Calvin’s Institutes in a Nutshell

The other day I stumbled across a great feature of the Henry Beveridge translation of John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion in my Logos library. At the end of the book, Beveridge includes One Hundred Aphorisms, containing, within a narrow compass, the substance and order of the four books of the Institutes of the Christian Religion, by Rev. William Pringle. Essentially, Pringle has boiled down the four books of Institutes into 100 bullet points. And these are simply “light” observations. Pringle really brings out the depth of the various sections he references from Institutes. For example, here is what Pringle has to say about Calvin’s section on self-denial:

50. The sum of the Christian life is denial of ourselves.

51. The ends of this self-denial are four. 1. That we may devote ourselves to God as a living sacrifice. 2. That we may not seek our own things, but those which belong to God and to our neighbour. 3. That we may patiently bear the cross, the fruits of which are—acknowledgment of our weakness, the trial of our patience, correction of faults, more earnest prayer, more cheerful meditation on eternal life. 4. That we may know in what manner we ought to use the present life and its aids, for necessity and delight. Necessity demands that we possess all things as though we possessed them not; that we bear poverty with mildness, and abundance with moderation; that we know how to endure patiently fulness, and hunger, and want; that we pay regard to our neighbour, because we must give account of our stewardship; and that all things correspond to our calling. The delight of praising the kindness of God ought to be with us a stronger argument.

1 John Calvin and Henry Beveridge, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2010), 566-67.

Having this resource will certainly help anyone looking to see the bird’s eye view of Institutes, or refresh and review the essence of Calvin’s work.

John Calvin on Heart and Words in Worship

People have a lot of opinions when it comes to worship in church services. There are those who enjoy lots of instruments and loud music, while others prefer choirs and organs. More than just style, people have preferences about whether to use hymns, psalms, or modern lyrics. As I’ve thought about these things, John Calvin has helped me by reminding me that more than just music and words, the heart is equally, if not more, important. Music and lyrics can be spot on, but if the heart is far off, then it is an offense to God.

Hence it is perfectly clear that neither words nor singing (if used in prayer) are of the least consequence, or avail one iota with God, unless they proceed from deep feeling in the heart. Nay, rather they provoke his anger against us, if they come from the lips and throat only, since this is to abuse his sacred name, and hold his majesty in derision. This we infer from the words of Isaiah, which, though their meaning is of wider extent, go to rebuke this vice also: “Forasmuch as this people draw near me with their mouth, and with their lips do honour me, but have removed their heart far from me, and their fear toward me is taught by the precept of men: therefore, behold, I will proceed to do a marvellous work among this people, even a marvellous work and a wonder: for the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the understanding of their prudent men shall be hid,” (Isa. 29:13.) Still we do not condemn words or singing, but rather greatly commend them, provided the feeling of the mind goes along with them. For in this way the thought of God is kept alive on our minds, which, from their fickle and versatile nature, soon relax, and are distracted by various objects, unless various means are used to support them. Besides, since the glory of God ought in a manner to be displayed in each part of our body, the special service to which the tongue should be devoted is that of singing and speaking, inasmuch as it has been expressly created to declare and proclaim the praise of God. This employment of the tongue is chiefly in the public services which are performed in the meeting of the saints. In this way the God whom we serve in one spirit and one faith, we glorify together as it were with one voice and one mouth; and that openly, so that each may in turn receive the confession of his brother’s faith, and be invited and incited to imitate it.

Institutes of the Christian Religion III, xx, 31.

John Calvin the Pietist

Reason #8: Calvin models for us how to bring all of life under the rubric of a biblical, comprehensive piety.

Piety was the primary reason Calvin wrote his Institutes. For Calvin, piety is best defined as the development of a right attitude toward God. This attitude includes six things: true knowledge, heartfelt worship, saving faith, filial fear, prayerful submission, and reverential love. All of these have the glory of God as their goal. Calvin’s notion of piety comprehensively impacted his worldview theologically, ecclesiastically, and practically.

Theologically, Calvin rooted piety in the believer’s mystical union with Christ, which produces communion with Christ and participation in His benefits. He viewed the Holy Spirit and saving faith as the double bond of piety, for the Holy Spirit works piety in us through faith. Then, too, Calvin presented us with the central doctrines of salvation, justification, and sanctification through the grid of piety, for justification is imputed piety and sanctification is imparted or actual piety.

