Of Calvin, Social Justice, And The Theology Of The Cross

Yesterday (August 13) was the 477th anniversary of a small but symbolic event in Reformation history. On that date in 1541 John Calvin returned to Geneva from Strasbourg, where he had been a happy exile for about three years. On his first Sunday back in the pulpit in Geneva, as he later recalled, he gave a brief account of his ministry, so that the people in St. Pierre would not think that he been voluntarily neglecting them and his ministry, and then he resumed preaching just where he had left off 3 years earlier. This was intentional. He did not crow. He just returned to his ministry of Word, sacrament, and discipline.

Technically, he was only on temporary loan from Strasbourg but he never returned to Strasbourg, where he had been pastoring a French-speaking congregation. He was exiled from Geneva because he tried to reform their worship and church discipline according to the Word of God. This was, he thought, the reason they had called him to the ministry there in the first place but the influential, old-money families, whose names are still on the street signs (in the old city) in Geneva today, found that the reforms he proposed would mean that they would lose control over the churches and that some of them would find themselves excluded from the Lord’s Table for gross immorality—because that is just what Calvin, Farel, and the other ministers proposed to do.

Exile is a misleading word to describe Calvin’s three years in Strasbourg. It is a beautiful city. He had warm fellowship with Bucer, a humanist and Reformed theologian, who had become a Protestant at Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation (1518). By the time Calvin joined him he had been thinking about and seeking to implement Reformation for 30 years. Bucer was a senior figure in the movement and an irenic figure, so much so that at Regensburg, while Calvin was with him, he tried with Melanchthon to craft an equivocal statement on justification that the Roman delegates to the conference could sign. It would be more accurate to describe his time in Strasbourg as a relief, as a kind of internship.

Two things make this episode interesting just now. First, it contradicts the widely held and repeated narrative that Calvin was a tyrant in Geneva and in the Reformed churches. I suppose tyrants might be exiled but they are not usually invited back, as Calvin was. Further, while he was away, the city fathers of Geneva faced a significant challenge by Jacopo Cardinal Sadoleto (d. 1547), who had written a letter inviting the Genevans to repent of their reformation of the church and to return to Rome. No one in Geneva was up to the task of replying and so they asked the one they had exiled to reply for them and Calvin graciously agreed. His reply to Sadoleto is one of the signal texts of the early Reformation.

Second, this episode signals something about Calvin’s eschatology. He was not looking for a glory-age on this earth. He expected the visible church to be mixed with believers and unbelievers. He expected civil justice to be imperfect. He did not begin a movement to bring heaven down to earth, i.e., a utopia. He had a semi-realized eschatology (the doctrine of the relations between heaven and earth and between the end of all things and now).

There are essentially three kinds of eschatologies: completely realized (e.g., full-preterism, Jesus has returned and this is the new heavens and the new earth); semi-realized (the dominant view among the Reformed and usually described as Amillennialism); and unrealized (or futurist; which would include most forms of chiliasm, premillennialism). Postmillennialism as we know it today has features that align it with the semi-realized and with the futurist views. It says that the Kingdom of God has been introduced into history but it also looks forward to an earthly golden age (prior to Christ’s return).

There is a case to be made that Calvin was implicitly Amillennial in his eschatology. Was decidedly critical of “the chiliasts” (historic premillennialists) but however one comes out on that question he was committed to Luther’s distinction between the theology of glory and the theology of the cross, which he laid out at the Heidelberg Disputation in 1518. In short, a theology of glory is a theology that 1) seeks to present one’s self to God on the basis of works; 2) that elevates human reason above divine revelation. The theology of the cross looks to Christ and his righteousness imputed, received through faith alone, resting in Christ alone, according to the Scripture alone.

For Luther and for Calvin, the idea that there could be a social movement that would bring about heaven on earth was a theology of glory. It conflated heaven and earth. It failed to recognize the depth of human depravity and the consequences of the fall and sin.

There were those who sought to bring about heaven on earth: the Anabaptists. Ecclesiastically, the sought to bring about a pure visible church by requiring a profession of faith as a condition of baptism. By this they sought to eliminate the ambiguity inherent in infant members of the visible church and the visible administration of the covenant of grace. They argued that the new covenant church is so eschatological, so heavenly, that it was inappropriate to include infants in the visible church.

