Grand Rapids Calvin Conference: Session One

david-murray1Dr. David Murray: Calvin on Preaching Christ from the Old Testament

Dr. Murray is Professor of Old Testament and Practical Theology at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, MI. He was a pastor for twelve years, first at Lochcaron Free Church of Scotland and then at Stornoway Free Church of Scotland (Continuing).



Luke 24:25-27


Everyone would acknowldege that there is a fairly widespread crisis of preaching from the OT. Only 10 -15 % of sermons preached in Reformed churches are from the OT. Often the text chosen is a pretext for a topic from the OT.

The reason for the widespread lack of health in the church today is due to this crisis of depriving our people of 60% of the Bible. Why has the OT preaching declined:

A desire for credibility
Pastoral laziness
A lack of good pastoral models for younger men to copy.

John Calvin comes in usefully with a number of princuples that form the basis for rebuilding and renewing preaching from the OT, especially preaching Christ.

Two Pillars for Preaching Christ from the Old Testament: Theological Pillars and Practical Pillars

The Theological Pillars

1. By preaching the Old Testament we are preaching Christ’s words

2. Christ is the only teacher of His Church. The patriarchs and the apostles were all nourished by His words. “God has maniftesed himself to men in any other way than through the Son.”

T.H. L. Parker argues emphatically that just because completelness and perfection has come in the NT, does not mean that the teacher of the OT church is not the same teacher as that of the NT

3. By preaching God we preach Christ. Calvin didn’t see the need in every OT sermon to actually mention the name of Christ or the need to have a very specific or explicit reference to the Son of God. Therefore when you read his OT sermons you can go many paragraphs or pages without a reference to the Son of God. “Whenever the name of God is mentioned without particilarization, there are designated no less the Son and the Spirit than the Father.

We are to hear the OT with Trinitarian ears. For Calvin, when he;s preaching God, he’s implicitly preaching Christ.

4. The Old and the New Testaments are united by the same covenant of grace. Luther saw a much greater contrast between the OT. Calvin saw differences, but none that would fundamentally alter the message between the Old and New Testament. Calvin says, “God could never could have a made a new, that is a contrary, or different covenant.”

For Calvin, both testaments are under the same covenant of grace. Same, but differing in form and in the way the covenant is adminstered or manner. Different in terms of husk, but not kernal.

5. Whatever was said to Israel was said also to us. If the testaments are united by the same covenant of grace, why not view what was said to Israel as also said to us? So much union and unity that Calvin sees between the OT people of God and the NT people of God, he saus, “The differeences between the revelation under the old and new comparison pale when compared with that which remains the same.”

6. Every Old Testament believer was saved through faith in Christ. Calvin was crystal clear and absolutely emphatic about. Many of his opponents were Ana baptists who argued that the relationship of old testament believers was based on their works. He is at pains that OT believers were saved through faith in Christ, niot just God in vague and abstract terms. He says, “Indeed the ancient fathers were saved by no other means than by that whiuch we have they had theur salvation grounded in Christ Jesus.”

This changes our whole view of the old testament and old testament beleivers. They become brothers. We will not be sitting at the same table with some who got there by works and others who got there by grace. Not much room for unity in that scenario. “The hope of all the godly has ever reposed in Christ alone.”

7. The OT believers had the Holy Spirit. This was strongly denied by the Anabaptists.

Promise/Fulfillment, Shadow/Light, Sketch/Painting is how Calvin understand the difference between the old and new testament believer. The OT saint had the “promise;” we have the “fulfilment’, etc.

Calvin believed the Holy Spirit reigned in the shadow.

8. The hope of OT believers was spiritual and heavenly. The Anabaptists argued that the OT believer was merely materialistic, focused on this earth. Calvin argued that the promises were presented to the OT believer was a materialist form but with the goal of pointing them to the spiritual.

9. The law was a schoolmaster that led Old Testament believers to Christ. We sometimes think of this verse in terms of redemptive history, but this verse also applies on an individual redemptive basis. They were as it were trained up in the rigour of the law, but these excercises were designed by God to be  a hand to bring them to the liberty and freedom of the gospel in old testament times. The law was not the end – it was like elementary school.

10. Calvin recognized that there were differeces between the Old and New Testament.

a. The OT promises were given in an earthly form whereas in the NT the earthly form falls away.

b. As a result, the OT was actually more obscure than the new. Partly because of the form that was used. If there is a shadow it is difficult to see around the corner to the reality. The OT believers were not in the total dark. It’s like HD video compared to DVD. OT was like “DVD” but when compared with the “HD” of the NT then it looks obscure, more shadowy, weaker.

c. The OT believers knew that this was not the end, They saw that God had designed these means in order to help them along. Any thing more advanced would have been too complicated for them at that stage.

d. The OT had more letter, less Spirit. The NT had more Spirit, less letter. Both testaments had each

The OT believers experienced more fear and bondage than the NT believers. They knew joy, but with periods of darkness, shadow, and obscurity.

e. Since the gospel has come in the NT, the gospel has now gone out to all the nations.

The Practical Pillars

1. The aim of all OT study is to find and preach Christ. A pastor needed academic training, but any academic training that missed this basic point missed it all. Calvin was concerned to combat the Jewish exegetes of his own day with their “Christless” interpretations of the OT.

2. The NT is our exegetical guide to the OT. Calvin is very concerned with contextual exegesis. He also believed in canonical interpretation, interpreting every book in light of the whole canon. The New interprets the Old.

3. If you cannot be Christ-centered in exegesis, be so in application. The OT writers didn’t have NT understanding. He didn’t impute to them fuller understanding than what they had. As a result in his exegeis sometimes he can have pages and pages of Christless exegesis it would appear. If he couldn’t exegete Christ from the passage, he would always be Christ-centered in his application.

4. Preach the original message to the original OT. Prior to the Reformation OT preaching was often extended allegory. Calvin turned his back on this mere moralising. He wanted to do full justice to what the text meant when it was written. Failure to do so was extremely detrimental to Christians. Compare and

5. Highlight partial fulfillments before complete fulfillments.

6. Preach Christ from all genres of OT literature. Preach Christ from his pictures (typology) and his presence (Christoponies). See Christ in the typology of David and in the angelic appearances in the Old Testament.

7. The Old Testament should be frequently, far more frequently than it is. In 15 years of pulpit ministry in Geneva, Calvin preached over 2,000 OT sermons. In addition to his sermons he produced 66 lectures on Daniel, 65 on Ezekial, 193 on Jeremiah.

8. Build Christ-centered Old Testament preaching slowly and safely. This kind of preaching opens up the church to ridicule and mockery. The very worst thing we could do is to start preaching from the OT’s most obscure and difficult passages. Preach on the obvious and the clear rather than the most mysterious and obscure.

Follow Calvin insofar as he is a follower of Christ. Don’t follow Calvin in everything! He makes the odd-mistep, three in particular:

1. He desired not to alienate the Jewish exegete and conceded too much to them. 

2. His language and his criticizng the NT writers use of the OLT sometimes borders on the undermining of the inspiration of Scripture

3. Sometimes Calvin, in his desire to focus on the historical grammatical interpretation, loses sight of Christ.

A personal word: I have found a special help and unction when preaching Christ from the OT. God especially honors preaching from parts of his word that are being neglected, abused and/or attacked. If we reurn to a preaching of Christ from the OT that God will pour out his Spirit upon it and save and sanctify many precious souls.