I remember sitting in my church history class and my professor asking us if we had ever read Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. In a class of about 15 students no one raised their hands. He went on to tell us that most Christians have never read it and yet everyone seems to think they know for sure what Calvin believed. It was at that moment I decided I would be one of those rare Christians and read the complete 1,500 page two volume work edited by John T. McNeil and translated by Ford Lewis Battles. Though it took me the better part of two years to complete I was better for having read it. Having read it I will attest to the fact that many Christians misunderstand Calvin because they have not done the hard but rewarding work of reading this great work and no one can claim to understand Calvin until they have.
Tim Keller writes at the TGC blog about his journey this year in reading through the Institutes. After drawing on some things he has observed while reading the Institutes (all of which I can attest to being true having read it myself) he closes with this thought:
Last (and here our modern evangelical terminology fails us) Calvin’s writings are astonishingly “doxological.” We might be tempted to say “inspirational” or “devotional” or “spiritual,” but to use such Hallmark greeting card phrases doesn’t do them justice. Calvin’s writings don’t read at all like a theological treatise, but like a man’s meditating on the Scripture before God. The language is filled with reverence and awe, and often tenderness. That means that, despite the close reasoning of so many parts of the material, Calvin was all about the heart.
Indeed, he taught that our biggest problem is there. “For the Word of God is not received by faith if it flits about in the top of the brain, but when it takes root in the depth of the heart . . . the heart’s distrust is greater than the mind’s blindness. It is harder for the heart to be furnished with assurance [of God's love] than for the mind to be endowed with thought.” (III.2.36)
To furnish our hearts with more of that assurance is the ultimate purpose of the Institutes, and I can say, personally, that it is fulfilling its purpose in me this year.