Rev. Key is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Hull, Iowa.
As we commemorate the 500th year of John Calvin’s birth, it is worth considering John Calvin as a minister of the Word. While God used him mightily as a reformer, Calvin stood before God a faithful preacher of the gospel.
Although the tremendous responsibilities that he bore and such a rigorous preaching schedule would seem to leave little time for sermon preparation, the strength of Calvin’s preaching began in his study. Gifted with a brilliant mind, he applied it to the study of God’s Word, working with the original languages, drawing on his extensive knowledge of the Scriptures, and often also taking into account what others had written concerning the passage he was studying.
Calvin came to the pulpit without manuscript or notes. We know very little, therefore, about the early years of his preaching, and have little basis to make any evaluation of his development as a preacher. The sermons available to us today in the English language are sermons preached during the final 15-year period of Calvin’s ministry, from 1549 to 1564, during which time his sermons were carefully recorded and cataloged.
Calvin preached systematically through entire books of the Bible. The congregation in Geneva knew from week to week and day to day what section of Scripture they would hear expounded when they went to the house of God.
By these continuous expositions of Scripture, “difficult and controversial subjects were unavoidable. Hard sayings could not be skipped. Difficult doctrines could not be overlooked. The full counsel of God could be heard.”¹ So committed was Calvin to this kind of series preaching that in his return to Geneva in September 1541, after having been banned from the city three years earlier, he did not climb the pulpit again with a special sermon for the occasion, but he opened the Scriptures and began to preach exactly where he left off three years before. Calvin would interrupt these series only for certain occasions, generally related to the church calendar, at which times he would preach from appropriate texts for the occasion.²
Because he believed that the whole Bible belonged to the people of God, he balanced preaching from the Old Testament with preaching from the New. He did so recognizing that all Scripture is amazingly relevant to God’s people in every moment of history.
This commitment to series preaching tells us something else about Calvin’s perspective of preaching and its relationship to the health of the church. He understood that the spiritual growth of God’s people is not something sudden, but occurs by their being faithfully fed and nourished over a long period of time. For that reason, for however long it took, sometimes a year or more, Calvin would steep the congregation in the gospel set forth in a particular book or section of Scripture. 342 or 343 sermons from Isaiah and 189 sermons from the Book of Acts were typical of the extensive nature of his treatment of the books of the Bible. A shorter series from John Calvin would be a 43-sermon series from Galatians or 25 from the book of Lamentations.
Calvin’s sermon delivery is said to have been rather slow and deliberate, partly because of his chronic affliction with asthma.³ From the reading of Scripture to the amen of his closing prayer the people of God would give Calvin their attention for an hour. He would not tax them longer. Nor would he overburden them with excessive sermon content in that hour. His sermons were able to be taken down word for word by those who recorded them.
The strength of Calvin’s preaching is not to be found in his sermon outlines. He did not follow a stated outline with a theme and recognizable divisions taken from the logical structure of the text. He expounded the text sentence by sentence, phrase by phrase, and occasionally even word by word. He did so with great emphasis upon practical application of the teachings of the text, exhorting the congregation to submit to the Word of God. To Calvin the contents of the text bore the weight of carrying the minds of the congregation.
Calvin understood that by the work of the Holy Spirit, “The lives of those who believed the Word of God would be transformed by that Word…. To believe the Word was to live by the Word.”4 The thoughts and affections of the hearts of God’s people, when shaped by the power of the Word preached, would bear fruit to the glory of God. Of that Calvin was sure.
For that reason he sought to make the gospel message personal. He also spoke in language that could be understood by the common people. Theodore Beza, Calvin’s contemporary and successor at Geneva, said of him, “Every word weighed a pound.”5The preaching of John Calvin was also marked by intensity and urgency. He came bearing the message of the great King!
So insistent was Calvin upon applying the Word of God to the congregation, even in the way of warnings and rebukes, admonitions and calls to repentance, that in a sermon on II Timothy 2:14-15, after pointing out the folly of a physician simply telling a sick man what the man wants to hear and treating him accordingly, Calvin asked, Does he not then become his patient’s butcher?6
In a sermon on Job 33:1-7 in which Calvin had much to say not only about preaching, but about hearing the preaching, he spoke as if addressing ministers:
…when God grants us the grace to speak in His name, it behooves us to yield all the authority to His Word, and to advance the estimation of that Word. But if we are so turned aside by looking unto creatures, that we speak not freely as we ought to do, is it not a dishonoring of God? If a man is sent from an earthly prince, and suffers other men to scorn him, and he plays the goof and dares not bring the message that is committed to him: it is such a reckless wastefulness as is not to be pardoned. Behold, God receives us to His service, even us who are but dust before Him, even us who are altogether unprofitable. He puts us in honorable commission to bear abroad His Word; and He will have it carried abroad with authority and reverence.7
And the people must not say, “Ho! that is too hard to be borne. You ought not to go on like that.” Those who cannot bear to be reproved had better look for another school-master than God. There are many who will not stand it: “What! is this the way to teach? Ho! we want to be won by sweetness.” “You do? Then go and teach God his lessons!” These are our sensitive folk who cannot bear a single reproof to be offered to them. And why? “Ho! we want to be taught in another style.” “Well then, go to the devil’s school! he will flatter you enough—and destroy you.” But believers humble themselves and are willing to be treated severely so that they may profit in God’s school.8
Calvin never withheld what he saw as pertinent and necessary applications of God’s Word. But the one man in the congregation to which all his sermons were directed was himself. Rarely did he speak to the congregation with the second person pronoun, you. Almost always did he say we or us, including himself in the congregation to whom the preaching was directed and placing himself under the authority of the Word of God as much as he did the congregation.
