.  The calling is a high calling.  Regardless of whether the person in the office is wise or a fool, the calling or office itself deserves honor.  (Matt. 22:15-22; Rom. 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-17)

Now, you may be wondering how this helps you (or anyone else) discover your calling.  The answer is that it demonstrates how radically the thinking had changed in just a few generations with regard to calling.  Even into the high Middle Ages, just before the Reformation, the “secular-sacred” distinction held sway.  Os Guinness writes in The Call that “for most people in Christendom in medieval times, the term calling was reserved for priests, monks, and nuns.  Everyone else just had ‘work’ (p. 33).”

In just a few short years, the idea of calling had been radically transformed in the thinking of Protestants from a concept related only to those in “full-time Christian service,” as we would say today, to a concept that applied to all areas of work.  That is type of transformation that we need in the church today!

But how was such a transformation wrought?  How did they do it, so that perhaps we might be able to do it in our times?  We will begin to take up that topic in the next post on calling.