I know what you are thinking. The preacher who changed the world was Jesus Christ. And, of course, you are right. The words of Jesus Christ turned BC into AD and launched the Christian church, the most transformational institution of all time.
But there was another preacher whose influence was profound. It was his teachings that propelled the Reformation and spawned the modern democratic state and capitalism. They helped birth a new nation founded on Judeo-Christian principles. He took the doctrines of the Bible and systematized them in the definitive work of the Reformation. This man preached three times on Sunday and on three occasions during the week. In addition, he lectured on theology three times a week. Over the course of his lifetime, he produced four thousand sermons as well as a series of Bible commentaries totaling forty- five volumes of over 400 pages each.
That man was John Calvin – father of the Reformed Church.
“For the duration of his ministry, Calvin’s approach was to preach systematically through entire books of the Bible. Rarely was he out of a book study. ‘Sunday after Sunday, day after day… Calvin climbed up the steps into the pulpit. There he patiently led his congregation verse by verse through book after book of the Bible.’ Rare were the exceptions to this pattern. ‘Almost all Calvin’s recorded sermons are connected series on books of the Bible.’ As a faithful shepherd, he fed his congregation a steady diet of sequential expository messages.
This verse-by-verse style—lectio continua, the ‘continuous expositions’—guaranteed that Calvin would preach the full counsel of God. Difficult and controversial subjects were unavoidable. Hard sayings could not be skipped. Difficult doctrines could not be overlooked. The full counsel of God could be heard.”1
I have never yet attended a church where the pastor preached verse by verse through the entire Bible in this way. The vast majority of messages I have heard are topical – the preacher has a subject he wants to address and selects a passage of scripture that fits. This prejudices the interpretation towards his own pre-determined conclusion.
The preacher who comes closest to Calvin in terms of expository skill and diligent study today is John MacArthur of Grace Church in Sun Valley, California. But there are many other very good ones. Alistair Begg, Steven Lawson, and RC Sproul are among them. But John Calvin was the best there ever was. All are members of the Reformed tradition. My life has been changed dramatically since I have begun a systematic study of the scriptures under the tutelage of these and other great Bible expositors.
The reason today’s church looks so much like the world (in the sense that all the same disorders and social maladies affect both equally) is the lack of transforming expository preaching. That is also the reason they have come to rely upon entertainment, seeker friendly, small groups, and canned gospel presentations to grow the church. God will always draw people to Himself through the faithful, accurate ministry of the word. And they will be the kind of people who have contrite spirits and are seeking the Lord for the right reason – because they want to be restored to fellowship with Him, not to receive their own desires.
What sets reformed teaching apart from the topical sermons we hear from so many of our pulpits is the thorough examination of the grammatical-historical context of scripture that provides a fuller understanding of the author’s intent. For instance, until I began listening to John MacArthur I did not know that there were three different kinds of marriage in ancient Rome that Paul was addressing in 1 Corinthians 7. That changes the whole thrust of Paul’s message. Nor did I know that the 10,000 talents owed by the merciless debtor was more than the entire annual tax revenue from Galilee or more than three times the amount of gold used in the temple of Solomon. I had no idea that the parable of the prodigal son was really not about the son but the father who disgraced himself in order to spare his wayward son the shame his behavior had brought upon himself. Nor did I know that the majority of the Roman empire were slaves and that is one reason why Paul urged them to obey their masters (otherwise there would have been such a revolution that it would have torn apart the ancient world and vastly complicated the spread of the gospel). Nor did I know that some very erudite and educated people were slaves and close confidants of their masters. That gave new meaning to Christ’s saying, “No longer do I call you slaves, but friends.”
I have learned far more from the reformed preachers I hear on the radio and mobile apps than I have ever learned from anyone’s pulpit ministry. And I believe that is why there is so much tepid Christianity in today’s church.
1 Excerpt From: Steven J. Lawson. “The Expository Genius of John Calvin.” iBooks.