A few years ago, one of my professors at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary encouraged us to pick a theologian of the past and get to know him very well. So, believing it to be wise counsel, the pursuit of who to choose started. I landed on Calvin because I already knew something about him and had read enough to know that I would benefit significantly from consuming as much material from him and about him throughout my ministerial life.
The Institutes of the Christian Religion is the magnum opus work of Calvin. Yet, few in the modern church have read it. I suspect several reasons why that is the case. One of them being its length (over 1500 pages). Another may be its level of difficulty. It is not the most straightforward reading, mainly because of the depth contained in the material as well as the language. The English editions of the Institutes are translated from Latin (one publication is a translation of the French edition). The writing is wonderfully done but difficult for modern readers to follow. The material is profound, and Calvin does not hesitate to look under every stone and rock to uncover the deep truths of God’s Word. For these reasons, I suspect many either start and give up or never bother.
Therefore, I have developed a reading plan that, if followed, will take you through the entire Institutes in 18 weeks (reading five days per week). Combined with the reading are three secondary volumes carefully paralleled with the section of the Institutes assigned. Those secondary sources will help the reader of the Institutes understand the bulk of Calvin’s thoughts.
You can download the reading plan here.
“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.”
This verse sets the foundation for the entirety of the book of Proverbs. There is a unique aspect to this book as it imparts profound wisdom to mankind – wisdom from above. We need to be instructed and taught by God and his wisdom as fallen creatures. We learn elsewhere that if any man lacks wisdom, let him ask God who gives it to all those who ask (James 1.5). Before we can attain this wisdom, we must have a fear of the LORD because we do not inherently possess it. Our fallen nature resists any authority and especially the authority that God alone possesses as Creator. Since he has made all things and orders his world as he sees fit, we would do well to listen to what he says. That fear referenced by Solomon is not a fear that leaves us afraid of God, running from his presence. It is a fear rooted in reverence and awe and one that drives us to his presence, where we sit at his feet and learn from him.
We also learn from this verse that the fear of the LORD is a beginning. It is not the end of learning, and it is not the end of wisdom. But, it is where we start. We begin by submitting to the God of heaven, who is most wise, so that we spend the rest of our days learning from him, growing in knowledge and understanding. A wise person will fear the LORD and will continue to grow in wisdom as he remains steadfast in his reverence and awe of the God of heaven.
The contrast is that natural state where all men reside. The writer tells us that “fools despise wisdom and instruction.” That is, they are not interested in listening to the counsel of God and heeding his voice as he proclaims it through his Word. Instead, they profess to be wise yet are fools because they do not pursue wisdom in the infinitely wise one and full of truth.
Therefore, we are either moved by the fear of God to run to his presence, or we are enamored with our knowledge, where pride swells and the fear of the LORD is dismissed. There are no other options. Therefore, either you are a fool who rejects God and his wisdom, or you are one captured by the fear of him, daily sitting at his feet, submitting to his will, learning from him, and growing in knowledge and wisdom.
- The fear of the LORD is not natural for sinners. Nevertheless, the redeemed of God have access to him through the work of Christ. Therefore, they should plead for it daily, asking the God of heaven to work reverence and awe of him in their lives.
- The fear of the LORD is demonstrated as we sit before his Word, drinking in the living water and eating of the bread that alone satisfies. However, man does not live by bread alone, and if we are to have the wisdom from above, we must be in the Bible listening carefully to the mind of God, who is infinitely wise and knows what we need.
- Fools will reject the source of wisdom because they do not fear the LORD. Instead, their pride and arrogance render them as fools, leaving them with no hope of true knowledge and understanding. That is the condition of all those who reject the gospel and the work of Christ.
Proverbs 5:21, “For a man’s ways are before the eyes of the LORD, and he ponders all his paths.”
The fifth chapter is about the sin of adultery, and it is the context of the above-cited verse. Solomon sets out to warn his son about the seduction and allurement of adultery that will lead, inevitably, to ruin and death. History contains a long, sad panorama of many men who have destroyed their lives by not disciplining themselves, especially in this area. The warnings about this sin are offered frankly and clearly. They require almost no explanation because, on their face, they say all that is necessary about this issue. Many a man, trapped by this sin, can cry, “I did not listen to the voice of my teachers or incline my ear to my instructors.” Families have been torn asunder by this sin. However, we must also remember that this sin is not only an outward act, but it is also one that is committed inwardly in the mind and heart. We are told in Ex. 20:14 to not commit adultery. We are also told in Matt. 5 that adultery is committed when a man lusts after a woman in his heart. They are both destructive, and they have captured many through the ages. Therefore, we must remember this context in light of the verse for today: “For a man’s ways are before the eyes of the LORD.” Whether this sin is actively committed in an outward display or committed in the mind, the way of the man intent on committing this sin is before the LORD. Put another way, it is done in plain sight before Him. No one can hide from the gaze of the Almighty. Friend, are you entangled in this sin? It is something of which you wrestle? Is it something that you play with thinking it will not harm you? Read Proverbs 5 and consider: “her feet go down to death” (5:5); “At the end of your life you groan, when your flesh and body are consumed (5:11); “he dies for lack of discipline, and because of his great folly he is led astray (5:23).” These things, and more, should strike terror in the heart of any man who dismisses this issue as unimportant.
