Calvin’s Life and Legacy

Dr. Steven J. Lawson

Calvin’s Life and Legacy

Calvin had no weapon but the Bible. . . . Calvin
preached from the Bible every day, and under the
power of that preaching the city began to be transformed.
As the people of Geneva acquired knowledge
of God's Word and were changed by it, the city
became, as John Knox called it later, a New Jerusalem
from which the gospel spread to the rest of Europe,
England, and the New World.

—James Montgomery Boice

Towering over the centuries of church history, there stands one figure of such monumental importance that he still commands attention and arouses intrigue, even five hundred years after his appearance on the world stage. Called "one of the truly great men of all time," he was a driving force so significant that his influence shaped the church and Western culture beyond that of any other theologian or pastor. His masterful expositions of Scripture laid down the doctrinal distinctives of the Protestant Reformation, making him arguably the leading architect of the Protestant cause.

His theological thunder defined and articulated the core truths of that history-altering movement in sixteenth-century Europe. In turn, those lofty ideas helped fashion the founding principles of Western civilization, giving rise to the republican form of government, the ideals of public education, and the philosophy of free-market capitalism. A world-class theologian, a revered exegete, a renowned teacher, an ecclesiastical statesman, an influential Reformer—he was all of these and more. His name was John Calvin.

First and foremost, however, Calvin was a pastor—the faithful shepherd for twenty-five years to a local flock in Geneva, Switzerland. Every pastor has many demands on his time, and Calvin, because of his status in Geneva, had more responsibilities than most. Reformation historian J. H. Merle D'Aubigné wrote:

On Sundays [Calvin] conducted divine service, and had daily service every other week. He devoted three hours in each week to theological teaching; he visited the sick, and administered private reproof. He received strangers; attended the consistory on Thursday, and directed its deliberations; on Friday was present at the conference on Scripture, called the congregation; and, after the minister in office for the day had presented his views on some passage of Scripture, and the other pastors had made their remarks, Calvin added some observations, which were a kind of lecture. . . . The week in which he did not preach was filled up with other duties; and he had duties of every kind. In particular, he devoted much attention to the refugees who flocked to Geneva, driven by persecution out of France and Italy; he taught and exhorted them. He consoled, by his letters, "those who were still in the jaws of the lion"; he interceded for them. In his study he threw light on the sacred writings by admirable commentaries, and confuted the writings of the enemies of the gospel.

But amid these many pastoral duties, Calvin was primarily a preacher, a biblical expositor of the highest order. Indeed, the German Reformer Philip Melanchthon labeled him simply "the theologian," an indication of the respect Calvin was accorded for his abilities as an interpreter of Scripture. In his years in Geneva, Calvin viewed the pulpit as his principal responsibility, the first work of his pastoral calling. Thus, this magisterial Reformer gave himself to the exposition of the Word as perhaps no one else in history. He esteemed and elevated biblical preaching to be of highest importance, and so he made it his lifelong commitment.

As a result, apart from the biblical authors themselves, Calvin stands today as the most influential minister of the Word of God the world has ever seen. No man before or since has been so prolific and so penetrating in his handling of Scripture. Calvin's exegetical insights address most of the Old Testament and all of the New Testament except Revelation. By overwhelming consent, he remains the greatest biblical commentator of all time. On his deathbed, when Calvin reviewed his many accomplishments, he mentioned his sermons ahead of even his vast writings. For Calvin, preaching was job number one.

Article excerpted from The Expository Genius of John Calvin; Copyright 2007, Dr. Steven J. Lawson. Published by Reformation Trust Publishing, an imprint of Ligonier Ministries. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

More information about Steven Lawson's ministry including his latest book, Pillars of Grace (2011, Reformation Trust) can be found in the following video interview:


Originally published July 25, 2007.

Editors' Picks

  • How to Read & Understand the Bible in 4 Simple Steps
    How to Read & Understand the Bible in 4 Simple Steps
  • What You Need to Know about the Anglican Church
    What You Need to Know about the Anglican Church
  • 10 Valuable Reasons to Know the History of Christian Theology
    10 Valuable Reasons to Know the History of Christian Theology