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What is the problem with Fullerism

Elder Joe Holder

Aside from Primitive Baptists, few are the numbers of Christian groups in our day who do not in one way or another subscribe to the teachings of Andrew Fuller.  Who was Andrew Fuller?  What did Fuller teach?  Why do we object to his teachings? 


Andrew Fuller was born in 1754 and died in 1815.  He was a Particular Baptist, though for much of his adult life he questioned and challenged their historical teachings.  Often Fuller directed harsh criticisms against his Particular Baptist ancestors, particularly John Gill (1697-1771).  He occasionally referred to his Particular Baptist ancestors as “a dunghill of High Calvinism.” 


Fuller introduced his watershed work around 1792.  From that time forward Baptists in both England and America debated his teachings, often bitterly.  Finally, forty long and painful years after Fuller first promoted his ideas, our ancestors in the faith gathered in 1832 at Black Rock, Maryland and took a public position against Fuller’s teachings.  While the Black Rock document addresses a number of cultural issues, some of which we might question, the dominant issue that motivated this meeting and the document that grew out of it was Fuller’s errant teachings. 


What did Fuller believe that distinguishes him? 


Perhaps the single most distinctive belief that Fuller put forth has been called “duty-faith,” the idea that it is the duty of every individual human being to exercise faith in Jesus Christ.  Often advocates of Fuller’s ideas will use the term “saving faith,” a term that John Calvin used in his writings as well. 


In our time many folks whose beliefs are far more akin to Arminian views of salvation by either human works or by some synergistic combination of man and God cooperating in their salvation refer to themselves as “Cal-Minian,” a coined term that attempts to depict a theological ground half-way between Calvinism and Arminianism.  It may well be that Fuller was one of the first men to attempt to mark out this turf, though he never used “Cal-Minian” to describe his beliefs. 


When I was a youth growing up in the deep south of this country, the typical Southern Baptist belief was more akin to Arminian teaching than to any historical belief in the doctrines of grace.  In recent years the Founders Movement among the Southern Baptists has effectively nudged Southern Baptist faith in the direction of the doctrines of grace.  Unfortunately the Founders normally stop in their backward historical trek with Andrew Fuller and attempt to hold a hybrid view of the doctrines of grace that incorporates and magnifies Fuller and his teaching.  It is my personal belief, unless this group presses its historical doctrinal perspective beyond Fuller, that within a generation or so the Southern Baptist culture will discover itself right back in pseudo-Arminianism as in my youth.  Often Founders Movement sources and others who still look up to Fuller will use similar terms as those of us who hold to the doctrines of grace without Fuller’s revisions; you will often see “election,” “predestination,” “total depravity,” and similar terms, but the details of the precise definitions used by these sources is often quite different from our accepted meanings. 


The typical “Cal-Minian” will attempt to create an irreconcilable contradiction between God’s sovereignty in man’s salvation and man’s free moral agency in accomplishing his own salvation.  Fuller attempted to bridge this gap.  A pro-Fuller website offers the following comment:

Perhaps Fuller’s greatest contribution to Christianity was to free us from the shackles of philosophical theology. Because many could not see any consistency between God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility they rejected one or the other. Fuller on the other hand, concluded that any lack of logic in such thinking was due to his own lacking, not God’s.

"The truth is, there are but two ways for us to take: one is to reject them both, and the Bible with them, on account of its inconsistencies; the other is to embrace them both, concluding that, as they are both revealed in Scriptures, they are both true and both consistent, and that is owing to the darkness of our understandings, that they do not appear so to us."[1]

In other words Fuller believed in God’s sovereignty and man’s free will in salvation.  Primitive Baptists attempt to follow the teachings of Scripture that depict sinful, unregenerate humans as totally depraved and therefore not in possession of an unfallen will or of free moral agency.  Thus Fuller’s ideas promote the idea that unregenerate humans are capable of taking the first step in their salvation.  I often seek out cogent thoughts and observations of Biblical truth from non-Primitive Baptists.  George Ella has lived his entire life in Great Britain and Europe.  He holds earned doctoral degrees from a number of prestigious European universities.  He exhibits greater than usual insight into Fuller’s teachings, having extensively researched the era of British Christian history that covers Fuller, John Gill, Augustus Toplady, and John Wesley.  Ella offers the following assessment of both Fuller and modern successors to his beliefs.