In politics, though some of them counseled withdrawal from civil and secular society (because secular life was thought to be unclean and corrupting) but some of them transferred their highly-realized (or over-realized) eschatology from the church to civil society and they took over a powerful social rebellion known as the Peasants’ War (1524–25). In the second phase of the war, it became less a movement to express economic and social grievances and more a movement to bring about the new heavens and the new earth. Some of their followers described these leaders as “two witnesses” of Revelation 11:3.

We see modern versions of this over-realized eschatology in contemporary evangelical rhetoric about “social justice.” Some of them speak openly about bringing heaven to earth in ways that the apocalyptic Anabaptists would have understood entirely. We should not assume that such rhetoric is either biblical or Reformed.

Certainly Christians as individuals and even as groups should seek to approximate social and civil justice, insofar as lies within them. The Reformed do not share the Anabaptist eschatology, however. We expect both the church and the state to be an approximation, to reflect a semi-realized eschatology. This is not heaven. Social action cannot bring about heaven on earth. It cannot bring the Kingdom of God. Herman Riddersbos wrote,

[The] absolutely theocentric character of the kingdom of God in Jesus’ preaching…implies that its coming consists entirely in God’s own action and is perfectly dependent on his activity. The kingdom of God is not a state or condition, not a society created and promoted by men (the doctrine of the ‘social gospel’). It will not come through an immanent earthly evolution, nor through moral action; it is not men who prepare it for God. All such thoughts mean a hopelessly superficial interpretation of the tremendous thought of the fullness and finality of God’s coming as king to redeem and to judge.

Jesus inaugurated the Kingdom of God on the earth but the Kingdom is not to be found in social action, marches, or power politics. The visible, institutional manifestation of God’s kingdom is much more humble. It is more like Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on a donkey than it is Caesar entering Rome. Remember, the disciples frequently pestered Jesus about when he was going to institute a glorious, earthly kingdom (e.g., Mark 10:37; Acts 1:6). They did not understand. Jesus explained to Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36). They would not understand that until Pentecost, when Peter announced that Jesus was reigning now (see his sermon in Acts 2) from heaven, that he was arranging all things for the progress of the gospel. That progress, however, did not mean earthly glory. It meant persecution (Acts 7), martyrdom, and death. The visible, institutional manifestation of the Kingdom is the preaching of the gospel, the use of the two sacraments, and the use of church discipline (see Matt 16 and 18; 28:18–20).

Indeed, there is no evidence in Acts that the Apostles sought to bring heaven to earth except insofar as the ministry of Word, sacrament, and discipline brought the elect into contact with the realities of the new heavens and the new earth by anticipation (Acts 2:42). They wrote no petitions. They conducted no rallies. They chanted no slogans, even as their brothers and sisters (c. 65 AD) were arrested unjustly, covered with tar, and set on fire to cover up Nero’s failed urban renewal program.

Calvin’s return to Geneva was a small moment little noticed by the world. It was a small moment in his pilgrimage toward the new heavens and the new earth. John Knox may have thought Geneva to have been “the most perfect school of Christ that was in the earth since the days of the apostles” but Calvin thought that most of the citizens, as far as he could tell, were probably unregenerate. For him, both tenures in Geneva were a trial to be endured under the kind but often difficult hand of a mysterious providence. Thus, he gave himself to what he knew, that to which he was called, the preaching of the Word, the administration of the sacraments, and the use of church discipline. Unlike the tyrants of this world, he had no grand plan for an earthly utopia because his eyes were set on the new heavens and the new earth.


On the Social Gospel and Social Justice

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  1. Dr. Clark,
    Thank you for this reformed, confessional distinction; it makes sense of my life in Christ.

    “They would not understand that until Pentecost, when Peter announced that Jesus was reigning now (see his sermon in Acts 2) from heaven, that he was arranging all things for the progress of the gospel. That progress, however, did not mean earthly glory. It meant persecution (Acts 7), martyrdom, and death. The visible, institutional manifestation of the Kingdom is the preaching of the gospel, the use of the two sacraments, and the use of church discipline (see Matt 16 and 18; 28:18–20).”

