Calvin on Living as a Sojourner

Vertical vs. Horizontal Exile

In a previous article I argued that the New Testament language of exile—particularly as found in First Peter—is about how believers in this age will never be fully at home in this world until the day in which God brings in the fullness of the new creation. In that article I contrasted my approach with that of the proponents of the Reformed Two Kingdoms (R2K) view, as articulated by David VanDrunen, Michael Horton, and others. As I see it, these scholars have emphasized the theme of exile in a “horizontal” way: our exile is primarily about our necessary distance from earthly power, political systems, and so on, even if they admit that Christians are permitted to participate hesitatingly in those systems. Most foundationally, in the R2K way of thinking, Christians, because they are exiles, should have, as VanDrunen puts it, “modest expectations” about we can accomplish in our cultural and political endeavors. There is certainly truth in this: Christians will never bring in the eschaton through their cultural labors, though I’m not aware of any Christian who believes that to be the case. What such authors appear most concerned about is any sort of approach toward “Christendom-thinking” in the church, of claiming that a Christian approach to politics and culture will (or even can) transform the nations of the world for the better.

I argued, however, that the biblical language of exile is primarily “vertical”: it is about the way in which Christians are not yet in their heavenly home, and must live, therefore, differently in this world. They are, as Peter puts it, elected unto sanctification, set apart for obedience to Jesus Christ (1 Pet 1:1–2). “As obedient children,” he says in 1 Pet 2:14–15, you must “not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct.” Living as an exile, I also maintained, does not preclude the idea that Christians might have an impact, even a dramatic one, on the fortunes of the nations in which they live. As the founding professor of Princeton Seminary Archibald Alexander once put it (The Truth, Inspiration, and Authority of Scripture, p. 149): 

The tendency and effects of Mohammedanism, when compared with the tendency and effects of Christianity, serve to exhibit the latter in a very favourable light. The Christian religion has been a rich blessing to every country which has embraced it; and its salutary effects have borne proportion to the care which has been taken to inculcate its genuine principles, and the cordiality with which its doctrines have been embraced. What nations are truly civilized? Where does learning flourish? Where are the poor and afflicted most effectually relieved? Where do men enjoy the greatest security of life, property, and liberty? Where is the female sex treated with due respect, and exalted to its proper place in society? Where is the education of youth most assiduously pursued? Where are the brightest examples of benevolence; and where do men enjoy most rational happiness? If we were called upon to designate the countries in which these advantages are most highly enjoyed, every one of them would be found in Christendom; and the superiority enjoyed by some over the others, would be found to bear an exact proportion to the practical influence of pure Christianity.

Such notions were once common among Protestants, even those who were more than happy to live in nations where Christianity was no longer established by the State.

In thinking through sentiments such as that expressed by Alexander, as well as the biblical language of exile, I began to wonder how older Protestant theologians dealt with the biblical terminology of exile. David VanDrunen himself, in an article I interacted with in my previous piece, appealed to Calvin in support of his horizontal understanding of exile. Though the reference in VanDrunen’s article is to Calvin’s Institutes, the thought crossed my mind that it might be interesting to see what Calvin says about exile in his commentary on First Peter, given the central role that letter plays in the R2K approach to Christian cultural and political endeavors.

Calvin’s comments on the key verses are indeed very interesting. With regard to the first instance of this language (1 Peter 1:1) Calvin believes that it does not even apply to all Christians. He argues for a view (not found as frequently today) that Peter was using that language only of believing Jews. Only they are the “elect exiles of the Dispersion” (1:1). “[T]his can apply only to the Jews,” Calvin insisted, “not only because they were banished from their own country and scattered here and there, but also because they had been driven out of that land which had been promised to them by the Lord as a perpetual inheritance.”

In chapter 2, however, Calvin makes a distinction. When Peter writes “beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul” Calvin believes this applies to believing Jews and Gentiles. What is the significance, then, of this language for all Christians? “There are two parts to this exhortation,” he writes, “that their souls were to be free within from wicked and vicious lusts; and also, that they were to live honestly among men, and by the example of a good life not only to confirm the godly, but also to gain over the unbelieving to God.” In short, “to call them away from the indulgence of carnal lusts, he employs this argument, that they were sojourners and strangers” and “only guests in this world.”

Calvin’s description of the significance of exilic language, then, is vertical. It is about the necessary moral difference between the Church and the world. And, in contrast to the R2K position, I would argue that this moral difference is the precise means through which, to quote Archibald Alexander again, the “Christian religion has been a rich blessing to every country which has embraced it” because of the “the practical influence of pure Christianity” in those nations. In fact, in his Institutes, Calvin himself insists that our present “pilgrimage stands in need of” civil justice and a state that establishes “peace and tranquility” for its citizens and that “those who take [justice, peace, and tranquility] away from man rob him of his humanity.” Christians are exiles and sojourners in this world. But there is no need, indeed it is wrong (as Calvin himself recognized) to pit the earthly benefits of Christian truth—for individuals, families, and even nations—against this fact.

Image Credit: Unsplash

Print article

Share This


Ben C. Dunson is Founding and Contributing Editor of American Reformer. He is also Visiting Professor of New Testament at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary (Greenville, SC), having previously taught at Reformed Theological Seminary (Dallas, TX), Reformation Bible College (Sanford, FL), and Redeemer University (Ontario, Canada). He lives in the northern suburbs of Dallas with his wife and four boys.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *