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