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As far as John Calvin was concerned, almost nothing was more urgent for the church than the reformation of pastoral ministry. For centuries, most ministers had been shockingly ignorant of the Scriptures and thus ill-equipped to preach the gospel. As Calvin said in one debate with a Catholic cardinal (pretending to defend the Protestant cause before God): “Those who were regarded as the leaders of faith neither understood Thy Word, nor greatly cared for it. They drove unhappy people to and fro with strange doctrines and deluded them with I know not what follies.”

Calvin was determined to be different and thus to do everything he could to promote the ideal of the pastor-scholar—a minister who had a deep knowledge of the Scriptures and able to preach its doctrines to his people.

This commitment to scholarship came naturally, since Calvin had been trained as a legal scholar before he gave his life to Christ and entered the ministry. It was also his calling. Based on his reading of Ephesians 4:11, Calvin made a clear distinction between “shepherds” (who served as shepherds of a local church) and “teachers” (who served the wider church by interpreting God’s Word, defending true doctrine and training other men for ministry, much like seminary professors today). But since Calvin held both of these offices, he set an example as a pastor-scholar that Reformation churches have followed ever since.

Calvin held a high view of the gospel ministry. Ministers are “God’s hands,” he said, to do his saving and sanctifying work in the world. When the church has “good and faithful teachers and others that labor to show us the way of salvation, it is a sign that our Lord Jesus Christ has not left us, nor forgotten us, but that he is present with us, and watches for our salvation.”

Evidently, God had not forgotten his people in Geneva, for the church there was blessed by Calvin’s preaching ministry for nearly 30 years. The Reformer’s work load was heavy. He preached almost daily, and twice on Sunday—roughly 4,000 sermons in all, carefully transcribed and collected in 48 bound volumes. In addition to his preaching, Calvin was a prolific writer, producing personal letters, essays on the reformation of the church, theological treatises, commentaries on almost the entire Bible and, of course, his famous Institutes.

Calvin’s goal in all his preaching and writing was to teach the Word of God faithfully so that the Holy Spirit could use his words to bring people to saving faith in Jesus Christ and to help them grow in godliness. He knew that only God could do the real work of the ministry. Preaching accomplishes nothing, he said, “unless the Spirit of God does inwardly touch the hearts of men.” Yet Calvin also believed that the Spirit’s work included his own best efforts to teach the Bible: “Through [the Spirit’s] inward operation [preaching] produces the most powerful effects.”

In order for his ministry to have this effect, the minister had to be faithful in interpreting and applying the Scriptures. This, in turn, required careful study. Although his preaching was not for a scholarly audience, Calvin took a scholarly approach to his preparation. Typically, he preached through whole books of the New Testament (or the Psalms) on Sundays and from the Old Testament the rest of the week. In both cases he preached directly from the Bible in its original languages. 

Although Calvin usually preached for more than an hour, he spoke extemporaneously, without text or notes. He was not speaking “off the cuff,” however, because whatever he said was the product of his own careful, first-hand exegesis and wide reading in the early church fathers and other Bible commentators. As Calvin once remarked to his congregation: “If I should enter a pulpit without deigning to glance at a book, and frivolously imagine to myself, ‘Oh well, when I preach, God will give me enough to say’—and come here without troubling to read, or thinking what I ought to declare, and do not carefully consider how I must apply Holy Scripture to the edification of the people—then I should be an arrogant upstart.”

Needless to say, Calvin was no such arrogant upstart, but a humble and rigorous expositor of the Word of God. If faith in Christ is a sure and certain knowledge of God’s grace in the gospel, and if that knowledge comes through the preaching of God’s Word, then every minister is called to be a diligent student of that Word. “The teaching of a minister,” Calvin once said, “should be approved on the sole ground of his being able to show that what he says comes from God.” 

Calvin’s example as a pastor-scholar is instructive today. For pastors, his life serves as a call to work hard in ministry, giving our best efforts to understanding the Scriptures. For parishioners, Calvin’s ministry can help us understand the God-given calling of our pastors. In devoting their time to prepare for preaching, they are not serving themselves but Christ and His church.

But of course, the calling to study God’s Word is for all of us, all through life. Here Calvin should have the last word: “God will not have us trained in the gospel for two or three years only, but he will have us go through with it, so that if we lived a hundred years or more in this world yet we must remain scholars, and know that we have not yet approached our perfection, but have need to go forward still.” 

Dr. Ryken earned a master of divinity degree from Westminster Theological Seminary and a doctorate in historical theology from the University of Oxford.  Dr. Ryken returned from England to join the pastoral staff at Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia in 1995, preaching there until his appointment at Wheaton.

President Ryken has published more than 30 books, including The Message of Salvation (InterVarsity, 2001), Art for God’s Sake (P&R, 2006), Loving the Way Jesus Loves (Crossway, 2011), and expository commentaries on Exodus, Jeremiah, Luke, and other books of the Bible.

