Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin

Maura Jane Farrelly

Professor Maura Jane Farrelly, Brandeis University

John Calvin was a sixteenth-century French lawyer who became a theologian after he broke with the Catholic Church around the year 1530.  Institutes of the Christian Religion was his first attempt to articulate a new understanding of God, salvation, and humanity’s obligations to God – an understanding that could not be corrupted by the leaders of any church.

The Catholic Church’s selling of indulgences was part of the corruption that Reformation theologians like Calvin were responding to.  Indulgences were intercessions that living Christians could make – only with the help of the Catholic Church – on behalf of themselves or anyone, really, who had died with the stain of venial sin on his or her soul.  Unlike mortal sins, venial sins didn’t keep a soul out of Heaven; they did, however, delay a soul’s entry into Heaven.  An indulgence could shorten the amount of time a soul spent in an intermediary state known as “purgatory.”  In purgatory, souls were expected to contemplate the damage that sins such as lying, cheating, and laziness had done to one’s relationship with God.

Predestination was how Calvin hoped to protect Christianity from corruption.  He believed the Catholic Church’s corruption had happened because people mistakenly thought they were powerful enough to influence the will of God, particularly when it came to their own salvation.  Calvin wanted to make it clear to everyone that there was nothing they could do – nothing – that would convince God to change God’s mind if God had chosen not to bring their souls into Heaven.

Calvinism was picked up by various groups of religious dissenters in England in the seventeenth century – among them, the Congregationalists (a.k.a. “Puritans”) who migrated to North America and founded the city of Boston.  John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Alexis de Tocqueville all believed that Puritanism formed the intellectual foundation of the United States.

Liberty was very important to the Puritans’ understanding of piety.  They believed freedom was something God had given to all human beings so that they could read Scripture and use their capacity to reason (also a gift from God) to figure out what God demanded from them.

The cultural commitment that America’s Founding generation had to religious liberty grew out of this Calvinist mindset.


Questions to consider in this reading:

  • What does Calvin mean by “election”? What determines whether we are elected? What does not determine whether we are elected?
  • What is the difference between “calling” and “election”? Is it possible for us to know if we have been called or elected?
  • What is the proper jurisdiction of the Church? Where does the Church’s authority end – and why?


Institutes of the Christian Religion

John Calvin



Book Third, Chapter 24:





…3. Two errors are here to be avoided. Some make man a fellow-worker[2] with God in such a sense, that man’s suffrage[3] ratifies election, so that, according to them, the will of man is superior to the counsel[4] of God… I deny not that, in order to be assured of our salvation, we must begin with the word[5], and that our confidence ought to go no farther than the word when we invoke God the Father. For some to obtain more certainty of the counsel of God (which is nigh[6] us in our mouth, and in our heart, Deut. 30:14), absurdly desire to fly above the clouds.

Calvin is saying here that the sacrifice of Christ made salvation possible for humanity – and that is all we can be sure of.

We must, therefore, curb that temerity by the soberness of faith, and be satisfied to have God as the witness of his hidden grace in the external word; provided always that the channel in which the water flows, and out of which we may freely drink, does not prevent us from paying due honor to the fountain.

4. Therefore as those are in error who make the power of election dependent on the faith by which we perceive that we are elected, so we shall follow the best order, if, in seeking the certainty of our election, we cleave to those posterior signs which are sure attestations to it. Among the temptations with which Satan assaults believers, none is greater or more perilous, than when disquieting them with doubts as to their election, he at the same time stimulates them with a depraved desire of inquiring after it out of the proper way. (See Luther in Genes. cap. 26). By inquiring out of the proper way, I mean when puny man endeavors to penetrate to the hidden recesses of the divine wisdom, and goes back even to the remotest eternity, in order that he may understand what final determination God has made with regard to him.

Calvin wants people to understand that although they can know that Christ’s sacrifice made it possible for humanity to be saved, they cannot say whether they, themselves, are saved. When they become obsessed with that question, they are doing the work of Satan.

