George Ella on Doctrinal Matters

Duty Faith and the Protestant Reformed Churches

Dear Brother J.,

Thank you so much for your detailed analysis of my attempt to illustrate saving faith as opposed to duty-faith. You brought many coals to Newcastle for me and your Athens-bound ships were full of wise old owls, all of which were welcome. It is good to find that though you may disagrees with me on terms, we have so very much agreement on contents, though we are only at the beginning of a debate. It is very obvious that you Presbyterians use many words that I do, yet with different meanings. Thomas Scott used to say that all denominations tend to inject their own particular meaning into words and thus distinguish themselves from others. This is a true observation but it makes it difficult for outsiders to understand what the insiders are talking about. Thus the churches continue the history of Babel. As an experiment, I sent my views on duty-faith to a Symposium of brethren who are insiders to my vocabulary and, as I expected, they all understood my words, and replied either in full agreement or with neighbouring interpretations. None saw the remotest signs of Hyper-Calvinism in my words but a fervent desire to preach the full gospel to the whole man as the Spirit leads. As your letter illustrates, I have greater difficulty with Presbyterians or those tied up in post-Reformation doctrine-building.

You obviously use your views of Calvinism as a yard-stick to judge my views. This is a very unstable basis to work on as the various, so-called Reformed bodies (which are often most popish) interpret Calvin differently and, indeed, it is not always their fault. Calvin is very much like Spurgeon and my favourite poet Cowper: they find friends in all camps. But the trouble occurs when these ‘friends’ cease to be friendly amongst themselves and cross-denomination-wise over their private interpretations. I do not use the term Calvinist of myself as I am a most moderate one at best. I look upon my old tutors such as Jewel, Bishop Hall (not the Roberts Hall), Davenant, Whitaker, Perkins, Gill, Toplady, Hervey etc. as my mentors in Christ and find them greater all-rounders than Calvin and didactically and expositionally more skilled. All these men, of course, had great respect for Calvin, as I do, too. I believe we are in agreement that Scripture is a better yardstick than even Calvinism.

Permit me to deal with your balanced appraisal paragraph-wise:

“Dr. George Ella has given his well-known views on the issue of saving faith and duty-faith. The controversy of “common grace” and the “well-meant offer” bears very much upon that issue; and as it is also part of the whole debate on the classic Antinomian, Neonomian and legalism controversy of bygone years.

Dr. Ella’s views are clear enough and like those in opposing camps, unequivocal and unabashed. The PRC disagrees with Dr. Ella, and takes its stand against the notion of which “faith” is defined as a condition in which the sinner is not duty or legally bound to perform against the just and righteous demands of God as He makes known in His commands.”

My comment:

I feel that the discussion concerning common grace and a well-meant offer is more a Presbyterian problem and those non-Presbyterians who have adopted such views have, I believe, almost ship-wrecked their faith in doing so. Not many can handle common grace as Kuyper or the offer as Huntington. I have never been able to understand what moderns mean by them. My views cannot be known at all, never mind ‘well-known’ if they are brought into contact with common grace and the well-meant offer which are, I strongly believe, mere red-herrings to the debate. However, I feel that I have a great deal of agreement with the PRC on these terms and I was not aware that they had confessed, unilaterally, disagreement with me. I have never had anything to do with the PRC and have only crossed Bibles with Prof. Engelsma because he denies that Gill preached repentance and faith to the unregenerate, which, of course he did. I must admit that I have only recently seen that Engelsma believes in duty-faith and find this incongruous as duty-faith is the basis of the free offer which he denies.

“I make no apologies for disagreeing with the esteemed Dr. Ella for the simple fact that the hyper-Calvinistic error that he espouses must be rejected. It must be rejected as unScriptural and unReformed. Orthodoxy has no place for the hyper-Calvinistic error of the denial of the duty of the sinner which is incumbent upon him to exercise in repose on God in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. The PRC therefore must always disassociate itself from hyper-Calvinism.”

My comment:

As you have not shown me to be either in error or a Hyper-Calvinist, but merely postulated this myth, I cannot comment on this passage. However, since you bring the PRC into connection with Hyper-Calvinism, I must confess that, in this matter, I am far more a moderate Calvinist, being a Sublapsarian, than Prof. Engelsma, who, in my circles, has the reputation of being a most ardent Hyper-Calvinist. This shows how little the term is worth and perhaps we should be more careful in our use of such theological swear-words. I did not understand the English of your pen-ultimate sentence, so I cannot comment on it. Perhaps you would do me the favour of explaining its purport to my illiterate self.

“The notion that denies duty-faith to the sinner must of necessity also deny duty-repentance.”

