George Ella on Doctrinal Matters

Reformation Today and Justification from Eternity

The March/April, 1999 number of Reformation Today features four articles on John Gill. The first, entitled John Gill – a Sketch of his Life, is a succinctly written biography of Gill’s faithful and productive life in the service of the gospel. Next, Editor Errol Hulse continues with John Gill – An Appreciation, presented as a review of The Life and Thought of John Gill (1697-1771), (ed. Michael Haykin). Here, Hulse ignores the facts of Gill’s own testimony to make what he calls ‘a fair assessment of the damage which emanated from his errors.’ Thus, though the book Hulse reviews chiefly depicts Gill as a great evangelist and soul-winner, Hulse’s one-sided critique is centred on Gill’s supposed Hyper-Calvinism and lack of evangelistic fervour. This is stretching the meaning of words such as ‘appreciation’ and ‘review’ until they mean ‘disappreciation’ and ‘rewrite’.

Hulse’s unjust criticism is continued under the title John Gill – Eternal Justification. Here Hulse confuses Gill’s doctrine of Justification from Eternity with Eternal Justification, arguing that adherence to the latter doctrine proves Gill to be a Hyper. Gill’s doctrine of Justification from Eternity deals with the source and application of justification seen in relation to God’s infinite and immutable decrees and Christ’s atoning work in the fullness of time. It entails justification in union with Christ from eternity through the imputation of Christ’s righteousness and received by the elect via a conscious act of appropriation due to faith given. In contrast, Eternal Justification points to a per se, innate, inherent and eternal state of justification in the elect. This erroneous doctrine, based on the self-contradictory idea of past eternity, sees no need for reconciliation or conversion as the elect are declared righteous rather than made righteous as a divine act in the manner described above. This hypothetical view is displayed primarily in the works of modern critics who misunderstand and thus misrepresent Gill’s Biblical doctrine of Justification from Eternity, leading them to conclude that he is either a Hyper-Calvinist or an Antinomian and that the atonement means nothing to him. Following this faulty course, Hulse presents Gill’s doctrine as a rationalist, Deist system, void of Christian content. Sadly, Hulse does not allow Gill to state his own case, which would refute all Hulse’s arguments.

The Hussey Myth

Hulse claims that Gill took his theological cue from John Hussey (1659-1726) who allegedly did not preach to the unregenerate. No work of any merit has ever even attempted to prove such a connection and all Gill’s works show his burden for the unconverted. Hulse thus presents a highly speculative hypothesis as fact. This is most odd as the bulk of contributors in the work Hulse ‘reviewed,’ mentioned above, clearly depict Gill as preaching the gospel to the unregenerate. Hulse’s ‘Appreciation’, shows that he leans heavily on Curt Daniel’s view of Gill. Daniel’s estimate of Gill, alongside Robert Oliver’s, is the most negative of the contributors, and least documented. Daniel postulates that Gill obtained his Hyper-Calvinism from Hussey by a strange chain of assumptions and associations. Hussey was a Hyper Calvinist and knew John Skepp (1670-1721), so Skepp must have been a Hyper-Calvinist, too. Skepp knew Gill so we can expect that Gill was also a Hyper-Calvinist. Hussey, however, only moved over to his alleged Hyper views around 1707, shortly after which Skepp fell out with him and took over a London church in 1710. Gill hardly knew Skepp who died shortly after Gill was settled in his London pastorate. Gill’s interest in Skepp was chiefly because of his receiving a Particular Baptist Fund grant to purchase the deceased Skepp’s Hebrew grammars and commentaries. Tom Nettles, one of Prof. Haykin’s authors, argues in his By His Grace and for his Glory that Hussey’s views on evangelism were ‘completely alien to the method and spirit of Gill.’ He also states clearly ‘Gill did not believe in eternal justification.’ Oliver and Daniel’s appear to lean on Ivimey for their criticisms of Gill, but Nettles shows that Ivimey criticises Gill ‘at every possible point’ and defends him against Ivimey on the very Ivimey points that Hulse raises against Gill. Why supposedly Reformed men partake in so much ‘Skepp bashing’ is difficult to understand. The only book Skepp ever wrote was his ‘Divine Energy’, a treatise on conversion, the work of the Spirit and the nature of faith. To read Antinomianism and Hyper-Calvinism into this manual on daily communication with the Saviour reveals that Skepp’s critics either condemn him in ignorance of his only published work or cannot accept Skepp’s specific emphasis on the need for a work of the Spirit in the heart.