In this way he plunges headlong into an immense abyss, involves himself in numberless inextricable snares, and buries himself in the thickest darkness. For it is right that the stupidity of the human mind should be punished with fearful destruction, whenever it attempts to rise in its own strength to the height of divine wisdom. And this temptation is the more fatal, that it is the temptation to which of all others almost all of us are most prone. For there is scarcely a mind in which the thought does not sometimes rise, Whence[7] your salvation but from the election of God? But what proof have you of your election? When once this thought has taken possession of any individual, it keeps him perpetually miserable, subjects him to dire torment, or throws him into a state of complete stupor… Therefore, as we dread shipwreck, we must avoid this rock, which is fatal to every one who strikes upon it. And though the discussion of predestination is regarded as a perilous sea, yet in sailing over it the navigation is calm and safe, nay pleasant, provided we do not voluntarily court danger…

Even though we can’t know whether we are saved as individuals, Calvin believes we should still find comfort in the fact that salvation is, at least, possible. Before Christ’s sacrifice, no human being could be redeemed from the sin of Adam and Eve.

6. Another confirmation tending to establish our confidence is, that our election is connected with our calling. For those whom Christ enlightens with the knowledge of his name, and admits into the bosom of his Church, he is said to take under his guardianship and protection…

For the Puritans, Church membership was a very formal thing. Pretty much everyone in the community attended worship services; that did not make them members. To be admitted “into the bosom of his Church,” a person had to tell a congregation’s members about his or her conversion experience. During a true conversion experience, a person confronted the reality of his sinfulness and accepted that the grace of God was the only source of his salvation.  But what is Calvin saying in this paragraph to those who have had their conversion experiences and been accepted into the Church?

Let us, therefore, embrace Christ, who is kindly offered to us, and comes forth to meet us: he will number us among his flock, and keep us within his fold. But anxiety arises as to our future state… for as Paul[8] teaches, many are called, but few chosen. Nay, even Paul himself dissuades us from security, when he says, “Let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall,” (1 Cor. 10:12)… Moreover, it cannot be doubted, that since Christ prays for all the elect, he asks the same thing for them as he asked for Peter[9]—viz.[10] that their faith fail not (Luke 22:32). Hence we infer, that there is no danger of their falling away, since the Son of God, who asks that their piety may prove constant, never meets with a refusal…

7. But it daily happens that those who seemed to belong to Christ revolt from him and fall away: Nay, in the very passage where he declares that none of those whom the Father has given to him have perished, he excepts the son of perdition.[11] This, indeed, is true; but it is equally true that such persons never adhered to Christ with that heartfelt confidence by which I say that the certainty of our election is established: “They went out from us,” says John, “but they were

Here, Calvin is saying the Church is not perfect. It is going to accept as members people who seemed to have a sincere conversion experience, but did not – or people who had their conversion experiences, but did not retain an understanding of their sinfulness and the salvation that Christ made available to humanity. The Church will also accept as members people whom God has not chosen to save. There can be no Church, after all, made up entirely of souls that have been saved; there is only one gathering made up entirely of souls that have been saved, and that gathering is in Heaven.

not of us; for if they had been of us, they would, no doubt, have continued with us,” (1 John 2:19). I deny not that they have signs of calling similar to those given to the elect; but I do not at all admit that they have that sure confirmation of election which I desire believers to seek from the word of the gospel. Wherefore, let not examples of this kind move us away from tranquil confidence in the promise of the Lord, when he declares that all by whom he is received in true faith have been given him by the Father, and that none of them, while he is their Guardian and Shepherd, will perish (John 3:16; 6:39). Of Judas[12] we shall shortly speak (sec. 9). Paul does not dissuade Christians from security simply, but from careless, carnal security, which is accompanied with pride, arrogance, and contempt of others, which extinguishes humility and reverence for God, and produces a forgetfulness of grace received (Rom. 11:20)…

10. For the elect are brought by calling into the fold of Christ, not from the very womb, nor all at the same time, but according as God sees it meet to dispense his grace.

Students are often mistakenly taught that Calvin believed souls were “predetermined” to go to Heaven or Hell before they were born. That is wrong. According to Calvin, God could choose to save or damn a soul at any point.  What Calvin wants you to understand is that if God chooses to save you when you are 11, 26, 43, or 70, it is not because of anything you have done or not done in your life.

