On this episode of Open Book, Stephen Nichols and R.C. Sproul discuss a collection of 42 masterful sermons that resulted in at least one burst blood vessel.
STEPHEN NICHOLS: Well, we’re back in the library with Dr. Sproul. It’s good to see you.
R.C. SPROUL: It’s good to be seen.
NICHOLS: Well, I have two books here. We’ll cheat. This is supposed to be one book per episode, but we’ll put two together in this one.
NICHOLS: The reason why is that these books contain sermons by the same person.
NICHOLS: We have John Calvin’s Sermons on Galatians and John Calvin’s Sermons on Ephesians. So, let’s start with the Sermons on Galatians. In fact, when I came in here, this book was on your desk.
SPROUL: Yes, well, the reason it was on my desk, Steve, is because, as we speak, I am preaching through Galatians.
NICHOLS: Yes, at Saint Andrew’s Chapel.
SPROUL: And, of course, this is what Calvin did. If you see how fat this book is, you know how long Calvin spent on his teaching series through Galatians. This edition is special to me because one of our teaching fellows wrote the foreword for it: Dr. W. Robert Godfrey. Not only do I read these sermons in conjunction with my sermons on Galatians, but Calvin also wrote a commentary on Galatians that was distinct from his sermon series. So, you have his sermons, which are expositions of the book, and then you have his more academic commentary on Galatians. These mean very much to me.
NICHOLS: The two come together. You know, I remember when you started the series on Galatians. You said you were praying that God would give you the strength to finish the series, and you were also praying that it was the longest sermon series ever on the book of Galatians.
SPROUL: Yes! I did say that!
NICHOLS: How long was Calvin’s sermon series?
SPROUL: I don’t know. How many there are?
NICHOLS: Let’s see if we can get a count here. It’s a very thick book. We are up to a thousand pages in this book, and it looks like there’s forty-two sermons. I think that’s it: forty-two.
SPROUL: But they’re long!
NICHOLS: They’re very long, and they’re very meaty, and they’re just so rich. It’s like you said, when you get to the commentaries, it’s got all of this interesting, technical data. It’s almost the first modern commentary.
SPROUL: Well, I can remember when I was in seminary—it was a liberal seminary and, of course, they were very critical of the Reformers—but the one thing that they said was that Calvin’s exegetical studies were absolutely world class. They couldn’t find much to criticize, even from the twentieth-century perspective from which they were speaking. They were still in awe of his philological mastery and exegetical precision. A lot of that is true of Luther, as well. Luther was a linguist.
NICHOLS: Calvin really had his training as a scholar.
NICHOLS: So, when you come to these sermons, you discover that they’re really rich. You have the Sermons on Galatians, and we’ve also got another thick book here, John Calvin’s Sermons on Ephesians.
SPROUL: This is special to me for two reasons. First of all, in the not-too-distant past, I finished an evening series of lectures on Ephesians, and Ephesians is one of my favorite books. And second, this group of sermons that Calvin gives us on Ephesians is meaningful to me because I received this book in 1990 from two longtime supporters of Ligonier: Marge Trimble and Carol Brown. They gave me this book from the Banner of Truth as a gift in appreciation for Ligonier Ministries, so that has sentimental value to me as well as theological value.
NICHOLS: I’d say they know you pretty well if they gave this to you as a gift.
NICHOLS: You know, these sermons on Ephesians—I think I remember reading this at one point—that when Calvin was preaching these, during one of his sermons, he was so intense that he actually burst blood vessels during his preaching.
SPROUL: Well, I do that every time!
NICHOLS: There is something about being passionate about a subject.
SPROUL: We have a fellow that helps me get into the pulpit because I have a hard time getting up the stairs—
NICHOLS: It’s quite a pulpit to ascend.
SPROUL: —it is a high one, and I even actually have to sit to preach. Just this past Sunday, just as I got into this chair, this fellow who helps me whispers into my ear, “Preach like your hair’s on fire.”
NICHOLS: That’ll add a sense of urgency to what you’re talking about.
SPROUL: Yes, it will.
NICHOLS: If you put these two books together, this is a massive work, and it reminds us that Calvin was a pastor. Sometimes we think of Calvin only as a theologian on account of the Institutes of the Christian Religion, but at his heart, he was a pastor; he was a pastor-theologian.
SPROUL: One of the great things that I’ve said about it is that, to me, the greatest theologians in history were all pastors. Think about Augustine, the greatest theologian of the first millennium—arguably, of Christianity—and Anselm, Luther, Calvin, Edwards; these were the great geniuses of the theological world. They were all pastors. One of the things I learned when I was in seminary, when I was studying them, I realized that these were world-class scholars, but they were also battlefield theologians. They took their message to the people. I’ve tried to model my ministry after them in that regard.
NICHOLS: The beauty of this is that they’re still taking the message to the people. You know, you can pick up these sermons and just read through them, and they’re very nourishing and encouraging. The thing I find about them is that they are so timeless. You look at a lot of preaching, and it’s sort of something intended to get you through the week, which is great, but sermons centering on eternal truths, the gospel, and the central doctrines of the faith are timeless and what you really need in your life: not just the timely, but the timeless. That’s what these sermons are great for.
NICHOLS: So, you have John Calvin’s Sermons on Galatians. We’ll have to return this to your desk, because you’ve got to preach this Sunday. So, maybe Calvin will offer a little help as you put the finishing touches on your sermon, and I know that you do not manuscript your sermons.
SPROUL: No, I don’t.
NICHOLS: It’s all up in the head.
SPROUL: Well, I have Luther’s Commentary on Galatians right next to it.
NICHOLS: I saw. The other thing I saw, too, was J. Gresham Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism, so that also helps when you’re preaching through Galatians.
SPROUL: It certainly does.
NICHOLS: Well, Dr. Sproul, thank you for letting us visit your library and thank you for letting us talk about these great books.