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The Institution of the Christian Religion
Institutio Christiane Religionis

by John Calvin
The original, squashed down to read in about 20 minutes

( Geneva, 1536 )

Jehan Cauvin, who we know as John Calvin, was a French lawyer turned preacher and theologian whose ideas came to be hugely influential on the development of the Protestant Reformation.

Abridged by JH.


Our wisdom consists almost exclusively of two parts: the knowledge of God, and of ourselves. But, as these are connected together by many ties, it is not easy to determine which of the two precedes, and which gives birth to the others. Our weakness, ignorance, and depravity remind us that in the Lord, and in none but Him only, dwell the two lights of wisdom, of virtue, and of piety. It is evident that man never attains to a true self-knowledge until after he has contemplated the face of God, and come down after such contemplation to look into himself.

It is beyond dispute that there exists in the human mind, and indeed by natural instinct, some sense of deity. As Cicero, though a pagan, tells us, there is no nation so brutish as not to be imbued with the conviction that there is a God. Even idolatry is an evidence of this fact. But, though experience teaches that a seed of religion is divinely sown in all, few cherish it in the heart. Some lose themselves in superstitious observances; others, of set purpose, wickedly revolt from God; and many think of God against their will, never approaching Him without being dragged into His presence.

But since the perfection of blessedness consists in the knowledge of God, He has been pleased not only to deposit in our minds the seed of religion, of which we have already spoken, but so to manifest His perfections in the whole structure of the universe, and daily place Himself in our view, that we cannot open our eyes without being compelled to behold Him. His essence is, indeed, transcendent and incomparable, but on each of His works His glory is engraven in characters so bright that none, however dull and illiterate, can plead ignorance as an excuse.

Herein appears the shameful ingratitude of men, that, though they have in their own persons a factory where countless operations of God are carried on, instead of praising Him, they are the more inflated with pride. How few are there among us who, in lifting our eyes to the heavens, or looking abroad on the earth, ever think of the Creator! In vain, because of our dulness, does creation exhibit so many bright lamps lit up to show forth the glory of its Author. Therefore, another and better help must be given to guide us properly to God as our Creator, and He has added the light of His Word in order to make known His salvation.

Here it seems proper to make some observations on the authority of Scripture. Nothing can be more absurd than the fiction that the power of judging Scripture is in the Church. When the Church gives it the stamp of her authority, she does not thus make it authentic, but shows her reverence for it as the truth of God by her unhesitating assent. Scripture bears, on the face of it, as clear evidence of its truth as black and white do of their colour, sweet and bitter of their taste. It is preposterous to attempt, by discussion, to rear up a full faith in Scripture. Those who are inwardly taught by the Holy Spirit acquiesce in it implicitly, for it carries with it its own testimony.

It is foolish to attempt to prove to infidels that the Scripture is the Word of God. For it cannot be known to be, except by faith. Justly does Augustine remind us that every man who would have any understanding in such high matters must previously possess piety and mental peace. In order to direct us to the true God, the Scripture excludes all the gods of the heathen. This exclusiveness annihilates every deity which men frame for themselves, of their own accord. Whence had idols their origin, but from the will of man?

There was thus ground for the sarcasm of the heathen poet (Horace, Satires, I.8). "I was once the trunk of a fig-tree, a useless log, when the tradesman, uncertain whether he should make me a stool, etc., chose rather that I should be a god." In regard to the origin of idols, the statement of the Book of Wisdom has been received with almost universal consent, that they originated with those who bestowed this honour on the dead, from a superstitious regard to their memory.


Through the fall of Adam arose the need of a Redeemer, the whole human race having by that event been made accursed and degenerate. Man thereby became deprived of freedom of will and miserably enslaved. The dominion of sin, ever since the first man was brought under it, not only extends to the whole race, but has complete possession of every soul. Free will does not enable any man to perform good works unless he is assisted by grace. Yet, since man is by nature a social being, he is disposed, from natural instinct, to cherish and preserve society; and, accordingly, we see that the minds of all men have impressions of order and civil honesty. So that, in regard to the constitution of the present life, no man is devoid of the light of reason. And this gift ought justly to be ascribed to the divine indulgence. Had God not so spared us, our revolt would have carried with it the entire destruction of nature. But to the great truth, what God is in Himself, and what He is in relation to us, human reason makes not the least approach. The natural man has no capacity for such sublime wisdom as to apprehend God, unless illumined by His Spirit, and none can enter the kingdom of God save those whose minds have been renewed by the power of the spirit.

It is certain that after the fall of our first parent, no knowledge of God without a Mediator was effectual to salvation. Hence it is that God never showed Himself propitious to His ancient people, nor gave them any hope of grace without a Mediator. The prosperous and happy state of the Church was always founded in the person of Christ. The primary adoption of the chosen people depended on the grace of the Mediator, and Christ was always held forth to the holy fathers under the law as the object of their faith.

It deeply concerns us that He who was to become our Mediator should be very God and very man. The work to be by Him performed was of no common description, being to restore us to the divine favour so as to make us sons of God and heirs of the heavenly kingdom. In Him the divinity was so conjoined with the humanity that the entire properties of each nature remained entire, and yet the two natures constitute only one Christ. Everything needful for us exists in Christ.

