Book Review: Calvin on the Christian Life by Michael Horton

  • Series: Theologians on the Christian Life9781433539565
  • Paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Crossway; 1 edition (March 31, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 143353956X
  • WTS
  • Crossway

Many thanks to Crossway for a review copy of Michael Horton’s Calvin on the Christian Life, part of their Theologians on the Christian Life series.

An Overview

Anyone who has read the works of Michael Horton knows how knowledgeable he is when it comes to the 16th century reformers and their works, not least John Calvin’s.  Horton’s knowledge of Calvin is masterful and this work demonstrates such.  In this work, Horton interacts with several sources: (1) Calvin’s own writings–Institutes of the Christian Religion, treatises and other writings, letters, commentaries on various books of the Bible.  (2) A biography by Theodore Beza, Calvin’s successor in Geneva, and what other reformers had to say about Calvin, for example, the older Martin Luther, who knew about Calvin, read his works, admired them, but never met him in person.  (3) then other works outside of Calvin’s contemporaries, most notably Herman J. Selderhuis’s Calvin’s Theology of the Psalms.

The first two chapters are introductory chapters (chapter one, “Calvin on the Christian Life: An Introduction” and “Calvin on the Christian Life: In Context”), laying the theological foundation and context for the rest of the book, which is then divided into four parts: Part One: Living Before God.  Part Two: Living in God.  Part Three: Living in the Body.  Part Four: Living in the World.  Horton ends the book with something of Calvin’s own eschatology, which is summed up in the chapter’s title “Living Today From the Future: The Hope of Glory.”

A Critique

While it’s titled Calvin on the Christian Life, what the reader find is something of Calvin’s theology and how his theology really undergirds his life.  In other words, Calvin really attempted to live and model his theology (perhaps a subtitle like “How His Theology Shaped His Life” would have prepared the reader better).  Next, while I appreciate Horton’s working knowledge of Calvin on various subjects and the many primary quotes provided (which I truly delighted in), there were times I couldn’t tell if it was Calvin’s thought or Horton’s (perhaps this is a shortcoming on my part).

On the burning of Michael Servetus.  I have read a number of works on Calvin (some I’ve reviewed here) where the writers were either dubious or excusing of Calvin’s part in the burning of Servetus.  In clear terms, Horton does not try to mitigate or make excuses for Calvin.  I found this both welcoming and refreshing.  “It is unworthy of the truth he proclaimed to exonerate Calvin in this affair simply as a man of his time, especially when others were appealing to the Reformer’s own writings to defend religious toleration.”

The mission-mindedness of Calvin is noteworthy.  In the chapters “Christ and Caesar” (12) and “Vocation: Where Good Works Go” (13), Horton navigates that social aspect of Calvin’s thought and how such has gone on to influence much of the Western world, in matter’s of politics, the arts, etc.  Along the way, Horton is careful to correct much of the caricatures of social Calvinism.  I find this a welcoming portion of the book.  For most of us, when we think Calvin, we think his soteriology.  But there is so much more to Calvin and his works.  The last chapter is a fitting end to a work whose focus is on how Calvin’s theology undergirded his very life.  Calvin was quite at home with the “Already and Not Yet” of eschatology.”  Horton certainly brings this out quite well.


It’s time to put an end to the caricatures of John Calvin.  He is certainly not the theologian of double destination and killjoy.  Neither was he a theological tyrant.  Rather, Calvin was bent on a unity of the Body of Christ more than we would ever know or come to appreciate, unless we care to.  And while he was complicit in the burning of Michael Servetus, there is so much more to Calvin the theologian and church reformer than that.  For those interested in the life of Calvin, Horton’s work is a must read and a welcome addition.

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How to Find a Church?

Wherever we see the Word of God purely preached and heard, and the sacraments administered according to Christ’s institution, there, it is not to be doubted, a church of God exists.”  –Calvin, Institutes 4.1.9

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Christ as Intermediary

“For as soon as God’s dread majesty comes to mind, we cannot but tremble and be driven far away by the recognition of our own unworthiness, until Christ comes forward as intermediary, to change the throne of dreadful glory into the throne of grace.”  –Calvin, Institutes 3.20.17

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Holy Communion is about Communion

After gathered worship today, my wife said out loud that she would like to speak with the pastor.

Remember -communion serviceI asked, “About what?”

“The Communion.  It was so impersonal,” she said.

You see, the pastor toward the end of the gathered worship pointed to his left and said that the Lord’s Supper is there for anyone who would like to observe the Lord’s Supper.  I noticed some people observed while the most of us did not.  In a way, the pastor had taken communion out of Holy Communion.

Up to that point, we had all prayed, sang, give, and did everything else together.

While I look forward to observing the Lord’s Supper (as readers of this blog know), I did not today, concluding that it was too impersonal (I had no idea my wife felt the same way).

As we were making our way to our vehicle, I told my wife that I knew the reason why the Holy Communion was so impersonal.  She insisted that I did not know why.

I retorted, “I know why.  Here is why: They have a weak and poor view (theology) of Holy Communion” (my wife agreed).  No one who has a high view of the Lord’s Table makes it so impersonal.”

Clearly texts like 1 Corinthians 10:14-17 and 11:17-34 teach this point: Holy Communion is about communion.  Too many of our local churches have a poor view of the Lord’s Table.  After much reflection on these 1 Corinthian texts, I’m convinced that a proper theology of the Lord’s Supper as communion would not only aid our relationship vertically, with the Triune God, but horizontally, with one another.

My wife also said, “The way the Lord’s Supper was done was not an opportunity to break bread together.”

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Quote of the Day

Just as we would not have expected to find God in a feed trough of a barn in an obscure village, much less hanging, bloody, on a Roman cross, we do not expect to find him delivering his gifts in such humble places and in such humble ways as human speech, a bath, and a meal.” –Michael S. Horton

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The Shattered Image: Corrupted by not Wholly Effaced

Therefore, in reading profane authors, the admirable light of truth displayed in them should remind us, that the human mind, however much fallen and perverted from its original integrity, is still adorned and invested with admirable gifts from its Creator. If we reflect that the Spirit of God is the only fountain of truth, we will be careful, as we would avoid offering insult to him, not to reject or condemn truth wherever it appears. In despising the gifts, we insult the Giver. How, then, can we deny that truth must have beamed on those ancient lawgivers who arranged civil order and discipline with so much equity? Shall we say that the philosophers, in their exquisite researches and skilful description of nature, were blind? Shall we deny the possession of intellect to those who drew up rules for discourse, and taught us to speak in accordance with reason? Shall we say that those who, by the cultivation of the medical art, expended their industry in our behalf were only raving? What shall we say of the mathematical sciences? Shall we deem them to be the dreams of madmen? Nay, we cannot read the writings of the ancients on these subjects without the highest admiration; an admiration which their excellence will not allow us to withhold. But shall we deem anything to be noble and praiseworthy, without tracing it to the hand of God? Far from us be such ingratitude; an ingratitude not chargeable even on heathen poets, who acknowledged that philosophy and laws, and all useful arts were the inventions of the gods. Therefore, since it is manifest that men whom the Scriptures term carnal, are so acute and clear-sighted in the investigation of inferior things, their example should teach us how many gifts the Lord has left in possession of human nature, notwithstanding of its having been despoiled of the true good.”  –Calvin, Institutes, 2.2.15, emphasis added

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Does this offend you?

Not me.

Posted in Miscellanies | 3 Comments