Calvinism and Church Planting Are Old Friends

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Acts 29: Churches Planting Churches

Calvinism fills our bookshelves. Many of us pastors know the importance of connecting the doctrines of grace to our preaching, counseling, and disciplining. But the reach of these doctrines must go beyond the confines of our studies.

Calvinism is meant for more than theological headiness; it’s meant for mission.

Perhaps you affirm that statement, even with enthusiasm. But have you considered how Calvinism—the real thing, not the caricatures or counterfeits—can empower and sustain church planting?

Where It Connects

Gathering a core team is not easy. Moving to the other side of the globe with your family can make your palms sweat. The attendance numbers, the empty baptistry, and the low- or high-grade persecution can cause even the strongest among us to falter. How will we make it? Calvinism connects right here.

Calvinism is meant for more than theological headiness; it’s meant for mission.

God’s sovereignty in salvation maximizes our mission. When we know that God is the only unstoppable and unfailing force in the universe—and that we are on mission with him—then our hearts and eyes widen for the lost. Far from hamstringing our efforts and endurance, the doctrines of grace energize us and remind us why we plant churches: because God saves sinners. Or, as Jonah simply puts it, “Salvation belongs to the LORD” (Jonah 2:9).

TULIP and Church Planting

TULIP, the popular acronym for Calvinism, does more than itemize the Reformed view of salvation. It theologizes church planters, sparking their sending and fortifying their missiology.

Total Depravity, the utter sinfulness of humanity, reminds us that no one can better themselves into salvation. Whether in cities, rural areas, or the suburbs, all need to hear and embrace the gospel. Dealing with the spiritually dead and depraved will be messy. Thankfully, our Savior excels in this area. And church planting scatters local churches in order to take this message all over the world.

Unconditional Election and Limited/Definite Atonement teach us that God is going to save people from every tribe, nation, and tongue because of the cross and the empty tomb (Rev. 5:9). The supply and demand for churches will not go away until the Son returns. Jesus has sheep in every part of this world. Our task? Sound the horn. Tell them about the good shepherd. Whether in the coffee shop, the counseling room, or a dirt-floor shelter in Thailand, we are to make much of Jesus. His sheep will hear his voice behind yours (John 10:27).

Irresistible Grace eases a burden off of our backs. God will make the spiritually dead alive in Christ. The success of our ministries isn’t on us—it doesn’t finally come down to our sermons, strategies, or slick services. God—and God alone—saves. While this perspective eases a burden, it also puts our foot to the pedal. We can humbly and confidently plant churches, proclaim the gospel, and make disciples who will make disciples, because God will do what he’s promised. Church plants are greenhouses of discipleship and life with Jesus. Plant. Water. Then trust God to give growth (1 Cor. 3:5–7).

We can humbly and confidently plant churches, proclaim the gospel, and make disciples who will make disciples, because God will do what he’s promised.

Perseverance of the Saints flies the banner that God ensures we will make it to the end. But this endurance doesn’t happen in isolation. The doctrine is plural: perseverance of the saints. Endurance happens through the ekklesia—the called-out assembly. Perseverance of the saints is perseverance with the saints, meaning the local church is a crucial part of our enduring to the end (Heb. 10:24–25).

There are many Calvinists who only want to sit around and debate the finer points of Reformed theology, or critique non-Calvinists in internet comment sections. But real Calvinism is too busy for nonsense. If our Calvinism doesn’t move us away from unnecessary debates into declaring God’s grace to the lost, then it’s undercooked at best, distasteful and dangerous at worst.

Real Calvinism is missional Calvinism. It’s always been this way. Old-school Calvinism—seen in saints like John Calvin and Charles Spurgeon—understood the importance of spreading the news of the risen Lord Jesus.

Calvin, Church-Planting Catalyst

Calvin didn’t lock the door to his study and hide behind a hill of books. He was a pastor whose heart pulsed as a church-planting catalyst. Calvin’s ministry extended beyond his writing, sermons, and commentaries. While pastoring in Geneva, Calvin trained pastors—equipping, resourcing, and sending them out to plant churches. As John Starke observes:

By 1555, Calvin and his Geneva supporters had planted five churches in France. Four years later, they had planted 100 churches in France. By 1562, Calvin’s Geneva, with the help of some of their sister cities, had planted more than 2,000 churches in France. Calvin was the leading church planter in Europe. He led the way in every part of the process: he trained, assessed, sent, counseled, corresponded with, and prayed for the missionaries and church planters he sent.

Real Calvinists don’t clog up church planting. They catalyze it.

Spurgeon, Church-Planting Catalyst

We may think church-planting residences are something new and helpful that we invented. Wrong. Spurgeon was doing this a long time ago in his Pastors’ College in England. Spurgeon wasn’t just a powerful preacher; he ran a program that sent men to the nations to plant and revitalize churches.

Spurgeon scholar Tom Nettles says, “Spurgeon greatly encouraged his students to become church planters through evangelism in difficult places with the use of aggressive and creative means” (325). Spurgeon himself, in the magazine he started, said, “Our heart’s longing is to see the College become more and more a Mission to the outlying places, both at home and abroad, and it may be, in answer to prayer, that the Lord will make it so” (293). The Lord indeed made it so.

Nettles notes that men from Spurgeon’s Pastors’ College planted churches in England, Spain, North and South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, Jamaica, Turks Island, Dominican Republic, Haiti, South America, India, Canada, and the United States. In the 1891–1892 report of the Pastors’ College, almost 900 men were trained in Spurgeon’s College. And counting from 1865, almost 30 years prior, nearly 100,000 people had been baptized by Spurgeon’s planters.

Longtime Friends

Calvinism and church planting are longtime friends. Calvin, Spurgeon, and modern-day Acts 29—which has 740 churches in Australia, Burkina-Faso, Chile, Democratic Republic of Congo, India, Japan, Kenya, Lebanon, Malawi, Mozambique, Pakistan, Romania, Slovakia, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, Uganda, and more—all show that Calvinists take church planting seriously.

God’s high-wattage grace is too good, too glorious, and too bright to hoard for ourselves. We must let it shine beyond our bookshelves and into our mission.

Editors’ note: 

J.A. Medders’s new book, Humble Calvinism: If I Know the 5 Points But Have Not Love . . . (The Good Book Company, 2019), is now available.

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