Only Bad Calvinism Abandons Souls

The Story Behind a Missions Revival

A persistent critique of Reformation theology is that a high view of God’s sovereignty reduces evangelistic zeal. While the criticism is often misguided, the danger is not historically unprecedented. Church history bears witness to unbiblical understandings of God’s sovereignty and human responsibility. In the eighteenth century, one such view choked the life out of many Reformed Baptist and Congregational churches in England.

One courageous book, however, not only reversed the decline, but it also provided the foundation for the most consequential Protestant missions movement in history. And it has an important word for the church today.

Doctrinal Distortion

As heirs of the Reformed tradition, English Baptists and Congregationalists affirmed God’s sovereign power in salvation — that, in accordance with his great love, God irresistibly draws those whom he unconditionally chooses into persevering faith. Apart from any human initiative, God works an unmerited, merciful, transformative act of regeneration that brings about faith. The Reformers underscored what the Scriptures taught: salvation is all of God, “for by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8–9).

By the late eighteenth century, however, some Calvinistic ministers, in their zeal to protect this doctrine, had disfigured it.

“Fuller never forgot the fear and hopelessness he felt in the pew when Jesus was right there to be offered.”

Since unbelievers are incapable of turning to Christ without divine action, they reasoned, it would be unbiblical to urge them through preaching to do so. Preaching the gospel to a mixed audience of believers and nonbelievers would effectively give assurance of God’s promises to both the elect and the non-elect. Those who did so would also be claiming divine authority and usurping the role of the Spirit of Christ. Therefore, they argued, pastors must only declare the work of Christ as simple fact in preaching — to call men to repentance and faith was theologically erroneous and pastorally dangerous.

This hardened position, known as High Calvinism, almost ensured that nonbelievers were never invited to put their faith in Jesus. Under this gospel-less preaching, pastors made no urgent appeal to trust in Christ. High Calvinist churches withered. Personal evangelism ceased. Sinners were left with conviction of sin but no clear remedy.

Any Poor Sinner

Andrew Fuller (1754–1815) was one of those hopeless sinners. Fuller grew up on a farm in the rugged marshlands northeast of Cambridge and attended a small Baptist congregation in Soham. As the evangelical awakening transformed churches across the English countryside, Fuller’s church and its High Calvinist pastor John Eve seemed immune to its effect. Pastor Eve, Fuller wrote, “had little or nothing to say to the unconverted.” While George Whitefield and John Wesley were pleading with sinners to repent and trust in Jesus, Eve made no gospel call. “I never considered myself as any way concerned in what I heard from the pulpit,” Fuller later wrote.1 Aware of his own sinful condition, teenaged Fuller was caught in anguished speculation, desperately looking for a sign of his election rather than looking away from himself to Christ.

This lasted for years. “I was not then aware that any poor sinner had a warrant to believe in Christ for the salvation of his soul,” Fuller later reflected, “but supposed that there must be some kind of qualification to entitle him [to be saved]. Yet, I was aware that I had no qualifications.”2 The breakthrough finally came when Fuller recognized that salvation was to be found in trusting in Christ, not in a subjective perception of his own fitness.

I must — I will — yes, I will trust my soul, my sinful soul in his hands. . . . I was determined to cast myself upon Christ . . . and as the eye of my mind was more and more fixed upon him, my guilt and fears were gradually and insensibly removed.3

Fuller later reflected that, though he had finally found peace in Christ, “I reckon I should have found it sooner” had not the High Calvinist’s bar blocked the way. He never forgot the fear and hopelessness he felt in the pew when Jesus was right there to be offered. And as Fuller grew in his understanding of the Scriptures, he saw the deadly flaws of High Calvinism with even greater clarity.

The Gospel Worthy

Fuller became pastor of the church in Soham in 1775 and three years later began openly calling his hearers to faith in Christ. Many in the Soham congregation were unhappy, but Fuller pressed on — even turning down an opportunity to pastor a larger congregation in another community. The opposition in Soham, however, was not fruitless. Fuller mined the Scriptures and, stirred by conversation with new friends in the local pastoral association, began writing an extended response to the High Calvinist scheme.