The Keach Myth

Now Hulse postulates a breach between Benjamin Keach, a former Goat Yard pastor, and Gill on the grounds that Keach used the 1689 Second London Confession, whereas in 1729, Gill deliberately drew up a new Declaration of Faith substituting the former ‘by his own teaching’ thus leading the church away from Keach’s (and we presume Hulse’s) orthodoxy. Hulse argues that this development should act as ‘a red light’, warning us of the error of Gill’s ways, which he feels are based on the doctrine of ‘eternal justification.’ Again, Hulse neither quotes Gill nor Keach to back up his theory.

Hulse’s argument cannot stand because:

a. It was practice amongst Particular Baptists to have a specific local church declaration of faith alongside Association allegiance to the 1644 or 1689 declarations.

b. Keach, himself, dropped the 1644 Confession for the more ecumenical 1689 Confession. In 1697, he added articles containing High Church views. He then introduced a shorter form as binding on his local church. Hulse’s defence of Keach’s creed entails a belief in the laying on of hands with the reception of the Holy Spirit following! Keach’s High Churchmanship caused him acute strife with brother churches, resulting in major splits in his own congregation.

c. Keach was not Gill’s predecessor but Benjamin Stinton who put the church under an interdenominational rule not even allowing Goat Yard to elect its own deacons. Stinton, himself strove to merge his church and denomination with the General Baptists.

d. In 1704, on taking over the Goat Yard pastorate, Stinton joined 12 other churches at Lorimers’ Hall in adopting a Neonomian position and rejecting the old Particular Baptist belief in the imputed righteousness of Christ (which they misunderstood) on the grounds that it overthrew natural and revealed religion.

e. By 1729 there was a general Particular Baptists protest against long, complicated, historically-bound, ecumenical creeds and an urgent demand for more clarity on issues such as the sinner’s responsibility before God and the saint’s righteous walk.

f. The Goat Yard Church book records that the church membership approached Gill and asked for a church-own declaration. This is confirmed by Gill’s successor Rippon who used the 1729 Declaration himself until well into the 19th century.

g. This was especially appropriate as the minority group which refused to accept Gill, also initially refused to give up the Goat Yard premises, and for years afterwards maintained that they were the true successors of Keach and used his local Confession.

h. The 1689 Declaration was based almost entirely on the non-Baptist Westminster and Savoy confessions. However, where the Baptists (including Gill) disagreed with the Presbyterians on doctrinal matters is where Hulse agrees with them. His views on duty-faith and the so-called free offer, are contrary to the London Baptists’ 1689 teaching. They removed the Presbyterian teaching on the offer from Article 20, Of the Gospel, and the extent of the Grace thereof, and placed it under Article 7, Of God’s Covenant. Gill stopped using the term ‘offer’ because of its misuse in the sense Hulse uses it, i.e. as a ‘universal offer’ rather than one within the Covenant. Actually, Hulse is further from the Baptist elements of the 1689 Confession than either Keach or Gill, not to mention John C. Ryland and John Brine! This is no crime, but it robs Hulse of his argument. The 1729 declaration is a true Particular Baptist declaration.

i. The 1689 Declaration of Faith was not a national but a southern and Welsh enterprise and its popularity soon waned in the South and was never strong in the North. Many churches had either their own local Confession, kept or reverted to the 1644 confession, or adopted variants of Gill’s Confession. Keach’s version was adopted in the USA but this was superseded to a great extent by the more ‘moderate’ New Hampshire Confession. Nowadays, so-called ‘Moderates’ are seeking to reintroduce the ecumenical 1689 Declaration as binding on Baptists and have had a measure of success.

j. Hulse assumes wrongly that Gill broke away from Keach’s influence in order to propagate his doctrine of justification from eternity. In fact, Gill’s doctrine allies closely with Keach’s on this subject and Keach, in his work, Betwixt Two Extremes, even goes so far as to defend extreme expositions of this doctrine which go far beyond Gill’s by arguing that, though the vocabulary used be different, the meaning is the same. However, Keach attacks Hulse’s position strongly in this work. Again leaving Hulse with no argument.