Before they are gathered to the supreme Shepherd they wander dispersed in a common desert, and in no respect differ from others, except that by the special mercy of God they are kept from rushing to final destruction. Therefore, if you look to themselves, you will see the offspring of Adam giving token of the common corruption of the mass. That they proceed not to extreme and desperate impiety is not owing to any innate goodness in them, but because the eye of God watches for their safety, and his hand is stretched over them. Those who dream of some seed of election implanted in their hearts from their birth, by the agency of which they are ever inclined to piety and the fear of God, are not supported by the authority of Scripture, but refuted by experience. They, indeed, produce a few examples to prove that the elect before they were enlightened were not aliens from religion; for instance, that Paul led an unblemished life during his Pharisaism[13], that Cornelius[14] was accepted for his prayers and alms[15], and so forth (Phil. 3:5; Acts 10:2). The case of Paul we admit, but we hold that they are in error as to Cornelius; for it appears that he was already enlightened and regenerated, so that all which he wanted was a clear revelation of the Gospel…


 Book Fourth, Chapter 11:




1. …Now, the whole jurisdiction of the Church relates to discipline, of which we are shortly to treat. For as no city or village can exist without a magistrate and government, so the Church of God, as I have already taught, but am again obliged to repeat, needs a kind of spiritual government. This is altogether distinct from civil government, and is so far from impeding or impairing it, that it rather does much to aid and promote it. Therefore, this power of jurisdiction is, in one word, nothing but the order provided for the preservation of spiritual polity… For such things as the forgiveness of sins, the promise of eternal life, and message of salvation, cannot be in the power of man. Christ therefore testified, that in the preaching of the gospel the apostles only acted ministerially; that it was he who, by their mouths as organs, spoke and promised all; that, therefore, the forgiveness of sins which they announced was the true promise of God; the condemnation which they pronounced, the certain judgment of God. This attestation was given to all ages, and remains firm, rendering all certain and secure, that the word of the gospel, by whomsoever it may be preached, is the very word of God, promulgated at the supreme tribunal, written in the book of life, ratified firm and fixed in heaven. We now understand that the power of the keys is simply the preaching of the gospel in those places, and in so far as men are concerned, it is not so much power as ministry. Properly speaking, Christ did not give this power to men but to his word, of which he made men the ministers…

3. Some, in imagining that all these things were temporary, as magistrates were still strangers to our profession of religion, are led astray, by not observing the distinction and dissimilarity between ecclesiastical and civil power. For the Church has not the right of the sword to punish or restrain, has no power to coerce, no prison nor other punishments which the magistrate is wont to inflict.

Note how this assertion will be echoed by Roger Williams, a Calvinist, in the 1640s…

Then the object in view is not to punish the sinner against his will, but to obtain a profession of penitence by voluntary chastisement. The two things, therefore, are widely different, because neither does the Church assume anything to herself which is proper to the magistrate, nor is the magistrate competent to what is done by the Church. This will be made clearer by an example. Does any one get intoxicated? In a well-ordered city his punishment will be imprisonment. Has he committed whoredom? The punishment will be similar, or rather more severe. Thus satisfaction will be given to the laws, the magistrates, and the external tribunal. But the consequence will be, that the offender will give no signs of repentance, but will rather fret and murmur. Will the Church not here interfere? Such persons cannot be admitted to the Lord’s Supper without doing injury to Christ and his sacred institution.

Calvin is proposing a distinction between Church and State here – but it isn’t exactly the separation that Baptist Calvinists like Roger Williams (or statesmen like Thomas Jefferson) would later call for. Calvin is not suggesting that there should be a “wall of separation” between Church and State. He is, rather, taking a “separate spheres” kind of approach: the State has one set of duties, and the Church has another set. But both are tasked with protecting and nurturing the bodies and souls of the people. In this sense, it’s a bit like the “separate spheres” approach to gender roles in the family that used to dominate the culture (and still dominates some subcultures) in the United States: the father has his role, and the mother has her role – but both people are ultimately responsible for the well-being of the family.

Reason demands that he who, by a bad example, gives offence to the Church, shall remove the offence which he has caused by a formal declaration of repentance… Christ, they say, gave this office to the Church when there were no magistrates to execute it…

5. But, on the other hand, it will be proper to see what was anciently the true use of ecclesiastical discipline, and how great the abuses which crept in, that we may know what of ancient practice is to be abolished, and what restored, if we would, after overthrowing the kingdom of Antichrist[16], again set up the true kingdom of Christ. First, the object in view is to prevent the occurrence of scandals, and when they arise, to remove them. In the use two things are to be considered: first, that this spiritual power be altogether distinct from the power of the sword; secondly, that it be not administered at the will of one individual, but by a lawful consistory[17] (1 Cor. 5:4). Both were observed in the purer times of the Church. For holy bishops did not exercise their power by fine, imprisonment, or other civil penalties, but as became them, employed the word of God only. For the severest punishment of the Church, and, as it were, her last thunderbolt, is excommunication, which is not used unless in necessity…

