An actual reply to a Christian who has challenged me in several of his published writings and personal letters to me for teaching that John Gill only preached to those who were already believers and had already been made ‘sensible’ to the gospel.
As I have now finished my preparation for XX, I can deal with your query at a little length. Of course, the idea that Gill did not exhort sinners to repentance and faith cannot be defended. Indeed, he was far more industrious in doing this than most of his contemporary and modern critics. Where do you find the BOT, Reformation Today and Founder’s Journal Preparationists exhorting sinners to flee from the wrath to come into Jesus’ arms like Gill? Their sermons are like the lectures I used to hear at the Working Men’s Institute: dry, amateur but with enough content to make the discerning hearer want more of the right thing. So even they help although there is far too much of man in them. The fact is that now even Nettles says that Gill and Whitfield sang in unison on the points you raised and Timothy George even compares Gill with Spurgeon on these issues. I have been pointing this out since around 1984. On the topic of sensible souls, Gill rarely uses the term and it is Fuller, not Gill who claims that there must be a holy disposition in the sinner before he can accept the gospel. Look at Erroll Hulse’s laborious attempts to make ‘sensible souls’ out of sinners even before the gospel comes. A more interesting question would have been, “Which 17th-18th century saint did not talk of ‘sensible souls’. I once made a study of this and Gill was in the best company all round.
In my booklet on the misused and misapplied term ‘free offer’ and on the ruin of a once well meaning phrase, I quote Gill once concerning poor and heavy laden sinners whom he says are ‘sensible of their spiritual poverty’ coming to Christ. I do not use the word ‘sensible’ again. Nevertheless, you come back to this time and time again and attack the use of the word as a symbol of Hyper-Calvinism. Indeed, you give two most narrow definitions of the term ‘sensible’ which need at least three other definitions for you to explain what you are talking about. None are Biblical. Your main argument is that ‘sensible sinners’ means regenerate believers so it is no use demanding that they repent and believe as they are in that state already. From this quite arbitrary conclusion, you further conclude that such as Gill and myself do not believe in preaching to unbelievers. You are not alone here in giving me a cap of a false size and demanding that I make it fit my head. It is a common and shameful strategy of Fullerites to feel they can hide their un-Biblical preparationism by denouncing 18th century Biblical usage of preaching the gospel so that sinners become sensitive to their fallen state and need of a Saviour. Why do you not admit that one will hardly find an evangelical Christian writer between 1650 -1850 including Bunyan, Hervey, Gill, Fuller, Dr Ryland and Hawker who does not use the term? Here, we may add Spurgeon, too as a rather late user. The word and its cognates was fashionable in evangelical circles, indeed, also amongst those who frequented with evangelicals such as Jane Austin as witnessed by her Sense and Sensibility published in 1811.
The fact is that Fuller often uses the term ‘sensible’ of sinners but no one calls him a Hyper-Calvinist for doing so. At times, he uses the term as does Gill although Gill is always clearer in pointing out the source in God of becoming sensitive to the gospel invitation and of being awakened. Fuller’s debates with Dr. Jenkins as also his essays, Concluding Reflections; Passages Apparently Contradictory; Christianity a Source of Happiness; The Awakened Sinner; Conversation on particular Redemption; Perversion of the Principle Doctrines of the Gospel; Reception by Christ the Turning Point of Salvation; The Nature and Importance of Walking by Faith; Christians entreated to Promote the Cause of Christ; Abuse of Reviews; and Strictures against Sandemanism all deal with the subject of making sinners sensible of their state. The following quote from Fuller’s The Nature and Importance of Walking by Faith, one of the several passages using the term in this essay, at first glance, might have been from Gill’s pen:
‘The perplexed soul need not stay, before he ventures, to inquire whether he be fit to come to Christ. It is not required that he should prove his saintship before he applies for mercy, though it is before he claims an interest in gospel blessings. All that is necessary here is that he be sensible of his being a vile and lost sinner.’
