Celebrating the Legacy of John Calvin, Part 3

If Martin Luther was the father of the Protestant Reformation, John Calvin was its most influential theological voice. It was Calvin, after all, who set out to write a common Reformation theology for lay people. It is now known as the first systematic Protestant theology, called The Institutes of the Christian Religion.

Calvin wrote the first edition of The Institutes in 1536, when he was 27. It was around 200 pages. He wrote his final and 8th revision in 1559, five years before his death. By the time he was done, it had grown to about 1,500 pages!

If you have never read this Christian classic, I encourage you to begin with the abridged, soft cover, 271 page edition edited by Tony Lane and Hilary Osborne, published by Baker. If you are ready for the full course meal, then purchase the two volume 1960 hardback edition, edited by John T. McNeill, and translated by Ford Lewis Battles (Westminster/John Knox). But I should also warn you, that if your spiritual diet consists mainly of Joel Osteen and Rick Warren, you will be stretched.

Although The Institutes was written to teach the basics of the Christian faith, it was dedicated to King Francis I of France in defense of the Protestant movement. Calvin’s concern is that the Roman Catholic Church, because of all its abuses, had lost the gospel. So Calvin turns the spotlight on our sin, and the floodlight on God’s grace in the person and work of Jesus Christ. He wants to recapture and explain the gospel.

While Calvin’s work is utterly brilliant, it is also usually blunt, and often cast in a polemical tone as he seeks to point out the church’s errors and point the way back to the Scriptures. In addressing the king he says, “A very great question is at stake: how God’s glory may be kept safe on earth, how God’s truth may retain its place of honor, how Christ’s Kingdom may be kept in good repair among us.”

For Calvin, the Bible was the supreme authority in the church, under Christ. For that reason, he desires that his Institutes be Bible driven. It is his ambition to keep within the limits of what has been revealed in Scripture and to avoid useless speculation.

It may surprise some that the theme of divine election is not the central theme of The Institutes. Nor does it contain an outline of TULIP (the so called five points of Calvinism). That came from a later age. While his theology affirms the five points, it also includes many more affirmations as Calvin seeks to represent the full teaching of Scripture. In fact, the doctrine of election does not appear at the beginning of The Institutes. Rather, it appears toward the end, as a doctrine to bring comfort. Calvin starts his work by focusing on the saving grace of God toward a sinful world.

While Calvin does have a lot to say about God’s sovereignty in creation, providence and salvation, he also affirms the importance of human responsibility as well. How these two fit together is a mystery. Unlike many people who deny one and affirm the other, Calvin affirms the Biblical compatibility of both.

John Calvin’s chief concern is with the unsearchable glory and majesty of God revealed in Jesus Christ. This is the foundation of everything. So much so that Calvin once wrote that it would be an insult to describe his theology as “Calvinism.” His passion is to see God glorified and Christ exalted.

Calvin sometimes distinguishes between essential and non-essential matters of faith. He believed that doctrinal matters are not all of equal importance. Some are vital to the faith. For this reason, Calvin outlines his four books of The Institutes based on the Apostle’s Creed, with its Trinitarian theological framework.

BOOK ONE Book One Focuses on God. Calvin makes the stunning claim that our wisdom consists almost entirely of two parts—the knowledge of God and the knowledge of ourselves. In his age, as in ours, society errs by neglecting the knowledge of God and pursuing all kinds of other knowledge. Self knowledge, says Calvin, does not come until we look into the face of God. Knowledge of God and of ourselves is interrelated. True happiness comes through the liberating knowledge of God. Knowing God is humankind’s chief end.

How is God known? Through God’s gracious self-revelation in creation and providence, and through his special revelation in the Bible. There we learn how dependent we are before his absolute sovereignty. We also learn of our true condition, that we are fallen from the free state in which we were created. We are desperately lost and without hope, apart from his sovereign mercy.

BOOK TWO Book Two focuses on the person and work of Jesus Christ. His atoning death on the cross is God’s remedy for the sin and guilt of a lost humanity. Christ is our redeemer, as prophet, king and priest. As mediator he opened the way through the cross for the forgiving grace of God to enter into the lives of sinful people.

BOOK THREE Book Three focuses on the work of the Holy Spirit in salvation, the life of prayer, the mystery of election, and the hope of resurrection. Here Calvin takes up the work of the Spirit in justification through the gift of faith, and sanctification to holy living. He also takes up the subject of eternal election. Our salvation lies in God’s hands. It depends wholly on his free grace.

BOOK FOUR Book Four is about the church. In one sense, the church is invisible. It is the company of all of God’s redeemed ones through the ages. In this life, however, we are concerned with the visible church. Calvin describes its nature. It is our mother. We are conceived in her womb and brought to birth through her milk. He speaks of the marks of a true church—it is a community of the faithful in which the Word is truly preached, the sacraments rightly administered and Christian discipline is maintained. He also describes its organization, its officers, and its duties in the world.

Abandoning the church, says Calvin, is always fatal. She is the mother of the godly. He writes, “for those to whom God is a father, the church must also be a mother.” In this and in many other sections of The Institutes, Calvin still speaks–even 500 years after his birthday. He has much to teach the 21st century church.

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