John Calvin and Missions

Dear Church Family,

Happy Reformation Day! I know – it’s a day early. October 31st is the day when many Protestant churches celebrate the people and events of the Protestant Reformation nearly 500 years ago. More importantly, however, we celebrate the glorious truths of the gospel and the recovery of the apostolic faith which had been suppressed for so long. Of course, that does not mean that the light of the gospel – and the lamp of the church – had been extinguished; there were faithful believers and ministers before the Reformation.

Still, it is good to remember and reflect upon some of the people and events that led to the reformation and renewal of the Church of Jesus Christ. Last year, around this time, I shared some reflections on Martin Luther and some of the points from his original ninety-five theses. This year, I would like to share something about John Calvin and his missionary endeavors.

Calvinism and Missions

For some people, having the name “John Calvin” and “missionary endeavors” in the same sentence sounds ludicrous and oxymoronic. Calvinism and Calvinists are often charged with a lack of zeal for evangelism and missions. Where that has been true, we ought to repent. But, understanding that God has predestined and elected some to be saved actually gives more confidence and boldness in evangelism and missions: God is the one who saves, so believers are free and emboldened to share the gospel leaving the results to Him. Also, a high view of God’s glory and sovereignty causes one to recognize that evangelism and missions is a means to an end. Evangelism and missions is the means by which God gathers more worshippers to Himself, thereby bringing more glory to Himself (John 4:23; Ephesians 1:5-6).

Calvin and Missions

But there’s another reason for which some may think that the name John Calvin and missions do not go together: historical ignorance. Among many Christians, there is this popular notion that post-Reformational Christian missions began with the Moravians in the 1730s or with William Cary (1761-1834), who is known as “the father of modern missions.” [By the way, Cary was a Particular Baptist, a Calvinist.]

Without taking anything away from these great missionary works, we should also remember and take note of John Calvin’s (1509-1564) missionary endeavors. In 1555, there were five underground Protestant churches in Roman Catholic France. By 1559, there were more than a hundred. By 1562, the number jumped to 2,150 churches (with about three million people in those churches). Why was that? Because missionaries were being trained in places like Geneva (under the tutelage of John Calvin), and then sent out to plant churches in France and across Europe. Calvin even trained and sent a couple of missionaries across the Atlantic Ocean to a French colony in Brazil.

I could say more, but it would probably be better for you to read the rest from a professional historian. Dr. Frank James is the Professor of Historical Theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. I studied church history under Dr. James while he was at Reformed Theological Seminary (Orlando). Several years ago, he wrote an essay called, “Calvin the Evangelist.” It’s the article from which I obtained the numbers above. You may read it online here: http://rq.rts.edu/fall01/james.html.

The Gospel and the Great Commission

Please go and read Dr. James’ article. And then, as we celebrate and remember the Protestant Reformation, let us also be reminded of the Great Commission to make disciples of all the nations (Matthew 28:18-20). We remember and give thanks for the Reformation and the recovery of the gospel – we are justified through grace alone, by faith alone, in Christ alone. Let us also remember and give thanks for the zealous missionary endeavors flowing out of the Reformation. Let us remember Jesus’ words: “I have other sheep, which are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will hear My voice; and they will become one flock with one shepherd” (John 10:16).

The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch