Previous this series: November 1, 2009, p. 53.
In this anniversary year of John Calvin’s birth, we hold forth the man of God as an example for our pastors. Pray for your minister, that he may offer his life to God’s church as Calvin did. Few have the gifts and capacity of Calvin (although may God give us men of great gifts and ability!). But all can be useful in their place. Last time I showed that Calvin 1) was personally upright, 2) suffered willingly and patiently, 3) was a wise and sympathetic pastor, and 4) was devoted to the church’s children.
Fifth, Calvin was a zealous missionary. Yes, a zealous missionary.
If Calvin were alive today, I cannot imagine that he would not have been a member of a denomination’s mission committee, on a local church’s evangelism committee, or be begging the elders to allow him to do so.
Now, Calvin did not take a call to a mission field, become ordained as a missionary, or travel to the ends of the earth. Nevertheless, Calvin may be described as a missionary. He was as involved as any man could be in the worldwide spread of the gospel.
It’s simply not true what many scholars of missions say about Calvin. One mission historian wrote: “We miss in the Reformers not only mission action, but even the idea of missions…because fundamental theological views hindered them from giving their activity and even their thoughts a missionary direction.” Even Alister McGrath, popular writer on Christian history and doctrine, argued that Protestantism had little interest in missions and that “neither John Calvin nor Martin Luther had any particular interest to reach beyond the borders of Christendom.” Of course, McGrath does not consider Roman Catholicism to be the great field for missions that it was. How many thousands and millions were dying spiritually in that fold?
From 1555 to 1562, Geneva’s consistory minutes (the “Register of the Company of Pastors”) show that Geneva sent out 88 missionaries, mostly to France, Calvin’s homeland. Likely the number was far higher, since to record the names of the missionaries would be to risk their lives. Some sources show as many as over 100, in just one year, were sent out. “An army of missionaries [were sent] to Italy, Germany, Scotland, England, and especially to France.”
They went out under the cover of night, and hid in attics and false rooms behind chimneys. They gathered in barns, open fields, or secluded caves. Small churches were organized. And with Calvin’s good counsel by letter, signed often with a pseudonym, the churches multiplied! By his efforts, there were over 1,000 underground “church plants” (if you will) in France by 1560. Like the Israelites in Egypt, “the more they were afflicted, the more they multiplied and grew.”
In 20 years, the number of Reformed churches in France increased by 800, from 1200 to 2000!
It was dangerous for these missionaries. Many were arrested and sentenced to death. The Academy of Geneva (Calvin’s “seminary”) became known as “Calvin’s school of death” because so many graduates went out to martyrdom in France.
And critics say Calvin did not promote or engage in missions? They call attention only to the aborted effort to evangelize Brazil as evidence that Calvin and his Reformed friends were not missionaries?
Contrary to the claims of his critics, Calvin’s doctrines of predestination and the sovereignty of God in salvation did not hinder him from being a zealous proponent of missions. In fact, they were the grounds for it. With approval he quotes Augustine that, because the number of the elect is unknown to us, our attitude in missions must be determined by the desire that all may be saved. “For as we know not who belongs to the number of the predestinated or who does not belong, we ought to be so minded as to wish that all men be saved.” So far Augustine. Then Calvin comments: “So shall it come about that we try to make everyone we meet a sharer in our peace.” Predestination—the reason Calvin did not engage in missions? Wrong, on both accounts. Calvin’s motives for missions are a warning to the Reformed pastor today who may be tempted to misapply the doctrine of predestination. A personal desire, welling up within those who have experienced God’s grace, that also others should have this great blessing, drives a man to missions.
By these words,
he first declares that the godly will be filled with such an ardent desire to spread the doctrines of religion, that every one not satisfied [carnally satisfied, BG] with his own calling and his personal knowledge will desire to draw others along with him. And indeed nothing could be more inconsistent with the nature of faith than that deadness which would lead a man to disregard his brethren, and to keep the light of knowledge (of God) choked up within his own breast. The greater the eminence above others which any man has received from his calling, so much the more diligently ought he to labor to enlighten others.
