So long as some Christians have called themselves Calvinists, other Christians have probably alleged that Calvinists care little about evangelism, missions, and church planting. The critique isn’t new. But only recently have we learned the extent of the zeal and effectiveness of the early reformers in evangelism, missions, and church planting. Elias Medeiros, Harriet Barbour professor of missions at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi, will lead a workshop on The Reformer’s Commitment to the Propagation of the Gospel to All Nations at TGC’s National Conference in April, likely presenting this wider understanding.
But in this short article, I want to give a small taste of John Calvin’s missionary and church planting zeal in particular. If you want to get a sense of Calvin’s theology of missions and activity, you can read Calvin’s sermon on 2 Timothy 1:8-9, “The Call to Witness,” Herman J. Selderhuis’s John Calvin: A Pilgrim’s Life, and Frank James III’s series of lectures, The Calvin I Never Knew. From these works, I have compiled several fascinating, surprising, and convicting facts about the missionary and church planting movement John Calvin launched in France and throughout Europe.
Calvin, Equipper and Sender of Missionaries
In the 1550s the population of Geneva doubled as refugees, many of them from France, poured in. Many of them sat under Calvin’s preaching five times each week. They heard sermons like this one on 2 Timothy 1:8-9, where he said:
If the gospel be not preached, Jesus Christ is, as it were, buried. Therefore, let us stand as witnesses, and do him this honor, when we see all the world so far out of the way; and remain steadfast in this wholesome doctrine. . . . Let us here observe that St. Paul condemns our unthankfulness, if we be so unfaithful to God, as not to bear witness of his gospel; seeing he hath called us to it.
Something happened to a number of these French refugees. As they listened to Calvin’s preaching their hearts were stirred for their homeland. Many of them yearned to go back to France and preach the gospel. Calvin agreed to commission some of them to return but wanted to train them first. “A good missionary is a good theologian,” he told them. He trained them to preach, taught them theology, and assessed their moral character, making sure they were qualified to be ministers of the gospel.
Calvin, Missionary Correspondent
But he didn’t just train them, give them money, and send them off. Even after he sent them, he corresponded with them frequently. We have thousands of letters back and forth between the missionaries and Calvin. They weren’t just magnets on a refrigerator, Frank James notes. They were his brothers in Christ. When troubles came, they asked Calvin, “What should we do next?” James reminds pastors, “You need to keep in close contact with your missionaries. You’ll be a good Calvinist if you do.”
Calvin, Leading Church Planter in Europe
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. Pete Wilcox, writing in a doctrinal dissertation cited by James, concluded that in the last 10 years of Calvin’s life, missions was his absolute preoccupation. One French church in Bergerac exulted to Calvin:
There is, by the grace of God, a movement in our region that the devil is already driven out for the most part and we are able to provide ministers for ourselves [churches were now able to start planting their own churches in the region]. Day to day, we are growing and God has caused his work to bear such fruit that on sermons on Sunday, there are between 4,000-5,000 people at worship.
Another letter from Montpellier rejoiced, “Our church, thanks to the Lord, has so grown and so continues to grow every day that we are obliged to preach three sermons on Sundays to a total of five- to six-thousand people.” A pastor in Toulouse wrote to the Genevan Consistory,“Our church has grown to the astonishing number of about eight- to nine-thousand souls.” Calvin and Geneva sent missionaries not only to France but also to Italy, the Netherlands, Hungary, Poland, and the free Imperial city-states in the Rhineland. We even know of two missionaries sent from Geneva in 1557 to Brazil. “Missions was not a ‘section’ of his systematic theology,” Keith Coleman says, “it was central to what he was trying to accomplish in his ministry.” Church planting and missions aren’t a byproduct of the young Reformed resurgence of the last decade but something embedded in the Reformation’s God-centered commitment to advancing the gospel.