What comes to mind when you think of the Reformation? Most of us probably think of leaders like Martin Luther and John Calvin, or the “five solas” summarizing the theological convictions of the movement.
I imagine few of us, though, think about the Reformation’s massive effect on evangelism.
In this new five-minute roundtable video, Danny Akin (president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in North Carolina), Colin Smith (pastor of The Orchard Evangelical Free Church in Chicago), and Ryan Kelly (pastor of Desert Springs Church in Albuquerque) discuss how the Reformation sparked an extraordinary fervor for gospel witness. Akin corrects the common misconception that Calvin lacked a robust view of missions, while Smith notes how gospel recovery created evangelistic momentum—including in his native Scotland through the ministry of John Knox. Finally, Kelly explains how Reformation theology helped launch the unprecedented spread of Christianity across France in the 16th century. Listen to or watch this conversation to learn how Reformation theology empowers mission.
The following is a lightly edited transcript; please check the audio/video before quoting.
Ryan Kelly: Well, gentlemen, I think a lot of people think of the Reformation as a theological endeavor. How did it lead to evangelism? How did it affect evangelism, Danny?
Danny Akin: Well, I often say to my students at the school where I teach at Southeastern, you can’t be a good theologian without being a good missionary and evangelist. And you can’t be a good missionary and evangelist without being a good theologian. They are naturally wedded to each other and when you look back at the Reformation, you discover that the natural outgrowth of recapturing the gospel and the great solas of the faith had to inevitably lead to evangelism and missions and you see that launched out of that then eventually, it reaches kind of a hotbed with David Brainerd and the later with William Carey, and all of that you can trace back historically to the roots of the Reformation.
Ryan Kelly: Yeah, and a recovery of the gospel is by nature an effort toward evangelizing, right? There is no gospeilizing apart from discovery or rediscovery of the gospel.
Colin Smith: Yeah, that’s right. Danny, a lot of folks have the idea that Calvin and others didn’t really have a view of missions. You’re the historian among us, tell us how to respond to that.
Danny Akin: Just go read Calvin’s commentaries, and you’ll discover that he naturally saw the recovery of the gospel as leading to world missions and world evangelization, and Calvin himself sent out missionaries to places where he knew the gospel needed to spread and needed to go. So it’s a myth, a bad one, to say that the recovery Reformed theology did not lead to missions and evangelism. In fact, the modern missions movement was birthed out of the Reformation tradition, and when you look at the lives again of David Brainerd and William Carey in America and Adoniram Judson and so on, all of these were steeped and rooted in faithful Reformed theology.
Colin Smith: See, I love that. Whenever the gospel is recovered, you get a new momentum in relation to missions and evangelism. I remember studying, I grew up in Edinburgh, and I became fascinated by this vast conference on missions. Edinburgh 1910. It was really a precursor to what became the ecumenical movement and the biggest event that I think, that had taken place in the history of the church of its kind. And I discovered a sermon by James Denny a year later, and he’s preaching at the annual conference of Baptist Missionary Society in 1911, and his sermon is called, “Propitiation” on 1 John 2:2. And he says,
“Within the last twelve months foreign missions have been more talked about in the Church than at any time I can remember . . . And what is the result of this unexampled activity in pleading the mission cause? As far as I can see, neither here nor there. An immense proportion of the people in our churches care little about the matter. There is no sensible increase either of contributions or of gifted men. There are no signs of expansion, elasticity, or fresh ardour.”
And you’re saying that’s bascially what happened in the Reformation.
Danny Akin: What Ryan’s saying is if the gospel is recovered, there’s such joy and delight in it, you cannot help but spread it and share. If you’re not wanting to share it, not wanting to spread it, then I have to question whether or not you’ve recovered the gospel?
Ryan Kelly: Yeah, and Calvin was such a great model of that.
Danny Akin: Yes.
Ryan Kelly: I was recently reading his sermons on Deuteronomy, and each one of them ends with a prayer that immediately goes to the nations and God’s glory spreading among the nations.
Danny Akin: It’s funny, I’ve been doing a series on Daniel and I’ve been using as I could, Calvin’s massive work on Daniel. And again, at various points, you see opportunities to see the gospel emphasized, and he doesn’t miss a beat. He drives it home very, very powerfully. This is a mandate, an obligation, in fact, one day he said, “This is an obligation we have to take this.”
And, of course, one of the great things about the Book of Daniel, you find this every tribe, every tongue, every nation language which is later picked up in Revelation, well, it’s right there in Daniel, and Calvin says, “This is a mandate that you find an obligation you find right here in these texts.”
Ryan Kelly: I think it’s really important for people to know that Geneva was really a mission launching city and endeavor of John Calvin’s work there. I came across these numbers not too long ago that in 1555, there were 5 Reformed or Protestant churches in France. In 1559, there were about 200. And then in 1562, there were 2,000. And those were all from Geneva men leaving Geneva, maybe they had come to Geneva for training or to hear the gospel, but then they were sent back into hostile France to preach the gospel, to plant churches. It had all the marks of frontline missions.
Colin Smith: The same was true, of course, with my native Scotland. John Knox goes over to study under Calvin, “The greatest school of Christ on the face of the earth,” he said, and came back fired up from that, and all of the Reformation in Scotland, really, happened as a result of the influence of Calvin on Knox.
Danny Akin: I sure would love to see us recover a church planning movement like that in our own day. It would be something marvelous to see.
Ryan Kelly: Yeah, indeed, it would. All right, thanks, guys.
Danny Akin: Thanks, guys.