John Calvin on Evangelism and Missions
From his own lifetime onward John Calvin has been a controversial person. One controversy stems from the accusations leveled against him by many that he was completely unevangelistic and unconcerned about missions. A. M. Hunter, in his book on Calvin’s teaching, said, “Certainly he [Calvin] displayed no trace of missionary enthusiasm.” Some have even said that Calvin’s teaching on predestination necessarily destroyed evangelistic fervor; “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.” Others, however, have said: “One of the natural results of Calvin’s perspective of predestination was an intensified zeal for evangelism.” Though some have used Calvin’s teachings to excuse their apathy towards evangelism, a close examination of Calvin’s historical context, his writings, and his actions would prove John Calvin to be a man truly committed to the spread of the gospel.
In order to understand John Calvin, or any other historical figure, one must understand the time in which the person lived and worked. Calvin emerged as a Reformation leader in 1536 with the publication of The Institutes of the Christian Religion and remained in leadership until his death in 1564. Thus, Calvin was a generation after Luther, and the Reformation, well entrenched in Germany, was spreading all over Europe. However, there was little organization among the churches that had split with Rome. Historian Owen Chadwick noted that
The problem now was not the overthrow of the papacy, but the construction of new modes of power . . . In breaking down papal authority, the Reformation seemed to have left the authority of the Christian ministry vague and uncertain.
Protestant groups, who had been accustomed to strong central authority in Rome, were now only loosely organized and, though they claimed scripture for their authority, they disagreed on what the scriptures meant with regard to certain doctrines. By the time that Calvin gained prominence in 1536, Protestant churches were in great need of organization and structure in their doctrine and practice.
In addition to the disorganization within, there was a persecution from without. The scattered condition of Protestantism was only worsened by the intense efforts of the Roman Church to eradicate the Protestant movement. Protestant churches were struggling not only for their identity but also for their very survival. Calvin himself had to leave France for personal safety, and he wrote the first edition of the Institutes in response to the ill treatment of French Protestants. Identification with Protestantism brought immediate punishment, including torture and even death.
Obviously, Calvin’s era was a time of intense difficulty for Protestant churches. The demands of the day led him to spend a considerable amount of his energy developing a church organization, writing theology, and training ministers. With such pressing needs one might understand if Calvin neglected evangelism or missions. After all, the church itself and its message must first be established. Moreover, preaching Reformation doctrine in areas other than the Protestant cities would mean almost certain death. However, even these pressing needs and problems, which would immobilize many churches today, did not stop the evangelistic efforts of Calvin and his followers.
Calvin’s writings on predestination have most often been targeted as unevangelistic and destructive to missionary zeal. Calvin addressed predestination primarily in related parts of his Institutes and in his treatise, Concerning the Eternal Predestination of God, which J. K. S. Reid called “the longest and most sustained exposition which Calvin wrote on the subject.” Dealing with predestination in the Institutes, Calvin does not directly address evangelism specifically, but neither does he describe it as unnecessary. He does, in fact, write several times about the gospel being preached to the masses, resulting in the salvation of the elect and the hardening of the non-elect (III.23.10; II.5.10). In other words, Calvin did not limit the preaching of the gospel to those considered to be elect. He explains his views more fully 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.
Calvin clearly encouraged Christians to be involved in evangelism! “It befits us” to desire all people to be saved. The result of this proper desire should make us try to lead everyone “we come across” to faith in Christ, for that is the only way they could share in peace. This is not to be a half-hearted effort. Christians are to use “even severe rebuke” if necessary to prevent others from ignoring the gospel and perishing. Christians must make the effort to evangelize everyone knowing that only God can save.
Calvin’s doctrine of predestination did not make the preaching of the gospel unnecessary; instead, it made preaching necessary because it was by the preaching of the gospel that God had chosen to save the predestined.
Aside from his writings on predestination, Calvin also strongly supported the idea of missions with passages widely scattered throughout his commentaries. Commenting on Micah 2:1-4, Calvin states, “The Kingdom of Christ was only begun in the world when God commanded the gospel to be every where proclaimed and . . . at this day its course is not as yet complete.” In other words the Great Commission was not fulfilled by the apostles and, consequently, this mission is still the responsibility of Christians.
Calvin expressed similar views as he commented on 1 Tim. 2:4, saying “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.” He is not, of course, saying that everyone in the world would be saved, but that certain people from all parts of the world would be saved. The whole idea of the passage is that God desires “foreign nations” to hear the gospel and to be included in salvation. It is the Christian’s duty “to be solicitous and to do our endeavor for the salvation of all whom God includes in his calling.”
