15 June, 2018

Gill’s Hyper-Calvinism

Prof. David J. Engelsma

[The following is taken from an article originally published in The Standard Bearer, vol. 72, no. 14 (Apr. 15, 1996), pp. 331-332]

... [John] Gill [1697-1771] did, in fact, deny that the call, or summons, of the gospel comes to all who hear. This denial is real, and serious, hyper-Calvinism.

There was a good deal of confusion in Gill’s own thinking about this matter, due partly to the confused and confusing errors which he combatted. … Gill did not think that God and the preacher of the gospel command every hearer, unregenerate as well as regenerate, reprobate as well as elect, to repent of his sins with true, heartfelt repentance and to believe on the Savior from the heart with a genuine faith. The reason given was that the unregenerate is incapable of true repentance and faith by virtue of his total depravity.

Reflecting Gill’s thinking, [George] Ella writes:

The big question now is, does the Bible invite all men indiscriminately and everywhere to believe as [Andrew] Fuller maintains? No, says the Bible. Repentance must come first. Belief is always dependent on repentance. Repent ye and believe the gospel (Mark 1:15). When God grants repentance we may talk of belief but not before. Where does this belief come from? Is it for all to grasp at, spurned (sic) by a knowledge of their duties? No ... Sinners cannot possibly have any inkling of responsibilities towards saving faith as God has withheld these truths from them as fallen creatures ... Thus the command to exercise duty-faith can only be given to those who have a faith to exercise dutifully and a knowledge of their duties towards God. This faith is God’s gift to his elect ... This is all in keeping with Gill’s biblical duty-faith teaching that with the grant of faith comes the obligation to exercise it. What Gill could not believe was that the duty of the evangelist was to preach that sinners were duty-bound to exercise savingly a faith of which they knew nothing and of which they had nothing. He would not preach to the unsaved as though they were saved but he preached to save sinners ([John Gill and the Cause of God and Truth, 1995] pp. 281, 282).

That Gill denied what Reformed theology teaches as the “external call of the gospel” is plain enough from his handling of the call in his dogmatics. The only command that is given to the unregenerate in the audience of the preacher is that he do what lies in his natural powers: “perform the natural duties of religion”; exercise a “natural faith”; “believe the external report of the gospel”; and the like (see Gill’s Body of Divinity, vol. 2, Baker, repr. 1978, pp. 122-125).

The truth is that, although the unregenerated sinner has no ability to do what he is called by the gospel to do, God commands every hearer to repent of his sins and believe on Jesus Christ presented in the gospel. Thus, He summons him to the gospel feast of salvation (Matt. 22:1-14). To speak here of a merely “legal repentance” and of a merely “natural faith” is not only evasion of the plain teaching of Christ but also demeaning to the gospel. The gospel insists on true repentance, nothing less, and on genuine faith, nothing other.

The basic mistake of Gill and his present-day disciples is their failure to recognize that total depravity, or inability, does not rule out full responsibility. To put it as sharply as possible: The gospel commands the unregenerated and totally depraved sinner to do what he cannot do, and his punishment will one day be the greater for his refusal. The reason why he is accountable to do what he cannot do is that the fault for his inability is his own, not God’s. Besides, when the sinner rejects the gospel in unbelief, he does so willingly.

If Gill hesitated to affirm the serious external call to all hearers because he feared that this was the Arminian offer, his error lay in not distinguishing between the Arminian offer and the Reformed external call. The Arminian offer consists of a gracious attempt by God to save all who hear, dependent upon their supposed free will. The Reformed call consists of a summons to all, setting forth their duty and making plain the one way of salvation, which summons God makes effectual by His particular grace in the hearts of the elect in the audience.


Authoritative and decisive for every theologian and Christian who is and may present himself as Reformed is head 2 of the Canons, particularly Articles 5 and 6.  Article 5:  “This promise [of salvation], together with the command to repent and believe, ought to be declared and published to all nations, and to all persons promiscuously and without distinction, to whom God out of His good pleasure sends the gospel.”  Article 6:  “And whereas many who are called by the gospel do not repent, nor believe in Christ, but perish in unbelief, this is not owing to any defect of insufficiency in the sacrifice offered by Christ upon the cross, but is wholly to be imputed to themselves.”  To make what is taught by this latter article explicit in the light of the denial of the external call … some are called by the gospel who do not repent and believe.  It is unreformed, therefore, to teach that only the elect are called to repent and believe.  One who objects to the external, non-saving call to all who hear the gospel is not Reformed.  His objection is not against me but against the Reformed faith of the Canons of Dordt and ultimately against the Bible, for example, Acts 17:30. 

(Source: Prof. David J. Engelsma, 14/06/2018)

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