From Your Pastor: John Calvin’s ‘Institutes of the Christian Religion,’ Part 4

Calvin’s ‘Institutes’: Theological Content and Growth

Yale Church historian and Calvinian scholar Bruce Gordon writes that Calvin’s ‘Institutes’ went through revisions for more than twenty years because they embodied and reflected Calvin’s continuous study of Scripture, his deepening grasp of the theological tradition of patristic and medieval fathers, his pastoral experience, and the doctrinal controversies he was involved in over the years. Herman Selderhuis described this colorfully: “The ‘Institutes’ had drifted into the market as a sailboat, but by 1559 it had grown into a cargo ship, increasing from six to eighty chapters.”

Caspar Olevianus (1536-1587), now famous as the co-author of the Heidelberg Catechism (1563), seemed to have a real knack for concisely articulating biblical truths, summarized succinctly Calvin’s ‘Institutes’ in this way:

Man being at first created upright, but afterwards being not partially but totally ruined, finds his entire salvation out of himself in Christ, to whom being united by the Holy Spirit freely given, without any foresight of future works, he thereby obtains a double blessing—namely, full imputation of righteousness, which goes along with us even to the grave, and the commencement of sanctification, which daily advances till at length it is perfected in the day of regeneration or resurrection of the body, and this, in order that the great mercy of God may be celebrated in the heavenly mansions throughout eternity.

There are three primary editions of the “Institutes” from 1536 to 1559. The 1536 Institutes might be called “A Catechetical Institutes” (6 chapters). It is focused on grounding God’s people in the biblical faith like a catechism. The format was borrowed from Calvin’s first generation Reformation father, Martin Luther. It has six chapters: 1) Faith; 2) Commandments; 3) Lord’s Prayer; 4) Sacraments; 5) False Sacraments of Roman Catholicism; and 6) Christian Freedom and the relationship of the Christian to the church and the state. This 1536 first edition is a summary of the Christian faith that is like a catechism.

The second, and larger edition of 1539/1541 might be called “A Thematical, Biblical-Theological Institutes” (17 chapters). It is a noticeably larger expanision with seventeen chapters: 1) Knowledge of God; 2) Knowledge of Man and Freewill; 3) The Law; 4) Faith (Apostle’s Creed); 5) Repentance; 6) Justification by Faith and Good Works; 7) Similarities and Differences between the Old and New Testaments; 8) Predestination and Providence; 9) Prayer (Lord’s Prayer); 10) Sacraments; 11) Baptism; 12) Lord’s Supper; 13) Five Ceremonies Falsely Called Sacraments (contra Roman Catholicism); 14) Christian Freedom; 15) Power of the Church; 16) Civil Government; and 17) The Christian Life. This 1539/1541 edition is a handbook on the Christian Faith to help believers to study their bibles and to know the word of God. The format of this edition was built on Calvin’s comprehensive study of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, as well as some influences from Reformation fathers, Martin Luther and Philip Melanchthon (1497-1560), (particularly Melanchthon’s Lutheran Theology entitled “Loci Communes” published first in 1521).

Here is an overview and summary of each chapter of Calvin’s ‘Institutes’ (1541 edition) with a memorable quote from Calvin for catechetical instruction for Christ’s Church:

  • Preface to King Francis I: “True Christians, True Church”
  • The Knowledge of God: “Covenant revealed knowledge of God as He is toward us”

Calvin: “All the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: knowledge of God and knowledge of ourselves.”

  • The Knowledge of Man and Free Will: “Covenant-image-bearer, but fallen through covenant breaking, and thus no longer free, but enslaved to sin”

Calvin: “Man, having been created in God’s image, was endowed with gifts and superior powers which testified to His Creator’s extraordinary generosity toward him…Through his ingratitude, he quickly made himself unworthy of all the benefits which God had given him. The heavenly image he bore therefore erased; being estranged from God by sin he was likewise deprived of his share in the blessings which can only be had in Him.”

  • The Law: “An enchanted mirror that reveals holy, just, good, and all-wise God, the reason for man’s existence, and the perfect, righteous, good man”

Calvin: “The Law reveals our need of God’s mercy … The Law is a standard of perfect righteousness.”

  • Faith, with an Explanation of the Apostle’s Creed: “Faith that is given by God that is not perfect, but rests entirely upon God’s truth with confidence and assurance”

Calvin: A firm and certain knowledge of God’s goodwill to us which, being founded on the free promise given in Jesus Christ, is revealed to our minds and sealed in our hearts by the Holy Spirit.”

  • Repentance: “The entire Christian Life from beginning to end should be characterized by repentance”

Calvin: “The essence of repentance is that, taking leave of ourselves, we turn to God, and forsaking our former thoughts and intentions we adopt new ones …It is a turning of our life to follow God and the path which He shows us, a turning produced by a genuine and unfeigned fear of God, and consisting in mortification of our flesh and of the old man, and in vivification of the Spirit.”

