Calvin’s doctrine of the church

Dr. Beeke asked: You are to present a 15 minute paper to an educated audience of ministers and theologians about Calvin’s doctrine of the church. In your conclusion, you want to provide three reasons why Calvin’s doctrine of the church is relevant today. Present me with the full manuscript–both of Calvin’s doctrine and of the applicable conclusions.” (Church History)

My Response: (In which I had no idea how I was to answer this within the time frame, material, how long, nothing, I was lost and just started to go with whatever was flowing at the time.)

Calvin’s Doctrine/View of the Church
One can spend years, and most likely even a full lifetime, studying John Calvin’s doctrine of the church. After Googling “Calvin’s doctrine of the church,” I found over 3,500,000 articles dealing with the issue. After using first-search, I then received over 125 books that dealt with the topic. Then, when trying to research for a paper on, I ended up getting over 365 of them! All this to say, that spending nearly 15 minutes or 5 pages on Calvin’s doctrine of the church is only but a glance and an overview of his doctrine, to which he himself dedicated the entire fourth volume to his Institutes. For one that wants to study this further and more in-depth, I would suggest taking some time to read, Benjamin Charles Milner’s book entitled Calvin’s Doctrine of the Church.

Calvin spent the end of his Institutes dealing with exactly how the doctrine of the church is placed together – that is, its function, what it is, and how the Spirit works in it. He brings all that he had previously done in the first three volumes into play with the body of Christ. This is where he shows the truth of the church in its function in ministry, rule in authority, and practice of the sacraments. In his fourth volume, Calvin deals with the denial of papal claim to primacy and the accusation that the Reformers would split the church. The Reformer John Calvin had such a unique structure for the church, that not only did its roots branch into Dutch Calvinism, but also became the Reformed/Presbyterian standard for church government in practice and theology. During his time, Calvin sought to bring about pure doctrine, and in doing so, aimed to purify the church from the perversion that had corrupted it for hundreds of years. With that said, from here I plan to present an overview of Calvin’s major doctrines and views on the church from his own words. I have used view and doctrine interchangeably so that the reader can see exactly what Calvin himself said, how he viewed the doctrine itself, and what exactly he made mention of on the doctrine.

Calvin’s view of the function of the church: “Because of the crudity and ignorance, and I would add also the vanity of our minds, have need of an external aid by which faith may be engendered in us, grow and advance in us step by step, God has not forgotten to provide this for us, for the support of our infirmity. And in order that the preaching of the Gospel should go on, he has committed this treasure in trust to his Church: he has instituted pastors and teaches through whose mouths he teaches us; in short, he has omitted nothing whatever that might promote a holy agreement in faith and good order among us. Above all, he has instituted the sacraments, which as we know by experience are means more than useful to the nourishment and confirmation of out faith.”

Calvin’s view of his purpose for the church: “I have no other purpose than to benefit the church.”

Calvin’s view of the purpose of the church: Francois Wendel spends some time dealing with this exact topic. He states, “The purpose of the church is to be an instrument to our vocation and to come to the aid of our sanctification.”

Calvin’s view of the necessity of the church in the believer’s life: “Because of present intention to speak of the visible Church, let us learn, if only from her title of mother, how much the knowledge of this same is useful, and indeed necessary; seeing that there is no entering into the life everlasting unless we are conceived in the womb of that mother and she gives birth to us, feeds us… For our weakness does not allow of our being withdrawn from school until we have been pupils for the whole course of our lives. It is also to be noted that outside the bosom of the Church one can hope for no remission of sins nor any salvation.”

Calvin’s view of a Church where God exists: “Wherever we see the Word of God purely preached and heard, and the sacraments administered according to Christ institution, there, it is not to be doubted, a church of God exist.”

Calvin’s view of Christ being the head of the church: “Jesus Christ, he says ascended into heaven to accomplish and fulfill all things… So that is how the restoration of the saints comes about, that is how the body of Christ is built up, how we are untied among ourselves, how we are all brought into unity of Christ.”

