By Randy Sawyer
Of all the notable preachers of the era, perhaps the greatest Bible expositor of the Reformation was John Calvin. In lectures on the History of Preaching, John Broadus suggests that “Calvin gave the ablest, soundest, clearest expositions of scripture that had been for a thousand years.” J. I. Packer said, “He was in fact, the finest exegete, the greatest systematic theologian, and the profoundest thinker that the Reformation produced.”
A Sudden Conversion
John Calvin was born at Noyon, Picards, on July 10, 1509. He was religiously inclined from a very early age. After obtaining a solid educational foundation, he matriculated to the University of Orleans, which specialized in legal studies. John’s brilliance was acknowledged by the readiness of the teaching staff to use him as an assistant.
While at the University, he became friends with Pierre Robert Oliventan who became the human instrument of his conversion. The details of his evangelical conversion are unknown to us, but in the preface of his commentary on the Psalms, Calvin wrote about a movement of God in his life that brought about a “sudden conversion.” Calvin commented,
When I was as yet a very little boy, my father had destined me for the study of theology. But afterwards, when he considered that the legal profession commonly raised those who followed it to wealth; this prospect induced him suddenly to change his purpose. Thus it came to pass, that I was withdrawn from the study of philosophy, and was put to the study of law. To this pursuit I endeavored faithfully to apply myself, in obedience to the will of my father; but God, by the secret guidance of his providence, at length gave a different direction to my course.
At first, since I was too obstinately devoted to the superstitions of Popery to be easily extracted from so profound an abyss of mire, God by a sudden conversion subdued and brought my mind a teachable frame, which was more hardened in such matter than might have been expected from one at my early period of life.
Following his conversion, Calvin turned from law to theology. He went to Paris to continue his Greek studies where he published his first book, a commentary on Seneca’s De Clementia. Soon he was preaching, teaching and pastoring informally among his peers. These were exciting days in the history of Christianity in France. When Calvin joined the Protestants, he was joining a movement under persecution.
A Systematic Classic
The year 1534 saw French Protestants posting placards in major towns attacking the mass. When official persecution threatened, Calvin moved to Basel where in March 1536, the first edition of his Institutesappeared. This apologiaof the Protestant faith was brilliantly written and an immediate success.
Eventually Calvin settled in Geneva where he remained, aside from three years of banishment, until his death in 1564. His goal in Geneva was to teach the Word of God. He established a daily gathering for psalm singing and expository preaching, the monthly administration of the Lord’s Supper, and an autonomous ecclesiastical consistory for censuring and excommunicating delinquent members.
Calvin’s growing popularity, in addition to his well-articulated theological position, led to a heated conflict with the city council. Consequently, he was forced into exile between 1538 and 1541. While he was in exile, the controversy expanded to include Geneva’s high society, the Libertine Party. By 1555, however, the Libertines had fled the city, the council itself was subdued, and thereafter Calvin was widely accepted as the grand old man of Geneva and the reformed world.
As a second-generation reformer, Calvin labored to confirm and preserve what those who preceded him, (Luther, Zwingli and Melanchthon), had set forth. He stood on their shoulders as a spokesman for the universal church. Without him, Protestantism might not have survived beyond the middle of the 17th century, for the simple reason that his Institutes of the Christian Religionis one of Protestantism’s classic statements.
Calvin’s vision fired such great Christian thinkers as Richard Baxter, John Bunyan, George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards and others. Though buried in an unmarked grave, his name is enduringly written in the works that live after him and in the lives he touched.
A Singular Commitment
John Calvin’s philosophy of preaching was simple: he regarded the Bible as the Word of God. He began his comments on Titus 1:15-16 with these words:
St. Paul hath shown us that we must be ruled by the Word of God, and hold the commandments of men as vain and foolish; for holiness and perfection of life belongeth not to them . . . .To be short, St. Paul informs us in this place that in these days we have liberty to eat all kinds of meat without exception. As for the health of the body, that is not here spoken of, but the matter here set forth is that men shall not set themselves up as masters, to make laws for us contrary to the Word of God.
He strongly believed that the preacher entered the pulpit only to proclaim God’s Word and not his own ideas. Therefore, Calvin used the expository method of the Reformation preachers. His commentaries were the fruits of his preaching and lecturing, and his sermons were his commentaries extended and applied. The expository method he employed was mostly in the form of the homily; however, there was a central thought or thesis, and a logical sequence evident in his sermons.
Calvin spoke entirely without manuscript and frequently with little preparation. Some of his extant sermons reflect the lack of preparation; however, it should be remembered that he preached almost daily for a number of years. In spite of the absence of specific sermon study, Calvin’s exegesis was extraordinary.
Broadus commented that every word from Calvin’s lips weighed ä pound. It was his custom to study many hours a day. He usually began studying by five or six o’clock each morning and continued into late evening. Most of his study was done on his couch, for he was always physically weak and sickly. No doubt his diligence in study enabled him to preach without further preparation.
Calvin’s personality was rather austere; consequently, his sermons were mostly void of humor or imagination. His critics described his preaching as cold, dull and pedantic. While this is true to a degree, it is also true that he could be warm and compassionate. He spoke with simplicity, brevity and quietness, avoiding elegance or oratory.
However, he never lacked conviction and passion for the truth. Dargan said of Calvin,
“Though the highest qualities of oratory found no place in his preaching, the power of his thought the force of his will, the excellence of his style, and above all, the earnestness with which he made the truth of God shine forth in his words, made him a great preacher.”
His commitment to expository preaching also made him a potent force for much needed reformation.
Article adapted from Contact magazine, October 2001.