The Voice from the Pulpit: John Calvin and Preaching

Steven Doe

Monday Morning Thoughts

Preachers are used to the old joke about only working one day a week and then only working for a few hours. Those whose calling it is to proclaim the Word of God week by week can easily lose a vision of the importance of their labor through the sheer discouragement that can come from seeing little apparent fruit from the investment of time in preparation. If the summary of your work is the ephemeral business of the spoken word, that old joke can sting. On Monday morning a preacher may feel like the pastor who complained of the poor attendance, of people who came wanting to be entertained, of others who came and fell asleep, of some people who said that the sermon was too short, of others that it was too long, of still others who complained that the pastor never said anything new or, on the other hand, that he had too many innovations. That's how Chrysostom felt on Mondays back in the fourth century!

Preachers have faced the same challenges in all times and places. Do God's people receive too little in the sermon? Does the teaching go over their heads? Is there scriptural application? Is it too much or not enough? How long should be spent on a single verse? There can be envy of others who seem to have congregations which are hungry for the strong meat of doctrinal preaching, congregations urging the preacher on by their attentiveness. Does anyone appreciate the devotion, the time, the passion that you have for preaching?

Considering Calvin

In 2009 the Reformed community around that world will be celebrating the five hundredth anniversary of the birth of John Calvin. The events planned will only serve to heighten the already huge and intense interest in the Reformer. The bibliography of Calvin studies is vast, beyond the ability of any one person to master; therefore there are more specialized areas within the larger field. Even here the sheer number of articles and bounty of material is overwhelming. For instance, one library has 234 entries in its section on Calvin's preaching.[1] The reprints and new translations of Calvin's sermons have continued to multiply. Here are some of the major entries in the Calvin corpus now available in English:

Baker Books: Sermons on the Ten Commandments; Banner of Truth Trust: Sermons on Acts 1-7, the Beatitudes, Ephesians, Galatians, Job, II Samuel; Old Paths Publications: Sermons on the Deity of Christ, on Election and Reprobation, on Galatians, on Melchizedek and Abraham, on Psalm 119; P&R: Sermons on the book of Micah; Westminster Discount Books: Men, Women, and Order in the Church: Three Sermons by John Calvin.

It is unlikely that any Orthodox Presbyterian will ever write anything to compare with the impact of Calvin's The Institutes of the Christian Religion,[2] but Orthodox Presbyterian preachers can take heart from a brief study of Calvin's preaching.[3] Calvin began his preaching ministry in Geneva in 1536 as "Professor of Sacred Letters in the Church of Geneva" with expositions on the letters of Paul. It is important to understand that Calvin actually considered his preaching ministry the most important thing which he did, more important than the theological treatises, than his massive correspondence, than even the Institutes. Christians of Calvin's day understood this. His sermons in French editions, and in English and Latin translations, went through many printings in the late sixteenth century. His sermons on Job, for instance, went through five editions in a very short time; Admiral Coligny, the French Protestant leader, read through those sermons continually until his death.

Calvin wanted first of all to be thought of as a pastor bringing God's Word to God's people in the local church. One incident illustrates this. In 1538 Calvin and Farel were ejected from Geneva. In 1541 Calvin was called back. On that first Sunday back in the pulpit of St. Peter's, on what did Calvin preach? Was it a rebuke to the citizens of Geneva for their fickleness, or a vindication of his previous ministry? No, Calvin began again exactly where he had left off three years before, picking up on the next verses in the text, as if to show that he saw that there was nothing more important than his task of feeding God's flock from the Word of the Lord. Calvin sought to not let his personal feelings shape what texts he chose in preaching, but what edified God's people.

