John Calvin’s position on the 4th Commandment has been perplexing to many for the last 300 years, at least. As Richard Gaffin explains, Calvin seems to be a non-Sabbatarian in conviction but a Sabbatarian in practice. Calvin states that the meaning of the Sabbath has been fulfilled in Christ, that we are now to “rest” by trusting in Him alone for our justification and putting away our own works. Yet Calvin then turns around and applies strict Sunday restrictions to his own congregation and upon the city of Geneva. Dr. Gaffin isn’t sure that this can be consistently explained, deciding that Calvin was a man of his day and that the whole thing shows us why the Westminster view on the matter is clearer and more helpful. But I think there’s a better explanation.
At one point in the Institutes, Calvin responds to a critic who says that the Genevan practice is a species of the Judaizing heresy. Calvin rebuts this charge by appealing to a familiar distinction between laws which are spiritually binding and those which are made for the sake of outward order:
…in this matter we differ widely from the Jews. We do not celebrate it with most minute formality, as a ceremony by which we imagine that a spiritual mystery is typified, but we adopt it as a necessary remedy for preserving order in the Church. Paul informs us that Christians are not to be judged in respect of its observance, because it is a shadow of something to come (Col. 2:16); and, accordingly, he expresses a fear lest his labour among the Galatians should prove in vain, because they still observed days (Gal. 4:10, 11). And he tells the Romans that it is superstitious to make one day differ from another (Rom. 14:5). But who, except those restless men, does not see what the observance is to which the Apostle refers? Those persons had no regard to that political and ecclesiastical arrangement, but by retaining the days as types of spiritual things, they in so far obscured the glory of Christ, and the light of the Gospel. They did not desist from manual labour on the ground of its interfering with sacred study and meditation, but as a kind of religious observance; because they dreamed that by their cessation from labour, they were cultivating the mysteries which had of old been committed to them. It was, I say, against this preposterous observance of days that the Apostle inveighs, and not against that legitimate selection which is subservient to the peace of Christian society. For in the churches established by him, this was the use for which the Sabbath was retained. He tells the Corinthians to set the first day apart for collecting contributions for the relief of their brethren at Jerusalem (1 Cor. 16:2). If superstition is dreaded, there was more danger in keeping the Jewish sabbath than the Lord’s day as Christians now do. It being expedient to overthrow superstition, the Jewish holy day was abolished; and as a thing necessary to retain decency, orders and peace, in the Church, another day was appointed for that purpose. (Inst. 2.8.33)
Notice some of those key terms: “spiritual mystery” vs. “preserving order,” “political and ecclesiastical arrangement” as contrasted against “spiritual things,” and then those very pastoral terms: “deceny,” “orders,” and “peace.” This is the language of the two realms. In Calvin’s view, the primary meaning of the 4th commandment is justification by faith alone, a truth for the spiritual kingdom, but the external application of it for congregations takes the form of pastoral discipline and temporal order. As such, Roger T. Beckwith and Wilfrid Stott are correct when they write that “Calvin… held that it [the Sabbath– SW] was by human law.”1 In this there is no contradiction, even if Calvin’s understanding of “liberty” might seem puzzling to us today; it is not primarily individual liberty to do whatever one might wish, but rather institutional liberty to discover the most appropriate course of action for the collective body.
This is the same sort of argument which Calvin makes when explaining the two kingdoms and their respective jurisdictions. Adiaphora may even be legislated and enforced, by both ministers and magistrates, so long as it is never made internally binding or said to be essential to the faith:
Another thing also worthy of observation, and depending on what has been already said, is, that human laws, whether enacted by magistrates or by the Church, are necessary to be observed, (I speak of such as are just and good,) but do not therefore in themselves bind the conscience, because the whole necessity of observing them respects the general end, and consists not in the things commanded. Very different, however, is the case of those which prescribe a new form of worshipping God, and introduce necessity into things that are free. (Inst. 4.10.5)
Thus Calvin’s “Sabbatarianism” is actually of a decidedly non-Puritan variety, even if it might look quite similar. For him, keeping the Lord’s Day is not a matter divine law, but rather one of external order and faithful submission to earthly authorities. This reinforces that our reading of Calvin’s position on the two kingdoms is correct, for if he held to the more disciplinarian variant, he would not be able to allow the Sabbath to occupy the position of a non-essential.
To put it succinctly, Calvin enforces the Sabbath for the same reason and by the same argument that Whitgift and Hooker enforce episcopacy, vestments, and liturgy.