The Reformation’s Legacy of Personal Evangelism
Critics of the Reformation enjoy referencing the paucity of evangelism among the major Reformers. The inconsistency of Luther in his emphasis on sola fide, salvation through faith alone, while continuing to baptize infants, is a case in point where almost all the major Reformers in their compromises were hurtful to the cause of evangelism. That said, however, the Reformers were not without an evangelistic impulse. Consider the following points.
Martin Luther’s transition from Augustinian monk to cogent Reformer began with a dark night of the soul. As this monk grappled with the question of how to be acceptable to God, Johann von Staupitz evidently had been the unintentional evangelist who told Luther to read the Bible. Luther was thoroughly acquainted with Scripture, but now he read with insight. Describing his own pilgrimage, Luther said, “It was as though I were born anew.” The remainder of his life, Luther lived in the light of this new birth.
No event of the Reformation was more determinative for evangelism than Luther’s year of “friendly captivity” in Wartburg Castle. Luther used that year following the Diet of Worms to translate the New Testament into German. The invention of the printing press and the availability of the Bible to the common man were two of the most “evangelistic events” of history. Luther’s own experience of seeking right standing before God and discovering that status through the reading of Scripture led him to translate the Bible into the vernacular so that all might find Christ. At this stage, Luther was not as much interested in making Protestants out of Catholics as he was in making genuine followers of Christ out of professing “Christians.”
WHAT HAPPENED IN SEVILLE
A relatively little known incident from Seville in southern Spain illustrates the intense evangelistic activity during the Reformation. Around 1535, a layman associated with the cathedral in Seville travelled north to other European countries. During this journey, he met Reformers, he was introduced to Christ, and he was gloriously saved.
Returning to Seville, he consistently shared Christ with Constantino Ponce de la Fuente (1502–1560), one of the major preachers at the cathedral. Constantino was a graduate of the celebrated Spanish Catholic University of Alcalá, which gave the world Cervantes and others. Eventually, this sharing of the faith led to Constantino’s conversion as well as to the conversion of the local monastery’s monks, who apparently became evangelists of the faith.
Constantino became a powerful preacher of Christ and a target for the Inquisition. Only recently has this full history come to light. Recently discovered graffiti on the walls of the monastery revealed the evangelistic fervor of the monks, and books on preaching were discovered in the library of the University of Seville, unveiling the gospel preaching of Constantino and others. In short, Seville was awash with evangelism even in the midst of the Inquisition.
The earliest discovery of evangelistic and missionary fervor belongs to the detested Anabaptists of the Reformation. Two examples will demonstrate this awareness. Early in 1525, Conrad Grebel of Zurich preached the gospel by the Rhine River. Wolfgang Ulimann, a local monk, responded to the public invitation to receive Christ. When the attempt was made to baptize Ulimann by affusion using a milk pail, he refused. Instead, he pointed to the Rhine and insisted on immersion as the appropriate New Testament form. The ultimate practice of baptismal immersion was taught to the Anabaptists by a Roman Catholic monk who read Greek.
A few days later, Ulimann joined with other Anabaptists in preaching at Saint Gall, where they broke the ice of the Sitter River to baptize 200 new believers who would never forget their cold baptism. That’s “evangelism” in anyone’s book, and these Anabaptists were characterized by that commitment to evangelism.
A final example concerns Balthasar Hubmaier, the only Anabaptist to have completed a Ph.D. Trained by Roman Catholic debater John Eck, Hubmaier was an effective preacher. From the day of his conversion under the oversight of Anabaptist evangelist Wilhelm Reublin, he exercised his gift to the ends that hundreds were converted.
However, the most amazing years of Hubmaier’s life were the final two when he was pastor in Nikolsburg, located in what is now the Czech Republic. There, after two short years in a rural farming community, Hubmaier baptized according to some reports as many as 6,000 new believers. Such a feat had to involve not only powerful preaching but also effective daily work dealing with the souls of men.
THE LEGACY OF EVANGELISM
Incumbent upon every Protestant should be the recognition that evangelism is actually a legacy from pre-Reformation evangelicals. The priceless Reformation monument to Luther at Worms has at its four corners the precursors of Luther. One of those is Peter Waldo of Lyon, who presided over one of the most intensive evangelistic enterprises in pre-Reformation Europe. Note the poem penned by John Greenleaf Whittier demonstrating the witness of The Vaudois Teacher:
O Lady fair, these silks of mine are beautiful and rare,
The richest web of the Indian loom, which beauty’s queen might wear;
And my pearls are pure as thy own fair neck, with whose radiant light they vie;
I have brought them with me a weary way, will my gentle lady buy?’
The lady smiled on the worn old man through the dark and clustering curls
Which veiled her brow, as she bent to view his silks and glittering pearls;
And she placed their price in the old man’s hand and lightly turned away,
But she paused at the wanderer’s earnest call, ‘My gentle lady, stay!
‘O lady fair, I have yet a gem which a purer lustre flings,
Than the diamond flash of the jewelled crown on the lofty brow of kings;
A wonderful pearl of exceeding price, whose virtue shall not decay,
Whose light shall be as a spell to thee and a blessing on thy way!’
The lady glanced at the mirroring steel where her form of grace was seen,
Where her eye shone clear, and her dark locks waved their clasping pearls between;
‘Bring forth thy pearl of exceeding worth, thou traveller gray and old,
And name the price of thy precious gem, and my page shall count thy gold.’
The cloud went off from the pilgrim’s brow, as a small and meagre book,
Unchased with gold or gem of cost, from his folding robe he took!
‘Here, lady fair, is the pearl of price, may it prove as such to thee
Nay, keep thy gold I ask it not, for the word of God is free!’
Or consider the astonishing correspondence of Jerome about a missionary named Vigilantius in the Pyranees Mountains. It would be difficult to find a more acerbic letter in Jerome’s correspondence than his letter to Vigilantius. What is clear, in an otherwise hazy period, is that Vigilantius was an evangelistic missionary evidently from the Piedmont in Italy who took seriously the gospel message as early as 400 a.d. Also evident is the embrace of what would become “Protestant thinking” by this missionary to the mountains of northern Spain and southern France.
The Reformation was concerned to rescue the gospel from the failed system of Rome. It is understandable that the era was more concerned with defining the gospel than taking that same gospel to the world. However, evangelism did occur, and the basis for all future evangelism was certainly established. Having rediscovered the doctrinal foundations essential to evangelicalism, the Reformers provided the legacy and sometimes the example for intense evangelism.