Just as Fuller strove to make the Baptists respectable and clean them of what he called the dunghill of High Calvinism, so his modern fans are presenting him as their only hope in making Christianity a rational religion which even fallen man can comprehend and follow faithfully. We are thus seeing one formally Calvinistic church after the other, followed by their magazines and newsletters, proclaiming a ´modified Calvinism` which claims that the old doctrines are too high, or even hyper, and that an inner knowledge of the truth is as common as the offer of salvation is universal.[2]


The question of what Fuller taught is rather complex due to the fact that Fuller is not always consistent or clear as to what he believed. 


In his bi-monthly magazine Ella lists ten arguments against duty faith as taught by Fuller and/or his successors as follows:


1.                   Christ did not teach duty faith.  Ella emphasizes that Jesus was incredibly gracious and merciful to those who were struggling with sin as an odious burden, at the same time showing fierce anger (righteous indignation to be sure) toward the self-righteous.  He uses the conversation between Jesus and the lawyers from both Mark 10 and Luke 10 as specific examples that Jesus did not teach this doctrine.  Rather than tell either of these men that it was their duty to exercise faith, Jesus held up perfect obedience to the Law of God to expose their pride and their utter inability to save themselves.  Ella concludes this point, “Consequently, those who misrepresent faith and misapply the law are the true antinomians.”

2.                   Duty faith flips on its head the Father’s plan of salvation.  Here Ella sounds incredibly like a lifelong Primitive Baptist!  His opening sentence reads, “If the unconverted are told it is their duty to believe in Christ then it is as sure as telling them it is their duty to make themselves alive in Christ, their duty to regenerate themselves, their duty to make themselves new creations in Christ and their duty to walk in that faith which it is their duty apparently to possess and exercise…A child cannot walk before he is born and a man cannot believe before he is born again.”  

3.                   Duty faith wrests the work of regeneration from the Holy Spirit.  In the first paragraph of this point Ella states, “To put it bluntly, within the covenant of grace it is the Holy Spirit’s duty to give faith to those for whom Christ died.  It is not every man’s duty to appropriate this task to himself…The Holy Spirit will never honour a doctrine that relieves Him of His role or robs Him of His glory.”  The various errant ideas regarding the role of the gospel in regeneration (the new birth) all build on some element of Fuller’s ideas.  In some cases the errant teaching requires that a person exercise faith upon hearing the gospel in order to effect the new birth.  Often men who appear to hold to the doctrines of grace will promote this idea to one degree or another.  For example, John MacArthur occasionally illustrates his view of duty faith with the act of sitting in a chair.  You have faith that the chair will hold you up, or you will not sit down in it.  From this illustration he attempts to make the point that Jesus saves the sinner, but the sinner must exercise faith and rely on Jesus to effect his/her salvation.  Others who hold to a lesser view of Fuller’s ideas will promote the idea that all the elect will hear and obey the gospel, a doctrine that typically requires some form of absolute predestination to ensure that all the elect shall hear and respond favorably to the gospel.  Still others depict their preaching as holding Christ up to unregenerates, who accept their teachings, believe, and the Holy Spirit thereby “saves them.”  Or was it in fact their belief that saved them?  Herein is a major confusion of Fuller’s teachings.  Is the real savior the unregenerate human who exercises his/her duty to believe, or is it Jesus?  Do they believe in their belief or in the Lord Jesus Christ?  The clear implication of all these teachings involves man to some degree or another in the regeneration (new birth) of humans.  Regardless the view, this point of Fuller’s error as outlined by Ella contradicts the New Testament teaching regarding the direct, immediate work of the Holy Spirit in regeneration. 

