What came to mind when you read those words? Do you think of a heretic that burned people at the stake? Is he a hard-edged egotistical maniac that sat in an ivory tower writing theology books? Or perhaps you think of him as your theological hero. Some may even think maybe he’s a guy that sells jeans and cologne. Regardless of the John Calvin you think you know Steve Lawson has made the argument, and numerous others with him, that Calvin should fundamentally be thought of as a pastor and a preacher.
That is why Lawson has written this book, The Expository Genius of John Calvin . Lawson wants us to consider Calvin the Preacher and the way he went about the sacred task of declaring Christ to men through the preached Word. But he does not merely want us to admire Calvin; Lawson wants us to emulate him. As his stated goal proclaims:
The goal here is not to take a sentimental journey—the hour is too desperate for such a triviality. Rather, the aim of this book is to raise the bar for a new generation of expositors. The method is to see what a commitment to biblical preaching looks like by examining the work of a man who was sold out to this sacred duty. (xii)
Lawson offers eight chapters on the preaching of Calvin that is filled with 32 distinctives. Lawson begins with a brief biography and then covers everything from the preparation of the minister, the message itself, the delivery of the sermon, and the conclusion of the sermon. Through we read from Calvin himself and are also introduced to a good amount of Calvin’s sermons.
If you pick up this book thinking that Calvin is a cold dictator, a distant theologian, or a passionless teacher you will be surprised that you do not know the Calvin that stood in the Genevan pulpit. Calvin modeled what Lloyd-Jones called theology on fire in his preaching. Truly there is much to learn from Calvin.
I do think that occasionally Lawson will overstate his case. At the end of each chapter it seems as if he puts Calvin on a pedestal and then asks, “where is Calvin today”. The closing of every chapter seems to follow a formula. Calvin was X, we desperately need X today, so be X.
I understand that Lawson is attempting to use the life of Calvin to motivate preachers today to emulate him—and Calvin’s preaching is certainly worthy of emulation. But at times it seems like Lawson is saying nobody today is doing X and this is why the church stinks—so maybe if you start doing X things will get better. I assume this is not his intention or his heart. But I simply find this a dangerous approach to encouraging men in ministry. We don’t need another John Calvin. We need people to be who God has called them to be in the generation God has called us to. Follow Calvin, yes. But God isn’t calling you to be the next John Calvin. He’s calling you to be a you that is utterly transformed by the gospel.
Even with that being said this book is very beneficial. You can ignore a few of the overstatements and learn from Lawson and Calvin. He is right we need faithful expositors in our day just as Calvin was in his. I guess I’m just more optimistic that God is and has risen up many gospel-centered expository preachers in our day. Men that exude much of these 32 distinctives whether they’ve even heard of John Calvin.
I am not going to encourage every preacher to go out and buy this book. But I would certainly say that it is worthy of adding to your library. Those that love church history (preacher or not) will appreciate learning about Calvin the preacher. Those going into ministry could learn a ton from this work. Those in ministry could learn a ton. Actually the greatest thing this book offers is presenting Calvin as the preacher he truly was. Many could think they are preaching like Calvin but they are boring “exegetes” that aren’t even engaging in expository preaching. We all could learn from someone like John Calvin to stoke the fire of the gospel in our preaching ministries.