From John Calvin’s commentary on the Last Books of the Pentateuch, Deuteronomy 13:5
God commands the false prophets to be put to death, who pluck up the foundations of religion, and are the authors and leaders of rebellion. Some scoundrel or other gainsays [i.e., questions] this, and sets himself against the author of life and death. What insolence is this! As to their denial that the truth of God stands in need of such support, it is very true; but what is the meaning of this madness, in imposing a law upon God, that He should not make use of the obedience of magistrates in this respect? And what avails it to question about the necessity of this, since so it pleases God? God might, indeed, do without the assistance of the sword in defending religion; but such is not His will. And what wonder if God should command magistrates to be the avengers of His glory, when He neither wills nor suffers that thefts, fornications, and drunkenness should be exempt from punishment. In minor offenses it shall not be lawful for the judge to hesitate; and when the worship of God and the whole of religion is violated, shall so great a crime be fostered by his dissimulation [i.e., deceit]? Capital punishment shall be decreed against adulterers; but shall the despisers of God be permitted with impunity to adulterate the doctrines of salvation, and to draw away wretched souls from the faith? Pardon shall never be extended to poisoners, by whom the body alone is injured; and shall it be sport to deliver souls to eternal destruction? Finally, the magistracy, if its own authority be assailed, shall take severe vengeance upon that contempt; and shall it suffer the profanation of God’s holy name to be unavenged? What can be more monstrous! But it is superfluous to contend by argument, when God has once pronounced what is His will, for we must needs abide by His inviolable decree.
Is not Christ’s kingdom spiritual?
But it is questioned whether the law pertains to the kingdom of Christ, which is spiritual and distinct from all earthly dominion; and there are some men, not otherwise ill-disposed, to whom it appears that our condition under the Gospel is different from that of the ancient people under the law; not only because the kingdom of Christ is not of this world, but because Christ was unwilling that the beginnings of His kingdom should be aided by the sword. But, when human judges consecrate their work to the promotion of Christ’s kingdom, I deny that on that account its nature is changed. For, although it was Christ’s will that His Gospel should be proclaimed by His disciples in opposition to the power of the whole world, and He exposed them armed with the Word alone like sheep amongst wolves, He did not impose on Himself an eternal law that He should never bring kings under His subjection, nor tame their violence, nor change them from being cruel persecutors into the patrons and guardians of His Church. Magistrates at first exercised tyranny against the Church, because the time had not yet come when they should “kiss the Son” of God, and, laying aside their violence, should become the nursing fathers of the Church, which they had assailed according to Isaiah’s prophecy, that undoubtedly refers to the coming of Christ (Isaiah 49:6,23). Nor was it causelessly that Paul, when he enjoins prayers to be made for kings and other worldly rulers, added the reason that under them “we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty” (1 Timothy 2:2).
Christ, indeed as He is meek, would also, I confess, have us to be imitators of His gentleness, but that does not prevent pious magistrates from providing for the tranquillity and safety of the Church by their defense of godliness; since to neglect this part of their duty, would be the greatest perfidy and cruelty. And assuredly nothing can be more base than, when we see wretched souls drawn away to eternal destruction by reason of the impunity conceded to impious, wicked, and perverse impostors, to count the salvation of those souls for nothing. But, if under this pretext the superstitious have dared to shed innocent blood, I reply that what God has once commanded must not be brought to nought on account of any abuse or corruption of men. For, if the cause alone abundantly distinguishes the martyrs of Christ from malefactors, though their punishment may be identical, so the Papal executioners will not bring it to pass by their unjust cruelty that the zeal of pious magistrates in punishing false and noxious teachers should be otherwise than pleasing to God. And this is admirably expressed in the words of Moses, when he reminds them that judgment must be passed according to the law of God. I have already said that this severity must not be extended to particular errors, but where impiety breaks forth even into rebellion. When it is added, “to thrust thee out of the way, which the Lord thy God commanded thee,” we gather from it that none are to be given over to punishment, but those who shall have been convicted by the plain word of God, lest men should judge them arbitrarily. Whence it also appears that zeal will err in hastily drawing the sword, unless a lawful examination shall have been previously instituted.