Ecclesiastically, piety is nurtured through the Word and the church. The Word gives content and shape to genuine piety. The church nurtures piety through preaching, which is our spiritual food and medicine for spiritual health. The church also nurtures piety through members using their gifts to strengthen each other in the fear of God. The communion of saints encourages the growth of one another’s gifts and love, since to grow in grace, Calvin said, we are “constrained to borrow from others.” Calvin called the sacraments exercises of piety, for they help promote a right attitude to God. He defined them as testimonies “of divine grace toward us, confirmed by an outward sign, with mutual attestation of our piety toward God.” The Lord’s Supper, in particular, prompts piety of grace received and given. Psalm singing also promotes piety, Calvin argued, for the psalms are “an anatomy of parts of the soul,” and therefore relate to all of a believer’s experiential life with God.  Calvin viewed the book of Psalms as the canonical manual of piety. Practically, Calvin’s section in the Institutes (6–10) on the Christian life strongly promotes piety. Prayer is the principal and perpetual exercise of faith and the chief element of piety, both privately and corporately. Repentance, which involves both mortification (the killing of sin) and vivification (coming alive to life and righteousness in Christ), is the way of piety. God has always intended to give repentance as a lifelong grace. Self-denial is the sacrificial dimension of piety by which we learn that we belong to God rather than to ourselves, and we are to learn to yield ourselves and everything we own to God as a living sacrifice. While self-denial focuses on inward conformity to Christ, cross-bearing centers on outward Christ-likeness. If Christ’s life was a perpetual cross, ours also must include suffering. Cross-bearing tests piety, Calvin said. Through cross-bearing, we are roused to hope, trained in patience, instructed in obedience, and chastened in pride. Through a proper estimation of this life, believers learn that they are stewards of this world and recognize that God is the giver of every good and perfect gift. Thus, they are called to unconditional obedience to God’s will, which is the essence of piety.

For Calvin, piety involves the entire life of the devout believer and the entire family of the church community. Living piously means dedicating every minute to living coram Deo (in the presence of God) with intense consciousness, realizing that we must yearn for God every minute of our lives.

How urgently we need to recover this kind of pious living—and how richly Calvin’s own life models it for us! When Calvin died, Theodore Beza wrote, “Having been a spectator of his conduct for sixteen years…I can now declare, that in him all men may see a most beautiful example of the Christian character, an example which it is as easy to slander as it is difficult to imitate.”

Through Calvin’s influence, theology always pursued piety, for protestant theology and spirituality focused on how to live the Christian life in solitude with God, in the family, in the fields, in worship, and in the marketplace. Few today realize the importance of this comprehensive piety. A few years ago, when I studied Calvin’s view of piety for a chapter in the Cambridge Companion to Calvin, I asked one of the world’s leading Calvin historians how I should commence my study. Her response was, “Why would you want to study that outdated subject?” Though sadly neglected, comprehensive piety, as much as anything else, is what makes Calvin so important today.

(Taken with permission from Joel Beeke’s, Calvin for Today)

John Calvin the Pastor

Reason #9: Calvin models for us how to faithfully pastor the sheep of God as under-shepherds of the Chief Shepherd.

John Calvin was first and foremost a pastor. He faithfully pastored in Geneva for more than twenty-five years and in Strasbourg for three years. As Jim Garretson writes:

“Calvin’s work as a pastor to his respective flocks has been a matter of growing academic interest in recent years. Biographers and historians alike have come to realize the profound pastoral focus that characterized his labors in Geneva and Strasbourg. The more one reads his letters and listens carefully to his sermons and treatises, the more one recognizes a shepherd who carried the burdens, hopes, and fears of his people upon his heart. His transparency and humility reveal a tender-hearted man who, like his Master, went about doing good while seeking to act in the best spiritual interests of those entrusted to his care.”

Erroll Hulse adds:

“As a pastor, Calvin was exemplary in personal godliness, in family life, and in the ministry of prayer. His pastoral care for people is reflected in his letter writing, there being four thousand letters extant. Calvin stuck to his pastoral calling through trials of every kind and persevered through terribly painful physical afflictions.”