4.                   Duty faith encourages false assurance.  In introducing this point Ella makes a powerful observation, “…we may ask what is it that all men are duty bound to believe?  If they are duty bound to believe that Christ died for them then they must also believe that Christ died for all men since all men have this duty.  They are therefore duty bound to believe a lie.”  In this section Ella affirms the near identical view of the duty-faith idea with full Arminianism, “Every Arminian preaches this gospel.”  Interestingly, the errant view of the work of the Holy Spirit, both in regeneration and afterwards, causes those who follow Fuller’s ideas to lay an inordinate emphasis on “assurance of salvation.”  At times they seem quite confused in their failure to distinguish the evidences of salvation and the actual fact of salvation, concluding that if they cannot personally see sufficient evidence themselves, they feel justified in pronouncing the person who fails to provide the necessary evidence as not saved at all.  The point that Ella makes touches the other side of this coin.  If a person believes that he/she has exercised faith, he/she may well slack in living out further requirements of Scripture that are the Biblical duty of regenerate children of God.  I have occasionally observed that advocates of this error appear to live in constant fear that they are not really saved because of their occasionally failures or lapses in faith and/or obedience.  If a person makes personal assurance of salvation the primary goal of discipleship, he/she will never reach the point of sufficient assurance.  When a believer in Christ does what Jesus taught as the most basic rule of discipleship, denial of self and cross bearing, he/she will make service to God and to one’s fellow-man a primary work of true discipleship.  In the process of serving others and crucifying self the faithful believer will enjoy abundant assurances of salvation and blessings.  An obsession with one’s personal assurance of salvation is self-centered, the mirror opposite of Jesus’ primary requirement of true discipleship which is the denial of self. 

5.                   Duty faith builds its requirements upon the will of man.  In this point Ella makes strong arguments from the ninth chapter of Romans that salvation is based on the will of God, not the will of man.  He then observes, “It is not simply the case that the unregenerate will not believe it is that they cannot believe (John 12:37, 40).  Duty faith preaching appeals to the will of man and then judges and condemns him for not doing what he should to be saved.”  In his thoroughly researched biography of John Gill Ella makes the interesting point that at times it appears that Fuller is preaching two, if not three, distinct gospels, not one consistent gospel from first to last.  In one “gospel” Fuller uses the accepted terms for the doctrines of grace and seems to be advocating the historical Particular Baptist beliefs, but in his “other gospel” Fuller acrimoniously refers to his Particular Baptist historical beliefs as a “dunghill of High Calvinism,” as referenced by Ella above.  In the second gospel Fuller promotes his hybrid ideas of duty faith that requires the sinner to exercise “saving faith” if he/she hopes to gain possession of salvation and a secure spiritual standing with God.  How often do we Primitive Baptists hear sermons on Christian radio that for the first eighty per cent of the sermon sound like the same truth we would expect to hear from our own pulpits, only to be disappointed when the preacher closes with a man-centered requirement that demands faith and some degree of obedience from the unregenerate if he/she hopes to gain eternal life?  This contradictory gospel serves as a classical illustration of Fuller’s influence.  One moment he sounds as if he is preaching the doctrines of grace in their Biblical and historical sense, and the next minute he sounds as if he is preaching salvation by human effort.  As noted in the above quote from the web article on Fuller, Spurgeon and modern successors to Fuller’s ideas acknowledge the contradiction between divine sovereignty and man’s free moral agency, but rather than resolve the contradiction through Scripture, they claim that both ideas are true and in one way or another “give up their minds” to thoughtlessly accept the contradiction, expecting the “parallel lines of divine sovereignty and human responsibility” to finally intersect in eternity.  Effectively this belief, though its advocates may profess the terminology of total depravity, in fact rejects it de facto by its denial of man’s total depravity in the Fuller-esque salvation process. 

6.                   Duty faith confuses goats and sheep.  Here Ella demonstrates his keen analytical eye, “It is not the Christian preacher’s responsibility to goad goats but to feed sheep...Duty faith mixes law and gospel.  It brings goats who are under the law under the gospel with no scriptural warrant, and sheep who are under the gospel under the law with, again, no scriptural warrant.”  Ella closes this point with a quote from William Huntington, “Do as you are bid; feed the sheep, feed the lambs; the goats will never believe the gospel, though they may believe your doctrine.”  A cliché often quoted by Fuller and his successors is that the death of Christ is “sufficient for all mankind; efficient for the elect.”  At times Fuller will affirm that all the elect shall be finally saved, but he also repeatedly teaches that if a non-elect person merely exercises duty faith by believing the gospel, he/she too shall be saved.  Thus we have the logical inference from Fuller’s teaching that there could possibly be two classes of people in heaven, the elect (however God gets them saved) and some non-elect who actually did respond to his duty faith message.  This concept truly confuses the Biblical distinction between sheep and goats.  I urge a renewed study of Jesus’ analogy (not a parable) of the last Day in the closing lesson of the twenty fifth chapter of Matthew. 

