John Calvin: Method of Preaching

While Calvin’s life certainly did leave ministers a worthy example, we will consider now the second matter of whether his method of preaching was likewise exemplary. It is perfectly possible for a man to be marked by great measures of grace in his life and yet to be woefully lacking in his ability to preach God’s Word, and thus to be no example for those who would be ministers after him.

What kind of preacher was John Calvin? It is important to note firstly, that he was one who preached through entire books, chapters, or larger groupings of Scripture, opening and explaining the meaning of various passages, and then applying the truths of those passages to the hearts and consciences of his hearers. This type of preaching has commonly been called expository preaching.[1]

Let us examine Calvin’s preaching to see if indeed he preached the Word of God in this fashion, thus leaving us an example to follow. First, we will consider Calvin’s method of preaching and second, Calvin’s example of preaching.

Calvin’s Method of Preaching

Can it be proved that Calvin was one who “preached through entire books, chapters, or larger groupings of Scripture?” The evidence for this fact is overwhelming. Concerning Calvin’s preaching method, Steven Lawson says,

One noted expositor who “gave attention” to biblical preaching was the monumental reformer of Geneva, John Calvin. His passionate commitment to Word-centered, text-driven preaching remains second to none. For twenty-three years (1541-1564), this Swiss pastor carefully expounded God’s Word to his congregation . . . In fact, Calvin was so devoted to preaching through books of the Bible that his expositional series often took several years to complete. For example, his weekly preaching through the book of Acts took over four years. He then preached 46 sermons on 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 186 sermons on 1 and 2 Corinthians, 85 sermons on the Pastoral Epistles, 43 sermons on Galatians, and 48 sermons on Ephesians. In his later years he began preaching a harmony of the Gospels in the spring of 1559 and continued to do so until his death five years later, on May 27, 1564. During this same time he preached 159 sermons on Job, 200 on Deuteronomy, 353 on Isaiah, 123 on Genesis, along with other exposition as well.[2]

James F. Stitzinger commenting on Calvin’s preaching said,

The evidence of his sincerity was a life spent expounding God’s Word. As senior minister of Geneva, Calvin preached twice each Sunday and every weekday on alternating weeks from 1549 until his death in 1564. He preached more than two thousand sermons from the Old Testament alone. He spent a year expositing Job and three years in Isaiah.”[3]

Surely, one is taken aback when considering these figures. To think that one man preached so many sermons is staggering, but this was Calvin’s method. Hughes Oliphant Old rightly remarked concerning Calvin’s preaching that, “the thoroughness and completeness, the systematic nature, of his expository preaching is truly remarkable.”[4]

Calvin’s Example of Preaching

Here we’re going to examine some sample excerpts of Calvin’s sermons to see if indeed he was one who opened and explained the meaning of texts and applied the truth of God’s Word to his hearers.

Consider firstly, Calvin’s sermon from John 1:1-5. Note closely his expounding of the text to his hearers. After introducing his passage he says,

We come now to the text. The Word, says he, was in the beginning. The intention of St. John is to show us that, as the Son of God did not begin to exist when He appeared to the world, so also He did not begin only when His virtue spread everywhere. For He already was, from all time and before time. Already His virtue resided in Him and was not taken from elsewhere, but there was a virtue which was in the Word of God at the beginning. But finally it was manifested. We know it now since Jesus Christ was sent into the world. St. John, then, here wishes to show us that when Jesus Christ came into the world, it was our Eternal God Who came, Who redeemed us to Himself. But to still better understand the whole, we must note item by item the things said here.

Calvin then carefully goes on to open up the meaning of each phrase of the passage verse by verse. He ends this sermon by applying the passage to his listeners by saying,

This is how (say I) Saint John wishes to prepare us to know the effect of our redemption. Then he also wishes to show how the Word of God declares Himself in His creatures, since all things are preserved by His power. However, he exhorts us to know the graces God has given us, by which we excel other creatures, so that we might magnify Him. Besides, to know that, since He has imprinted on us His living image from the beginning and He makes us to experience His power, it is only reasonable that we should learn to cling to this Word and to know in general the benefits God has given to mankind, in order that the light He has poured upon us by His grace may not be extinguished by our wickedness, but that Jesus Christ may so dwell in the midst of us that, being led by the Holy Spirit, we may be able to have such access to the Father that He may introduce us into his heavenly glory.[5]

Secondly, consider an excerpt from Calvin’s sermons on the Ten Commandments. Preaching on Deuteronomy chapter five verse six, Calvin, after introducing his passage, begins to open and explain every aspect of the text:

When he says, “I am the Lord,” it is in order to exclude all the gods which have so been invented by men. It’s as if he said: “There is only one sole deity, and that will be found in me. Thus it follows that those who have known me who turn aside to serve their idols, have no excuse, provided to their knowledge, they have not renounced the living God.”

Now when he adds that he is the God of this people, his purpose is to show that he was adequately revealed. It’s as if he said: “I have separated you from all the rest of men. You see how the others rave. But this is due to the fact that they have neither guidance nor direction. But I have chosen you for my people and I have revealed myself to you. Moreover, since I am your God, cling therefore to me, or you will have even less of an excuse than the pagans. . .

