by Ray Van Neste; CREDO MAGAZINE; October 2020
Ask anyone in the pews of our local churches, and, if they know about the Reformation, they won’t connect it with a robust interest in evangelism and missions. In fact, many will think the ideas of the Reformation are opposed to or at least conflict with the missions zeal. Then check our standard textbooks on missions history and popular writings on the subject, and you will see they have been taught to think this way. This inaccurate and uncharitable bias is sad because it blinds us to the powerful examples and resources which the Reformers provide for us in the work of world evangelization.
If you read the Reformers themselves and study their work, you find a robust program for re-evangelizing their native lands. CLICK TO TWEETIf you read the Reformers themselves and study their work, you find a robust program for re-evangelizing their native lands since the gospel was largely unknown by the vast majority of people in Europe. As Scott Hendrix, in his insightful book, states, “The Reformation’s own sources state plainly how reformers saw their enterprise as a missionary campaign to renew and replant Christianity in European culture.” Calvin’s preface to his Institutes of the Christian Religion declares that his writing was intended to aid his fellow countrymen in France “very many of whom I knew to be hungering and thirsting for Christ; but I saw very few who had been duly imbued with even a slight knowledge of him.” Luther also said that many of the people who attended the church services “do not believe and are not yet Christians.” Thus, he said, “the gospel must be publicly preached to move them to believe and become Christians.”
Both Luther and Calvin trained scores of pastors who came to them from across Europe and were sent back to preach the gospel at the risk of their lives. Under Calvin’s leadership, Geneva became “the hub of a vast missionary enterprise” and “a dynamic center or nucleus from which the vital missionary energy it generated radiated out into the world beyond.” The Register of the Company of Pastors in Geneva records numerous people sent out from Geneva during Calvin’s time to “evangelize foreign parts.” The records are incomplete, and eventually, due to persecution, it became too dangerous to record the names of those sent out, although it numbered more than 100 in one year alone. Philip Hughes describes Geneva as “a dynamic centre of missionary concern and activity, an axis from which the light of the Good News radiated forth through the testimony of those who, after thorough preparation in this school, were sent forth in the service of Jesus Christ.” Zorn suggests that Calvin developed a “missionary theology for Europe.” Since today we face again a Western society that is sprinkled with Christian terms and ideas but largely unconverted, we would do well to examine the work of the Reformers for our mission efforts.
Many examples could be cited from various Reformers, but here let me simply point to Luther and Calvin, with examples from their preaching, praying and songs provided to their people.
Luther is abundantly clear about the duty of believers to share the gospel with others. He says “one must always preach the gospel so that one may bring some more to become Christians.” Furthermore, “It would be insufferable for someone to associate with people and not reveal what is useful for the salvation of their souls.” Indeed, Luther says, “If the need were to arise, all of us should be ready to die in order to bring a soul to God.” Preaching on Matthew 23:15, Luther says, “The very best of all works is that the heathen have been led from idolatry to God.”
Preaching on Deuteronomy, Calvin said, “If we have any kindness in us, seeing that we see men go to destruction until God has got them under his obedience: ought we not to be moved with pity to draw the silly souls out of hell and to bring them into the way of salvation?” He tells pastors that God has made them ministers for the purpose of saving souls and thus they must labor “mightily, and with greater zeal and earnestness” for the salvation of souls. Even when people reject the salvation offered to them, Calvin tells pastors that they must continue to “devote” themselves to this evangelistic work and “take pains” in calling people to faith so that they might “call as many to God as they can.” Calvin urges, “we must take pains to draw all the world to salvation.”
Rather than slighting these brothers, we ought to esteem their powerful testimony borne in times much more difficult than ours. We ought to appreciate the heat of their evangelistic zeal and seek to light our candle from their flame. CLICK TO TWEETLuther taught his people to pray for the conversion of unbelievers and for the gospel to be preached over the whole world. In his brief work written to teach his people how to pray he instructs them to meditate on each petition of the Lord’s Prayer turning that into specific prayers. Luther provides an example of how one might pray from each petition, and in the first three petitions he explicitly prays for the conversion of unbelievers.
This evangelistic concern can also be seen in Luther’s exposition of the Lord’s Prayer in his Large Catechism. Discussing the second petition, “Your kingdom come,” Luther explains that this teaches us, among other things, to pray that the kingdom “may gain recognition and followers among other people and advance with power throughout the world.” Later in the same question he says this petition teaches us to pray both that believers might grow in the kingdom and that “it may come to those who are not yet in it.”
In his sermons on 1 Timothy, Calvin regularly concludes with a prayer for the salvation of the nations. Calvin expounds Paul’s call to pray “for all men” (1 Tim 2) with application to the church’s missionary responsibility to the world: “call upon God and ask him to work toward the salvation of the whole world, and that we give ourselves to this work both night and day.” Throughout this sermon Calvin calls for fervent prayer and persistent action for the salvation of souls, urging his people to “have pity and compassion on the poor unbelievers.” He tells his people, “the greatest pleasure we can do to men is to pray to God for them, and call upon him for their salvation.” It is no surprise, then, that at various places in these sermons Calvin speaks of the salvation of our neighbors as being “dear to us.”
Furthermore, both Luther and Calvin understood the importance of corporate singing for worship and instruction. Here I will simply note two of Luther’s hymns which pulse with yearning for world mission. This one is based on Psalm 67:
Would that the Lord would grant us grace,
With blessings rich provide us,
And with clear shining let his face,
To life eternal light us;
That we his gracious work may know,
And what is his good pleasure,
And also to the heathen show,
Christ’s riches without measure
And unto God convert them.
Another hymn of Luther’s based on Mark 16:15-16 & Luke 24:46f, says,
Christ to all his followers says: Go forth
Give to all men acquaintance
That lost in sin lies the whole earth,
And must turn to repentance.
Who trusts and who is baptized, each one
Is thereby blest forever;
Is from that hour a new-born man,
And thenceforth dying never,
The kingdom shall inherit.
This brief survey has barely scratched the surface of all the Reformers said about missions and evangelism. Rather than slighting these brothers, we ought to esteem their powerful testimony borne in times much more difficult than ours. We ought to appreciate the heat of their evangelistic zeal and seek to light our candle from their flame. To that end I close with two quotes from Calvin’s sermons:
“It is not enough for us to teach other men faithfully, unless we have a zeal to edify and care for the salvation of all men.”
“We cannot bestow our lives and our deaths better than by bringing poor souls who were lost, and on their way to everlasting death, to salvation.”
Ray Van Neste
Ray Van Neste has served at Union University since 2001, and also served as a visiting lecturer 1997-98. He has published numerous books and scholarly essays on topics such as biblical studies, pastoral ministry, and church history. Ray serves on the editorial board of the Southeastern Theological Review and on the Board of Reference for Eagle Projects International, a missions organization. He helped to start and currently leads the study group on the Pastoral Epistles in the Evangelical Theological Society.