In his Letters to Mr. Vidler on the Doctrine of Universal Salvation, Andrew Fuller confronts a Baptist minister whom he rightly suspected had adopted a scheme of final universal redemption. Fuller’s letters demonstrate that he views the task of the pastor to be of utmost importance with no room for error, “Error in a minister may affect that eternal welfare of many,” (293). Fuller’s eight letters formed half of a debate and were published serially, each in response to a rebuttal from Vidler.
Fuller operates on two levels simultaneously in his responses. First, he expounds the pertinent texts of Scripture related to the particular doctrines in the debate, namely the nature and duration of the punishment of the wicked, the grounds of the salvation of the righteous and the benevolence of God. Fuller carefully reasons with his opponent regarding the meaning of various words in the text and the meaning of these passages in their larger context and framework and even the entire message of Scripture. Fuller demonstrates how any word, such as ‘eternal’ or ‘everlasting,’ may be twisted to mean anything at all by minds so inclined. Furthermore, following Vidler’s own method for determining a word’s meaning would render meaningless the assertion that God Himself is eternal or infinite.
Fuller demonstrates that God is just in the punishment of the wicked, and that this punishment vindicates God’s holiness. Fuller proceeds to set forth the many passages which clearly state that those who perish in their sins ought to have no expectation of anything save perdition. He shows that the duration of this punishment is described in the same language as that which is attributed to the duration of bliss anticipated by the saints.
Second, Fuller addresses the root problem, namely that Vidler has adopted a pernicious system which pleads for a salvation that does not arise from the free grace of God through Jesus Christ. For God to pardon any sinner or mitigate his punishment apart from the saving work of Christ is to undermine any notion of grace. Furthermore, to argue that sinners will only suffer for a limited duration and then be restored to God would attribute their restoration to the work of justice, not grace, since they would properly pay for their crimes. Argues Fuller, “Thus, instead of supporting the doctrine of universal salvation, you undermine all salvation at the very foundation,” (319). This entire framework taints Vidler’s reading of the Scriptures and undermines their plain meaning.
Fuller then exposes Vidler’s motive: the reason Vidler argues for his exegetical conclusions is because he has a primary desire not for truth but for fashioning for himself a god that is more palatable and pleasing. Fuller engages Vidler on his own terms and illustrates the inconsistencies within Vidler’s own system. The true and living God, argues Fuller, is the God of Scripture who reveals Himself as holy, wise, just, and merciful. His mercy extends to all those in Christ and to none other. To argue that this somehow makes God anything less than just is to reveal a bias for one’s own notions of justice apart from what Scripture reveals.
Ultimately Fuller serves as a model pastor-theologian in how he confronts the heresy of Vidler. The pastor must be one who is unyielding in his allegiance to the text of Scripture. The words, sentences, and paragraphs of Scripture are worthy of careful scrutiny and deserve the utmost familiarity. The faithful pastor will be conversant with Scripture such that he has the weapons to oppose heresy where it appears. At the same time, the wise pastor will labor to uncover the flaws in the heretical systems that preclude others from seeing the truth. The heresy of universal salvation is prevalent in our own day, though it is largely divorced from any appeal to Scripture. Fuller’s Letters to Mr. Vidler also offer a paradigm for how we may confront other heresies, such as those involving the sexual revolution and homosexuality. Like Fuller, we must begin with the text of Scripture and offer a cogent defense of its meaning, and we must go on the offensive, exposing errors with probing questions and careful reasoning. As pastors we must be thinkers, willing to wrestle with the common errors of the day that we might disarm these heresies from conquering our own people.