It is instructive to look at Calvin not only because he lends his name to that system of theology to which the Orthodox Presbyterian church is committed, but because he was a practicing pastor, a very busy preacher. For instance, in one year, 1549, he preached at 6 o'clock in the morning and 3 o'clock in the afternoon on Sundays, and then once a day every other week, so that in the space of two weeks he was preaching ten times! These sermons were considered so valuable that the Company of Strangers, the church of refugees in Geneva, employed a secretary to copy down each of Calvin's sermons, that they might be available for study and meditation. The full story of Calvin's preaching can be found in T. H. L. Parker's volume, Calvin's Preaching.[4]

Although Steven Lawson enumerates thirty-two lessons to be drawn from Calvin's preaching,[5] we will look at only three. We will work in reverse order of importance, because the last point is perhaps the most crucial encouragement for preachers. Of course, every preacher also likes to have a strong conclusion!

Freedom in Preaching

In the first place, Calvin the preacher carried out his calling as both a brave and a busy man. His courage is seen in his willingness to address sins very boldly in his sermons, not simply the sins of the enemies of the gospel far away in Rome, but also the sins of those sitting in front of him in St. Peter's, among whom he lived. His level of activity, the sheer production of his pen and his practical leadership is well known. What is less well known is that Calvin did not prepare a sermon outline or sermon manuscript. He took no notes with him to the pulpit, but preached extemporaneously. He disliked the idea of using a manuscript because it would hinder the preacher from responding freely to the Holy Spirit's illumination and the needs of the congregation.[6] Here is how he described the kind of preaching which he longed to see in the churches:

All these considerations [the problems particular to pre-Elizabethan England] ought not to hinder the ordinance of Jesus Christ from having free course in the preaching of the Gospel. Now, this preaching ought not to be lifeless but lively, to teach, to exhort, to reprove, as Saint Paul says in speaking thereof to Timothy, (2 Tim. iii). So indeed, that if an unbeliever enter, he may be so effectually arrested and convinced, as to give glory to God, as Paul says in another passage, (1 Cor. xiv). You are also aware, Monseigneur, how he speaks of the lively power and energy with which they ought to speak, who would approve themselves as good and faithful ministers of God, who must not make a parade of rhetoric, only to gain esteem for themselves; but that the Spirit of God ought to sound forth by their voice, so as to work with mighty energy. Whatever may be the amount of danger to be feared, that ought not to hinder the Spirit of God from having liberty and free course in those to whom he has given grace for the edifying of the Church.[7]

Calvin is not, of course, a charismatic in the modern sense, expecting the Holy Spirit to give him his message as he stepped into the pulpit. Calvin did what every careful preacher should do; meditate on the text, do one's exegetical homework, and study the best resources. For Calvin that included the commentaries of the early church fathers, of the scholastics, and of his contemporaries. But his aim was to enter the pulpit with only the Scriptures before him and his preparation in mind and to speak pastorally to the congregation.[8] One looks in vain for Calvin to develop a three-point outline, use alliteration, or other modern homiletical techniques. He focused squarely on the verses before him, and while his skill in analyzing and systematizing is seen in how he relates his text to the whole of Scripture, there is also a sense in which he lets the passage stand on its own. Perhaps because of where he stood in the history of interpretation, Calvin did not develop a redemptive-historical approach as fully as we might expect for the father of Reformed hermeneutics.[9] Perhaps Calvin also did this deliberately because of his concern both for the ability of his hearers to understand, and also for the integrity of the text, letting the verses stand on their own. All this is debatable, but the lesson to be drawn here is Calvin's simplicity and immediacy. When a preacher finds himself racking his brains to get a third point for his outline, struggling with alliteration to use as a "hook" for the sermon, for a memorable phrase or two, perhaps Calvin's concern for directness and plain unfolding of the text is important to remember. The preacher, above all, Calvin would say, needs to be clear and understandable, to remember that it is not posterity but the people in the pews to whom he speaks, and that freedom, which follows careful preparation, is a gracious work of the Spirit.