He cites still further the grace which he bestowed upon the people, saying, when he took them out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. By this he means that he has truly bound them to himself so that the people cannot revolt against him without further punishment. For seeing that they shall have forgotten redemption by which they were redeemed, their ingratitude will be double. For since they were purchased by the hand of God, it was imperative that they give themselves in service to him who was their redeemer.[6]

Calvin concludes his exposition of this verse by saying, “Now let us apply all of this doctrine to our usage” and then goes on for several pages to make plain and pointed applications to his listeners. Leon Nixon in his book entitled, John Calvin, Expository Preacher, said,

The man of Geneva drew all of his sermons from the Bible. He preached from it as he found it, book by book, and passage by passage. Instead of “going everywhere preaching the Gospel,” he stayed by the passage in hand. He strove to show clearly and strongly what the passage meant, and what difference it ought to make in the hearts and lives of the hearers.[7]

Finally, note Calvin’s example of expounding the Word of God from Ephesians chapter two verses eight to ten. The Apostle Paul there says, that we are saved not by works, “. . . lest any man might boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Jesus Christ.” Commenting on this passage Calvin says,

Furthermore, this word is well worth weighing, when he says, ‘lest any man might boast’. For from this we have to learn that it is not enough for us to attribute some part of our salvation to God, but we must come to the point of yielding so far as not to pretend to it at all. We must agree to have all our own glory so humbled that God alone may have the preeminence, as we have seen in other texts . . . For neither the virtue, nor the wisdom, nor the ability, nor the righteousness of man must be advanced if we intend that God should retain what is his own and what he reserves to himself . . . For as long as a man imagines himself to have any drop of goodness of his own, he will never give himself up to God, but be puffed up with vain presumption, and rest on himself.

Calvin continues to expound the text by saying,

Now to confirm this, the apostle adds that we are God’s workmanship. . . It is as if he said, God must go before us with his own free grace. For what can we do, seeing we are as rotten carcasses until God has renewed us again by the power of the holy Spirit? So then, if a man intends to find any good in himself, he must not seek it in his own nature, nor in his former birth, for there is nothing but corruption, but God must reform us before we can have a single drop of goodness in us. Since this is so, we have to conclude that our salvation has no other spring, and no other foundation than God’s mercy alone, seeing we cannot by any means help ourselves. Thus you see in effect what St. Paul meant . . . Furthermore, let us carefully note that his saying, ‘in Jesus Christ’, is to send us back to the corruption that we have in Adam, for we can never find in our hearts to acknowledge ourselves to be guilty, until we feel convicted ourselves.

Calvin then ends this sermon with these words of application:

Now since it is so, let us learn to humble ourselves before God, both for what is past and also for what is to come . . . So then, as often as we feel our own weakness, let us flee to him for refuge, and when we have done any good, do not let it puff us up with any pride, but let us always regard ourselves as so much the more tightly, even doubly, bound to God . . . Wherefore, let us throughout our life walk in such a way that we may still from year to year, from month to month, from day to day, from hour to hour, and from minute to minute continually acknowledge ourselves indebted to God for the goodness he has given us through his pure mercy alone.[8]

Conclusion

We have been considering the life and labors of John Calvin. By examining historical data about his manner of life and written material from his method of preaching, I have deliberately aimed to prove that he is a worthy example for ministers of the Word of God. 

Yes, of course, Calvin had his faults, but I am convinced that in him we have much to challenge us as Christians. In Calvin we have a man who gave his all for Christ. In him we have one who sought to “spend and be spent” for His glory, honor and praise. May the same be true of us all of our days by God’s unfailing grace.

The words of Theodore Beza are worth quoting one last time at this point when at the end of his lengthy biography on Calvin, he wrote, “Having been a spectator of his conduct for sixteen years, I have given a faithful account of his life and of his death. I can now declare that in him all men may see a most beautiful example of the Christian character, an example which it is as easy to slander as it is difficult to imitate.”[9]

Rob Ventura is one of the pastors of Grace Community Baptist Church of North Providence, Rhode Island and holds a Master of Divinity degree from Reformed Baptist Seminary. He is an author and blogger for Reformation 21 and has co-authored two books on Reformation Heritage Books A Portrait of Paul and Spiritual Warfare.


[1] This is the definition that Albert N. Martin gives in his soon to be published lecture notes on Pastoral Theology. Others such as John A. Broadus, On Preparation and delivery of Sermons, (Harper and Row, 1926 pp.58-59) and John MacArthur Jr, Rediscovering Expository Preaching (Word Inc., 1992, pp.9-14 have stated similar thoughts.

[2] Steven J. Lawson, Famine in the Land; A Passionate Call for Expository Preaching (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2003), pp. 110-111.

[3] James F. Stitzinger, “The History of Expository Preaching,” Rediscovering Expository Preaching, (Word, Inc.1992), p. 50.

[4] Hughes Oliphant Old, in vol. 4 The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures in the Worship of the Christian Church (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2002), p. 91.

[5] Leroy Nixon, The Deity of Christ and Other Sermons by John Calvin (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1950), pp. 18, 34

[6] Benjamin W. Farley, John Calvin’s Sermons on the Ten Commandments (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1980), pp. 57-58.

[7] Leroy Nixon, John Calvin, Expository Preacher (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1950), p. 9.

[8] John Calvin, Sermons on The Epistle to the Ephesians trans. Arthur Golding (Philadelphia: The Banner Of Truth Trust, 1973), pp. 156,158, 164-167.

[9] Theodore Beza, “The Life of John Calvin,” Banner Of Truth Issue 227-228 (Aug/Sept.1982), p. 68.

 

 


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