A Short Summary of Calvin's Institutes - by Dr. C. Matthew McMahon

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A shorter overview of John Calvin’s theology taken from the Institutes of the Christian.

The longer overview is here.

Introduction: Section 1 – Calvin’s Writings

Calvin was born in Noyon, France in 1509 and was among the second generation of Reformers. He was still in school when Luther had pinned his 95 Theses on the door of the Wittenberg Church. Ultimately, as the Reformation began to settle in, Calvin sided with Luther as to aim and purpose in Protestantism.

Scholarship is unsure about the exact time of Calvin’s conversion to the faith. It could have been in the early years of his work at Orleans and Bourges, or possibly as late as Paris. However, the influences of the reformation reached him while in Paris, and in adhering to such principles, this forced him to leave the university to reside in France for a time. He spent a year in Basel where he completed his first edition of the Institutes of the Christian Religion (1536). He spent a brief time in Italy, and then on his way back to France, stopped over in Geneva where he would spend the rest of his life, except for a time of difficulty in Strasbourg from 1538-1541.

While in respite in Strasbourg, he expanded his Institutes and translated it into French in 1541. He then returned to Geneva where he accomplished most of his literary work to a tune of 35 volumes of commentary alone. He wrote many treatises, tracts and biblical commentaries on the bible, though did not do a complete commentary of every book of the Bible.


Introduction: Section 2 – The Contemporary Scene

The Institutes of the Christian Religion is a sixteenth century document written for it’s time. Its purpose was to deal with contemporary thoughts and the intellectual and fanatical movements which desired to overthrow biblical orthodoxy. Calvin desired that Christian people be settled and learned in their faith. This was its primary purpose.

Though the purpose of The Institutes of the Christian Religion was the edification of the Christian, it still wrestled against various theological formulations that attempted to imprison Christians in a yoke of poor theology either by way of mysticism, humanism or fanaticism. First, he writes against the academic schoolmen influenced by the Catholic Church since much of the doctrine taken from Rome’s teachings is scattered and pieced together from the writings of some of the greatest minds of the Church. This, though, is done in a way as to leave many tenants of orthodoxy behind while attempting to utilize tradition as a means of authority. Calvin believed that if Rome gave up their struggle with authority and agreed that Scripture alone is the final authority in all matters of faith and practice, many of the other theological battles engaged would quickly be settled.

Calvin also battled the fanatical Anabaptists. He called them “fanatics” “libertines,” and “enthusiasts”. This was not a precise group, but a scattered set of facts across Europe that remained anti-Roman but also anti-Establishment, many of them having differing views even among themselves.

Lastly, he dealt with the humanists and extreme humanists. Not only those who were schooled in Hebrew and Greek, but those who were the free thinkers of the day.

Introduction: Section 3 – The Interpretation of the Institution

The Institutes began as six chapters in 1536 to four complete books by 1559. the first edition was arranged in the style of a Catechism in order to teach young Christians about the Christian faith. It began as an exposition of the Apostle’s Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer. To these theological commentaries Calvin expanded the Institutes to include the sacraments, the Law, Faith, Prayer, Christian Liberty and Church government.

Its purpose is defined in the French edition’s preface where he writes to the king of France and describes his desire to help his fellow countrymen come to a more complete knowledge of the faith before they truly become infected with the heretical teachings of the Anabaptists. These French refuges were being characterized as Anabaptists and Calvin desired to free his fellow brothers from such a charge. It was also to be a help in explaining to the king the manner and character of the French Reformation.

Not long after his first edition was published, Calvin remained “dissatisfied” with it and revised it. He did not take up the catechetical arrangement of doctrines, and instead began to systematize the faith instead. He wrote an extended preface as to the reason he rewrote the work and added so much to it upon a second revision. He worked closely in the Institutes while he was working on a commentary the book of Romans. This shaped his theological system. In its final form it remains as Calvin’s collected thought – his mind – on theological issues. It has a concise style, and was finally intended for both those who hunger after theology as well as theological students.