Continuous Exposition

Secondly, on what did Calvin preach? He, with the other Reformers, believed in sola scriptura and tota scriptura, and with them he also practiced lectio continua, verse by verse continuous exposition. In other words, Calvin preached through books verse by verse. Usually he would take several verses at a time, not necessarily a pericope or "thought unit" of a passage, but Calvin simply took verses in their sequential order. Aside from the book of Revelation, he preached on virtually every book in the canon of Scripture, verse by verse and chapter by chapter. Although we have an incomplete record of his preaching, we know that Calvin preached 200 sermons on the book of Deuteronomy, 159 sermons on Job, 174 sermons on Ezekiel, 189 sermons on Acts, 55 sermons on 1 Timothy, and so on. How many twenty-first-century preachers would feel comfortable preaching 174 sermons on the book of Ezekiel, in order, straight through the book?

In reading his sermons, one sees that Calvin was very aware of the amazing relevancy of all of Scripture to God's people in every age. Although a fuller development of the covenant would be articulated in coming years, Calvin knew that the whole Bible was for the people of God so he balanced preaching from the Old Testament with preaching from the New. He also understood that, through the Spirit of Christ, the people at St. Peter's were being addressed by God as powerfully as the original recipients had been. For instance, as he preached on "Enduring Persecution for Christ," a sermon on Hebrews 13:13, Calvin spoke of those who were at the moment facing martyrdom for the sake of the Gospel in various countries of Europe. He also applied the passage to the congregation in Geneva, calling them to whole-hearted zeal and commitment to Christ in light of these current examples. He preached comfort to the suffering believer over and over again from the book of Job. He applied Micah 6:6-8 to the temptations which the church of Rome held out to God's people to turn away from the pure Gospel, to say the "our Father," or to go to Mass. Calvin found that all of God's Word spoke to the needs of God's people simply by proceeding through it in the order in which God gave it.

Here is, perhaps, help for the preacher who wonders how much topical preaching is appropriate. Does a congregation need to hear another series of sermons on loving one another? Certainly there are instances when such series are fitting. But Calvin would encourage us to preach expositionally through whole books of the Bible, not avoiding any part of Scripture, trusting that God will address all the needs of a congregation over the course of time. Calvin also teaches us something about the nature of the pastoral ministry itself. That is, Calvin was taking the long view of preaching, as a pastor will do if he is committed to ministering to a congregation over a number of years. If he preaches expositionally through whole books, by the design of God in Scripture and the working of the Holy Spirit, he will be speaking those things which God wants his people to hear. In other words, there is in this approach a kind of patience which we may lack today. God's people are not instructed overnight, God's truth is not unfolded in a four-week series. Maybe, as we look at Calvin, we might think about the long-term commitment to the ministry of the Word which is required in a given congregation.

The Voice from the Pulpit

Finally, there is a point which underlies all that we might say about Calvin's view of preaching. Generally, in Reformed circles there is a high view of the place of preaching in the life and the worship of God's people. Perhaps, however, we have been too affected by the evangelicalism around us. There can be more focus on preaching gifts (important as they are), than on the preaching office. In spite of the number of reputed pulpit giants in our day, the evangelical world generally denigrates the sermon as a traditional, but relatively ineffective, part of the life of the church.[10]

Here is where Calvin startles and shocks the modern mind. His view appears again and again, but listen to what he writes in the Institutes 4.1.5:

We see the way set for it: the preaching of the heavenly doctrine has been enjoined upon the pastors. We see that all are brought under the same regulation, that with a gentle and terrible spirit they may allow themselves to be governed by teachers appointed to this function ... all those who spurn the spiritual food, divinely extended to them through the hand of the church, deserve to perish in famine and hunger. God breathes faith into us only by the instrument of his gospel, as Paul points out that "faith comes from hearing" [Rom. 10:17]. Likewise, the power to save rests with God [Rom. 1:16]; but (as Paul again testifies) He displays and unfolds it in the preaching of the gospel ... For among the many excellent gifts with which God has adorned the human race, it is a singular privilege that he deigns to consecrate to himself the mouths and tongues of men in order that his voice may resound in them.