When we see that the whole sum of our salvation, and every single part of it, are comprehended in Christ, we must beware of deriving even the minutest part of it from any other quarter. If we seek salvation, we are taught by the very name of Jesus that He possesses it; if we seek any other gifts of the Spirit, we shall find them in His unction; strength in His permanent government; purity in His conception; indulgence in His nativity, in which He was made like us in all respects, in order that He might learn to sympathise with us; if we seek redemption we shall find it in His passion; acquittal in His condemnation; remission of the curse in His cross; satisfaction in His sacrifice; purification in His blood; reconciliation in His descent into hell; mortification of the flesh in His sepulchre; newness of life in His resurrection; immortality also in His resurrection; the inheritance of a celestial kingdom in His entrance into heaven; protection, security, and the abundant supply of all blessings, in His kingdom; secure anticipation of judgment in the power of judging committed to Him. In fine, since in Him blessings are treasured up, let us draw a full supply from Him, and none from another quarter.


It may be proved both from reason and from Scripture that the grace of God and the merit of Christ (the Prince and Author of our salvation) are perfectly compatible. Christ is not only the minister, but also the cause of our salvation, and divine grace is not obscured by this expression. Christ, by His obedience, truly merited this divine grace for us, which was obtained by the shedding of His blood, and His obedience even unto death, whereby He paid our ransom.

It is by the secret operation of the Holy Spirit that we enjoy Christ and all His benefits. In Christ the Mediator the gifts of the Holy Spirit are to be seen in all their fulness. As salvation is perfected in the person of Christ, so, in order to make us partakers of it, He "baptizes us with the Holy Spirit and with fire," enlightening us into the faith of His Gospel, and so regenerating us to be new creatures. Thus cleansed from all pollution, He dedicates us as holy temples to the Lord.

But here it is proper to consider the nature of faith. The true knowledge of Christ consists in receiving Him as He is offered by the Father, namely, as invested with His Gospel. There is an inseparable relation between faith and the Word, and these can no more be disconnected from each other than rays of light from the sun. John points to this fountain of faith thus: "To-day, if ye will hear His voice," to "hear" being uniformly taken for to "believe." Take away the Word and no faith will remain. Hence Paul designates faith as the obedience which is given to the Gospel.

The mere assent of the intellect to the Word is, according to some, the faith insisted on in Scripture, but this is a mere fiction. Such as thus define faith do not duly ponder the saying of Paul, "With the heart man believeth unto righteousness." Assent itself is more a matter of the heart than the head, of the affection than the intellect.


Repentance follows faith and is produced by it. In the conversion of the life to God we require a transformation not only in external works, but in the soul itself, which is able only after it has put off its old habits to bring forth fruits conformable to its renovation. Repentance proceeds from a sincere fear of God, and it consists of two parts, the mortification of the flesh and the quickening of the spirit. Both of these we obtain by union with Christ. If we are partakers in His resurrection we are raised up by means of it to newness of life, which conforms us to the righteousness of God. In one word, then, by repentance I understand regeneration, the only aim of which is to form us anew in the image of God, which was sullied and all but effaced by the transgression of Adam.

The apostle, in his description of repentance (2 Corinthians vii. 2), enumerates seven causes, effects, or parts belonging to it. These are carefulness, excuse, indignation, fear, desire, zeal, revenge. I stop not to consider whether these are causes or effects; both views may be maintained. The penitent will be careful not in future to offend God; in his excuses he will trust, not to his own apologies, but to Christ's intercession; his indignation will be directed against his own iniquities; his fear will be lest he cause God displeasure; his desire is equivalent to alacrity in duty; zeal will follow; and revenge will be practised in the censure passed on his own sins.


A man is said to be justified in the sight of God when, in the judgment of God, he is deemed righteous, and is accepted on account of his righteousness. So we interpret justification as the acceptance with which God receives us into His favour as if we were righteous; and we say that this justification consists in the forgiveness of sins and the imputation of the righteousness to Christ. Since many imagine a righteousness compounded of faith and works, let it be noted that there is so wide a difference between justification by faith and by works that one necessarily overthrows the other. If we destroy the righteousness by faith by establishing our own righteousness, then, in order to obtain His righteousness, our own must be entirely abandoned. The Gospel differs from the law in this, that it entirely places justification in the mercy of God and does not confine it to works. It is entirely by the intervention of Christ's righteousness that we obtain justification before God.

The doctrine of Christian liberty is founded on this justification by faith. This liberty consists of three parts. First, believers renouncing the righteousness of the law look only to Christ. Secondly, the conscience, freed from the yoke of the law, voluntarily obeys the will of God. This cannot be done under the dominion of the law. Thirdly, under the Gospel we are free to use things indifferent. The consciences of believers, while seeking the assurance of their justification before God, must rise above the law, and think no more of obtaining justification by it. Our consciences being free from the yoke of the law itself, voluntarily obey the will of God.


Ignorance of the doctrine of election and predestination impairs the glory of God and fosters pride. The covenant of life is not preached equally to all, and among those to whom it is preached does not always meet with the same reception. The reason of this discrimination belongs to the secret thing of God. This doctrine is cavilled at; yet when we see one nation preferred to another, shall we plead against God for having chosen to give such a manifestation of His mercy? God has displayed His grace in special forms. Thus of the family of Abraham He rejected some, and kept others within His Church, showing that He retained them among His sons.

Although the election of God is secret, it is made manifest by effectual calling. Both election and effectual calling are founded on the free mercy of God Calling is proved to be according to the free grace of God by the declarations of Scripture, by the mode in which it is dispensed, by the instance of Abraham's vocation, by the testimony of John, and by the example of all those who have been called. There are two species of calling. There is a universal call by which God, through the preaching of His Word, invites all men alike. Besides this, there is a special call, which, for the most part, God bestows on believers only, when by the internal illumination of His Spirit he causes the Gospel to take deep root in their hearts.

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