Fuller and Irresistible Grace: The Necessity of Regeneration as Prior to Repentance and Faith

Tom Nettles
| May 6, 2014

Editorial note: This is the third post in a series on Andrew Fuller’s theology.  Here is the series so far: Fuller the Non-Calvinist? (Part 1), Fullerite: Doctrine of Inability (Part 2), Fuller and Irresistible Grace (Part 3), Fuller and the Atonement – 1/4 (Part 4), Fuller and the Atonement – 2/4 (Part 5), Fuller and the Atonement – 3/4 (Part 6), and Fuller and the Atonement 4/4 (Part 7).

John Ryland Jr., the dear friend and memoirist of Andrew Fuller, in recounting many of the writings of Fuller put in his own comment on the Sandemanian controversy as something of a summary of the argument of his deceased friend. “Nor can a man, while under the dominion of sin, believe that it is a most blessed privilege to be saved from sin itself, as well as from it’s [sic] consequences. Hence I still conceive,” Ryland continued, “that regeneration, strictly so called, must in the order of nature, precede the first act of faith. Not that it can be known except by it’s effects; nor that a consciousness thereof is necessary to warrant the sinner’s first application to Christ.” [221, Ryland, Life and Death of the Rev. Andrew Fuller]

FullerThat summarizes the view for which Fuller himself contended from his earliest theological publication to the day of his death. Apart from any consciousness of effectual calling, sinners have both the duty as well as the warrant to believe the gospel—that is, that Christ has died as a sacrifice for sin, risen from the dead in triumph over death, and that all who believe in him will be forgiven, justified, and granted eternal life. He also argued that this announcement of the gospel will be universally rejected without a special exhibition of the converting power of the Holy Spirit to produce the moral change out of which the sinner responds in repentance and faith. For example, in the first section in his Reply to Philanthropos, Fuller engaged the question presented from an Arminian context, “Whether regeneration is prior to our coming to Christ.” In this, Fuller, in a carefully constructed argument, involving both exegetical and theological development, contended that “the Holy Spirit of God is the proper and efficient cause of a sinner’s believing in Jesus.” It is, indeed, owing to his holy influence “and that alone, that one sinner believes in Christ rather than another.” [2:461f] Fuller’s use of the term “efficient cause” means the same as the article on effectual calling in the Second London Confession: “Those whom God hath predestinated unto Life, he is pleased, in his appointed, and accepted time, effectually to call by his word, and Spirit, out of that state of sin, and death, in which they are by nature, to grace and Salvation by Jesus Christ; inlightning [sic] their minds, spiritually, and savingly to understand the things of God; taking away their heart of stone, and giving unto them an heart of flesh, renewing their wills, and by his Almighty power determining them to that which is good, and effectually drawing them to Jesus Christ; yet so as they come most freely, being made willing by his Grace.” All of this is consistent with Fuller’s statements on the nature of moral inability and the operations of the Spirit as the “efficient” cause of repentance and faith. His own confession of faith gives a clear and powerful affirmation of all these points “But though the way of salvation is in itself so glorious that a man must be an enemy of God, to mankind, and to himself, not to approve it; yet I believe the pride, ignorance, enmity, and love to sin in men, is such, that they will not come unto Christ for life; but is spite of all the calls or threatening of God, will go on till they sink into eternal perdition. Hence I believe arises the necessity of an almighty work of God the Spirit, to new model the whole soul; to form in us new principles or dispositions, or as the scriptures call it, giving us a new heart and a new spirit. I think, had we not first degenerated, we had stood in no need of being regenerated, but as we are by nature, we must be born again. The influence of the Spirit of God in this work, I believe to be always effectual.” From this framing of effectual calling Fuller never departed.

In continuing his defense of the proposition that the Holy Spirit’s operation is “the proper and efficient cause of a sinner’s believing in Jesus,” Fuller propounded seven biblically-argued evidences beginning with, “The scriptures not only represent salvation as being ‘through faith,’ but they ascribe faith itself to the operation of the Spirit of God” (2:463). If someone counters that this diminishes the transforming power of the word of God itself, Fuller responded, “Further, our dispute is not whether the gospel be a suitable means in the hand of the Holy Spirit to convert a sinner, but whether it is sufficient, in virtue of this its suitableness, to effect the change without an almighty and invincible agency attending it” (2:470) Again if someone would point to the obvious reality that cold-hearted sinners do resist operations of the Spirit, Fuller agreed and gave five ways in which the Spirit of God by the word of God affected unbelievers to different intensities in both informing and exciting reason and natural conscience. Fuller importantly noted, “This influence ought to suffice to bring us to repent of sin, and believe in Christ, and were it not for the resistance that is made to it, would have such an effect; but through the perverseness of the human heart it never has.” Under these common awakenings by themselves, however, sinners continue “destitute of that realizing sense of the excellence of Divine things which is peculiar to those who are effectually renewed in the spirit of their minds.” Because, therefore, of such depravity and perversity of heart, we arrive at the “necessity of a special and effectual influence of the Holy Spirit.” So from the full biblical record on these phenomena, Fuller concluded, “The influence before mentioned may move the soul, but it will not bring it home to God. When souls are effectually turned to God, it is spoken of as the result of a special exertion of almighty power” (2:518-19)

His consistency in this view may be observed in the polemical work Strictures on Sandemanianism, showing his application of this principle in a different theological context. The Sandemanians held to a kind of “easy-believism,” a mere mental assent. Sandeman contended, “Everyone who obtains . . . a just notion of the person and work of Christ, or whose notion corresponds to what is testified of him, is justified, and finds peace with God simply by that notion.” Fuller posed the inquiry “whether, if believing be a spiritual act of the mind, it does not suppose the subject of it to be spiritual.” Given the answer, ”Yes; faith is necessarily a spiritual act and so supposes the subject of it to be spiritual,” he labored in his characteristically tenacious way to demonstrate that there is a “change effected in the soul of a sinner, called in Scripture ‘giving him eyes to see, ears to hear, and a heart to understand’—‘a new heart, and a right spirit’—‘a new creation,’ &c. &c.; that this change is antecedent to his actively believing in Christ for salvation; and that is not effected by motives addressed to the mind in a way of moral suasion, but by the mighty power of God.” [2:608] After further reasoning on Sandeman’s position in light of certain biblical ideas and texts, Fuller summarized, “But if a being born again, which is expressive of regeneration, be sometimes used to account for faith, as a cause accounts for its effect, that is all which the argument requires to be established. If it be necessary to be born again in order to believing, we cannot in this sense, unless the effect could be the means of producing the cause, be born again by believing. (2:610). Again, within five years of his death, Fuller maintained, consistent with his early confession, an efficacious, that is, an effectual, that is, an irresistible call as constituting the Spirit’s act of regeneration, which because of its purpose and nature, must precede (“not the order of time, but that of cause and effect” [2:594]) evangelical repentance and saving faith.

When, therefore, the Traditional Statement in a section of denial states, “While no sinner is remotely capable of achieving salvation through his own effort, we deny that any sinner is saved apart from a free response to the Holy Spirit’s drawing through the Gospel,” we must ask if the Holy Spirit is only remotely related to the final exhibition of saving faith. Must all of his influences, in other words, stop short of immediate efficacy, rendering all his labors with the sinner only a remote cause of his belief, not different in quality from that which is experienced by many that remain is a state of rebellion and unbelief. If so, that is not Fullers’ view (nor the biblical presentation of the spiritual foundation of faith) and if Fuller is to serve as a bridge from Calvinism to non-Calvinism all parties must still anticipate the meeting on this bridge.