Distinguishing Spheres Affirms Christ’s Lordship Over All Things (Part 4)

Last time we saw that the very reason Calvin adopted the language of a “twofold kingdom” (i.e., the doctrine that God’s kingdom is one and administered in two distinct spheres) was to oppose the Libertines and Manichaeism. But it remains to be seen how Calvin distinguished between the two spheres. That is what we want to consider in this installment of the series.

For Calvin, God is sovereign over all things, but that unified sovereignty did not entail an undifferentiated administration. Calvin distinguished between two spheres as part of God’s administration of all things. This indicates that it is neither accurate nor helpful to suggest, as some have done, that to distinguish between two spheres or (as Luther and more than a few Reformed writers did) between two kingdoms is somehow to deny Christ’s Lordship over one or the other sphere. This simply does not follow.

In the 1559 Institutes, Calvin posited “twofold government in man.”1 The first is “spiritual,” whereby “the conscience is instructed (institutur) in piety and in the worship of God.”2 God is sovereign over this spiritual sphere, under which he instructs Christians in piety (the general approach to God) and in worship, specifically as normed by God’s Word. Calvin called this “the rule of the pure worship of God.”3 Today, we typically speak of the “regulative principle of worship” (we may do only what God has commanded) as distinct from the normative principle (we may do whatever is not forbidden). We should note that Calvin listed the spiritual sphere first. We should not infer too much from the order of teaching (ordo docendi), but he arguably listed it first because, for him, it holds logical priority. We see this at the very outset of the Institutes: “It is certain that man never achieves a clear knowledge of himself unless he has first looked upon God’s face, and then descends from contemplating him to scrutinize himself.”4

The second sphere is the political, that in which “man is educated (eruditur) toward the office of humanity and civility, which must be preserved among men.”5 These things are commonly (vulgo) but not improperly (non impropriis) called the “spiritual and temporal jurisdiction.”6 The spiritual regime (regiminis) has to do with “the life of the soul.”7 The temporal regime has to do with this present life, which is not just food and clothing, but those laws (legibus) by which “a man may spend his life among men in holiness, honestly, and modestly.”8 The spiritual sphere deals with that which is interior, and the political deals with that which is external. Calvin did not imagine that the state (where natural and common laws are administered) creates true godliness or sanctity. It restrains outward behavior. God uses the spiritual ministry of the visible church to create true, interior sanctity. Again, please note that Calvin distinguished unequivocally between two distinct spheres within the providence of God, in order to uphold God’s sovereignty in all things while accounting for the distinct regimes or spheres in which God has ordained to operate. For Calvin, the two spheres are divinely instituted. They are not man-made.

Distinguish them he did: “These two spheres, as we have distinguished them, are always to be considered separately.”9 So much did he make the distinction, that when the one sphere is being considered, we are to turn our eyes away from the other.10 Calvin was a theocrat insofar as he assumed that there must be an established religion (as there had been since AD 380) and that the state would uphold Christian orthodoxy. But here, in these paragraphs, he sowed the seeds of the undoing of the state church. To be clear, he never imagined any such thing; but if God’s kingdom is one with two distinct spheres, and ordered such that, in order to do justice to each sphere, one must avert his eyes from the other when interacting with one of the spheres, we can see that it is a relatively short step to imagine that the two spheres ought to be politically (and not just logically) separate. This is not a leap.

Consider how Calvin went on to talk about the nature of the distinction between the two spheres: “There are in men, as it were, two worlds over which there are different kings and different laws.”11 For Calvin, within the one divine regime, there are two kingdoms and two sets of laws. I do not imagine that the American founders had Calvin much in mind when they established the republic, but one could understand the connection had they appealed to this language.

Just as soon as he established the distinction between the spheres (or kingdoms), he returned to his concern about the Libertines, whom he feared might seize on this language to justify their defiance of all authority, civil and ecclesiastical. The intent of the distinction is not to license Christians to imagine themselves as no longer subject to secular civil law. And yet, it is true that our consciences have been liberated from bondage before God (coram Deo).12

The way to avoid trouble here is to distinguish “between the external (as they call it) and the forum of the conscience.”13 It is true that our consciences are bound to obey civil laws (Rom 13:1, 5). Therefore, we must understand what conscience is. Namely, Calvin says it is a “sense of divine judgment, as an adjunct witness, which does not permit them to hide their sins from being brought to the tribunal of the judge. This is what is called conscience.”14

It seems significant that Calvin appealed here to conscience. This is a correlate to his doctrine of natural law.15 He appealed explicitly to Paul’s teaching on this, an apparent reference (as indicated in the Battles edition) to Romans 2:15–16. He also appealed to Peter’s teaching about conscience (1 Pet 3:21). This is, Calvin explained, “tranquility of mind.”16 Through Christ, we have peace with God by grace alone. In that sense, we have no more “consciousness of sin” (Heb 10:2) because sin no longer accuses us. This is the freedom we have coram Deo, but we still also live among men, by divine design. Thus, our consciences are obligated to the civil, natural laws administered by the civil magistrate.