  • Justification by Faith and the Merits of Works: “Declared righteous based on the merit of Christ’s works, all of our works in Him accepted as His sons when brought in sincerity”

Calvin: “It teaches us to look away from our works and to look only to God’s mercy and to the perfect holiness of Christ …. A man is righteous not in himself but because Christ’s righteousness is made over to him by imputation.”

  • The Similarity and Difference between the Old and New Testaments: “One God, One People, One Covenant Story”

Calvin: “The covenant made with the fathers of old, in its substance and reality, is so similar to ours that it can be said to be the very same. It differs only in the way it is dispensed.”

  • The Predestination and Providence of God: “True believers will never lose their faith; true believers will never lose their way”

Calvin: “We can predestination God’s eternal counsel by which He has determined what He wishes to do with each and every person … Thus, according to the end for which a person has been created, we say that he is predestined to death or life … Providence is what we call the order which God observes in governing the world and in directing all things.”

  • Prayer, with an Explanation of Our Lord’s Prayer: “Faith makes itself known from one’s heart in communion and union with God”

Calvin: “We are taught by faith to know that all the goodness which we need and which we ourselves lack is in God and in His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, in whom the Father has placed all the bounty of His blessing and grace, so that we may all draw from Him as from a most plentiful spring. It…remains for us to seek from Him what we know to be in Him, and to ask Him for it in prayer and supplication.”

  • The Sacraments: “Visible words of promises that bring the very presence of Christ and His grace, received by faith, sealed by the Holy Spirit”

Calvin: “It is an outward sign by which our Lord represents and testifies His goodwill toward us, in order to sustain and strengthen the weakness of our faith.”

  • Baptism: “Outward sign of an inward reality of regeneration and cleansing from sin authenticated by the Holy Spirit”

Calvin: “In the Gospel our washing and sanctification are proclaimed to us, and that by baptism this proclamation and message are signed and sealed.”

  • The Lord’s Supper: Outward sign of an inward reality of growth in faith and sanctification in Christ, authenticated by the Holy Spirit”

Calvin: “We call it the Lord’s Supper or Eucharist, because in it we are spiritually fed and nourished by the goodness of our Lord, and we in turn give Him thanks for His kindness.”

  • The Five Ceremonies Falsely Called Sacraments: Confirmation, Penance, Extreme Unction, Ecclesiastical Orders, and Marriage: “Primary tenants of ‘Romanism’/False Medieval Roman Catholic Religion of Idolatry”

Calvin: “…Belief in the seven sacraments has been so common among men and so widely discussed in debates and sermons, that from very early times it has been rooted in men’s hearts and is still embedded there. I thus thought it worthwhile to consider separately and more closely the remaining five, which are generally counted among the Lord’s sacraments, and having revealed their complete falsity, to show the untutored what they are like and how, up until now, they have been wrongly taken for sacraments.”

  • Christian Freedom: “Free to live as one was created to live under the authority of God and His Word, enjoying peace of conscience”

Calvin: “Freedom from bondage to the law in Christ … Freedom to obey without constraint God’s will … Freedom in the use of indifferent things.”

  • The Power of the Church: “Possessing the keys to the kingdom of God (special grace), given graciously by grace by Christ, to be administered as steward-servants under the authority of God’s special revelation in His Word”

Calvin: “Power is conferred solely by God’s Word. Those who rightly use such power look on themselves simply as Christ’s servants and as stewards of the mysteries of God.”

  • Civil Government: “Possessing the sword of the kingdom of God (common grace), given graciously by Christ, to be administered as steward-servants under the authority of God’s general revelation in His creation and in conscience”

Calvin: “Magistrates are God’s servants/ministers … They must remember that they are deputies of God, they must make every effort and take every care in all they do to represent to men an image of God’s providence, protection, goodness, mildness and justice.”

  • The Christian Life: “Lifelong learning that we are not our own, we are God’s, and we are therefore to learn to be like Christ in our love to God and neighbor, specifically in our self-denial in our cross-bearing pilgrimage, stewardship, and meditation upon the future life.

Calvin: “Scripture teaches that holiness is the purpose of our calling, which we must constantly keep in view if we would truly respond to God … A golden rule: we are not our own …Let us therefore forget ourselves as much as we can—ourselves and everything around us.”

In 1559, the descriptive heading (“book jacket blurb”) of the ‘Institutes’ read: “[The Institutes of the Christian Religion] now first arranged in four books and divided by definite headings in a very convenient manner so that it can almost be regarded as a new book.” The third, and final edition of 1559 might be called “A Mature, Pastoral-Theological Textbook” – Calvin’s Magnum Opus. It is expanded to four books or volumes, and eighty chapters. Calvin was especially quite pleased with the final edition and described it as practically a new book. What is remarkable about this is that in this more expansive and detailed treatment, Calvin’s content and argument are virtually unchanged.

