The Church in North America is now in a major evangelism crisis. The problem is as obvious as empty pews. Many mainline denominations are reporting a drop in membership. Last year for the first time in the twentieth century the Roman Catholic population of the United States declined. After several years of diminishing increase, the American Lutheran Church noted in 1969 that its baptized membership decreased for the first time in its ten-year history. In 1968 the Episcopal Church observed that baptisms were lower than in any year since 1947 and that confirmations had dropped to the 1955 level. By 1967, the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., which had lost more than 50,000 members in two years, recalled some thirty-five of its overseas missionaries to witness in modern America. Similar figures could be cited for other groups. They all suggest that English-speaking America is in a spiritual depression.

What has caused the membership crisis? Some blame it on the pill and lower birth rates. Others ascribe it to a hostile cultural climate and the falling away of the younger generation. Some shrug it off as part of the “cost of discipleship” that the churches must pay as the price for a strong “social witness.” Still others attribute the decline to a period of unparalleled prosperity that has dulled our sense of spiritual appreciation.

But perhaps we err by castigating the world for the problems of the church. It may well be that the cause of our distress is internal, not external. Jesus said that the very gates of hell would not prevail against the Church, but he also stated that “a man’s foes shall be those of his own household” (Matt. 16:18; 10:36). What Christ may have meant, as Professor Edwin Lewis suggested years ago in a previous religious recession, is that the Christian faith “can never be seriously hurt by any attack launched against it from without. Its only real enemies are those who are supposed to be its friends. Its danger is not in hostility, but in disloyalty, and disloyalty necessarily works from within” (A Christian Manifesto, p. 11). Perhaps the preaching of the churches is not persuasive because the disloyalty of our decade has been the divorce of theology and evangelism. Evangelism without the leaven of sound doctrine decays into ignorant fanaticism; theology without the practical purpose of making converts degenerates into irresponsible skepticism. The consequence of this situation is a faith that is neither intellectually sound nor emotionally satisfying.

Article continues below

This is the conclusion that Louis Cassels, a senior editor of United Press International, has reached. Mr. Cassels has remarked that public interest in religion has declined because people “are sick and tired of being told what they can’t believe.” “They want to know what, if anything, they can believe,” he said, “and many churches haven’t been doing a very good job of answering that question.” He ended with the warning that “if you persist in handing out stones when people ask for bread, they’ll finally quit coming to the bakery.”

It is exactly to this crisis that the career of John Calvin can speak on this Reformation Day 1970. While it has been traditional to consider Calvin a master theologian, an excellent church administrator, an ardent professor, and a powerful author, it has been less common to recognize him as one of the first major modern evangelists. Yet, together with Martin Luther and John Wesley, Calvin stands out as one of the most successful evangelists in modern church history. Calvin was not simply to convert the city of Geneva or even the cantons of French-speaking Switzerland; he was to become an “evangelist of Europe,” spreading the evangelical faith from Scotland to Transylvania. This achievement came through his skillful synthesis of theology and evangelism. Calvin is an excellent example of the theologian as an evangelist, and from his career we can gain five insights into the art of witnessing:

1. John Calvin realized that theology and evangelism stand together in a cause-and-effect relationship.

Throughout church history, theological advances have preceded evangelistic awakenings. Paul spent three years in Arabia wrestling with the Word of God before he emerged to begin his successful missionary ministry in the large cities of the Mediterranean basin. Luther struggled with Scripture in his tower study before he received a Gospel to preach that converted northern and central Europe to evangelical Christianity. John Wesley and the British Methodist revival achieved great things because the way had been prepared by the theological labors of the German Pietists, the Bohemian and Moravian Brethren, and the English Puritans. First there must be a theological reappropriation of the Gospel; then there will be a message and a motive that will result in mass conversions to evangelical Christianity. This was the principle around which John Calvin organized his life. First he worked out this theology; then he placed it in writing, in the Institutes of the Christian Religion, and used that as the basis of his witnessing in France and the Empire.

Article continues below

2. John Calvin realized that personal evangelism was the most urgent work of the Christian Church.

Personal evangelism is held in low regard by many theologians today, but John Calvin believed that next to worship, the best way to magnify God was by witnessing. He dedicated his entire adult life, therefore, to recalling the secularized church of the sixteenth century to its primary task—that of confronting men with the Christian message. His career as an evangelist began when during his twenties, perhaps in 1533, he was overwhelmed by a sense of the majesty and mercy of God. In his preface to his Commentary on the Psalms, Calvin confided simply: “By a sudden conversion, God subdued and reduced to docility my soul, which was more hardened against such things than one would expect of my youthful years.” Shortly after this experience he wrote the Institutes as an evangelistic appeal, confessing in the preface that his sole intention was “to give instruction to those who long to be children of God, primarily among my fellow countrymen. For I saw many in France hunger and thirst after Christ, yet few who receive true instruction about him.”

