What Is the Gospel? A Baptist Perspective
The English Puritan search for the New Testament’s pattern or blueprint of how to “do church” formed the matrix of Baptist origins in the first half of the seventeenth century. Of the two Baptist communities that emerged in this era—the General Baptists, who were Arminian, and the Particular Baptists, who were Calvinistic—the latter were far more numerous and influential in shaping later Baptist history in the transatlantic world. A helpful reminder of the links between the Particular Baptists and other Puritan bodies of this era (e.g., the Presbyterians and Independents) is the Particular Baptist employment of the Westminster Confession (1647) in the 1670s to craft what is undoubtedly the most significant confessional document in Baptist history, the Second London Confession of Faith (1677/1688). This confession also highlights a few theological issues that set these Baptists apart from their Puritan cousins, including their commitment to baptism as the immersion of only believers.
Immersion and the Gospel
According to the article dealing with baptism in this confessional statement, this “ordinance of the New Testament” was “ordained by Jesus Christ, to be unto the party baptized, a sign of his fellowship with him, in his death and resurrection; of his being engrafted into him; of remission of sins; and of giving up unto God, through Jesus Christ, to live and walk in newness of life.” While these Baptist pioneers never considered the practice of believer’s baptism to be a primary issue of salvation—they rejoiced in and benefited from the preaching and writings of their fellow Puritans, for example—they did see it as a public and conscious avowal of gospel truth. In baptism, believers declare their union with Christ, who has purchased their justification through his death and resurrection.
As a mode of baptism, however, immersion was considered by many in the seventeenth century as outré and even risqué. By and large, seventeenth-century Baptists did not have access to indoor baptisteries and thus had to employ rivers, lakes, and ponds for the rite. This not only violated the Anglican commitment to the church building as the sacred space where such activities belonged, but it also raised questions in the minds of Puritans like Richard Baxter about the health risks that plunging people under water entailed. And there were even some who scurrilously maintained that the administration of believer’s baptism by immersion promoted sexual immorality, as men and women were required to be baptized in the nude! Baptists were not deterred, though, from seeing in the immersion of a believer a visible portrayal of the blessings of the gospel. By the second decade of the eighteenth century, there were some two hundred and twenty Particular Baptist congregations in England and Wales, and a dozen or so in Ireland.
A Hyper-Calvinist Gospel
and Baptist Declension
The first few decades of the eighteenth century, though, proved to be a time of declension for the Particular Baptists as well as the other bodies that had emerged from Puritanism—namely, the English Presbyterians and the Independents, or Congregationalists. By the middle of that century, the Presbyterians as a denomination had almost totally succumbed to the scourge of Socinianism and in essence denied the gospel. The Independents and Particular Baptists fared better in that they retained their commitment to Christian orthodoxy, but for a variety of reasons, both groups had become largely stagnant and lacking in spiritual vitality. To a great extent, this was also true of the state church, where moralism was preached, not the gospel.
In the 1730s, there were a number of key conversions of Anglicans such as George Thomson of Cornwall and George Whitefield—who became the greatest evangelist of the era—Howel Harris and Daniel Rowland in Wales, and the Wesley brothers, John and Charles, who were central to the onset of the evangelical revivals. It is reckoned that when these men and others began to preach the new birth and justification by faith alone, such gospel truths had not been heard from most Anglican pulpits for the best part of sixty years. Initially, far too many Particular Baptists were untouched by these revivals, for they had wrongly come to identify their form of ecclesiology with gospel vitality.
Many of these Particular Baptists had also come to regard the gospel as encapsulated in the statement that Christ died for his elect. Under the impress of being marginalized in British society as well as possibly the rationalism of this era (the “Age of Reason”), these Baptists embraced a form of Calvinism known as hyper-Calvinism. Hyper-Calvinism rejected the free offer of the gospel to all and sundry, so as to bring the glory of God in the conversion of sinners to the fore and to emphasize that salvation was supremely a divine work. In the hands of an able theologian like the London Baptist leader John Gill, hyper-Calvinism was grounded in his view that the elect were not only chosen from eternity past to believe the gospel, but they had also been eternally justified. Preachers who imbibed Gill’s perspective often lacked his theological finesse; and in their preaching, they essentially told men and women to wait on God, who would in due course make it clear to them that they were children of God—if they were indeed among the elect. Conversion became the introspective realization that one was elected and justified from eternity past, and not the Spirit-enabled turn of the human will in faith toward a crucified Savior.
Lest we judge Gill too harshly, we need to remember that he played a vital role in the preservation of biblical orthodoxy, for he was firmly committed to the fact that foundational to the gospel was the doctrine of the Trinity. If Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit do not share the same being as God the Father—what we call Nicene Trinitarianism—then God’s salvific work is scuppered, for only God can save sinners. When Presbyterian authors were relegating the Trinity to the dustbin of history, Gill was rightly insistent that Jesus Christ is “the eternal Son of God by ineffable filiation” and that the Spirit is likewise wholly divine. In the succinct words of the Victorian Baptist preacher C. H. Spurgeon: “A gospel without the Trinity!—it is a rope of sand that cannot hold together.”
