What if you could pick your very favorite Reformed teacher to teach your family devotions?
I mean, the best, the most famous, and right in your own home.
I mean, what if you could have John Calvin himself, right in your own living room? Impossible, of course!
But now you can.
Over the past few months, in my free time, I have been working on a little project I have wanted to do for a long time. This is, to get the basic teachings of Calvin’s Institutes into the hands and hearts of as many Reformed families as possible. To do this, I am abridging the work down to the simplest, though most profound, core of each chapter, and adding questions for review and family devotion.
I hope to have the whole book done late this summer. But I have also decided to release each chapter for free at American Vision in the meantime. When I get them all done, I will compile them and publish them as a book—probably around 250 pages, with 80 or so lessons, each only a few pages.
Calvin’s classic Institutes has long been neglected even in seminaries, let alone Reformed homes. It’s hard to imagine these days that it was largely for the use of average evangelicals that Calvin designed it in its completed form. After all these centuries, and in the year of celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, I hope to remedy this neglect with this new edition.
I can remember the first time I read Calvin’s Institutes. Holding this huge, daunting theological treatise as a young Reformed convert, I anticipated a rigorous, tough intellectual challenge. I was shocked at how pastoral and devotional it actually was. It is direct where it needs to be direct, often convicting, but also often inspiring, warm, elevating, victorious, and encouraging. I thought, “Why aren’t more people reading this?”
The only answers I could think of to that question are 1) it looks too long, 2) Calvin has a reputation for theological acuteness that intimidates a lot of people, and 3) Calvin often takes long diversions to argue his points against opponents and alternative arguments. There may be more, but these stand out to me.
With that, however, I realized I could remedy all such problems with a single edition that saved the core teaching of each chapter along with its pastoral and practical applications and best rhetoric, and edited out all the long expositions, repetitions, references to other theologians (except a few of the great quotations from Augustine), detailed debates, etc. A little over 1/4 through the work now, I think I am succeeding in that goal, and will now start presenting the chapters here.
The goal is to get each chapter, no matter how long normally, down to about 2 or 3, maybe 4 pages. In places where this is not possible, I will create more than one lesson. In other places, I have combined chapters or even rearranged a couple (so, you scholars, please no critical comments about stuff out of place, not designating all the original chapter and section, etc.; this is designed to be smoothed out for basic family devotion). Also, I am using (obviously) Beveridge’s translation, since it is public domain (I also prefer it in many places to Battles’s), but also smoothing out the language with my own edits, and even providing my own translation in a very few places. (Again, potential critics, this is for ease-of-use for modern, average families, not a scholarly edition.)
Please feel free to give feedback at joel at americanvision dot org. And please, start using these for family devotion asap. Here is Lesson 1, from Calvin’s Book I, Chapter 1. More to follow. Enjoy!
Calvin’s Institutes Family Devotional Edition
Our wisdom consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. These two are intimately connected. First of all, no man can survey himself without immediately turning his thoughts towards God, because the gifts we possess cannot possibly be from ourselves. Likewise, the blessings which unceasingly fall to us from heaven are like streams conducting us to the fountain.
God’s infinite goodness becomes more apparent in contrast to our poverty. The miserable ruin into which the rebellion of Adam has plunged us compels us to turn our eyes upwards, not only that while famishing we may ask what we desire, but being aroused by fear we may learn humility. Our feelings of ignorance, vanity, want, weakness, in short, depravity and corruption, remind us that in the Lord alone dwell the true light of wisdom, solid virtue, and exuberant goodness. We cannot aspire to Him in earnest unless we have begun to be displeased with ourselves. For what man does not naturally rest in himself, as long as he is contented with his own gifts and unconscious or unmindful of his misery?
On the other hand, man never truly knows himself until he has previously contemplated the face of God, and then come down to look into himself. In our innate pride, we always seem to ourselves just, upright, wise, and holy until we are convinced otherwise. But we cannot be convinced if we look to ourselves only and not to the Lord. He is the only standard that can produce conviction.
Since we are all naturally prone to hypocrisy, any empty appearance of righteousness is quite enough to satisfy us instead of righteousness itself. As long as we keep our mind within the confines of human pollution, anything that is slightly less defiled delights us as if it were most pure. If we were to look down to the ground at noon day, or at everything around us, we may think we have very strong and piercing eyesight, but when we look up to the sun, the sight which did so well before is instantly so dazzled and confounded it obliges us to confess that our acutest vision is mere dimness when applied to the sun. The same thing happens when we are estimating our spiritual qualities. As long as we do not look beyond the earth, we are quite pleased with ourselves and address ourselves in the most flattering terms. But should we raise our thoughts to God, and reflect upon the absolute perfection of his righteousness, wisdom, and virtue as the standard, then what formerly delighted us as righteousness will become polluted with the greatest iniquity; our assumed wisdom will disgust us by its extreme folly; and our apparent virtue will be condemned as miserable impotence.
You can understand, therefore, why holy men in Scripture were overwhelmed with dread and amazement whenever they beheld the presence of God. When we see those who previously stood firm quaking with such terror that the fear of death seizes them, we must understand that men are never honestly impressed with a conviction of their insignificance until they have contrasted themselves with the majesty of God. What can man do, after all, who is but rottenness and a worm, when even the angels themselves must veil their faces?
Questions for Devotion
- Into what two parts is most of our wisdom and knowledge divided?
- What conclusion should we arrive at when we consider all of our gifts, talents, and blessings?
- What conclusion should we arrive at when we consider our failings?
- By what standard do we then judge ourselves?
- What lesson should we learn when we understand our fallen position compared to the goodness of God?