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Ligonier Conference - Al Mohler
March 19, 2009
The 2009 Ligonier Ministries National Conference begins today. Though the conference proper does not kick off until after dinner, the Pre-Conference, “John Calvin—Celebrating a Legacy” began bright and early. This mini-conference features messages from Al Mohler, Steven Lawson, Sinclair Ferguson and Ligon Duncan. They will each speak one time and will also participate in a panel discussion.
Al Mohler began with this reflection: the legacy of John Calvin is now represented by a half millennium of influence. Calvin would no doubt be shocked to learn that, 500 years after his birth, several thousand people would gather in a Pre-Conference to talk about his legacy. That so many are gathered here is a testimony to God’s faithfulness to his church.
Mohler’s task today was to introduce John Calvin as a preacher and a teacher. And indeed, the focal task of Calvin’s ministry came down to these two tasks. He excelled in both.
The first portion of Mohler’s address was biographical, a quick overview of Calvin’s life focusing on his tasks of preacher and teacher. It was too fast to easily summarize, so I will leave it to those who are interested to watch the webcast. Calvin believed there were four offices within the church: preachers, teachers, elders and deacons. This message revolved around the first two.
Having given this thumbnail sketch of Calvin’s life, Mohler spoke about Calvin as a teacher. Calvin left behind a significant legacy of teaching material, even down to his personal correspondence which was filled with teaching. Early in his career he desired a quiet life of reading and writing, but he was compelled to take up the pastorate in Geneva.
He saw two offices that had a distinct teaching function. The task of the teacher was to prepare those who would have the sacred task of teaching the Word of God. Before he was a preacher in Geneva, he was involved in this teaching task. The preacher was the key agent to whom God would speak to his people, but the preacher needed to be taught; hence, Calvin was convinced that there needed to be a learned clergy. His singular aim was that the church be properly taught the Word of God and be protected from error. Here Mohler looked to the Institutes giving a quick overview of their contents, style and usefulness, even in our day.
The need Calvin perceived is a need that continues today, perhaps even more emphatically. Teaching suffuses all that he does, all that he offers to the church, all that he was.
In all the world, there is only one office higher than the teacher and that is the preacher. Calvin desired to be first a teacher, but once he became a preacher, he took up this task with a passion. His theology of preaching begins with his understanding that God speaks through his preachers, through the Word. Calvin did not deny natural or general revelation but saw that God speaks through a human voice in a special way in the act of preaching. Preaching is not a human invention but a means God had already used to speak to his people of old and a means he would now use again to instruct his church. It is an act of God’s kindness and accommodation that he speaks to us through a human voice; if he spoke through his own voice, we would be destroyed.
Calvin understood the majesty of preaching because he understood the majesty of God. Calvin’s mode of preaching was verse-by-verse, book-by-book so he would not selectively avoid things he did not wish to teach. In this way God’s people receive all that they need and not just what the preacher determines the people need. The preacher is neither to add nor subtract from Scripture.
Calvin believed preaching is the Word of God in at least three ways:
- Preaching is the Word of God because it is the exposition of the Bible
- Preaching is the Word of God because the preacher is sent and commissioned by God and given his authority to speak in his name
- Preaching is the Word of God because it is revelation, revealing the treasures of God’s Word.
Calvin looked to three movements in his day, offering both agreement and disagreement with each of them. From these we can see some of the emphases of his ministry.
The enthusiasts - they were right in that they preached the necessity of the Holy Spirit but wrong in that they said there was no need for preachers.
The Church of Rome - they were right in that the church is to listen attentively to the preacher but wrong in that the church taught that Christians did not need to verify the minister’s words according to Scripture.
The fanatics - they were right in that believers are to read the Bible on their own but wrong in that they downplayed the need for guidance from teachers and preachers.
Mohler offered these four hallmarks of John Calvin’s preaching:
- Centrality of Scripture
- Systematic exposition
- Simplicity of expression
- Practical application
And here he recommended Steve Lawson’s The Expository Genius of John Calvin as a useful, accurate summary of John Calvin’s teaching ministry.