Published on June 22, 2017 by Steve West

Westminster John Knox, 1960 | 1734 pages

A Brief Book Summary from Books At a Glance – Part 6

Editor’s Note:  This is Part 6 of our six-part summary of John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. To catch up see Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5.



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 Four:
The External Means or Aids by Which God Invites Us into the Society of Christ and Holds Us Therein [Summary Part 2 of 2: Chapters 14-20]

Chapter 14 The Sacraments
Chapter 15 Baptism
Chapter 16 Infant Baptism Best Accords with Christ’s Institution and the Nature of the Sign
Chapter 17 The Sacred Supper of Christ, and What it Brings to Us
Chapter 18 The Papal Mass, a Sacrilege by Which Christ’s Supper Was Not Only Profaned but Annihilated
Chapter 19 The Five Other Ceremonies, Falsely Termed Sacraments; Although Commonly Considered Sacraments Hitherto, They are Proved Not to Be Such, and Their Real Nature is Shown
Chapter 20 Civil Government



Chapter 14

A sacrament is a testimony of divine grace accompanied by an external sign. In partaking of a sacrament we show our pledge of fidelity and piety to the Lord. Because our faith is weak, God has given us signs to remind us of his promises. Sacraments are not merely external signs, they consist of the word and the sign. Sacraments do not work automatically as rituals, but must be accompanied by preaching. They are seals and signs, tokens of the covenant and pictures of God’s words. God’s grace is offered in the sacraments—as it is offered in the hearing of the gospel—but it must be received by faith. Our faith is weak, and needs strengthening. We need the Holy Spirit to work in us, making the Word and sacraments effective. Without the Spirit, ministers cannot make the sacraments powerful, but when the Spirit is our teacher, they are a rich source of blessing. Only the Spirit can apply these physical tokens to our hearts. Being strengthened by the sacraments in no way detracts from the glory of God, since he ordains means to accomplish his ends. They are signs of holy things, not the holy mysteries themselves. It is a dangerous deception to think they confer grace or holiness by themselves. Christ is the real substance of the sacraments, and so faith is required to appropriate their meaning and value. They are only helpful to the degree they point us to Christ. Sacraments are not given in vain, but neither are they useful without seeing past them to Christ. In the sacraments God truly offers us the reality that they signify. In Scriptures, many tokens of God’s promises and grace can be referred to as sacraments (like the rainbow after the Flood). Old Testament signs were fulfilled by Christ, and baptism and Lord’s Supper were inaugurated for the church. Circumcision, washings, and sacrifices pointed to Christ and are now symbolized in baptism. The Lord’s Supper shows Christ far more clearly than the old signs. Both showed Christ and God’s grace, but the new signs represent the fullness of Christ’s redemptive work. The Jews had perverted the meaning of their signs and sacrifices, and failed to see how they were fulfilled in Christ. Old and New Testament sacraments were about Christ, but the latter are clearer.


Chapters 15-16

Baptism is our sign of initiation into Christ’s church. It is a proof that we have been cleansed by Christ, that we have faith, and that we acknowledge him before others. The water does not regenerate or cleanse on its own—this can only happen through the Word as we look to Christ. Baptism does not merely cleanse us from past sins, but shows our entire life is washed by Christ. It shows our repentance, the death of our old self, and the fact that our life is united with Christ and cleansed by his blood. John the Baptist’s baptism was the same as the apostolic baptism. Exodus foreshadowed baptism when Israel was baptized in the sea and the cloud. A dangerous error is that baptism washes away original sin and makes us blameless. Regrettably, we continue to sin throughout our lives, even after being baptized. Paul’s personal experience was that he continued to struggle with the flesh even after he was converted. We are saved from guilt and condemnation but still battle with sin. Thus baptism is not a ritual that can save in its own power or destroy all sin within us—it is a sign that confirms our faith in Christ and shows that we are God’s children. It is a symbol of our confession and faith and does not replace them. Thankfully, the validity of our baptism does not depend on the godliness and faith of the individual who performs it. As infants we are baptized before we exercise faith, but the promise of salvation stands, and although time goes by in the interval between baptism and faith, it is not thereby invalidated. Circumcision was applied to infants once and was never applied to them again, even though they were called to repentance and faith later on. The New Testament knows nothing of a rebaptism. All of the pomp and ceremony around the ritual should be removed, and the debates about modes and details silenced as irrelevant. Women are not permitted to baptize, nor is there any cause to have laypersons baptize others in an emergency.

Those who agitate the church and attack infant baptism are causing. . .

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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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