This week we celebrate Reformation Day, the day Martin Luther boldly banged his ninety-five theses to the church door with nails and a hammer: October 31, 1517. Of course, he more likely glued the document with poster paste. And he probably left the decoupage to an assistant. Theatrics or not — the date marks the ignition of what would grow into the Protestant Reformation. Last time, in episode 1387, we looked at whether or not we should read dead white guys. Or are they now irrelevant? And as we inch our way closer to Reformation Day this year, we take a look at the legacy of Reformer John Calvin, and to do it, I will share a clip from Pastor John’s 1997 biography on Calvin and his role in shaping the Reformation and our Reformed tradition as we know it today. Here’s what Pastor John had to say.
His view of Scripture, which defined the remainder of his ministry, was very high. He said, “We owe to the Scripture the same reverence which we owe to God, because it proceeded from Him alone, and has nothing of man mixed with it” (John Calvin: A Collection of Distinguished Essays, 162). His own experience had taught him that “the highest proof of the Scripture derives in general from the fact that God in person speaks in it” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1.7.4) Those were the incontrovertible truths for John Calvin. The Scriptures were the voice of God. God vindicates God by bringing us to life by his majestic witness. We see him in his Scriptures, and he and they then become authoritative immediately for our lives.
And what kind of life is born for Calvin? It was a life of invincible constancy in the exposition of Scripture. Tracts, institutes, commentaries on every New Testament book except Revelation, numerous Old Testament books, but all of it — all of it — is exposition of Scripture.
Scripture for a Lifetime
John Dillenberger says Calvin “assumed that his whole theological labor was the exposition of Scripture” (John Calvin: Selections from His Writings, 14). He wrote, at the end of his life, “I have endeavored both in my sermons and also in my writings and commentaries to preach the word purely and chastely, and faithfully to interpret his sacred Scriptures” (John Calvin: Selections from His Writings, 35). Everything was exposition of Scripture. That was the kind of ministry that was unleashed by his experience.
“Preaching is the worshipful moment over the word. It is expository exultation.”
And preaching, then, became the main vehicle. Calvin’s preaching was of one kind and it never, ever changed. It was sequential, expository preaching through book after book after book. On Sunday morning, he always took to the New Testament. In the afternoon, New Testament and sometimes a Psalm on Sunday. During the week, three times, always Old Testament. There are fewer than half a dozen instances where he broke that pattern. Every Easter, every Christmas, he plowed right on through, with fewer than half a dozen exceptions.
Now, to give you an idea, picture this: It’s August 25, 1549, and he begins a series of messages on the book of Acts. We know this because that was the first time when he had a stenographer who was taking down his sermons. He preached totally without notes and without anything, straight from the Greek and straight from the Hebrew right there in front of him.
He begins Acts on August 25, 1549. He ends Acts on Sunday morning in March 1554. So, from 1549 to 1554, he’s preaching on Acts straight through. And then after that, he picks up Thessalonians, 46 sermons; Corinthians, 186 sermons; the pastoral epistles, 86 sermons; Galatians, 43 sermons; Ephesians, 48 sermons, until May of 1558, when he had quit for half a year because he’s sick, as you can well imagine he might be with the relentless schedule that he’s kept. He begins, then, in 1559, the harmony of the Gospels, and he dies while he’s doing it in 1564.
Now, during that time, during the week, he’s preaching 159 sermons on Job, 200 on Deuteronomy, 353 on Isaiah, 123 on Genesis, and so on. The numbers are phenomenal. The point is that this is no accident. He chose to do this. Here’s the story that I love that shows how completely self-conscious he is in this: On Easter Day of 1538, he’s banished out of Geneva that first time. He’s been preaching for about a year. He’s banished for three years to minister in Strasbourg. They call him back. He comes back in September 1541 and walks into the pulpit and picks up at the next verse. And he comments on the fact that he wanted them to know that it was just an interlude in his exposition of the word of God.
Reignite the Torch
Why? Why that kind of preaching? Luther didn’t do that. Luther preached a Gospel and an Epistle. Spurgeon didn’t do that. Why did Calvin do it this way? Here are three possible reasons.
1. Calvin believed the lamp of the word had gone out in Europe. The word had been taken away. Here’s what he said. He’s confessing his own sin to the Lord and says, “Thy word, which ought to have shone on all thy people like a lamp, was taken away, or at least suppressed as to us. . . . And now, O Lord, what remains to a wretch like me, but . . . earnestly to supplicate thee not to judge according to [my] deserts that fearful abandonment of thy word from which, in thy wondrous goodness, thou hast at last delivered me” (John Calvin: Selections from His Writings, 115).
So, you feel in his conversion the horror he felt. He saw, by the inward testimony of the Holy Spirit, the majesty of God revealed in the word, and he looked across the church, and he said, “What a fearful abandonment of the holy, precious word!” And his whole life became this: “I am going to lay this word out every day for the rest of my life. It is so precious.” That’s reason number one.
2. T.H.L. Parker says that Calvin had a horror of those who preach their own ideas in the pulpit. Oh, we need that horror today. Calvin says, “When we enter the pulpit, it is not so that we may bring our own dreams and fancies with us” (Portrait of Calvin, 83). So, evidently, he believed that the best safeguard against bringing my fancies into the pulpit is to systematically work my way through God’s ordered, inspired, majesty-revealing word.
3. This brings us full circle back to the majesty of God and the word. He really believed that when the word was faithfully exposited, God, in his majesty, stood forth in the congregation. Listen to this great exhortation to you from Calvin:
Let the pastors boldly dare all things by the word of God. . . . Let them constrain all the power, glory, and excellence of the world to give place to and to obey the divine majesty of this word. Let them enjoin everyone by it, from the highest to the lowest. Let them edify the body of Christ. Let them devastate Satan’s reign. Let them pasture the sheep, kill the wolves, instruct and exhort the rebellious. Let them bind and loose thunder and lightning, if necessary, but let them do all according to the word of God. (Sermons on the Epistle to the Ephesians, xii)
In other words, the key phrase there is “the divine majesty of his word.”
Nothing Can Replace Preaching
Calvin believed that if his goal in life was to illustrate the glory of God, and if the glory of God is uniquely and self-authenticatingly revealed in the word of God, then the full display of the word would be the fullest display of the glory. I think that’s the way he reasoned. And it’s my own personal conviction when I asked myself the question, “Can it be done any other way besides preaching?” How about just teaching with an overhead? How about small group discussions? How about lectures? How about books? How about CDs sent to China? What’s to become of preaching?
“John Calvin believed the lamp of the word had gone out in Europe.”
I don’t know what Calvin would say, but I’m a preacher, and I have to believe in what I’m doing, and so I want to know why I am so drawn to do it. And I believe the answer is that nothing will ever replace preaching. And the reason I believe that preaching — not teaching per se, not reading the Bible per se — to the congregation over a text will always be there is because God means for himself, in the fullness of his glory, to be extolled and glorified and honored and cherished.
And something about that event of worship beckons for more than analysis. It beckons for more than explanation. It beckons for expository exultation. That’s what I like to call it. Preaching is the worshipful moment over the word. It is expository exultation. And wherever God-centeredness is alive, wherever the supremacy of God reigns in the heart of a people, something inside will say, “O pastor, do more for us than explain it to us. Love it over us, cherish it over us, taste it over us, revel in it over us, and exult in it over us, because we need to see it come alive and burn in you.” And that is what is called preaching.