“For I believe I have so embraced the sum of religion in all its parts, and have arranged it in such an order, that if anyone rightly grasps it, it will not be difficult for him to determine what he ought especially to seek in Scripture, and to that end he ought to relate its contents.” – Calvin’s preface of the 1559 ‘Institutes’

The contents of the 1559 edition as as follows: Book I: Knowledge of God the Creator: focusing on topics such as Triune God, Creation and Providence. This first book is what is termed “Theology Proper” in the study of systematic theology. Book II: Knowledge of God the Redeemer: focusing on the Person and Work of Jesus Christ for sinners; what is often termed “Christology” (Christology for Calvin is at the center of all of his theological teaching, from God’s predestination to covenant, to the fall of man, to redemption, to his understanding of word and sacrament, and to his teaching on the church of Jesus Christ). Book III: Knowledge of God the Spirit and the Application of Christ’s Redemption for Sinners. This focuses on God’s Spirit in uniting believers to all the blessing and benefits of Christ. This third book is called “Pneumatology”. Book IV: Knowledge of Christ the King, Lord of His Church. This fourth book focuses on the Church, Sacraments, Christian Freedom, including the relationship of the Christian to the church and the state. This fourth book is called “Ecclesiology”. The ‘Institutes’ is one of the most influential books ever written and has profoundly affected the course of history, and particularly has influenced mankind’s understanding of God, man, sin, grace, Christ, church, sacraments, the Christian life, along with music, the arts, literature, political theory, and so much more. Calvin in an amazingly brief section on his teaching concerning the civil authorities, planted the seeds for the birth of liberty in the modern world.


What are some of the Characteristics of the Institutes

“Biblical, Systematic, Polemical, Pastoral and Devotional”

Biblical: Calvin is teaching his students to always be learning between two primary errors: Ignorance on the one side and extreme curiosity on the other. “Speak where the Scripture speaks, and be silent where it is silent”. ‘Institutes’ is ultimately intended to be a guide and theological handbook to studying the Bible.

Systematic: Calvin gives a systematic, God-centered world and life view drawn completely from Holy Scripture and from the faithful and biblical writings of the fathers of the faith, who also drew from the well of Scripture. ‘Institutes’ has been described as “thoroughly logical and consistent, and gives the mind an organized way of thinking about God and His ways”. This can lead to faithful meditation on Scripture. His system was to be consistently Scriptural, and to achieve maximum clarity of presentation (McGrath).

Polemical: Calvin sought always to pastorally inform, but also to warn against and defend the truth against heresy and schismatics. Calvin’s primary antagonists and “conversation partners” were Roman Catholics, Anabaptists (“Libertines” or “Radical Reformers”), Lutherans, and Nicodemites. The ‘Institutes’ has been described as a ‘Book of Antitheses’. As Warfield taught however, Calvin’s aim was primarily constructive, not destructive; Calvin was seeking to rebuild the church after mean years of theological error in the Medieval Roman Catholic church.

Pastoral: Calvin writes with hungry souls in mind. Calvin was passing on to others what he knew and had experienced about God himself. “[Calvin’s double purpose in writing the ‘Institutes’] seeks to witness to the revelation of God in scripture, and it seeks to do so in language capable of moving hearts, minds, and wills of its audience toward an ever-deepening life of faith” (Serene Jones). Calvin sought brevity and clarity against the Medieval Scholastics whom he described their method as “so twisted, involved, tortuous, and puzzling…a kind of species of secret magic”.

Devotional: Warfield wrote: “It is not the head but the heart which made [Calvin] a theologian and it is not the head but the heart which he primarily addresses in his theology…” Calvin’s theology was with an aim to glorify the triune God, through loving Him with our hearts, minds, souls, strength, and our neighbor as ourselves. Piety or godliness was Calvin’s goal in writing the ‘Institutes’. Elsie McKee summarizes Calvin’s devotional goal:

“…Intensely personal but never individualistic. Woven through with the great doctrines of justification by faith and regeneration of life, the glory of God and providence. Undergirded with prayer, proclaimed in word and shared in sacraments, sung in psalms. Embodied in action and demanding respect for the neighbor and solidarity with those who suffer in spirit, mind, or body. Not an easy or comfortable piety; it asks for one’s all. Sturdy and down to earth, lived in the mundane context of daily work, yet always conscious of the presence of the transcendent God and the high calling of living before God. An energizing, lifelong response to God’s liberating claim, God’s righteous mercy, God’s compelling love, a belonging that is all our joy. ‘We are not our own…We are God’s!”

Let us pray with Calvin:

“Grant, Almighty God, since we are all lost in ourselves, that we may desire to obtain life where it is laid up for us and where you do manifest it, namely, in your Son. And grant that we so embrace this grace that has been exhibited to us in the sacrifice of His death that we may be regenerated by His Spirit. And thus being born again, may we devote ourselves wholly to you and so glorify your name in this world that we may at length be partakers of that glory that the same, your only Begotten Son, has acquired for us. Amen.”

To be continued…

Next study: Calvin’s Reformation of the Church in Geneva


Bibliography/For Further Reading

Beach, J. Mark. Piety’s Wisdom.

Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion (1541, Calvin’s Own Essentials Edition).

__________ Edited by John T. McNeill. Institutes of the Christian Religion (2 Volumes)

__________ Truth for All Time: A Brief Outline of the Christian Faith (trans. by Stuart Olyott).

Calhoun, David B. Knowing God and Ourselves: Reading Calvin’s Institutes Devotionally.

