10 Distinguishing Marks of John Calvin’s Preaching
Published in celebration of the five hundredth anniversary of John Calvin’s birth (2009), John Calvin: A Heart for Devotion, Doctrine, and Doxology corrects the many caricatures of John Calvin, as each chapter progressively paints a portrait of a man who truly had, as the title suggests, a heart for devotion, doctrine, and doxology.
Steven Lawson contributed a chapter on John Calvin as “The Preacher of God’s Word.” Here is a summary of that chapter, outlining what Steven Lawson suggests are the ten distinguishing marks of Calvin’s preaching.
1. John Calvin’s preaching was biblical in its substance.
“The Reformer stood firmly on the chief cornerstone of the Reformation—sola Scriptura (“Scripture alone”). … The preacher, Calvin believed, has nothing to say apart from Scripture.”
2. John Calvin’s preaching was sequential in its pattern.
“For the duration of his ministry, Calvin’s approach was to preach systematically through entire books of the Bible. … Calvin preached from the New Testament on Sunday mornings, from the New Testament or the Psalms on Sunday afternoons, and from the Old Testament every morning of the week, every other week. In this consecutive fashion, Calvin preached through most of the books of the Scriptures.”
3. John Calvin’s preaching was direct in its message.
“When expounding Scripture, Calvin was remarkably straightforward and to the point. He did not launch his message with a captivating story, a compelling quote, or a personal anecdote. Instead, Calvin immediately drew his listeners into the biblical text. The focus of the message was always Scripture, and he spoke what needed to be said with an economy of words. There were no wasted statements.”
4. John Calvin’s preaching was extemporaneous in its delivery.
“When Calvin stepped into his pulpit, he did not bring with him a written manuscript or any sermon notes. The Reformer made a conscious choice to preach extempore, that is, spontaneously. He wanted his sermons to have a natural and passionate delivery that was energetic and engaging, and he believed spontaneous preaching was best suited to achieve those ends.”
5. John Calvin’s preaching was exegetical in its approach.
“Calvin insisted that the words of Scripture must be interpreted in their particular historical backgrounds, original languages, grammatical structures, and biblical contexts. … [He] insisted on the sensus literalis, the literal sense of the biblical text.”
6. John Calvin’s preaching was accessible in its simplicity.
“As a preacher, Calvin’s primary aim was not to communicate to other theologians, but to reach the common person in the pew. … Occasionally, Calvin would explain the meaning of a word more carefully, but without ever giving the Hebrew or Greek original. Yet Calvin did not hesitate to use the language of the Bible.”
7. John Calvin’s preaching was pastoral in its tone.
“The Genevan Reformer never lost sight of the fact that he was a pastor. Thus, he warmly applied Scripture with loving exhortation to shepherd his flock. He preached with the intent of prompting and encouraging his sheep to follow the Word.”
8. John Calvin’s preaching was polemic in its defense of the truth.
“For Calvin, preaching necessitated an apologetic defense of the faith. He believed that preachers must guard the truth, so systematic exposition required confronting the Devil’s lies in all their deceptive forms.”
9. John Calvin’s preaching was passionate in its outreach.
There is a sad misconception today that because Calvin believed in predestination, he was not evangelistic. The persistent myth is that he did not have a passion to reach lost souls for Christ. Nothing could be further from the truth. Calvin possessed a great passion to reach lost souls. For that reason, he preached the gospel with heart-stirring persuasion, passionately pleading with errant sinners to cast themselves on God’s mercy.
10. John Calvin’s preaching was doxological in its conclusion.
“All of Calvin’s sermons were God-centered throughout, but his closing appeals were especially heartfelt and passionate. He simply could not step down from his pulpit without lifting up the Lord and urging his listeners to yield to His absolute supremacy. … As he concluded, Calvin regularly exhorted his congregation: ‘Let us fall before the majesty of our great God.’ Whatever his text, these fervent words called for the unconditional submission of his listeners.”
Available from ReformationTrust.com