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Bill Williams

commented on May 14, 2014

Calvin was a very capable exegete, but I disagree with his interpretation of Ephesians 4:11. The grammar does not seem to me to suggest a "clear distinction" between "shepherds" and "teachers." I believe the two should go together exegetically, not just because of Calvin's example. I'm also not quite sure Paul would agree with the definitions Calvin gave, at least not in the context of Ephesians 4. Here, Paul says that the gift of Shepherd/Teacher, like the other three leadership gifts, are for the purpose of equipping the saints for the work of ministry. As shepherds, they should not just provide pastoral care to the local congregation; they should also equip the congregation in how to provide pastoral care for each other. As teachers, they should not just know the Scriptures and teach the congregation what it says; they should equip the congregation in how to read and interpret the Scriptures for themselves. I don't disagree with Calvin's understanding of the pastoral ministry. I just think his understanding of it is incomplete, which can lead to an unhealthy pastor-dependence in the local congregation. The fruit of the last five hundred years of such an understanding of the pastoral ministry seems to suggest that I'm right. When the expectations of the typical congregation is that the Pastor do the majority of the pastoral care and preaching, you have an unhealthy pastor-dependence.

Tony Bland

commented on May 14, 2014

Great article. Every person need to be well equipped, but every person should stay in their ?lane?. If God did not call you to pastor don?t pastor, he has a Pastor just do what he called you to do. I know Bro. William does not agree and anything that suggest one person being the Pastor (doing most of the preaching), but Paul did most of the writing

Bill Williams

commented on May 14, 2014

It doesn't matter if I agree with you or if you agree with me. What matters is what the Scriptures says. I'm not saying everyone should be a pastor. I'm saying the preaching ministry should not be monopolized by a single person. That idea is completely foreign to the NT. And here is the evidence: Acts 11:30, "And they did so, sending it to the elders by the hand of Barnabas and Saul." Acts 14:23, "And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed." Acts 15:4, "When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they declared all that God had done with them." Acts 20:17, "Now from Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called the elders of the church to come to him." 1 Timothy 4:14, "Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you." 1 Timothy 5:17, "Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching." Titus 1:5, "This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you." James 5:14, "Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord." 1 Peter 5:21, "So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed." I could go on, but I hope by now you get the point. This is not about what I believe or what you believe. That is completely irrelevant. What should matter to us is what the Scripture teaches. And the NT is very clear that each church had a plurality of elders, one of their responsibilities being to "labor in preaching and teaching." So, you are welcome to disagree with me all you want. But please do so on the basis of God's Word. I offered you nine texts from Scripture presenting the concept of a plurality of elders who shared in the preaching and teaching ministry in the local congregation. Can you offer ONE text in the NT that describes a local congregation that had only ONE elder or pastor, where only ONE person did the majority of the preaching? If so, then you can disagree. Otherwise, it's just your tradition or personal preference that you stand on.

Bill Williams

commented on May 16, 2014

I hope my request that we back up our assertions with evidence from Scripture has not discouraged you from continuing with this conversation. I gave you nine texts from Scripture (and I could've given more) to defend my assertion that the preaching ministry of a local church should not be monopolized by one person only. Can you give me even one text to defend your assertion that one person in a local congregation should do most of the preaching? If not, then I kindly ask that you please refrain from questioning my assertion in the future. You are free to disagree with me all you want, but I'm going to take my stand on the Bible, not tradition.

Tony Bland

commented on May 14, 2014

Great article. Every person need to be well equipped, but every person should stay in their ?lane?. If God did not call you to pastor don?t pastor, he has a Pastor just do what he called you to do. I know Bro. William does not agree and anything that suggest one person being the Pastor (doing most of the preaching), but Paul did most of the writing

Jeremy Seaton

commented on May 16, 2014

Ive never been a huge fan of brother Calvin in regards to doctrinal issues. However no doubt he was a great man in the faith and quite a preacher as well. if i may offer some thoughts two to be exact one of my own and the latter a quotation of my late uncle floyd burkey who pastored for years in the fwb denomination. The first thought is this there is a huge difference in a pastor and an preacher.A pastor must have a pastors heart. That man must meet all the qualifications and then some. He is a man how loves people as well as God and basiscly it is a 24/7/365 job. when a member hurts he hurts when a member is in need he is availible. when the appointed time comes he has spent the time in prayer aqnd study with God that he may be able to feed the flock of God that hes been blessed with. The pastor is the under shepard of the flock and he must know the stae of the flock and as well it is his duty to protet the flock. A preacher on the other hand ill say more or less evangilist can go from church to church pulpit to pulpit shuck the corn preach hell hot and heaven sweet bring down the revival fire ..... and leave . On to the next appointment he does the same for a different flock. He goes in and out without bearing the burden of each flock as the pastor does not to say he dont love the poeple or care for them as a preacher who has had both positions as an evangelist you do get attached to people somtimes but not as well aquanted as the pastor. i had the priveledge to evangelise some last year and if i counted right i belive i had 55 appointments in different places accross east tennesee. that being said that many people that many churches it would be hard to know each member on a pastorial level. Now on to the next thought uncle Floyd once told a young preacher this.. he was young and full of fire said he didnt need alot of preparation he could preach off the cuff in his mind if he got up he said God would fill his mouth with what to say .To that uncle floyd simply replied He sure will..... Full of hot air....lol he told the young man you better pray and study and be prepared. Yall have a good day the old mountain preacher says good day and God bless

Jeremy Seaton

commented on May 16, 2014

sorry for the typos didnt do a spell check

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