Part 1- Knowledge of God the Creator:
Section 1 – The whole Sum of Wisdom

The Institutes begin with wisdom – the right application of knowledge. “Wisdom lies in knowing God and knowing oneself.” This is the entire point of the Institutes. From its commencement the Institutes teach and practice a theology of revelation, not of speculation. Knowledge, then, is something given to men that does not include speculation in this respect, but moves men to consider their place in honoring God. This knowledge is a gift from Him to them in order that they may come to know the Creator. It leads to godliness and pure religion (pietas et religio).

Piety and religion are inseparable in the Institutes. Piety leads to faith that enacts true religion in the person changed by God. It is only here that one may offer up true religion to God, for without this change men remain as fallen.

Next, Calvin explains that this knowledge presses us to ask “What is God like?” We ought not to betray our knowledge by asking “What is God?” or “Does God exist?” Rather, with a certain knowledge based on evidence and attended by pietas and religio one may attain to a proper knowledge of God. There are other ways to know God, but they prove ineffectual and ultimately do not help the inquirer but further condemn him.

Calvin then proceeds to explain how these two differing ways of attaining knowledge of God fail, and that the only way one can truly understand and embrace the reality of the divine mind is by illumination from God.

Part 1- Knowledge of God the Creator:
Section 2 – Still-born Knowledge of God

Romans 1:18-32 lies behind Calvin’s thinking in chapters iii-ix. Calvin’s axiom that God has implanted in the human mind a concept of divinity is expressed here. There is no room to make excuses here. Men are held inexcusable and are judged for not worshipping God rightly as a result of this knowledge for God continues to implant “new drops” in their mind of His existence through creation as they partake of it daily. The very fact that there is a universality in creation about religion in general demonstrates the necessity of a God to be worshipped.

What do men do with this knowledge? Some become superstitious, which encapsulates stubbornness and pride. It is a conscious and futile expression of suppressing the truth. Atheists are lumped into this group who smother the light they have through nature of God the Creator. Thus, the seed of this innate impression in the mind does not bring forth or birth the pietas and religio of the Christian faith.

Calvin then explains the order of the world and the structure given to it by God. His glory is engraved on the universe itself. Then he confronts the Aristotelian doctrine that replaces God with nature. Calvin desires his readers to use nature as a means to direct them to God, not that nature should replace God. God transcends nature and is rather pictured by nature (by its ability to paint his attributes for men) rather than being replaced by it. Thus, Calvin rebukes those who do not look at creation and see their Creator in it.

Part 1- Knowledge of God the Creator:
Section 3 – The Fruitful Teaching of Scripture

The only manner in which a man may rightly come to a full knowledge of God is to find such teachings in the Bible. Once the spectacles of the Bible are put on, the picture becomes exceedingly clear. Scripture, then, does not become just “another help” but “a better help” in seeing the full clarity of the Divine mind. However, it should be remembered that Calvin is not saying that one must go to the Bible as the only means whereby the creature can see the Creator. The knowledge that men may possess from nature that God is Creator is, as he says, “faithful knowledge.”

The patriarchs were blessed in that God gave them visions and visits in order to communicate the Word to them. He gave them the Law in order to be reconciled to Him, knowledge of the Messiah to come, as well as demonstrating the sure “marks and signs” that are accomplished separating God from all the other fabricated gods of men’s minds. Man is a spectator in the “splendid theater of the world”, a theme Calvin uses frequently throughout the Institutes. Thus, men must be attentive to the Word of God in order to see clearly the full orbed revelation of his Creator. Once a man turns aside from the Scriptures in order to find God in some other way, he has fallen off the right track.

Calvin then secures the authority of scripture, though he does not give a full and comprehensive treatment of this doctrine in the institutes. Yet, Calvin says that the Scriptures are not based on any authority outside itself. It is self attesting. It is not based on the authority of the Church, for the Church rests on it. Calvin’s expression for this is autopiston, self-authenticating. If the Spirit attends this, pietas and religio will result.

