Institutes of the Christian Religion

by John Calvin

Why you should read Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion!

Maybe I should begin with the arguments against reading Calvin’s Institutes.   They are over 400 years old.  If you study a science like nursing, books more than 5 years old are often out of date, and with computing, books date even faster.  Further, they are all text - no diagrams, pictures or interesting anecdotes.  And finally, life is busy – where are you going to find the time to read something like this? 

But watch out!  The devil would gladly see the busy character of our lives get in the way of the important things.  In Lord’s Day 49 we speak about conspiracies against God’s Word.  The enemy will use many tricks to try and separate God’s people from His Word.  We need to study the Bible in a very deliberate way.  Otherwise, God’s revelation to us will seem obscure. 

Studying Calvin’s Institutes will clear away the fuzziness and vagueness of a superficial use of God’s Word.  Calvin was an excellent theologian.  He carefully studied God’s Word, comparing scripture with scripture, and systematically wrote down the biblical truths.  His clear and pointed explanations make you see the treasure that the Word of God is. 

That is not all.  When you read the Institutes (or his commentaries, for that matter), you will suddenly come across a sentence or paragraph that seems familiar.  You will recognise that the same thought is expressed in one of our confessions [1]. That is no surprise.  The writings of Calvin are one of the backgrounds to our reformed confessions.  Reading Calvin’s Institutes, you come to see more clearly the riches of our confessions, as well as how firmly they are based on Scripture.   We ought to be a confessing Church, able to clearly and accurately confess with heart and mouth what God has said in His Word.   Studying Calvin’s Institutes helps you to do this. 

It is true that they were written 400 years ago, but they are a summary of the teaching of God’s Word. And God’s Word does not go out of date.  Certain things that Calvin wrote might no longer be agreed to by all Reformed scholars.  The study of the Bible has continued since Calvin, and new insights into the Scriptures means that in some things, we now have a better understanding. But that does not take away from the fact that the majority of it has stood the test of time.

Finally, being familiar with the Institutes is also important for the future of the Church.  Consider this – in fighting the heretical teachings and deformation in the Church of his day, Calvin often simply quoted and showed the relevance of what the Church Fathers had written much earlier.  In many cases, he went back hundreds of years to find good answers to the problems that faced the church in the 1500s.  Three hundred years later, it was the writings of Calvin that sharpened Hendrick De Cock’s understanding of God’s Word, and brought about reformation in the Church in the 1830s.  For the Church to go forward in doctrinal strength, it needs to be familiar with and work with the instruction of the past.

What will you find in the Institutes? They have been arranged in four books. The first is about God the Creator, and how He has revealed Himself both in the creation and government of the universe, and in His Word.  The second book speaks about God the Redeemer and how He was revealed to the Old Testament people in the law and to us in the gospel.   This book also explains the meaning and relevance of the law of God for the life of the Christian.  The third book is about the way in which we receive the grace of Christ, its benefits and what effects follow.  This book includes the topics of faith, prayer, self-denial, and election.    The last book deals with the external means by which God brings us into fellowship with Christ and preserves us in that fellowship.  That means it speaks about the Church and the sacraments.  It also deals with the civil government.
So go on, pick up Calvin’s Institutes, and start reading them [2]. You owe it to your children and grandchildren – the future generations in the Church.  To help in reading, there is a summary in the back of the Beveridge edition.  There is also a very helpful outline in point form by F.L. Battles, called Analysis of the Institutes of the Christian Religion of John Calvin. 

Review by Rev C. Vermeulen 


1.    For example:  Institutes, book II, ch. 14, section 6, reminds you of the wording of LD 13, q+a 33.  Commentaries on the Twelve Minor Prophets, vol. 4, p. 611 (about Malachi 3:17) reminds you of LD 24, q+a 62,63

2.    There are two different editions.  Institutes of the Christian Religion (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 1970), translated by H. Beveridge.  Institutes of the Christian Religion (Louisville:  Westminster Press, 1960), translated by F. L. Battles, edited by J.T. McNeill.  The Beveridge edition is also available on-line free of charge.  The Battles edition was recommended at the Theological College in Hamilton as being a better translation, and in my opinion, is also more readable.  It costs over $100, but is worth the investment.