So often when speaking about the work of the Holy Spirit which infused the churches with new life in the 18th century, mention is made of Anglican stalwarts such as Whitefield, Hervey, Toplady and Romaine. The works of these men through God’s sovereign grace cannot be praised enough but the fact that recent biographers have highlighted their activities has tended to give the impression that other denominations, such as the Baptists, were quite inactive during this period. This is by no means the case as the testimony of John Gill shows.
John Gill was born in 1697 in the town of Kettering and became a member of the Particular Baptist church there before being called to the pastorate at Goat Yard Chapel, Horselydown, London. This church, now known as the Metropolitan Tabernacle, is famous in Baptist history for being pastored by such prominent men as Benjamin Keach, Benjamin Stinton, John Rippon and Charles H. Spurgeon besides Gill.
When Gill took over the Goat Yard church, its doctrines and methods of church government were far from Biblical. Too much emphasis was placed on the supervisory rights of extra-church affiliations which robbed local churches of their sovereignty. An association of ministers who met regularly at a Coffee House, of all places, had set themselves up as joint-elders of the Particular Baptist churches in London claiming the sole right to ordain pastors and deacons. Indeed, an influential minority in the churches maintained that they had no rights of their own regarding the choosing of deacons as this was entirely the task of the Coffee House fraternal. In effect, what came to be known as the Baptist Union was here in its infancy. Gill treated such a movement as a changeling child and no true offspring of the Gospel.
Once Gill was established in his new church, he denounced the assumed powers of the Coffee House clique and saw to it that his church chose and ordained its own deacons. Confronted with much anti-creed opposition, he bravely drew up a statement of faith which was thoroughly evangelical in its scope and thoroughly Calvinistic in its doctrine. This step was necessary as, along with lax ideas of church government, doctrine was being downgraded and heresies concerning the Trinity and the eternal sonship of Christ were being fostered in the churches. Once Gill put his church back on a Biblical footing, membership at Goat Yard grew by leaps and bounds and the church, which moved to Carter Lane for larger premises, became one of the most influential congregations in the country.
The brethren at Horselydown had been initially drawn to Gill because of his evangelistic gifts and now Gill began to systematically evangelise the Southwark area. His method was to divide the district into four parts and assign two brethren to each sub-area who were to visit and instruct the members. What started as a work amongst his own flock soon spread to a wider work and evangelical ministers of all denominations gave Gill their support. Soon Anglican pioneers of the Revival such as Hervey and Toplady were full of praise for the help they received through Gill’s sermons and publications. Hervey was particularly fond of Gill as he taught the sinner’s need of the imputed righteousness of Christ and Toplady loved Gill for the way he convicted Arminians of their faulty view of man. Hervey wrote of Gill who, “presents us with such rich and charming displays of the glory of Christ’s person, the freeness of His grace to sinners, and the tenderness of His love to the church.” What better report could be given of a Christian evangelist?
In order to give Gill more access to a wider field of hearers, denominational leaders begged him to give a weekly lecture at Great Eastcheap. This series, which was to last almost thirty years, was opened in 1729 by Gill preaching on Psalm 71:16, “I will go in the strength of the Lord God; I will make mention of thy righteousness, even of thine only.” Many of these sermons formed the basis of Gill’s fine book The Cause of God and Truth. The Great Eastcheap experiment proved a huge success and soon Baptists, Anglicans and Independents were subscribing to hire other halls so that Gill could give regular lectures there.
Contemporary evangelical authors looked on Gill’s work with admiration writing how his message of joyful Christian experience spread far and wide amongst the Baptists and even influenced “all the evangelical denominations at home and abroad”. This was to be expected as Gill had world-wide evangelism as his goal. Two of Gill’s favourite texts were Isa. 24:16 “Look unto me, and be ye saved, all ye ends of the earth”, and 2 Chron. 16:9 “For the eyes of the Lord run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to shew himself strong in the behalf of them whose heart is perfect towards him.” Preaching at the induction of John Davis, Gill told him, “Souls sensible to sin and danger, and who are crying out, What shall we do to be saved? you are to observe, and point out Christ the tree of life to them; and say, . . . . Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved.” He went on to say, “Your work is to lead men, under a sense of sin and guilt, to the blood of Christ, shed for many for the remission of sin, and in his name you are to preach the forgiveness of them.” Perhaps having in mind those Arminians who told him mockingly that he could not believe in the need for repentance if men were predestined to believe, he told his hearers with Spirit-led power, “Be faithful, labour to shew the one and the other their wretched state by nature; the necessity of repentance towards God, and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, in his blood, righteousness, and atoning sacrifice, for peace, pardon, justification, and salvation.”
