Pillar Journal

Calvin as an Experiential Preacher


John Calvin embraced a high view of preaching. He called the preaching office “the most excellent of all things,” commended by God that it might be held in the highest esteem. “There is nothing more notable or glorious in the church than the ministry of the gospel,” he concluded. [Institutes of the Christian Religion [hereafter Inst.], ed. John T. McNeill and trans. Ford Lewis Battles {hereafter: Inst.} (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), 4.3.3.] In commenting on Isaiah 55:11, he says, “The Word goeth out of the mouth of God in such a manner that it likewise goeth out of the mouth of men; for God does not speak openly from heaven but employs men as his instruments.” [Commentary on Isaiah, 4:172.]

Calvin viewed preaching as God’s normal means of salvation and benediction. He said that the Holy Spirit is the “internal minister” who uses the “external minister” in preaching the Word. The external minister “holds forth the vocal word and it is received by the ears,” but the internal minister “truly communicates the thing proclaimed [which] is Christ.” [Tracts and Treatises, trans. Henry Beveridge (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1958),1:173.] Thus, God Himself speaks through the mouth of His servants by His Spirit. “Wherever the gospel is preached, it is as if God himself came into the midst of us,” Calvin wrote.[Commentary on Synoptic Gospels, 3:129.] Preaching is the instrument and the authority that the Spirit uses in His saving work of illuminating, converting, and sealing sinners. “There is…an inward efficacy of the Holy Spirit when he sheds forth his power upon hearers, that they may embrace a discourse [sermon] by faith.” [Commentary on Ezekiel, 1:61.]

Calvin taught that the preached Word and the inner testimony of the Spirit should be distinguished but cannot be separated. Word and Spirit are joined together organically; without the Spirit, the preached Word only adds to the condemnation of unbelievers. On the other hand, Calvin admonished the radicals who accented the Spirit at the expense of the Word, saying that only the spirit of Satan separates itself from the Word.[Willem Balke, “Het Pietisme in Oostfriesland,” Theologia Reformata 21 (1978):320– 27.]

This stress on preaching moved Calvin to be active on several fronts in Geneva. First, he showed his convictions through his own example. Calvin preached from the New Testament on Sunday mornings, the Psalms on Sunday afternoons, and the Old Testament at 6:00 a.m. on one or two weekdays. Following this schedule during his last stay in Geneva from 1541 to 1564, Calvin preached nearly four thousand sermons, more than 170 sermons a year. On his deathbed, he spoke of his preaching as more significant than his writings. [William Bouwsma, John Calvin: A Sixteenth-Century Portrait (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 29.]

Second, Calvin often preached to his congregation about their responsibility to hear the Word of God aright. He taught his members in what spirit they should come to the sermon, what to listen for in preaching, and what was expected of those who hear. Since, for Calvin, all true preaching is biblical preaching and ministers are to preach only what God commands by opening His Word, people were to test sermons by this criterion. Unscriptural sermons were to be rejected; scriptural sermons were to be accepted and obeyed. Calvin’s goal was that the people would grasp the importance of preaching, learn to desire preaching as a supreme blessing, and participate as actively in the sermon as the preacher himself. Their basic attitude should be one of “willingness to obey God completely and with no reserve,” Calvin said. [Leroy Nixon, John Calvin: Expository Preacher (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1950), 65.]

Calvin was motivated to stress profitable hearing of the Word because he believed that few people hear well. Here is a typical assessment of Calvin: “If the same sermon is preached, say, to a hundred people, twenty receive it with the ready obedience of faith, while the rest hold it valueless, or laugh, or hiss, or loathe it.” I found more than forty similar comments in Calvin’s sermons (especially on Deuteronomy), commentaries (e.g., on Psalm 119:101 and Acts 11:23), and the Institutes (especially 3.21 to 3.24). If profitable hearing was a problem in Calvin’s day, how much more so today, when ministers have to compete for their congregation’s attention with all the mass media that bombard us on a daily basis?

Third, the Genevan system Calvin established emphasized preaching. On Sundays, the Genevan Ordinances stipulated that sermons be preached in each of the three churches at daybreak and again at 9:00 a.m. After the children were catechized at noon, a third sermon was preached in each church at 3:00 p.m. Weekday sermons were also scheduled in the churches on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays at varying hours so that they could be heard one after the other. That way people could take in three sermons in one day, if they so desired. By the time Calvin died, there was at least one sermon preached in
every church every day of the week.

Calvin’s gifts and high view of preaching both theologically and in practice motivates us to study his sermons…

Excerpt from
Puritan Reformed Journal
July 2009 | Volume 1 • Number 2
By Joel Beeke