Part 1- Knowledge of God the Creator:
Section 4 – God the Creator

Calvin sees God’s portrait of himself clearly expressed in the name of God, Jehovah (or Yahweh). The virtues that encompass this name clearly exhibit His character. What the Word says of Him demonstrates the reality behind His virtues. Scripture excludes and rejects every other fabricated “god” to set down the truth of the One True God of the universe.

Calvin then describes the errors surrounding the idols used in worship by the Roman Church, and pagan nations, to represent God. Representing God by an idol or picture, for Calvin (and all Christians), is impossible. Images cannot contain the representation of the character of God in any way. They are useless figurines that detract from His glory rather than aid men in their quest to find him.

God also reveals himself as unified – one God – but in three persons. In this, God is completely disassociated from all other gods. God is a threefold hypostasis but a single ousia or essence. In explaining this doctrine, Calvin expanded its information three times over the three revisions he made of the Institutes. In his best definition, he says that God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, one God in three persons that are separated by a particular “property.” Such a “person” as related to each is its own, and not communicated to the others. Then, Calvin describes the relationships between the three persons of the godhead in their economy, and refutes heresies that have arose against orthodox understanding of the Trinity.

Part 1- Knowledge of God the Creator:
Section 5 – God’s Creatures

Next, Calvin describes the activity of the Creator. God is the author of all things, and the Church should seek to understand the world in the framework of God as Creator. We do not find the story of creation in creation itself, though we have good reason to understand that God is the one who fashioned creation. Nature demonstrates this for us. However, the story of how god created is only found in the pages of the Bible, and in particular, Calvin spends time with Genesis 1-2, though he does not give a exposition of the Genesis account. Rather, its sufficient to takes glimpses of creation and expand them into the greater concepts of God’s work. God is the Father who by his Fatherly love takes care of creation, and undertakes His providential care of all men. He is a loving Father to them in this. At this stage he is simply setting forth the active nature of the Divine being that exemplifies Hs attributes among his created order.

In terms of Angels, the invisible aspect of creation, Calvin uses subsequent parts of the Bible to explain the invisible aspects of God’s created order – namely the angels. He specifically mentions the narratives where they interact with people as ministers of God. Satan is the fallen angel set against the church and the ways of God.

God also made man, the pinnacle of creation, endowed with His image. They are fallen in Adam, but the elect, those regenerated by the Spirit have a renewed image that reflects part of what they will completely be in heaven at the consummation of all things. Here, he also refutes Plato who does damage to the Scriptural position on the soul. (A true understanding of the soul is not to be found in philosophy, but in revelation.)

Part 1- Knowledge of God the Creator:
Section 6 – Providence

Calvin believed, and rightly so, that one cannot believe in a Creator with simply understanding him as a Maker. He must be understood in terms of His providence. Being simply a Creator is the position of many pagans – God remains as spectator unconcerned with the affairs of the world. Rather, Calvin takes up the cause and effect between the work God does in creation, and His ordering of all things on the earth.

Calvin does not believe in fate or chance – all things are ordered by God, right down to the placement of inanimate objects. Calvin makes a distinction between the potentia absoluta (what God could do) and the potentia ordinata (what God actually does do). Nothing happens in the known universe without God’s knowledge and His ordained decree.

Providence refers to what God does both in the future (as what He will do) as well as what has been done in the past (what He has accomplished already). Sometimes God uses means to accomplish His ends (like a preacher preaching to covert a soul). Other times he works without means (like parting the Red Sea). And sometimes God works contrary to means (like raising Christ from the dead). God in all this cares for humanity, but especially cares for His church.

Calvin helps the biblical reader understand the apparent “discrepancy” of “two wills” in God by making a distinction between following the will of God and following the commandment of God. Judas had no intention of obeying God’s commandments, and rebelled, however, God graciously used Judas’ crime to affect the salvation of the elect.

