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John Calvin

Evangelism, Missions, and Calvinism

By Wei Feng Ho - Apr 12, 2016

The name John Calvin is a controversial one that evokes a broad range of reactions from different people around the world. To some, he is the tireless, larger-than-life, second-generation French reformer who changed the world forever with his Reformation ministry in Geneva. To others, he is the ruthless dictator of Geneva responsible for the deaths of men like Michael Servetus. Even though he was not the first to teach and write about it, Calvin will always be associated with the doctrine of predestination, and many argue this meant Calvin didn’t care at all about evangelism and missions work.

One scholar in his book on Calvin’s teaching, said, “Certainly he [Calvin] displayed no trace of missionary enthusiasm.”[i] This may not just be a critique of only Calvin but other Reformers that shared his theological position. American missiologist Ralph Winter once said of the Reformers, “[they] did not even talk of mission outreach.”[ii] This sentiment against predestination is still around today like scholar Philip Hughes noticed when he said, “We are all familiar with the scornful rationalization that facilely asserts that his horrible doctrine of divine election makes nonsense of all missionary and evangelistic activity.”[iii]  However, Calvin (the one “Calvinism” is named after) is understandably targeted in this way since he is one of the important historical proponents of the Reformed view on predestination.

But is this a fair critique of Calvin’s teaching and overall ministry? Did Calvin not display any trace of missionary enthusiasm? It is this author’s view, as well as many others, that if one were to look fairly at the work and results of Calvin’s ministry, that is an entirely inaccurate critique of Calvin. Calvin’s ministry not only changed Geneva, but was also led to several other European countries (and even Brazil!) receiving pastors and missionaries that Calvin trained, taught, and sent out. This will be argued for in first looking at what Calvin taught about evangelism and missions and then looking at the impact Calvin directly had on global missions. It will be clear that not only did Calvin have some “missionary enthusiasm” and care about “missions outreach”, but he was responsible for an enormous wave of missionary movement in his time!

Calvin’s Teaching on Evangelism and Missions

The amount of published works produced by Calvin is extraordinary. While he is usually most well-known for his Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin published theological treatises, several commentaries, as well as his sermons on particular books of the Bible. He also wrote copious amounts of letters to all kinds of people as part of his work. Theologian B.B. Warfield once called Calvin, “the great letter-writer of the Reformation age.”[iv] A brief study of Calvin’s corpus of published work shows that Calvin certainly had a lot to say about the works of evangelism and missions.

Contrary to those that believe Calvin’s doctrine of predestination and election would make evangelism nonsensical and useless, Calvin’s writing doesn’t show this supposed contradiction or weakness. Calvin firmly taught that believers are to obey God’s command to share the gospel to all people so that some might believe and be saved. To know those whom God has predestined is not something for us to know, we are to obey God in His command to evangelize and trust that in the end, He will save those whom He has chosen. He wrote this in his treatise on predestination, “Since we do not know who belongs to the number of the predestined and who does not, it befits us so to feel as to wish that all be saved. So it will come about that, whoever we come across, we shall study to make him a sharer of peace…even severe rebuke will be administered like medicine, lest they should perish or cause others to perish. But it will be for God to make it effective in those whom He foreknew and predestined.[v]” Calvin shows here that he was a pastor that wanted his people to have hearts for the lost and desire people to be saved through responding to the gospel and this required people to tell them the Good News.

