We review the use of an exact renormalization group equation in quantum field theory and statistical physics. It describes the dependence of the free energy on an infrared cutoff for the quantum or thermal fluctuations. Non-perturbative solutions follow from approximations to the general form of the coarse-grained free energy or effective average action. They interpolate between the microphysical laws and the complex macroscopic phenomena. Our approach yields a simple unified description for O( N)-symmetric scalar models in two, three or four dimensions, covering in particular the critical phenomena for the second-order phase transitions, including the Kosterlitz-Thouless transition and the critical behavior of polymer chains. We compute the aspects of the critical equation of state which are universal for a large variety of physical systems and establish a direct connection between microphysical and critical quantities for a liquid-gas transition. Universal features of first-order phase transitions are studied in the context of scalar matrix models. We show that the quantitative treatment of coarse graining is essential for a detailed estimate of the nucleation rate. We discuss quantum statistics in thermal equilibrium or thermal quantum field theory with fermions and bosons and we describe the high-temperature symmetry restoration in quantum field theories with spontaneous symmetry breaking. In particular, we explore chiral symmetry breaking and the high-temperature or high-density chiral phase transition in quantum chromodynamics using models with effective four-fermion interactions.