by John Calvin
We must not only pray for the faithful, who are our brothers already, but for those who are very far off, those poor unbelievers. Even though there seems to be a great distance and a thick wall between both, nevertheless we must have pity for their coming destruction, to the end that I may pray to God that he would draw them unto him. Since this is so, let us notice how backward a thing it is for every man to be committed to his own profit, and have no regard to his neighbors. For our Lord God has not created infinite worlds, for every man to dwell apart by himself, seeking nothing but his own private commodity. Instead he has placed us together, one with another. Since he makes us to dwell together, he has also bound us to think upon this, how we ought to communicate with our neighbors. And therefore he has made us of one nature. When I look upon a man, I cannot but behold my own image in him; and in seeing him I look upon myself and know myself in him. Moreover and beside this, there is another thing even more worthy to be considered, namely, the image of God which he has ingrained in us. Therefore if we bear any reverence and honor to God, it is good reason for us not to despise his image which he has ingrained in all men; and know what is said in the Scripture: that no man hates his own flesh, for it is a monstrous thing, and clearly against humanity. And when it speaks of flesh, this is extended to great and small, and to the greatest stranger in the word; as the prophet Isaiah also says (Isaiah 5:7). We see that God has joined us together upon this condition, that every one of us should employ himself to serve his neighbors as much as he can, and how he may. And we must do this in our prayers to God, for it is the greatest help we can give those who need our help. If I mean to help those to whom God has bound me, it is true that I must consider the means that I have; and as occasion serves, I must apply myself to it. But the greatest pleasure we can do for men is to pray to God for them, and call upon him for their salvation. In this behalf it is that Saint Paul commands all the faithful to exercise their charity.
We ought to practice so much the more this thing that Saint Paul teaches us, to pray for all men. And according to this doctrine, let us have pity on the poor wandering sheep who go on to destruction, even though they are not worthy, even though they are enemies to the Church, and scatter themselves far from us. And if we must have pity on them, what must we have on those whom God has joined to his Church, who are of the same flock that we are? Therefore let us think upon this, better than we have done before.
Moreover, Saint Paul adds precisely that when we pray for all men, we must namely pray for Kings, and then those others who are in authority. Wherein he shows that which I have touched on already. That is to say, that as God makes us to serve one another, so our hearts must be given to it and it must be as spurs to us, to stir us up even more. If it is true, that by the means of princes and magistrates, and the whole government, we receive singular, yea, incomprehensible benefits of God, it is good reason that we highly esteem Princes and prefer them before all others. This is St. Paul’s meaning. And for this reason he records in few words the benefits which come to us by the policies which God has appointed in the world; that is to say, that we lead a peaceable life, and moreover, that God is served and honored.
Thirdly, that the life of men is honest, that there is some restraint to hold us in fear, so that there is not an utter confusion with all things out of order. Truly this might be set forth more at large: but yet Saint Paul has left out nothing, showing in few words what profit we reap by earthly policy, and by the magistrates that are placed among us. Yet let us notice that St. Paul had a special reason during that time, to commend the magistrates unto them, for they were all enemies of the Gospel, persecutors of the poor Christians, murderers and wicked men; basically, they were agitators against the pure and true religion. The faithful might have thought that there was no reason to pray to God for such kind of men. What? Must I pray for those who are enemies to the truth, who want the Gospel to be utterly banished, completely removing any memory of Jesus Christ? That would be like wishing for a mortal plague on the Church, but St. Paul shows that there is no hindrance for the faithful to pray for the Magistrates. How should this be? We must not regard their person, whether they do their duty nowadays or not, but we must rather cast our eyes upon the order that God has established, which can never be broken by the malice of men, or utterly defaced, but there will always remain some trace of it. Even though they are in authority and have the sword of justice in their hands, and execute their office in evil ways, filling the world with unrighteousness, doing much greater hurt than those who have no power or office, yea, and are professed and open enemies against God; yet we confess that God has appointed kingdoms, principalities, and the seat of justice, to the end that we might live peaceably under his fear, and lead an honest life. This I say, cannot be abolished by the malice of men. And surely we see that when tyrants reign, that there are great corruptions; yet this is a thousand times more tolerable than if there were no order at all. Let us make a pair of scales, and on one side set a tyrant (or many tyrants) who exercises all kinds of cruelty, robbing, killing, and doing a great sort of such wicked and horrible misdeeds, all under the shadow of justice. On the other side let us set a people who have no head, no Magistrate nor authority. All those people are equally certain that there will be a greater and more horrible confusion when there is no authority with preeminence than there would be with the most excessive tyranny in the world. This is so because, although there be devils incarnate that occupy the seat of justice, although they strain themselves to do evil, yet God allows them not to go so far as to turn all justice upside down, instead there remains always some trace of goodness.
