John Calvin is known today primarily as a systematic theologian, and this is not without reason. His Institutes of the Christian Religion have provided centuries of sustenance to the church’s theological formulations. His polemical struggles against the Catholic Church continue to clarify Protestant thinking about the nature of justification.
However, Calvin was fundamentally a preacher of the gospel. His theology was refined as he preached through the Bible book by book, as more than 4,000 sermons poured forth from his pulpit in Geneva.1 His printed sermons were in demand during his time and the century after, but in subsequent centuries they were largely overlooked, though his commentaries and theological writings continued to be celebrated.
Today, many are not aware of his sermons,2 yet it is in the sermons that we see Calvin the pastor as he really lived and breathed, or in the words of Calvin’s biographer, Emile Doumergue, as he stood in Calvin’s pulpit on the 400th anniversary of his birth, “That is the Calvin who seems to me to be the real and authentic Calvin, the one who explains all the others: Calvin the preacher of Geneva.”3
Calvin, the preacher of Geneva, was, at his heart, a preacher of the gospel, as Parker says: “the centre of his pastoral work, around which all else resolved, was the preaching of the gospel.”4
I have spent the past couple of years reading Calvin’s sermons on 1 Timothy, deciphering the English translation of 1579 and updating the language to make these powerful sermons more accessible to readers today.5 I quickly realized these sermons destroy many of the common stereotypes of Calvin. Here you find a lively pastor with a deep, personal interest in his people, a passion for their faithfulness, a yearning for congregational adherence to God’s Word, and a zeal for taking the gospel to the nations.
Here are some key truths which I saw emerge from these sermons:
The Word of God is at the center of all of Calvin’s preaching. You know what a preacher really thinks of the Bible by how he preaches. Does he feel the need to look elsewhere for inspiration and power, or does he come to preach the Scripture itself? Calvin was consumed by Scripture. The Bible guided his content and his sermon planning. We see this most dramatically when Calvin returned to Geneva after a three-year exile. He returned to his sermon series precisely where he’d stopped before being forced out.
All of Calvin’s sermons are not equally great. Some days he was better than other days. This should be encouraging to us regular preachers. Even the greats have off days. This is why we must rely on Scripture and not our own abilities. If we rely on our own abilities, our lackluster sermons contain no hope; but if we make sure to say what the text says every time, then on our flattest days, the Word can do its work.
Most preaching is done in the midst of difficulty. We tend to think that if everything would just go more smoothly, we could preach better. If the deacons would cooperate, if there weren’t any problems in the nursery; if it weren’t for challenges with our own families…then we could prepare better and preach better. The reality is that our people must do their own work amid everyday challenges, and so did the great preachers throughout church history.
When I began working on these sermons, I had no idea of the context in which they were preached. As I began digging, I came across Parker’s magisterial book, Calvin’s Preaching, which gives a lot of attention to these sermons. He points out that they were
“preached during the period of particular difficulty in Geneva…Two days after he had begun the sermons on 1 Timothy, he was writing to Bullinger that matters were still in suspense in Geneva. Six weeks later to Farel, ‘Our enemies are plotting—what I do not know. The day after Christmas Day, there is a cry of despair to Wolf that his only comfort is that he soon will be dead. After the city elections of February 1555 had turned out satisfactorily for him, he still could tell Bullinger that he expected to be banished.”6
Furthermore, he had to interrupt this series for visits to Bern, Geneva’s more powerful neighbor and former ally, to work on treaty negotiations.
These sermons were not written by a pastor at leisure but rather one struggling to hold on to his ministry in the face of organized resistance and heavy work demands. While he was seeking the well-being and maturity of his people, he was misunderstood and attacked by wolves. Does that sound familiar?
Preachers must be bold and humble. Too often people confuse boldness with arrogance. The arrogant think they are being bold; and the humble, afraid of being arrogant, end up being timid. Boldness is rooted in great confidence in God. Arrogance arises from great confidence in yourself. Calvin is a helpful model here. He rebukes sin and speaks with full confidence about what his people ought—and ought not—do. At the same time, he is clear that he is among those who struggle with sin. He is honest about his own frailty, but speaks with full confidence wherever Scripture speaks.