Meditate, for a little while, on the implications of that.
Sixth, Calvin was a preacher.
An exegetical, doctrinal, polemical, passionate, and practical preacher.
Calvin was nothing if not a preacher. Calvin is preeminently a model for Reformed pastors today insofar as Calvin was a preacher. He knew what fed the flock, kept the wolves at bay, ministered to the lambs, gave muscle to the bones of the warriors…and skill to their hands. He preached with the unshakable conviction that the mouth of the minister was the mouth of God, as Bullinger put it: “The preaching of the Word of God IS the word of God.” So, besides preaching many times per week, he trained preachers. This pastor wanted to be sure the new pastors could train more preachers until the Lord returned. He knew that “it pleases God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe.”
He was exegetical: “Let those who desire to teach others well, appoint themselves these bounds, that they utter nothing but out of the pure fountain of the word.” His preaching was doctrinal: The Scriptures are profitable for doctrine! “An assembly in which the preaching of heavenly doctrine is not heard does not deserve to be reckoned a Church.” He was not hesitant to be polemical: “The pastor ought to have two voices; one, for gathering the sheep, and another for warding off…wolves.” Calvin modeled passion: “It appears to me that there is very little preaching of a lively kind in the Kingdom.” “Away with indolence and coldness in [preaching], for one that is cold will never be qualified for this office.” Passion on the pulpit was one of the reasons that, although he did not require this of others, Calvin preached without notes. He wanted to speak to the hearts of the people, and from his heart. And how practical his sermons were. No one who has read the sermons of Calvin will deny that the preaching of Calvin was also eminently practical, addressed and applied concretely to the practice of Christianity. Even his doctrinal treatise, the Institutes, at times had more application than explanation. That was the mind and heart of this Minister of Geneva.
Seventh, John Calvin loved God.
Calvin was all that he was because he was devoted in love to His God.
Consider the other topics of our conference. Why was Calvin a reformer? Why an expositor and preacher of Holy Scripture? Why a defender of church discipline? A teacher of justification, predestination, the covenant? Then consider the areas I have mentioned. Why personally upright, a willing sufferer, wise and sympathetic pastor, teacher of covenant children, zealous missionary, faithful preacher?
Because he was a man fully devoted in love to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Nothing else explains it. Nothing else would drive him to such lengths. A man’s love for God will enable him to do everything.
Everything Calvin did manifested his love for God. Read his sermons, but do not fail to read the prayers that come after every sermon, and hear the devotion to the One who saved his eyes from tears, his feet from falling, who had set him free. Hear him cry out for mercy, plead with God to use the word to bless the flock, glorify Him. See his dedication to the exposition of the Psalms, because, of all things, the child of God is called to worship and prayer.
Cor Meum Tibi, Offero Domine, Prompte et Sincere.
If I were ever to write a biography of John Calvin and say in it what most impressed me about this man, I would say what every believer would want said about himself after his death: He loved God. Higher praise than that I cannot give to a man: He loved God.
When you die, what will they say about you? About me? Oh, may the lives of Reformed pastors lead the people to say, “He loved God.” Nearing death, Calvin said (and every believer with even a hint of a tender heart chokes to read it):
In the name of God, I, John Calvin, servant of the Word of God in the church of Geneva…thank God that He has shown not only mercy toward me, His poor creature, and…has suffered me in all sins and weaknesses, but what is much more, that He has made me a partaker of His grace to serve Him through my work…. I confess to live and die in this faith which He has given me, inasmuch as I have no other hope or refuge than His predestination upon which my entire salvation is grounded. I embrace the grace which He has offered me in our Lord Jesus Christ and accept the merits of His suffering and dying, that through them all my sins are buried; and I humbly beg Him to wash me and cleanse me with the blood of our great Redeemer…so that I, when I shall appear before His face, may bear His likeness. Moreover, I declare that I endeavored to teach His Word undefiled and to expound Holy Scripture faithfully, according to the measure of grace which He has given me.
After Calvin died, his old friend Farel said: “Oh, how happily he has run a noble race. Let us run like him, according to the measure of grace given us.”