It was inevitable that John Wesley would clash with Gill and their debate on the question of the perseverance of the saints filled several books on both sides. Wesley claimed, “I believe a Saint may fall away; that one who is holy or righteous in the judgement of God himself, may nevertheless so fall from God, as to perish everlastingly.” He further stated that “He who is a child of God today, may be a child of the devil tomorrow.” Gill answered him by saying, “Those who are truly regenerated, effectually called, and really converted, and internally sanctified by the Spirit and grace of God, shall persevere in grace to the end, and shall be everlastingly saved; or shall never finally and totally fall, so as to perish everlastingly.”
Wesley’s mistake was that, as he did not believe in the imputed righteousness of Christ, he could not accept that Christ was indwelling the believer and preparing him for eternity. Quoting Job 17:9 “The righteous also shall hold on his way; and he that hath clean hands shall be stronger and stronger!” Gill tells Wesley, “By the righteous man is meant one that is made truly righteous, by the righteousness of Christ imputed to him, and which he receives by faith; in consequence of which he lives soberly and righteously: and by his way is meant, Christ the way; in which he walks as he has received him, as the Lord his Righteousness.” Gill argues that as it is Christ who makes a man righteous by imputing His own righteousness to him, so it is Christ who keeps the righteous-one in that righteousness. It thus follows that even if the righteous-one slips, falls or stumbles because of the inner fight within all Christians, he cannot slip or fall or stumble out of fellowship with Christ as it is Christ who maintains that fellowship not the man himself. It is, after all, Christ who is our righteousness, not our own works.
Dr. Abraham Taylor argued that Gill could not possibly, as a Calvinist, believe in the holiness of the Law and in good works. Though the Principal of a theological college, he had no idea what Calvinism really was. Gill told him, “Though we say, that works are not necessary to salvation; do we say, that they are not necessary to anything else? Do we say, that they are not necessary to be done in obedience to the law of God? Do we say, that the commands of the law are not to be regarded by men? That they are things indifferent, that may be done, or not done? No; we say none of these things, but all the reverse. Do we make void the law through this doctrine? God forbid: Yea, we establish the law, as it is in the hands of Christ our Lawgiver; to which we desire to yield a cheerful obedience; to show our subjection to him as King of saints, and to testify our gratitude for the many blessings of every kind we receive from him.”
Gill’s emphasis on the insensitivity of the unsaved to his own state and his spiritual inability angered many an Arminian. One day Gill was preaching on the total depravity and spiritual inability of man when a hearer became deeply offended. The man decided to give Gill a piece of his mind. “You have degraded man and laid him much too low,” he told the preacher. “Pray, sir, how much do you think men can contribute towards their own conversion and salvation?”, Gill asked. This was the cue the man had been waiting for and he promptly gave Gill a long list of all that man could do to vouchsafe God`s eternal favour. Gill listened patiently and then said, “Have you done all these things for yourself?” “No, I cannot say that I have,” replied the man. Gill looked at him with some surprise and said, “If you really have all these things in your power and have not done them for yourself, you deserve to be doubly damned, and are but ill qualified to stand up for that imaginary free-will which, according to your own confession, has done you so little good. However, after you have made yourself spiritually whole (if ever you find yourself able to do it), be kind enough to come and let me know how you went about it; for at present I know but of one remedy for human depravation, namely, the efficacious grace of him who worketh in men both to will and do of his own good pleasure.”
Great effort was made to silence Gill by a number of his free-will enemies and he was often cautioned by his own people to be less rigorous when preaching the truth. Spurgeon, who found a down-grade controversy on his own hands similar, though broader in scope, to the one Gill corrected, must have been greatly indebted to him Spurgeon says of his ‘eminent predecessor’, “Dr. Gill, was told, by a certain member of his congregation who ought to have known better, that, if he published his book, The Cause of God and Truth, he would lose some of his best friends, and that his income would fall off. The doctor said, “I can afford to be poor, but I cannot afford to injure my conscience.” Spurgeon then added, ” and he has left his mantle as well as his chair in our vestry.”
Sadly the down-grading of doctrine amongst the Baptist Union churches during the time of Spurgeon got out of hand and Spurgeon’s fight against it proved in vain. There is nothing new under the sun and the follies of Gill’s times as those of Spurgeon’s days are with us again, or rather with us still. This writer must confess that in reading Gill he has found a compendium of sound theology second to none which serves as a God-given armour against the down-grading going on in evangelicalism today.
Other Recommended Articles:
- The Difference Between John Gill’s Free Declaration of the Gospel to Sinners and the Banner of Truth’s ‘Free Offer’
- John Gill and His Successors
- John Gill and the Charge of Hyper-Calvinism
- History of the English Calvinistic Baptists 1771-1892: from John Gill to C. H. Spurgeon
- The Life and Thought of John Gill