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Calvin on Lawsuits


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Actually, then, it is already a defeat for you, that you have lawsuits with one another. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be defrauded? —1 Corinthians 6:7

Are lawsuits ever allowed? Here is Calvin’s answer.

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Now indeed there is utterly a fault. Here we have the second part of the reproof, which contains a general doctrine; for he now reproves them, not on the ground of their exposing the gospel to derision and disgrace, but on the ground of their going to law with each other. This, he says, is a fault [NASB, defeat]. . . . What Paul, then, condemns in the Corinthians is this—that they harassed one another with law-suits. He states the reason of it—that they were not prepared to bear injuries patiently. And, assuredly, as the Lord commands us (Matt. v. 44; Rom. xii. 21) not to be overcome by evils, but on the contrary to overcome injuries by acts of kindness, it is certain, that those who cannot control themselves so as to suffer injuries patiently, commit sin by their impatience. . . .

In this way, however, he seems to discard entirely judgments as to the affairs of individuals. “Those are altogether in the wrong who go to law. Hence it will not be allowable in any one to maintain his rights by having recourse to a magistrate.” There are some that answer this objection in this way—that the Apostle declares that where there are law-suits there is utterly a fault, because, of necessity, the one or the other has a bad cause. They do not, however, escape by this sophistry, because he says that they are in fault, not merely when they inflict injury, but also when they do not patiently endure it. For my own part, my answer is simply this—having a little before given permission to have recourse to arbiters, he has in this shown, with sufficient clearness, that, Christians are not prohibited from prosecuting their rights moderately, and without any breach of love. Hence we may very readily infer, that his being so severe was owing to his taking particularly into view the circumstances of the case. And, undoubtedly, wherever there is frequent recourse to law-suits, or where the parties contend with each other pertinaciously with rigor of law, it is in that case abundantly plain, that their minds are immoderately inflamed with wrong dispositions, and are not prepared for equity and endurance of wrongs, according to the commandment of Christ. To speak more plainly, the reason why Paul condemns law-suits is, that we ought to suffer injuries with patience. Let us now see whether any one can carry on a law-suit without impatience; for if it is so, to go to law will not be wrong in all cases, but only for the most part. I confess, however, that as men’s manners are corrupt, impatience, or lack of patience (as they speak) is an almost inseparable attendant on lawsuits. This, however, does not hinder your distinguishing between the thing itself and the improper accompaniment. Let us therefore bear in mind, that Paul does not condemn law-suits on the ground of its being a wrong thing in itself to maintain a good cause by having recourse to a magistrate, but because it is almost invariably accompanied with corrupt dispositions; as, for example, violence, desire of revenge, enmities, obstinacy, and the like.

. . .

I acknowledge, then, that a Christian man is altogether prohibited from revenge, so that he must not exercise it, either by himself, or by means of the magistrate, nor even desire it. If, therefore, a Christian man wishes to prosecute his rights at law, so as not to offend God, he must, above all things, take heed that he does not bring into court any desire of revenge, any corrupt affection of the mind, or anger, or, in fine, any other poison. In this matter love will be the best regulator.

If it is objected, that it very rarely happens that any one carries on a law-suit entirely free and exempt from every corrupt affection, I acknowledge that it is so, and I say farther, that it is rare to find a single instance of an upright litigant; but it is useful for many reasons to show that the thing is not evil in itself, but is rendered corrupt by abuse: First, that it may not seem as if God had to no purpose appointed courts of justice; Secondly, that the pious may know how far their liberties extend, that they may not take anything in hand against the dictates of conscience. For it is owing to this that many rush on to open contempt of God, when they have once begun to transgress those limits; Thirdly, that they may be admonished, that they must always keep within bounds, so as not to pollute by their own misconduct the remedy which the Lord has permitted them to employ; Lastly, that the audacity of the wicked may be repressed by a pure and uncorrupted zeal, which could not be effected, if we were not allowed to subject them to legal punishments.

Calvin’s Commentaries Volume XX, Commentary on the Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians (Baker Books, 2009), 1:204–207.



Posted 2019·08·27 by David Kjos
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Posted in: 1 Corinthians · Calvin’s Commentaries: 1 Corinthians · John Calvin

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