However, Fuller here, unlike Gill, does not emphasise man’s awareness of his vileness as the work of the Spirit but sees this awareness ‘as a state of mind essential to the act itself of coming.’ We are left to imagine how the sinner receives this ‘state of mind’. Fuller (who repeatedly claims he contradicts himself) appears to think otherwise in Christians Entreated to Promote the Cause of Christ where he writes ‘The gospel itself is the warrant, and not anything in the state of the mind; though, till the mind is made sensible of the evil of sin, it will never comply with the gospel.’ Again, however, Fuller does not teach how the sinner’s mind is made sensible of sin so that he might comply with the gospel. In other articles, Fuller, like Gill, distinguishes between ‘sensible’ and ‘insensible’ sinners. He also speaks of sinners becoming ‘awakened’ when they have approached God as such ‘sensible sinners’. Indeed, we find the same pattern of coming to Christ in both Fuller and Gill. First there is insensibility, then sensibility, then an awakening or receiving faith. Fuller, like Gill, too, warns against placing false interpretations on the term. Incidentally, when Dr. John Ryland started cleaning his church of his father’s converts, he also used the word ‘sensible’ to indicate a true understanding of the Scriptures according to his new interpretation. In the document of excommunication against Calvinist and hymn-writer John Adams, Ryland Jn. writes ‘Do read these scriptures; and pray to God, that if you have acted contrary to them, you may be made sensible of it.’ Actually, as I argued in my booklet Weighed in the Balance, it was Ryland Jn. who had altered the meaning of the Scriptures he quoted. Nevertheless, this shows that the terms were often used by Fuller and those who were ‘one heart and one soul’ with him.
There is a major, evangelical difference between Gill’s use of the term ‘sensible’ and Fuller’s. Gill looks upon those who are hungering, thirsting, labouring and heavy laden as being made aware of their state by the gospel, directly through the work of the Holy Spirit, God’s Winnower. Fuller denies this, arguing in his Strictures on Sandemanianism that inviting the hungry and thirsty to Christ is no gospel appeal in any spiritual sense but merely an appeal to those who have a thirst for happiness, peace and rest etc.. There is therefore no spirituality in the state of the thirsty and hungry souls, they come for very human natural reasons. This is also Fuller’s interpretation of the call to ‘come and buy’ in Isaiah 55. This would appear to contradict Matthew 5 and other Scripture which proclaim, ‘Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness’. Surely, the search for righteousness is a true sign of Christ’s calling the sinner. As Fuller sees true repentance as first coming through an understanding of what he calls ‘the commandment’ and not the gospel, so he teaches that the sinner must first become sensible of ‘the commandment’. Once the commandment is obeyed this leads immediately to the sinner’s embracing the gospel. Thus, says Fuller, ‘through the law we become dead to the law, that we may live unto God.’ This is typical New Divinity teaching which sees obeying the law correctly as leading to an automatic accepting of the gospel. He who obeys the law, loves Christ. Again, Fuller fails to show what part God plays in this drama and he also apparently ignores the fact that becoming sensitive to one’s vileness comes through seeing that one cannot possibly obey the ‘commandment’, whichever it is, and that repentance is acknowledging this very fact and accepting the judgement that goes with it as just. One repents because one has not obeyed. Becoming sensible to sin has nothing to do with obeying commandments but to admitting that one has broken them. I would suggest that on comparison, Gill’s doctrine of making sinners sensible to Christ’s call is far more evangelical and Biblical than Fuller’s legal, badly thought-out doctrine of obeying commandgments as a way to understanding the gospel. Fuller’s statement, ‘Such a conviction of sin cannot consist with a rejection of the gospel way of salvation, but as soon as it is understood, instantly leads the sinner to embrace it,’ displays a piece of automatic, logical thinking on the part of the sinner which makes the work of the Holy Spirit in preparing his heart superfluous. Fuller’s neglect of recognising the Holy Spirit’s work in repentance and faith has been adequately condemned in the second letter of William Button’s The Nature of Special Faith in Christ.
