John Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion
Book One pages 401-404


"Honor your father and your mother that you may be long-lived on the land which Jehovah your God shall give you." [ Exodus 20:12, cf. Vg.]

35. THE WIDE SCOPE OF THIS COMMANDMENT The purpose is: since the maintenance of his economy pleases the Lord God, the degrees of pre-eminence established by him ought to be inviolable for us. This, then, is the sum: that we should look up to those whom God has placed over us, and should treat them with honor, obedience, and gratefulness. It follows from this that we are forbidden to detract from their dignity either by contempt, by stubbornness, or by ungratefulness. For the word "honor" has a wide meaning in Scripture. Thus, when the apostle says: "Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor" [ 1 Timothy 5:17], he refers not only to the reverence due them, but to the remuneration to which their ministry entitles them. Now this precept of subjection strongly conflicts with the depravity of human nature which, swollen with the longing for lofty position, bears subjection grudgingly. Accordingly, he has put forward as an example that kind of superiority which is by nature most amiable and least invidious, because he could thus more easily soften and bend our minds to the habit of submission. By that subjection which is easiest to tolerate, the Lord therefore gradually accustoms us to all lawful subjection, since the reason of all is the same. Indeed, he shares his name with those to whom he has given pre-eminence, so far as it is necessary to preserve this. The titles "Father," "God," and "Lord" so belong to him alone that as often as we hear any one of these our mind cannot fail to be struck with an awareness of his majesty. Those persons, therefore, with whom he shares these titles he lights up with a spark of his splendor so that each may be distinguished according to his degree. Thus, in him who is our father we should recognize something divine because he does not bear the divine title without cause. He who is a "prince" or a "lord" has some share in God's honor.

36. THE DEMAND For this reason, we ought not to doubt that the Lord has here established a universal rule. That is, knowing that someone has been placed over us by the Lord's ordination, we should render to him reverence, obedience, and gratefulness, and should perform such other duties for him as we can. It makes no difference whether our superiors are worthy or unworthy of this honor, for whatever they are they have attained their position through God's providence - a proof that the Lawgiver himself would have us hold them in honor. However, he has expressly bidden us to reverence our parents, who have brought us into this life. Nature itself ought in a way to teach us this. Those who abusively or stubbornly violate parental authority are monsters, not men! Hence the Lord commands that all those disobedient to their parents be put to death. For since they do not recognize those whose efforts brought them into the light of day, they are not worthy of its benefits. What we have noted is clearly true from various additions to the law, that there are three parts of the honor here spoken of: reverence, obedience, and gratefulness. The Lord confirms the first - reverence - when he enjoins that one who curses his father or mother be killed [ Exodus 21:17; Leviticus 20:9; Proverbs 20:20]: there he punishes contempt and abuse. He confirms the second - obedience - when he decrees the penalty of death for disobedient and rebellious children [ Deuteronomy 21:18-21]. What Christ says in Matthew chapter 5, refers to the third kind of honor, gratefulness: it is of God's commandment that we do good to our parents [verses 4-6]. And whenever Paul mentions this commandment, he interprets it as requiring obedience [ Ephesians 6:1-3; Colossians 3:20].

37. THE PROMISE A promise is added by way of recommendation. This is to show us better how pleasing to God is the submission that is here enjoined upon us. Paul pricks us out of our apathy with this needle when he says: "This is the first commandment with a promise" [ Ephesians 6:2]. For the promise already given in the First Table was not confined to one particular commandment, but was extended to the whole law. Now we ought to understand this as follows: the Lord particularly spoke to the Israelites of the land that he had promised them as an inheritance. If, then, the possession of the land was a guarantee of God's bounty, we ought not to wonder if the Lord willed to attest his favor by promising length of life, through which they could long enjoy his benefits. The meaning therefore is: "Honor your father and mother, that you may enjoy through a long period of life the possession of the land, which is to be yours as a testimony of my favor." Moreover, because to believers the whole earth is blessed, we rightly include the present life among God's blessings. Therefore, this promise similarly has reference to us, in so far as length of present life is indeed a proof of God's benevolence toward us. For neither is it promised to us nor was it promised to the Jews as if it contained blessedness in itself; but because for the pious it is a customary symbol of God's kindness. Therefore, if it happens that a son obedient to his parents is snatched from life before attaining maturity, a frequent occurrence, the Lord unwaveringly perseveres in the fulfillment of His promise no less than if He furnished a hundred acres of land to one to whom He had promised only one. The whole point lies here: we should reflect that we are promised long life in so far as it is a blessing of God; and that it is a blessing only in so far as it is an evidence of God's favor, which he testifies to his servants far more richly and substantially through death, and proves it in the reality.

38. THE THREAT Besides, while the Lord promises the blessing of the present life to those children who duly honor their parents, at the same time he implies that an inevitable curse threatens all stubborn and disobedient children. To assure that this commandment be carried out, he has, through his law, declared them subject to the sentence of death, and commanded that they undergo punishment. If they elude that judgment, he himself takes vengeance upon them in some way or other. For we see how many men of this sort perish either in battles or in quarrels; others are cast down in ways less common. Nearly all offer proof that this threatening is not an vain. Some people may escape punishment until extreme old age. Yet in this life they are bereft of God's blessing, and can only miserably pine away, being reserved for greater punishments to come. Far indeed, then, are they from sharing in the blessing promised to godly children! But we also ought in passing to note that we are bidden to obey our parents only "in the Lord" [ Ephesians 6:1]. This is apparent from the principle already laid down. For they sit in that place to which they have been advanced by the Lord, who shares with them a part of his honor. Therefore, the submission paid to them ought to be a step toward honoring that highest Father. Hence, if they spur us to transgress the law, we have a perfect right to regard them not as parents, but as strangers who are trying to lead us away from obedience to our true Father. So should we act toward princes, lords, and every kind of superiors. It is unworthy and absurd for their eminence so to prevail as to pull down the loftiness of God. On the contrary, their eminence depends upon God's loftiness and ought to lead us to it.