An Introduction To John Gill’s “Doctrinal And Practical Body Of Divinity”
In the year 1999, I became the pastor of Bethesda Chapel, a Strict and Particular Baptist church in London, England. I was a Moderate-Calvinist for the first ten years of my ministry, although I refused to identify with the Reformed Baptist Movement. In the year 2010, the congregation came under internal and external pressures to adopt a plural eldership. I resisted this pressure for scriptural, historical and practical reasons, but at the time, I was not well informed on the issues. Three years later, I completed an exhaustive study on the subject, resulting in an unpublished book, in excess of a thousand pages. My initial resistance to the Reformed Baptists’ views on plural elderships was confirmed and staunchly defended.
It was at that time, early in my research of the origin and development of the Strict and Particular Baptist churches in England, that I came across a surprising fact. Bethesda Chapel was organized around Hyper-Calvinist views. What is more, Bethesda Chapel belonged to a large circle of churches which subscribed to the same teachings. Needless to say, I was startled by this information, especially because I had been told by the Moderate-Calvinists that Hyper-Calvinism is a false gospel, embraced only by those who have lost all measure of common sense and biblical balance. But if that were true, then how could so many Strict and Particular Baptist churches have subscribed to those teachings? And, what exactly were those teachings which made them Hyper-Calvinists? Thus began my journey in grace, leading to deeper and sharper views of the gospel of Christ.
During the early part of this journey, I frequently got lost in the details of the issues, often ending with much confusion and frustration. I therefore changed my approach—first, discover God’s masterplan for the ages, then, consider how the details fit into that overview. I was familiar with the elaborate charts of Dispensationalism drawn up by men such as Scofield and Larkin. Although I did not agree with that framework of history and doctrine, I appreciated the way those teachings were illustrated. I was also familiar with the intricate diagrams of Covenantalism drawn up by men such as Perkins and Bunyan. Although I did agree with this framework of history and doctrine, it did not set out the teachings in the exact way I understood them. I therefore began the lengthy process of drawing up my own diagrams, none of which provided a sufficient or accurate overview of the gospel. Eventually, while studying the scriptures, I was captured by the analogy of a potter and the clay. I wondered whether this picture could serve as an overview of God’s masterplan. I gathered together all scriptural references to the analogy, after which two texts stood out with distinction—Romans 9 and 2 Timothy 2. Within minutes, a diagram of the potter and the clay took shape, with every word of both texts fitting perfectly together in what appeared to illustrate the grand scheme of God’s purpose in creation and redemption. Having secured this basic overview of history and theology, I returned to the detailed issues of sovereign grace. To my delight, every branch of theology, together with every event of history, fit perfectly together. Only then did I begin a careful study of John Gill’s “Doctrinal and Practical Body of Divinity”. It was a joy to discover the close alignment between the diagram and Gill’s teachings. This diagram became known as the Framework of Sovereign Grace.
By the year 2014, I fully embraced the viewpoints of Hyper-Calvinism, using as a teaching tool the Framework of Sovereign Grace for my private and public ministries. Such was my passion to help others on their journey with the Lord, that I began the slow and tedious project of modernizing each chapter of Gill’s Divinity. Over the next four years, I completed a large portion of this work. However, in 2018 the project came to a grinding halt. This was largely due to a season of discouragement, having not received much support from peers or elder ministers. It was around that time I spoke with Don Fortner regarding an unrelated matter. In the course of the conversation, I made an indirect reference to the work I was undertaking with Gill’s writings. Bro Fortner explained he had been asked by a publisher, several years prior, to do a similar project on Gill’s Divinity, but that he declined the request for three reasons. First, tampering with Gill’s writings will necessarily change his intended meaning—it is best to leave the reader to interpret the original text; Second, it is impossible for an editor to modernize Gill without his own prejudices standing in the way—it is best to let Gill represent himself in his own words; Third, a gospel preacher should focus on communicating his own convictions, rather than echoing that of others—people want to know what you (the living preacher before them) believes. Bro Fortner suggested it is far better to present to others my view of the gospel, rather than rewriting the works of Gill.