My comment:

This does not follow. The Bible clearly speaks of duties to the law but faith cannot be gained by law-duties. I challenge you to find one Scripture passage that tells me that through obeying the call of a known duty which is within him, natural and fallen man can gain salvation through faith. Adam did not even succeed in natural salvation, so how can you think fallen man is better and is in a position to exercise saving, spiritual faith as if he had never apostatised? Faith shows a better and higher way of gaining a higher salvation than unfallen Adam’s. Romans 10:5-6 clearly distinguishes between Mosaic duty-righteousness and Christian faith-righteousness. Moses is the accuser, Christ the Redeemer. Gal. 3:12 shows us that the law is not of faith. Duties have to do with damning curses but grace with saving blessings. Acts 13:39, I believe, clearly shows the folly of duty-faith legalism.

“For what is faith but belief or trust on the Person of the Jesus Christ as He is revealed in the Word of God which is Holy Scripture and preached to men? How can a sinner believe on the Jesus Christ as the all-sufficient and trust-worthy Savior if he does not repent of his sins? For is it not that the word, “repentance” means to forsake one’s wicked ways and walk the other way, i.e. in the opposite direction towards the God Who in old and present dispensation is always calling the human race in general and His people in particular?”

My comment: I am in full agreement.

“In fact, God’s calling to repentance which in times ancient were confined mainly to the nation of Israel and the blood descendants of Abraham is now extended to embrace all the world without exception. Acts 17:30 records for us this truth, that “God…now commandeth all men everywhere to repent”. This is a sober fact for humanity and represents all the more the clarion demand of God.”

My comment: I am in full agreement.

“The revelation of God in Christ reached its apex in Christ’s crucifixion. The Gospel or good tidings or good news can now be proclaimed with clarity and simplicity. Christ has empowered the Church to enable it to carry out the great commission to preach the Gospel to every creature wherever the Gospel is sent.”

My comment: I am in full agreement. Well put!

“How then can the Church fulfil its mandate if the preaching of the Gospel is limited only to “sensible” sinners?”

My comment:

How indeed? It was ever Bunyan’s, Gill’s and Hervey’s aim (and mine), to make people sensible to the gospel by preaching it. Andrew Fuller also used the term in this sense. However, the word ‘sensible’ has become another modern theological swear-word to be thrown at suspected Hypers. Anyone familiar with the writings of the 17th and 18th century knows that this word was used by preachers of all persuasions. It is a pity to make such a good word bad by negative historical revisionism. Notice, however, that those who are quick to cry “Hyper” of others, so often leave out the full gospel to the whole man everywhere themselves. Fullerites will only preach the full gospel to believers and Engelsmanians will only preach the law to believers. Between them, they thus leave the unregenerate with nothing! I believe in preaching the whole counsel of God to all men everywhere – especially to the unregenerate. I was rather surprised how little Prof. Engelsma preached the new birth, which is a major component of my witness, though I am no preacher. I was told, be it right or wrong, that he always addressed his congregation as being saved and treated them as believers only. I reserve judgement in his case, though his friends tell me this is correct. I know, however, many of those close to Engelsma who treat their mixed congregations as ‘pure churches’ and are not famed for their evangelistic outreach. Note, on the other hand, that those great men of the past who denied duty-faith, packed their churches with thousands. Ryland Sen, alone added to his church seven-fold. Gill built up and maintained the largest Baptist Church in England for at least forty-odd years, Hawker’s Anglican church burst its seams, as did Gadsby’s Strict Baptist and Huntington’s Independent Calvinist Church.

“The Gospel – if it is to be preached to *every* creature – must contain the same news or information for all indiscriminately. And that news that Christ died for sinners whom God from eternity had elected to eternal life is accompanied by the call to repentance and faith.”

My comment:

On the surface, and I believe this is all you intended, I agree whole-heartedly. Of course, the gospel does not reach all men equally, as Calvin puts it, i. e. not with the same outcome, but with this you would agree. Also, if you mean by ‘indiscriminately’ as the Spirit leads and in His good time, I accept the word, though I would not use it as the Spirit’s work in salvation, as in judgement, is always discriminate.

“Repentance means too “a change of mind”. To repent is to change one’s mind and agree with or assent to the judgment of God passed upon sinners in the Gospel. Repentance then entails – by logical necessity – belief or assent to the truths revealed in the Gospel.”

My comment:

I must be cautious here as this smacks of Sandemanism, which I know you would reject as I. May I reserve comment until you fill this out and qualify it a little more? Please forgive my caution but the Hypers I have to deal with, who claim allegiance to Prof. Engelsma (perhaps only from their point of view) seem to be Sandemanians to a man and their theology is, as the name suggests, built on sand. Allow me merely to say that repentance is necessary for all as all are law-breakers, but one cannot repent of breaking a faith in Jesus that one never had. Duty-repentance has nothing to do with duty-faith. We obey faith dutifully (or ought to) when it is given us but we cannot perform duties in order to become faithful. Duty-faith can only mean salvation by works.

“True repentance is accompanied by true belief, just as true belief presupposes true repentance. Before the sinner can belief or exercise faith, he must first disagree with, hate and oppose his sins. True repentance then is the condition whereby true faith can take root and bear fruit. Since faith is a continuous activity, the Heidelberg Catechism in Lord’s Day 33 describes true repentance as a daily activity. Daily repentance leads to daily faith.”