In 1781, he was called as pastor of the Baptist congregation in Kettering. The personal confession of faith he presented to his new congregation reflects the thinking that would soon upend High Calvinism:

I believe it is the duty of every minister of Christ plainly and faithfully to preach the gospel to all who will hear it; and, as I believe the inability of men to spiritual things to be wholly of the moral and, therefore, of the criminal kind (and that it is their duty to love the Lord Jesus Christ, and trust in him for salvation, though they do not); I, therefore, believe free and solemn addresses, invitations, calls, and warnings to them to be not only consistent but directly adapted as means in the hand of the Spirit of God to bring them to Christ. I consider it as a part of my duty which I could not omit without being guilty of the blood of souls.4

With the encouragement of friends, in 1785 Fuller published the argument behind his conclusions. The Gospel Worthy of All Acceptation, or the Duty of Sinners to Believe in Jesus Christ hammers home a central point: because God’s nature and purposes have been revealed ultimately in Jesus Christ, every human being is obligated to respond in repentance and faith.5

Six Reasons to Plead

Fuller’s argument rests on six propositions. First, unconverted sinners are clearly and repeatedly invited, exhorted, and commanded to trust in Christ for salvation. This is the teaching of both the New Testament (John 5:23; 6:39; 12:36) and the Old (Psalm 2:11–12; Isaiah 55:1–7). “Faith in Jesus Christ,” Fuller writes, “is constantly held up as the duty of all to whom the gospel is preached.”6

Second, every human being is obligated to receive what God reveals. “It is allowed by all except the grossest Antinomians [High Calvinists],” Fuller argues, “that every man is obliged to love God with all his heart, soul, mind, and strength — and this notwithstanding the depravity of his nature.” This is the witness of God’s self-revelation in creation, in the law, and “in the highest and most glorious display of himself” in the incarnation.7

Third, the gospel, though a message of pure grace, requires the obedient response of faith. Fuller illustrates this proposition by observing that the goodness of God “virtually [effectively] requires a return of gratitude. It deserves it and the law of God formally requires it on his behalf. Thus, it is with the gospel, which is the greatest overflew of Divine goodness that was ever witnessed.”8

Fourth, lack of faith is an odious sin that the Scriptures ascribe to human depravity. In light of God’s self-revelation, sinners’ willful ignorance, pride, dishonesty, or aversion of heart are evidences of unbelief, not excuses for it. The Spirit of Christ has been sent into the world for the very purpose of convicting the world of unbelief, which would be unnecessary “if faith were not a duty” (John 16:8–9).9

“‘The Gospel Worthy’ unleashed a tsunami of evangelical Calvinism.”

Fifth, God has threatened and inflicted the most awful punishments on sinners for their not believing on the Lord Jesus Christ. “It is here taken for granted that nothing but sin can be the cause of God’s inflicting punishment,” Fuller writes, “and nothing can be sin which is not a breach of duty.”10 Unbelief is, itself, a sin “which greatly aggravates our guilt and which, if persisted in, gives the finishing stroke to our destruction.”11

Sixth, the Bible requires certain spiritual exercises of all mankind, which are represented as their duty. If persons are required to love, fear, and glorify God, then repentance and faith are also required. Even though these exercises are brought about by the Spirit of Christ, the obligation remains. Man’s obedience to the truth and God’s gift of faith by grace are the same thing seen from different perspectives.12

If these propositions are valid, Fuller concludes, “love to Christ is the duty of everyone to whom the gospel is preached.”13 The work of Christian ministry, then, is to “hold up the free grace of God through Jesus Christ as the only way of a sinner’s salvation.” “If this not be the leading theme of our ministrations,” Fuller warns, “we had better be anything than preachers. ‘Woe unto us if we preach not the gospel!’”14

Duty to Make It Known

The repercussions of his argument are incalculable. From a historical perspective, Fuller so dismantled High Calvinism that no serious case for it has since arisen. Even more importantly, The Gospel Worthy unleashed a tsunami of evangelical Calvinism. If it is the duty of sinners to repent and believe in Christ, as the Scriptures teach, then it is also the urgent duty of Christians to present the claims of Christ to their neighbors and the nations. Pastors reengaged their calling as evangelists. New organizations were launched to multiply itinerant preaching.15 Ordinary Christians, grasping the implications of the gospel more fully, lifted their eyes to the horizon and saw fields white for harvest.