The verse does not only speak of the issue of adultery. The verse warns us that our lives — our thoughts, words, behavior, all of it — are always before the LORD, everywhere. We cannot hide our sins. They are always before the LORD. A Latin phrase speaks to this idea, and it is one we know well, but, perhaps, too well. The phrase is “Coram Deo” (before the face of God). Everything we do is done before his face. There is nothing secret. It is all open and bare before him. Those private conversations between husband and wife? They are held before the LORD. Those phone calls between friends that stray into gossip and slander? They, too, are before the LORD. Those behaviors done in secret? God sees them as well. All things are open and before Him. Thus, we should develop our theology in our practice and remind ourselves often that what we are doing, thinking, and saying is open before him, and nothing is hidden from him.
We do not consider this matter as those with no hope. As God’s redeemed people, we have a glorious Savior who has paid for this sin as he has paid for all transgressions we have committed. Friend, if these things describe your life, flee to the cross of the Lord Jesus. Confess your sin. Plead for his grace. He is willing and able to forgive. He has never turned aside anyone who looks to him in faith, believing that he is more than sufficient for that which befalls us.
Prayer: “Father, we pray that you would keep us from the evil wickedness of adultery, whether in thought or deed. We confess to you that we are not always disciplined with our thoughts and looks. We confess that we are easily pulled aside and stray from what you command and warn through threat and consequence. We confess that we often live in such a way that renders us practical atheists. We speak without thought that you are party to our conversations. We behave in ways that demonstrate poor theology because we think you do not see. Forgive us. Please help us to consciously think and reflect on your abiding presence witnessing all that we do. Indeed, our ways are ever before you, and we cannot hide. Thank you for your Spirit and grant us more of him that we might not sin against you. All of these things we pray through Christ our Lord. Amen.”
Proverbs 4:23, “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.”
The Bible makes it clear that the heart of the matter is the heart of man. Because of the fall, our hearts were plunged into ruin and misery. The prophet declares that our hearts are deceitful above all things and desperately sick; who can understand it? (Jer. 17:9). Jesus rebukes the religious leaders of his day by telling them that their lives are an outward show of religion and worship, but their hearts are far from the true and living God. The commands of God teach us that we are to love the Lord our God with our whole heart. Without question, the heart of the matter is the heart of man. Stony as they are, the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ turns the hardest of hearts to flesh and works life from death; good from misery; holiness from sinfulness. Is it any wonder that Solomon counsels his son (and us) to “keep your heart.” Solomon is teaching us that we must be about the business of guarding our hearts against those influences that will move us down the wrong road leading to destruction. We are to erect a sentry over our heart and protect it, always seeking to move it towards the things of the Lord. If every issue and every matter is ultimately tied to the heart of man, then it seems logical and reasonable that we spend more time thinking about our hearts and how they are influenced by good and evil. Consider the numerous outside influences that come to us: entertainment, conversation, reading material, things we witness in the public square — all of these things will impact our heart for good or evil. Consider the things that we allow our minds to dwell upon day after day.
The apostle Paul tells us to consider those things that are true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, and commendable. Yet, we often allow our minds to dwell on the very opposite of this instruction. We focus on things that are false, dishonorable, unjust, impure, and ugly. We see it all the time in the news, the programs we watch, the internet sites we visit, the conversations we have on social media and in-person. We hear it when we listen to talk radio or music. Indeed, many things are competing for our hearts. In light of Solomon’s instruction, the question that must be answered is this: How are you guarding your heart? To fail to protect our heart actively leaves us prey to the efforts of the evil one. He knows well that if he can win your heart through corruption and deceit, he will win your whole life. We pray, “Lead me not into temptation, but deliver me from the evil one.” We should pray that all the time. Yet, too often, we pray it, forget it, and then run headlong into matters and issues that will tempt us to sin because those things wound our hearts. My friends, each of us must seriously consider those ways in which we have compromised and lived too loosely when it comes to our hearts. We must not deceive ourselves into thinking that we are somehow immune to these matters. As we consider those ways, we must make the necessary adjustments and, perhaps, confess them before the Lord, asking that he cleanse our hearts and restore us to those things that are pleasing in his sight. Our hearts are not made of titanium. All sorts of things easily influence it. Therefore, erect a sentry over your heart. We must watch and pray lest we enter into temptation. We must be diligent because the gateway of all transgression flows right through our hearts.
Meditate on these things.
