Disclaimer and disclosure: I am not a Calvinist, nor am I an anti-Calvinist traditionalist. Theologically, I am somewhere in the middle, and the Baptist statement of Faith and Message summarizes my beliefs accurately. I am not a theologian, and I am not writing to assess the worth of Calvinism. Rather, I was trained as a historian. I’ve taught seminary courses on the church history, missions history, and the history of evangelism. I have written/published a book on the history of evangelism and a book on the history of missions. I’m writing to counter a common criticism against Calvinism—that Calvinism is inherently anti-missions. I hope our commenters can focus on history and not lambast each other over doctrine.
Anti-Calvinists often claim that Calvinism is inherently anti-missions and anti-evangelism. They imply that if the SBC embraces Calvinism, our evangelism and missions will decline precipitously. For example, Dr. William Estep, long-time professor of church history at Southwestern Seminary, wrote an article for the Baptist Standard (the state paper of the Baptist General Convention of Texas) in April 1997 in which he stated: “logically, Calvinism is anti-missionary. The Great Commission is meaningless if every person is programmed for salvation or damnation.” Well, what about this claim? Does it stand up under historical scrutiny?
Calvinism derives its theology from John Calvin. So, what did he teach and do about missions and evangelism? In his commentary on Matthew 28:19 Calvin wrote this: “This is the point of the word ‘go’ (exeundi): the boundaries of Judea were prescribed to the prophets under the law, but now the wall is pulled down and the Lord orders the ministers of the gospel to go far out to scatter the teachings of salvation throughout all the regions of the earth.” (Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries, eds. D. F. Torrance and T. F. Torrance, Eerdmans Publishing, 1972, 251). That is what he wrote. What did he do? He sent evangelists and church planters throughout France, and they established the Huguenot churches. Calvin also sent a mission team to Brazil. Sadly, it was short-lived due to the persecution of the Catholic priests there, who incited the Indians to attack the mission settlement.
What about later Calvinists? Richard Baxter wrote the classic book on practical theology from the Reformed perspective: “The Reformed Pastor.” What was Baxter’s practice in regard to evangelism? According to Dr. Tim Beougher of Southern Baptist Seminary, who wrote “Richard Baxter and Conversion,” Richard Baxter went door to door throughout his town, asking each person if they had professed faith in Christ. The First Great Awakening in America was led by Theodore Frelinghuysen, Jonathan Edwards, and George Whitefield, Calvinists all.
Missions historians call William Carey the Father of the Modern Missions Movement, and he was a Calvinist. Adoniram Judson, the great pioneer Baptist missionary to Burma, also was a Calvinist. Charles Haddon Spurgeon, the Prince of Baptist Preachers, was a staunch Calvinist, yet he preached evangelistically and wrote many books on evangelism, as well as many gospel tracts. Beyond that, he was an enthusiastic supporter of foreign missions and formed a close friendship with Hudson Taylor, the founder of the China Inland Mission.
In modern times John Piper, a firm five-point Calvinist, served as the pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis for many years. Bethlehem Church has been a model for local church missions, both in its support of foreign missions and inner-city missions in its locality. John Piper wrote a book, “Let the Nations Be Glad,” which has been used as a missions textbook in many seminaries. Dr. Al Mohler, the president of Southern Baptist Seminary is an outspoken Calvinist. Yet, I heard him declare in a chapel service at Southern Seminary: “If your Calvinism does not motivate you to share Jesus Christ with others, then take your Calvinism and leave.”
In conclusion, what can we gather from this brief historical sketch? Calvinism is not inherently anti-missions, and those who say this are mistaken. It is accurate to say that hyper-Calvinism is anti-missions. In Baptist history, there was an anti-missions movement led by Daniel Parker (circa 1820). He believed in double-predestination; that is, some people are predestined to be saved, and some people are predestined to be condemned. Therefore, he objected to missions for theological reasons. From his point of view, if the eternal destiny of all souls is predetermined, there is no point in doing evangelism or missions. He also rejected the idea of any kind of missions society. In the end, we must insist on precise language. It is incorrect to say that Calvinism is anti-missions, but it is correct to say that hyper-Calvinism is. Now, you might respond, “I know a pastor in my association who is a Calvinist, and he is not active in evangelism.” That may well be true, but I know non-Calvinist pastors who do little in evangelism. When I taught at Southern Seminary, I was walking down the hallway one day, and I student approached me. He announced, “I’m a Calvinist!” That declaration caught me by surprise, as I did not know him and had not asked him about his theology. I replied, “Very well. Be a Calvinist like Charles Haddon Spurgeon, and we’ll get along fine.”