What We Can Learn from the Reformers about Missions

The reformers did not use terms such as evangelism, mission, missions, missionary, missionary work, mission field, and so forth. But this does not mean they were not committed to evangelizing, discipling, training, and sending off “workers” and “laborers” to preach the gospel and win converts across the street and around the world.

In this article, I want to look at three lessons we can learn about missions from the reformers of the sixteenth century.

The Missionary Work of the Church Entails Suffering

One lesson we learn from the reformers is that the preaching of the gospel to all “across the street” and “around the world” for God’s glory will not be accomplished without suffering. According to David Platt, “Martyrdom is the path, not the exception. . . . The reformers remind us that it is right to give our bodies to defend the Bible and the gospel. Even if we don’t die, we must give our lives to the same task. . . . A theology of danger and martyrdom is not a prominent theme in our churches today. Our views of safety and security are far too often American and not biblical.”

The reformers—like the early church in the book of Acts—understood that suffering was an integral part of their mission, which was the propagation of the gospel to all nations.

“The reformers . . . understood that suffering was an integral part of their mission.”

John Calvin received regular reports about ministers who were in prison because of the preaching of the gospel in Great Britain, Italy, France, Brazil, and so forth. A glance at the table of contents of the volumes of Calvin’s published letters should convince any reader that the work done by the reformers to spread the gospel among all nations was done under intense persecution.

In Five English Reformers, J. C. Ryle reports that “the broad facts of the martyrdom of our reformers are a story well known and soon told.” He adds, “During the last four years of Queen Mary’s reign no less than 288 persons were burnt at the stake for their adhesion to the Protestant faith. . . . One was an archbishop, four were bishops, twenty-one were clergymen, fifty-five were women, and four were children.”

Most of us don’t expect to be martyred as a result of sharing our faith, but we can’t do this work without giving our life to the task. Consider the teaching of Jesus (Matt. 10:37–39). In this regard, some mission historians have treated the Counter-Reformation very lightly. The reformers weren’t just struggling against theological opposition. They were under persecution, fleeing from one place to another and living as refugees throughout Europe.

It’s true that the Christian life is filled with blessings and joy, both now and forever, but we should also expect to face times of suffering during our earthly lives for the sake of the cause of Christ. In fact, every faithful follower of Christ should expect persecution and suffering (Matt. 5:10–12; John 16:33).

Taking the Lead: The Ordained Ministers of the Gospel

A second lesson we can learn from the reformers regarding missions is the conviction that if there is one person in the church who ought to be concerned about preaching the gospel and making disciples of all nations, it should be the ordained minister of the gospel. In short, the pastor.

Consider Calvin on Matthew 7:6: “As the ministers of the gospel, and those who are called to the office of teaching, cannot distinguish between the children of God and swine, it is their duty to present the doctrine of salvation indiscriminately to all.”

Calvin was truly convicted that the ministers of the gospel are the ones to take the lead: “Though the ministers of the gospel be weak and suffer the want of all things, he will be their guardian so that they will rise victorious over all the opposition of the world.”

The Church Is God’s Mission Agency

Third, we should learn that, for the reformers, it was the church, under the leadership of the pastors, that was entrusted with the commission to make disciples of all nations. The reformers’ ecclesiology was central. They were Christ- and church-centered.

Some mission historians have criticized Calvin, claiming that he was against the orders of the Roman Catholic Church, which they saw as the missionary arms of the church. It has been argued among some missiologists that because Calvin was anti-Roman Catholic he also opposed the creation of any organization to carry on the gospel among the nations. Calvin believed that the command to make disciples of all nations was given to the church and its ministers. This was Calvin’s ecclesiology. He was committed to the biblical doctrine of the church.

“The reformers’ ecclesiology was central. They were Christ- and church-centered.”

If there is an organized organism to whom the responsibility of preaching the gospel to all nations has been given, it should be the church of the Lord Jesus Christ. Missions organizations can be a wonderful blessing to the people of God and a valuable help in the ongoing work of the church.

However, many of the so-called missionaries today are not examined or recruited by local churches but are commissioned by independent missionary organizations. They come to the churches for financial support, but far too often there is little or no theological or ecclesiological accountability. I find this to be a troublesome practice that needs to be reevaluated. The reformers teach us a far better biblical way, if only we would follow their example.

Due to the seriousness attributed to the preaching and the need of well-trained ministers, the reformers made it clear that those in charge of the preaching of the gospel to all the nations should not simply be counted, but they should be weighed. Gustav Warneck, a German missiologist, was once concerned by the numerical growth of missionaries in the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century. Warneck wrote, “The general cry is more missionaries. And let me add emphatically more men. But the petition that the Lord of the harvest should send forth laborers into his harvest has also reference to their quality. Missionaries must be weighed, not merely counted. Spiritual equipment is, of course, the chief consideration. But the experience of more than a hundred years should prevent us from falling into the mistake of thinking that this alone suffices without a thorough training.”

We should give thanks for the faithful and fruitful missionary work of the reformers. These lessons are precious because they are biblical, and that is what we must all strive to be, as churches and as individual believers, if we truly want to please God as we proclaim his gospel throughout the world.

Elias Medeiros has worked in pioneer church planting in the Amazon region of Brazil, as well as in Recife, Brazil. He has pastored Presbyterian churches in Northeast Brazil and taught at several theological institutions. Since 1993, he has served as the Harriet Barbour Professor of Mission at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi. This article is adapted from his chapter in The Beauty and Glory of the Reformationedited by Joel Beeke.