My comment:

Again, I agree on the surface, but digging a little deeper, I would suggest that Christ’s saving love is so great that He does not begrudge me my lack of repentance in His saving process as He grants me what I require, whatever my natural, fallen state. Daily repentance is from daily faith and not a means of appropriating it. This is just like good works. We Christians do them from faith and not so that we might acquire faith. If a Christian is not always sorry for his sins, we are in keeping with the gospel to doubt his sincerity and status.

“The specific issue that needs to be addressed is this, namely: Does “faith” as a condition of instrumentality and legal demand negates or compromises the Calvinistic doctrine of total depravity and sovereign particular and irresistible grace?”

My comment: The question is valid.

“The answer is no. The legal demand of God is made known in the Ten Commandments. The sum total of the Law as epitomised by the Ten Commandments is a) Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all your heart and strength; and b) Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.”

My comment:

I am only half in agreement because faith, though an instrument of righteousness and justification, is not a legal demand on God’s part so much as a gift of love. When the law book is opened on the Day of Judgement, it is the law that will damn us or save us, not faith in Christ through duty works. We will be pronounced worthy of eternity because of fulfilling the Law in Christ. Because we have this status even now, God freely gives us the faith of His Son, not as legally gained but by being freely and undeservedly given.

“The sum total of the Law is the essence of the Covenant which is fellowship between persons who are in a relationship. Therefore, the Law is encompassed by the Covenant as it is part of the Covenant of Grace. Since by nature all men are Covenant-breakers, the human race are included in the Covenant of Grace and are legally bound to it with threats of punishments and curses for non-performance. And the standard is that of perfection.”

My comment:

Here is the difference between the pre-Rebellion Reformed Church of England and the break-away Presbyterians who put the Reformation clock back. The Church of England demands (or demanded then, at least) the New Birth of its people who have been placed under Covenant promises. The Presbyterians look on their congregations as being within the Covenant itself. You go even further and say “the human race are included in the Covenant of Grace.” It is not! You speak as if one is in grace by nature and can be then thrown out of it if duty faith is not practised. I need not ask you as a Calvinist to justify this as you will reject what you have written knowing your doctrine of the perseverance of the saints. The early Anglican Reformers condemned the Presbyterian view of the covenant as old Rome with a new name as it equates ‘congregation’ with ‘covenant church’. This, I believe, is also the mistake of many Baptists who link their external denomination ‘organically’ as they say, with the Church of the New Covenant.

“But Christ performed God’s righteous demands on our behalf. What God rightly demanded from sinners, Christ performed on behalf of sinners.”

My comment:

You must explain who you mean by ‘our’ and ‘sinners’. I take it that you are not saying that Christ died for and thus redeemed all men or that Christ’s death makes the salvation of all men possible should they be willing to accept it.

“It means that repentance as practised and faith as exercised by regenerate sinners are not the cause, but rather the effect of their salvation.”

My comment: I agree wholeheartedly.

“That is why duty-repentance and duty-faith does not compromise Calvinistic doctrines of grace, but on the contrary, is true Calvinism.”

My comment:

This is begging the question and you are back at peg one. You have just hung this on without any proof whatsoever. Actually, this contradicts much of what you have said and can be in no way deduced from it. From what I gather from the above and below, you cannot possibly believe in duty faith. I suspect that you are merely hanging on to a shibboleth which you have heard is orthodox, without having examined it in the light of Scripture and conscience. I grew up accepting what some wrongly call ‘believer’s baptism’ and was very hard on those who did not agree with me. Believer’s baptism was my shibboleth. I mean here the teaching that baptism is something that we do for God. When I examined this idea, however, in the light of Scripture and conscience, it became unacceptable. Baptism is something that God does for us as there are no conditions which God has not met in Christ to bring us into full church membership with Him. We all have our shibboleths and I am certainly not saying that I am rid of mine.

“In summary, God demands from all men what they owe to Him. But since salvation is by grace alone and nothing else, Christ performed on behalf of elected sinners. Therefore, there is nothing “legalistic” about demanding from sinners repentance and faith for their repenting and believing does not in any way contribute to their salvation. It is the consequence of the application of the Spirit’s regenerating work in them.”

My comment:

I cannot understand you here. Since when does God demand from all men saving faith? What you are saying is perhaps that God demands from all men that they accept saving faith which is offered to them and which they are duty bound to appropriate for themselves. This is, however, further from the Scriptures than Geneva is form Rome! God gave man legal duties to perform which he failed to do. Man does not owe saving faith to God unless he has it. If he has it, it is given to him by God without regard to duties, though he must dutifully use it.

I have striven to answer questions arising here on your side more fully in the essay on the Full Gospel and the Free Offer which I sent recently. I will be delighted to answer further questions and receive further instruction but cannot always promise a speedy reply or one of this length as it is a painful business for me to type and I have many other duties to faithfully perform.

Yours in Grace,

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
George Ella's Biographical Sketches