Godfrey, W. Robert. John Calvin: Pilgrim and Pastor.

Gordon, Bruce. John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion: A Biography.

_________. Calvin.

Hall, David W. and Lillback, Peter A. A Theological Guide to Calvin’s Institutes: Essays and Analysis (Calvin 500 Series).

Lane, Anthony N. S. A Reader’s Guide to Calvin’s Institutes.

Lawson, Steven J. The Expository Genius of John Calvin

McKee, Elsie Anne, ed. John Calvin: Writings on Pastoral Piety (Classics of Western Spirituality).

Parker, T. H. L. Calvin: An Introduction to His Thought

Schaff, Philip. History of the Christian Church, Vol. VIII: The Swiss Reformation

Selderhuis, Herman J. John Calvin: A Pilgrim’s Life.

________. The Calvin Handbook.

________. Calvin’s Theology of the Psalms.

Wendel, Francois. Calvin: Origins and Development of His Religious Thought

From Your Pastor: John Calvin’s ‘Institutes of the Christian Religion,’ Part 3

The Knowledge of God

“For I believe I have so embraced the sum of religion in all its parts, and have arranged it in such an order, that if anyone rightly grasps it, it will not be difficult for him to determine what he ought especially to seek in Scripture, and to that end he ought to relate its contents.” – Calvin’s preface of the 1559 ‘Institutes’

In 1536, young, twenty-something John Calvin would pen a theological classic that would place it in the stream of earlier Christian classics such as Saint Anselm’s ‘Why God Became Man’, Thomas Aquinas’ ‘Summa Theologiae’, and Thomas a Kempis’ ‘The Imitation of Christ’. This book was the ‘Institutes of the Christian Religion’.

As the quotation from Calvin from his preface of the 1559 edition of ‘Institutes’ states, it was Calvin’s desire to explain Scripture with a deep desire for Christians to know what they believed, and to worship and serve God. Calvin was not interested in just explaining the truth, nor in merely understanding the truth, but He desired to study with the goal of doxology, or the worship and service of God.Piety or godliness was Calvin’s primary concern. Calvin’s thinking can be summed up with the Apostle Paul: O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God…For from Him, and through Him, and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever! Amen (Romans 11:33-36). The knowledge of God was to lead to exalt the Triune God through transformative change and godly worship, all for His glory alone (Psalm 115:1)! There are three important biblical ideas found in the ‘Institutes’: 1) Knowledge of God; 2) True Religion; and 3) Piety. Calvin wrote:

I understand that by which we not only conceive that there is some God, but also apprehend what it is for our interest, and conducive to His glory, what, in short, it is befitting to know concerning Him. For, properly speaking, we cannot say that God is known where there is no religion or piety.

Calvin believed that God had revealed Himself in Holy Scripture so that sinful creatures could know how to enjoy an intimate relationship with the true and living God, to perform true worship of Him, and to live godly lives before Him. He wrote how we can test if our theology is actually true and biblical; he said: “Truth that does not seek to transform the knower is only the empty ghost of knowledge.” Further he wrote that “the theologian should find himself continually drawn on and inspired in his theological quest by a desire for communion and union with God.” As was said of the great Aurelius Augustine (387-430 AD): “Truth entire entered the whole man.”

Calvin believed with Anselm before him in the priority of faith as a gift of God that humbly submits to God’s revelation in Holy Scripture. Thus to have true knowledge, one must be given true faith. Our Lord Jesus said clearly: “If anyone’s will is to do God’s will, he will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own authority” (John 7:17; cf. Eph. 2:8-10; Heb. 11:1, 6). This biblical-theological methodology of gaining knowledge is summarized as “faith seeking understanding” (Fides Quaerens Intellectum). In fact, Calvin believed with Anselm that the Christian ought to advance through faith in God’s revelation to true knowledge, not to come through knowledge to faith, nor, if she cannot know, recede from faith. But when one is about to attain knowledge, she rejoices; and if unable to understand, she reverences that which she is unable to grasp. In other words, whether one gets it or just grasps at it, it is to bring the Christian to her knees in adoration and glorious praise!

Contrasted with the speculative theology of much of the Medieval Roman Catholics, Calvin’s ‘Institutes’ focused man’s knowledge of God on what God had revealed about Himself. While the Medieval Scholastics tended to emphasize in their theological methodology “What is God in Himself?” (His essence), Calvin believed that one’s methodology of knowing began by asking “Who is God as He is toward us?” (His covenant revelation to His creatures). The focus of Calvin was on how has God revealed Himself in covenant toward us, as He has revealed Himself in Holy Scripture.

This true knowledge of God as it is revealed is with the purpose to invite us to fear God, to trust Him, and to worship Him with purity of life and genuine obedience as we depend upon His goodness toward us. You might say that Calvin and the faithful Medieval interpreters before him had everything in common metaphysically (having to do with God’s essence or being) concerning the knowledge of God, but almost nothing in common epistemologically (how one knows what they know). This was aggravated by two very different understandings of what a sinful man has the ability to do. For Calvin, though man was created reasonable with the ability to think (Eccl. 7:29), without the initiating power of God freeing man’s mind to faith, man would just irrationally refuse the reasonable revelation that is around, within, and in front of him (cf. Rom. 1:19-25; 1 Cor. 2:9-14)!