Andrew Fuller and the Gospel
It was not until the 1770s that the tide began to turn for the Particular Baptists in England as they too experienced a tremendous revival. In this turning of the tide, it became imperative to address both theologically and practically the rejection of the free offer of the gospel—a hallmark of preaching during the Reformation, the Puritan era, and evangelical revivals. While there is clear evidence that a good number of Baptist churches in the west country of England (the southwest of the island) had never bought into Gill’s hyper-Calvinism, the author usually credited with being instrumental in the recovery of a fully biblical gospel is Andrew Fuller, whom Spurgeon once described as “the greatest [Baptist] theologian” of his century. Fuller grew up in the Particular Baptist Church in Soham, Cambridgeshire, under the ministry of a classic hyper-Calvinist, a pastor named John Eve, whose preaching, in Fuller’s words, “was not adapted to awaken [the] conscience” and who “had little or nothing to say to the unconverted.”
Nevertheless, in the late 1760s, Fuller began to experience a strong conviction of sin, which issued in his sound conversion in November 1769. He was baptized the following April and joined the Soham church. Over the course of the next few years, it became evident to the church that Fuller possessed definite ministerial gifts. Thus, after Eve left the church for another pastorate, Fuller was formally inducted as pastor on May 3, 1775.
Due to the fact that John Eve’s preaching was essentially the only homiletical model Fuller had ever known, he initially preached like him and failed to urge the unconverted to come to Christ. Increasingly, though, he was dissatisfied with hyper-Calvinist reasoning and its perspective on the gospel and evangelism. In Fuller’s words, he came to realize that his preaching was defective in many respects, for it “did not quadrate with the Scriptures.” Pondering the preaching of Christ—particularly as portrayed in the Gospel of John, by the apostles in the book of Acts, and in the works of the New England divine Jonathan Edwards—led Fuller to realize that the heart of the gospel is that Christ died for sinners as sinners and, on that basis, all are to be urged to come to Christ for salvation and life.
Fuller’s well-thought-out understanding of the gospel and how it should be preached is probably best found in The Gospel Worthy of All Acceptation, which first appeared in 1785, followed by a second edition in 1801. While there are substantial differences between the two editions in a few areas, such as particular redemption, the work’s major theme remained unaltered. “Faith in Christ is the duty of all men who hear, or have opportunity to hear, the gospel,” Fuller rightly argued. This epoch-making book sought to be faithful to the central emphases of historic Calvinism, while at the same time attempting to leave preachers with no alternative but to drive home to their hearers the universal obligations of repentance and faith.
The Globalization of the Gospel
Among Fuller’s close friends was William Carey, who would become the iconic missionary figure of the nineteenth century. It was on the necessity of the free offer of the gospel that had been hammered out by Fuller that Carey built his case for the corollary that gospel-believing churches in England had a duty to take the gospel to the ends of the earth. As missiologist Harry R. Boer has observed, “Fuller’s insistence on the duty of all men everywhere to believe the gospel played a determinative role in the crystallization of Carey’s missionary vision.”
When Fuller, Carey, and their friends began to think along these lines, gospel-believing churches were mostly to be found in western Europe and along the Atlantic seaboard in North America. Pioneering Protestant missions to Africa, Asia, and the Americas had been undertaken by Pietists in Halle on the North Sea and German-speaking Moravians earlier in the eighteenth century. Although Fuller and Carey built upon their work, it is one of the quirks of church history that Carey has been remembered as the “father of modern missions” and not the Halle Pietists or the Moravians. Fuller’s theology of the gospel—which came to be known as “Fullerism” in his lifetime—and the revival that impacted Particular Baptist life in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries thus provided a solid foundation for the globalization of the gospel by what had once been a marginalized Christian denomination.
A Concluding Word
Since Fuller’s day, Baptists have been shaped by a passion to evangelize and take the gospel to the ends of the earth. They are certain that the gospel inevitably entails an activist mindset, one that takes to heart Jesus’ words in Mark 16:15, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation” (CSB). Concomitant with this commitment to evangelism is an ecclesial conviction that, though it is not regarded as necessary for salvation, is nonetheless considered a highly significant expression of the gospel. Those who have fled to the crucified and risen Christ for salvation should be baptized in the Triune Name and in obedience to the dominical command, “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19 CSB).
Michael A. G. Haykin is chair and professor of church history at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky.
Footnotes:1. A Confession of Faith 29.1 (London: John Harris, 1688), 97.
2. The Presbyterian soil in Scotland proved to be impervious to the Baptist plant till the late eighteenth century!
3. John Gill, “Letter to John Davis,” March 7, 1745. John Davis was the Welsh pastor of the Baptist Church in the Great Valley, Devon, Pennsylvania. This letter is found in the Minute Book of the Church for that time period.
4. C. H. Spurgeon, “The Personality of the Holy Ghost,” The New Park Street Pulpit (London: Passmore and Alabaster, 1856), 1:29.
5. This remark by Spurgeon is cited in Gilbert Laws, Andrew Fuller: Pastor, Theologian, Ropeholder (London: Carey Press, 1942), 127.
6. Andrew Gunton Fuller, “Memoir,” The Complete Works of the Rev. Andrew Fuller, rev. Joseph Belcher, 3 vols. (1845; Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications, 1988), 1:2.
7. Gunton Fuller, “Memoir,” The Complete Works of the Rev. Andrew Fuller, 1:17.
8. For further reading on Fuller and “Fullerism,” see Peter J. Morden, Offering Christ to the World: Andrew Fuller (1754–1815) and the Revival of Eighteenth-Century Particular Baptist Life (Carlisle, Cumbria, UK; Waynesboro, GA: Paternoster Press, 2003); and Michael A. G. Haykin, Reading Andrew Fuller (Peterborough, ON: H & E, 2020).
9. Harry R. Boer, Pentecost and Missions (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1961), 24.