However, one might think, “Calvin is only speaking here of those we happen to come across, what about those in other cities and countries? Did Calvin care not just for “Jerusalem” but also “Samaria and the ends of the world”?” Calvin apparently loved the gospel and taught his people that the gospel treasure was not merely something to keep to oneself but to share with the whole world. In his concluding prayer on a sermon on 1 Timothy 2:3, he prayed, “Seeing that God has given us such a treasure and so inestimable a thing as His Word, we must employ ourselves as much as we can, that it may be kept safe and sound and not perish. And let every man be sure to lock it up securely in his own heart. But it is not enough to have an eye to his own salvation, but the knowledge of God must shine generally throughout the whole world.”[vi] Calvin is saying here that while we should guard the good deposit that we’ve been entrusted with, we should not be satisfied until gospel truth shines throughout the world. On the very next verse, in his commentary, Calvin wrote, “The Apostle simply means, that there is no people and no rank in the world that is excluded from salvation; because God wishes that the gospel should be proclaimed to all without exception. Now the preaching of the gospel gives life; and hence he justly concludes that God invites all equally to partake of salvation. But the present discourse relates to classes of men, and no to individual persons; for his sole object is, to include in this number princes and foreign nations. That God wishes the doctrine of salvation to be enjoyed by them as well as others, is evident from the passages already quoted, and from other passages of a similar nature…Now the duty arising: out of that love which we owe to our neighbor is, to be solicitous and to do our endeavor for the salvation of all whom God includes in his calling, and to testify this by godly prayers.”[vii] This is not Calvin advocating for Universalism but rather it is part of God’s plan for all sorts of people from around the world to know salvation be it kings or peasants and that the Church has a responsibility to tell the world of Christ’s saving power and pray for them.

He goes on to say in the next verse, that for people to disobey God in this way to “shut out any person from the hope of salvation.”[viii] Continuing in his sermon series on 1st Timothy, Calvin says, “God wants his grace to be known to all the world, and he has commanded that his gospel be preached to all creatures; we must (as much as we are able) seek the salvation of those who today are strangers to the faith, who seem to be completely deprived of God‘s goodness.”[ix] But lest we think Calvin is balancing out his predestinationism with some “free-will theology”, it is clear that, for Calvin, the extension of Christ’s Kingdom happens chiefly by God’s power, not by human effort. In his commentary on Matthew 24:30, he says that this happens not “by human means but by heavenly power that the Lord will gather His Church.”[x]

This was not just something he briefly mentioned during his teaching on the letter of 1 Timothy, Calvin taught on the importance and necessity of evangelism and missions from the Old Testament as well. While commenting on Micah 2:1–4, Calvin spoke of the unfinished Great Commission: “The kingdom of Christ was only begun in the world when God commanded the gospel to be everywhere proclaimed and…at this day its course is not yet complete.”[xi] Here Calvin again emphasizes the necessity of the gospel going forth anywhere in the world as God had commanded the disciples.

As important as this was for the Church, Calvin knew that often the saints are discouraged when the results from evangelism aren’t readily seen. Here are his comments on Genesis 17:23: “So, at this day, God seems to enjoin a thing impossible to be done, when he requires his gospel to be preached everywhere in the whole world, for the purpose of restoring it from death to life. For we see how great is the obstinacy of nearly all men, and what numerous and powerful methods of resistance Satan employs; so that, in short, all the ways of access to these principles are obstructed. Yet it behooves individuals to do their duty, and not to yield to impediments; and, finally, our endeavors and our labors shall by no means fail of that success, which is not yet apparent.[xii]” Calvin admits that this is seemingly an impossible thing, and there is much opposition to the gospel in this world, but Calvin, ever the pastor, reminds his readers that our labor for the sake of the gospel will not be in vain! But what about Calvin’s view of God? Critics have called out Calvin and his view of God as making him a “cruel tyrant grudgingly allowing some to be saved.”[xiii] Calvin says in his commentary on Ezekiel 18:23, “God certainly desires nothing more than for those who are perishing and rushing toward death to return to the way of safety. This is why the gospel is today proclaimed throughout the world, for God wished to testify to all the ages that he is greatly inclined to pity.”[xiv]

Calvin’s Practice of Evangelism and Contribution to World Missions

Not only did Calvin teach that evangelism was a necessary, God-ordained duty for believers and that the gospel was to be preached to all peoples, but he also practiced it as well. He evangelized to his congregation, and the city of Geneva and the complete transformation of the city is well documented. This gospel transformation of Geneva led by Calvin resulted in much evangelism and reform throughout Europe. The missionary activity that came out of Calvin’s Geneva is a strong apologetic against any critique that Calvin lacked any missionary zeal. In light of his entire life of ministry, Frank James called him “a man with a strong evangelical heart.”[xv] In fact, it could be argued that during Calvin’s time, he helped change Geneva into a major European missionary sending city during the Reformation. Philip Hughes says that Calvin’s Geneva became a “school of missions” which had as one of its purposes: “to send out witnesses who would spread the teaching of the Reformation far and wide…It [Geneva] was 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.”[xvi]