Part 2- Knowledge of God the Redeemer in Christ:
Section 1 – Man the Total Sinner

In the beginning of the second Book of the Institutes, Calvin does not begin afresh but continues his line of thinking through his whole work. He is engaged in a long, thought out, argument. He quotes the early fathers much less, and concentrates more on the biblical arguments surrounding original sin, the fall of man, and how the fall has affected mankind.

Calvin begins by explaining the sinfulness of man by examining the original fall of man. It was not something that happened to Adam alone, but something that affected all of mankind. “The child of sinners is a sinner.” Sin is propagated, overthrowing the opinion of the heretical Pelagians. This pravitas, or crooked deformity, extends to all based on Adam’s fall in the garden. Thus, men are depraved completely in every area of their faculty.

Calvin then explains the properties of the soul and the will, in particular, in association with this fall. In following after Augustine (and the Bible) Calvin rightly believes the will is wholly corrupted and given over to wickedness. It is not that the image of God has been completely destroyed, but it does mean it is wholly defiled in every capacity including the actions of virtue. Man’s will is in bondage to sin unless God releases it from its captivity through regeneration. It is drawn to evil by necessity, and cannot accomplish one good act apart from divine grace. Even the virtuous heathen is engaged in his ultimate purpose of self-love.


Part 2- Knowledge of God the Redeemer in Christ:
Section 2 – Christ in OT & NT

If one will learn true pietas, then he must seek salvation in Jesus Christ. God never gives men hope apart from a Mediator. He did not do this in the Old Testament and does not do this in the New Testament. Christ is the promised seed of Abraham, and the truth of David. Christ’s kingdom is that which David’s kingdom foreshadowed. Even in the Old Testament the hope of the people of God rested upon Jesus Christ alone for salvation. It is only through a Mediator given by God and designated by him that men may be saved.

The Law plays an integral part in the whole schema of redemptive history. Man cannot keep it, and so a Mediator must arise who can keep it and fulfill its requirement. Calvin sees the Law of God as the whole system of religion handed down by God to Moses. The moral Law has its end in Christ, as Paul makes so plain in Romans and Galatians. The Law, Calvin says, makes men inexcusable. If they kept the law perfectly (which none do) then God would be obliged to reward them with eternal life. However, all break the law and have broken the law in Adam. Thus the Law stands to condemn them. The Law also keeps men from doing evil. It restrains them, which is necessary for society to function properly. For believers, though, the Law is used for teaching and for exhortation. “Confronted by the Commandments, we learn how far we are from righteousness.” Thus its final purpose is to provide the pattern by which we must live in perfect conformity to mirror God’s righteousness. The Old Covenant was used as a type of the perfect fulfillment of Christ to come and is completed in him.


Part 2- Knowledge of God the Redeemer in Christ:
Section 3 –The Mediator

The Mediator came to save men, and this thought continues the arguments of Christ as the fulfillment of the one sent by God to save men. Here Calvin deals with the incarnation and the necessity of Christ being man, and the Son taking upon Himself human form. Men cannot accept the “salvation” or “teaching” of any other man than the One whom God sent. His task was to come and do away with the power of death over His people and free them from the bondage of captivity to the liberty in Christ. Here the Christ reconciles men to God.

Christ was a genuine person subject to the infirmities of his human nature. Calvin did not believe, correctly, that the Son was “limited” by the human capacity. Rather, the Son simply took upon Himself the human nature. Thus, the two are united together by the unity of the Person of the Son. The substances of the two natures are not confused or mixed. For instance, a human man is made of a soul and a body. These two are not mixed though they are attached. In this union, the Christ sometimes communicated from one nature to the other (communicatio idiomatum).

The Christ comes as prophet, priest and king. Christ’s prophetic office consisted in the proclamation of the Gospel to men. As King, Christ is the governor of an eternal kingdom, and He is anointed to fulfill his objectives and covenant with the Father. As Priest he is the lamb without blemish reconciling the sinner to the Father by His perfect sacrifice upon the cross. And in such a union, we become sacrificial priests in offering ourselves to Him in thankfulness.

