John Calvin and Church Revitalization: Missions and Evangelism

By Terry Delaney

[Editor’s Note: This is the first blog post of a 3-part series.]

Perhaps most essential to church revitalization is an outward focus of the local church. That is, missions and evangelism are of the utmost importance for the kingdom of God to grow. John Calvin, the theologian and pastor of the church in Geneva, Switzerland near the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, understood this and often emphasized the importance of evangelism and missions in his commentaries. The following are a few reasons he offers regarding why missions and evangelism are important to the local church:

  • We are commanded to proclaim the gospel by Jesus Christ. Calvin comments on Matthew 28:18-20 that “by proclaiming the gospel everywhere, they should bring all nations to the obedience of the faith.”[1]
  • It is our duty unto God as those who have been redeemed by the blood. In his observation on Isaiah 12:5, he writes, “it is our duty to proclaim the goodness of God to every nation.”[2]
  • It is our duty as sinners who have been saved by the same gospel that the unregenerate need. “God cannot be sincerely called upon by others than those to whom, through the preaching of the gospel, his kindness and gentle dealing have become known.”[3]

Calvin firmly believed that the salvation of sinners was fully God’s work while proclaiming the gospel freely to all remained our responsibility. Much of his concern for the local church pastor was to encourage and exhort everyone to share the gospel. Sadly, this is lost in the context of the Reformation as much of the writings and sermons of Calvin were often steeped in teaching against the Roman Catholic Church. A quick perusal of any of Calvin’s writings, however, and the reader will readily see how the heartbeat of his ministry was proclaiming the Good News of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Though many today view evangelism as a ministry largely external to the church, that is, it must either be programmatic or intrinsic in the life of the Christian; Calvin believed that the preaching of the Word of God was by its very nature evangelistic.[4] As we shall see later, Calvin’s view of the pastoral ministry was that the men called of God to preach and teach are to not only equip the saints in the local congregation, but also live out the example in which he is exhorting them through his preaching. In other words, do as I say and as I do, should be the mantra of the pastor.

To this end, Calvin was known for his letter writing and defense of the faith, but is little known for his zeal for missions. In an article on the National Founders Ministry website, Ray Van Neste shares, “the best evidence of Calvin’s concern for missions is the mission activity of the Genevan church under his leadership.”[5]

A word must be written regarding the limitations in which the Genevan government placed on Calvin and the Protestants. When he wrote the Ecclesiastical Ordinances, he “prescribed a Christian commonwealth in which the religious and civil authorities exercised jurisdiction over distinct, yet overlapping, spheres and were expected to cooperate with and assist one another.” Furthermore, in giving the state this power, they were “responsible for protecting the church.”[6] As with most governing authority, the church is eventually throttled back on making those dangerous decisions that place the citizens of said government in harm’s way. A mission to the New World was obviously one of those dangers that the government deemed too dangerous.

While many may claim Calvin himself did not go to the mission field, it cannot be said that he was not missional. In Geneva, the pastor would preach every day of the week and twice on Sunday. Calvin also made it a point to offer some form of instruction around three in the afternoon in addition to his daily regimen of preaching, sermon preparation, teaching, writing, and researching. Additionally, “Calvin’s first major hurdle in Geneva was the clergy, many of whom were woefully inadequate to fulfil the roles envisaged in the Ordinances.”[7] In other words, John Calvin saw that his primary task as a leader was to equip the pastors in order to reach more people with his teaching.

The point is that while we are called to the Great Commission, the imperative verb in Matthew 28:19 is not “go” (Greek, πορευθέντες). Rather, it is “make disciples” (μαθητεύσατε). Understanding the Great Commission as one of disciple making kills any argument that John Calvin was not about the Kingdom of God or missions as he spent much of his time in Geneva making disciples of the pastors!

Finally, as an evidence for Calvin’s commitment to missions and evangelism, his comments on 2 Corinthians 2:12 bear consideration for his understanding of the importance of proclaiming the gospel to the nations, specifically, through the local church. Here, it is of his opinion that Paul rearranged his entire schedule because delay was more profitable for the Corinthians.[8]

Though much more could be said regarding Calvin’s zeal for missions and evangelism through the local church, it is abundantly clear that he held to their necessity as the means by which the sinner comes to know Christ as their Lord and Savior. This is arguably one of the three key elements of church revitalization not only for the local church today but also for the local church at any point in the history of Christianity. While Calvin’s context demanded the spread of the five key principles of the Reformation (Sola Scriptura, Sola Gratia, Sola Fide, Sola Christus, Sola Scriptura) over against the prevailing dominance of the Roman Catholic Church, we find these principles to be as important to the growth of the local church today. If, for example, one is unwilling to proclaim the gospel to the world, let alone his neighbor, then the death of the local church is inevitable.

Calvin understood the importance of Matthew 16:18 as applying to the Church in its universal state rather than its local expression.[9] It is because of this understanding that Calvin poured himself into the lives of local pastors as that would have the greatest impact on not only the spread of the Reformation but the revitalization of the local church. Ultimately, as will be stated over and again in this post, Calvin wrote his commentaries and Institutes for the church in order that he might equip the pastor to better equip the congregation and to exhort them all to missions and evangelism for the kingdom of God.

Once the lost sinner has responded favorably to the open call of the gospel, they must join with a local church. It is here that further discipleship takes place. Today, this is found in small groups, fellowship, and the weekly (sometimes daily as in Calvin’s day) gathering for worship.


Terry Delaney is pastor of Union Baptist Church in Mexico, Missouri and is a contributor to the Founders Midwest blog. If you would like more information about Founders Midwest or if you are interested in attending the annual Founders Midwest Conference, be sure to check out our Facebook page or visit our website for more information.



[1] Calvin, J., & Pringle, W. (2010). Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists Matthew, Mark, and Luke (Vol. 3, p. 383). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.

[2] Calvin, J., & Pringle, W. (2010). Commentary on the Book of the Prophet Isaiah (Vol. 1, p. 403). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.

[3] McNeill, John T. (Editor). Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion–2. Philadelphia, PA.: Westminster Press. P. 864

[4] See Book IV of Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion.

[5] accessed 3 May 2016.

[6] Manetsch, Scott M. Calvin’s Company of Pastors: Pastoral Care and the Emerging Reformed Church, 1536, 1609.  New York, NY. Oxford University Press, p.27.

[7] Gordon, Bruce. Calvin.London, England. Yale University Press, p. 130.

[8] Calvin, J., & Pringle, W. (2010). Commentary on the Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians (Vol. 2, p.156). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.

[9] See his comments on Mt. 16:18 in Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists Matthew, Mark, and Luke (Vol. 2, p. 291-292).

[10] McNeill, John T. (Editor). Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion–2. Philadelphia, PA.: Westminster Press. P. 1207

[11] Ibid. p. 1208

[12] Accessed 16 May 2016.

[13] See Institutes Book 4, Ch. 17, Section 43 as he specifically discusses the Lord’s Supper.

[14] Godfrey, W. Robert. John Calvin: Pilgrim and Pastor. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, p. 71.

[15] Calvin, J., & Anderson, J. (2010). Commentary on the Book of Psalms (Vol. 1, p. 122). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.

[16] See John 4:23-24.

[17] McNeill, John T. (Editor). Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion–1. Philadelphia, PA.: Westminster Press. P. 4

[18] Accessed 16 May 2016.

[19] Calvin, J., & Owen, J. (2010). Commentary on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans (p. xxiv). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.

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