John Calvin & The Primacy of Preaching
Fourteen years after Martin Luther stood before the emperor at Worms, another lawyer traveled along another rutted road. His life had been shaken in much the same way that Luther’s had been—though not by a storm that drove him to call out to a saint. This lawyer was a Renaissance humanist fleeing the University of Paris. His name? John Calvin. A few months earlier Calvin had helped a friend write a speech. They peppered the address with quotes from Luther and Erasmus. The speech angered the French government and forced Calvin to flee. Soon afterward, Calvin became a Protestant and a Christian. Calvin fled first to Noyon, France, his home-town. From Noyon, Calvin turned toward Switzerland. There, he wrote the first comprehensive summary of Reformation theology, Institutes of the Christian Religion.
After the Institutes were published, Calvin headed for the Protestant city of Strasbourg. On the way, a military conflict forced him to veer east, taking a detour through Geneva. He intended to stay in Geneva for one night, concealed by the alias “Charles d’Espeville.”
That one night stretched into a lifetime. A preacher named Farel had already promoted Protestant ideas in Geneva. One of Calvin’s companions told Farel that “Charles d’Espeville” was actually the well-known author of the Institutes. That evening, Farel confronted Calvin at the inn.
“Stay here!” Farel begged, “Geneva needs someone with your gifts.”
“But I need a rest,” Calvin countered.
Farel exploded, “May God curse your rest and the calm you seek for study, if you leave behind such a great need!”
Calvin chose to stay. John Calvin’s central task in Geneva was preaching. For years, he prepared and preached ten different sermons every two weeks. Less than one year after his arrival in Geneva, the city council agreed to Calvin’s vision. After a series of religious and political quarrels, the Geneva city council forced Calvin to leave the city. Calvin found refuge in Strasbourg, his original destination. There, Calvin cared for French Protestants (“Huguenots”) who, like Calvin, had fled because of persecution. Finally, he found the life of study that he had sought so many years before. Then, in 1539, Geneva needed someone to debate a Roman Catholic thinker. The city council swallowed its pride and asked Calvin to return. Even after he returned, Calvin’s primary role remained unchanged; he was still foremost and most frequently a preacher. When Calvin returned to the pulpit after his exile, everyone in Geneva expected a sermon filled with severe rebuke—but Calvin did not preach the expected spiteful message. Instead, he began to preach precisely where he had stopped three years earlier, remaining committed to the power of preaching the gospel.
Video: “Why Christian Theology and Biblical Preaching is Vital”
- Before the reformation, the gospel had been locked up in __Darkness______.
- ___Post___ __Tenebras__ __Lux____ was a motto developed by Calvin meaning “after darkness, light.”
- The city of Geneva was a place of ____Brutal____ suffering, sickness, injustice, and immorality.
- Calvin believed that these issues were best confronted through the __Expository Preaching__ of God’s Word.
- Christian theology and preaching from God’s Word should never be __Altered___ by changing culture. In fact, accurate Christian theology combined with passionate gospel preaching is vitally important for the health and vitality of human life in the world.
Conclusion: And so, as Piper noted, John Calvin’s commitment to solid theology and preaching began to produce incredible social change and flouring in Geneva. If Calvin had abandoned the preaching of God’s word in an effort to create social change, we may not even know his name. I am convinced that he would have had very little impact on Geneva. On a further note, it is interesting that Calvin held to the separation of church and state in Geneva, in the same way that our forefathers did when they forged the constitution of the United States. However, Calvin understood and affirmed the idea that God reigned supreme over all the affairs of men – in the church and in the state. Therefore, through his preaching, he greatly influenced future Protestant led governments to incorporate church authority into the affairs of the state. Often, modern Christian evangelicals in America have taken an opposite, and ineffective, approach in two ways:
1) We have slowly moved toward abandoning the solid and gospel drenched preaching of God’s Word in favor of “self-help” oriented sermons, leaving people in guilt, shame, and confusion – starving for the life giving Word of Christ.
2) We have entrusted our “Christian preaching” to politicians and government officials – hoping that they will enact change in our society from the top down. The Reformers of the church did not yield to either of those temptations, but trusted that that Christ would bring about change in society as he brought change to people’s hearts through the gospel. Thus, they emphasized “Five Cries” (or decrees) that kept their ministry moving forward with the proper Christian focus.
We will talk about these decrees in the next post: The Five Cries of the Reformation.