The Lack of Faith Myth

Article VIII of the 1729 Goat Yard Declaration of Faith , states, “We believe that the work of regeneration, conversion, sanctification, and faith, is not an act of man’s free will and power, but the mighty, efficacious, and irresistible grace of God.” Hulse tells us that this Article is about Justification (sic!) and in it “no reference whatsoever is made to faith.” Obviously, Hulse is not familiar with the 1729 Declaration. Perhaps Hulse was looking for a duty-faith statement in the article. When Gill, however, deals with justification in Article VII, he expresses his faith by saying, “We believe that the justification of God’s elect is only by the righteousness of Christ imputed to them, without the consideration of any works of righteousness done by them; and that the full and free pardon of all their sins and transgressions, past, present, and to come, is only through the blood of Christ, according to the riches of his grace.” Andrew Fuller rejected the doctrine of imputed righteousness and could not ally it with the Christian faith. Is this why Hulse, an ardent Fullerite, sees no faith here and, as shown below, clearly overlooks Gill’s linking of justification with the work of Christ? A brief look into Gill’s Church Book reveals how ardently the church expressed that these doctrines described the faith which God had given them to believe savingly and be savingly justified. Indeed, Rippon explains that his church had now a declaration which strongly linked the Christian faith with Christian practice.

Seeking to prove that Gill disregarded faith in relation to justification, Hulse, without naming publisher and editor, refers to a version of Gill’s The Doctrine of Justification by the Righteousness of Christ, which appeared in 1756 with all references to faith removed. The reader is left to conclude that after 1756, Gill did not link justification with faith. Hulse’s evidence is misleading. George Keith, Gill’s son-in-law, issued a work on justification from Gill’s pen with the title Hulse mentions in 1750 and which certainly links faith with justification and is identical with later publications under the same name. For instance, William Button, who grew up at Goat Yard, states that Gill preached this sermon under the same title in 1762. It contained eight points, like the work mentioned by Hulse, and was reproduced in Button’s edition of Sermons and Tracts in 1789. The sermon shows definitely that Gill linked justification intrinsically with faith, six years after Hulse claims that he did not. Many of Gill’s sermons on justification and faith were published by their author in numerous works not only before 1756 but especially from 1757 to 1770, most of which this reviewer has read and come to the conclusion that few authors have ever written so widely on faith as John Gill. As Hulse lists several of these later works in his sketch of Gill’s life, one presumes that he must also be familiar with their contents and thus know that they contradict his conclusions.

Gill’s work The Doctrine of Justification by the Righteousness of Faith does not claim to be a treatise on faith but tackles Arminian theories of justification and then deals with the source, time, objects and effects of justification and compares justification with pardon. Nevertheless, in this work, Gill lays great emphasis on the righteousness of Christ which is given us for our justification and how “the righteousness of God is revealed, from faith to faith.” Gill expresses hardly an argument without dealing with its intimate relation to faith. He also distinguishes clearly between carnal knowledge a the spiritual awareness of Christ’s righteousness which is given by the Spirit of God by faith, stressing that God is the Author and Finisher of the faith which justifies, working in the believer so that he might appropriate by faith the justification which God freely gives.

The Godly Ungodly Myth

Next Hulse states, in obvious disagreement, how Gill teaches that God justifies sinners before an act of belief. He then contrasts Gill with Goodwin, leaving the reader to believe that Goodwin knows better. Goodwin was, however, clearly of one mind with Gill on justification and faith in relation to the unbelieving elect. In his fine treatise Justifying Faith, he uses the same Scriptures as Gill to illustrate the same truths concerning the justification of sinners whilst under God’s wrath and that both gifts are from God’s sovereign grace alone without any previous receptivity, displays of belief or urge in man to receive those gifts. Certainly, Rom. 4:5; 5:6; 5:10 clearly support Gill and Goodwin rather than Hulse. The Bible teaches clearly that justification is not dia pistin i.e. on account of faith, but ek pisteos, (Rom. 3:30) i.e. from faith, or dia pisteos (Rom. 3:25), i.e. through faith, referring to God’s way of using faith instrumentally to justify His people. This is the justifying faith of Christ which brings with it the righteousness of God (Rom. 3:22).

The Goodwin Myth

Whilst dealing with Goodwin, Hulse unveils another myth, arguing that Gill was wrong to claim an ally in Goodwin who spoke of a threefold justification, in eternity, in the work of Christ and in the resurrection, a work which is applied to the believer on his coming to faith. Gill, Hulse affirms, only taught the first point. This statement is amazing coming from one who has just claimed to have read Gill’s sermon on justification through Christ’s righteousness. In this sermon, Gill speaks of the threefold nature of justification as God acts from eternity and the act’s impingement in time in the conscience of the believer when faith comes and his justification before all men at the Final Judgement. Indeed, though Hulse here denies that Gill connects the work of Justification with the work of Christ (What a thought!), he has professed knowledge of Gill’s 1729 Article on Justification which stresses the cruciality of the cross in the work of justification. Furthermore, since Berkof linked justification through the resurrection with Antinomianism, Goodwin is (quite wrongly) under as much suspicion as Gill by modern ‘moderates’ in certain Reformed circles.