Prayer: “Father, your Word is clear — the heart of the issue is our heart. We are thankful that you have given us a new heart, but we know that we often wrestle with our flesh and those sins that so easily entangle us. We confess that we have not given adequate thought to these matters and have, at times, allowed our hearts to stray from what is pure, just, honorable, and holy. Forgive us. Please help us be more careful, watching and praying and guarding our hearts against the influence of the evil one and the world. Please be merciful to us in our failures and cleanse us afresh we pray through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Proverbs 3:7 “Be not wise in your own eyes; fear the LORD, and turn away from evil.”
These words, written by the man who the Bible described as the wisest man on the earth, are a strong warning to the followers of Christ. They follow the well-known words of 3:5-6, where we are told to trust in the LORD and do not lean on our understanding of things. Our understanding of the issues of this life and the circumstances that we find ourselves in is often rooted in folly and error. As sinful people, we get things wrong quite often. God’s people are told to trust him and acknowledge him in all matters of this life. Thus, Solomon advises us to “not be wise in our own eyes.” If wisdom comes from above and not from us (and it does), then any effort to fabricate wisdom is foolishness.
Further, we are not to boast in our wisdom as many do. That will not lead to righteousness. Many in our world today profess to be wise, but in the end, they are fools (Rom. 1:22). It is an act of great evil to boast in one’s supposed wisdom when that wisdom is divorced from the LORD. Instead, we are told to fear him and turn away from evil. Evil is anything that transgresses the very law of God. It is those things that the Word of God describes as sinful. We know that all sin is a “want of conformity unto, or transgression of the law of God” (WSC Q14). Therefore, the one who fears the LORD will resist temptations to sin and, instead, flee from it. Yes, we sin daily in thought, word, and deed, but we must also remember that there is forgiveness for every sin. A wise person flees sin and confesses it when it occurs, and seeks the forgiveness that can only come from the Lord. Our human intellect cannot plumb the depths of this truth. Our God, who is infinitely holy, is also infinitely compassionate to those who fear him. Therefore, we do not take pride in our intelligence or supposed wisdom, but instead, we humbly look to the God of wisdom and lean on him for all that we need. What we need is given by a God who is full of loving-kindness and compassion.
Therefore, fear the LORD and turn away from evil. Pray for his sustaining grace as you labor through your days.
Prayer: Father, we know that your Word describes you as the God of all wisdom. It also tells us that we, too often, boast in our intelligence, knowledge, and supposed understanding. We know that wisdom comes from you and, therefore, we ask that you grant it to us. We have been told to fear you — to walk humbly with you in all of our behavior. We fall short, we know. We thank you that you forgive our sins, cleansing us from all unrighteousness. Please grant us a greater measure of your Spirit and the wisdom that can only come from you who gives generously without reproach. These things we pray through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Proverbs 2:6, “For the LORD gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding.”
The verses that lead to the above-cited verse are of importance within the context. 2:1-5 have a series of statements that drive home the importance of seeking wisdom from the LORD. Note 2:1, “if you receive my words and treasure up my commandments with you.” Again, note 2:3, “if you call out for insight and raise your voice for understanding.” Again, note 2:4, “if you seek for it like silver and search for it as for hidden treasures.” Finally, note how 2:1-4 concludes with the words of 2:5: “then you will understand the fear of the LORD and find the knowledge of God.” These verses drive home a few thoughts. First, we must be willing to receive (hear) the words contained within the Scriptures because that is the place in which we gather the mind of God. Second, we must treasure them. There are many things we cherish in this life. Many of them are not sinful. We treasure family heirlooms, pictures, letters, items of various kinds. We adore our marriages, family, children, and loved ones. We treasure our church and the family of faith. Yet, though those things are worthy of cherishing, we must never allow them to sideline the treasure we have in the Word of God. Indeed, it is a great gift because in it, we see pure wisdom from the God of heaven who, as the Confession of Faith teaches us, is most wise (2.1). It is an inheritance that we must treasure and esteem with the highest of adoration and affection. Third, we must call out for wisdom, raising our voices with pleas for it. In short, we must pray for it, pleading with the God of wisdom for an abundance of it to be poured out in our lives. James says, “if any man lacks wisdom, let him ask of God who gives it generously and without reproach. He cautions us to look for it in no other place but in the mind of God as given in the Scriptures. We do not cry out for wisdom from the world or the culture that is antithetical to divine wisdom. No, we run to the God of all wisdom and pray for it expecting that he will give it to his people. Fourth, we must seek for it as we would seek for great wealth. Sadly, we often seek things that will never satisfy and give a passing nod to the importance of seeking wisdom. Yet, Solomon tells us to seek for it as we would seek for hidden treasure. Imagine the diligence that would follow on the statement, “in your backyard is a chest of money totaling one million dollars.” Undoubtedly, you would seek for it diligently, digging in every place until you found it. Wisdom must be pursued in this way, and the wealth of it far exceeds any price tag. As one does these things, Solomon tells us that we will understand and find knowledge. Ultimately, the LORD himself promises these things, but we must receive it, treasure it, and plead for it knowing that, in the end, true wisdom comes from the LORD and true knowledge flows from his mouth.
Meditate on these things!