John Calvin and Church Revitalization: Pastoral Ministry

By Terry Delaney

[Editor’s Note: This is the third blog post of a 3-part series. Click here to read the first and click here to read the second.]

John Calvin states in the introduction to the reader of his 1559 edition of his Institutes that it was his “purpose in this labor to prepare and instruct candidates in sacred theology for the reading of the divine Word, in order that they may be able both to have easy access to it and to advance in it without stumbling.”[1] Though we may view this more than 1,500 page work as extremely weighty by today’s standards, it was meant to be more of a primer for any pastor or lay leader to use in order that they may better understand the Bible.

Recall the first article regarding Calvin and evangelism and missions. It demonstrated that Calvin understood the importance of making disciples. When he moved to Geneva, he found that pastors in town were not fit to be pastors due to their lack of training and lack of discipleship. Therefore, he realized that if the Reformation was to continue, he must train up the local pastors in such a manner that the men and women who attended the various local churches would be listening to sound, biblical preaching. Keep in mind this was at an extraordinarily tumultuous time in the history of the Reformation.

To further this education of the local pastor and the corresponding church members, Calvin wrote, and used, a catechism. In the introduction of the catechism, Calvin states that he wrote it at the urging of his fellow pastors in order that they may be equipped to teach and preach the Scriptures. Furthermore, it was his hope that a common catechism, rooted in Scripture would bring about a noticeable unity in the various congregations.[2]

Understanding the importance of discipling the pastors, Calvin also wrote his commentaries for their sake. They were meant to be read in conjunction with his Institutes which was introductory. Accordingly, when the reader would come across a passage of Scripture referenced in the Institutes, it was assumed that they would look to the corresponding commentary for a more in depth understanding of what Calvin meant in the Institutes.

It is through the commentaries, however, that one is shown how to not only dig into the Word, but also apply it to everyday living. In his dedication to Simon Grynaeus, he states that his purpose was “to lay open the mind of the writer” and he trembled at the thought that he was attempting to do so with the Apostle Paul and this particular book of the Bible.[3] He strove for brevity, but at some 22-volumes, one might say, he failed. He did, however, set forth a great example of studying and preaching verse by verse through these commentaries in order that the pastors who were studying under, or influenced by, John Calvin, learned the importance of faithful, exegetical preaching. Further, his example of preaching verse by verse week in and week out, in order that he might teach and instruct the congregation faithfully, has perhaps been his most influential pastoral gift to the church still today.

His example of faithful verse by verse preaching was such that upon his return to Geneva from exile, he literally picked up where he left off the last time he had preached. He was in the Book of Psalms and said something to the effect of, “the last time we were together we discussed . . . . Today, I would like to pick up in the next verse.” The importance of this style of preaching cannot be overemphasized as it enables the pastor to deal with texts he might not otherwise get around to preaching.

Furthermore, this style of preaching protects both the congregation and the preacher. The preacher is protected by being “forced” to preach what is next in the text. He therefore is unable to preach his “hobby horse” or preach to the pew in such a manner that is dishonoring to God. The congregation is protected in that they do not have to listen to a pastor preach on his favorite topics or what he thinks the congregation needs to hear next. Instead, the pastor is bound by the text and his next sermon is already set for him as he must of necessity preach what is next. This enables the pastor to preach on a wide variety of subjects that collectively minister to the congregation in a far greater manner than one could ever imagine.

One final aspect of pastoral ministry that might go unnoticed in a study of Calvin and pastoral ministry is his longevity. He spent some 25 years in service to a local congregation in Geneva, and while he preached all over France, his concerted efforts were to his own congregation in Geneva. Three of those years were interrupted by his exile from Geneva where he preached in Strasbourg. Regardless, for genuine Reformation to have taken hold in Geneva, it was important that Calvin minister there for as long, and as continuous, as possible. This was, by God’s grace, what Calvin was able to accomplish.

Calvin’s style of expository preaching is arguably the greatest need today regarding church revitalization. Calvin, due to the Reformation, had to bring the local church back to a fundamental understanding of biblical preaching that sought to explain the Word of God rather than man’s understanding of God. Though pastors do offer their own thoughts on Scripture, Calvin set forth a method that not only equips the pastor, but instructs the congregation in the will of the Lord as revealed in the Word of the Lord.

Though Calvin was vital to the Reformation and his preaching was essential to the continuation of the Reformation, his example of preaching and longevity in pastoral ministry as well as his willingness to disciple others serves as a template for church revitalization today. Preach the Word of God faithfully and over the long haul, the church will either grow closer to the Lord or reject Him altogether. There will always be a mix of wheat and tares, but through faithful, biblical preaching, the pastor will leave room for the winnowing fork of the Holy Spirit to separate as He sees fit.


While Calvin is most noted for his role in the Reformation, we have seen in these articles that his concern was primarily for the local church. This concern is clearly seen in his zeal for missions and evangelism, his love of the corporate worship of God, and his passion for pastoral ministry. These three pillars of revitalization today, evangelism and missions, worship, and preaching were just as important to the Reformation of the church in the 16th century as it is to the revitalization of the church in the 21st century.  Instead of seeking to re-write the book on church revitalization, we should look back to the principles that were espoused by John Calvin and blessed by the Holy Spirit some 500 years ago.

Terry Delaney is pastor of Union Baptist Church in Mexico, Missouri and is a contributor to the Founders Midwest blog. If you would like more information about Founders Midwest or if you are interested in attending the annual Founders Midwest Conference, be sure to check out our Facebook page or visit our website for more information.

[1] McNeill, John T. (Editor). Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion–1. Philadelphia, PA.: Westminster Press. P. 4

[2] Accessed 16 May 2016.

[3] Calvin, J., & Owen, J. (2010). Commentary on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans (p. xxiv). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.

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