Institutes of the Christian Religion
John Calvin

These pages: Institutes of the Christian Religion
Dedication and Book I
Book II
Book III
Book IV: I–XIV (here); XV–XX



index pages:

Institutes of the Christian Religion

translated by John Allen

from the 1559 Latin edition, with comparison to French translations


Book IV: On the External Means or Aids by Which God Calls Us Into Communion with Christ, and Retains Us in It
IThe True Church, and the Necessity of Our Union with Her, Being the Mother of All the Pious
II Yet it is evident from the writings of the fathers, that it was anciently admitted without controversy to say, “I believe the Church,” not “in the Church.” For not only is this word not used by Augustine and the ancient writer of the work “On the Exposition of the Creed,” which passes under the name of Cyprian, but they particularly remark that there would be an impropriety in the expression, if this preposition were inserted; and they confirm their opinion by no trivial reason. For we declare that we believe in God because our mind depends upon him as true, and our confidence rests in him. But this would not be applicable to the Church, any more than to “the remission of sins,” or “the resurrection of the body.” Therefore, though I am averse to contentions about words, yet I would rather adopt a proper phraseology adapted to express the subject than affect forms of expression by which the subject would be unnecessarily involved in obscurity. The design of this clause is to teach us, that though the devil moves every engine to destroy the grace of Christ, and all the enemies of God exert the most furious violence in the same attempt, yet his grace cannot possibly be extinguished, nor can his blood be rendered barren, so as not to produce some fruit.



III But in order to embrace the unity of the Church in this manner, it is unnecessary, as we have observed, to see the Church with our eyes, or feel it with our hands; on the contrary, from its being an object of faith, we are taught that it is no less to be considered as existing, when it escapes our observation, than if it were evident to our eyes. Nor is our faith the worse, because it acknowledges the Church which we do not fully comprehend; for we are not commanded here to distinguish the reprobate from the elect, which is not our province, but that of God alone; we are only required to be assured in our minds, that all those who, by the Holy Spirit, have attained to the participation of Christ, are separated as the peculiar possession and portion of God; and that being numbered among them, we are partakers of such great grace.
XX I confess, that in urging men to perfection, we ought to labour with unremitting ardour and diligence; but to inspire their minds with a persuasion that they have already attained it, while they are yet in the pursuit of it, I maintain to be a diabolical invention. Therefore, in the Creed, the communion of saints is immediately followed by the forgiveness of sins, which can only be obtained by the citizens and members of the Church, as we read in the prophet.
XXI Nor does God only once receive and adopt us into his Church by the remission of sins; he likewise preserves and keeps us in it by the same mercy. For to what purpose would it be, if we obtained a pardon which would afterwards be of no use? And that the mercy of the Lord would be vain and delusive, if it were only granted for once, all pious persons can testify to themselves; for every one of them is all his life-time conscious of many infirmities, which need the Divine mercy. [...] As we carry about with us the relics of sin, therefore, as long as we live, we shall scarcely continue in the Church for a single moment, unless we are sustained by the constant grace of the Lord in forgiving our sins. But the Lord has called his people to eternal salvation; they ought, therefore, to believe that his grace is always ready to pardon their sins.
VIIIThe Power of the Church Respecting Articles of Faith, and Its Licentious Perversion, Under the Papacy, to the Corruption of All Purity of Doctrine
XI The Church, they say, has excellent promises, that she is never to be forsaken by Christ, her spouse, but will be led by his Spirit into all truth. But of the promises which they are accustomed to allege, many are given no less to each believer in particular, than collectively to the whole Church. For though the Lord was addressing the twelve apostles when he said, “Lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world;” and “I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another comforter, even the Spirit of truth;” he made these promises not only to the apostles considered as a body, but to every one of the number, and even to the other disciples whom he had already received, or who were afterwards to be added to them. Now, when they interpret these promises, replete with peculiar consolation, in such a sense as if they were given to no individual Christian, but only to the whole Church collectively, what is this but depriving all Christians of the confidence with which such promises ought to animate them?
XII It is true that the Church is sanctified by Christ, but it is only the commencement of their sanctification that is seen in the present state; the end and perfect completion of it will be when Christ, the Holy of Holies, shall fill it truly and entirely with his holiness. It is likewise true that its spots and wrinkles are effaced, but in such a manner that they are in a daily course of obliteration, till Christ at his coming shall entirely efface all that remains. For, unless we admit this, we must of necessity assert, with the Pelagians, that the righteousness of believers is perfect in the present life, and with the Cathari and Donatists, must allow no infirmity in the Church.
XIII When they assert that the Church cannot err, their meaning is, as they themselves explain it, that as it is governed by the Spirit of God, it may safely proceed without the word; that whithersoever it goes, it can neither think nor speak any thing that is not true; and, therefore, that if it determine any thing beyond or beside the Divine word, the same is to be considered in no other light than as a certain oracle of God. If we grant the first point, that the Church cannot err in things essential to salvation, our meaning is, that its security from error is owing to its renouncing all its own wisdom, and submitting itself to the Holy Spirit, to be taught by means of the word of God. This, then, is the difference between us. They ascribe to the Church an authority independent of the word; we maintain it to be annexed to the word, and inseparable from it.
IXCouncils; Their Authority
VII A solemn summons was issued; the high priest presided; all the priests attended; yet there Christ was condemned, and his doctrine rejected. This act proves that the Church was not contained in that council. But, it will be said, there is no danger of such a circumstance happening to us. Who has assured us of this? For to be too confident in a matter of such great importance, is culpable stupidity.
VIII Where opinions prevail according to their number, and not according to the weight of argument by which they are supported, the better part of the assembly must of necessity be frequently overcome by the majority. And councils have certainly issued many impious decrees.
XThe Power of Legislation, in Which the Pope and His Adherents Have Most Cruelly Tyrannized Over the Minds, and Tortured the Bodies, of Men
III Science, or knowledge, is the apprehension which men have of things in their mind and understanding. So, when they have an apprehension of the judgment of God, as a witness that suffers them not to conceal their sins, but forces them as criminals before the tribunal of the judge, this apprehension is called conscience. For it is something between God and man, which permits not a man to suppress what he knows within himself, but pursues him till it brings him to a sense of his guilt.

