The Reformed Faith of John Calvin – The Institutes in Summary

The Reformed Faith of John Calvin: The Institutes in Summary, by David J. Engelsma. Reformed Free Publishing Association, 2009. Hardcover ISBN 978-0-936054-00-8, 472 pages. Available at

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Professor Engelsma has done the church a great service with this book. He has taken the weighty volumes of John Calvin’s Institutes from the “I need to read this, but it’s so big and not so easy to read” shelf and presented it to us in a very attractive volume that is difficult to put down. Young people, you really need to get a copy of this! Those of you who have your copies of Calvin’s Institutes, and have from time to time picked it up for some meaty reading, this book will help you see things in Calvin and the truth God used him to set forth that you may not have noticed before. Now in one handy volume we have a wonderful sketch of Calvin and his life, three very helpful chapters explaining the nature, history, style and structure of the Institutes, and a summary of the Institutes. All excuses for not being familiar with Calvin’s Institutes have by this book been forever rendered empty.

After the chapters to introduce Calvin and his work, Professor Engelsma opens up the Institutes chapter by chapter and delivers Calvin from the tangles and peculiarities of unfamiliar times and language. He does so by explaining Calvin’s basic points, showing how they have influenced the Three Forms of Unity, and using carefully selected quotations which capture the essence of his thought. One section from Book One on “Creation, Human Nature as Created, and Providence” caught my attention; it demonstrates how the book is written and how timely Calvin is for us today:

Whatever we may think about it, Calvin certainly is timely in our age. The fiction of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Frank Peretti, and others expresses and encourages a fascination, if not an obsession, with regard to angels and devils. It is good to be reminded what a sober, sound theologian believed about angels and devils, and what a Reformed believer should believe about the spirit world. (page 93—Of late we could add the obsession with the wizards of Harry Potter and the fascination with the vampires in the Twilight craze. JH)

I would like to quote another part from the same section in which the positive truth about the spirit world is set forth:

The preeminent service of God that Satan and the devils render is that “they exercise believers in combat, ambush them, invade their peace, beset them in combat, and also often weary them, rout them, terrify them, and sometimes wound them.” (Institutes I.14.18, I.176)

God directs the unholy host against believers to teach them warfare; to mature them in combat.

This assault upon believers by Satan and his demons includes the spiritual, psychological distresses of the people of God. Calvin is saying that when the believer has his peace of soul invaded, becomes weary in the Christian life, and is terrified and wounded, he must not immediately reach for pills or liquor, or call a psychiatrist, but he should consider rather that the infernal hosts of Satan are coming against him and that fundamentally God is sending these spirits to exercise him in combat. He ought to be aware of this spiritual struggle and vigorously fight with the spiritual weapons he has at his disposal: justification by faith alone, God’s providential care and love, and the confidence that God’s strength is made perfect in the believer’s weakness (2 Cor. 12:9).

We live in an age when this aspect of psychological distress is in danger of being ignored. Paragraph 1.14.18 of the Institutes is worth reading and rereading: the preeminent service rendered by the devils is to exercise believers in combat. God’s purpose is not that devils overcome the believers, but that believers are strengthened in the battle. Because of the divine sovereignty over devils, Satan can never conquer or destroy one elect member of the church. “Because that promise to crush Satan’s head [Gen. 3:15] pertains to Christ and all his members in common, I deny that believers can ever be conquered or overwhelmed by him [Satan]” (Page 97).

The more we read the work of Calvin, the more we see the wonder of God who sovereignly worked a great wonder in the church through men such as Martin Luther and John Calvin. From a human perspective, the man made institution of the Romish church had become a life and mind controlling monster ready to snuff out any remaining truth of God’s word. But God prepared men for His mighty work. This is a work of God along with all the other wonders worked throughout history that the believer must know and remember. Professor Engelsma has given us a very useful tool, but we must actively use it before we experience any blessing in our life.

Give ear, O my people, to my law: incline your ears to the words of my mouth. I will open my mouth in a parable: I will utter dark sayings of old: Which we have heard and known, and our fathers have told us. We will not hide them from their children, showing to the generation to come the praises of the LORD, and his strength, and his wonderful works that he hath done. For he established a testimony in Jacob, and appointed a law in Israel, which he commanded our fathers, that they should make them known to their children: That the generation to come might know them, even the children which should be born; who should arise and declare them to their children: That they might set their hope in God, and not forget the works of God, but keep his commandments (Psa 78:1-7).