Part 2- Knowledge of God the Redeemer in Christ:
Section 4 –Christ The Redeemer

Jesus, the name given to the Christ (the Anointed One) is now considered as the Savior. In what sense is Jesus Savior? This presses Calvin to reconsider what he has already said in terms of God as Creator and holy, and man as sinner and unworthy. God is angry with men for their fall and sin. This Calvin deals with as accommodation to our language, for God is immutable. Calvin says that we should take to heart the terror of the wrath of God first before we can understand His gracious provision. It is not that God loves us as fallen sinners, but rather, He loves His image in us and desires to rescue some back to their original state, and further glorify them through the mediator and Savior.

God reconciles us to himself. “In a wonderful divine way He loved us even when He hated us.” (To understand this one must see that God loved us (the elect) in Christ, as He hates us in Adam.) Christ wins us upon the cross back to God. It is there that he took upon himself the sin of His people, and became and offering for them, and propitiates the wrath of God. In looking at Christ’s birth, life and death, Calvin is basically going over parts of the Apostle’s Creed. He came incarnate, lived and suffered under Pontius Pilate, died, was buried, rose from the dead, ascended into heaven and intercedes at the right hand of the Father.

Such an ascension and intercession means that believers are secured in their salvation by the work of the continued Mediator. His presence at the right hand fortifies and secures the believer’s state. He will then, from that position come back to judge the living and the dead at the appointed time.

Part 3- The Way We Receive Christ’s Grace:
Section 1 – The Holy Spirit and Faith

Calvin moves away from the particular person of the Christ to explain the work of the Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. Here he builds upon the previous book to demonstrate how the Trinity of God in Salvation proves its effectual nature in the application of the cross through the Holy Spirit to believers. Believers must be engrafted into Christ and this is done by the work of the Spirit.

Calvin describes true faith which is not simply an assent to the Gospel. Its object is God in general, and Jesus Christ in particular. Here Calvin overthrows the Scholastics that make faith a matter of knowledge. Rather, Calvin says that faith must be bound together with knowledge, but arises from it. He follows Augustine, “We believe that we might know.” So Calvin defines faith as, “the knowledge of the Divine will towards us, perceived from His word. It is a firm conviction that does not waiver and does not doubt. So it must be revealed to our minds and sealed to us by the power of the Holy Spirit; otherwise such a faith is dead orthodoxy.

First, faith is knowledge. It is not just knowledge of “things” but particularly of God in Christ. Second, faith is a firm and certain knowledge. This is where the believer sees God as faithful and true. Thirdly, faith is revealed to our minds and sealed in our hearts. Although the Word of God has power and authority, since men are blind, they cannot perceive it or see it in a spiritual sense. This makes up true faith in opposition to the idea of “moral conjecture” which says a man’s faith is seen by what he does morally in his life. For Calvin, faith is supernatural, not natural.


Part 3- The Way We Receive Chris’s Grace:
Section 2 – Regeneration to Life

Calvin describes repentance as that which is a product of faith. It does not precede it or follow it necessarily. It is a true turning of the life of a sinner to God based on the work of change wrought in such a person by the Holy Spirit. It is 1) a transformation of the soul; 2) arises out of a serious fear of God; and 3) a combination of mortificatio and vivificatio – mortifying the deeds of the flesh and putting on the new man.

In opposition to this work of God in the soul which Calvin calls regeneration, he overthrows the Anabaptists who believed that after salvation vivificatio did not need to take place since sin did not reign as it once did. Men, according to them, become perfect again as in the state of the Garden of Eden. Calvin would never say that Christians should dwell on their sin to the point of despair, but he did oppose the Anabaptists in terms of their denial of the continued need for mortificatio.

As a result of this new regeneration and repentance, the Christian is to engage in a denial of self (abnegatio nostri). Such a denial of life is first towards God and then towards our fellow man. We should be as stewards of love that are acting on behalf of God towards man. Towards God, though, such an act is to resign our wills completely to Him and follow Him as Shepherd. This humility is to affect every area of our life before God and every circumstance God may bring us into. Life may break the Christian, but in turning to God, their joy is made complete even in suffering. Thus they are to bear their cross (which he does not completely explain), despise the world, and live to God.


