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.