But in reality, nothing could be further from the truth. Far from being anti-evangelistic, the Reformation released a mighty force of evangelism that is still bearing fruit today. Why do so many people mistakenly characterize the Reformation as being anti-evangelistic? Undoubtedly, it is due to their belief that Reformation truth regarding such things as the sovereignty of God, the objective nature of faith, and the sinfulness of sinners in the light of the fall point to little missionary efforts on the part of the Reformers.
But this is contrary to the facts. Luther himself had a profound sense of mission as Robert Kolb states so clearly:
“Luther lived in a world with very few “evangelism opportunities” of the sort we in the 21st century have. He met, at most, a couple dozen unbaptized people in his entire life. Nonetheless, he had a profound sense of the importance of every believer’s witnessing to what Christ has done for sinners. He believed that Baptism produces newborn children of God who imitate their heavenly Father by proclaiming God’s call to all people to come into Christ’s marvelous light. Luther’s task was to bring the Gospel to people who were in the church, some of them “inactive,” many of them quite active in producing works they thought would merit salvation. Luther’s challenge was to help those Christians understand the nature of the Gospel and to assist all believers in giving witness to that Gospel within the church” (Reaching Out: Luther on Mission, Robert Kolb).
John Calvin was clearly missional as his Institutes makes clear:
“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, 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” (ibid).
The Sixteenth Century Puritans were heirs of the Reformation. “The Puritans had a theology of partnership with God in redemption. With them, to be a Christian was more than to accept God’s gift. To be a Christian was to be involved in the partnership with God in redemption” (The Puritan Theology of Mission). One of the reasons for that was that they were focused on the conversion of souls as their main work. Finally, they had an emphasis on evangelical activity. The church has a twofold character: as a gathering of the members of the body, and as means to further the gospel.
What about the Modern Missionary Movement? Many suppose that Reformation theology destroyed missional zeal but the facts mitigate against it. The father of modern missions, William Carey, clearly held Reformed views of divine salvation. At a meeting of Baptist leaders in the late 1700s, Carey stood to argue for the value of overseas missions. He was abruptly interrupted by an older minister who said, “Young man, sit down! You are an enthusiast. When God pleases to convert the heathen, he’ll do it without consulting you or me.”
Carey refused to give in to such hyper-Calvinistic views which destroyed evangelistic zeal. Indeed, he saw Reformation theology as that which fueled his evangelist efforts. In 1792 he organized a missionary society, and at its inaugural meeting preached a sermon with the call, “Expect great things from God; attempt great things for God!” Within a year, Carey, John Thomas (a former surgeon), and Carey’s family (which now included three boys and another child on the way) were on a ship headed for India.
And what of Jonathan Edwards who, along with George Whitfield and John Wesley, preached the gospel during one of the mightiest outpourings of God the world has ever known—the First Great Awakening. Literally, thousands were converted by the preaching of Reformation doctrine during those days. And David Brainerd, the young man who died in Edward’s house after going to the American Indians and seeing many converted, was thoroughly committed to Reformation thought. He literally poured out his soul to death, giving his life to Missions. Edwards’ biography of Brainerd is, to this day, considered to be a classic work on the subject of Missions.
And what about the great Baptist preacher, Charles Spurgeon, the first mega-church pastor who faithfully preached the Gospel from his pulpit each week, with thousands more reading them. Doctor Steve Lawson said the following about Spurgeon’s theology and missional zeal:
“Here is what captivated me. This gifted preacher, perhaps the greatest since the apostle Paul, was, by his own admission, a Calvinist–Reformed to the core, deeply committed to the doctrines of grace. But at the same time, he was an evangelist. How could these seemingly opposite realities fit together? How could one be both staunchly Calvinistic and passionately evangelistic? Spurgeon showed me. In one hand, he firmly held the sovereignty of God in man’s salvation. With the other hand, he extended the free offer of the gospel to all. He preached straightforward Calvinistic doctrine, then, in the same sermon, fervently urged lost sinners to call on the name of the Lord”(xix)” (The Gospel Focus of Charles Spurgeon, Dr. Steve Lawson).
And we could list thousands more who were deeply affected by the Reformation and went on to deeply impact their generation. This Reformation Day, let us freshly consider the Gospel of God and pray to God that as we come to understand the grace of God in truth, it would compel a new generation of missionaries to go out to the highways and byways and “compel people to come in” (Luke 14:23).