Part 3- The Way We Receive Chris’s Grace:
Section 3 – Justification by Faith Alone

To posses Christ by faith, we “participate in him, and receive a twofold grace.” First, this grace is that we are reconciled to God as our Father (not our Judge). Secondly this grace is communicated to us by the Spirit to live a holy life and should practice “innocencey of life.”

Justification is the “chief thing” which holds up all religion. Calvin explains this importance by wrapping up all the doctrine thus far. Man is utterly helpless to save himself and needs a Mediator. He has no excuse when standing before God and being judged. He is a sinner. He is under the Law that weighs down upon him. He has nothing to say in his own defense. God with Divine Grace must now confront divine Law before him.

Thus, God must justify the sinner. He cannot be justified by any of his works and needs God to justify him on behalf of Jesus Christ. “Justification by Christ” is the answer. Justification then becomes “the acceptance by which God regards us as righteous whom he has received into grace.” It is seen in the remission of sins and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the elect sinner. To impute this righteousness means that God sees the sinner as having the righteousness of the perfect life of Jesus Christ. Thus, “he comes with the clothes of his brother Esau.” This imputation means reckoning to someone what was not his previously or inherently, and it consists in the remission of sins completely. Works cannot justify, but works are the fruit of a justified sinner.

Part 3- The Way We Receive Chris’s Grace:
Section 4 – On Prayer

At this point the Institutes reaches their climax. Prayer is the chief exercise of faith. It is asking God for what we lack in every possible way. It is not simply seeking the blessing of God in every area of our life. Rather, it is a call to His presence to take care of us and be near us.

Prayer testifies to the reality and strength of “belief” by the elect sinner. To pray is to rely completely on the mercy of the master. It presses us to rejoice and give thanks in Him for all His provisions and all his unobligated mercies. In our sense of unworthiness we are moved to seek him and rely upon Him. To those who are not openly relying on God, He does not hear them when they pray.

Calvin sees the dynamic of prayer as containing penitence and belief, as well as anxiousness and confidence. And prayer in this way will be heard by God (though God will not cast off a prayer that does not necessarily contain all these elements). We come before the High Priest of the court of God and make our requests known to Christ who lives to intercede.

Calvin stresses both private and public prayer. If one neglects either the other will eventually deteriorate. In either case we should pray from the heart, set a certain time to pray effectively, and petition the throne of grace in accordance with God’s will. The petitions should continually be asked and prayed as importunately as possible, by faith. Such a perseverance in prayer will yield hearty fruit.

Part 3- The Way We Receive Chris’s Grace:
Section 5 – Eternal Election

In dealing with Eternal Election Calvin argues that God elects some to heaven and predestinates others to hell. Calvin is not teaching anything new, but following after Augustine who overthrew Pelagius in the early fifth century. He also warns the reader as he indulges in this doctrine that they should be careful since we are attempting to pry into the decreed counsels of God, and we should be careful not to wander off forbidden paths.

First, Calvin demonstrates that Predestination is not mere foreknowledge, or knowing something beforehand. As Israel was chosen among the nation, so elect individuals are chosen from among the world’s populous. The Lord is the sovereign designator of who shall be saved or not. Some hear the Gospel, believe and are justified. Others hear the Gospel and they reject it and harden their hearts. In such a predestinating act, Calvin demonstrates the truthfulness by it in the election of Christ as the head of mankind and the Savior and Mediator of the people of God, as well as the Head over all the angels. This God did from before the foundation of the earth.

By the preaching of the Gospel men are saved, but only if the Spirit makes them willing. God’s choice of them is not based on anything they do good or evil. Rather, as Jacob and Esau, it is the determinate foreknowledge and counsel of God before the foundations of the earth in His good pleasure that predestines them.

Predestination should be preached. It is the house in which all facets of the Gospel live. And it is in this preaching that men may be given, by the Spirit, faith to believe out of a regenerated heart.

