Published on June 8, 2017 by Steve West

Westminster John Knox, 1960 | 1734 pages

A Brief Book Summary from Books At a Glance – Part 4

Editor’s Note:  This is Part 4 of our six-part summary of John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. To catch up see Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.



Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion (1559 Edition) represents his mature theological reflection and has been one of the most influential literary works in Western history. Although it needs to be read firsthand to be fully appreciated, Calvin’s logical analysis and organization makes summarizing the Institutes possible. Calvin divided the Institutes into four books. For the purposes of summarization, the first two books are summarized in one summary each, and the last two are each divided into two summaries. Calvin’s chapters are of very unequal length, and this is reflected in the way the chapters are treated in the summaries.


Table of Contents: Book Three:
The Way in Which We Receive the Grace of Christ: What Benefits Come to Us From It, and What Effects Follow [Summary Part 2 of 2, Chapters 12-25]

Chapter 12 We Must Lift Up Our Minds to God’s Judgment Seat that We May be Firmly Convinced of His Free Justification
Chapter 13 Two Things to be Noted in Free Justification
Chapter 14 The Beginning of Justification and Its Continual Progress
Chapter 15 Boasting about the Merits of Works Destroys Our Praise of God for Having Bestowed Righteousness, as Well as Our Assurance of Salvation
Chapter 16 Refutation of the False Accusations by Which the Papists Try to Cast Odium Upon this Doctrine
Chapter 17 The Agreement of the Promises of the Law and of the Gospel
Chapter 18 Works Righteousness is Wrongly Inferred from Reward
Chapter 19 Christian Freedom
Chapter 20 Prayer, Which is the Chief Exercise of Faith, by Which We Daily Receive God’s Benefits
Chapter 21 Eternal Election, by Which God Has Predestined Some to Salvation, Others to Destruction
Chapter 22 Confirmation of this Doctrine from Scriptural Testimonies
Chapter 23 Refutation of the False Accusations with Which This Doctrine Has Always Been Unjustly Burdened
Chapter 24 Election is Confirmed by God’s Call; Moreover, the Wicked Bring Upon Themselves the Just Destruction to Which They are Destined
Chapter 25 The Final Resurrection


Chapters 12-14

If we think about our works in comparison to other people and human standards, we might boast, but when we lift our minds to consider God’s perfect, heavenly standard, we see that our works can never be enough. It is incredibly foolish to think we can meet God’s standard of infinitely perfect righteousness and judgment. God’s judgment extends even to the hidden thoughts of our hearts and our internal secrets. Understanding this truth reveals the folly of thinking our works can be anything other than garbage in God’s judgment. We flatter and deceive ourselves, thinking we are righteous enough, but our view of ourselves is contradicted by Scripture. In humility, the poor in spirit throw themselves entirely on God’s mercy alone. God resists and casts down the proud, but he dwells with the broken and contrite. In the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, Jesus taught that those who cry for mercy are the ones whom God justifies, whereas the proud are condemned. Christ came to call sinners, not the righteous. Arrogance and complacency are enemies of the gospel.

In justification God’s glory is upheld, and our consciences find peace before him. Anything we try to add to our justification detracts from God’s honor. God cannot be glorified if we are glorying in our own righteousness. All praise for righteousness must only belong to the Lord; we cannot have even the slightest trace. Receiving God’s righteousness as an unmerited gift can quiet our consciences, but looking at our own works will bring torment and doubt, leading to despair. Only an assured conscience can fully grasp God’s promises, and only in seeing Christ’s anguish and atonement will we be able to rest. Those who are justified by faith are able to have great joy and hope in the gospel, and they know that there is no condemnation for them and that they have access to God both now and forevermore.

