Sound Teaching

Lessons from John Calvin’s Method of Preaching

One major aspect of John Calvin’s ministry was his form of expository preaching of the books of the Bible verse by verse also called lexio continua. On Sundays, Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, Calvin climbed up the steps of the St. Pierre Cathedral’s pulpit and patiently led his congregation verse by verse through book after book of the Bible. He often preached two to four verses in a sermon; however, in some instances he would preach two to three consecutive sermons on one verse as was the case with 1 Timothy 2:5 and 2 Timothy 1:8 respectively. As he tackled each verse, he would explain its meaning and apply it to his congregation.

But what would motivate Calvin to involve himself in this huge but worthy and profitable task. I believe that Calvin’s view of the Bible as the word or voice of God (vox dei) had a great impact and influence on his adoption of lexio continua method of preaching. Calvin’s high regard for Scripture is evidently seen in his magnum opus, Institutes of the Christian Religion, in which he writes:

In order that true religion may shine upon us, we ought to hold that it must take its beginning from heavenly doctrine and that no one can get even the slightest taste of right and sound doctrine unless he be a pupil of Scripture.” (1.6.2)….“We affirm with utter certainty (just as if we were gazing upon the majesty of God himself) that (the Bible) has flowed to us from the very mouth of God by the ministry of men” (1.8.5).

This view had a profound impact on his preaching as he revealed in his sermon on Micah 3:7:

For what ought sermons and doctrines be, except expositions of what Scripture contains? Truly, if we add the slightest nuance, it only results in corruption. Our Lord has left us a perfect doctrine in the Law, the Prophets, and the Gospel. Thus, what ought we be preaching today? We ought not be adding anything new to the text, but ought to be providing a clearer exposition that would confirm our understanding of God’s teachings. That, I repeat, is the purpose of any sermon or lecture we hear, that we might each be better instructed with respect to God’s will. That way, whenever we hear anything, we have a basis for inquiring whether God has spoken or not. By the same token, all who are charged with preaching God’s Word know that it is wrong of them to add anything of their own, or anything they might event. They must be certain that what they preach is not of their own conjecture but derives from God, who guides them on the basis of his certain and infallible word.

John Calvin was strongly convinced that a preacher can faithfully proclaim the message of his Master only by letting him speak as he has already spoken in the Scriptures. Preaching on 1 Timothy 3:2, he said,

“(The preacher) should not show off so that everyone applauds him and says, ‘Oh, well-spoken! Oh! What a breadth of learning! Oh! What a breadth of mind! When a man has climbed up the pulpit…It is that God may speak to us by the mouth of man.”

The other significant element that greatly influenced John Calvin to preach verse by verse throughout the Bible was his view of the preacher as the ambassador of God. In his commentary on 2 Corinthians 5:20 in which Paul and other preachers of the gospel are described as Christ ambassadors, Calvin comments that a preacher is indeed an ambassador of Christ and he has been ordained by God to speak as God speaks to him in the Scriptures hence Christ could boldly say that whoever pays attention to the gospel preacher pays attention to Christ himself. Here it is important to highlight that Calvin was very much aware that preaching should not be equated with the Bible hence while preaching from Deuteronomy 1:43, he cautioned:

So the teaching which is put forward in the name of God ought to be as authoritative as if all the angels of heaven descended on us, as if God himself were manifesting his majesty before our eyes (but) it is true that when men speak we must weigh their words carefully. For if one were willing to receive everything that was put forward, there would be no distinction between liars and false prophets who seduce men’s souls and the true ministers of God.

Calvin was also influenced toward lexio continua preaching by his view of the hearer of the gospel as a fallen man. In fact, this view has implications both on the preacher and hearer of the gospel as Calvin states in his sermon on 1 Timothy 4:6-7:

Now, just as many preachers are themselves far too given to ambition and in order to find grace and favor seek only what will please, so also on the other side the people are the cause of making preachers swerve aside from the good way. And why? Because, men have ‘itching ears’ and want to be fed with pleasing stories and buffoonery or ‘old wives’ fables as St. Paul calls them here. Seeing that men have such desires –like pregnant women whose cravings are inordinate –ah well this is the cause of some preachers degenerating and disguising themselves and transforming God’s teaching, which is as bad as destroying it.

Calvin fully understood that due to the fallen nature of man both the preacher and the hearer might lean toward preaching and hearing messages that do not disturb them in their comfort zone. Since due to the fall, man is in constant rebellion against God, the fallen nature in the preacher and the hearer might pull them away from the faithful proclamation and hearing of God’s word. However, when lexio continua is the method of preaching in a congregation both the preacher and congregant are forced to fully submit to the whole counsel of God as it unfolds verse after verse and book after book of the Bible; thereby, fully proving that the Scripture as God’s Word is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, and for instruction in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16).

Lexio continua preaching has a lot of benefits for the church today. First, it is one of the real ways in which full submission to God’s word both by the preacher and the congregation is demonstrated. The main challenge that the Church faces today is full submission to God’s Word. Due to the fallen nature of man, we tend to choose what we want to hear, and as the Church is bombarded with liberal and humanistic challenges, the temptation to choose what to obey and practice from the Scriptures also increases. However, where the word of God is preached in lexio continua form, both the preacher and the congregation are compelled to be subservient to God’s Word and to have their minds taken captive by it.

Secondly, lexio continua preaching frees the pastor from the temptation of preaching his mind instead of God’s word. Calvin observed that lexio continua preaching delivers the preacher from the temptation of esteeming or deciding at his pleasure what is profitable to be uttered and what is useless to be omitted. Lastly but not least, related to the above points, Calvin’s type of expository preaching affirms God’s sovereignty in preaching. As he rightly portrayed the preacher as the ambassador of Christ, the minister’s main goal then is similar to an earthly ambassador who is commissioned to advance and protect the interests and of his country. The ambassador demonstrates this commitment both in his words and actions. Similarly, the preacher has no any other agenda apart from seeking to affirm God’s sovereignty in the proclamation of the gospel. God’s sovereignty is affirmed when the preacher allows the Scripture to guide the agenda of preaching in the church or ministry.

The significance of letting Christ speak directly to his Church through the words of Scripture cannot be overemphasized. Ministers and preachers as the carriers of the voice of God should be challenged to consider the importance of lexio continua preaching in their churches or ministries. This form of preaching was essential for a health growth of the church in Geneva where Calvin preached and it also essential even to the present Church. John Leith has profound words for preachers today as he writes, “Calvin the preacher cannot be copied or repeated today in this new time and place, but…we can rightly hope and struggle to do as preachers of the Word in our particular time and place what Calvin did in his. For however much the culture and social matrix change, human existence remains essentially the same.”

John Calvin the Preacher

John Calvin the Preacher