The 18th Century Great Commission Resurgence: Theological Reformation
The Holy Spirit, Who is the Spirit of life and the giver of new life, is also the Spirit of truth. And He never comes with His breathing of new life and renewal without also bringing His truth. So times of renewal and revival are also times when biblical truth comes to the fore: old truths are rediscovered and false, though not necessarily heretical, ideas are replaced with the robust truths of Holy Scripture.
During the first Great Commission Resurgence of the 18th Century, the critical theological issue was simply this: has God commanded all men and women everywhere to repent and believe the Gospel? What had been amazingly obvious to previous generations, like the Puritans, now became an issue of controversy. Some ministers of the time had next to nothing to say to the unconverted in their congregations, because they believed that these men and women were “poor, impotent creatures.” Faith was beyond such men and women, for they were dead in their sins, and therefore faith could not be pressed upon them as an immediate, present duty.
Andrew Fuller was the man whom God used to respond to this erroneous way of thinking. He became convinced that the refusal to urge the lost passionately and indiscriminately to turn to Christ was unbiblical and simply helped the unconverted to remain in their sin. Fuller put his position well in an article of the statement of faith he made at his induction as the pastor of the Baptist Church in Kettering, Northamptonshire, in 1783: “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 that it is their (i.e. the hearers’) duty to love the Lord Jesus Christ and trust in Him for salvation . . . 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.”
He decided to write his views down to help him think through the issue more clearly. The first draft of what would become an earth-shattering book was finished by 1778, and was titled, Thoughts on the Power of Men to do the Will of God. Interestingly enough, the actual manuscript of this work, which has never been widely used or even its whereabouts known, has just come to light and has been purchased by The Southern Seminary and will eventually be stored in the seminary archives. It reveals the early thinking that eventually found its way into print as The Gospel Worthy of All Acceptation (1785).
From passages such as John 12:36, 6:29 and 5:23, Fuller argued that Christ called sinners to repentance and faith in Himself. He made no exceptions. Moreover, Fuller pointed out, lack of faith in Christ is considered a “heinous sin” in the Scriptures. If this is so, Fuller reasoned, then trust in Christ is required of all that sit under the preaching of the Word. “Sinners are reproved for not believing,” as in passages such as John 5:40, where Jesus rebukes His hearers for being unwilling to come to Him to receive eternal life.
There were two main practical conclusions to Fuller’s arguments. First, sinners have every encouragement to trust in the Lord Jesus for the salvation of their souls. Moreover, they can no longer sit at ease under the sound of the Gospel and excuse their unbelief. Second, ministers of the Word must earnestly exhort their hearers to commit themselves to Christ and that without delay. In so doing they will be faithful imitators of Christ and his Apostles, who “warned, admonished and entreated” sinners to repent, to believe and to be reconciled to God.
The manuscript was finally finished in 1781, but Fuller delayed publishing it. He honestly feared that it might injure the cause of Christ, for it would bring controversy. But this fear was alleviated by the conviction that his argument for the obligation of men and women to believe in Christ was indeed of vital importance. Finally, in October 1784, Fuller took the plunge and made the decision to publish. The following month, he walked the 13 or so miles from Kettering to Northampton to deliver it into the hands of Thomas Dicey (1742-1807), a wealthy Northampton printer whose father and grandfather had made the family money through the sale of ephemeral popular literature. When Fuller’s book appeared the following year, it was indeed an epoch-making work and is one of the great books of Baptist literature.
And in the providence of God, Fuller’s book provided a young Baptist pastor by the name of William Carey with a theology to undergird his growing conviction that the Gospel needed to be taken to the ends of the Earth.
Michael A.G. Haykin is professor of church history and biblical spirituality at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.