This was a remarkable change in doing theology. There is a strong covenantal influence upon Calvin’s theology both in form (methodology) and content (teaching/substance). For Calvin, knowledge of God was not God’s knowledge, but what humans can know of Him. Calvin warned that on the path to true wisdom and sound knowledge, one is to be one’s guard against three errors: (1) Ignorance (about God’s revelation), (2) Inappropriate and excessive curiosity (asking questions about God that hasn’t been revealed), and (3) Theological knowledge that did not transform one’s heart and life. This reveals the heart of Calvin as a theologian, to be a pastor-theologian. He desires to inform, to speak where Scripture speaks and to be silent where Scripture is silent (Deut. 29:29), and to expect personal transformation by the Spirit through true theological knowledge. This was the true and sound wisdom of his thesis:

“All the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: knowledge of God and knowledge of ourselves.”

True knowledge of God and sound and biblical wisdom understood that God’s existence was self-evident, though man refused to recognize this because of sin, that faith is to be seeking understanding and is not equal with reason because reason has been tainted by sin, and that arguments for the existence of God must never form our theological foundation, because the best one can do with what they know is to suppress, smother and corrupt the truth into idolatries and mythologies. Arguments for the existence of God could be props and good supports for faith, but only revelation from Holy Scripture should be the Christian’s foundation. What good is it if God has clearly revealed Himself, yet man denies it, or perverts it, or corrupts it, or seeks to smother it? What good is it to prove a god, but to not acknowledge the True and Living Triune God? Calvin taught that this was at best to commit idolatry and to rob the true God of his honor and glory!

Calvin knew that man’s whole self was tainted and marred by sin, and must be freed by God’s grace and power to be submissive from the heart to Scriptural revelation as it is revealed by the Spirit. God has clearly revealed Himself within man, and in creation, and so natural revelation is clear and natural theology is possible from what God has revealed. However, though the natural revelation is clear, because of sin’s taint on man’s heart and mind, natural theology is impossible. Man will never properly use the clear revelation in the “light of nature” to find the one and living true Triune God, but only idolatry or “my-theology” (mythology).

Though man can know much about God in creation and conscience, man’s understanding and heart smothers and corrupts this truth. Therefore, though God is clearly revealed, He has been kind to grant to us Holy Scripture. Calvin used the imagery of spectacles to describe what Scripture did for sinful man:

Just as old and bleary-eyed men or those with weak vision, if you thrust before them a most beautiful volume, even if they recognize it to be some sort of writing, yet can scarcely construe two words, but with the aid of spectacles will begin to read distinctly: so scripture, gathering up the otherwise confused knowledge of God in our minds, having dispersed our dullness, clearly shows us the true God.

Calvin’s ‘Institutes’ was his life’s teaching and writing project to help Christians to understand Holy Scripture and to have the spectacles that sinful man needed, while fully dependent upon the illuminating and enlightening of the work of the Holy Spirit. Calvin wrote:

“By this power [of the Holy Spirit] we are drawn and inflamed, knowingly and willingly, to obey Him, yet also more vitally and more effectively than by human willing or knowing” (Institutes, 1.7.5, 1559 edition).



To be continued…


Let us pray with Calvin:

“Grant, Almighty God, that since it is the principal part of our happiness that in our pilgrimage through this world there is open to us a familiar access to you by faith, O grant that we may be able to come with a pure heart into your presence. And when our lips are polluted, O purify us by your Spirit, so that we may not only pray to you with the mouth but also prove that we do this sincerely, without any dissimulations, and that we earnestly seek to spend our whole life in glorifying your name; until being at length gathered into your celestial kingdom, we may be truly and really united to you, and be made partakers of that glory, which has been brought forth for us by the blood of your only begotten Son. Amen.”


Next Study: Calvin’s Institutes, Part 4: Theological Content and Growth of Institutes



Bibliography/For Further Reading

Beach, J. Mark. Piety’s Wisdom: A Summary of Calvin’s Institutes with Study Questions.

Beeke, J, Hall, David W., and Haykin, Michael. Theology Made Practical: New Studies on John Calvin and His Legacy.

Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion (1541, Calvin’s Own Essentials Edition).

__________ Edited by John T. McNeill. Institutes of the Christian Religion (2 Volumes)

Calhoun, David B. Knowing God and Ourselves: Reading Calvin’s Institutes Devotionally.

Godfrey, W. Robert. John Calvin: Pilgrim and Pastor.

Gordon, Bruce. John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion: A Biography.

_________. Calvin.

Hall, David W. and Lillback, Peter A. A Theological Guide to Calvin’s Institutes: Essays and Analysis (Calvin 500 Series).

Lane, Anthony N. S. A Reader’s Guide to Calvin’s Institutes.