Michael Haykin, of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, agreed with Hughes and said Geneva under Calvin, “became the missionary center of Europe in this period of the Reformation. Calvin sought to harness the energies and gifts of many of the religious refugees so as to make Geneva central to the expansion of Reformation thought and piety throughout Europe. This meant training and preparing many of these refugees to go back to their native lands as evangelists and reformers.”[xvii] In God’s providence, many Protestant refugees fled to the safe haven of Geneva and Calvin and his Genevan church ministered to all of them. Calvin personally taught many of these men, and they were sent back to their homeland as pastors, evangelists, reformers, and missionaries knowing that death and martyrdom were likely. They had experienced gospel ministry in word and deed under Calvin’s ministry, and many of them would go back home to continue the Reformation. John Knox, a key figure and reformer in the Scottish Reformation, spent time with Calvin in Geneva and called it “the most perfect school of Christ that ever was in the earth since the days of the Apostles.”[xviii] Calvin was concerned for the Reformation’s progress, not only in Geneva but in France, Scotland, England, Italy, Germany, Spain, Poland, Hungary, the Netherlands, and even Brazil as those that Calvin taught and trained were shown to have to gone to each of those places to reform and plant new churches.[xix]

Most the refugees that went back home after being in Geneva were French. Calvin never forgot his home country and was concerned for the evangelization of his homeland. Derek Thomas uses historian Robert Kingdon’s numbers when he says, “The growth is nothing short of astounding: in 1555, there were five Reformed churches in France. Four years later, there were almost a hundred. Three years later, the number had reached 2,150 with a total membership estimated at 3 million (out of a total population of 20 million).”[xx] While complete records were not always kept due to religious persecution that began in 1562, the Register of the Company of Pastors in Geneva lists 88 names of missionaries that were sent from Geneva to different cities in France.[xxi] It’s very likely that many more were sent, but no records were kept for the sake of the safety of the missionaries. Calvin was a spiritual father and pastor for many of these church planters and did all that he could to encourage and support them. Five young French pastors, who were trained in Lausanne, Switzerland, were caught as they tried to get back to France to start a ministry. Calvin wrote this to them when he learned of their imprisonment:

“As soon as you were taken, we heard of it, and knew how it had come to pass. We took care that help might be sent you with all speed, and are now awaiting the result. Those who have influence with the prince in whose power has God put your lives, are faithfully exerting     themselves on your behalf, but we do not yet know how far they have succeeded in their suit. Meanwhile all the children of God pray for you as they are bound to do, not only on account of the mutual compassion which ought to exist between member of the same body, but because they know well that you labor for them by maintain the cause of their salvation. We hope, come what may, that God will give a happy issue to your captivity, so that we shall have reason to rejoice.”

Calvin continued to write to them during their imprisonment to encourage their faith. But after desperate efforts to save them, they were still condemned to die. Calvin wrote to them a farewell letter:

“Now, at this present hour; necessity itself exhorts you more than ever to turn your whole mind heavenward. As yet, we know not what will be the event. But since it appears as though God would use your blood to seal His truth, there is nothing better for you than to prepare yourselves for that end, beseeching Him so to subdue you to His good pleasure, that nothing may hinder you from following whithersoever He shall call…Since it pleases Him to employ you to the death in maintaining His quarrel, He will strengthen your hands in the fight and will not suffer a single drop of your blood to be shed in vain.”[xxii]

Conclusion

“Far from being disinterested in missions, history shows that Calvin was enraptured by it,” says Frank James. And after taking a brief look at what the Calvin believed, taught, and did in this paper, I hope that you would agree as well. Just because John Calvin taught a Reformed view of predestination didn’t mean that he never taught about evangelism. Quite the opposite as we have seen that Calvin wrote and preached on it often all over the Bible. He taught on the universality of Christ’s Kingdom which meant that the free offer of the gospel was for all people and that it was the duty of believers to proclaim this gospel to all people. He taught of a God mighty to save and full of mercy. He trained up men for gospel ministry, men were so taken by the gospel that Calvin preached that they would risk everything to go back to their homeland with the light of the gospel, and we know some of them were indeed martyred.