The Rationalist-Deist Myth

Hulse believes he has shown that Gill is a rationalist Deist who believes that God wound up the clockwork order of salvation in bygone times and left it to run on its own impetus. This conclusion reveals how little Hulse knows of Gill’s faith, testimony and theology and how little he has studied the few sources he mentions. Gill utterly rejected the view that Hulse would force upon him. He left Twisse (some of whose views Hulse and Blackburn confuse with Gill’s) far behind in his doctrine of eternity and, leaning partly on Witsius, showed how eternity is neither pre, nor post time but always there whether time is or not. Thus God is active in time from eternity at any and all times, seen from man’s time-bound point of view, and is literally always justifying the elect. That justification is safely anchored in the act of redemption in the fullness of time when eternity impinged on time. Eternity, for Gill has nothing to do with time but is the place where God in his infinity of eternity dwells and from whence He works His purpose out. There is thus never a point in time when God is not governing that time from His vantage point of eternity.

The Duty-Faith Myth

Hulse closes by arguing that Gill did not believe in duty-faith, ignoring the fact that Gill’s contemporaries, including Rippon, affirmed that Gill did not enter into the Modern Question debate which resulted later in the duty-faith movement. Equally anachronistic is Hulse’s view of Gill on the so-called ‘free offer’. Gill explains in his Preface to Davis’ hymnbook and The Cause of God and Truth, that he stopped using the word ‘offer,’ in the sense of presenting Christ, because of its misuse to teach a universal atonement. The ‘free’ offer debate came later. Gill never argued about ‘free offers’ but rejected the term ‘universal offer’ to describe gospel preaching because God always sends His particular servants to particular places at particular times to call particular people effectually as the Spirit leads, and even the elect are passed by until their time comes. As Timothy George so rightly says of Gill, “He disparaged neither the means God had ordained to effect the conversion of the elect nor the evangelical mandate to proclaim the good news of God’s gracious provision to the lost.”

Hulse ends his unjust denunciation of Gill by saying with reference to God’s will to save, that nothing is settled until it actually happens. Gill would have replied, “In matters of salvation, nothing happens unless it is settled by God.”

Further guilt by association

The next article, The Doctrine of Eternal Justification, by Earl Blackburn, is even less convincing. Blackburn defines his topic as meaning that “Justification (or the declaring righteous) of elect sinners took place in eternity past.” Blackburn also sees Gill as the main culprit behind this idea, but as explained in the previous section, Gill taught no such theory.

Blackburn describes his background as being amongst Primitive Baptists who totally deny regeneration, the new birth, conversion, effectual calling and vital union with Christ. As these are Gill’s heirs, he argues, the resulting damage to souls is Gill’s fault. This is polemics at its very worst. Gill’s great works on all the doctrines which Blackburn names have received great acclamation in the churches and saved the Particular Baptists from going the Liberal way of the General Baptists. Gill’s Church Book, sermons and written works are full of testimonies to these great doctrines and the numerous conversions and baptisms recorded at Goat Yard show how faithfully they were practised. Furthermore, Blackburn’s sweeping generalisation concerning the Primitive Baptists must be challenged. Many Primitive Baptists hold to the 1689 Confession. The oldest Primitive Baptist Church in America, the Welsh Tract Baptist Church, has an unbroken history since 1701 and has always had the 2nd London Confession as its doctrinal basis. Its pastor of 27 years service, a personal friend of this reviewer’s, totally rejects all Blackburn’s unfounded accusations. On reading Blackburn’s diatribe, the pastor commented, ‘Yes, and they accused our Lord of being a wine-bibber and a glutton.’

Arguments built on sand

Blackburn goes on to list 10 reasons why he cannot accept Gill’s doctrine. These are either based on misconceptions which lead to misrepresentations or objections raised by Gill in self criticism which he soundly refuted. Again, Gill is never allowed to defend himself. It would have only been fair of Blackburn to take up Gill’s refutation of the reasons he gives.

Blackburn finds no Scriptural evidence for Gill’s doctrine of a justification settled in eternity. As Acts 15:1 tells us that all God’s works are known to him from eternity and Eph. 1:3-5 tells us that the elect were blessed with all spiritual blessings in Christ before the foundations of the world, we must ask Blackburn if he does not consider justification to be a work of God and a spiritual blessing. 2 Tim. 1:9 tells us that grace was given the elect in Christ before the world began. One wonders, too, how Blackburn would interpret Rom, 8:29,30 and indeed, the writer comes up with a most unsatisfactory exegesis later in his article.

