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Missions 101

In Honor of Andrew Fuller

Feb. 6, 2013By: Evan Burns

Today is Andrew Fuller’s 259th birthday (born February 6, 1754).  William Carey has been called the “Father of Modern Missions”, but there would be no William Carey if there were no Andrew Fuller.  Fuller was the rope-holder of the first advance of the modern missionary movement.  Fuller was a humble, untrained pastor of a small Baptist church in Kettering, England, and before that he was a pastor in Soham.  He was married to Sarah Gardner, and before she died, they lost eight of their eleven children.  She died in 1792, and two months later the Baptist Missionary Society (BMS) was birthed.  The apex of so many painful deaths coincided with the birth of the life of the missionary movement.[1] 

Fuller was constantly overwhelmed by all the burdens he carried—endless doctrinal controversies requiring confrontational letters and articles, raising a family, pastoring a church, mobilizing for missions, and leading the newly founded BMS.  He was the main thinker, fundraiser, mobilizer, and organizer of the BMS for twenty-one years.  Traveling around the country, speaking at churches, raising financial support drew him away from his pastoral duties.  Even to the very end of his life, he labored upwards of twelve hours a day.  A change in his work duties was the only recreation he knew.  And it was in the context of immense suffering that Fuller employed such a heavy workload.  He suffered great depression largely because of the loss of so many children and his wife.  It was in this atmosphere of suffering that he wrote so passionately against aberrant theology, traveled so widely to raise awareness and funds for missions, and thought so deeply about the gospel and theology. 

Fuller grew up in the wake of the Great Awakening and in a very Hyper-Calvinist Particular Baptist church.  He searched the Scriptures assiduously to seek out whether Hyper-Calvinism was so.  Though he looked to Puritan greats like Bunyan and Owen, the tenor of Fuller’s writings resounds with the echoes of Jonathan Edwards.  It was initially Edwards’ Freedom of the Will that helped Fuller combat the unbiblical claims of Hyper-Calvinism.  Hyper-Calvinism said that sinners did not have the duty to repent and believe because they are unable; therefore, the free offer of salvation is not only unnecessary but cruel because it commands the impossible of the non-elect.  The Hyper-Calvinists would claim that if the Holy Spirit impressed a text upon one’s mind, they might have a warrant of faith proving that they are among the elect.  Fuller saw Hyper-Calvinism as focusing not on the objective work of Christ but on the subjective feelings of one’s emotion based upon some warrant of faith.  So, the critical issue was that of assurance.  The Hyper-Calvinists said their assurance of election resided in a subjective warrant of faith, whereas Fuller would say assurance of salvation resided in the objective truth of the gospel of the cross of Christ. 

Fuller argued that both Hyper-Calvinism and Arminianism ironically used the same logic, namely that “where there is no grace there is not duty”.  His most famous work, The Gospel Worthy of All Acceptation, dismantled Hyper-Calvinism by demonstrating biblical texts commanding sinners to believe and repent.  As mentioned earlier, he found great help from Edwards.  The main insight from Edwards was in his distinction between moral inability and natural inability.  Because of moral inability, the will is totally disinclined to belief and repentance, and because of natural inability, a person lacks the rational faculties and bodily powers to hear and believe the gospel.  Though Edwards chiefly assisted Fuller in making his philosophical case against the cold-heartedness of Hyper-Calvinism, it was his masterful use of Scripture that Fuller used to put the nail in the coffin.  Ultimately, this controversy was a missions-related controversy for Fuller.  This was not theological nit-picking.  The salvation of souls and the glory of Christ among the nations were at stake here. 

Another destructive error with similar missions-destroying repercussions was Sandemanianism.  Desiring to protect justification by faith from works-righteousness, Robert Sandeman claimed that if faith had any movement of the mind or stirring of affections for God, then it is mixed with works and not true justifying faith.  Therefore, regeneration could not precede justifying faith since faith, in Sandeman’s mind, had no virtue or goodness whatsoever lest it become a damning work.  So, faith had to be a passive act in the heart of an enemy of God before regeneration could take place, and Sandemanianism resulted in a fear of emotion and passion.  Piling text upon text in his Strictures on Sandemanianism, Fuller denied that faith is a passive persuasion of the mind, but rather, it is a fruit of regeneration and thus a virtue. 

Fuller unpacked faith as a receiving grace unlike any other grace.  The main point to Fuller was not that faith did not have holy affections but that any holy affections or work of faith cannot be the ground of our assurance.  Faith is a necessary result of regeneration, but our faith must not be in our faith or regenerational experience but in the objective work of Christ in our place, just as he argued against the similar logic of Hyper-Calvinism.

Fuller’s motivation behind confronting these two controversies was his overwhelming concern for gospel proclamation among the heathen.  Sandemanianism took the power and passion out of gospel preaching, and Hyper-Calvinism suffocated gospel proclamation.  This was a truth battle for the spread of the kingdom of Christ around the world.  As in Fuller’s day, today’s doctrinal controversies over justifying faith are just as relevant for missions.  Many will decry the role of doctrinal specificity by saying it is a hindrance to missionary movements, but this is a disguise for error and historical naiveté at its best.  There is need today for deeply rooted Bible teaching that does not tolerate unbiblical inferences based on sloppy exegesis.  Bad inferences and unbiblical logic not only kill doctrine, but they endanger perishing souls by killing passion and eliminating duty for gospel proclamation.

[1] The following summary of Fuller’s life and theology is gleaned from:  John Piper, Andrew Fuller: I Will Go Down If You Will Hold the Rope! (Desiring God Foundation ed.; repr. Louisville, KY: The Andrew Fuller Center for Baptist Studies, 2012).


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