Did Calvin preach anti-Christian sermons? A Response to “Covenant Preaching”
(Part 1 of a five part series)
I preached through Deuteronomy a couple of years back. And Calvin’s sermons were a great help. They were doctrinal, applicable and Christ-honoring—even when the sermons were “anti-Christian.”
You read that right.
According to some Reformed teachers, a sermon, any sermon, without the “saving work of Christ” is “anti-Christian.” And Calvin had sermons without the saving work of Christ.
I never heard of such until I read the three-part series entitled “Covenant Preaching.” In part one, the author approvingly quotes professor Bryan Chapell:
“I once heard PCA minister and Covenant Seminary president Bryan Chapell say that a sermon without the saving work of Christ is not just ‘a neutral, non-Christian sermon.’ Chapell went so far as to say, ‘It is an anti-Christian sermon.’ ”
If this is true, then Calvin’s parishioners were often leaving mid-week sermons having listened to truth preaching instead of gospel preaching.
Truth preaching vs. Gospel preaching
Truth preaching, according to the author, is “a sermon that presents the truth from Scripture, but never takes us to the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ.”
Truth sermons present doctrine or morality or apply the truth of God’s word. But the listeners “never get to Christ” through such preaching. To leave a sermon thinking about our work is to leave a “truth preaching” sermon.
Such sermons have “never brought us to the cross and the empty tomb.” Such sermons “do not take us to the saving work of the cross and resurrection of Christ.”
In contrast, Gospel preaching is a sermon that “makes sure that people hear the good news in Jesus Christ…as an integral part of the message. It gets to what Christ has done for us and he is continuing to do in us.”
Now, sermons can teach the omniscience of God, but are incomplete “until we see how this makes him the perfect Judge and the perfect Savior.” Rather than simply teach our response to the covenant, such sermons “give the whole truth [the cross of Christ].”
Gospel sermons are not opposed to truth. They have truth but it is “truth put to music. It stirs. It makes us want to worship…that’s why [gospel] preaching is part of worship…”
Such sermons necessarily lead the listener away from their efforts and to the finished work of Christ such that they leave the message thinking of Christ’s work. They should shout for joy and sing “Jesus paid it all” rather than “I’ll do better next time.”
Gospel Preaching in Action
What does Gospel preaching look like? Does it mean every sermon should be a Gospel sermon? The author offers himself as an example.
“I want to hear the ‘good news,’ which is about Christ, the fulfiller of the new covenant through his cross and resurrection. If people don’t hear me mention the cross, they should know I’m not yet done preaching.”
“I want a sermon to get to Christ…I will always make Christ the climax of the message.”
“In fact, for the last fifteen years of my ministry, I ended each message by saying, ‘And that is one reason why we call this good news.’ Then I would ask, ‘Do you believe that?’ ”
Every sermon, then, must have Christ in an “integral” manner such that when finished, the parishioner walks away “thinking about…Christ’s work.”
Note the specificity of Gospel preaching: Christ should be “integral” to the sermon; sermons should preach the “cross and resurrection”; Christ should be the “climax” of the sermon; and Christ should be so emphasized that when people walk away from the sermon they are thinking about Christ’s work instead of their own work.
Is such practice in accordance with the Word of God? Is such preaching in line with past practices of the church?
Is Gospel Preaching Historical?
If the preaching of our forefathers were judged by this standard, what would be the verdict? Would the likes of Calvin and others be gospel preachers or truth preachers? Or something else?
I have read most of Calvin’s sermons on Deuteronomy, Galatians and Ephesians. I do not recall his preaching matching the description of “gospel preaching.” Recently, I read three successive sermons in Deuteronomy. Clearly, Calvin was concerned to present the text as the mind of God applied to the people of God.
In those sermons, Christ is mentioned but not in an “integral” fashion and certainly not as the climax of the sermon. His parishioners surely left the sermon with the weighty matters of God’s kingdom on their minds but not always with the cross and resurrection.
My analysis is not an aberration. In the Cambridge Companion to John Calvin, the author notes in passing: “It is worth noting, however, that this sermon, like many of the Old Testament sermons, contains no reference to Jesus Christ. ”
As for books about preaching from a Reformed perspective, I scanned Perkin’s The Art of Prophesy, Blaikie’s For the Work of the Ministry and Carrick’s The Imperative of Preaching. None of these books offered the perspective of this article.
In fact, Blaikie’s book asserted the opposite.
“The notion is apt to prevail that a strictly biblical ministry must be a monotonous one. And in many cases, it must be owned, preachers getting into a round of leading truths, and repeating them again and again with little variety, do foster this impression. It is a fault into which some of our most spiritual preachers are apt to fall. They deem it unworthy of earnest men, yearning for souls, to preach on any topics but those which concern, in the most direct way, the relation of the sinner to the Saviour. But in leaving out, as they do, a great portion of the Word of God, they are apt to cultivate in their hearers a narrow type of piety, instead of embracing in their instructions in due proportion the whole scope of that Word which, in its fullness, is fitted to make the man of God perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works” (8, cp. 52).
In a similar fashion, Carrick stated:
“Dabney quite correctly insists that the great aim and end of the preaching of the Word of God is ‘to produce a definite, practical volition in the hearer’; it is ‘to make men do’. The interrogative and the imperative are of inestimable value to the preacher as he seeks, by the power of God’s Spirit, to probe the conscience and to impel the will.” (149)
Did Calvin preach anti-Christian sermons? Not according to Perkins, Blaiki and Carrick.
But the fundamental question is: what saith the Lord?
That will be answered in the next article.
[I publish Mondays or Tuesdays]
**A former student offers a slight modification to the Chapell quote, here.**
One thought on “Did Calvin preach anti-Christian sermons? A Response to “Covenant Preaching””
Excellent perspective. I just sat through six years of “Gospel Preaching” in a Reformed church: repetition with little variety. I tried to justify it using the comparison of eating manna in the wilderness. I didn’t want to grumble and complain, wishing I had some meat. However, we need meat to mature. When only the Gospel is preached over and over, so much is left out that preaching almost appears antinomian. Good works are not meritorious, but they are necessary. The whole counsel of God is also necessary and variety is important. The Israelites invented hundreds of different recipes to give manna some variety. When they entered the Promised Land, the manna stopped and their diet immediately changed and expanded. Now that I am under “Truth Preaching”, it feels just like leaving the wilderness and coming into the Promised Land. Very perceptive.