Andrew Fuller Defended the Biblical Gospel

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Provost and Dean of the University Faculty, North Greenville University

Today marks the 198th anniversary of Andrew Fuller’s death. Though largely unknown to contemporary evangelicals, Fuller was a Particular Baptist pastor and one of the leading theologians during the final decades of the so-called Long Eighteenth Century (1689–1815). He was a tireless promoter of missions at home and abroad, and widely published polemical theologian, defending the biblical gospel against two key errors in his day: High Calvinism and Sandemanianism.

High Calvinism, Edwardsian Theology, and Missions

Many parishes in the Church of England had experienced significant spiritual renewal from 1730 to 1760, but most English Nonconformists, including Particular Baptists, remained largely untouched by the Evangelical Awakening. Many Particular Baptists were suspicious of the revivals on account of Wesleyan Arminianism. However, others, especially in London, also advocated a form of High Calvinism (or hyper-Calvinism) that was suspicious of “promiscuous” evangelistic preaching and frequently advocated an antinomian understanding of God’s moral law. Fuller was raised in this context, though in the early years of his pastoral ministry he rejected High Calvinism for evangelical Calvinism.

Fuller found many guides along his path to evangelicalism. He learned that the seventeenth-century Puritans and their Particular Baptist cousins affirmed God’s sovereignty in salvation and were dedicated to intentional evangelism. But by far Fuller’s most influential guide was the New England pastor-theologian Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758). By the 1770s, several pastors in the Northamptonshire Association were reading the writings of Edwards, especially The Freedom of the Will (1755). In that work, Edwards argues that men are naturally able to believe the gospel, but are morally unable to do so. While any man can believe, no man will believe without receiving the Holy Spirit’s effectual calling that frees his will from its moral captivity, thus enabling saving faith.

Fuller advocated this Edwardsian insight in his short book, The Gospel Worthy of All Acceptation (1785). Fuller argued, contra High Calvinism, for the free offer of the gospel to all people. Because men are naturally able to believe, pastors should urge all men to repent and trust Christ as Lord and Savior. Because men are morally unable to believe, pastors should trust the Holy Spirit to work through gospel proclamation to call the elect to faith in Christ. Many observers argued that Gospel Worthy was the single most important work written against High Calvinism. By the time of Fuller’s death in 1815, most Particular Baptists had become “Fullerites,” the Baptist version of Edwardsian Calvinists.

The Edwardsian Calvinism of Gospel Worthy was also advocated by Fuller’s closest friends, most famously William Carey. The latter built upon Fuller’s insights in his own missions manifesto, An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens (1792). Fuller and Carey were instrumental in forming the Particular Baptist Missionary Society (BMS) in 1792. Carey was one of the Society’s first two missionaries, while Fuller served as the Society’s secretary from 1792 to 1815. Fuller preached in churches all over England and Scotland, raising money for the BMS. He also promoted home missions by sending younger preachers to serve as church planters in English villages with no evangelical witness.

Sandemanianism: “Bare Belief in the Bare Truth”

During the mid-eighteenth century, John Glas and his son-in-law Robert Sandeman became the leaders of a new sect called the Glasites or, more commonly, the Sandemanians. Originally Presbyterians, the Sandemanians dissented from the Westminster Confession by arguing for a rationalist understanding of saving faith. Sandemanians claimed that repentance is not an aspect of saving faith, but rather sinners are justified through mental assent to the facts of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection. They believed that faith and repentance are separate acts, and to require the latter for salvation is to advocate a form of works-righteousness. The Sandemanian view of faith was sometimes summarized as “bare belief in the bare truth.”

By the end of the century, some Baptists in Scotland had embraced Sandemanianism. Fuller challenged Alexander McLean and the “Scotch Baptists” in print, first in an appendix to the second edition of Gospel Worthy (1801) and eventually in a work titled Strictures on Sandemanianism in Twelve Letters to a Friend (1810). Building upon the insights of Jonathan Edwards in A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections (1746), Fuller argued that there is no saving faith apart from spiritual affections toward God. True religious affections arise from authentic saving faith, the latter of which includes both assent to the gospel and repenting of sin. To sever repentance from faith is to advocate the sort of demonic faith rejected by Scripture in James 2:19.

Fuller genuinely appreciated that Sandemanians were opponents of works-righteousness. He commended their commitment to justification by faith alone. But he maintained that they overreacted by embracing a deficient view of faith that opened the door for false assurance and antinomianism. In trying to protect the gospel, they advanced a deficient view of the gospel. Though other authors criticized Sandemanianism, the consensus among historians is that Fuller published the definitive polemic against the system.

Fuller for Today

Fuller reminds us to be diligent in guarding the gospel from unhelpful articulations of the saving work of Christ. Though no longer widespread, High Calvinism continues to eek out an existence, always leeching off of evangelical Calvinism wherever the latter is popular. Sandemanian-like views are embraced by the Campbellite traditions and are popular among many revivalistic evangelicals and in the so-called Free Grace movement among some Dispensationalists. As in the past, current versions of these heterodoxies often give rise to antinomianism, whether of the Calvinistic or revivalistic variety. Contemporary gospel-driven pastor-theologians can find a helpful role model in Andrew Fuller.

If you want to read Fuller’s writings, including the works referenced here, see The Works of Andrew Fuller (Banner of Truth, 2007). If you want to learn more about Fuller’s defense of the biblical gospel, his advocacy of global missions, and his polemical writings against heresies such as Deism, Universalism, and Unitarianism, I would recommend the following books:

Those interested in Fuller and his thought should also know about the Andrew Fuller Center for Baptist Studies at Southern Seminary. The Fuller Center publishes a multi-author blog, hosts annual conferences, publishes a refereed scholarly journal, and is sponsoring a forthcoming multi-volume critical edition of The Works of Andrew Fuller, which will be published by Walter de Gruyter beginning in 2014.