No one should be denied the opportunity of hearing the gospel proclaimed. Continuing to verse five of the same passage, Calvin writes that those people insult God “who, by their opinion, shut out any person from the hope of salvation.” The gospel is to be preached indiscriminately to all people, and the decision about who will believe is to be left to God.
Indeed, Calvin never portrays God as a cruel tyrant grudgingly allowing some to be saved. In a comment on Ezek. 18:23, he states:
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.
God desires for men to be saved and by His election has assured that some will be. It is the fact that God will definitely call some that encourages believers to “bestow more toil and exertion for the instruction of rebels,” realizing that “our duty is, to be employed in sowing and watering, and while we do this we must look for the increase from God.” Clearly, Calvin recognized the need for Christians to exert effort in evangelism in order to be used of God to call out His elect. He saw evangelism as a duty and employment involving “toil and exertion.” Such is far from an indifferent attitude toward evangelism.
Perhaps the best evidence of Calvin’s concern for missions is the mission activity of the Genevan church under his leadership. 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.” Protestant refugees from all over Europe fled to Geneva; they came not merely for safety but also to learn from Calvin the doctrines of the Reformation so they could return home to spread the true gospel. Philip Hughes notes that 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.”
Thus was Calvin’s missionary concern reflected in the church he served and the students he taught.
The pastors of Geneva, including Calvin himself, met regularly and kept sporadic notes of their actions in a register, which became the greatest source of information on the missionary activity in Geneva. In April 1555 the Register of the Company of Pastors for the first time listed men who were sent out from Geneva to “evangelize Foreign Parts.” The entry that mentioned these men stated that they had been sent out prior to April 1555, and they were already ministering in the Piedmont valleys. More ministers may have been sent out before this time without being recorded in the Register because the notes were not complete and it was often dangerous to record the names of missionaries.
By 1557 it was a normal part of business for the Genevan pastors to send missionaries into France. Robert M. Kingdon called it a “concentrated missionary effort.” By 1562, religious wars had broken out in France, and it was no longer safe to record the names of missionaries. However, between 1555 and 1562 the Register records 88 men by name who were sent out from Geneva to different places as “bearers of the gospel.”
In reality many more than 88 were sent. In one year, 1561, though the Register mentions only twelve missionaries, other sources indicate that at least 142 missionaries were sent! Hundreds of men were sent out, reaching Italy, Germany, Scotland, England, and practically covering France. From all over Europe requests came to Geneva for ministers of the gospel and the Genevan Company of Pastors filled as many as possible. At times even their own churches were deprived of pastors in order to meet the needs of struggling groups abroad. Thus, Geneva, under Calvin’s direction, served as the heart of the Reformation in Europe, pumping out the lifeblood of trained ministers into all areas.
In addition to the extensive work in Europe, one group of Genevan missionaries was sent to Brazil. The Register simply states that on Tuesday, August 25, 1556, M. Pierre Richier and M. Guillaume were sent as ministers to Brazil. “These two were subsequently commended to the care of the Lord and sent off with a letter from this church.” The ministers were sent in response to a request from Admiral Coligny, a Huguenot leader. They were to serve as chaplains for a group of Protestants who were going to Brazil to establish a colony, and they would have opportunity to instruct the natives in the gospel. One man who went on the trip wrote that, upon receiving the request,
the church of Geneva at once gave thanks to God for the extension of the reign of Jesus Christ in a country so distant and likewise so foreign and among a nation entirely without knowledge of the true God.
Sadly, the mission was not successful because the leader of the group betrayed the Protestants. Some were killed, and others were sent back to Europe. Though the mission failed, it remains “a striking testimony to the far reaching missionary vision of Calvin and his Genevan colleagues.”
Though evangelism was not discussed as much in the sixteenth century as it would be later, Calvin proved himself to be genuinely concerned for the spread of the true gospel. In light of the situation of the world around him, his mission activity, and that of his colleagues, is truly admirable. His writings also show that he believed the gospel should be preached to all. The missionary endeavors of the Genevan church especially prove Calvin’s commitment to missions. Speaking of these efforts, Philip Hughes states,
Here is irrefutable proof of the falsity of the too common conclusion that Calvinism is incompatible with evangelism and spells death to all missionary enterprise.
Clearly, Calvin must have believed his teachings were compatible with mission work since he was so involved in such work himself. Whether or not one agrees with all of Calvin’s views or actions, one must admit the great reformer’s teachings (including predestination) do indeed support evangelism and mission work.
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“It was both ‘a horrible decree’ and ‘very sweet fruit.”‘ Christian History, 5, no. 4 (Fall 1986) : 24-26.
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