  2. Thank you. The historical context is fantastic. Just a note that there’s a typo above: “My kingdom is not of this word” (John 18:36)

  3. If there is anyone young lurking here, what you are told about Calvin and his followers in your typical high school textbook is a piece of 19th century Unitarian demonography with very little relationship to truth.

    • Do typical high school textbooks even address Calvin and his followers these days? I’m led to believe some “history” books in current use ignore such insignificant figures as George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, so I wouldn’t be surprised if they give Calvin a miss as well.

    • Here in Brazil my textbook addressed Calvin for a whopping 1.5 page! And, to my surprise, it didn’t demonize him as much as one would think, especially considering the hostile climate towards anything Reformed here. But that’s just one textbook out of many, so I can only tell this much.

  4. Yes, thanks be to God, that He chose John Calvin to be His faithful servant to recover the glorious truth that we are acceptable to God, not because of anything in us, or what we have done, but because of the imputed, alien, perfect righteousness of Christ. “He gave himself to what he knew, that to which he was called, the preaching of the Word, the administration of the sacraments, and the use of church discipline. Unlike the tyrants of this world, he had no grand plans for an earthly utopia because his eyes set on the new heavens and the new earth.”

    When you read the letters from his last days, it is inspiring, if heartbreaking, to see his resignation, and submission to God’s mysterious providence, in the face of the the terrible weakness and disease that wreaked his frail body, barely in his fifties. What he accomplished, in his short life, through his submission to the Lord, in spite of his own weaknesses, is just staggering. He saw himself as a pilgrim, who was just passing through this town, on his way to the heavenly Jerusalem. 2 Cor. 12: 9-11 “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness…”

  5. Thanks for the post! Having just finish reading Calvin’s The Necessity of Reforming the Church, I perceive there is a middle ground that you have somewhat overlooked in Calvin’s view. He did not expect utopia but he was far from one who saw no use in the force of the civil magistrate for the advancement of the Church. The book I just mentioned is his appeal to magistrates and princes to advance the reform of the church against Rome (or any other heresy or perversion). Calvin may not have conducted a rally, but there is no doubt that he was chanting the slogans of the Reformation (and early Church Fathers) into the ears of the civil leaders of his day. Many today seem to ignore this concept all together OR they go to the other extreme you mentioned and seek a social justice ONLY that is devoid of the gospel.Two things must be remembered: 1)no one ever has the right to break the moral law of God be he civilian or magistrate 2) Christ is head of both the Church and State. He is both High Priest and King of kings (Psa. 2). Therefore, like Calvin and other reformers, Christians today are to press the claims of Christ into every sphere of life and expect those who hold office in them to adhere to the moral law of God and promote the Bride of Christ. If this means rallies, so be it. If it means petitions, where do I sign? Christians are nowhere commanded to be silent or indifferent concerning injustice and sin but rather, they are to oppose it for the glory of God and the good of society. The days of Acts were providentially a time of circumstances unlike our own. We are more numerous and have the option of having a more influential voice – Why then is it not being heard? No doubt that when the church is viciously oppressed and overrun in certain areas of the world she may be forced, as in the days of Acts, to be more reserved and cautious, but there is no excuse in our day.
    —Thanks again for so many great quotes that you post.

    • Calvin incorrectly assumed the righteousness of the state-church but it’s anachronistic to read back into his theology and eschatology the later postmillennial optimism and the neo-Kuyperian notion of “press the claims of Christ into every sphere…”.

      Eg., he clearly and repeatedly affirmed a distinction between the sacred and the secular. For Calvin Christ need not be made Lord, as people say now, he is Lord over both spheres.

      Calvin would have exhorted the civil authorities to arrest those conducting a rally. He denounced that sort of thing. The very idea of it kept him up at night.

      As a matter of theology and ethics Christians in the Republic have a right to exercise their civil liberties but let’s not anachronistically impose those notions on Calvin.

