Thursday, May 03, 2007

Grace and Glory

I've often used John Gill's commentary to get information on the Jewish understanding of different Biblical passages, most recently to give context for the reaction to Jesus' teaching. I find Matthew Henry and J. C. Ryle much more readable and devotional, but I haven't found anyone who beats Gill on the nuances of Hebrew thought, something I am totally unequipped to dig out myself.

Gill, however, has suffered from a reputation as a hyper-Calvinist, an allegation that extends all the way back to his own times. That reputation may be undeserved, though.

I'm re-reading Tom Nettles' By His Grace and For His Glory, a thorough history of the teaching of Calvinistic doctrines by Baptist churches since the 1600's.[1] Early in the book Nettles takes an entire, lengthy chapter to discuss the theology of John Gill, using lengthy quotations from Gill's contemporary and modern critics to give the case against him, then refuting their contentions from several of Gill's works.

Calvinist he was, no question, but to do as one writer and decide a priori that Gill is the definitive hyper-, then comb Gill's works to write your general definition of hyper-Calvinism, is both unjust and historically and theologically inaccurate.

Nettles does a good job showing that Gill's theology was not antithetical to evangelism. One interesting example is the distinction Gill made between grace and the gospel. Grace is the sovereign mercy of God which He bestows on His elect; the gospel, and the duty to repent and believe in it, is the responsibility of all men everywhere.

If God does not extend grace to a particular sinner, then He doesn't add anything to the sinner's own guiltiness, which stems from the sinfulness of his inborn character. Men die for their active sin, not for lack of grace.

But Gill contended that the preacher was bound to call all sinners to Christ, because none who come to Him will be cast out, and even knowing that there are relatively few that will come, the preacher is still commanded to proclaim the gospel to all. The difference in Gill's view is that grace is God's gift, not something that human ministers extend and offer. It's not the preacher's role, or really even the sinner's, to try and predict who has received grace and "warrant to believe"; preachers are commanded to preach, and sinners are commanded to believe. Simple enough.

Interestingly enough, Gill excused some theological inaccuracies from hymn-writers and preachers whom he thought were overwhelmed with zeal to bring sinners to Christ -- hardly consistent with a hard-line, uncompromisedly hyper- sort of Calvinist. The fact that he held up a universal call to Christ, relying fully on the concepts of duty-faith and duty-repentence which true hyper-Calvinists reject, is further evidence of his evangelical orthodoxy. For many of us, Gill might be worth reconsideration in the light of history and his own writings, not the reputation given by his opponents.

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[1] I just discovered the new 20th Anniversary edition on the Founders Conference website. My copy is the first edition, bought the year it was published at the church I attended in Clemson (Covenant Baptist Church, now passed from the scene). I first read it the summer I was married, and when I got my copy down this week, I found a sheet with notes about our wedding plans used as a bookmark.

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