8. Although we have not said all that might here be adduced, and even what has been said is only briefly glanced at, enough, I trust, has been said to leave no man in doubt that the spiritual power on which the Pope plumes himself, with all his adherents, is impious contradiction of the word of God, and unjust tyranny against his people. Under the name of spiritual power, I include both their audacity in framing new doctrines, by which they led the miserable people away from the genuine purity of the word of God, the iniquitous traditions by which they

Like most Protestants, Calvin believed that over the course of many centuries, leaders of the Catholic Church had polluted Christ’s message with various doctrines or beliefs – such as that of purgatory. Protestant reformers sought, therefore, to rediscover the teachings and form of the more primitive – i.e., less doctrinaire – Christian Church.

ensnared them, and the pseudo-ecclesiastical jurisdiction which they exercise by suffragans[18] and officials. For if we allow Christ to reign amongst us, the whole of that domination cannot but immediately tumble and fall… If in this matter we seek the authority of Christ, there can be no doubt that he intended to debar the ministers of his word from civil domination and worldly power when he said, “The princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them, and they that are great exercise authority upon them. But it shall not be so among you” (Mt. 20:25, 26). For he intimates not only that the office of pastor is distinct from the office of prince, but that the things differ so widely that they cannot be united in the same individual. Moses indeed held both (Exod. 18:16); but, first, this was the effect of a rare miracle; and, secondly, it was temporary, until matters should be better arranged. For when a certain form is prescribed by the Lord, the civil government is left to Moses[19], and he is ordered to resign the priesthood to his brother. And justly; for it is more than nature can do, for one man to bear both burdens.

Excerpts from Institutes of the Christian Religion, by John Calvin

Originally published in Latin, 1536; first English translation, 1561

Online Source:

Print Source: John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Henry Beveridge, trans. (Hendrickson Publishers: Peabody, MA, 2008).

  1. “reprobate” = someone God has condemned to Hell
  2. “fellow-worker” = partner
  3. “suffrage” = prayers or petitions to God
  4. “counsel” = wisdom
  5. In Christianity, the word “word” has two meanings: 1.) the word of God, as in the Bible or Scripture; and 2.) the divinity of Christ, as described in the beginning of the Gospel of John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
  6. “nigh” = near
  7. “whence” = from where or what place or source
  8. Paul the Apostle was from Tarsus, in what is now Turkey.  He came from a prominent Jewish family, but converted to Christianity.  He devoted his life to spreading the message of Christianity throughout the Middle East.  Thirteen of the 27 books in the Christian New Testament are attributed to Paul.
  9. Simon Peter was one of the Twelve Disciples of Christ.  He is also considered to be the founder of the Church in Rome.  Catholics consider him to be the first Bishop of Rome, and they insist there is a seamless line running from Peter to the current Bishop of Rome, Pope Francis I.  Protestants, however, reject the notion that Peter was a bishop or that there is any connection between him and the papacy.
  10. “viz.” = an abbreviation for the Latin “videre licet,” meaning “namely” or “that is to say”
  11. “son of perdition” = Judas (see Note 12)
  12. Judas Iscariot was one of the twelve Disciples of Christ.  Unlike the Apostle Paul (see Note 8), who never knew Jesus, Judas was chosen by Jesus to spread the message of Christianity. Judas also betrayed Jesus by identifying him to the Roman soldiers who were charged with arresting him.  In the Gospel of John, Judas is referred to as the “son of perdition.”
  13. “Pharsaism” = a school of thought within Judaism.  Modern Judaism grew out of Pharisaic Judaism.
  14. A Roman Centurion, Cornelius is considered to be one of the first non-Jews to convert to Christianity.
  15. “alms” = money or food given to the poor
  16. In Christian eschatology (i.e., the study of how things will end), the AntiChrist is someone who will put himself in Christ’s place and ultimately oppose Christ before the end of times.  For many centuries, Protestants used the term “AntiChrist” to refer the Catholic Church or the pope.
  17. “consistory” = a religious advisory board
  18. “suffragan” = a priest appointed by the pope to help a bishop
  19. In the Book of Exodus, Moses is a prophet who led the Hebrews out of their enslavement in Egypt.  The first five books of the Hebrew Bible – the Torah, i.e., the source of Mosaic Law – are attributed to Moses.


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