Pastoral Perspectives

Reformation and Missions

Recently, the Synod conducted a series of Seminar on “Reformation – Then and Now” marking 500 years of reformation. In line with this thought, I would like us to reflect on how Reformation had also led to “Reformission” (if there is such a word). R. C. Sproul, an American Calvinist Theologian, author and pastor wrote, “The Reformation was not merely a Great Awakening; it was the Greatest Awakening to the true Gospel since the Apostolic Age.”

In light of the Reformation, many felt that Martin Luther was so certain of the imminent return of Christ that he overlooked the necessity of foreign missions… Calvinists generally used the same line of reasoning, adding the doctrine of election that made missions appear extraneous if God had already chosen those he would save. Luther and the other reformers lived in a mission field where churches were prevalent, but few knew of God’s gift of salvation. The people lived under a system that understood righteousness as something you needed to earn, and grace worked in conjunction with your own effort. The reformers’ message flipped all of that on its head. They showed a burdened and weary people that righteousness is God’s gift through faith and grace is given before they do anything on their own. The Reformation was about missions. The reformers had to re-establish gospel-centered churches and leadership. They had to re-educate the people about the basics of the real gospel message.

For those of us who agree with the Reformers that the doctrine of justification by grace alone through faith alone because of Christ alone is “the article by which the church stands or falls,” and the Gospel is “the power of God unto salvation,” one can only interpret the Reformation as the re-evangelisation of Europe. Is this not the point of the Great Commission? The Jews to whom the Gospel first came were certainly aware of the prophecies concerning the Messiah, but they did not properly understand them as referring to Christ. The Reformers believed that those who confused the Law and the Gospel, merit and grace, judgment and justification, were in precisely the same category as the unconverted, even if they were part of “Christendom.”

Missions is meaningless without the gospel. Justification by faith is at the heart of the gospel. In Genesis 12, God unveiled his global purpose when he covenanted 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 explained 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 to 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.

‘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 fervour 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.’ (Extract from Why the 500th anniversary matters for missions now by Alex Kocman)

The translation of Scripture and the preaching of the Reformers had a combined multiplying effect on the spread of the gospel. 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. 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 in their own “heart languages”.

In the 16th century, David Brainerd emerged as a true missionary to the Native Americans in the northeast; the Moravians discovered that unevangelised 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 would serve not only as arguably America’s most brilliant pastoral-theologian, but also as a missionary himself to the Mohican people.

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. Far East missions were no less led by Reformed Christians. One thinks of the Robert Morrison, who was the first Protestant missionary to go to China. Confident in God’s sovereignty, he prayed for God to place him in a part of the world “where the difficulties are the greatest, and to all human appearance the most insurmountable.” He translated the Scriptures for the first time into the native languages and left a few converts to plant the seeds that would eventually produce a harvest of new believers.

The Reformation started a domino effect culminating in the modern missionary movement, and we are today continuing to reap the benefits. As we celebrated Reformation’s 500th Anniversary, let’s also look forward to the next 500 years should the Lord tarry in His return. We heard the good news that was preached to us and believed it by faith. We recognise our salvation as the work of God.  How then will God use you and True Way to continue in the footsteps of the early church in carrying out the task of the Great Commission given to us by Jesus Himself? Ultimately, as Rev Dr Chris Chia concluded in his lecture on “A Beer with Luther”, he shared a deep concern for us in the 21st century church – “Are our preaching, services and ministries geared towards salvation or satisfaction?”

In 2017, as we consider the historic Reformation that was started 500 years ago, let us be mindful that the Reformation isn’t over and the Great Commission isn’t over —there is still much work to be done!


Rev Tan Cheng Huat

November 19, 2017