Part 3- The Way We Receive Chris’s Grace:
Section 6 – The Final Resurrection

Believers understand that the true “Good” of the universe is the Lord Jesus Christ. These believers desire to interact and receive blessing from this “Good” for all eternity. Yet, it is not only believers who have the hope of an eternal resurrection to glory in the world to come, but also creation itself. The guarantee that such a final resurrection will take place is the seal of approval on the death of Christ – the resurrection of Jesus Christ – that ensure this.

The importance of the resurrection is great, that if Christ did not rise from the dead, then the entire history of the Christian faith is meaningless and the Gospel loses all its power. It becomes void and null and we are men most pitied for believing such a story that had death as its end. Corrupted bodies will be raised and made new, and they will be rejoined with the spirits of just men made perfect. However, such a resurrection can only be believed if we trust in the reality of God’s attributes – specifically in his omnipotence to bring forth such a miraculous ending to his created and elected people.

Calvin battled here the opinion of the Anabaptists who believed that at death both the body and soul die and at the resurrection both are raised. Calvin says he had dealt with this in Book I where he explained the constitution of man as a creature with an immortal soul, but he reminds us of that here. He also overthrows the Manicheans who thought that the body was unclean and unfit to be raised to life since it was inherently evil. He overthrows this by the illustration and Scriptural doctrine of the resurrected body of the Lord Jesus Christ. Finally, he describes the horrors of those in hell.

Part 4- The Outward Means:
Section 1 – The True Church

This part of the Institutes parallels the section in the Apostle’s Creed, “I believe in the holy catholic church…” It is, however, not a continuation of the argumentation thus far given by Calvin. Instead, he begins discoursing on the society of Christ and the believer’s union with Christ in faith and practice.

Calvin outlines his understanding of the true church in opposition of the false church. The Reformers have broken with Rome. Here Calvin helps the reader understand that the Bible can be used outside of Rome validly, since Rome has overthrown the authority of the Bible with the church and its tradition, along with the pope’s ability to speak ex cathedra for Jesus Christ.

The Gospel must be kept alive and active, and it is deposited in the Church for this to take place. In the church the Lord has deposited and gifted pastors (preachers of the church) and teachers (doctors of the church) so that there may be a consensus of belief.

What church holds the true Gospel? It is impossible to have more than one Church, that is why the creed says “universal (catholic) Church). Believers are joined in society to one another and to Christ in this union and in this mystical body. The marks, then, of a true church is that the word is truly preached, and the sacraments are truly administered. To overthrow either is to overthrow the Gospel delivered to the saints. The Papacy, then, has overthrown the Gospel and has corrupted the sacraments and cannot be called the church, but the apostate Babylon.

Part 4- The Outward Means:
Section 2 – The Church’s Ministry

The Lord directs His people and Hs church. He does this by the Doctors and Ministers of the church who are a wielded tool in the hand of God. Calvin sees five designations in the Ministry of the church in Ephesians 4:8-12 – Apostles, Prophets, Evangelists, Pastors and Doctors. The first three are extraordinary and have been done away with the passing of the redemptive timeline. Calvin does not deny that the former three could be raised up by God now and again, but this is not usual. Rather, the Pastors and Doctors of the church are the ordinary office of ministers for our time.

Doctors and Pastors can never be lacking in the history of the Church as it remains militant. The Church needs its guides and under shepherds. Pastors have a local concentration whereas Doctors may have a larger concentration to deal with Christendom at large.

Pastors are assigned to their individual flock. Every flock should have a pastor, though at times, other pastors may help in a given need. Pastors are seen in the New Testament as “pastors, bishop, priests, and ministers” (where “priest” is presbuteros). Pastors should be elected by the church, and are sanctioned by current elders if present in the church.

Doctors are responsible for the education of the church. They are also to be engaged in the arts and in languages. They are to create a competent atmosphere for the church at large, and with the State, with godly men who know the Bible (as Calvin set this up successfully, though with difficulty, in Geneva).