Calvin’s view of how sanctification is part of the church: “St. Paul says that Jesus Christ, in order that all things might be fulfilled, made some apostles, others prophets, others evangelist, and other pastors and teachers for the perfecting of the saints and for the work of administration, in order to build up the body of Christ until we all should have attained to the unity of the faith and the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ (Eph. 4:11-13). We see that God, although he could raise his own up to perfection in a moment, nerveless prefers to make them grow little by little under the nurture of the Church. We see that manner of this is made know; that is, inasmuch as the preaching is entrusted to the pastors: we see how all are under that rule, that they allow themselves with a docile and gentle spirit to be governed by the pastors created for that purpose… Let it be no grievance on our part, then, to receive in all obedience the doctrine of salvation that they propose to us at his express command. For although his virtue is not attached to any external means, yet he has willed to constrain us to this common usage, and if one rejects it as some fantastic people do, one becomes enmeshed in many mortal ties.”

Calvin’s view of the visible church: “To extent that some marks of the church remain, we do not impugn the existence of the churches among them.”

Calvin’s view of discipline in the church: Derek Thomas shows Calvin’s thought on discipline, describing it as “the ‘sinew’ by which the members of the body were held together, each in its own places.”

Calvin’s view on the role of the pastor: “For it is no light matter to represent God’s Son in such a great task as erecting and extending God’s Kingdom, in caring for the salvation of souls whom the Lord Himself has designed to purchase with His own blood, and in ruling the Church which is god’s inheritance.”

Calvin’s view on ordination of a pastor: A “legitimate act of consecration before God, something that could be done only by the power of the Holy Spirit.”

Calvin’s view of what forms the church: “We have said that the Holy Scriptures speaks of the Church in two ways: sometimes it means by that word the Church which is such in very truth, no one being included expecting those who by grace of adoption are children of God, and by the sanctification of his Spirit are true members of Jesus Christ. And then, not only is it speaking of the saints dwelling upon earth, but al the elect that have been since the beginning of the world. But often, by the name of the Church, it means the whole multitude of men who, scattered over various regions of the world, make the same profession of honoring God in Jesus Christ, have the same baptism as evidence of their faith, who by the partaking of the Supper claim to have unity in doctrine and in charity, who accept the word of God and seek to protect the preaching of it in obedience to the commandment of Jesus Christ.”

Three Applicable Conclusions Why Calvin’s doctrine of the Church is Relevant Today.

1. A love for the church – Today, believers can often treat church as if it is something to schedule in the week, or something that “has to be done.” However, Calvin’s view of loving the church in the same manner of Christ’s love for the church brings an overwhelming amount of conviction to the heart of the believer. Knowing that Christ is at work at all times for His bride still today, working as King and Priest, interceding on her behalf, is important for the believer in the church to see. This encourages one to think about the time, money, and talents that he or she pours into the church today. When the doors open, the bride should be there contributing and loving the body of Christ like He did – and still does and will continue to do for His people throughout eternity. This is of utmost importance today because oftentimes people see the church for themselves, to get what they can out of it. However, that is not the case of Christ’s bride, because the believer that loves the church gives his life for it, as Christ did. 

2. A love for the pulpit – Calvin’s high view of preaching and how the minister is to resemble Christ is important in two ways. First, it demands that the pulpit be taken more serious than any other office in the church and any calling that exists. Second, it encourages that the believer who is not in the pulpit – who is not called to the pastorate – should look for one who carries out the work of the pastor/teacher in the way that the Scriptures command.

3. A love for sanctification – The importance that Calvin placed on the church in its role to aid the process of growth in the believer’s life needs to be seen and understood today more than ever.  In a world that teaches “easy believism,” it is important to hold that the church, pastor, elder, and laymen work together in the process of continual growth of the bride of Christ in knowing the Scriptures and partaking of the ordinances, to experience the truth and beauty that Christ has given His elect for the glorification of God in the church. It is crucial that sanctification is evident as the saints in the church grow in and through the Word of God.


Inst., 4. 1. 1.



Inst., 4. 1. 4.

Francois Wendel, Calvin: Origins and Development of His Religious Thought. (Baker: Grand Rapids, 1950), p. 292. Cf. for Wendel’s thoughts on Calvin’s doctrine and thoughts of the church p. 291-355, namely p. 291-311.

Inst., 3. 1. 4.

Inst., 4. 1. 9.

Inst., 3. 3. 2.

Inst., 4. 1. 5.

Inst., 4. 2. 12.

Derek Thomas, “Reforming the Church”, Living for God’s Glory: An Introduction to Calvinism, ed. Joel Beeke. (Reformation Trust: Orlando, 2008), p. 225.

Calvin Commentaries, The Epistles to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon, p. 22.

Calvin Commentaries, p. 263.

Inst., 3. 1. 7.


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