John Calvin & Evangelism

A main reason some people are adverse to John Calvin is that all they know of him is his teaching on predestination, and they fear this teaching destroys evangelism. But, whether or not one agrees with Calvin, it is only fair to note that he did not see predestination as an impediment to or negation of evangelistic fervor. I have written previously on Calvin’s teaching on and engagement in missionary endeavors, and will not rehearse that information here.

However, just today I came across more of Calvin’s teaching on evangelism. I am currently reading through Calvin’s sermons on 1-2 Timothy & Titus preparing a new edition of these sermons for publication (the only English version currently available is a facsimile of the 1579 translation with spellings and type face [e.g., an “s” looks like an “f”] which make it difficult to read). These sermons always end with a prayer and often the prayer includes a petition for God’s grace “not to us only, but to all people and nations of the world.”  Then, the 12th sermon, expounding 1 Timothy 2:1-2 is especially good, with helpful discussion of the importance of government, the importance of community in the church and the importance of evangelism and missions.

As Calvin expounds Paul’s call to pray “for all men” he applies this to our missionary responsibility to the world. Here are some excerpts:

“if we want to rightly make our prayers to God for all men, we must begin with those whom we are joined together with in faith and obeying the gospel; for they are, as it were, household servants in God’s house.  Yet in addition to praying for the faithful, we should also have pity and compassion on the poor unbelievers, asking God to draw them unto us so that all of us may be of one accord.

Thus we see what Saint Paul’s meaning is in this place: namely, to show us what the children of God ought to employ themselves in doing, and it is this, that we should not travail unprofitably, but instead call upon God and ask him to work toward the salvation of the whole world, and that we give ourselves to this work both night and day.”

“he wanted to show that we must not only pray for the faithful, who are our brothers already, but for those who are very far off, those poor unbelievers.  Even though there seems to be a great distance and a thick wall between both, nevertheless we must have pity for their coming destruction, to the end that me may pray to God that he would draw them unto him.”

the greatest pleasure we can do to men is to pray to God for them, and call upon him for their salvation.” [following sentences show he has in view here the “infidels”]

“And according to this doctrine [‘pray for all men’], let us have pity on the poor wandering sheep who go on to destruction, even though they are not worthy, even though they are enemies to the Church, and scatter themselves far from us.”

This is strong pastoral exhortation, calling on his congregants to be people of missionary prayer, burdened by the coming fate of those who do not believe, driven by pity and compassion to “call upon God” for “the salvation of the whole world” and to labor to that end “both night and day”! These are not the words of a careless ivory tower academician. This is the passionate pleading of a pastor yearning for the good of mankind and the glory of God. Calvin was not perfect, and I have my disagreements with him. But this area is not one of his errors, nor is it one of my disagreements!

Rather than slandering a brother from the past, let us carry on in this worldwide mission endeavor in which he too labored in obedience to our common Lord.

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