Calvin was deeply concerned for evangelism. People so often believe the caricature of Calvin, that his understanding of predestination caused him to have no care about evangelism. There is much from Calvin’s life that disproves this misrepresentation, and these sermons contain prime evidence. His closing prayers often include petitions for people far and near to come to faith. He regularly called on people to believe and expounded the necessity of sharing the gospel with others. He often exhorted his people to work and pray for the conversion of their neighbors, as well as taking the gospel to the ends of the earth.
In fact, he strongly rebuked those who had no care to “bring their neighbors to the way of salvation,” saying such people “make no account of God’s honor,” and they are “cold” and “negligent” if they do not earnestly pray for those who “are this day in the way to death and damnation” (Sermon 14). He argued that we should “work toward the salvation of the whole world, and give ourselves to this work both night and day” (Sermon 11).
Calvin addressed the question of what we should do when wicked men refuse to listen or careless people are not interested in the gospel. He told preachers to “go on still, and call as many to God as they can” (Sermon 36). I have my disagreements with Calvin, but they do not have to do with our obligation to take the gospel to all the world, calling upon all people to come to Christ and be saved.
Preachers must be patient people. In these sermons, we see Calvin’s yearning for the good of his people and God’s glory, as well as his frustration with the glacial speed of change and rampant apathy among the people of Geneva. We tend to think giants of the past knew only success. We know that is not true, but the idea slips into our thinking.
In these sermons, we find Calvin lamenting the indifference of the majority and calling down judgment upon them. We find him resting his hope in the future revelation of Jesus Christ in all His glory. The last half of Sermon 45 is especially helpful for overzealous pastors who are anxious for immediate purity in the church. Here Calvin said we should, of course, seek purity, but we also should realize God does not expose things all at once. God is taking His own time in the process.
Preachers today can identify with these challenges and should find encouragement, as well as an example of perseverance. We, too, must hold fast and faithfully fulfill our task, knowing God is doing more than we can see.
Everyday life, including marriage, family and child-rearing, should not be neglected as the arena of God’s work. In keeping with one of the major Reformation emphases, Calvin wonderfully upheld the value and nobility of everyday life in God’s eyes. In particular, Calvin championed the high calling of motherhood, as well as the importance of marriage, child-rearing and family life (Sermon 41). He also said the labors of family life ought not to be neglected for the sake of prayer (Sermon 38).
Excellent application is a necessity for true biblical preaching. Calvin was not content merely to lecture on abstract ideas. He is earnest and pointed in his applications, challenging, stirring and comforting his people as he addressed everyday aspects of the Christian life. Sermon 50, for example, is a robust encouragement to perseverance, demonstrating how the gospel aids us in holding fast. Calvin stressed the need for human effort, as well as the recognition that such effort is rooted in God’s grace. The sermon is theologically rich and pastorally helpful, as Calvin explained how the beauty of the gospel promises drive us forward. This can be a balm for discouraged pastors, as well as a strong challenge to faithfulness and holiness for all Christians.
Solid pastoral ministry arises from deep engagement with the Scripture text. Not surprisingly, given the content of 1 Timothy, there are several exemplary sermons on preaching and pastoral ministry. Sermon 20 paints a compelling picture of pastoral ministry and its burden for souls. Sermons 31 and 34 are excellent encouragement for proper preaching, and Sermon 47 persuasively argues that good teaching edifies the church. Sermon 35 provides an extended discussion of ordination and the purpose of pastoral ministry. Sermon 36 is laden with the themes of evangelism and perseverance in ministry.
I have found these sermons to be deeply enriching. Relevant insights jump from practically every page. As Parker said of them, “Such preaching as this pursued so regularly and applied so stringently to the people, was the central explosive point of the church’s work in Geneva.” May our pulpits have such powerful effect today.
1 Timothy George, Reading Scripture with the Reformers (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2011), 245.
2 Parker states, “Calvin’s sermons were, in effect, unknown to the 17th and 18th centuries and to half the 19th.” Calvin’s Preaching (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1992), 74.
3 Quoted by Harold Dekker, “Introduction,” Sermons from Job by John Calvin, (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1952), p. xii. [I found this in Piper’s address on Calvin, http://www.desiringgod.org/ResourceLibrary/Biographies/1471_The_Divine_Majesty_of_the_Word/)
4 Parker, Portrait, 81.
5 Ray Van Neste and Brian Denker, eds. John Calvin’s Sermons on 1 Timothy (Amazon Digital Services, 2016).
6 T.H.L. Parker, Calvin’s Preaching, 115-16.
7 Parker, Portrait, 89.