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Institutes of the Christian Religion: Calvin’s Magnum Opus

By Charles Colson
Breakpoint Ministry -- While Martin Luther might have been the “spark” that ignited the Protestant Reformation, John Calvin certainly fanned the flame. In this month’s Great Books Audio CD Series, Dr. Ken Boa turns his attention to one of the greatest works of Western culture, Institutes of the Christian Religion by John Calvin.

Preconceptions abound when it comes to Calvin and the movement he began. But as C.S. Lewis wrote concerning the reformer, “We mistake the influence of Calvinism if we see it in the light of the typical dour caricature of Calvin, for his was the progressive philosophy of the day.”

The Institutes, first written in 1536 but revised over the course of Calvin’s life, were not only progressive for his time, but also surprisingly pastoral. He wrote them primarily to edify believers.

First written in Latin, Institutes of the Christian Religion is a poor rendering of the original title. A closer translation might be: “An Instruction of Christian Piety.” But Calvin’s definition of piety and our own would differ.

Calvin writes, “I call piety that reverence joined with love of God which the knowledge of His benefits induces. For until men recognize that they owe everything to God, that they are nourished by His Fatherly care, that He is the author of their every good, that they should seek nothing beyond Him, they will never yield Him willing service.” He goes on to say that unless man stakes his “complete happiness in [God, he] will never give [himself] to him truly and sincerely.”

The Institutes are clearly written by a man whose happiness was entirely staked on God. Calvin’s contemplation of God was not speculative or theoretical, but thoroughly personal. Ken Boa says that makes The Institutes “a living, challenging book that makes personal claims on the reader.”

The book is divided into four principle parts, which in turn correspond to the four primary parts of the Apostle’s Creed. The first part considers the knowledge of God as Father, creator, provider, and sustainer. Next, Calvin considers how the Son reveals the Father, particularly in the work of redemption. And the third section addresses the Holy Spirit, who brings man to repentance and sanctification. In the final section Calvin turns his attention to the Church, and how it is called to live out the truth and display God’s character, especially in the sacraments.

Calvin’s Institutes is a book every Christian should read. I’ve used it time and time again for its marvelous commentary.

Reflecting on The Institutes, Ken Boa says that for Calvin, wisdom was found in knowing God and knowing man. That kind of wisdom is a gift of God, revealed to man only when he humbles himself to truly seek God. Calvin believed that such true wisdom leads to the exercise of true religion.

Perhaps one of the greatest systematic theologians of history could leave us with no more important lesson than that. God’s wisdom transforms us from the inside out, and then through us, transforms the world. That was Calvin’s great goal, and our mission here at the Colson Center.

Order your copy of Institutes of the Christian Religion by John Calvin from Shop CBN.

Subscribe to Dr. Ken Boa’s Great Books Audio CD Series.

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Charles ColsonFrom BreakPoint, Copyright Prison Fellowship Ministries. "BreakPoint with Chuck Colson" is a radio ministry of Prison Fellowship Ministries. Reprinted with permission of Prison Fellowship


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