7.                   Duty faith is an “uncertain sound.”  Here Ella quotes extensively from William Huntington, “…But you frustrate the grace of God on the one hand, and are partial in the law on the other; for you set the law before the believer, as his only rule of life and conduct; and the gospel is set before the unconverted, as their only rule of duty.  The carnal man has got an evangelical rule, and the heir of promise has got a legal one; the life giving commandment is palmed upon the congregation of the dead, and the ministration of death is saddled on the children of the resurrection; the believers are all sent to Moses and the unconverted are sent to Jesus.”  One of the greatest struggles with trying to understand Fuller is his lack of consistency.  On one page he sounds as if he believes in the doctrines of grace, but on the next page he sounds like a faithful disciple of Arminius.  Herein is the logical inconsistency mentioned above with his “Cal-Minian” inconsistent mix of salvation by grace and by human will.

8.                   Duty faith mars the glory of free grace.  Ella exhibits his exceptional insight into the doctrines of grace, “The covenant of grace, the saving purpose of the Sovereign God in its conception, in its execution and in its accomplishment is a thing of wonder and majesty. Duty faith instead of honouring the glory of the gospel brings it down to the level of man, his desires and his abilities.  Faith is not a dead man’s duty.  It is a living man’s treasure.  It is the ring on the finger of the prodigal, a mark of sonship, a glorious gift of grace.”  To this point I can only add my hearty “Amen!”

9.                   Duty faith confuses the curse of the law with the call of the gospel.  Ella distinguishes God’s moral law from “the law of the spirit of life in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:2).  “There is a legal commandment that condemns the transgressor and brings him under guilt and condemnation and there is a life giving commandment that brings forth life from the dead.  There is a command that kills and a command that causes to live.  Christ commanded Lazarus to come forth…The first command was given by Moses and is a duty of obedience imposed upon all men indiscriminately under pain of death.  The second command comes by Christ upon certain individuals and is empowered with divine purpose….Duty faith confuses the two and is a vain attempt to apply the blessings of Christ universally to those for whom it never was intended and by whom it never can be received.”  Occasionally I have heard Fuller-influenced preachers define the gospel’s primary objective as “Preach the law till they feel wholly condemned by it, and then preach Jesus to them.”  Often one will observe an insidious legalism that accompanies Fuller-esque beliefs.  It would appear that the person who embraces Fuller’s ideas, especially duty faith, does not trust “…faith which worketh by love” (Galatians 5:6), relying instead on an ever-broadening scope and maze of rules and regulations. 

10.               Duty faith trashes the fruit of the Spirit.[3]  Ella builds this point on Galatians 5:23, “Faith is the fruit of the Spirit and it is no more the duty of every man to have faith in Christ than it is the duty of the Spirit to give faith in Christ to every man.  ‘The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit.’ (John 3:8)”  Ella concludes his article with this comment, “If faith is a good work, if faithfulness is obedience to  God and well pleasing in His sight then it must come and can only come through the Spirit.  There is therefore no such thing as duty faith.” 


Perhaps in large part due to the often confusing contradictions in Fuller’s writings contemporary followers of his teachings adopt a rather broad array of theological ideas and attribute them to Fuller and his teachings. 


In addition to Ella’s ten points I would add one additional point.  Repeatedly Fuller charged his critics indiscriminately with being “antinomian” or “anti-evangelical” as if they rejected any sense of practical Biblical ethics in the Christian life and as if they selfishly wished to keep the good news of the gospel within their small personal family, something of an “us four and no more” mindset.  In fact Ella’s research affirms that Gill and others whom Fuller fiercely criticized were far more effective in their evangelism than Fuller ever was in the church of his pastorate.  It was this straw man charge that modern Baptists hurled at our Primitive Baptist ancestors in 1832.  Benjamin Griffin’s History of the Mississippi Baptists and many other similar works from that era affirm quite a different factual scenario.  Our ancestors in the faith were tireless and unselfish in their desire to spread the gospel far and wide.  However, when they discovered in Fuller’s neo-nomianism (as Ella adroitly charges against Fuller and his successors) a different gospel and a different theology to the truth of the doctrines of grace that they had historically believed, they rejected the neo-gospel that was in fact “another gospel.”  Rejection of this neo-nomian other gospel was the primary agenda at Black Rock in 1832. 