Lawson, Steven J. The Expository Genius of John Calvin

McKee, Elsie Anne, ed. John Calvin: Writings on Pastoral Piety (Classics of Western Spirituality).

Parker, T. H. L. Calvin: An Introduction to His Thought

Schaff, Philip. History of the Christian Church, Vol. VIII: The Swiss Reformation

Selderhuis, Herman J. John Calvin: A Pilgrim’s Life.

________. The Calvin Handbook.

________. Calvin’s Theology of the Psalms.

Wendel, Francois. Calvin: Origins and Development of His Religious Thought


Study Guide for Books of Samuel: A Man After God’s Own Heart

Summary of Books of Samuel: According to God’s perfect timing and through His most holy and wise determination, God graciously grants Israel a king after His own heart. Though Israel was largely characterized by “doing what is right in their own eyes” (Judges 21:25), God powerfully raises up Samuel, who serves as a transition from the time of the judges to the monarchy. Samuel was to be the last of God’s faithful judges to lead and deliver Israel (1 Sam. 7:15); he would be the voice of God as Israel’s prophet (1 Sam. 3:20; Acts 3:24); he would be the servant of God as Israel’s priest (1 Sam. 2:35). As Prophet, Priest, and Judge, Samuel will anoint Israel’s first king (1 Sam. 10:1), and her best king (1 Sam. 16:13).

Place of Books in Larger Redemptive-Historical Story (Genesis 3:15; 17:6, 16; 49:10; Deuteronomy 17:14-20; 2 Samuel 7:12-13;): The Book of Samuel is a Tale of Two Kings. King Saul was the kind of king the sinful people wanted: one who was like the nations (1 Sam. 8:5b; cf. Deut. 17:14b). King David was the kind of king that was a man after God’s own heart (1 Sam. 13:14). More broadly considered, Samuel is situated in Redemptive-History which is itself a Tale of Two Kings. Adam, God’s first king was chosen to have dominion over the earth, to show forth to the world God’s righteousness and rule as His vice-regent (deputy), but he rebelled against God’s righteous rule (Gen. 1:26; Eccl. 7:29). Christ was God’s ultimate chosen king who would faithfully reveal God’s reign and rule and be exalted to rule over heaven and earth.

“…He will give strength to his king and exalt the power of his anointed [“Messiah”].” (1 Sam. 2:10b).

After the rebellion of God’s first king, God graciously proclaims the Gospel-good news of the coming of another king, Jesus Christ, who would destroy rebellion, sin, and all evil, and would rule and reign righteously over heaven and earth (Gen. 3:15). This coming king is revealed progressively throughout the Bible story. God promised Abraham that he would be the father of kings (Gen. 17:6, 16; also Jacob, 35:11), and from the Tribe of Judah was to come forth a ruler and king of the people (Gen. 49:10; Micah 5:2). In the time of Moses, God revealed more fully that when the people of Israel were settled in Canaan that though Israel would desire a king like the sinful nations around them, God would choose the right king for them. He would be a humble king, who would rule faithfully according to God’s good and righteous law (Deut. 17:14-20). God revealed in the time of David that his heir would build God’s dynasty-house and that he would reign eternally upon his throne (2 Sam. 7:12-16). This righteous king, the Lord Jesus Christ, would be fully revealed as son of Adam (Luke 3:38), Son of Abraham (Matt. 1:1), Son of Judah, Son of David (Matt. 1:1), heir to David’s throne (Matt. 1:20; 21:15), and Holy Son of God (Luke 1:32-35, 3:38; Matt. 3:17). “As for me, I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill.” I will tell of the decree: The LORD said to me, “You are my Son; today I have begotten you.” (Psalm 2:6-7).

God’s chosen king, Jesus Christ, chosen before the foundation of the world, would come in the fullness of time to reveal the true image of God faithfully, showing forth God’s perfect and holy righteousness in word and deed. Jesus Christ would be both Son of God and Son of Man, honoring God in perfect obedience where His people had failed in their rebellion, and imputing His perfect righteousness to them. Jesus Christ would be both Son of God and Son of Man, offering himself as the final sacrifice to God, crushing the evil one, and definitively destroying all sin, death, and evil, freeing His people by His Spirit to love and live righteously before God in reliance upon His grace! “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!” (Rev. 5:13b).

Four Main Characters of Books of Samuel: (1) The LORD, Covenant God and Lord of Hosts; (2) Samuel of Levi; (3) Saul of Benjamin; (4) David of Judah

Four Important Scriptures for Memorization/Meditation:

“There is none holy like the LORD; there is none besides you; there is no rock like our God.” – ESV 1 Samuel 2:2

“And Samuel said, “Has the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the LORD? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to listen than the fat of rams.”ESV 1 Samuel 15:22

“But the LORD said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.”ESV 1 Samuel 16:7

“When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.”ESV 2 Samuel 7:12-13

 Major Themes about God: “There is none holy like the LORD; there is none besides you; there is no rock like our God.” (1 Sam. 2:2) – * Sovereign Providence of God (1 Sam. 1:5, 6; 2:6-7) * Presence of God (1 Sam. 1:3, 22) * Power of God (Omnipotence, 1 Sam. 2:10) * Covenant Promises of God (1 Sam. 1:19b; 2:1) * Faithfulness of God * Holiness of God (1 Sam. 2:2; 6:20) * Decree of God * Immutability of God * Fear of God * God’s glory (“weightiness”) * God’s surprising work in history (reversals of historical “norms”, 1 Sam. 2:3-5, 8-10).

