When John Calvin wrote the first edition of his Institutes of the Christian Religion, it was in
tended to be a “simple handbook of Christian doctrine” (14). Just prior the time it was to be published, however, Francis I, the king of France, unleashed a “fierce campaign of repression” (14) against French Protestantism. In light of this, Calvin wrote an introductory letter dedicating his work to the king of France as a confession of the Christian faith and a defense of its truth.
Later editions revised and expanded the Institutes and brought a new objective: Calvin intended that his Institutes to be used alongside of his commentaries as an “introduction and guide to the study of the Bible” (14). Far from being an abstract and impractical tome to be perused and pondered by a few stuffy academicians, Calvin’s Institutes were written to nurture, instruct, and serve the Church. Calvin himself writes later in the Institutes, “Doctrine is not a matter of talk but of life. It is not grasped by the intellect alone, like other branches of learning. It is received only when it fills the soul and finds a home in the inmost recesses of the heart” (161). Above all, the Institutes is a book about the Christian life.
Nevertheless, the final version of Calvin’s Institutes is rather large. F.L. Battles translation is found in two volumes with a total of 1,500 pages. Though much of this material is spiritually rich and valuable for all Christians, there are portions that are now of little interest to the common reader since they deal with historically specific issues. Tony Lane’s burden in the present volume is to bring Calvin’s Institutes to the “non-specialist” reader by selecting the most important 15 percent of the original text and rewriting it into simpler and more modern English. Lane explains his ultimate intention in choosing the texts: “My aim has been simply to select the heart of Calvin’s positive teaching—even on those points where I might not happen to agree with him” (16).
The final product is an edifying and Scripture-saturated presentation of the Christian faith. Even if you would not consider yourself a “Calvinist,” I would encourage you to pick up this volume and give it a fair reading. Not only will provide you with an accessible first hand acquaintance with Calvin’s theology, there are many portions that will, I trust, benefit you regardless of your theological commitments.
On the other hand, if you would not consider yourself a Christian, I would still encourage you to purchase and read this book. Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion is considered, by both Christian and secular scholars, to be one of most important theological works ever written, if, for no other reason, the massive influence it has had on Western thought, history, religion, and culture. But even more than that, you will find in this book a vision of God that is not only glorious and holy, but beautiful, gracious and full of love for those who fear Him; and who beckons you to turn from the lesser pleasures of sin and turn to faith in His Son so that you can receive the forgiveness of sin and the gift of God Himself.