Let us now return to human laws. If they are designed to introduce any scruple into our minds, as though the observance of them were essentially necessary, we assert, that they are unreasonable impositions on the conscience. For our consciences have to do, not with men, but with God alone. And this is the meaning of the well known distinction, maintained in the schools, between a human tribunal and the court of conscience.

XXIV But if such persons would consider what it is to follow the word of God alone in matters of religion, that is, of heavenly wisdom, they would immediately perceive it to be for no trivial reason that the Lord abominates such corrupt services, which are rendered to him according to the caprice of the human mind. For, though persons who obey such laws for the worship of God, have a certain appearance of humility in this their obedience, yet they are very far from being humble before God, to whom they prescribe the same laws which they observe themselves. This is the reason why Paul requires us to be so particularly cautious against being deceived by the traditions of men, and will-worship, that is, voluntary worship, invented by men, without the word of God. And so indeed it is, that our own wisdom, and that of all other men, must become folly in our esteem, that we may allow God alone to be truly wise. This is very far from being the case with those who study to render themselves acceptable to him by petty observances of human contrivance, and obtrude upon him, in opposition to his commands, a hypocritical obedience, which in reality is rendered to men.
XIThe Jurisdiction of the Church, and Its Abuse Under the Papacy
I For these things, the remission of sins, the promise of eternal life, and the message of salvation, cannot be in the power of man. Therefore Christ has testified that, in the preaching of the gospel, nothing belonged to the apostles, except the ministration of it; that it was he himself who spoke and promised every doing by the instrumentality of their mouths; and, consequently, that the remission of sins which they preached was the true promise of God, and that the condemnation which they denounced was the certain judgment of God. Now, this testification has been given to all ages, and remains unaltered, to certify and assure us all, that the word of the gospel, by whomsoever it may happen to be preached, is the very sentence of God himself, promulgated from his heavenly tribunal, recorded in the book of life, ratified, confirmed, and fixed in heaven. Thus we see, that the power of the keys, in these passages, is no other than the preaching of the gospel, and that, considered with regard to men, it is no so much authoritative as ministerial; for, strictly speaking, Christ has not given this power to men, but to his word, of which he has appointed men to be the ministers.
II From these two passages, which I think I have familiarly and correctly, as well as concisely, explained, these unreasonable men, without any judgment, under the influence of misguided zeal, endeavour to establish, sometimes auricular confession, sometimes excommunication, sometimes jurisdiction, sometimes the right of legislation, and sometimes indulgences. The former passage they allege to support the primacy of the Roman see. They are so expert in fitting their keys to any locks and doors they please, that it should seem as if they had followed the business of locksmiths all their lifetimes.
VIII But, as soon as God prescribed a certain form of government, Moses was left in possession of the civil administration, and was commanded to resign the priesthood to his brother; and that for a very sufficient reason; for it is beyond the ability of nature for one man to be capable of sustaining the burden of both. And this has been carefully observed in the Church in all ages.
XIIThe Discipline of the Church; Its Principal Use in Censures and Excommunication
VII Thus Theodosius when Ambrose excluded him from the privilege of communion, on account of a massacre perpetrated at Thessalonica, laid aside the ensigns of royalty with which he was invested, publicly in the Church bewailed his sin, which the deceitful suggestions of others had tempted him to commit, and implored pardon with groans and tears. For great kings ought not to think it any dishonour to prostrate themselves as suppliants before Christ the King of kings, nor ought they to be displeased at being judged by the Church. As they hear scarcely any thing in their courts but mere flatteries, it is the more highly necessary for them to receive correction from the Lord by the mouth of his ministers; they ought even to wish not to be spared by the pastors, that they may be spared by the Lord.
XIIIVows: the Misery of Rashly Making Them
II The first consideration calls us to reflect, that we have to do with God; who takes such pleasure in our obedience, that he pronounces a curse on all acts of will-worship, however specious and splendid they may be in the eyes of men. If God abominates all voluntary services invented by us without his command, it follows, that nothing can be acceptable to him, except what is approved by his word. Let us not, therefore, assume to ourselves such a great liberty, as to presume to vow to God any thing that has no testimony of his approbation.