Date of Books: ca. 1050 BC (time when Samuel began to write) – 970 BC (end of David’s reign)

Genre (s): Historical Narrative * Preached History * Theological History * Inspired Hero Story

Inspired Authors/Editors: Samuel (1 Sam. 10:25; cf. 1 Sam. 25:1a), Nathan (2 Sam. 7:2; 12:1) and Gad (2 Sam. 24:11). “Now the acts of King David, from first to last, are written in the Chronicles of Samuel the seer, and in the Chronicles of Nathan the prophet, and in the Chronicles of Gad the seer…” (1 Chronicles 29:29).

Outline of Books of Samuel:

  1. Samuel (1 Samuel 1-7)
  2. Saul (1 Samuel 8-15)
  • David I (1 Samuel 16-31)
  1. David II (2 Samuel 1-20)
  2. Kingdom (2 Samuel 21-24)

Shorter Catechism Question and Answer Memorization: Q: What are God’s works of providence? A. God’s works of providence are His most holy, wise, and powerful preserving and governing all His creatures and all their actions.

From Your Pastor: John Calvin’s ‘Institutes of the Christian Religion,’ Part 2

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:10-12).

Calvin addressed his ‘Institutes’ to King Francis I of France to seek to prove to him that reformed believers made up the one true, holy, apostolic, catholic church. Reformed believers were not sectarians nor troublemakers, but the true and faithful reformed catholic church. And because of this, reformed believers should be protected from severe and harsh persecution by the Roman Catholics in France. Calvin wrote to the king:

…Observing that certain wicked men had stirred up such fury in your kingdom that no place remained for wholesome doctrine, I thought it worthwhile to use the present book both for the instruction of those I had originally meant to teach, and as a confession of faith for yourself, so that you might know what this teaching is which so inflames the rage of those who today, by fire and sword, are troubling your kingdom. For I am not at all ashamed to say that here I have included almost the full sum of that very teaching which they [Roman Catholics] believe should be punished by prison, exile, banishment and fire, and which they shout should be driven from both land and sea.

….It is thus with good reason, most illustrious King, that I ask you to acquaint yourself thoroughly with this case, which up till now has been handled in a muddled way, with no respect for legal process, and with reckless zeal rather than with judicial calm and gravity…God’s poor little church has been either devoured by cruel deaths, driven into exile, or so overawed by threats and terrors that it dares not utter a word…In the meantime no one steps forward to offer a defense against their furious assaults (Prefatory Address to King Francis, ‘Institutes of the Christian Religion’).

Calvin as the trained lawyer, bravely wrote his ‘Institutes’ as an apologetic or defense against severe persecution in France by the Roman Catholic authorities. Calvin knew he had to speak up to oppose this tyranny and persecution, and so he appealed to King Francis I, whom he honored as a Lord and servant of God (Rom. 13:1ff).

Calvin’s ‘Institutes’ was written as an apologetic to defend suffering, persecuted Christians, but it is also a theology of suffering. Calvin teaches the reformed believers in the ‘Institutes’ how as Christians to understand their suffering and persecution, and how to trust in God’s fatherly kindness and good providence. In fact, one of Calvin’s most profoundly useful and practical teachings from Scripture is concerning God’s providence. He encouraged believers to meditate upon the fact that God orchestrates wisely and well all things that happen in our lives. He wrote:

“But anyone who has been taught by Christ’s lips that all the hairs of his head are numbered…will consider that all events are governed by God’s secret plan… [and] directed by God’s ever-present hand” (‘Institutes’, I.16.2, 1559 edition).

Calvin advised that when trouble comes in like a flood, and sorrow threatens to drown the heart with pain, believers can find spiritual comfort in knowing that the Lord ultimately willed it. Calvin advised all Christians to be prepared for a hard life, knowing all the difficult times have been ordained by a loving Heavenly Father who uses them to make us holy, humble, honest and Christ-like. Calvin wrote:

There are a thousand illnesses which constantly assail us, one after another. At one time the plague torments us, at another, war. Frost or hail may bring barrenness, and as a result threaten to impoverish us. Death may deprive us of wife, children, or other kin…Such things cause men to curse their life and to hate the day they were born; they rail against heaven and the light itself, insult God…accuse him of bring cruel and unjust.

By contrast, the believer should, in the midst of these things, be conscious of God’s mercy and of His fatherly good will…. Mindful that his heavenly Father is both just and kind in the chastisements he sends, he will learn to be patient. In short, whatever happens, he knows that everything comes from the Lord’s hand, and he will accept it calmly and not ungratefully…God’s hand alone governs fate, both good and bad.