But when we pray for those who are in honor, it is not only for this reason but also to the end that God would use them in such a way that by their means we might enjoy the benefits that are here mentioned and spoken of. And when justice is used for evil, robbery, extortion, undeserved favor, hatred, and other such things, being given free course in place of uprightness and equity, then we must think upon our sins, for these are the fruits of them: God pays us with such money as we deserve. For if we were worthy that he should reign over us, it is certain that he would choose good officers and such who would execute faithfully the charge he committed to them. But because we are stubborn, not wanting him to rule over us, and our passions are so boiling against him that we seek nothing but to cast off his yoke, he withdraws himself and keeps himself aloof. And so he gives us such Magistrates and Princes as we have deserved. Therefore when we know this we must sob and sigh with our heads down, because we are chastised for our sins. Then we should call upon God, asking him to be pleased to give us such magistrates that the order of justice may appear in them. That is to say, that we may serve him and worship him all with one accord. We should ask him that all dissolutions, vile and wicked acts, be suppressed, and that there may be peace and concord, so that we may not be like wild beasts. And thus must we pray to God for the magistrates and others who are in authority.
Truly we must call upon God for all magistrates, as he spoke before of all men in general. For if we see princes who use their subjects evilly, who overthrow the pure doctrine of the Gospel, and seek only to tread it under foot, having no religion in them, we must have compassion and pity on those who are tormented under them. So the prayers which we make for kings and princes are not only for those who rule over us, as though every one of us were only praying for the specific ones under whom we live, but also for all who bear rule in general. And let us mark in the meantime that if we are bound to pray for those who are strangers under whom we do not live, much more ought we to pray for those in whose protection and subjection we are, for those whom God has placed over us to make us be their subjects (as also we see the Scripture speaks: Rom. 12:1; 5:6; Titus 3:1; 2 Peter 2:13).
First of all we have the kingdom of our lord Jesus Christ which we ought to make great account of. Truly it has a privilege above all the principalities of this world, not only because it is the sovereign kingdom, unto which all power and authority must bow, but also because it contains all our happiness and salvation. Nevertheless, because all the principalities of the world are, as it were, a figure and image of the kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ, we must esteem them as precious, and pray to God to preserve them and make them prosper; I say first of all, lawful kingdoms. When a man is under a prince, or under magistrates in a free city, he must also pray to God for them.
But there is more in it: that is to say, those who are under tyrants, must especially pray for them, insomuch as they govern and hold the place of justice. Why is this so? Pray to God for Babylon, said the Prophet Jeremiah, for in her peace is their peace contained (Jer. 29:7). See, the Jews were carried off to Babylon, not because the Babylonians had any right over them, but because God wanted to scourge his people for a season. Since God had placed the Babylonians over the Jews, they had to pray for that king, and for the authorities of that kingdom. Therefore let us mark well what our duty is, when we have Christian magistrates, magistrates who are defenders of religion, and of the order of justice, how much more ought we to commend them to God? And this is the order we have to observe, that generally we know, that seeing God has established a government in this world, we must make good account of it; and for this cause we must pray to God for those who are in authority; but yet everyone must pray for his own prince and for his magistrate, according as the state of that country is, commending each of them to God. And then, if by means of those magistrates who rule over us, religion is allowed to thrive and prosper in such a way that God is honored and served as he ought to be, and there is peace and quietness, we must know that God gives us so much the more occasion to pray to him that he would maintain this order, not allowing it to decay or much less perish, but that it increase rather, and be confirmed more and more. Thus we see what Saint Paul is aiming at when he says that we must pray for those who are in authority.
Excerpt from Sermons on 1 Timothy by John Calvin