August 1, 2009

Recent Admissions by Tom Nettles on John Gill, Hyper-Calvinism and Duty-Faith

Nettles wrote:
Given this, however, Gill did not consider any of these invitations as an "offer" of Christ. In fact, "salvation is not offered at all by God, upon any condition whatsoever, to any of the sons of men, elect or non-elect."58 In his debate with John Wesley, he affirmed that the gospel was ordered to be preached to "every creature to whom it is sent and comes." That this preaching of the gospel, however, means "that there are universal offers of grace and salvation made to all men" he denied flatly and excluded, again, even the elect from such offers. Grace and salvation are provided for them in the everlasting covenant, procured by Christ, and applied by the Spirit. But since there is no universal offer, "this doctrine [unconditional election] is not chargeable with insincerity on that account."59

Gill differed at several points from identifiable Hyper-Calvinists of the century. There is a central point, however, in which he appears to hold the Hyper-Calvinist view. The following passage focuses on this point.
No man will be lost or damned, because he has not this special faith; to say that God will damn any man because he has not this special faith in Christ is to represent him as the most cruel of all beings, as the Arminians say we make him to be; to damn a man for that which is solely in his own power to give; for no man can believe in Christ with this sort of faith, unless it be given him of his Father; and which yet he determines not to give unto him, as unto all the non-elect; and which man never had in his power to have or exercise, no, not in the state of innocence.60
Theoretically Gill held that the non-elect were not obligated to evangelical obedience, because the necessity of such obedience did not exist in unfallen humanity as deposited in Adam. He also held to a distinction between the external revelation of the gospel, through preaching, and the internal revelation of it through effectual calling. "If only an external revelation is made, the faith required is an assent unto it, and a reception of it; and such who do not attend to the evidence it brings with it, or reject and despise it, shall be damned."61 He makes a clear distinction between mere historical faith and evangelical faith—he prefers not to use the term "saving faith" as it tends to place emphasis on the character on the believer rather than on the grace of God—as well as a distinction between legal repentance and evangelical repentance.
58. Answer to the Birmingham Dialogue-Writer's Second Part (ibid., II, 146). See also earlier in the first part of this same work, (ibid., II, 119): "Salvation is not offered at all by God, upon any condition whatsoever, to any of the sons of men, no, not to the elect; they are chosen to it, Christ has procured it for them, the gospel publishes and reveals it, and the Spirit of God applies it to them; much less to the non-elect, or to all mankind; and consequently this doctrine, or God according to it, is not chargeable with delusion and insult." Salvation and grace are bestowed, not offered, to undeserving sinners and this gift involves no injustice or insincerity. Gill's rejection of the nomenclature, and concept of "offer" was a theodicy for him. He felt the force of the argument that an "offer" unaccompanied by the gift of ability would make God a "most deceitful and insincere Being." In writing about Samuel Bourn, Gill says, "What this author's ideas of God are, I know not, but this I say, it is not consistent with our ideas of God, that he should send ministers to offer salvation to man, to whom he himself never intended to give it, which the ministers have not power to bestow, not the men to receive" (ibid., II, 146).
59. The Doctrine of Predestination Stated, and Set in the Scripture Light [Sermons and Tracts (1814–1815), III, 117–118].
60. Faith in God and his Word [Sermons and Tracts (1773), I, 82; the italics in the final cause added]. This teaching of the absence of current ability, and thus responsibility, on the basis of its original absence is, in my view, the most pivotal theological idea of the Hyper-Calvinist doctrine. Gill, however, was willing to forego this interpretation at times. In his Cause of God and Truth, Part III, Chapter 1, Gill refutes the aphorism nemo obligatur ad impossibile by showing that often people are justly required to do that which is impossible in their current condition. It may be difficult to show, however (according to Gill), that God requires "spiritual and evangelical obedience" of the unregenerate, an assertion in harmony with that quoted above. "Should that appear," that is, should it be demonstrated that God does indeed require evangelical obedience [repentance and faith], "Yet the impossibility of doing them, arises from the corruption of their hearts, being destitute of the grace of God" (ibid., 158). For some of the complexities of this issue, see Tom J. Nettles, By His Grace and For His Glory (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1986), 94–107. Although I think the judgment should still be surrounded with cautions and caveats, there may be compelling evidence that Gill held to the distinctive Hyper-Calvinist tenet.
61. Faith in God and His Word [Sermons and Tracts (1773), I, 82–83].
Tom J. Nettles, "John Gill and the Evangelical Awakening," in The Life and Thought of John Gill (1697–1771): A Tercentennial Appreciation, ed. Michael A. G. Haykin (Leiden, The Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1997), 152–153.

Nettles is so reluctant to admit that Gill was a hyper-Calvinist that he puts his recent admissions in an obscure footnote! He prefers to say that it "appears" or "seems" that Gill "theoretically" denied that all men are duty-bound to believe evanglically, but it is blatantly obvious in Gill's book The Cause of God and Truth. Instead of saying "there is compelling evidence" that Gill denied that all are responsible to believe evangelically, he barely admits it and prefers to say, "there may be compelling evidence..." Moreover, Nettles admits that Gill denied that the gospel is an offer to all that here the proclamation. That is yet another basis for considering Gill a hyper-Calvinist, but Nettles does not make that association here, unfortunately. Anyway, we'll take whatever admissions from Nettles we can get.

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