Blackburn misapplies Berkof against Gill by arguing that Gill did not distinguish between the divine purpose in eternity and its execution in time, which Gill clearly did as repeatedly illustrated in his works on justification and faith. Furthermore, in the same book that Blackburn alludes to (Systematic Theology), Berkof is one mind with Gill in teaching that justification is a Divine decree.

Two objections deal with the order of salvation. Here, Blackburn turns to Romans 8:29,30 arguing that foreknowledge comes first, then calling, then justification, then glorification. This is the inspired order, he says, arbitrarily linking foreknowledge with eternity but justification with time. One wonders where Blackburn then places election, coming to faith and sanctification which Paul does not deal with here? Blackburn’s argument does not hold as Romans 8:30; 2 Peter 1:10 and 2 Tim. 1:9 show clearly that there is no particular time order in God’s decrees from eternity. Peter puts calling before election and Paul puts salvation before calling when writing to Timothy. Blackburn cannot possibly have read Gill on Romans 8 concerning glorification as he attributes to Gill sentiments which are totally rejected in Gill’s commentary.

Summing up

The great weakness in Blackburn’s essay is his aversion to a doctrine that he mistakenly associates with Gill. He then draws judgmental conclusions based on his own pre-conceived ideas. Thus Blackburn ends his misapplied criticism with an astonishingly unfair attack on Gill, maintaining that he minimises the work of Christ. Now, in all Gill’s works, especially those dealing with justification and faith, the scholar-pastor anchors the doctrines of grace in the elects’ union with Christ and the endowment of Christ’s righteousness through His vicarious life, death and resurrection. Yet, Blackburn throws text after text at Gill concerning Christ’s work, without consulting Gill’s commentaries on them. These show how Christo-centric Gill was in his theology.

William Cowper taught that ‘blind unbelief is sure to err.’ Blind prejudice and polemics are equally error-bound. What motives could Reformation Today have in striving to ruin Gill’s fine testimony? Hulse’s and Blackburn’s rejection of Gill’s solid, comprehensive teaching on justification and faith, leaving nothing in its place, makes this reviewer wonder where the two traducers stand on that great doctrine of the Reformation, ‘the just shall live by faith!’ It would be a sad day indeed if Reformation Today would need to change its name to Counter-Reformation Today. As these two critics do not allow their subject to speak for himself, it will be fitting to end this review with a quote on justifying faith from the work which Hulse maintains is silent on the subject:

“Faith is the sense, perception, and evidence of our justification. Christ’s righteousness, as justifying, is revealed from faith to faith. It is this that grace whereby the soul, in the light of the divine Spirit, beholds a complete righteousness in Christ, having seen its guilt, pollution, and misery; when it is enabled to renounce its own righteousness, and submit to the righteousness of Christ; which it puts on by faith, as its garment of justification: which it rejoices in, and gives him the glory of; the Spirit of God bearing witness with his Spirit, that he is a justified Person. And so he comes to be evidently and declaratively justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of God.”

George Ella


George M. Ella is a historian, author and biographer. His writings may be accessed at the online archived, ”Biographia Evangelica”.

George M. Ella, born February 1939 in Yorkshire, England, has lived most of his life on the European Continent. He is a retired Senior Civil Servant formerly employed in teaching, post-graduate teacher-training, chairing examination boards and curricula work. He holds degrees from London, Hull, Uppsala, Essen, Duisburg and Marburg universities with doctorates in English Literature and Theology. Dr. Ella has written regularly since the seventies for a number of magazines and newspapers and published numerous books on Church History, including biographies of William Cowper, William Huntington, James Hervey, John Gill, Augustus Montague Toplady, Isaac McCoy and Henry Bullinger besides works on doctrine and education. He is currently finishing the third volume of his series 'Mountain Movers'; a biography of John Durie; a work on Law and Gospel and further study material for the Martin Bucer Seminar. Dr. Ella is still internationally active as a lecturer and is a Vice-President of the Protestant Reformation Society. He is keenly interested in missionary work and has written on the spread of the Gospel amongst the Same people of Lapland, the people of India and the Native Americans. This present volume follows Dr. Ella's 'The Covenant of Grace and Christian Baptism', also published by the Martin Bucer Seminar. George Ella is married to Erika Ella, nee Fleischman, a former government administrator, and they have two sons Mark (41), Director of a Polytechnic College in Bremerhaven and Robin (39), Leading Senior Physician in a newly-built Geriatric and Psychiatric clinic in Dessau.

George Ella on Doctrinal Matters
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