Did the Reformation Recover the Great Commission?


It is well known that the Reformation entailed a recovery of core New Testament doctrines regarding salvation and worship. Did it also involve a recovery of the Great Commission? In one sense, no. The Roman church had been involved in a variety of missional enterprises throughout the Middle Ages. But in another, much deeper sense, yes—the Great Commission did have to be recovered because medieval missions all too frequently involved forcible conversions like those of the Saxons by Charlemagne in the ninth century and the Albigensian Crusade in the early thirteenth century.

And yet, it has been maintained that the sixteenth-century Reformers had a poorly-developed missiology and that overseas missions to non-Christians was an area to which they gave little thought. Yes, this argument runs, the Reformers rediscovered the apostolic gospel, but they had no vision to spread it to the uttermost parts of the earth. What should we think of this?

Possibly the very first author to raise the question about early Protestantism’s failure to apply itself to missionary work was the Roman Catholic theologian and controversialist, Robert Bellarmine (1542–1621). Bellarmine argued that one of the marks of a true church was its continuity with the missionary passion of the Apostles. In his mind, Roman Catholicism’s missionary activity was indisputable and this supplied a strong support for its claim to stand in solidarity with the Apostles. As Bellarmine maintained:

In this one century the Catholics have converted many thousands of heathens in the new world. Every year a certain number of Jews are converted and baptized at Rome by Catholics who adhere in loyalty to the Bishop of Rome. . . . The Lutherans compare themselves to the apostles and the evangelists; yet though they have among them a very large number of Jews, and in Poland and Hungary have the Turks as their near neighbors, they have hardly converted so much as a handful.

But such a characterization fails to account for the complexity of this issue. First of all, in the earliest years of the Reformation none of the major Protestant bodies possessed significant naval and maritime resources to take the gospel outside the bounds of Europe. The Iberian Catholic kingdoms of Spain and Portugal, on the other hand, who were the acknowledged leaders among missions-sending regions at this time, had resources aplenty. Moreover, their missionary endeavors were often indistinguishable from imperialistic conquests. It is noteworthy that other Roman Catholic nations of Europe like Poland also lacked sea-going capabilities and evidenced no more cross-cultural missionary concern at that time than Lutheran Saxony or Reformed Zurich. It is thus plainly wrong to make the simplistic assertion that Roman Catholic nations were committed to overseas missions whereas no Protestant power was so committed.

Second, it is vital to recognize that, as Scott Hendrix has shown, the Reformation was the attempt to “make European culture more Christian than it had been. It was, if you will, an attempt to reroot faith, to rechristianize Europe.” In the eyes of the Reformers, this program involved two accompanying convictions. First, they considered what passed for Christianity in late mediaeval Europe as sub-Christian at best, pagan at worst. As the French Reformer John Calvin (1509–1564) put it in his Reply to Sadoleto (1539):

The light of divine truth had been extinguished, the Word of God buried, the virtue of Christ left in profound oblivion, and the pastoral office subverted. Meanwhile, impiety so stalked abroad that almost no doctrine of religion was pure from admixture, no ceremony free from error, no part, however minute, of divine worship untarnished by superstition.

The Reformers viewed their task as a missionary one: they were planting true Christian churches.

In what follows, I offer an ever so brief examination of the missiology of John Calvin, which shows the error of the perspective that the Reformation was by and large a non-missionary movement.

The victorious advance of Christ’s Kingdom

A frequent theme in Calvin’s writings and sermons is the victorious advance of Christ’s kingdom in the world. God the Father, Calvin says in his prefatory address to Francis I in his theological masterpiece, the Institutes of the Christian Religion, has appointed Christ to “rule from sea to sea, and from the rivers even to the ends of the earth.” The reason for the Spirit’s descent at Pentecost, Calvin notes further in a sermon on Acts 2, was in order for the gospel to “reach all the ends and extremities of the world.” In a sermon on 1 Timothy 2:5–6, one of a series of sermons on 1 Timothy 2, Calvin underlines again the universality of the Christian faith: Jesus came, not simply to save a few, but “to extend his grace over all the world.”

From that same sermon series, Calvin can thus declare that “God wants his grace to be known to all the world, and he has commanded that his gospel be preached to all creatures; we must (as much as we are able) seek the salvation of those who today are strangers to the faith, who seem to be completely deprived of God’s goodness.” It was this global perspective on the significance of the gospel that also gave Calvin’s theology a genuine dynamism and forward movement. It has been rightly said that if it had not been for the so-called Calvinist wing of the Reformation many of the great gains of that era would have died on the vine.

Calvin’s prayers for the extension of Christ’s Kingdom

Calvin was convinced that God “bids us to pray for the salvation of unbelievers” and Scripture passages like 1 Timothy 2:4 encourage us not to “cease to pray for all people in general.” We see this conviction at work in Calvin’s own prayers, a good number of which have been recorded for us at the end of his sermons, thanks to the labours of the stenographer Denis Raguenier, who was appointed to record Calvin’s sermons by the Company of Elders who labored with the French Reformer.

Frequently, we hear Calvin praying for the spread of the gospel to the ends of the earth. Each of Calvin’s sermons on Deuteronomy, for instance, ends with a prayer that runs something like this: “may it please him [i.e. God] to grant this [saving] grace, not only to us, but also to all peoples and nations of the earth.” In fact, in the liturgy Calvin drew up for his church in Geneva, there is this prayer:

We pray to you now, O most gracious God and merciful Father, for all people everywhere. As it is your will to be acknowledged as the Saviour of the whole world, through the redemption wrought by Your Son Jesus Christ, grant that those who are still estranged from the knowledge of him, being in the darkness and captivity of error and ignorance, may be brought by the illumination of your Holy Spirit and the preaching of your gospel to the right way of salvation, which is to know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.

Michael A. G. Haykin

Michael A. G. Haykin is Professor of Church History and Biblical Spirituality at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.

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