When Sinclair Ferguson was asked at Ligonier Ministries’ pre-conference seminar on Calvin in March 2009, “What have you learned from Calvin’s life or writings?” he answered:

“For me, Calvin has been the model of what a gospel minister in a local congregation should be. He preached every second week, preaching probably eight sermons, and the other week probably five. He counseled, but he understood that the counseling arose either out of emergency crises that he was able to help, or because under the ministry of the Word all the filth and sludge of human hearts came to the surface. I feel the church desperately needs to get back to the centrality of the ministry of the Word that characterized Calvin’s preaching and pastoring. You just need to read his sermons to think, You know, if I could take my lunchtime and listen to him for forty minutes, asthmatic as he was, struggling for breath, this would be mind-changing and life-changing. Here is this totally unspectacular man, who never had a laugh in his church, patiently unfolding the Scriptures. It transformed lives pastorally and it gave multitudes of young men the courage to be martyrs for the gospel.”

We are crying out for ministries like that—just ministers in local congregations feeding the people of God with the Word of God. And at the end of the day, this is all Calvin thought he was doing. He was a local pastor.

(Taken with permission from Joel Beeke’s, Calvin for Today)

The Ever Growing American Calvinism Today

On June 25th, 1944, The Doctor—Martyn Lloyd-Jones—gave a radio address for the BBC in Wales on the man, John Calvin. He began with the statement:

“Nothing is more significant of the great change which has happened in the field of theology during the past twenty years than the place now afforded, and the attention given, to the great man of Geneva who is the subject of this address.”1

The same can be said for America today, as the resurgence of Calvinism—both the New- Calvinist and the Old—is growing faster, larger, and deeper into the roots of Evangelical Theology since the Great Awakening in the 1700s. Lloyd-Jones went on in his address, noting that,

Up to almost twenty years ago there was very little attention paid to John Calvin, and when someone spoke of him it was in order to heap insults on him scornfully.”2

The former part of this statement essentially summarizes the standpoint of America in the past fifty to eighty years. Unfortunately, with the climax of Dispensationalism between the 1950s and 1970s, and with the growth of evangelical phenomena such as Fundamentalism, the Mega-Church movements, and Seeker-Friendly ideals, John Calvin and the Calvinist-Reformed Faith as a whole was laid aside. If it was brought up for discussion, it was laughed at as though it was a cult of some sort. However, as Lloyd-Jones affirmed further in his address:

That is not the situation today. In fact, there is more mention of him than there has been for almost a century, and Calvin and Calvinism are the subjects of many arguments and debates in theological circles… The time is ripe, therefore, for us to cast another glance at this man who has influenced the life of the world to such an extent.“3

May America today continue to seek the biblical truth in which Calvin did for his time, his city, but more for His God. May America continue to seek out their theology, and continue to learn from the writings of John Calvin—not merely to popularize him or idolize him, because Calvin would have never wanted that. But to make known and lift up John Calvin’s God—our God—The Supreme Being, The LORD who sits in authority and reigns over all things in complete sovereignty.

1 Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Knowing the Times: Addresses Delivered on Various Occasions 1942-1977. (Carisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1989), 32.
2 Ibid., 32.
3 Ibid., 32-3.

And so we see a rising tide of Calvinism in America today. By the end of this year alone there will have been more books published, and more conferences and addresses given— that is, more than ever—on the man who, in my opinion, is the greatest theologian of all time: John Calvin. And like The Doctor, I say, “The time is ripe.” We have gathered here in Geneva for the 500th birthday of John Calvin—not merely to popularize him or idolize him, because Calvin would have never wanted that. We are here, rather, to make known and lift up John Calvin’s God—our God—The Supreme Being, The LORD who sits in authority and reigns over all things in complete sovereignty. I would like to consider an important, yet often neglected aspect of John Calvin’s theology as it finds expression in his vast corpus of writings – the doctrine of adoption.

The Need for Scripture

The need for Scripture is confirmed By ONE the depravity of our nature making it necessary in every one who would know God to have recourse to the word and by TWO From those passages of the Psalms in which God is introduced as reigning. Calvin writes in 1.6.3 of his Institutes,