XII [...] they openly teach that they take upon themselves a greater burden than Christ laid upon his disciples, because they promise to keep the evangelical counsels, which inculcate the love of our enemies, and prohibit the desire of revenge and profane swearing, and which, they say, are not binding on Christians at large. What antiquity will they plead here? This notion never entered into the mind of one of the ancients. They all, with one consent, declare that there was not a syllable uttered by Christ which we are not bound to obey; and without any hesitation they uniformly and expressly represent the passages in question as commands, which these sagacious interpreters pretend to have been delivered by Christ merely as counsels. But as we have already shown that this is a most pestilent error, it may suffice to have briefly remarked here, that the monachism which exists at present, is founded on the opinion, which justly deserves to be execrated by all believers, that some rule of life may be imagined more perfect than the common one given by God to all the Church.
XIII A young man inquires, “What good thing shall I do, that I may inherit eternal life?” As the question related to works, Christ refers him to the law; and that justly; for, considered in itself, it is the way of eternal life and is no otherwise insufficient to conduct us to salvation, than in consequence of our depravity. By this answer Christ declared, that he taught no other system of life than that which had anciently been delivered in the law of God. Thus, he at the same time gave a testimony to the divine law as the doctrine of perfect righteousness, and precluded all calumnies, that he might not appear, by inculcating a new rule of life, to incite the people to a departure from the law. The young man, not indeed from badness of heart, but infected with vain confidence, replies respecting the precepts of the law, “All these things have I kept from my youth up.” It is certain beyond all doubt, that he was at an immense distance from that which he boasted of having attained; and had his boast been true, he would have wanted nothing necessary to complete perfection. [...] He abounded in riches, and his heart was fixed on them. Because he was not sensible of this secret wound, therefore, Christ probes it. “Go,” says he, “sell all that thou hast.” If he had been so good an observer of the law as he imagined, he would not have gone away sorrowful on hearing this answer. [...] It is in vain, therefore, to extend this particular argument to a general maxim, as though Christ placed all the perfection of man in the renunciation of his possessions, whereas he only meant by this direction to drive this young man, who betrayed such excessive self-complacency, into a sense of his malady, that he might perceive himself to be still very far from the perfect obedience of the law, to which he arrogantly and falsely pretended.
XIVThe Sacraments
I In the first place, it is necessary to consider what a sacrament is. Now, I think it will be a simple and appropriate definition, if we say that it is an outward sign, by which the Lord seals in our consciences the promises of his good-will towards us, to support the weakness of our faith; and we on our part testify our piety towards him, in his presence and that of angels, as well as before men. It may, however, be more briefly defined, in other words, by calling it a testimony of the grace of God towards us, confirmed by an outward sign, with a reciprocal attestation of our piety towards him.
VIII A heathen gloried that he grew old in learning. We Christians are miserable indeed if we grow old in making no improvement, whose faith ought to be advancing from one stage to another till its attainment of perfect manhood.
IX Now, it is evident how, according to this opinion, the faith of a pious mind is confirmed by the sacraments; namely, as the eyes see by the light of the sun, and the ears hear by the sound of a voice: the light would have no effect upon the eyes, unless they had a natural faculty capable of being enlightened; and it would be in vain for the ears to be struck with any sound, if they had not been naturally formed for hearing. But if it be true, as we ought at once to conclude, that what the visive faculty is in our eyes towards our beholding the light, and the faculty of hearing is in our ears towards our perception of sound, such is the work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts for the formation, support, preservation, and establishment of our faith; then these two consequences immediately follow—that the sacraments are attended with no benefit without the influence of the Holy Spirit; and that, in hearts already instructed by that Teacher, they still subserve the confirmation and increase of faith.
XIII For as faith properly signifies truth in the fulfilment of promises, yet they have applied it to the assurance or certain persuasion which a person has of the truth itself; so, as a sacrament is an oath by which a soldier binds himself to his leader, they have applied it to the sign by which the leader receives soldiers into his army. For by the sacraments the Lord promises that he will be our God, and that we shall be his people.
XVIII Therefore, if any smatterer in philosophy, with a view to ridicule the simplicity of our faith, contend that such a variety of colours is the natural result of the refraction of the solar rays on an opposite cloud, we must immediately acnowledge it, but we may smile at his stupidity in not acknowledging God as the Lord and Governor of nature, who uses all the elements according to his will for the promotion of his own glory. And if he had impressed similar characters on the sun, on the stars, on the earth, and on stones, they would all have been sacraments to us. Why is not silver of as much value before it is coined, as it is after, since the metal is the very same?

text checked (see note) Sep 2012

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