Prof. Engelsma is professor of Dogmatics and Old Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
This new, well-written biography of 18th century, Particular (Calvinistic) Baptist preacher and theologian John Gill is welcome for several reasons. Gill was a notable pastor, theologian, and Bible commentator. Some of his writings are still being published today. His dogmatics was republished in 1977 by Primitive Baptist Library as A Body of Doctrinal and Practical Divinity. Baker Book House published this dogmatics in two volumes in 1978 as Gill’s Body of Divinity. In the early days of my ministry, there were older members of the Protestant Reformed Churches who used Gill’s commentary on the entire Bible in preparation for Bible study classes.
Gill’s friends included the sterling Calvinist Augustus M. Toplady, and his enemies included the notorious Arminian John Wesley. Toplady said of Gill:
Perhaps, no man, since the days of St. Austin (Augustine — DJE), has written so largely, in defence of the system of Grace; and, certainly, no man has treated that momentous subject, in all its branches, more closely, judiciously, and successfully (cited in Ella, p. 18).
Gill crossed swords with Wesley over the doctrines of grace. To Wesley’s Serious Thoughts upon the Perseverance of the Saints, a denial of perseverance, Gill wrote, The Doctrine of the Saints’ Final Perseverance. When Wesley continued his attack upon Calvinism generally and Gill in particular with his Predestination calmly considered, a denial of predestination, Gill responded with The Doctrine of Predestination, Stated and Set in the Scripture light.
Baptists should be attracted to an account of the life and work of the man about whom Toplady said, “He was, I believe, the greatest man the Baptists ever enjoyed.”
This is the first thorough biography of Gill. It is certainly the first sympathetic full-scale biography.
No doubt the main interest that Gill holds for the Reformed reader is that Gill was an important figure in a controversy in England over the “offer of the gospel.” Gill rejected the “offer” and is widely regarded in Calvinistic circles as a “hyper-Calvinist,” if not the father of “hyper-Calvinism.” Since the controversy over the “offer” continues unabated today, Gill comes up for consideration in various quarters. Curt Daniel, e.g., has recently published his 900-page doctoral dissertation, “Hyper-Calvinism and John Gill.” (I intend to review this massive study of “hyper-Calvinism” in a forthcoming issue of the Protestant Reformed Theological Journal.)
Ella makes the issue of Gill’s alleged “hyper-Calvinism” a leading theme of the biography. He exonerates Gill from the charge. In the course of his treatment of this issue, Ella makes several references to the position of the Protestant Reformed Churches.
It is plain from the book that Gill preached more gospel without the “offer” than his critical contemporaries did with their “offer.” Gill proclaimed and defended the gospel of salvation by sovereign grace without ambiguity, hedging, or compromise. Ella makes clear that Gill’s main antagonist, Andrew Fuller, who was largely responsible for fixing the charge of “hyper-Calvinism” on Gill’s doctrine, was himself heretical in his views of depravity, irresistible grace, and atonement.
Ella exposes the criticism by contemporary critics Peter Toon and Erroll Hulse as unscholarly and unfair. Charles H. Spurgeon was a fairer critic:
For good, sound, massive, sober sense in commenting, who can excel Gill? Very seldom does he allow himself to be run away with by imagination, except now and then when he tries to open up a parable, and finds a meaning in every circumstance and minute detail; or when he falls upon a text which is not congenial with his creed, and hacks and hews terribly to bring the Word of God into a more systematic shape. Gill is the Coryphaeus (leader — DJE) of hyper-Calvinism, but if his followers never went beyond their master, they would not go very far astray (cited in Ella, p. 134).
Nevertheless, in addition to the Reformed charge that Gill as a Baptist seriously erred in denying God’s covenantal work of grace in the infants of believers, it must be noted that Gill did, in fact, deny that the call, or summons, of the gospel comes to all who hear. This denial is real, and serious, hyper-Calvinism.
There was a good deal of confusion in Gill’s own thinking about this matter, due partly to the confused and confusing errors which he combatted. Ella’s treatment likewise is sometimes murky. But it becomes clear that Gill did not think that God and the preacher of the gospel command every hearer, unregenerate as well as regenerate, reprobate as well as elect, to repent of his sins with true, heartfelt repentance and to believe on the Savior from the heart with a genuine faith. The reason given was that the unregenerate is incapable of true repentance and faith by virtue of his total depravity.
Reflecting Gill’s thinking, Ella writes:
The big question now is, does the Bible invite all men indiscriminately and everywhere to believe as Fuller maintains? No, says the Bible. Repentance must come first. Belief is always dependent on repentance. Repent ye and believe the gospel (Mark 1:15). When God grants repentance we may talk of belief but not before. Where does this belief come from? Is it for all to grasp at, spurned (sic) by a knowledge of their duties? No…. Sinners cannot possibly have any inkling of responsibilities towards saving faith as God has withheld these truths from them as fallen creatures…. Thus the command to exercise duty-faith can only be given to those who have a faith to exercise dutifully and a knowledge of their duties towards God. This faith is God’s gift to his elect…. This is all in keeping with Gill’s biblical duty-faith teaching that with the grant of faith comes the obligation to exercise it. What Gill could not believe was that the duty of the evangelist was to preach that sinners were duty-bound to exercise savingly a faith of which they knew nothing and of which they had nothing. He would not preach to the unsaved as though they were saved but he preached to save sinners (pp. 281, 282).
That Gill denied what Reformed theology teaches as the “external call of the gospel” is plain enough from his handling of the call in his dogmatics. The only command that is given to the unregenerate in the audience of the preacher is that he do what lies in his natural powers: “perform the natural duties of religion”; exercise a “natural faith”; “believe the external report of the gospel”; and the like (see Gill’s Body of Divinity, vol. 2, Baker, repr. 1978, pp. 122-125).
The truth is that, although the unregenerated sinner has no ability to do what he is called by the gospel to do, God commands every hearer to repent of his sins and believe on Jesus Christ presented in the gospel. Thus, He summons him to the gospel feast of salvation (Matt. 22:1-14). To speak here of a merely “legal repentance” and of a merely “natural faith” is not only evasion of the plain teaching of Christ but also demeaning to the gospel. The gospel insists on true repentance, nothing less, and on genuine faith, nothing other.
The basic mistake of Gill and his present-day disciples is their failure to recognize that total depravity, or inability, does not rule out full responsibility. To put it as sharply as possible: The gospel commands the unre-generated and totally depraved sinner to do what he cannot do, and his punishment will one day be the greater for his refusal. The reason why he is accountable to do what he cannot do is that the fault for his inability is his own, not God’s. Besides, when the sinner rejects the gospel in unbelief, he does so willingly.
If Gill hesitated to affirm the serious external call to all hearers because he feared that this was the Arminian offer, his error lay in not distinguishing between the Arminian offer and the Reformed external call. The Arminian offer consists of a gracious attempt by God to save all who hear, dependent upon their supposed free will. The Reformed call consists of a summons to all, setting forth their duty and making plain the one way of salvation, which summons God makes effectual by His particular grace in the hearts of the elect in the audience.
The book can be ordered in Great Britain from
c/o Peter L Meney
Hill Top, Eggleston
Co. Durham DL12 0AU.
In North America, order from the
Reformed Book Outlet
3505 Kelly St.
Hudsonville, MI 49426