When defending Gill in his essay John Gill and the Evangelical Awakening, Tom Nettles spends several pages on the myth concerning Hyper-Calvinism and ‘sensible sinners’, arguing firmly that Gill did not have a special and separate approach to ‘hardened sinners’ and ‘sensible sinners’ and the latter ‘received no instructions distinct from sinners in general’. Nettles emphasises that Gill’s known and practised calling was ‘to preach the gospel to every creature’. Nettles also points out here that as Gill spoke of hardened sinners, sensible sinners and believers, he obviously did not use the term ‘sensible’ for believers only. This is your very misconception.
In October 1995 the Baptist Quarterly published in Volume XXXVI, No, 4, an essay of mine entitled John Gill and the Charge of Hyper-Calvinism. In this essay, I quoted contemporary evidence testifying to Gill’s preaching which displayed ‘the glories of Christ’s person and the freeness of his grace to sinners’. I backed this up with samples of Gill’s preaching to sinners as sinners as in his exegesis of Matt.11:28 where he exhorted unconverted sinners ‘to come to Christ aright, come as sinners, to a full, suitable, and able, and willing Saviour; venture their souls upon him, and trust in him for righteousness, life, and salvation, which they are encouraged to do my this kind invitation; which shows his willingness to save.’ Likewise, I dealt with Gill’s approach to Isaiah 24:16, James 5:20, John 5:40 and other similar passages. How did Robert Oliver ‘review’ this article? His comment was, ‘All his (my) examples of Gill’s evangelism are High Calvinist. They are exhortations to those who are conscious of their sins. . . . that is not what the debate is all about.’ Here Oliver has made two very obvious and very serious mistakes. He has altered my vindication of Gill against the charge of Hyper-Calvinism to a vindication of High-Calvinism which is not my point in the article at all and a most unfair alteration on Oliver’s part. He also claims that I only give examples of exhortations to those who are (already) conscious of their sins, which is neither what my essay was about nor my examples by any means, either. Oliver wishes to reveal a false picture of what I believe and make me wear the cap in his readers’ eyes which he has made for me. This has all nothing to do with what I say or what Gill teaches but very much to do with Oliver’s polemics, strategy and aims which I find cheap, unscholarly and therefore deplorable. Happily, other contributions to Haykin’s collection of essays give a true account of Gill’s preaching and of my understanding of Gill. Oliver must learn that Gill’s aim, as that of all evangelists worthy of the name, was to preach Christ so that sinners were convicted and converted. But the old adage of ‘give a dog a bad name and someone will hang him’ remains Oliver’s slogan and gospel strategy. I never dreamt in my zeal to preach the whole gospel to the whole man that professing Christian pastors and teachers such as Oliver would criticise Gill, me or anyone else for preaching ‘Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest,’ or ‘Let him know, that he which converteth the sinner from the error of his way shall save a soul from death and shall hide a multitude of sins.’ That such are ‘High Calvinists’ who provide grounds for condemnation because they quote ‘High Calvinist’ texts is a groundless anti-evangelical misrepresentation of pure gospel preaching. This is ‘criticism with a pen-knife’ indeed. Those who denounce Gill’s preaching the gospel to sinners or claim as Oliver that he preached to believers only, must have a very limited view of what the gospel really is themselves. It is a gospel void of all the texts that refute them. There are certainly no such things as ‘High-Calvinist’ texts, nor ‘Hyper-Calvinist’ texts nor ‘Fullerite’ texts in the Bible for that matter, though Oliver is obviously of a different opinion according to his different gospel.
To return to you who have misinterpreted those who used the term ‘sensible’, myself included, with a vengeance! The likes of Gill and if I may be compared with such a giant, of myself, plead with, invite, exhort and command sinners to repent and believe, trusting that they might be made sensible of their sins by the accompanying work of the Spirit. This is the discriminating work of the gospel. Gill’s definition of ‘discriminate’ should be read by you and Oliver. Gill argued that the Spirit does not call all men to repent and believe all the time and everywhere but goes about the work in His own good time and own good way. Even the elect must await the general call until it comes their way.