For if we reflect how prone the human mind is to lapse into forgetfulness of God, how readily inclined to every kind of error, how bent every now and then on devising new and fictitious religions, it will be easy to understand how necessary it was to make such a depository of doctrine as would secure it from either perishing by the neglect, vanishing away amid the errors, or being corrupted by the presumptuous audacity of men. It being thus manifest that God, foreseeing the inefficiency of his image imprinted on the fair form of the universe, has given the assistance of his Word to all whom he has ever been pleased to instruct effectually, we, too, must pursue this straight path, if we aspire in earnest to a genuine contemplation of God;—we must go, I say, to the Word, where the character of God, drawn from his works is described accurately and to the life; these works being estimated, not by our depraved Judgment, but by the standard of eternal truth. If, as I lately said, we turn aside from it, how great soever the speed with which we move, we shall never reach the goal, because we are off the course. We should consider that the brightness of the Divine countenance, which even an apostle declares to be inaccessible (1 Tim. 6:16), is a kind of labyrinth,—a labyrinth to us inextricable, if the Word do not serve us as a thread to guide our path; and that it is better to limp in the way, than run with the greatest swiftness out of it. Hence the Psalmist, after repeatedly declaring (Psalm 93, 96, 97, 99, &c). that superstition should be banished from the world in order that pure religion may flourish, introduces God as reigning; meaning by the term, not the power which he possesses and which he exerts in the government of universal nature, but the doctrine by which he maintains his due supremacy: because error never can be eradicated from the heart of man until the true knowledge of God has been implanted in it.

A Twofold Knowledge of God—Before the Fall and After it

The necessary rules to be observed in considering the state of man before the fall being laid down, the point first considered is the creation of the body, and the lesson taught by its being formed out of the earth, and made alive. Institutes 1.15.1. states,

We have now to speak of the creation of man, not only because of all the works of God it is the noblest, and most admirable specimen of his justice, wisdom, and goodness, but, as we observed at the outset, we cannot clearly and properly know God unless the knowledge of ourselves be added. This knowledge is twofold,—relating, first, to the condition in which we were at first created; and, secondly to our condition such as it began to be immediately after Continue Reading…

How Bad Do You Need the Scripture?

The Scriptures act as a guide for the people of God, better yet they are the teacher bringing those that our the Lord’s elect to Him. How much greater is it for the believer of the gospel to know that they have been given the Scriptures, so that they might know Him and live in obedience for him. Calvin writes on this issue in his institutes 1.6.1. saying,

Therefore, though the effulgence which is presented to every eye, both in the heavens and on the earth, leaves the ingratitude of man without excuse, since God, in order to bring the whole human race under the same condemnation, holds forth to all, without exception, a mirror of his Deity in his works, another and better help must be given to guide us properly to God as a Creator. Not in vain, therefore, has he added the light of his Word in order that he might make himself known unto salvation, and Continue Reading…

John Calvin the Evangelist

One more reason why John Calvin is Important for today…

Reason #10: Calvin models for us how to teach and practice evangelism and missions.

One of the most fallacious charges against Calvin is that he did not fuel a passion for evangelism and missions. Others assert that Calvin was responsible for relighting the torch of biblical evangelism during the reformation and thus should be credited with being a theological father of the reformed missionary movement. Views of Calvin’s attitude toward evangelism and missions have ranged on the positive side from hearty to moderate support, and on the negative side from silent indifference to active opposition. Calvin’s teaching and his practice both confirm that he was a model evangelist. Calvin taught evangelism in a general way by earnestly proclaiming the gospel and by reforming the church according to biblical requirements. More specifically, Calvin taught evangelism by focusing on the universality of Christ’s kingdom and the responsibility of Christians to help extend that realm.

Calvin asserted that both God’s sovereignty and our responsibility are involved in evangelism. The work of evangelism is ultimately Continue Reading…

The Life of a Christian Man

For the Christian Man today life can at times seem hard to draw the connection between living yet in a sinful body but being regenerated already. Yet John Calvin does an amazing job explaining this relationship – the Necessity of the doctrine concerning the Male Christian Life. The brevity of this treatise. The method of it. Plainness and unadorned simplicity of the Scripture system of morals for the man to live out today. He says,

We have said that the object of regeneration is to bring the life of believers into concord and harmony with the righteousness of God, and so confirm the adoption by which they have been received as sons. But although the law comprehends within it that new life by which the image of God is restored in us, yet, as our sluggishness stands greatly in need both of helps and incentives it will be useful to collect out of Scripture a true account of this reformations lest any who have a heartfelt desire of repentance should in their zeal go astray. Moreover, I am not unaware that, in undertaking to describe the life of the Christian, I am entering on a large and extensive subject, one which, when fully considered in all its parts, is sufficient to fill a large volume. We see the length to which the Fathers in treating of individual virtues extend their exhortations. This they do, not from mere loquaciousness; for whatever be the virtue which you undertake to recommend, your pen is spontaneously led by the copiousness of the matter so to amplify, that you seem Continue Reading…

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