As one might imagine, my initial feeling to Bro Fortner’s feedback was not that of encouragement. Had my time and effort for four years been in vain? I sat on Bro Fortner’s counsel for several months, not knowing what I should do next. Around that time, I was conversing with another preacher on some of Gill’s teachings. We took different views on Gill’s position. However, having already meticulously examined and rewritten every line of Gill’s chapter on the subject, I was well informed on his point of view. I explained this in some detail, ending with my friend conceding the issue. It was then I realized, the time and effort given to modernizing Gill’s Divinity was intended by the Lord to be a benefit to me, rather than to others. The last four years of work was not in vain. Like a warm blanket on a cold night, there was a peace that ran over my soul which to this day remains a stay and comfort. Bro Fortner was correct! I would not meddle with Gill’s writings, unless it be strictly for personal use.
Four years later, in the year 2022, I began teaching a series of studies on Bible Doctrine. The first twenty to thirty sessions are preliminary in nature, dealing with the significance of systematic theology, establishing definitions for commonly used labels and setting forth a historic backdrop of the Strict and Particular Baptists. After these preliminary studies are finished, I will begin examining the major branches of theology. As a supplement to these teachings, I will be aligning the chapters of Gill’s Divinity with my own studies on those topics. Not only will this provide a helpful resource to venture deeper into the various branches of the gospel, but it can also serve as a guide to the teachings of Gill. I will be showing how each of Gill’s chapters fit within the Framework of Sovereign Grace. In this way, I hope to honor Bro Fortner’s counsel—to present my view of the gospel, while promoting Gill’s Body of Divinity, without making changes to his writings.
If the Lord is pleased to make any part of my gospel labor profitable to the souls of His people, then I will find the utmost joy in knowing my work in the Lord is not in vain.
 Bethesda Chapel, Kensington Place, organized in 1866. In the early 1870’s, the first pastor of the church (David Crumpton) spearheaded the inception of the Metropolitan Association of Strict Baptist Churches. Between the 1870’s and the 1950’s, virtually all of the churches belonging to the Association were Hyper-Calvinists. I believe William Styles was the Secretary of this Association in the latter part of the 19th century. In his “Guide to Church Fellowship”, he points out on pages 78,79, “Duty-faith is the doctrine that it is the duty of natural men to exercise spiritual Faith in the Lord Jesus, and so to obtain salvation. Its emphatic denial is a distinguishing feature of the Strict and Particular section of the Baptist denomination.”
 Dr. Kenneth Dix (Baptist Historian) traced the Reformed Baptist Movement to the 1950’s, with the influences of such men as Ian Murray, Sidney Norton and Erroll Hulse. Together with the publications of the Banner of Truth Magazine (Est 1955) and Reformation Today (Est 1970), Baptist churches were Presbyterianized and the “Hyper” elements of Calvinism repressed.
The Reformed Baptists eventually commandeered the Strict and Particular Baptist chapels, revising their history and laying claim to their rich heritage. In London, the Metropolitan Association of Strict Baptist Churches was changed to the Association of Grace Baptist Churches, South East. There are currently no Hyper-Calvinist churches belonging to the present-day Association.
Traces of this downgrade in doctrine may be found as early as 1902. In that year, William Styles made the following comment in his “Guide to Church Fellowship”, page 89: “Among the Strict and Particular Baptists there is at present a strange silence on the error of Duty-faith, which strangely contrasts with the opposition it received from our predecessors. John Stevens’ Help for the True Disciples of Emmanuel was designed to refute it. John Foreman’s Duty-failh fully shows its unscriptural character. James Wells rarely preached without denouncing it, and his Letters to Theophilus cogently disprove it. William Palmer was writing a series of Tracts which expose its evils, when his death brought them to a sudden termination in 1873. The writer of this book has observed with pain that in the Articles of Faith recently issued by an historical church, the first pastor of which was one of Andrew Fuller’s opponents,— no clause distinctly denying Duty-faith is included. In this it presents a contrast to those of the majority of the earlier Churches of our Faith and Order. For example: (1) Faith and Practice of Eden Chapel, Cambridge: “We believe that there is a common and [a] special Faith: the first which devils [also] exercise, (James 2:19.) and [which] is every man’s duty, (1 John 5:11); the latter is the gracious gift of God, (Eph. 2:8,) and is so, and only so, obtained, (2 Pet. 1:1.)”; (2) Articles of Faith of Providence Chapel, Islington; also of Mount Zion Chapel, Chadwell Street, Clerkenwell, and several others: “That [the] Faith which is connected with Salvation is not the duty of men in an unregenerate state, but is the gift and operation of the Holy Ghost, by which the sensible sinner discovers his misery, and then looks solely to Jesus Christ for Salvation. This Faith is emphatically styled “the Faith of God’s elect.”; (3) Articles of Faith, Particular Baptist Church, St. Ives, Hunts: “…We deny Duty-faith…We deny offers of grace, and every Doctrine and Sentiment which tends to rob the Lord Jesus Christ of His glory.”
