John Calvin (1509-1564) was born in Nyon, France. He prepared himself for a law career at the insistence of his father, but when his father died, he turned his interests towards the classics, and eventually toward the Christian faith. At the age of twenty-five the Bible became his main sourcebook.
His was an intensely intellectual ministry. That he did such extraordinary things in the course of a life broken by ill health and surrounded by every kind of danger and trial is due to the fact that he completed the Institutes when he was twenty-five and began when he was only twenty-three. Mark Pattison said, “Calvin seized the idea of reformation as a real innovation of character.” The German Reformers were engaged in remodelling abstract metaphysical statements but Calvin embraced the lofty idea of the Church of Christ as a society of regenerated men and women.
He went to Geneva to make a great experiment. He believed that a preacher of the Gospel might create and inspire a Church to become an instrument of freedom and righteousness in the civic life of the city. He resisted the call to Geneva at first, believing that his own work was in the study rather than in the marketplace, but Farel stood over him and with prophetic vehemence pronounced a curse upon his studies if he did not come to the help of the Lord in Geneva. He said,You have no other pretext for refusing me than the attraction you declare you have for your studies. But I tell you in the name of the Almighty if you do not come with me and share the holy work on which I am engaged, he will not bless your plans because you prefer your repose to Jesus Christ.
At first the people, alarmed at Calvin’s moral strictness, drove him forth from their midst with a violent hatred that shook the preacher’s sensitive nature. But he returned and was elected to be the mouthpiece of God to the city where he ruled and taught until his death at the age of fifty-four, in 1564.
Boza said of Calvin’s preaching, “Every word weighed a pound.” The congregation in Geneva agreed with him. Those words describe the heart of Calvin’s preaching. John Broadus once said that a great preacher is “not a mere artist and not a feeble suppliant; he is a conquering soul, a monarch, a born ruler of mankind.” Calvin’s strong character gave force to his utterance, and this forcefulness was intensified by his saturation in the Word.
He believed in short sermons. He had no patience, he said, with a prolix style. Silvester Horne says of his sermons, “Seldom will you read anywhere discourses with so little illustration or ornamentation which are yet penetrating and pertinent. There are no chasings on the blade of his sword. It is plain keen steel and without an edge.”1 Strong, stately, and lucid, his sentences carry you forward from point to point of his argument.
Calvin was a champion of extemporaneous preaching. He went so far as to declare that the power of God could only pour itself forth in extempore speech. As he preached without manuscript, his sermons were transcribed as delivered from 1549 onwards. It is in this way that two thousand of his sermons have been preserved.
Andrew Blackwood said of him that “he did not always take time to prepare his extempore sermons with care and he seldom revised them in detail.” But it needs to be remembered that he preached daily for months at a time. His general study habits and his unusual memory succeeded in atoning for his haste in sermon building.
Williston Walker, in his biography of Calvin, described the long hours he spent in his study. He slept little and by five or six o’clock in the morning his books were brought to him in bed. Because of his asthma, he thought that a reclining position was better for his health. After the single meal which was his daily diet in his later years, he often walked about in his room for a quarter of an hour, and then returned to his studies.
Calvin’s attitude toward biblical preaching, in his own words, was that God’s Word had been committed to the preachers like the royal scepter of God, under which all creatures bow their heads and bend their knees. Let them boldly dare all things, and constrain all the glory, highness and power of this world to obey and to yield to the divine majesty; let them by this same Word have command over everyone; let them edify the house of Christ, overthrowing the reign of Satan; let them lead the flock to pasture and kill the wolves; let them bind and let loose thunder and lightning, if that is their calling, but all in God’s name.
Calvin drew all his sermons from the Bible. He preached from it book by book, passage by passage. His aim was to show clearly what the scriptures meant and what difference they ought to make in the lives of his hearers. As a rule he had no introduction to his sermons. He would begin like this: “We saw yesterday,” or “We have seen this morning.” Similarly, he would end like this, “Therefore we see now” or “We will have to save the rest until tomorrow.” There is little evidence that he paid any attention to divisions or transitions.
Some have called Calvin the greatest expositor in the history of the Church since the days of Chrysostom. His scholarly exposition of the Scriptures always resulted in practical application, and in both alike there was a fervor of feeling and a force of will which sought through the conscience to move to action.
While Calvin no less than Luther found the gospel of salvation in the Bible, Calvin’s emphasis was upon God’s demand and Luther’s on God’s pity and mercy. He was more systematic than Luther. He set himself to expound the Old Testament as well as the New, for he maintained the identity of true religion in both Old and New Testaments. He rejected the allegorical method but by means of typology he linked the two stages of the divine revelation.
Calvin’s appearance was against him, for he was not a handsome man like Zwingli. Narrow lips and sunken eyes in a great head mounted upon a weak body, yet he seemed to command respect as he stood before the people. He spoke slowly and deliberately so that those who wanted to take notes had ample time to do so. He did not have a good voice and sometimes his asthma produced an unpleasant rasp. What made him a great preacher? The answer is that he always had something to say, and he said it without ornamentation or attempts at oratorical beauty, yet with the force and power found only in the Word.
In Calvin’s preaching the primary truth was the sovereignty of God. God is master. Nothing happens except at His command. He has the right to command and to expect obedience. His glory and honor must have first place in our lives.
Nixon, while a student of homiletics at Princeton under Blackwood, made a study of Calvin’s preaching. He concluded that Calvin gave the soundest and clearest expositions of Scripture that had been seen in a thousand years. He had the ability to see the exact relationship of many scattered portions of Scripture. Nixon made four applications for our preaching today in his study of Calvin’s ministry. First, be a real student of the Bible. Second, preach often. Third, appeal to the deepest needs of the congregation. Fourth, speak plainly; be conversational, not oratorical.
1. Horne, Silvester. The Romance of Preaching, p. 180.