Steven J. Lawson, The Expository Genius of John Calvin. (Orlando, FL: Reformation Trust, 2007), 142pp.
reviewed by Doug Smith
Steve Lawson has a goal. He aims “to raise the bar for a new generation of expositors” (xiii). Lawson quotes with approval T. H. L. Parker: “Expository preaching consists in the explanation and application of a passage of Scripture. Without explanation it is not exposition; without application it is not preaching” (p. 79). This book gives us a look at the expository preaching of John Calvin as a model and gold standard for ministry. Calvin was committed to systematic exposition of the Bible, preaching each verse in the text he covered. This book is significant because people need to hear the Word of God taught and applied, not another self-help message or a man’s ideas artificially buttressed by proof-texts. Lawson wants to see a new reformation, and believes that a renewed commitment to biblical preaching is essential for it to happen.
Lawson’s book is simple. This book is almost pocketsize and is an easy read. Eight chapters and 132 pages of prose distill Calvin’s philosophy and practice of preaching, delineating thirty-two distinct characteristics. Two appendices give examples of the textual units Calvin covered and the flow of one of his sermons. After providing the biographical and historical context of Calvin, Lawson proceeds to consider the elements of his preaching. Calvin’s presuppositions, personal devotion to Christ, and homiletical methods are surveyed.
One comes away from this book with a well-developed portrait of Calvin the preacher. Here was a man committed to the absolute supremacy of God’s Word, for himself and his congregation, knowing that “when the Bible speaks, God speaks” (p. 27). Here was a man committed “to behold the majesty of God” in the Word (p. 40) as he sought food for his own soul. Here was a man committed to discovering through diligent study the intended meaning of the text and declaring what it said and required of its hearers. He “made disciplined study a way of life, remaining in his study until the meaning was clear” (p. 41). Here was a man who approached the text with a literal (not literalistic) hermeneutic, rejecting fanciful allegorization. He said, “The true meaning . . . is the natural and obvious meaning” (p. 71). Here was a man who preached through entire books of the Bible, verse-by-verse, not skipping over controversial, difficult, or unpopular material. He viewed the role of the preacher as that of “a dispatched messenger with the divine message” (p. 26), seeing not the preacher, but God’s Word as the final authority. Here was a man committed to prayer and a living orthodoxy, since the “light of truth must yield the warmth of devotion to God” (p. 44). Here was a man committed to a rigorous schedule, often preaching ten times in a two-week period! Although plagued by opposition from enemies and health problems, he preached as often as he could. Even when an invalid, he arrived at church, carried in on a stretcher to preach (p. 48)! While Calvin did take time to visit the sick and give counsel, he saw the pulpit ministry as that which took priority. Here was a man so committed to declaring God’s truth authentically that he left behind manuscripts and notes to speak simply from an open Bible. But this was no off-the-cuff discourse; rather “an entire lifetime of learning stood behind each message” (p. 58). Here was a man who spoke plainly to people in words they could understand, while retaining biblical terminology and avoiding the watering down of truth. Here was a man who did not waste time with trivialities outside the text, but tried to orient his hearers to the text as soon as possible, using his introductions “like a freeway entrance ramp” (p. 54). Here was a man who reasoned persuasively and used vivid imagery to drive home the point. Here was a man who relentlessly pressed upon himself and his hearers the demands of God on their lives.
Lawson’s book is well researched, well organized, simple, and to the point. He does an excellent job portraying a model of expository preaching. His concise quotations of primary and secondary sources and succinct summaries of the elements of Calvin’s preaching make for a quick read (I read it in one evening; my wife read it over several days, taking a chapter a night), but provide enough depth for further meditation and review.
If the book had any weakness, it might be that it held up Calvin’s example in such a positive light that caveats against a slavish imitation of his habits were lacking. For example, although Calvin, to communicate more simply, used neither manuscript nor notes, it does not follow that contemporary preaching must avoid written aids to be biblical. However, some who read this book might be tempted to avoid the use of aids although their giftedness and personality may be much different from Calvin’s. Lawson points out that Calvin did not use homiletical headings (clearly articulated “points” of a sermon), but this structure may not be something that should necessarily be abandoned, so long as it does not get in the way of communicating the message of the text and is a help to the preacher and hearers in organizing and summarizing biblical truth. Likewise, although Calvin ushered hearers into the text soon with minimal or no extra-biblical material, contemporary audiences may need a bit longer ramp into the text, particularly if they are accustomed to hearing four to eight sermons a month (instead of twenty) at the most. However, the points are well taken that preachers should communicate simply and get people into the text soon, and Lawson does suggest that styles may vary among expositors, so long as they are faithful in discovering and communicating the message of the Bible (p. 84).
Pastors and aspiring pastors ought to read this book. It provides an excellent model for pulpit ministry, giving correction to those who need it and encouragement to those who are faithfully laboring in the Word. The Expository Genius of John Calvin would be a great book to use in mentoring another man in the ministry, as the chapters are ripe with potential for helpful discussion.
Although pastors are the most likely audience for this book, church members would benefit from it as well. Although this book is about Calvin, those who are not from his particular theological tradition will also profit from it, so long as they agree that the urgent need of people is biblical preaching. It is a good book for those looking for a church home or churches looking for a pastor, as it provides an excellent gauge for the type of preaching that most glorifies God and best meets the spiritual need of people.
This book ought to make those of us who have faithful preachers more thankful. It ought to encourage congregations to set men aside full-time to devote themselves to the ministry of the Word and prayer as soon as they can, if they are not already doing so. It should cause us to pray for fruitful study in the pastor’s life that results in fresh application of the truth to the heart of himself and his congregation. And we ought to pray for men training for ministry and those training them. Let us cry out to God, that He would continue to send forth laborers to proclaim His Word with honesty, clarity, and urgency.
Steve Lawson has given us a wonderful treasury of wisdom and a model of excellence and faithfulness in this book. I was convicted, encouraged, and had my appetite whetted for more. (He plans further books in this series, including Martin Luther, George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, and Charles Spurgeon). There is nothing Christians need more than to understand and obey God’s Word, and nothing preachers need to be more devoted to than understanding, obeying, and declaring the whole counsel of God through systematic expository preaching.
Lawson’s goal is worthy, and this book certainly does “raise the bar” by holding forth Calvin as a model. But the standard required is no less than what God expects of his ministers: “preach the Word” (2 Tim. 4:2). May He raise up men devoted to this task and congregations that will encourage and grow from it, to the praise of His glory.