G3: Steve Lawson – The Preaching of John Calvin and What We Can Learn

This is a live blog of the G3 Conference. I will be updating along with the speakers. You can follow the line-up at: G3 Schedule. Some of the words are paraphrases of quotes that I am unable to catch.

Lawson explains that no man more loved or more hated or most misunderstood than John Calvin. Even so, Calvin is the most influential. To omit John Calvin from the history of western Christianity is to read history with one eye shut.

Calvin stood at the top of the movement that shaped history. He has been estimated to be greatest theologian since the biblical authors. (I hoped I caught the spirit of the comment.)

Douglas Kelley notes that the biblical truth that Calvin forged at Geneva would influence the world. Spurgeon said that among those who have been born of women there has not risen a greater than John Calvin. Spurgeon went onto say that John Calvin went on to expound more Scripture than any man that has ever breathed. Calvin was an unparalleled theologian. The single most influential reformer.

First and foremost, Calvin was a pastor. He pastored one flock for over 25 years. He was a preacher. The foremost biographer of Calvin stood in his pulpit and thought that the real and authentic Calvin was Calvin the preacher. Though Calvin has come to be known as a theologian and conversationalist, but the truth is – Calvin saw himself first of all, as a pastor of the church of Christ. Calvin’s chief duty was to preach.

So what can we say about the preaching of John Calvin?

He was and remains the most influential Christians in the past 500 years.

Lawson will show six distinguishing marks of Calvin’s preaching.

1. Authority of Biblical Truth

Calvin stood on sola scriptura. SS was never more clear than from Calvin’s pulpit. He believed the chief mandate was preaching the word of God. Calvin went to great lengths to not to be a speculative theologian.

If you are a preacher and do not preach the Word of God, you need to retire and go sell insurance. You are a fraud. Calvin knew the authority of his preaching was grounded in God’s word. He desired to leave his own thoughts at home.

Calvin was determined to preached only what Scripture speaks. A rule is prescribed to all of God’s sermons that they only deliver what is from the Word of God and he must deliver it as it has been written.

Calvin knew he was under the authority of God as he worked out his ministry. Calvin’s humility was shown by his submission to God’s word. Calvin understood that he was standing on holy ground when in the pulpit.

Calvin wrote, “We owe to the Scripture, the same reference which we owe to God.”

God’s word is not show time, but the voice of the living God. Preaching holds no other purpose than that God be heard. Calvin stated with Augustine that when the Bible speaks, God speaks.

Calvin was nothing more, nothing less than a Bible preacher. J.M. Boyce said Calvin had nothing but the Bible. The city began, as John Knox stated, a new Jerusalem where the gospel spread to the rest of the world.

2. Priority of Sequential Exposition

Calvin’s approach to preaching was to preach systematically through the Bible. This ensured that the full counsel of God was preached and none of the hard sayings or difficult doctrines were skipped. No sins left unexposed or promises left undelivered.

The books Calvin preached from in his 25 years were the following with the number of consecutive sermons in brackets: Gospel of John, Romans, Acts (189), 1 Cor. (110), 2 Cor. (66), Eph. (48), He literally died preaching the gospels. Calvin preached through Genesis (123), 1 Sam. (107), Job (159), Psalm 119 (22), Isaiah (353), Jeremiah 91, Lam. 25, Amos (43), Zeph. (17). [Note, I did not catch all of the books and sermon numbers.]

The primary means of grace was seen as the preaching of God’s word.

Two examples of Calvin’s dogged determination of going verse-by-verse through the Bible. Calvin was detoured to the city of Geneva while he was traveling. While sitting in the Inn, William Farel saw Calvin and came to him and said Geneva needed him. Calvin said he was not the right man. Farel replied may God’s curse be upon him. Calvin stayed and was run out of town in two years.

Calvin fenced the Lord’s table and instituted church discipline; neither were well received. Calvin left and was asked to return. He said he would rather die one-thousands deaths. Martin Bucer said Calvin was Jonah running from God if he did not return to Geneva. Calvin reluctantly went back.

His first sermon back in Geneva after 3.5 years was picking up at the very next verse which he last preached from the same pulpit.

Calvin was sick for years and unable to preach. When he returned to preached he picked up at the next verse again as if he was never absent.