 According to Dr. Kenneth Dix, plural elderships in Baptist churches is a distinctive of Reformed Baptist dogma. It did not exist prior to the 1950’s, especially in the form proposed by the Reformed Baptists.
 Copied below is the footnote from the “Title Page And Preface” of John Gill’s “Doctrinal and Practical Body of Divinity”, 2022 Edition, Association of Historic Baptists, Jared Smith.
The label “Hyper-Calvinist” has a historic and theological meaning, revolving around three controversial issues:
(1) Duty Faith—Arminians believe it is the saving and moral duty of the unregenerate to believe on Christ to the saving of their souls; Moderate-Calvinists believe it is the moral duty of the unregenerate to believe on Christ to the saving of their souls; Hyper-Calvinists believe only those who have been regenerated by the Spirit of God, and therefore brought experientially under the authority of the covenant of grace, have a saving and moral duty to believe on Christ to the saving of their souls.
(2) Free Offer—Arminians and some Moderate-Calvinists believe since it is the saving/moral duty of the unregenerate to believe on Christ to the saving of their souls, the gospel must be freely offered to all sinners in order to give them the opportunity to accept God’s gift unto salvation; other Moderate-Calvinists replace the notion of a free offer with that of a divine command (or gospel call) to savingly believe and repent; Hyper-Calvinists believe since it is the saving/moral duty of the regenerate to believe on Christ to the saving of their souls, so the gospel should be freely and fully preached to all sinners, and those who have ears to hear will hear.
(3) Believer’s Rule of Conduct—Arminians and Moderate-Calvinists believe the regenerate’s rule of conduct is either the heart law under the authority of the covenant of works, or the moral law (ten commandments) under the authority of the Mosaic covenant; Hyper-Calvinists believe the regenerate’s rule of conduct is the gospel law under the authority of the covenant of grace.
The label “Hyper-Calvinism” also has a modern and erroneous meaning. The Arminians and Moderate-Calvinists exchange the aforementioned definitions for a set of self deductions. They argue—if Hyper-Calvinists do not believe saving faith is the duty of unregenerate sinners, this means they don’t believe faith is necessary in salvation (or that unbelief is a sin); if Hyper-Calvinists do not believe in the free offer of the gospel, then they do not nurture a love for souls or preach the gospel to unbelievers; if Hyper-Calvinists do not believe the moral law (ten commandments) is the rule for a believer’s conduct, then they are Antinomians. Although none of these deductions are true, yet they are the definitions Arminians and Moderate-Calvinists attach to Hyper-Calvinism.
If one wishes to know what a Hyper-Calvinist believes, it is a wise policy to speak with a Hyper-Calvinist.
 Don Fortner (1950-2020) was the Pastor of Grace Baptist Church, Danville, KY. I was introduced to him by a mutual friend named Peter Meney. Pastor Meney is the General Editor of New Focus Magazine. I was introduced to Pastor Meney by a mutual friend named Kevin Price. Pastor Price is a Strict and Particular Baptist minister presiding over Zoar Particular Baptist Chapel in Bradford and Bethesda Chapel in London. It was a great joy to learn from Bro Fortner that he was converted to Christ under the gospel ministry of my grandfather, Jewell Smith.
These three pastors have been of inestimable value to me, personally and ministerially.