  6. We live now in a democracy where in theory at least the electorate has much greater agency at hand to effect change than any of the early Christians would ever have had. Given that is our context today is it not fair to say that, whilst a Christian has the freedom to protest, sign petitions etc, to do nothing about, say, racism; is tantamount to a lack of love and the breaking of LC 135 + 136

    Following on from the conversation on twitter yesterday, it seems you are unwilling to delineate in your preaching what things a person should do to show their neighbour love. Surely a good 2k preaching church in the 1960’s Mississippi , would have said a good way to fulfil LC 135 would have been to be out marching!

    My sense is that all 2k folk want to do is say how not to break the law but never how to keep it.

    • Richard,

      My dear brother, where have you been? You must not be a regular reader of the HB because I’ve been doing just what you claim I have not been doing. Some clarifications:

      1. For several years I’ve been advocating an application of Calvin’s doctrine of the “twofold kingdom” (duplex regimen). As I said on Twitter yesterday, I think there is one kingdom with two distinct spheres. Yes, I am critical of those who refuse to make a distinction between the two spheres. There are a remarkable number of evangelical and Reformed folk in the USA who seem to want a state-church.

      2. I have repeatedly advocated that Christians individually and as groups engage society and its ills, love their neighbors, oppose evil, and advance righteousness. I have repeatedly preached and written against racism and advocated its opposite. I have also contested the very recent re-definition of racism.

      3. You couldn’t possibly have listened to my preaching and concluded that I am unwilling to delineate what things a person should or should not do to show love. You couldn’t possibly have listened to my series on the Decalogue or read it.

      I have argued that God’s Word as confessed by the Reformed churches has a limited brief: the preach the Word purely, administer the sacraments purely, and to use church discipline. That’s Belgic Confession art. 29. WCF 31 also limits the brief of the visible church but believers are free to act socially and ought to do so but it is not the job of the church to bind the conscience of believers as to exactly how to act in areas in which there is Christian liberty.

      4. Your comment suggests to me that you have not spent much time reading the scholarship on the two kingdoms. Please do that.

      5. Doesn’t the moral law of God, namely the 9th commandment, compel you to tell the truth and thereby love your neighbor (in this case, me)?

      Because you don’t seem to be able to find them, here is the entire library of posts on God’s moral law:


      Here are all the episodes of the Heidelcast:


      Look at the left hand column and you’ll see the series on the moral law.

      Here is the first in the series on the Ten Commandments in the Heidelberg Catechism:


      Here is the resource page, which you evidently have not yet consulted, where I address racism at length:


  7. Hi Scott,
    Thanks for the this helpful piece. I am busy doing some research around Luther’s pervasive theologica crucis hermeneutic and am wondering if there is any scholarly work out there that compares Calvin to Luther on this score?

  8. No mention of the diaconate in Geneva, and of Calvin’s view of the office of deacon? Calvin gave himself to the “preaching of the Word, the administration of the sacraments, and the use of church discipline,” but he also advocated for an office in the church that served the physical needs of the poor, provided schooling, and even gave out small business loans. Many would consider that social justice.

    • Hi Phil,

      Fair question. I thought about addressing that but I try to keep these essays around 2,000 words and addressing this topic would have made the essay too long.

      Briefly, what the churches did in Geneva was more a product of Justinianism/Christendom than part of a “social justice” movement. This is why I noted, in passing, the difference between Calvin’s social location and ours (for most HB readers). In Geneva everyone was a baptized member of the state church. Everyone was in a parish. In the USA we do not have a state-church and Americans who understand their history and constitution should not want one. So, to enter Geneva was to become a part of the visible church. That simply isn’t true in the USA and it certainly wasn’t true until sometime in the late 4th century at the earliest. Thus, for the first 4 centuries of the history of the church, there was a sharp distinction between the surrounding culture (“the world”) and the Christ-confessing covenant community, the visible church. The visible church attended to the needs of its members but there’s little NT evidence for any sort of diaconal ministry to the broader community outside the church. I say this as one who read Tim Keller’s Jericho Road and who, under its influence, set up a church-run food pantry in Kansas City, MO and who spent a lot of time working with the “economically disadvantaged” doing diaconal ministry.