What has Calvin just said? That the preacher, speaking the Word of the Lord before the congregation, is used by the Spirit of God to bring blessing or judgment upon God's people. But do you see the daring force with which Calvin speaks? He is not setting up the preached word over against the written word, nor is he saying that the preacher is inspired in the same sense that Scripture is inspired. The authority of the preacher comes because it is the authoritative and holy Word of the Lord he proclaims. Calvin is saying something about the working of the Holy Spirit in the act of preaching the Word. This raises the task of preachers to an awesome height. Calvin says in another place, "We may then conclude from these words, that the glory of God so shines in his word, that we ought to be so much affected by it, whenever he speaks by his servants, as though he were nigh to us, face to face..."[11] Jesus Christ addresses his people Sunday by Sunday through his servants! He has made provision for the nurture of his people in giving his Word, but the preaching of the Word is also from him. Christ, as it were, stands in the midst of his people, addressing them through the words of the preacher. This is why the preaching of the Word has to be one of the marks of the church, for if Christ does not speak to his people in the preaching of his Word, then the church will die. Now Calvin knew very well the problem that arises as God's people see their pastors, whom they know, standing before them with the Word of the Lord. Preachers are sinful, fallible men. The treasure of God is given in earthen vessels (cf. Institutes 4.1.5); this is Calvin's principle of accommodation, of God bending himself down to meet the needs of his people in ways which sometimes veil his glory. This is the way he puts it in the Institutes 4.1.5:

This is doubly useful. On the one hand, he proves our obedience by a very good test when we hear his ministers speaking just as if he himself spoke. On the other, he also provides for our weakness in that he prefers to address us in human fashion through interpreters in order to draw us to himself, rather than to thunder at us and drive us away. Indeed, from the dread with which God's majesty justly overwhelms them, all the pious truly feel how much this familiar sort of teaching is needed.

The grace of God is seen in the act of preaching. God in mercy draws near to his people and gives them his Word. He shows their utter dependence on him for words to live by, yet humbles them in bringing that precious Word to them through human instruments.

Here is the point of Calvin's thought. The task of preaching the Word of God is no avocation, no part-time job, no dispensable part of the service. The Lord would have his people fed, and it is through his Word that salvation is set out and bread is provided. Through the ministry of the Holy Spirit in the church, illumining both preacher and people, this happens in the assembly of the saints. The Westminster Larger Catechism reflects this in Question 155, developing the idea of the "outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicates to his church the benefits of his mediation" from the previous question (154):

How is the Word made effectual to salvation? The Spirit of God maketh the reading, but especially [emphasis added] the preaching of the Word, an effectual means of enlightening, convincing and humbling sinners; of driving them out of themselves, and drawing them unto Christ; of conforming them to his image, and subduing them to his will; of strengthening them against temptations and corruptions; of building them up in grace, and establishing their hearts in holiness and comfort through faith unto salvation.

Ronald Wallace sees Calvin saying the same thing:

Through the preaching of the Word by his ministers, Christ therefore gives his sacramental presence in the midst of his Church, imparts to men the grace which the Word promises, and establishes his Kingdom over the hearts of his hearers. The preaching of the Word by a minister is the gracious form behind which God in coming to men veils that in Himself which man cannot bear to behold directly.[12]

Encouragement to Preachers

The great calling of the preacher as he stands in the pulpit is to have confidence in the Lord and his Word, being faithful to what God has said. It outwardly seems a discouraging calling, yet Calvin encourages the preacher as he comments on Genesis 17:23:

Today, when God wishes his gospel to be preached in the whole world, so that the world may be restored from death to life, he seems to ask for the impossible. We see how greatly we are resisted everywhere and with how many and what potent machinations Satan works against us, so that all roads are blocked by the princes themselves. Yet each man must perform his duty without yielding to any impediment. At the end our effort and our labors shall not fail; they shall receive the success which does not yet appear.[13]

All Europe was electrified by Calvin's preaching because he spoke with utter confidence in God and his Word. Whose word does the preacher proclaim, his own or the Lord's? Boldness and fervor should accompany the knowledge that it is the address of God to his covenant people. This is a vision which will help to keep and heighten the power of preaching in the church today:

