Published on May 18, 2017 by Steve West

Westminster John Knox, 1960 | 1734 pages

A Brief Book Summary from Books At a Glance – Part 1

Editor’s Note:  In honor of this “Reformation 500” anniversary year Books At a Glance is featuring a number of historic works of Reformation interest. This week we begin a brief series summarizing John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion.  We hope you enjoy having this landmark work in six bite-sized pieces.



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 One: The Knowledge of God the Creator

John Calvin to the Reader, 1559
Subject Matter of the Present Work
Prefatory Address to King Francis I of France
Chapter 1: The Knowledge of God and That of Ourselves are Connected. How They are Interrelated
Chapter 2: What it is to Know God, and to What Purpose the Knowledge of Him Tends
Chapter 3: The Knowledge of God Has Been Naturally Implanted in the Minds of Men
Chapter 4: This Knowledge is Either Smothered or Corrupted, Partly by Ignorance, Partly by Malice
Chapter 5: The Knowledge of God Shines Forth in the Fashioning of the Universe and the Continuing Government of It
Chapter 6: Scripture is Needed as Guide and Teacher for Anyone Who Would Come to God the Creator
Chapter 7: Scripture Must be Confirmed by the Witness of the Spirit. Thus May its Authority be Established as Certain; and it is a Wicked Falsehood that its Credibility Depends on the Judgment of the Church
Chapter 8: So Far as Human Reason Goes, Sufficiently Firm Proofs are at Hand to Establish the Credibility of Scripture
Chapter 9: Fanatics, Abandoning Scripture and Flying Over to Revelation, Cast Down all the Principles of Godliness
Chapter 10: Scripture, to Correct all Superstition, Has Set the True God Alone Over Against All the Gods of the Heathen
Chapter 11: It is Unlawful to Attribute a Visible Form to God, and Generally Whoever Sets Up Idols Revolts Against the True God
Chapter 12: How God is to be so Distinguished from Idols that Perfect Honor May be Given to Him Alone
Chapter 13: In Scripture, from the Creation Onward, We are Taught One Essence of God, Which Contains Three Persons
Chapter 14: Even in the Creation of the Universe and of All Things, Scripture by Unmistakable Marks Distinguishes the True God from False Gods
Chapter 15: Discussion of Human Nature as Created, of the Faculties of the Soul, of the Image of God, of Free Will, and of the Original Integrity of Man’s Nature
Chapter 16: God by His Power Nourishes and Maintains the World Created by Him, and Rules its Several Parts by His Providence
Chapter 17: How We May Apply this Doctrine to Our Greatest Benefit
Chapter 18: God So Uses the Works of the Ungodly, and so Bends Their Minds to Carry Out His Judgments, that He Remains Pure from Every Stain


Chapters 1-5

Our genuine knowledge consists of our knowledge of God and our knowledge of ourselves. Both our abilities and our depravity point us to the Lord. Unless we contemplate God, we will never see ourselves properly—seeing his character shows us our unrighteousness. His perfections show our manifold imperfections. Saints in Scripture are overwhelmed and terrified in God’s holy presence. The knowledge of God is more than awareness that he exists, it is seeing his glory and understanding his benefits. “Piety” is reverence and love for God, recognizing that every good thing we enjoy is from his hand. As our Creator, we owe him all we are. We should trust him and have faith in him, loving him and worshiping him.

God has implanted an awareness of divinity inside of every person. There is no region or culture where there is no knowledge of God. Religions and idolatries flourish because people know there is a God, even if they pervert his image. Some people attempt to eradicate this knowledge of God by denying it and suppressing it, but they cannot evade it completely. They claim to be wise but are fools. Some deny the existence of God because of their overt rebellion against him; they put out their own eyes so they cannot see. We are not to fashion God in accordance with our desires, shaping him anyway that we want. Neither are we to produce our own religious rituals and rites of worship. God is who he is and we must know him and worship him accordingly. There are many who live in sin, indulging their flesh, but who also offer God pathetic and hypocritical offerings of religion.

The blessed life is completely bound up with the knowledge of God. We cannot see the invisible God and comprehend him fully, but we can see his glory through all that he has made. The universe and our own existence witness to the wisdom of God. Human beings more than anything else in creation display God’s glory, wisdom, and power. Yet despite being the greatest work of God, human beings have rebelled against him. Instead of worshiping God, some worship Nature and ascribe our existence to atoms—as if our souls and minds did not go far beyond the material body. Besides the created universe, God also reveals his kindness and righteousness through his sovereign providence and government over the affairs of men. He watches over the lowly and brings down the proud. We are not to vainly attempt to speculate about God abstractly—we are to contemplate him as he has revealed himself. When we see the righteous suffering and wicked triumphing, this points us to a future life and judgment where God will make things right. Sadly, God’s revelation in the world is distorted and rejected in our foolishness and superstitious, religious responses. Philosophers have speculated and reduced God to obscurity and folly. People corrupt God’s revelation and exalt their depraved opinions. The Lord’s creation is light, but we lack the eyes to see. We are culpable in this, since we are willingly blind to God’s glory.


Chapters 6-9

Scripture is necessary for us to read God’s revelation in nature properly. Scripture is like a pair of spectacles that a person with poor eyesight needs in order to read a beautiful volume. God is revealed most clearly in his Word. Scripture reveals that we are to know God as the Creator and the Redeemer. It is a wonderful gift that God has had his words recorded for us. They are essential for right doctrine. God’s Word can reveal greater detail than creation can. God’s Word has full authority because it is from God—the truth of God’s Word does not depend on the judgment of the church. The church was founded on the Word of God, and the church approves of it and receives it, but the church does not create it or authorize it. The best proof of the authority of Scripture is. . .

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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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