The Death Penalty for Heresy | John Calvin

Death Penalty for Heresy John CalvinJohn Calvin,
Commentary on Zechariah 13:3

And it shall come to pass, that when any shall yet prophesy, then his father and his mother that begat him shall say unto him, Thou shalt not live; for thou speakest lies in the name of the LORD: and his father and his mother that begat him shall thrust him through when he prophesieth.” Zechariah 13:3

The same concession is made in this verse, where Zechariah speaks of the office of prophesying: he indeed confines what he says altogether to false teachers, for he takes it as granted that there was then no attention given to God’s servants, inasmuch as false spirits had conspired together, so that nothing pure or sound remained in the Church. As then a false and diabolical faction had then prevailed, Zechariah calls them Prophets as though they were all such, for they were heard as the Lord’s servants during that disorder of which mention is made. But he proceeds farther in this verse than before, and says, that there would be so much zeal in God’s children when renewed by his Spirit, that they would not spare even their own children, but slay them with their own hands, when they saw them perverting the truth of God.

Zechariah no doubt alludes to the 13th chapter of Deuteronomy where God requires such a rigorous severity in defending pure doctrine, that a father was to rise up against the son whom he had begotten, that a husband was to lead his wife to death rather than to indulge his love and to pardon impiety, in case the wife solicited him or others to forsake God. The Lord then would have all the godly to burn with so much zeal in the defense of lawful worship and true religion, that no connection, no relationship, nor any other consideration, connected with the flesh, should avail to prevent them from bringing to punishment their neighbors, when they see that God’s worship is profaned, and that sound doctrine is corrupted. This was the rule prescribed by the law. Now after religion had been for a time neglected, and even trodden almost under foot, Zechariah says, that the faithful, when they shall have repented, would be endued with so much zeal for true religion, as that neither father nor mother would tolerate an ungodly error in their own son, but would lead him to punishment; for they would prefer the glory of God to flesh and blood, they would prefer to all earthly attachments that worship which ought to be more precious to us than life itself.

But it must at the same time be observed, that this zeal under the reign of Christ is approved by God; for Zechariah does not here confine what he teaches to the time of the law, but shows what would take place when Christ came, even that this zeal, which had become nearly extinct, would again burn in the hearts of all the godly. It then follows, that this law was not only given to the Jews, as some fanatics verily imagine, who would have for themselves at this day a liberty to disturb the whole world, but the same law also belongs to us: for if at this day thieves and robbers and sorcerers are justly punished, doubtless those who as far as they can destroy souls, who by their poison corrupt pure doctrine, which is spiritual food, who take away from God his own honor, who confound the whole order of the Church, doubtless such men ought not to escape unpunished. It would be indeed better to grant license to thieves and sorcerers and adulterers, than to suffer the blasphemies which the ungodly utter against God, to prevail without any punishment and without any restraint. And this is evident enough from the words of our Prophet.

And little consideration do they also show, who immediately fret from a regard to their own relatives. When faithful ministers and pastors are constrained to warn their people to beware of the artifices of Satan, they seek to bury every recollection of this, because it is invidious, because it leads to reproach. What if their children were to be drawn forth to punishment? How could they bear this, though they might remain at home; for they cannot attend to a free warning from their own pastor, when they find that impious errors are reproved, which we see prevailing, I say not in our neighborhood only, but also in our own bosom and in the Church. Let them then acknowledge their own folly, that they may learn to put on new courage, so that they may make more account of the glory of God, and of the pure doctrine of religion, than of their own carnal attachments, by which they are too fast held. And this is also the reason why the Prophet says, who have begotten him, and he repeats it twice: nor was it in vain that God had those words expressly added,

The husband shall not suffer the wife who sleeps in his bosom to go unpunished; nor shall the father pardon his son whom he has begotten, nor the mother her own offspring, whom she has nourished, whom she has carried in her womb.” (Deuteronomy 13:6, 9)

All these things are said, that we may learn to forget whatever belongs to the world and to the flesh, when God’s glory and purity of doctrine are to be vindicated by us.

Now the Prophet shows clearly that all this is to be understood of false teachers, for he adds, For falsehood hast thou spoken in the name of Jehovah. And at the same time the atrocity of their sin is here pointed out; for if we rightly consider what it is to speak falsehood in the name of Jehovah, it will certainly appear to us to be more detestable than either to kill an innocent man, or to destroy a guest with poison, or to lay violent hands on one’s own father, or to plunder a stranger. Whatever crimes then can be thought of, they do not come up to this, that is, when God himself is involved in such a dishonor, as to be made an abettor of falsehood. What indeed can more peculiarly belong to God than his own truth? and it is his will also to be worshipped by us according to this distinction: God is truth. Now to corrupt pure doctrine — is it not the same thing, as though one substituted the devil in the place of God? or sought to transform God, so that there should be no difference between him and the devil? Hence the greatest of all crimes, as I have already said, does not come up to this horrible and monstrous wickedness. For how much does the salvation of souls exceed all the riches of the world? and then, how much more excellent is the worship of God than the fame and honors of mortals? Besides, does not religion itself, the pledge of eternal life, swallow up in a manner every thing that is sought in the world? But most sacred to us ought to be the name of God, the sanctifying of which we daily pray for. When therefore what is false is brought forward in the name of God, is not he, according to what I have already said, as it were violently forced to undertake the office of the devil, to renounce himself, and to deny that he is God?

We hence see the design of the Prophet, when he shows that there is no place for pardon, when the ungodly thus wantonly rise up to pervert pure doctrine, and so to confound all things as wholly to destroy true religion.

He adds, Pierce him shall his father and his mother who have begotten him. It is much harder to kill their son by their own hands than to bring him to the Judge, and to leave him to his fate. But the Prophet has taken this from the law — that so much zeal is required from the faithful, that, if it be necessary, they are to exterminate from the world such pests as deprive God of his own honor, and attempt to extinguish the light of true and genuine religion.

See also: John Calvin: Two Kingdoms & Civil Enforcement of Both Tables


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