Calvin felt that every Christian should “speak to the heart of each one whom we meet”—“let us offer him the remedy of salvation so that he and through him others may not perish.” Upon his arrival in Geneva he wrote a catechism for the evangelization of the young and a confession of faith to express the corporate witness of the community. Five times during his life he revised the Institutes in order to achieve a clearer and more convincing exposition of the faith. Calvin was a theologian motivated by a strong sense of urgency—to share the Gospel with each person he encountered.

3. John Calvin realized that doctrinal evangelism was the most socially relevant work of the Christian Church.

Today, theology, once the “Queen of Sciences,” is in bad repute. Typical is the comment of Alfred North Whitehead, longtime dean of the Anglo-American school of philosophers: “I consider Christian theology to be one of the great disasters of the human race.… It would be impossible to imagine anything more un-Christlike than Christian theology. Christ probably couldn’t have understood it” (Lucien Price, recorder, Dialogues of Alfred North Whitehead, pp. 143 ff.). Intimidated by such indictments and stimulated by a genuine concern for social justice, some churchmen have described Christianity as a “religion without a theology” and a commitment to “deeds not creeds.” They feel that the way to a relevant ministry is to focus on sociology, not theology.

Article continues below

Calvin’s life reveals this position to be an inversion of the natural order of events. To ask good deeds of an unregenerate man is to demand the impossible, for an evil tree cannot produce sound fruit. Only good men do good deeds, and good men result only from the work of the Holy Spirit through the preaching of the “good news,” the Gospel. In order to better society, one must first better man, and this means that theology precedes sociology. Social transformation is a product of theological proclamation. When the Gospel is preached in plenitude and power, men will be converted, and through them the institutions of society will be permeated with the mind, manners, and morals of Jesus Christ.

The validity of Calvin’s approach was shown in Geneva. A lifetime of theological labor and of biblical preaching saw a sensual, secular city reformed. From an approximation of Babel, Geneva was changed into an anticipation of the New Jerusalem. John Knox, the “father of Presbyterianism,” praised Geneva as “the most perfect school of Christ that ever was on earth since the days of the Apostles.” A. G. Dickens, a contemporary British historian, observed that Geneva, as a result of Calvin’s ministry, “became a clean and orderly town in which the poor, the aged and the sick were well tended and where educational opportunity became excellent” (Reformation and Society in Sixteenth Century Europe, p. 164). Geneva is, therefore, a case study of the relation between doctrinal proclamation and social reformation.

4. John Calvin realized that planned evangelism was the most universal work of the Christian Church.

Today the Protestant churches are having difficulty in reaching urban areas and all elements of society with the Gospel. This difficulty is often blamed on the alleged irrelevance of evangelicalism to a metropolitan civilization. The churches are urged to “reconstruct” their theology to accommodate it to the contemporary cultural climate. Calvin’s ministry, however, would suggest that our difficulties stem not from evangelical theology but from our failure to be creative in applying it.

Calvin was convinced that evangelical theology was universal in its application. As historians H. G. Koenigsberger and G. L. Mosse have observed, “the impact of Geneva was great. Calvin always regarded his mission as a universal one” (Europe in the Sixteenth Century, p. 153). The witness of Geneva was not local but intercontinental, with Calvin planning to send missionaries even as far afield as Brazil! To realize the universalism inherent in the evangelical faith, Calvin was convinced that an effective strategy of witnessing was necessary. He emerged, therefore, as an eminent exponent of an applied, evangelistic theology.

Article continues below

Part of this strategy was to realize the importance of evangelizing urban areas. Calvin spent his entire career in cities—as a student in Paris, a writer in Basel, an exile in Strasbourg, and a pastor in Geneva. As Paul had concentrated his attention on establishing the primitive Church in the cities of the Roman Empire, Calvin stressed the importance of planting Protestantism in the towns of sixteenth-century Europe. Calvinism, called by James Howell in his Familiar Letters “this Geneva bird,” took flight to France “and hatched the Huguenots.… It took wing also to Bohemia, Holland, and Germany, high and low.” Classical Calvinism spread rapidly in highly urbanized areas, as the Netherlands, where over half the people lived in towns. Cities, such as Rotterdam, Amsterdam, Heidelberg, Dort, Edinburgh, and Geneva, became centers of the Reformed faith. In France the Huguenots were eventually recognized by treaty to be especially strong in two hundred cities of the realm. John Calvin taught Protestants to evangelize cities.