Boyce wrote that Calvin’s sermons were normally an hour long.

Lawson encourages pastors to preach systematically through the Bible while not ignoring thematic preaching at times like Christmas and Easter.

3. The Accuracy of Sound Exegesis

Calvin was careful with the original language and context to grasp the meaning of Scripture. He had a great grasp of the original languages. John Murray said that Calvin was the exegete of the Reformation.

As Calvin stood in the pulpit he preached out of a Hebrew Bible for the OT and a Greek Bible for the NT. Most of us are still trying to master English. Calvin poured his brilliant intellect into the Word of God.

Calvin said it is presumptuous and almost blasphemous to not preach out of what was in the text. He was looking for the natural and obvious meaning. He thought the common man can understand the Bible since it was written by God with the clarity of language. The preacher should simply unfold was is written.

Before one applies a passage to someone in the 16th century, we must first understand the authorial intent. Calvin cared about what it meant to the original authors and recipients.

We say location, location, location in real estate. In Bible study we say context, context, context. Calvin concluded that the important thing is that the Scripture should be understood and explained. How it is explained is secondary. Calvin weighted substance over style – doctrine over delivery. Calvin observed a simple style of teaching. He felt nothing to be of more importance than a literal interpretation of the biblical text.

John MacArthur said the meaning of the text is the text. Schaff wrote that Calvin kept in view the interpreter and transferred himself into the mental state of the authors to understand what they did say not what they might have said.

John Broadus, “Calvin gave the ablest, soundest, clearest expositions of Scripture that had been seen for a thousands years.”

Lawson says that all clear interpretation requires much perspiration. God’s word must be rightly interpreted and we will answer before God for their preaching.

4. Committed to the Energy of Lively Preaching

Calvin preached with no notes. He would simply flow from phrase to phrase, verse to verse. He did not want to be a boring Reformed preacher. Lawson says bore people with Skakespeare not the Bible.

There are too many Reformed preachers today that are no more than lecturers.

Calvin was not a hyper-Calvinist, but a true preacher of the word of God. He preached in a way that made demands of the listener. Though he had no notes he was not unprepared, rather he was so prepared that he did not need notes. He was accurate and precise.

Every word weighed a pound. A professional stenographer was highered to record every word that Calvin said. This could be done because every word was so important. Calvin didn’t just ramble like an airplane just circling the airport never landing the plane. Calvin wanted to get to the text of Scripture as quickly as possible.

Though Calvin was an intellect, he choose to preach in a common language to communicate God’s truth to everyone. Boyce noted that Calvin had little rhetorical flourish. He wanted to make the biblical text as clear as possible.

Too often those in Reformed circles are stuffing people instead of dividing up the word into small, bite-sized pieces. Calvin never used Greek or Hebrew words in the pulpit.

God has given us minds which must be renewed. The preacher much preach God’s truth in a clear and understandable way. Calvin did use metaphors and wisdom that appealed to the imagination. There were not five minute illustrations, but analogies, metaphors, similes….

Much of Calvin’s preaching is in the first person plural such as “us” and “we”. In Micah 2:4-5, Calvin preached with words like “let us” and “we” and “our”. Lawson reads an excerpt.

The last two points are cut short due to time constraints.

5. Necessity of Gospel Defense

The pastor ought to have two voices. One for gathering the sheep. The other for warding off the wolves.

To assert the truth is only half of the office of preaching. All of the fallacies of the devil must be warded off.

6. Fervency of Evangelistic Passion

Calvin was a gospel preacher. He was continuing holding forth the gospel of Christ calling people to faith in Jesus Christ.

From Calvin on Galatians 2:15-16 (paraphrase): We are all under condemnation whenever we compare ourselves to God. We must find rest when Jesus finds us. We must seek God for our burdens. Let us understand that there is no salvation whatsoever outside of Jesus Christ. Christ is all in all. We can only bring condemnation upon ourselves. We are saved by faith. God the Father has appointed His Son, Jesus Christ, to be the author and finisher of our faith. All belongs to Him.

Virtually every sermon ends with the same things. Calvin would put his arms around the congregation and leave them before the face of God.

Lawson finished with a quote of Calvin ending a sermon and a summary of his presentation.


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