      Over time I concluded that the exegetical basis for Tim’s case was weak. Practically, I found that we were facilitating irresponsibility more than helping people. Few of those to whom we gave food and other assistance had any genuine spiritual interest. We were simply enabling them to spend on drugs etc the money they saved by taking food from us.

      Do not misunderstand me, I am all in favor of Christians gathering together to provide relief of various kinds but there’s precious little evidence for any such movement in the NT church nor in the early post-apostolic church. By the time of Justinian, however, the church-state complex was relatively mature and the we had entered into a new world, a relationship to the broader culture unknown in the NT or the early church.

      Geneva in the 16th and 17th century simply assumed assumed the post-Constantinian or the Justinian settlement. It was unquestioned but it wasn’t the setting of the apostolic or early post-apostolic church.

      • Hi Scott, thank you for your lengthy and thoughtful response. I react negatively to criticism of the social justice movement, at least from the conservative side. I agree that there are churches that have overemphasized mercy ministry at the expense of the gospel, however in my experience American Reformed churches fall at the opposite end of the spectrum. It is more likely that they practice hardly any at all, rather than too much, and I fear that such criticism will be used to rationalize coldness and sloth. Calvin’s (and the generally Protestant) understanding of the deacon is almost gone, and Calvin’s criticism of the Catholic use of the office applies to most Reformed churches today. Even if we don’t have many needy in our midst, then the NT example is for our deacons to serve needy brethren in distant places. Instead, we use them as pastor’s assistants, accountants, and church maintenance men.

        I am glad to hear of your work with the food pantry, even if the results were not encouraging. But we must be obedient, even if our obedience does not bear visible fruit. We are to give as our Father gives, to the evil and to the good, and not just when we think it will be well used. The post-apostolic church was known for its mercy ministry, both among believers and the lost. The American church is known for gay marriage and Trump support. I hope we can return to the old paths.

        • Phil,

          With Bob, I have grave doubts whether the visible church has any mandate to pursue “social justice.”


          My regrets about what we did in Kansas City are not that they didn’t work but that the whole program was without a proper foundation in Scripture.

          I don’t share your judgment about the Diaconal ministries of most churches:

          1. I haven’t visited most churches.

          2. The congregations I’ve seen since 1980 have tried to institute a Diaconal ministry for their members. I’ve known lots of hard-working, dedicated ministers of mercy (diacons).

          3. Most NAPARC congregations are fewer than 100 people. That gives them limited resources.

          Could our congregations do more to alleviate the suffering within the congregation? Sure.

          Finally, you haven’t accounted for the death of Christendom and with it the parish system. The people who live in the neighborhood of the Escondido United Reformed Church are not de facto Or de iure members of the congregation. They are mostly members of other congregations or, more likely, none at all. Those realities matter. We cannot talk blithely as if we live in Calvin’s Geneva. We don’t and we haven’t for a long time.

  9. Isn’t the NT diaconal ministry primarily focused on the household of faith? My PCA church is involved in a lot of “handyman mercy ministry” primarily focused on people outside the visible church. However there is no overt evangelism connected with it. Is this really the NT pattern? What have we really provided to these people other than an implied Gospel? I have not really seen any tangible results.

    • It seems to me that the social gospel has become so entrenched in the minds of many Christians and others, that they equate the mission of the church with social reform. If you are not working for social transformation of society, you are not doing what Christ came to do! It is exactly the kind of misunderstanding that the Jews were guilty of! They thought Christ had come as a revolutionary, to cure the ills of Roman occupancy, and when it became clear that He was not their social savior, they cried, “crucify him!” They did not understand that Christ’s mission was to restore our broken relationship with God, caused by sin. I think that is exactly what is so alarming about the social gospel, it is confusing the mission of the church from proclaiming the good news of what Christ came to do, by restoring our broken relationship with God, to making Him a social activist, so that to be a Christian means you are dedicated to making people’s earthly lives better. It seems to be the same old story, of those among God’s people who did not understand the grace of God, who were looking for a temporal messiah and consequently rejected their spiritual Messiah. The connection between Liberalism and the social gospel seems to go hand in hand. Christ becomes a man, a good moral teacher who taught us to love each other and get along. It is not Christianity, it is a different religion altogether as Machen has observed.

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