From Your Pastor: John Calvin’s ‘Institutes of the Christian Religion,’ Part 1

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

The risen and ascended Christ gives men gifts and grace to serve His Church. John Calvin was one of those graciously gifted men to teach and bless His Church. Calvin understood his call as a teacher to benefit God’s people. He wrote: “God has filled my mind with zeal to spread his Kingdom and to further the public good and since I undertook the office of teacher in the church, I have had no other purpose than to benefit the church by maintaining the pure doctrine of godliness.” Amazingly, by God’s grace, at the tender age of twenty-six years old, and only 1-3 years after his conversion, Calvin maturely and faithfully penned a pastoral, theological classic of biblical truth that became a publishing sensation. The full title of the work was:

“The Institutes of the Christian Religion, Embracing Almost the Whole Sum of Piety & Whatever is Necessary to Know of the Doctrine of Salvation: A work Most Worthy to Be Read by All Persons Zealous for Piety”.

The term “institutes” may seem strange to us as a title today, but it was frequently used in sixteenth-century titles. “Institutes” simply means “Principles” or “Instruction”. Calvin’s ‘Institutes’ (or “Principles of, or Instruction in the Christian Religion”) is a manual to teach believers what to believe biblically concerning God, and what duty God requires of man. Note the specific twofold intention of his extended title: (1) to embrace the whole sum of piety (godly doctrine), and (2) to be read by all persons zealous for piety (godly living). For John Calvin, true and biblical piety is devoted living unto God. It is a proper attitude toward God and obedience to Him; it is true and godliness from the heart. Piety is a godliness that is lived out from one’s knowledge of God’s good character, and especially in light of His saving mercies in Christ. Piety, or godliness for Calvin, is the essence of true biblical Christianity.

When one opens the ‘Institutes of the Christian Religion’, the fresh and fragrant wind of biblical Christianity blows with the gospel aroma of Christ. This fresh fragrance is particularly heightened for one familiar with the blessed Thomas Aquinas’ work ‘Summa Theologicae’, the primary theological textbook of the Middle Ages. One need only compare the beginning of Thomas’ and Calvin’s works, and one will notice that Thomas begins his book with the argument for the existence of God, while Calvin begins his book with the assumption of the existence of God. Calvin begins the ‘Institutes’ with the revelation of the true and living Triune God who has spoken finally and authoritatively and clearly in Holy Scripture. The ‘Institutes’ thus begins foundationally on Scripture alone and purposefully breaks with the speculative theology of even the best of the medieval Scholastics or Schoolmen in both form and content. Reason, experience, and biblical tradition are important, but one must begin a work of the principles of Christianity on Scripture alone.

After the ‘Institutes’ was published, the Reformers received the book as the clearest, most biblical exposition and defense of the Christian faith since the time of the apostles. Pastor Martin Bucer (Butzer of Strassburg who was a loving father, and mature pastoral mentor to Calvin) after reading the ‘Institutes’ wrote Calvin and said: “It is evident that the Lord has elected you as his organ for the bestowment of the richest fullness of blessing to his Church.” Contrastly, the Roman Catholic Church was immediately threatened by its doctrinal and biblical substance and called it the “Koran and Talmud of heresy”. Church historian Philip Schaff wrote that the ‘Institutes’ was “more fiercely and persistently persecuted than any book of the sixteenth century”. And what did Calvin teach that was so fiercely opposed, so radical and revolutionary to medieval Roman Catholic Theology?? Just this:

By Christ’s righteousness then are we made righteous and become fulfillers of the law. This righteousness we put on as our own, and surely God accepts it as ours, reckoning us holy, pure, and innocent… ‘Christ is made righteousness, sanctification and redemption for us’ [1 Cor. 1:30]…this is received by faith. This true faith is a firm conviction of mind whereby we determine with ourselves that God’s truth is so certain, and faith itself is a sure and certain possession of those things God has promised us.