God does give some unbelievers noble characteristics and moral virtues as gifts, but these gifts are not sufficient for righteousness in the sight of God. No matter how good we may seem, there is no one who is ultimately good, and nobody who can come to God apart from faith. There is no life or holiness outside of the Son of God, and without faith it is impossible to please the Lord. The unregenerate are dead in trespasses and sins, so it is by grace through faith that we are saved. Even the capacity to have faith is a gift from God, so there can be no boasting of any kind. The saved are empowered by Christ to do good works, but faith precedes these work and generates love. Many are deluded into looking at their external righteousness, but God looks at the heart and sees through hypocrisy. God hates the offerings and religious rituals of hypocrites. God’s Holy Spirit regenerates and sanctifies, producing life and subsequently producing good works in the lives of believers. Anyone who has violated the law at even one point is guilty of breaking it all. Even at the end of their life, a believer is justified by the righteousness of God alone, by faith and not by their works. “Works of supererogation” is a concept that is incoherent; God demands perfect obedience to the law, so how can someone do more? Trusting in any satisfaction beyond Christ’s is blasphemous. Even the most faithful, hard-working servant is merely a servant who has done their duty. Since we owe everything we are to God already, what can we do for him that is supererogatory? Everyone has sinned and come short of the glory of God, and justification is planned by the Father to be accomplished by the work of his Son. Good works can show that we have been justified, but they do not contribute to our justification. Seeing the works that God is producing in us shows us that he is really present in our lives. Good works are the fruit of our regeneration, not its roots.


Chapters 15-17

It is a mistake to use the word “merit” to describe our works before God. Even our good works are full of uncleanness in God’s sight, and whatever is actually good in our works is from God’s grace. Our best works are not perfect like God’s; instead, they show our sin. God loves us so much that he gives us good works as a gift, and then in grace he blesses us for them. The Roman Church fails to interpret Scripture properly in its insistence that our works contribute to our justification. We can be judged by our fruit and people are to see our good works and praise the Father, but these works are not the grounds for our justification and righteousness. Some people accuse us of rejecting the importance of works, but we do not—we insist that where there is regeneration and saving faith, there will also be good works in evidence. Those who are justified by faith are zealous for good works, not apathetic about them. The love of Christ drives the justified to do good and to honor the Lord. Believers want to be holy like their Lord, and be holy because the Holy Spirit indwells them. Christ is our example that we are to emulate. In Romans 12, Paul calls us to live for God because of God’s mercy, not because doing so will contribute to our justification. Justification and righteousness is a free gift to us, but it cost Christ his precious blood.

Some people point back to the law and say that the one who keeps the law will live, but they need to realize that nobody can keep the law perfectly. We cannot fulfill the demands of the law, but Christ did. David recognized that he had hidden faults and required nothing but mercy for forgiveness. Those who have faith in Christ are blessed with the benefits of his law-keeping and covenant righteousness. Nobody is good enough to be righteous in God’s sight, and nobody is beyond his saving reach. God looks at our works as reflections of himself and is pleased, but he also sees them stained with our sin; apart from union with Christ nothing we do can be accepted by him. Abraham, our father in faith, was not justified by his works—he was given righteousness because he lacked it. God in grace can approve of our works and accept them, but only because he has pardoned our sins. If God doesn’t count our sin against us, then he can accept what we offer. Many, of course, say that this teaching is contradicted by James 2, but this is foolish. James is destroying the pretensions of hypocrites who are assured of their righteousness even though their lives are evil. James is arguing that those with true faith are known by their good works, so those without works do not have true faith. James teaches that if a life has no good works there is no faith, and thus no justification. Good works are in harmony with a profession and life of faith, and thus are evidence for faith. Believers should strive to live perfectly, even though they will fall short of this goal.

Chapters 18-19

Every person will be recompensed according to what they have done, and believers will resemble their Father, because he has given us eternal life and is conforming us into his likeness. God blesses us with rewards, even though these rewards are not merited by us or the grounds on which we are saved. What God blesses us with is a son’s inheritance, not a worker’s wages. We labor and strive not to earn eternal life, but to honor the Lord and live as we ought. Eternal life is the reward of faith, not works. When God calls us to rewards, it is to fix our minds on the greater joys of glory, rather than focusing on this fleeting world. Promises of rewards can strengthen our resolve and help us mortify the flesh. The imputation of righteousness comes before our works, and it covers them. Works can be considered righteous only because God pardons us for our sin. We are to fix our eyes on heaven and lay up treasures there. In this life we will have trouble, but God promises to reward all who pass through tribulation in faith. Love is the greatest thing of all, but nobody is perfect in love. Any deviation from perfect law-keeping destroys righteousness and brings death.

The nature and scope of Christian freedom is often abused and misunderstood. Some are afraid of. . .

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Library of Christian Classics: Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion, Volumes 1 & 2

Westminster John Knox, 1960 | 1734 pages

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