In the next section, Calvin will elaborate on his understanding of conscience and the freedom of the Christian man. Here it is enough, however, to observe how important it was to Calvin to affirm both spheres and to distinguish them—something the Libertines seemed unwilling or unable to do.

I hope that by surveying the way Calvin upheld God’s sovereignty, not despite his distinction between the two spheres but by distinguishing the two spheres in which Christians live, two benefits might result. First, I hope that we might recognize the use of following Calvin’s example and apply it to our place and time. We do not live in sixteenth-century Geneva. Christendom is dead. We no longer have a state church or an established religion—and that is for the good. Calvin has sketched a path for us by which we can navigate this new world. These categories help us to see the legitimacy and divine institution of both spheres in which we live, but without confusing the one for the other, and without asking the one to do the work of the other. We do not need the state to establish the church; nor do we need the visible church to do the work of the state. Let us allow them both to do their work (as we do ours as Christians with dual citizenship in this world) with the confidence that, before God, we are free to serve him in both spheres according to the laws and governments he himself has established. Second, I hope that those who are unfamiliar with Calvin’s way of thinking might see how it affirms Christ’s lordship over all things, thereby freeing the Christian to fulfill his vocation before the face of God in both spheres, to the glory of God and the benefit of his neighbor.


  1. Calvin, Institutes (1559 edition), 3.19.15
  2. “quo conscientia ad pietatem et ad cultum Dei instituitur” John Calvin, Institutio Christianae Religionis (Berolini: Gustavum Eichler, 1834), 3.19.15. The quotations in this installment are taken from this edition. Unless otherwise indicated, the translations are mine. The verb instituo means, essentially, to establish, but its sense is very close here to the noun institutio, which can mean to instruct. Hence, the title of the work, Institutio christianae religionis, is Instruction in the Christian Religion.
  3. “Porro, universalis est regula, quae purum Dei cultum a vitioso discernit: ne comminiscamur ipsi quod nobis visum fuerit, sed quid praescribat is, qui solus iubendi potestatem habet, spectemus.” Supplex exhortatio ad invictissimum caesarem carolum quintum (Geneva, 1543) in CO, 6.453–534. See the English translation in John Calvin, The Necessity of Reforming the Church, trans. Casey Carmichael (Orlando: Reformation Trust, 2020), 6–7. See R. Scott Clark, Recovering the Reformed Confession (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2008), 228–30; R. Scott Clark, “Calvin’s Principle of Worship,” in ed. David Hall, Tributes to John Calvin: A Celebration of his Quincentenary (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2010), 247–69. Perhaps the definitive defense of the regulative principle is George Gillespie A Dispute Against the English Popish Ceremonies, ed. Christopher Coldwell, 2nd ed. (Dallas: Naphtali Press, 2013); William Ames, A Fresh Suit Against Human Ceremonies in Gods Worship (Rotterdam[?]: 1633).
  4. Institutes, 1.1.2 (Battles edition).
  5. “quae inter homines servanda sunt, homo eruditur.” (Insitutio, 3.19.15).
  6. “iurisdictio spiritualis et temporalis” (Insitutio, 3.19.15).
  7. “ad animae vitae” (Insitutio, 3.19.15).
  8. “sed in praescribendis legibus, quibus homo inter homines vitam sancte, honeste, modesteque exigat” (Insitutio, 3.19.15).
  9. “Haec autem duo, ut partiti sumus, seorsum singula dispicienda semper sunt” (Insitutio, 3.19.15).
  10. “et dum alterum consideratur, avocandi avertendique ab alterius cogitatione animi” (Insitutio, 3.19.15).
  11. “Sunt enim in homine veluti mundi duo, quibus et varii reges et variae leges praeesse possunt” (Institutio, 3.19.15), emphasis added.
  12. “quia solutae sunt coram Deo ipsorum conscientiae: quasi propterea eximerentur omni carnis servitute, quod secundum spiritum liberi sunt” (Institutio, 3.19.15).
  13. “quod inter externum (ut vocant) et conscientiae” (Institutio, 3.19.15).
  14. “sensum habent divini iudicii, quasi sibi adiunctum testem, qui sua peccata eos occultare non sinit, quin ad iudicis tribunal rei pertrahantur, sensus ille vocatur conscientia” (Institutio, 3.19.15).
  15. For more on Calvin’s understanding of natural law, see RSC, “Calvin on the Lex Naturalis.”
  16. “tranquillitate animi” (Institutio, 3.19.15).

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.

You can find the whole series here.


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  1. I’m so glad you are explaining this as there has been much confusion regarding the two spheres (kingdoms) and traditional Reformed teaching. I still have much to learn and appreciate your patience and willingness to share these things with us. Thank you!

    • Angela,

      Indeed, there is a lot of confusion. A lot of it comes from people, commenting in public, on social media, who have not done any serious reading on this topic. Out of this welter of ignorance, a narrative develops, which then gets repeated by other ignorant people.

  2. I concur! Thank you, Dr Clark, much for this! I’m in the middle 300 pages of Calvin’s Institutes right now and am finding it fascinating and enriching! This Masterpiece continues to impress me the more I’m reading it! Thank you yet again, Sir!✝️📖😊👍


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