The Theological Foundation of Calvin’s Preaching
The preaching of John Calvin was the preaching of a man who lived in the consciousness of the majestic holiness of God, who speaks to us in the preaching of the gospel.
That is the case, of course, only insofar as the preacher proclaims the holy and authoritative Word of God. That makes the calling of the preacher a weighty calling indeed! The preacher must faithfully expound God’s Word! That being established, however, the power of preaching is not to be ascribed to the minister, nor to the Word itself. No matter that the sermon be a most faithful exposition of Holy Scripture proclaimed most eloquently, preaching itself remains powerless—except by the sovereign and free work of the Holy Spirit, by whose power alone the preaching is made effective.
No wonder, then, that John Calvin could preach with such boldness! No wonder such fervency marked his preaching! He spoke not his own, but God’s Word! He came not in his own power, but with the power of the Holy Spirit! He came with the confidence of Paul’s confession in II Corinthians 10:4-5: “For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds; Casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ.” “When we do not take His Word seriously,” Calvin said, “it is a sign that we attribute no more importance to God than to a barking dog.”9 For that reason Calvin also carefully and repeatedly called the congregation’s attention to their calling before that Word preached.
The Congregation and the Preaching
For one thing, God’s people seek that preaching, desire it, and attend to it at every opportunity.
Calvin, in one of his sermons, appeals to those who think the minister too long if he preaches for half an hour, and are yet willing to soak their ears night and day in “fables, lies, and things of no profit,” to consider how necessary and glorious a thing it is to listen to the word that proclaims the length and breadth and height and depth of the love of Christ.10
God’s people know that they cannot live without the Word of their Savior. Thus they approach that Word with attentiveness. Calvin didn’t always observe that in the congregation. He addressed also that weakness in a sermon on Job 29:18-25:
…in the gospel we have infinite treasures of wisdom and knowledge. God shows Himself familiarly unto us; He will have us to be filled, even thoroughly filled, with all perfection of His doctrine; and He gives us so clear and certain understanding as can be possible. And yet, for all this, where is the reverence that Job speaks of? where is the desire? where is the amiable obedience? Nay, to the contrary, we see scornfulness, as I have touched already. Again, when the doctrine is preached, how many are there that give attentive ear unto it? …there are very few folk in which the reverence is to be found that is spoken of here. And as for conforming themselves fully unto it, that is a very rare virtue.11
To hear with attentiveness, God’s people must approach the sermon properly prepared.
Calvin frequently advised the people not to eat too much breakfast before coming to the sermon. But most of the difficulties with respect to the physical condition of the congregation came at the afternoon sermon. ‘Those three drunkards back there,’ said Calvin upon one occasion, ‘might just as well have stayed in the tavern, for all the good they are getting from listening to the Word of God.’ Sunday afternoon dinners were also a frequent cause of indifference to the Word. ‘How can any man profit from the Word when his belly is so full of wine and meat that it takes all of his effort just to stay awake?’12 The congregation has a calling to receive that preaching with humble submission to the authority of God’s Word, carefully discerning the application of God’s truth to their own lives. In a sermon on II Timothy 3:16-17, Calvin said, “…God’s Word deserves such reverence that each person shall range himself beneath it and listen to it peaceably and without contradicting.” He goes on. “To sum it up, St. Paul here pronounces that men must not take out parts and bits that they approve of and what meets their fancy in Holy Scripture. Without exception they should conclude that, since God has spoken in His Law and in His Prophets, they must keep to the whole.”13
Upon such preaching and the hearing and submission to that Word of God the salvation and safety of the church depends.
How great is the need for such preaching in our day! May the Holy Spirit prosper us in this!
1 Steven J. Lawson, The Expository Genius of John Calvin, Orlando, FL, Reformation Trust Publishing, 2007, p. 32.
2 T.H.L. Parker, The Oracles of God: An Introduction to the Preaching of John Calvin, London and Redhill, England, Lutterworth Press, 1947, p. 70.
3 Ibid., p. 40.
4 Hughes Oliphant Old, The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures in the Worship of the Christian Church, vol. 4: The Age of the Reformation, Grand Rapids, MI and Cambridge, England, Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2002, p. 130.
5 Leroy Nixon, John Calvin, Expository Preacher, Grand Rapids, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1950, pp. 31, 34 (which quote comes from Broadus, History of Preaching, p. 120).
6 John Calvin, Sermons on the Epistles to Timothy and Titus, Facsimile of 1579 Edition, Edinburgh, The Banner of Truth Trust, 1983, p. 802.
7 John Calvin, Sermons on Job, Facsimile of 1574 Edition, Edinburgh, The Banner of Truth Trust, 1993, p. 574. (modernization of the language is mine. sk.)
8 T.H.L. Parker, Calvin’s Preaching, Louisville, Westminster/John Knox Press, p. 14.
9 Jean Calvin, Sermons on Jeremiah, Lewiston/Queenston/Lampeter, The Edwin Mellen Press, 1990, p. 201.
10 Ronald S. Wallace, Calvin’s Doctrine of the Word and Sacrament, Edinburgh, Oliver and Boyd, 1953, p. 119.
11 John Calvin, Sermons on Job, p. 505. (modernization of the language is mine. sk.)
12 Nixon, pp. 65-66.
13 Parker, Calvin’s Preaching, p. 9