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.
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 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.”