Why does Ella become so “exercised” in his rejection of Fuller and the error of duty faith?  At first glance one might conclude that this is a dusty old theological controversy with little or no relevance in our day.  This conclusion is wrong—dead wrong.  In the teachings of the Founders Movement, John MacArthur, John Piper, and many other popular teachings of our time we see the distinct marks of Fuller’s ideas prominently displayed under the guise of the doctrines of grace.  While claiming that they are preaching the old gospel message, Fuller’s contemporary successors are in fact promoting Fuller’s ideas, not the beliefs of Particular Baptists and other faithful believers prior to Fuller.  A number of contemporary titles are in circulation today that name Primitive Baptists and charge us Fuller-esque style as being “Hyper-Calvinists,” and as being “antinomian.”  The theological issues involved in Fuller’s teachings are front page relevant to every person in our age who believes in the doctrines of grace.  When these works charge us with being “antinomian” and “Hyper-Calvinist” in our beliefs, they promote their ideas of human instrumentality in regeneration and leave their readers with the false impression that human instrumentality is the old gospel.  One need only read old and respected Reformed thinkers such as W. G. T. Shedd (or Fuller’s contemporary, the respected Particular Baptist John Gill) on regeneration to learn that immediate, direct Holy Spirit regeneration is the old gospel, not the new.  By the way, the apostle Paul remains one of the strongest advocates of this old truth, along with Jesus, whose conversation with Nicodemus in the third chapter of John affirms that God does not need multiple avenues or means for reaching and regenerating all of His elect, regardless of age, mental capacity, or geographic and cultural location.  The one means that God has ordained works effectively for all of the elect, “…so is every one that is born of the Spirit.”  (John 3:8; emphasis added)


A significant percent of Primitive Baptists own a copy of Hassell’s History of the Church of God.  I highly recommend that you examine the index of this work for all references to Andrew Fuller and his teachings.  Hassell demonstrates a clear knowledge of the inconsistencies and contradictory teachings of Fuller.  Given the rise in popularity of a Fuller-esque version of the doctrines of grace in our time, it is necessary for Primitive Baptists to refresh their minds regarding Fuller’s errors, despite the occasional use of similar terminology.  Hopefully, this article, coupled with the multiple references in Hassell’s History will serve to initiate that “refresher course” in basic awareness.  When I first encountered a group of sovereign grace Landmark Baptists many years ago, at first I was amazed that I had discovered folks who used the same terminology that I used.  Initially I presumed that because they used the same terms they and I believed the same theology.  It didn’t take long for me to discover that their definition and theological use of those terms differed significantly from mine and the ordinary Primitive Baptist understanding of the associated doctrines.  We must equip ourselves by looking behind the terms to the precise manner in which people use them, and we must also equip ourselves to distinguish correct Biblical doctrine from the many imitations that at first glance look and sound like the truth, but upon further study manifest significant differences.  


The fruit of Fuller’s influence most often appears in two forms: 1) “duty-faith,” Fuller’s belief that it is the duty of all humans to exercise “saving faith” in Jesus, or 2) in various forms of gospel instrumentality (the idea that God uses the gospel to call the elect out of nature, sin, and spiritual death into spiritual life, that all elect shall hear and respond favorably to the gospel, or that any regenerate elect who hears the gospel shall believe it).  Primitive Baptists—I believe correctly and Biblically—attribute the work of eternal salvation, including the exclusive instrumentality of the Holy Spirit in the new birth, to God, while strongly teaching that it is indeed the duty of all regenerate elect to exercise faith in Christ, to repent of their sins, and to live their lives “as newborn babes,” desiring and living according to the sincere milk of the word of God.  Biblical faith is anchored in the Lord Jesus Christ, not in itself.  It seems that the glaring inconsistency of much modern teaching that follows Fuller’s “duty-faith” to one degree or another is this; they have faith in their faith, they believe in their belief, but they rather clearly ignore the strong and consistent Biblical focus of faith that is anchored in God and in the Lord Jesus Christ and His finished work, not in itself. 


I am humbled and consider myself highly blessed to have lived among the people who, above all of whom I know, rejected Fuller and his errant teachings.  I pray that our people will never forget the distinguishing features of the doctrines of grace that are anchored in sound Biblical teaching. 


Joseph R. Holder

Riverside, CA

February 16, 2007