Calvin the Preacher
John Calvin (1509–1564) is remembered for many things—some good, some bad, some real, some imagined. If Calvin’s legacy is misunderstood today, the reason for that misunderstanding generally cannot be traced to lack of access to his thought. Although the exact location of Calvin’s grave may be a mystery, he left behind a sizeable legacy in terms of literary output.
Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion was first published in Latin in 1536. He was only twenty-six at the time. A few years later Calvin produced a French edition of the same work. And in the years to follow, revised and expanded editions appeared in both languages. Over the years, the Institutes grew from a relatively short apologetic tract to a massive summary of Christian doctrine.
In addition to the Institutes, Calvin also wrote commentaries on most books of the Bible. Although Calvin aimed to produce commentaries that would reflect “lucid brevity,” the common English translation of his commentaries fills about three feet of shelf space. These commentaries remain among the few exegetical works published prior to 1900 that are still cited with some regularity.
As a theologian Calvin stood without peer in his day, and as an exegete Calvin was arguably ahead of his time. But above all else, Calvin was a pastor, and therefore, he was a preacher. For more than twenty years (1536–1538; 1541–1564) Calvin preached in Geneva, generally twice on Sundays and then once a day during alternating weeks. His exegetical and theological works impacted readers throughout Europe, but it was primarily his sermons that influenced the people of Geneva. His preaching and teaching ministry shaped the city into a bastion of Reformed thought and a launching pad for many who would bring the gospel to places where the message of the Scriptures had been largely overshadowed by tradition and superstition.
Calvin apparently did not bring notes into the pulpit, but many of his sermons were recorded by stenographers. Somewhere around 1,700 of Calvin’s sermons have survived, most of them in the original French but some only in Latin translation. In recent decades, a good number of these have been translated into English. Calvin preached sequentially through books of the Bible, and so a number of his sermons on a certain books of the Bible have been published as individual volumes.
If you want to understand Calvin’s theology, by all means read his Institutes. If you want to see how Calvin interpreted the Scriptures, his commentaries are a good place to start. But if you want to hear Calvin exhorting God’s people to obey the Scriptures, you may want to spend some time reading in one or more of these collections of Calvin’s sermons: Genesis 1–11, Micah, the Beatitudes, Acts, Galatians, Ephesians.