….God offers to us and gives us in Christ our Lord all these benefits, which include free forgiveness of sins, peace and reconciliation with God, the gifts and graces of the Holy Spirit. They are ours if we embrace and receive them with sure faith, utterly trusting and, as it were, leaning upon divine goodness…In short, if we partake of Christ, in Him we shall possess all the heavenly treasures and gifts of the Holy Spirit, which lead us into life and salvation.

Calvin’s ‘Institutes’ clearly teaches that God’s authoritative revelation for life and godliness is found in Holy Scripture alone, and that this glorious Gospel message is that salvation is by grace alone in Christ alone through faith alone, though that faith is not alone—it is a working faith!

The Spirit of Christ was graciously returning His church to her apostolic foundation and replanting her roots in Holy Scripture. Calvin’s system of doctrine in the ‘Institutes’ is not only supported ingeniously by Scripture, but his doctrine agrees with the biblically faithful ecumenical creeds and councils of the Church, affirming the truth that was articulated in theology and Christology at Nicea (325 AD), Constantinople (381 AD), and Chalcedon (451 AD). Additionally, Calvin’s teaching agrees with such extremely influential church fathers as Irenaeus, Augustine, John Chrysostom, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory of Nazianzus, and later with the wonderful teaching of Bernard of Clairvaux (Augustine and Bernard were Calvin’s two primary influences). Calvin was continuing the biblical theology of Augustinianism in his anthropology (doctrine of man) and soteriology (doctrine of salvation). Yet he also made brilliant distinctions and corrections of the Medieval Church’s incorrect teaching on ecclesiology (doctrine of church) and sacramentology (doctrine of sacraments), and thus he was “reformed” in life and doctrine.

It is most important to note that Calvin and the Reformed Protestants of the Sixteenth Century were not sectarians separating from the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church of Christ as criticized by Rome, but were seeking to be faithful to her through submission to Holy Scripture. When Calvin wrote Francis I of France in his preface in the ‘Institutes’ he remarked that while the reformers did not have as visible an outward unity in the churches as at Rome, they were nevertheless unified in their teaching of Scripture.

Additionally, Calvin respectfully challenged the thinking of Francis I by explaining to him that the reason why many could not see the true church in the reformers’ teaching was because Medieval Roman Catholic error had veiled the eyes of man with their unbiblical and sinful traditions for too long. Calvin was a true apostolic-reformed-catholic teacher who demonstrated in his ‘Institutes’ the singular foundation of scripture for life and godliness for the whole church (“apostolic”), and the continuity with the church fathers that revealed a unified, historical witness to the essentials of the Christian faith (“catholic” or “universal” not “Roman catholic”). We should desire today to seek to be faithful apostolic-reformed-catholic-Christians in a similar way.

This theological work of the ‘Institutes’ was to be Calvin’s primary focus for the remainder of his life. He would often expand and revise it as he learned more biblical truth and theology, but remarkably (!), he would never take from or edit anything out of it (!). Calvin’s profound and biblical, foundational thesis statement remained the same:

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

There is much to learn, meditate upon, and pray concerning this blessed and deeply wise statement of God’s revelation.

Let us pray with Calvin:

Almighty God, since you have deigned in your mercy to gather us to your church, and to enclose us within the boundaries of your word, by which you preserve us in the true and right worship of your majesty, O grant that we may continue contented in this obedience to you. And though Satan may, in many ways, attempt to draw us here and there, and we be also ourselves inclined to evil, O grant that being confirmed in faith and united to you by that sacred bond, we may constantly abide under the restraing of your word.

May we cleave to Christ, your only begotten Son, who has joined us forever to Himself. May we never by any means turn aside from you, but be, on the contrary, confirmed in the faith of His gospel, until at length He will receive us all into His kingdom. Amen.


To be continued…


Next Study: Calvin’s ‘Institutes of the Christian Religion’, Part 2- Theology and Apologetics


[i] Bibliography/For Further Reading

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