If Jesus Is Lord, Can Unbelievers Own Property?
In his commentary on 1 Timothy 4:5 Calvin makes one of his most provocative claims about the significance of the lordship of Christ over all things.
God has appointed to his children alone the whole world and all that is in the world. For this reason, they are also called the heirs of the world, for at the beginning Adam was appointed to be lord of all, on this condition, that he should continue in obedience to God. Accordingly, his rebellion against God deprived of the right, which had been bestowed on him, not only himself but his posterity. And since all things are subject to Christ, we are fully restored by his mediation, and that through faith, and therefore all that unbelievers enjoy may be regarded as the property of others, which they rob or steal.
Calvin makes the same point in numerous other places. When Adam sinned humanity forfeited not only its hope of eternal life, but its very right to the blessings of God’s creation. Jesus’ work as the second Adam has regained the creation, which is now destined for complete restoration at Christ’s return. Yet only those who hold fast to Christ in faith can participate in this legitimate lordship, let alone in its future restoration. All other possession is unjust.
Continuing in his commentary on 1 Timothy 4:5, Calvin writes,
And which of us would venture to claim for himself a single grain of wheat, if he were not taught by the word of God that he is the heir of the world? Common sense, indeed, pronounces that the wealth of the world is naturally intended for our use, but since dominion over the world was taken from us in Adam, everything that we touch of the gifts of God is defiled by our pollution, and on the other hand, it is unclean to us, till God graciously come to our aid, and by ingrafting us into his Son, constitutes us anew to be lords of the world, that we may lawfully use as our own all the wealth with which he supplies us.
Some contemporary Reformed Christians, wary of Neo-Calvinist claims about the progressive transformation of the world into the kingdom of Christ, have insisted that the New Testament teaches a redemption of persons but not of creation itself. Whether or not this is the case (and I believe the New Testament is quite clear that Christ reconciles creation itself), there is no doubt that Calvin is on the side of the Neo-Calvinists here. Jesus’ lordship over all things is exhaustive, and no one has any right to use or enjoy the blessings of creation without dedicating it to the glory and service of God. As he puts it in his commentary on Hebrews 2:8, “nothing is ours except through the bounty of God and our union with Christ.” This includes “not only things needful for eternal blessedness, but also such inferior things as serve to supply the wants of the body.”
But does that mean non-Christians have no rights to property or political power? In the medieval era a number of Christian theologians, as well as some popes, claimed just that. A king might forfeit his authority over his subjects, for instance, if he was excommunicated. We might find a parallel to this view among contemporary Christians who speak and act as if unbelievers should not be placed in positions of political leadership, or as if political power justified on any other basis than Christian scripture is illegitimate.
Yet Calvin does not go there. He carefully distinguishes between right and legitimate use. Because of his sin, he argues, Adam was denied the good things of creation, “not that he was denied the use of them, but that he could have had no right to them” (Commentary on Hebrews 2:5). Nowhere in his massive corpus of writings does Calvin question the practical right of unbelievers to hold property or to exercise political power.
But if Jesus is lord over all things, how is this consistent? For many of us it seems intuitive that if Jesus is lord his authority must be asserted with energy and power. We are quite confident that we understand what lordship looks like and what its implications should be. If we’re serious about following him, we need confidently to conquer and defend every square inch of creation.
“Onward Christian soldiers, marching as to war, with the cross of Jesus, going on before.”
This is where it is crucial to understand Calvin’s understanding of the eschatological nature of Christ’s kingdom. To put it in ordinary terms, while Calvin affirms that Jesus is lord over all things in heaven and on earth, he insists that until he returns to judge the living and the dead, this lordship is exercised in the context of mercy, service, and suffering. Just as Jesus, in other words, declined to exercise his judicial authority during his earthly ministry, taking instead the form of a servant and going the way of the cross, so believers are to live in the same way. This is true even though Jesus has ascended to God’s right hand and holds all authority in heaven and on earth. Today is the day of salvation.
As Calvin explains in the commentary on Hebrews 2, following his comments on Adam’s having forfeited his rights over creation, it is God’s will that believers “spend their whole life under the cross,” just as Christ did before them. “This is the conforming of the head with the members, of which Paul speaks in Romans 8:29.”
If we are serious about Christ’s lordship, then, we are going to have to give up our intuitions about what that must mean and start to pay attention to what our lord has actually told us to do. The calling of Christians in this age is not militantly to assert and defend Christ’s lordship, as real as that lordship is, but to proclaim and witness to that lordship by conforming to the image of Christ in service and suffering.
And it is here that much of the Protestant tradition after Calvin went wrong. Whether due to an idealistic Puritan postmillennialism or to Whig theories of liberal progress, leading theologians, both conservative and liberal, became convinced that the kingdom of Christ will be realized progressively in this world, transforming all political and social structures in its wake. They even claimed Calvin’s authority for this view, despite the reformer’s constant insistence that the Christian life this side of Christ’s return is marked by the experience of the cross.
To be sure, Calvin taught adamantly that society is to be regulated in accord with the word of God, and he was confident that the kingdom of Christ would expand progressively up to Christ’s return. But the primary expression of this expansion is the preaching of the gospel by Christ’s ambassadors, empowered by the Spirit, and the consequent gathering of repentant sinners. And Calvin never wavered from insisting that this expansion takes place under the cross.
Thus it is a most apt conclusion – that whatever the gospel promises respecting the glory of the resurrection vanishes away, except we spend our present life in patiently bearing the cross and tribulations….
He then shows by the very order of election that the afflictions of the faithful are nothing else than the manner by which they are conformed to the image of Christ, and that this was necessary, as he had before declared… [G]ratuitous adoption, in which our salvation consists, is inseparable from the other decree, which determines that we are to bear the cross, for no one can be an heir of heaven without being conformed to the image of the only begotten son of God… [H]e will have all those whom he adopts to be the heirs of his kingdom to be conformed to his example. (Commentary on Romans 8:25,29)
So often in contemporary debates among Christians one side insists that because Jesus is lord Christians need to be more assertive in the culture wars, while the other side insists that because Jesus’ kingdom is spiritual Christians shouldn’t worry about or even engage the culture wars. Yet Calvin’s theology points us in a different direction. Because Jesus is lord over all things, whether on earth or in heaven, Christians should imitate their lord and conform to his example, taking up their cross and serving their neighbors in love. Clearly Christians need to be engaged in the issues of our time, but the manner of our engagement matters just as much as the engagement itself. Because we testify that apart from Christ no one has any right to political authority or property, including ourselves, we must approach the things of this world as Christ did, in humility and service.
“If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15).