For William Carey (1761–1834), Fuller’s argument was foundational. “If it be the duty of all men where the gospel comes to believe unto salvation,” Carey told a friend after reading Fuller’s book, “then it is the duty of those who are entrusted with the gospel to make it known among all nations for the obedience of faith.”16 Several years later, in his famous Enquiry, Carey wrote that deficient understandings of the gospel were the reason “multitudes sit at ease and give themselves no concern about the far greater part of their fellow sinners who, to this day, are lost in ignorance and idolatry.”17 Since Christians are those “whose truest interest lies in the exaltation of the Messiah’s kingdom,” Carey concluded, “let every one, then, in his station consider himself as bound to act with all his might and in every possible way for God.”18

Such were not mere words. Four months after publishing them, Carey, Fuller, their friend John Ryland (1753–1826), and several others joined to form the Baptist Missionary Society. Carey became their first missionary, departing for India in 1793. Ryland supported London Congregationalists in starting the London Missionary Society (1795) and the Anglicans in launching the Church Missionary Society (1799). Reaching the shores of America, this wave of evangelical Calvinism then spawned the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (1810) and the General Missionary Convention of the Baptist Denomination (1814), the precursor to the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest missionary-sending organization in the world.

Jesus Is Worthy

Fuller’s The Gospel Worthy also holds a word for us. A high view of God’s sovereignty does not diminish evangelism and missions. Rather, it produces the opposite effect. Because the gospel is worthy of all acceptation, because all who hear it are duty bound to respond in faith, and because the Spirit ultimately brings about obedience to the truth, we can have the confidence and the courage to proclaim the gospel to our neighbors and among the nations. Jesus is worthy of all worship. His glory, our joy, and the good of all peoples “call loudly for every possible exertion to introduce the gospel among them.”19

  1. John Ryland, The Work of Faith, the Labour of Love, and the Patience of Hope Illustrated in the Life and Death of Andrew Fuller (London: Button & Son, 1816), 17. 

  2. Ryland, Work of Faith, 29 (emphasis mine). 

  3. Ryland, Work of Faith, 29–30. 

  4. Ryland, Work of Faith, 106. 

  5. Fuller observed that although High Calvinists and Arminians were on opposite ends of the soteriological spectrum, the ends bent closely toward each other. Arminians believed that prevenient grace provided humans the ability to respond to the gospel in faith, but for grace to be free, unbelievers could not be held responsible for rejecting a gospel call. High Calvinists, whom Fuller called “Antinomians” and “False Calvinists,” believed that human inability relieved unbelievers of the responsibility of responding to the gospel in faith. Both, then, rejected the duty of unbelievers to respond in faith. “Thus, as in many other cases,” Fuller wrote, “opposite extremes are known to meet. Where no grace is given, they are united in supposing that no duty can be required — which, if true, ‘grace is no more grace.’” See The Gospel Worthy of All Acceptation, or the Duty of Sinners to Believe in Jesus Christ in Andrew Fuller, The Complete Works of the Rev. Andrew Fuller, ed. Joseph Belcher, vol. 2, Controversial Publications (Philadelphia, PA: American Baptist Publication Society, 1884), 330. 

  6. Fuller, The Gospel Worthy, 2:345. 

  7. Fuller, The Gospel Worthy, 2:351. 

  8. Fuller, The Gospel Worthy, 2:352. 

  9. Fuller, The Gospel Worthy, 2:357. 

  10. Fuller, The Gospel Worthy, 2:358. 

  11. Fuller, The Gospel Worthy, 2:359. 

  12. Fuller, The Gospel Worthy, 2:360. 

  13. Fuller, The Gospel Worthy, 2:363. 

  14. Fuller, The Gospel Worthy, 2:386. 

  15. The Baptist Society in London for the Encouragement and Support of Itinerant Preaching (1797). 

  16. J.W. Morris, Memoirs of the Life and Writings of the Rev. Andrew Fuller (London: T. Hamilton, 1816), 96. 

  17. William Carey, An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens (Leicester: Ann Ireland, 1792), 8. 

  18. Carey, An Enquiry, 82. 

  19. Carey, An Enquiry, 13.