John Calvin, Adultery, and the Death Penalty

This is from John Calvin’s commentary on the woman caught in adultery in John 8. Notice here a number of things.

1) Calvin recognizes properly Christ’s purpose in His coming in the flesh. He releases the woman, not because she is innocent, but because He does not have the authority to punish her because He is not the civil magistrate and has not come, this time, for purposes of temporal judgment.

2) Calvin recognizes that this authority rightly rests upon the civil magistrate, which Jesus Himself has authorized for this purpose.

3) Calvin recognizes that adultery is a crime that the civil magistrate should punish with the death penalty. This should be pretty shocking and hard to grasp for most “Calvinists”. Notice what Calvin says will transpire when this no longer is enforced. Makes one think does it not.

4) Calvin recognizes the continuing validity of OT Law as normal for the use of the civil magistrate. A bit controversial in our day, but not something Calvin would have really thought much about in his day.

First his commentary on the first part of verse 11:

11. Neither do I condemn thee. We are not told that Christ absolutely acquitted the woman, but that he allowed her to go at liberty. Nor is this wonderful, for he did not wish to undertake any thing that did not belong to his office. He bad been sent by the Father to gather the lost sheep, (Matthew 10:6) and, therefore, mindful of his calling, he exhorts the woman to repentance, and comforts her by a promise of grace. They who infer from this that adultery ought not to be punished with death, must, for the same reason, admit that inheritances ought not to be divided, because Christ refused to arbitrate in that matter between two brothers, (Luke 12:13.) Indeed, there will be no crime whatever that shall not be exempted from the penalties of the law, if adultery be not punished; for then the door will be thrown open for any kind of treachery, and for poisoning, and murder, and robbery. Besides, the adulteress, when she bears an unlawful child, not only robs the name of the family, but violently takes away the right of inheritance from the lawful offspring, and conveys it to strangers. But what is worst of all, the wife not only dishonors the husband to whom she had been united, but prostitutes herself to shameful wickedness, and likewise violates the sacred covenant of God, without which no holiness can continue to exist in the world.

Now his commentary on the rest of verse 11. Notice what Calvin calls the “Popish” interpretation of the passage and think where you have heard that before…:

Yet the Popish theology is, that in this passage Christ has brought to us the Law of grace, by which adulterers are freed from punishment. And though they endeavor, by every method, to efface from the minds of men the grace of God, such grace as is every where declared to us by the doctrine of the Gospel, yet in this passage alone they preach aloud the Law of grace. Why is this, but that they may pollute, with unbridled lust, almost “Voyla la beau fruict.” which we have reaped from the diabolical system of celibacy, that they who are not permitted to marry a lawful wife can commit fornication without restraint. But let us remember that, while Christ forgives the sins of men, he does not overturn political order, or reverse the sentences and punishments appointed by the laws.

Go, and sin no more. Hence we infer what is the design of the grace of Christ. It is, that the sinner, being reconciled to God, may honor the Author of his salvation by a good and holy life. In short, by the same word of God, when forgiveness is offered to us, we are likewise called to repentance. Besides, though this exhortation looks forward to the future, still it humbles sinners by recalling to remembrance their past life.


8 thoughts on “John Calvin, Adultery, and the Death Penalty

  1. I guess this is a good example of where Calvin does not “get it.” The passage is not about the civil magistrate but about Christ’s mercy and our response to someone caught in sin.

    But hey. 🙂

  2. Hope you’ll take some time, please, to visit our Calvinistic, Rushdoony-loving site, read some articles, listen to some radio shows, give me some feedback. We are Christians FIRST and not Republican Party cheerleaders. God bless you, your family, your work.

    John Lofton, Editor,
    Communications Director, Institute On The Constitution
    Recovering Republican

    PS — And do tell me, please, your specific areas of interest so I might direct you to some helpful information. My desire is to equip saints to be effective in the spiritual war we are in, the war against the Christ, which, alas, in America, especially in the church, has never been more intense.

  3. I don’t know the passage off the top of my head, but in it Calvin excoriates those who try to insist on the Mosaic Law being the standard for the magistrate in the New Testament. It’s in the Institutes. The Theonomists cite it, and take issue with Calvin on that point

    Calvin was excellent on many things but when it came to Geneva…he made dreadful mistakes.

    As far as the woman taken in adultery, there are several takes on that passage, but I don’t think it would deal directly with the issue of the magistrate. We’re talking about Covenant Israel.

    The Mosaic Law was covenantal for the nation of Israel. The Book of Hebrews teaches we are no longer under it. It has been disannulled. We are under the order of Melchizedek. The Law was never for the nations…it was for Israel. If it has applicability today…it’s for the church. The Magistrate is part of the common grace order.

    Calvin was great….I’ve been reading him for years….but he’s not infallible.

    Great discussion though. Thanks for letting me participate….

  4. Dear Proto,

    I am usually hesitant to comment to anonymous bloggers, but in your case I’ll make an exception. I really haven’t read much Calvin or Rushdoony; instead I emphasize reading the Bible and drawing my understanding and conclusions from it. God’s Law is good and it is a fact that those nations that make laws based on God’s Law and Biblical principles will prosper and have His blessing. You’ve got His word on it. Have a nice day. 🙂

  5. Thanks for the comment,

    I would suggest reading the book of Hebrews.

    Read Acts 15

    Galatians especially Chs. 3+4

    God’s Law is Good…but law has to be defined and in terms of the context……

    The Kingdom has to be defined…is it One with the world?

    Can nations become Holy by taking the name of God on their lips?
    Is there even such a notion as a Christian nation?

    These are big fundamental questions that have to be answered before we can even begin the discussion….

    Rome under Octavian revised their marriage laws…punished adultery, mandated having children….etc….
    Did that please God? Did that somehow make them better than they had been say under the Old Republic?
    These things might make it more pleasant for we as Christian to live our daily lives….but the infidel cannot please God, cannot obey his laws…and by creating a veneer of Christianity it actually makes it harder for the church to do its work. Just like today…we’ve got a multigenerational veneer…we have to get people un-saved before we can get them saved.

    Though we disagree….I do appreciate your spirit…..


  6. Proto, I agree that the questions you raised are big and many times difficult questions to answer, may our Lord lead us through His Word and Spirit to answer it for our times.

    Here is my question to you: if a reformed christian becomes president of the USA, which laws must he seek to govern to country, and if, as you say, it must be ‘common grace’, where do we get those laws from ?

    And, if this reformed president uses Mosaic civil laws, then he would be sinning in your eyes, correct ?

    Thank you for the answers.

    Thank you for the answer.

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