After 18 months I finished my devotional reading of Calvin’s Institutes. As I wrote here in June 2011, I have owned a personal copy of The Institutes for over 27 years. My two volume Battles translation were one of the few books I carried by suitcase with me to England in 1985. John Calvin dominated my life from 1985-1991. It was in August twenty-one years ago that I gave my successful oral defense to my finished my PhD thesis on the prophetic office in the theology of John Calvin. There was a time when most of the books in my study carrel were either primary texts written by Calvin or secondary works on his theology in a variety of languages. When you read so much of someone, you start to know how they think. There was a time when I could hear a passage and give a pretty good guess where in writings it had come from.
Like any student that had dedicated as many years to research as I did then, I had read his works with another object in mind. Come to think of it, I wondered now, had I ever read anything Calvin wrote as part of my devotional reading? I was embarrassed to write that in the twenty years since I had not.
Not, that is, until now. Along the way I found two great helps: Chapel Library’s Read Calvin’s Institutes in a Year in a printable PDF and Zeal for Godliness: Devotional Meditations on Calvin’s Institutes all keyed to the Battle’s translation. The contributors to Zeal were top-rate and really added to my study. Both are highly recommended.
So 18 months and 10 index cards of notes later, what did I learn?
First, it was the eloquence and clarity of his writing. There were times when he had me chuckling with his irony and shaking my head in agreement with a laser-like observation and analysis. Even through nearly 500 years and a translation, Calvin the writer came through clearly. It is no wonder his work shaped the trajectory of the French language.
Second, it was the creedal structure of the work, totally grounded in the Scriptures. Calvin intended the Institutes to be a summary of what he wrote in his commentaries and preached in his sermons. He takes you each step of the way – from Scripture to doctrine – and back again. This is a work for the ages.
Third, the Institutes are, I think, the greatest, deepest, and most extensive treatment of the grace of God I have ever read. I was struck by how many times Calvin tells us that the foundation of real Christian faith is both grasping with the mind and sensing on the heart the gracious, unconditional love of God for us in Jesus Christ. Over and over again he teaches that you are truly converted by grasping God’s love in such a way so that the inner structure and motivation of the heart is changed. All of this is God’s gracious action toward those who are His enemies for we can do nothing to save ourselves. “For the Word of God is not received by faith if it flits about in the top of the brain, but when it takes root in the depth of the heart…the heart’s distrust is greater than the mind’s blindness. It is harder for the heart to be furnished with assurance [of God’s love] than for the mind to be endowed with thought.” (III.2.36)
And Calvin’s Institutes are astonishingly “doxological.” He never forgets how deep our predicament and far down God had to reach to draw us up from the pit and miry clay to set us upon a rock, that rock being Jesus Christ. It is this fact of God’s saving activity in Jesus Christ that draws him to praise, thanksgiving and a real tenderness toward you as his reader.
You see this mixture of praise, humility and tenderness everywhere. One example is how Calvin explains predestination. He argues forcefully that, unless you see your saving faith is a gift from God to you, not from you to him—you have not yet grasped how free his grace is. When you see your salvation is 100% by grace you will joyfully embrace and be humbled and comforted by the truth of predestination. It is this joy and humility that turns Calvin from his explanation of predestination to you as his reader who still may puzzle over the doctrine, to remind you gently to resist speculation beyond the boundary God has lovingly set for us in His revealing grace. “Let us, I say, permit the Christian man to open his mind and ears to every utterance of God directed to him, provided it be with such restraint that when the Lord closes his holy lips, he also shall at once close the way to inquiry.” (III.21.3).
Praise, humility and tenderness – I can say that John Calvin has led me quietly and assuredly this past year to reflect time and time again on God’s amazing grace and to join him in praise of our heavenly Father’s provision and our sweet Redeemer.