"Let him who speaks," he says, "speak only the words of God" [I Peter 4:11]; that is, not hesitatingly and tremblingly as evil consciences are accustomed to speak, but with the high confidence which befits a servant of God, furnished with his sure commands. What is this but to reject all inventions of the human mind (from whatever brain they have issued) in order that God's pure Word may be taught and learned in the believers' church? What is it but to remove the ordinances, or rather inventions of all men (whatever their rank), in order that the decrees of God alone may remain in force? These are those spiritual "weapons ... with power from God to demolish strongholds"; by them God's faithful soldiers "destroy stratagems and every height that rises up against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ" [II Cor. 10:4-5, Comm.]. Here, then, is the sovereign power with which the pastors of the church, by whatever name they be called, ought to be endowed. That is that they may dare boldly to do all things by God's word; may compel all worldly power, glory, wisdom, and exaltation to yield to and obey his majesty; supported by his power, may command all from the highest even to the last; may build up Christ's household and cast down Satan's; may feed the sheep and drive away the wolves; may instruct and exhort the teachable; may accuse, rebuke, and subdue the rebellious and stubborn; may bind and loose; finally, if need be, may launch thunderbolts and lightnings; but do all things in God's Word.[14]

In Geneva there were weekly meetings of the pastors and theologically attuned laymen to discuss Scripture. At the beginning of each meeting, they began with this prayer:

We pray to our God and Father, asking that it may please him to pardon us for all our faults and offenses and illuminate us by his Holy Spirit to have true understanding of his holy Word, giving us the grace to be able to discuss it purely and faithfully for the glory of his holy name, for the edification of the church, and for our own salvation. Which we ask of him in the name of his only beloved son, Our Lord Jesus Christ.[15]


[1] The H. Henry Meeter Center at Calvin College.

[2] References will be to John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion. 1559. Reprint (1 vol. in 2). The Library of Christian Classics, vol. XX. Edited by John T. McNeill. Translated by Ford Lewis Battles. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960.

[3] When this paper was originally prepared, some twenty years ago, the wonderful introduction to Calvin's preaching by Steven J. Lawson was unavailable. For anyone wanting to get acquainted with Calvin's preaching, it is a good place to start. Lawson, The Expository Genius of John Calvin (Orlando, FL: Reformation Trust Publishing, 2007).

[4] T. H. L. Parker, Calvin's Preaching (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1992).

[5] Lawson, Expository Genius of Calvin.

[6] On the Reformed understanding of the work of the Holy Spirit in preaching see Arturo G. Azurdia III, Spirit Empowered Preaching: Involving the Holy Spirit in Your Ministry (Ross-shire, Great Britain: Mentor, 1998).

[7] Letter to the Protector Somerset, October 22, 1548 in Calvin's Selected Works, Vol. 5 (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1983), 190.

[8] "[Calvin] would rather have his sermons heard no farther than his own sheepfold." Conrad Badius cited in Bernard Cottret (English translation), Calvin: A Biography (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000), 292.

[9] Dawn DeVries, "Calvin's Preaching" in The Cambridge Companion to John Calvin, ed. Donald K. McKim (New York, NY: Cambridge Press, 2004), 120ff.

[10] For the challenge to that view see Gregory Edward Reynolds, The Word Is Worth a Thousand Pictures: Preaching in the Electronic Age (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2001).

[11] Commentary on Haggai (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1981), 343 (Hag. 1:12).

[12] Ronald S. Wallace, Calvin's Doctrine of the Word and Sacrament, reprint (Tyler, TX: Geneva Divinity School Press, 1982), 84. It is curious that Steven Lawson does not refer to Wallace's well-known work.

[13] Commentary on Genesis, translated and edited by John King (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1975), 465.

[14] Institutes 4.8.9.

[15] Cottret, Calvin Biography, 296.

Stephen Doe is the pastor of Bethel Reformed Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Ordained Servant, June-July 2008.

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