Calvin also realized the importance of evangelizing significant regions. Switzerland, situated at the very center of western Europe, was strategically located for the evangelization of the continent. A chain of Reformed communities soon stretched along the vital Rhine River valley from the Alps to the English Channel. Historian Arnold J. Toynbee regarded the Rhine valley as the very axis of Western civilization from the time of Charlemagne, who ruled from Aachen, to the era of Charles V, who hailed from the Lowlands. This was also the main artery of trade across western Europe from the Mediterranean to the North and Baltic seas, and it was the site of the great concentrations of population within the empire. It was the home of the “New Learning” of an Erasmus in the Netherlands, of the “New Piety” of a Thomas a Kempis in the German Rhineland, and of the “New Reformation” of Ulrich Zwingli and John Calvin in Switzerland. The intellectual currents of the epoch flowed along the Rhine, as is illustrated in the life of Erasmus, who felt equally at home in Rotterdam by the sea and in Basel in the mountains. Calvin demonstrated to Protestants the importance of planting evangelical theology in the centers of commerce and culture.

Article continues below

Calvin knew that the Gospel had power to convert men of all classes, conditions, and countries, and therefore, as one historian has written, “the attraction of Calvinism cannot be confined to one nation or to one class of the population.” The elite of Europe were converted to Calvinism. Royal families, such as the House of Hohenzollern, the House of Bourbon, and the House of the Palatinate, were Reformed. Such statesmen as William the Silent, Oliver Cromwell, and Admiral Coligny were Calvinists. Intellectuals, among them John Milton the poet, Hugo Grotius the jurist, and Theodore Beza the educator, were followers of Calvin. It was said that the Huguenots of France constituted that nation’s “talented 10 per cent.”

But though Calvin knew the importance of winning leaders to Protestantism, he never neglected the mission of evangelizing the masses. He attained his greatest success in Switzerland, yet never despaired of converting the people of his native France. Within a few years he had dispatched more than one hundred and sixty pastors to that country. Himself an exile, Calvin ministered faithfully to the persecuted minorities and afflicted refugees of his century. Through his conscientious labors original Calvinism seemed to reproduce the miracle of Pentecost as it attracted men of all nations. Italian Waldensians, Czech Hussites, Magyar noblemen, Dutch merchants, German townsmen, the farm folk of Scotland, as well as the English Puritans responded to his appeal. Calvin realized that evangelicalism is universal in scope—including both the “classes and the masses.” John Calvin looked for the world-wide triumph of the evangelical faith and even supported plans to send pastors to South America. He revealed, therefore, that the Gospel is for all men, and that it will win them by its winsomeness, if the Christian but give it free reign.

5. John Calvin realized that pastoral evangelism was the most unifying work of the Christian Church.

Today some churchmen feel that an evangelical awakening will be inimical to the interests of an ecumenical age. They fear that vigorous evangelistic efforts will only accentuate denominational differences and result in further fragmentation of the Church of Christ.

These opinions are not substantiated in the life of Calvin. His career indicates that the closer Christians come to the common Gospel by witnessing to the world, the nearer they will be drawn to one another. True ecumenism must be evangelical in origin and evangelistic in its goal. By his bold witnessing, Calvin was recognized by the followers of Zwingli as their Spirit-sent new leader. The Zurich Consensus was achieved between Calvin and Bullinger, and a united Reformed fellowship was established. Calvin’s most famous pastoral testimony, the Institutes, is reported by some writers to have impressed Martin Luther favorably. Philip Melanchthon is credited with having said that “Calvin stands in high favor with Luther.” While in exile in the empire, Calvin signed a revised version of the basic Lutheran witness, the Augsburg Confession. Through the Marian Exiles the influence of Calvin was felt in the Anglican Church, and by the ministry of John Knox in Scotland a bridge was built between British and Continental Protestantism. There was also an impact of Anabaptist fervor on Calvin, a legacy he repaid by his contributions to the free-church tradition. Calvin’s career demonstrates that pastoral care and concern, expressed by an eminent theologian through dedicated witnessing, can be a biblical way toward a vital and valid ecumenism.

Article continues below

This Reformation Day all evangelicals, whether of the Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, Reformed, or free-church tradition, can learn from John Calvin new ways of witnessing, and thereby grow in theological skill and in a greater measure of Christlike love for one another.

C. George Fry is assistant professor of history at Capital University, Columbus, Ohio. He is an ordained Lutheran minister and received a Ph.D. from Ohio State.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.