Your re-definition of a Hyper-Calvinist as one who does not believe in the free-offer and duty-faith is recent, coined in very modern times by Hyper-Fullerites, ill-thought out and most certainly does not find common acceptance amongst Reformed believers. This goes for your Newspeak use of ‘God’s will(s)’, ‘sensible’, ‘free-offer’ and ‘duty-faith’, too. Immediately the question arose in my mind on reading your novel definitions of Hyper-Calvinism, ‘Were then all the saints between Adam and Fuller guilty of being Hyper-Calvinists as the terms free-offer and duty-faith meant nothing to them.’ Even pro-duty-faith man Robert Oliver argues in his doctor’s thesis that the term duty-faith was first used in the late nineteenth century, forgetting that Fuller used the term a century before.
Your sensibility towards the word ‘sensible’ has no historical, theological and linguistic basis but it obviously grates your nervous system and challenges your, to me, misconceptions full on. From the sixteenth century onwards, the term has been used of sinners stopped in their tracts by the Holy Spirit and illuminated with their need for Christ. Indeed, it is a common expression used in many of the ancient writers whom modern free-offer enthusiasts claim are on their side. Yet you do the truth and myself a grave disservice by totally distorting the work of the Spirit in making a sinner sensible of his sin and again, attributing all your distortions to me, claiming that I believe ‘only repentant sinners must be commanded to believe’ I believe in preaching the gospel so that sinners will be placed in a position, aided by the Holy Spirit, to believe. This was Gill’s aim, too, as I showed in the above named Baptist Historical Society essay. I conclude here that what was good enough for our Reformers, including Calvin; the saints of the seventeenth century including Bunyan and the believers of the eighteenth century including Hervey, is good enough for me. Furthermore, unlike Gill or myself, Fuller really did believe in a Hyper-Calvinist kind of preparationism or ‘holy disposition’ before God could speak to the soul of a sinner. This is why Booth wrote against him. 17th and 18th century orthodox ministers such as Gill, Crisp, Huntington, Toplady and Romaine never believed that there was an agency in man which could open the doors to the gospel.
Nevertheless, to free you from your anti-sensible phobia and defend the cause of God and truth, I shall quote a Scripture verse on being ‘sensible’, applying it to your teaching.
‘For when for the time ye ought to be teachers, ye have need that one teach you again which be the first principles of the oracles of God; and are become such as have need of milk, and not of strong meat. For everyone that useth milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness; for he is a babe. But strong meat belongeth to them that are of a full age, even those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil.’
The preacher’s task is to exercise sinners with God’s Word so that they are confronted with their own lost state and by the Holy Spirit made sensitive to it and turn to Christ through the preaching of the gospel and live. However, you will perhaps follow Oliver’s guidance rather than mine and claim that Hebrews Five is a Hyper-Calvinist text and not ‘what he is debating about’.
I trust that you will re-read rather than ‘skim over’ what I have already sent you on Gill and study the above carefully. I, of course, except you as a brother in Christ and now a friend, but believe you err greatly and have accepted rational, liberal thinking to such a high degree that the gospel you preach is only a fading shadow of what it ought to be. The EC review pointed out how much of the gospel you left out so that they could not recommend your book. Nor could I for the same reason. I have gone into more depth in my review. My main argument against the so-called Free Offer School is that they have reduced what is free to cheap Kitsch and their offer is based on an arbitrary god who is at logger-heads with himself. I look upon the accusations of the BOT school, who hide behind you, that I do not believe in preaching the full gospel to unrepentant sinners as the Antinomianism that it is.
I have a thick, Yorkshire skin so please do not hesitate to give me a Roland for my Oliver, providing you do not mistake me for Robert Oliver!
Your brother in Christ,