God did such a work through Calvin that the Reformation roared on into several other European countries and many churches were planted. Even if one were to disagree with Calvin’s theology on salvation, it is quite clear that Calvin cared about evangelism and missions and practiced it. But Calvin wasn’t evangelistic and missions-minded despite of his Reformed views, rather as Frank James and many other people argue, he was evangelistic and missions-minded because he was Reformed. Here’s his fitting quote to conclude: “Calvin was missions-minded because he understood the transformational character of the gospel. He understood that when God saves a person, it makes a profound difference in that person’s life and in the lives of others. If Calvin is taken as a model, Reformed theology ought to produce not only the best theologians, but also the best pastors and missionaries. These convictions reveal the true Calvin behind the image.”[xxiii] 

This article first appeared in the April 2016 issue of Theology for Life and is posted here with permission. To read the rest of the issue click here.

[i] A. Mitchell. Hunter, The Teaching of Calvin, A Modern Interpretation. (Glasgow: Maclehose, Jackson, and Company), 1920.

[ii] Ralph Winter, “The Kingdom Strikes Back,” in Perspectives on the World Christian Movement  (Pasadena: William Carey Library, 1992), 18.

[iii]Philip E. Hughes, “John Calvin: Director of Missions,” in The Heritage of John Calvin, ed., J. H. Bratt (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1973), 42.

[iv] B.B. Warfield, Calvin and Augustine. The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, Philadelphia, PA, 1956. p. 14.

[v] John Calvin, Concerning the Eternal Predestination of God, trans. J. K. S. Reid (London: James Clarke and Co., Limited, 1961), 9.

[vi]  Frank A. James III, “Calvin the Evangelist”, Founders Journal 75, 2009, 6.

[vii]John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries, Ephesians – Jude (Wilmington, DE: Associated Publishers and Authors), 2172.

[viii] Idid. 2173

[ix] John Calvin, Sermon 13 on 1 Timothy 2:8. (as cited in Michael A. Haykin,  “A Sacrifice Pleasing to God: John Calvin and the Missionary Endeavor to the Church”, Andrew Fuller Center.)

[x]John Calvin, Commentary on Matthew 24:3 (as cited in David B. Calhoun, “John Calvin: Missionary Hero or Missionary Failure?” Presbyterion 1979. 18)

[xi]John Calvin, Commentary on Micah 2:1– 4.  (as cited in Derek Thomas, “John Calvin and Missions”, Puritan Reformed Journal (July 2009)).

[xii]John Calvin, Commentary on Genesis 17:23. (as cited in Haykin)

[xiii]Ryan Van Neste, “Calvin on Evangelism and Missions”, Founders Journal 33, 1998, 15-21.

[xiv]John Calvin, Commentary on Ezekiel 18:23. (as cited in Van Neste).

[xv]James, “Calvin the Evangelist.” 3.

[xvi] Philip Hughes, ed. and trans., The Register of the Company of Pastors of Geneva in the Time of Calvin (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1966), 25.

[xvii]Haykin, “A Sacrifice Pleasing to God,” 14-15

[xviii] Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Vol. VIII (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1910, 1984), 518.

[xix]Haykin, “A Sacrifice Pleasing to God.” 15.

[xx] Robert M. Kingdon, “Calvinist Religious Aggression,” in The French Wars of Religion, How Important Were Religious Factors?, ed. J. H. M. Salmon (Lexington, MA: D. C. Heath and Company, 1967), 6.

[xxi]Alistair McGrath, A Life of John Calvin: A Study of Western Culture (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990), 182.

[xxii]T.H.L. Parker, Portrait of Calvin,  (Minneapolis:  Desiring God, 2009), pg.122-123

[xxiii]James, “Calvin as Evangelist.” 6.