If you were to ask most evangelicals, they would probably tell you there is a great gulf fixed between the frontiers of pioneer missions and the stereotypical ivory towers of the Reformation.
Was the Reformation unconcerned with the rugged missionary call, preferring intramural theological squabbles to real evangelism? It is true that Protestants have not always held high the Great Commission banner, and not all the Reformers would have been friendly towards many of the modern baptistic missionary and church movements.
But as we celebrate the anniversary of the Reformation in 2017 and Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses as the igniting spark, there is good reason for the missions-minded to revel in what God did 500 years ago.
Here are just five ways in which the Reformation made an inestimable impact on world Christian movement—and essentially birthed modern missions.
1. Recovery of the Gospel
Missions is meaningless without the gospel. And it’s the heart of the gospel—justification by faith—that the Reformers took their lives in their hands to proclaim.
It would be false to say that the gospel was “lost” prior to the Reformation. The Lord Jesus promised to build his church and defend it against all attacks (Matthew 16:18). But within what called itself the church, the biblical gospel had certainly seen better days. A sacramental system had emerged which choked grace by sending fear-filled parishioners through a labyrinth of meritorious works.
Sola fide—faith alone. Sola gratia—grace alone. Solus Christus—Christ alone. Sola scriptura—Scripture alone. Soli Deo Gloria—glory to God alone. The five solas embody the biblical gospel recovered through the Reformation. But consider the missiological implications of just one of these slogans: faith alone.
In Genesis 12, God unveils his global purpose when he covenants with Abram: “…in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (v. 3). What is this global blessing? Health? Wealth?
Neither. The Apostle Paul explains that “the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, ‘In you shall all the nations be blessed’” (Galatians 3:8).
The blessing God promised to all the nations in Genesis 12 is justification by faith—the article on which, according the Luther, the church stands or falls. And it’s the article on which missions stands or falls too. The Reformation put the good news back into the hands of the goers.
2. Explosive Growth in Theological Education and Missionary Sending
Although the major emphasis was on reaching Europe’s nominal Christians—not so much the unreached pagans just yet—still, the Reformation was overwhelmingly missional in character.
This renewal of rich, gospel-centered theology birth mission—as it always does. Under John Calvin and his robust five-sermon-per-week ministry, Geneva, Switzerland became a dynamic, missionary-sending hub deploying upwards of 1,200 pastors to plant more than 2,000 churches in Calvin’s native France by 1562. Also in the mid-16th century, landlocked Geneva was able to work with French churches to send Protestant ministers across the ocean to Brazil for the first time—perhaps whetting the Genevans’ appetite for future missionary pursuit.
Calvin himself remarked, “A good missionary is a good theologian. A good theologian is a good missionary.”
The missionary fervor spread beyond France, too—notably to the likes of John Knox, who famously prayed, “Give me Scotland, or I die.”
If anything, it can be said that the Reformation was itself a missionary movement—one aimed not so much at cross-cultural evangelism but evangelization of seas of unconverted churchgoers in the “Christianized” West.
3. Propagation of
Like facets of a refractory chamber intensifying light, the translation of Scripture and the preaching of the Reformers had a combined, multiplying effect on the spread of the gospel.
John Wycliffe, the proto-reformer, primed the pump for the Reformation by translating the Bible into the vernacular. Later, Wycliffe’s legacy would inspire Jan Hus and Martin Luther, who himself authored his own German Bible translation. In England, William Tyndale came to be regarded as the father of the English Reformation—not primarily through preaching, as was true of the other Reformers, but through Bible translation.
Contrary to the Roman Catholic Church’s insistence on the magisterium as the gatekeeper of all theological truth, the Reformation emphasized how essential it is for the individual to hear the Word and personally respond in faith. And as more people engaged the Word for the first time, the impetus to translate and disseminate Scripture spread.
Today, missionary experts believe one key to reaching a people
group is to put Scripture into the people’s “heart language”—the language in
which they think. This impulse finds its source in the Reformation.
4. Geographic Expansion
Throughout history, the blood of the martyrs has been the seed of the church. It happened in Acts (see 8:1-4), and the paradigm continued through the Reformation.
While some Reformers paid with their lives, others were driven from their hometowns and lands, spreading Protestant theology on the way. It was France’s inhospitable stance towards the Protestants that drove Calvin to Geneva, where he established his sending base. Similarly, the Anabaptists—though vastly different theologically—spread a missionary spirit as they fled persecution as well.
Later, persecution from the institutional church in England drove the Puritans, the intellectual heirs of Reformed thought, to the new continent across the Atlantic. In the 16th century, David Brainerd emerges as a true missionary to the Native Americans in the northeast, finding along with the Moravians that unevangelized peoples could respond simply and directly to the gospel without the missionary first employing the traditional, classic apologetic method prevalent throughout Europe.
The famed Jonathan Edwards—also Brainerd’s biographer—would serve not only as arguably America’s most brilliant pastoral-theological mind, but also as a missionary himself to the Mohican people. And Edwards’ Humble Attempt made a groundbreaking case that God’s plan for history prior to Christ’s return actually included the successful completion of the Great Commission by means of the church.
Today, due to blossoming gospel movements in Asia and Africa, global Christianity’s statistical center of gravity is corkscrewing to the East and into the global South. But before that, the Reformation and the flooding of the Americas with mission-minded Protestants forced that center strongly to the West—making it difficult to envision history without the westward spread of believing Christians.
5. The Birth of the Modern Missions Movement
The thread of Reformation missions runs all the way through the Reformers, through the English Baptists, all the way to William Carey—the father of the modern missionary movement.
Though famously scolded by a fellow Baptist minister, “When God pleases to convert the heathen, he will do it without you,” Carey didn’t listen to the dissenting voices around him. A cobbler by trade, Carey proudly displayed world maps in his shop and kept demographic data on-hand, early mobilization tools employed liberally on his unsuspecting clientele.
In addition to his own missionary efforts in India, one of Carey’s greatest contributions was his masterpiece Enquiry, which decimated the claim that the Great Commission was only given to the Apostles and not to all believers. Carey’s Enquiry mounted a rich, biblical case for evangelism outside the borders of Christendom and, most impressively, attempted to compile all the data available at the time on world population and religions to survey the extent of the task remaining.
Laboring for the Next 500 Years
The Reformation started a domino effect culminating in the modern missionary movement, and we are today continuing to reap the benefits. Luther best summarized the embryonic missionary spirit of the Reformation in his preface to the New Testament: “If he have faith, the believer cannot be restrained. He betrays himself. He breaks out. He confesses and teaches this gospel to the people at the risk of life itself.”
In the grand scheme of history, it may be that God’s work in the world is just getting started. More than 2 billion people remain without access to the gospel.
As we look back on the last 500 years, let’s look forward to the next 500—should the Lord tarry—and all the work yet to be done. ▪
- Did the Reformers Believe in the Great Commission?
- Why Should Missionaries Care About the Reformation?
Alex Kocman is the Director of Long-Term Missionary Mobilization at ABWE, shepherding new career missionaries and their churches through the sending process. After earning his M.A. in Communication and B.S. in Biblical Studies, he served as an online apologetics instructor with Liberty University Online and a youth pastor at a multi-site church in Pennsylvania, where he honed his passion for the intersection of robust theology and mission.
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