The Expository Discipline of John Calvin

Expository preaching takes discipline. It is hard work to do careful exegesis of the next passage and craft a fresh, well-balanced message that is both biblically faithful and culturally relevant, with clear explanation of the text, engaging and colorful illustrations, and thoughtful application to the lives of our people.

Sunday mornings come back around with relentless speed and the preparation of a solid expositional message, sometimes demanding 10-12 hours, is sometimes an arduous, even overwhelming task.

I, for one, need models, if I am to persevere in this expository discipline.

And John Calvin (despite all of his flaws) is a good model.

Calvin left a legacy of Biblical preaching that few since have rivaled. For example, he began preaching through the book of Acts on August 25, 1549, and ended in March of 1554 – nearly five years later! The seriousness of Calvin’s expository discipline is evident in the fact that when he returned to his congregation in Geneva in 1541, after three years of exile, he said nothing of the intervening years to his people. No, he simply picked up his preaching at the verse he had left off three years before!

Calvin summarized the heart of the expositor well when he said,  

“Let us not take it into our heads . . . to seek out God anywhere else than in his Sacred Word, or to think anything about him that is not prompted by his Word, or to speak anything that is not taken from that Word.”[1]

He preached 46 sermons on the Thessalonian letters, 186 on the Corinthians, 86 on the Pastorals, 43 on Galatians, 48 on Ephesians, 159 on Job, 200 on Deuteronomy, 123 on Genesis, and 353 on Isaiah! When he died, Calvin left behind 96 books, 35 volumes of letters, and 2000 sermons.[2]

Not all congregations (or pastors) could readily digest such strong meat today – 353 sermons on Isaiah might not be a good immediate goal for many of us – but Calvin’s faithfulness – in spite of suffering and persecution – should inspire within us a similar steadfastness in our own contexts. As the Apostle Paul charged Timothy, we are to “preach the word . . . in season and out of season.” Those long hours in the study over the next passage for yet one more Sunday is one of the best gifts we can give our people.

Calvin said,

“Let the pastors boldly dare all things by the word of God, of which they are constituted administrators. 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.”[3]

Calvin's expository discipline should prompt self-examination for all pastors. Have we grown lazy in our study habits? How much time do we spend in sermon preparation each week? Do we give sufficient care to rightly handling the word of truth (2 Tim. 2:15)? When we evaluate our sermons from the last year, can we honestly say that we have not shrunk away from declaring the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27)? How might Calvin's example shape our preaching agendas for the next year? 


[1] Quoted in James Stitzinger, “The History of Expository Preaching,” John MacArthur Jr. and the Master’s Seminary Faculty, Richard L. Mayhue, Editor, Rediscovering Expository Preaching (Dallas, TX: Word Publishing, 1992) 50.

[2] See John Piper, The Legacy of Sovereign Joy: God’s Triumphant Grace in the Lives of Augustine, Luther, and Calvin (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2000). Piper’s essay on Calvin will provide an excellent introduction to and overview of Calvin’s life and ministry for those interested.

[3] John Calvin, Sermons on Ephesians (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1973) xii.

1 comment:

mwh said...

I'm always impressed by that story of Calvin's return from exile. The guy was relentless!