…For all whom the Lord has adopted and received among the number of his children must prepare themselves for a tough, difficult life, full of toils and countless troubles. It is our heavenly Father’s good pleasure to test his servants in this way and thus to train them. This was the pattern which he began in Christ, His first-born Son, and which He continues in all His other children (‘Institutes’, chap. 17, 1541 edition).

Calvin lists some of the hard things that might happen to a believer in any given day, and thus the need to know our Heavenly Father’s kindness and help. He wrote:

Embark upon a ship, you are one step away from death. Mount a horse, if one foot slips, your life is imperiled. Go through the city street, you are subject to as many dangers as there are tiles on the roofs. If there is a weapon in your hand or a friend’s, harm awaits. All the fierce animals you see are armed for your destruction. But if you try to shut yourself up in a walled garden, seemingly delightful, there a serpent sometimes lies hidden. Your house, continually in danger of fire, threatens in the daytime to impoverish you, at night even to collapse upon you. Your field, since it is exposed to hail, frost, drought, and other calamities, threatens you with barrenness, and hence, famine.

I pass over poisonings, ambushes, robberies, open violence, which in part besiege us at home, in part dog us abroad. Amid these tribulations must not man be most miserable, since, but half alive in life, he weakly draws his anxious and languid breath, as if he had a sword perpetually hanging over his neck” (‘Institutes’, 1.17.10, 1559 edition).

Calvin knew from biblical teaching that the doctrine of providence teaches believers that God is in control, and, confidently knowing that, our fear and anxiety can give way to comfort, assurance, and courage in the face of danger and especially in times of persecution. Calvin’s ‘Institutes’ armed reformed believers with the sword of biblical truth so that they could live their lives free from worry and anxiety, and full of joy in fellowship with their Savior, even in times of treacherous persecution.

And the persecution in France was long and treacherous during Calvin’s time. Studying theology and confessing one’s faith was no joke; it was a serious matter, as it should always be. As late moderns, we can find ourselves taking for granted what we believe and know (if we are interested in it at all!). We might admit that we can often study theology just for the thrill of more knowledge, but we should be reminded that in Calvin’s time the study of biblical, reformed theology and the profession of one’s faith was a matter of life and death (and this is the same for the majority of Christians throughout the world today!). Remember the words of our Lord Jesus:

“If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you” (John 15:18-19).


To get a taste of the awful persecution during Calvin’s time, let us listen to an eye-witness description of the execution of a reformed evangelical in France (this is from the testimony of a German Roman Catholic student who was studying in Paris, France):

“I saw two [evangelicals/reformed believers] burned there [in Paris, France]. Their death inspired in me differing sentiments. If you had been there, you would have hoped for a less severe punishment for these poor unfortunates….The first was a very young man, not yet with a beard…he was the son of a cobbler. He was brought in front of the judges and condemned to have his tongue cut out and burned straight afterward. Without changing the expression of his face, the young man presented his tongue to the executioner’s knife, sticking it out as far as he could.

The executioner pulled it out even further with pincers, cut it off, and hit the sufferer several times on the tongue and threw it in the young man’s face. Then he was put into a tipcart, which was driven to the place of execution, but, to see him, one would think that he was going to a feast….When the chain had been placed around his body, I could not describe to you with what equanimity of soul and with what expression in his features he endured the cries of elation and the insults of the crowd that were directed towards him. He did not make a sound, but from time to time he spat out the blood that was filling his mouth, and he lifted his eyes to heaven, as if he was waiting some miraculous rescue.

When his head was covered in sulphur, the executioner showed him the fire with a menacing air; but the young man, without being scared, let it be known, by a movement of his body, that he was giving himself willingly to be burned” (Testimony of a German Roman Catholic student named Eustache Knobelsdorf in 1542).

Many who studied the theology of the ‘Institutes’ with Calvin went back to France as missionaries of the true evangelical faith and were martyred. For many of the reformed Christians who became pastors, to receive an ordination certificate in theology for ministry was at the same time a death certificate. This should remind us that theology is something we are called to live out as much as to teach.

Calvin’s ‘Institutes’ was to be a book of theology about the clear truths of the Bible. It was also a book that biblically taught reformed believers how to suffer under God’s sovereign hand and trust in God’s good providence. As one theologian has put it, Calvin’s teaching on predestination teaches that a believer will never lose their faith, and his teaching on providence teaches that a believer can never lose their way. All that happens to us is planned and ordained by our God and Heavenly Father for His glory and the believer’s good.

Let us pray with Calvin:

“Grant, Omnipotent God, since our life is exposed to innumerable dangers, that we may flee to you and resign ourselves wholly to your will, that we may know that you are the guardian of our life, so that not a hair of our head can fall without your hidden permission. May we also learn to ask of you the spirit of wisdom and discretion, so that you yourself may guide our steps, as it is not in us to defend our life from those many intrigues by which we are on every side surrounded, the whole world being opposed to us, so that we may proceed in the course of our pilgrimage under your care and protection, until we shall be removed into that blessed rest laid up for us in heaven by Christ our Lord. Amen.”

To be continued…

Next Study: Calvin’s ‘Institutes of the Christian Religion’, Part 3: True Knowledge