Part 4- The Outward Means:
Section 3 – The Church’s Authority

The church possesses a certain “authority over its members” (potestas). The first area is the power to determine and explain what the Church believes. It is to build up the people by faith. It is to give them the knowledge of the word through the various offices of the church through its redemptive history.

The second part of the authority of the Church consists in the power to make or introduce laws. Here is where the personal liberty issues come to light. People must make choices based on the liberty of conscience they have in Christ, but are under the authority of the church when it comes to the revealed Word. Good laws and customs have their basis in Scripture. In this way they carry out God’s authority. However, such things are not as binding to the conscience as the resurrection of Christ in the Word of God. The time of gathering, for example, may shift depending on the needs of a given body. Or the place of worship may shift, in which the Word does not give us direction.

Thirdly, judicial authority of the Church is its primary one. Here is where the Church executes discipline in the life of the congregation. It governs the body by its exercise of the “keys of power” (this became an important mark for Calvin later on as the two marks of a true church turned to the three marks of a true church). Calvin had three purposes of correction and excommunication associated with church discipline based on Matthew 16 and 18: 1) remove the insult offered to God, 2) to remove the contamination from among their midst (1 Cor. 5:11), and 3) the perpetrator shall repent and be restored. Excommunication was seen as applying the curse of God, but not to damn the accused.


Part 4- The Outward Means:
Section 4 – The Sacraments

The Sacraments are intimately connected with the preaching of the Gospel. A Sacrament is “an external symbol by which the Lord seals in our consciences the promises of his goodwill towards us; this is to sustain the weakness of our faith.” There cannot be a sacrament apart from what God has promised. This does not mean that the Word needs help in its power, but rather, our faith is weak to receive the promise and so sacraments are given. Calvin opposed two views of the sacraments – the Zwinglian view of sacraments which pressed a memorial or “allegiance”, and the scholastic view which gave the sacraments an inherent power. The sacraments of the New Testament are Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

Baptism is the initiation in to the church (regeneration), where we are engrafted into Christ and reckoned children of God. It symbolizes cleansing, not death, and demonstrates the reality that our sins are forgiven and we have died to sin to live to Christ. Baptism is for adults and for the infants of believing parents. He opposed the Anabaptists on this, but did not take up the distinction of sprinkling or immersion since that was not a problem at the time.

The Lord’s Supper is the sacrament of growth. It is a meal by which the regenerate are nourished. The purpose of this meal and mystical blessing is to confirm to us that the body of Christ was once so sacrificed for us that we are now to “feed on him” and in this feeding we feel the efficacy of that sacrifice for us. Souls are fed as they partake of the body and blood by the secret power of the Holy Spirit.

Part 4- The Outward Means:
Section 5 – Civil Government

Though it seems out of place in the Institutes, the topic of civil government was taken up because of the many factitious groups of Anabaptists that Calvin felt he needed to correct. The Anabaptists had misunderstood the meaning of the promises of Christian liberty and the equality of all in Jesus Christ. Consequently, they believed that since there are rulers and judges that govern, that they have no real liberty, which does not follow by necessity.

In dealing with the doctrine of civil government, Calvin dealt first with the position and manner of the ruler and judge. Secondly he dealt with the various forms of government established and which are most helpful and accurate. Thirdly he dealt with the laws of the state and how that state should be governed. Calvin did not believe the Mosaic Law should govern the State, but he did uphold the moral law for all men for all time. Thus nations are free to frame their own laws based on these commands.

Rulers were next to be discussed and Calvin found this relatively easy to deal with. Obedience should extend to all rulers, whether good or bad, since God sovereignly has placed them in office. Unless the ruler presses the Christian to deny faith, he is to be obeyed. He also discusses the options with Greece, Rome and Athens in dealing with civil rebellion and how such rebellions should not occur unless under some special duress enacted by the state, and even then, bodies within the state should take up their rightful role in assisting the good of the people.

Bible Verse:

“Peace to you all who are in Christ Jesus,” (1 Peter 5:14).

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