Another Non-Calvinist Encounters a Calvinist: The Sandemanians Challenge Fuller

When Andrew Fuller published The Gospel worthy of All Acceptation in 1785, he made a comment on Robert Sandeman’s view of faith, as he heard of it, as “a general assent to the doctrines of revelation, unaccompanied with love to them, or a dependence on the Lord Jesus Christ for salvation.” At that time he confessed never to have read any of the works of Sandeman, or his followers. That was soon to be changed as Fuller found himself under severe negative scrutiny for the defense he gave of the gracious nature of faith as necessarily consisting of, not only a cognitive assent to the truthfulness of the gospel facts, but of an approval of the holiness and righteousness intrinsic to gospel truth—that trust in Christ was nothing less than a cordial approval of Christ as uniquely qualified as the ransom-mediator for sinners. Fuller’s accusers extrapolated from his argument a denial of justification by faith based solely on Christ’s righteousness. They also inferred that he did not believe that “Christ died for the ungodly” since he believed that true faith must be preceded by a principle of holiness.
By the time of the second edition of the Gospel Worthy, Fuller had read both Sandeman and some of his party and added a lengthy section discussing the question as to whether regeneration precedes repentance and faith. For Fuller this was a vital point. By 1810 he felt that he should publish some “strictures” on the ideas of the system, for he observed the destructive effect it was having on spirituality in the churches, brotherly love, and the overall health of English evangelicalism. With his usual pithy insight, Fuller had digested the driving idea of Sandeman’s system and looked carefully both at its implications and its actual manifestations. It seems that the initial reports he had of the system was basically accurate, and he was now ready to engage the system itself as well as the several polemical pieces written against him.
Fuller reduced Sandeman’s system to a peculiar understanding of justifying faith: “The bare belief of the bare truth; by which definition he intends, as it would seem, to exclude from it every thing pertaining to the will and the affections, except as effects produced by it.” In Sandeman’s estimation, faith could not include an action of the will, for will involved an active approval of an idea, much more than a bare cognitive assent to the facts, or the notions, of the gospel history. Neither did faith assume the presence of repentance in Sandeman’s view, but repentance must of necessity follow faith. Nor did faith include, or arise from, holy affections, but holy affections followed and were the result of faith.
When appropriate, Fuller affirmed some of the positions taken by Sandeman such as the finality of Scripture, the necessity of a clear grasp of the historical work of Christ, and that the warrant to believe lay entirely on the invitation of the gospel and not on a sinner’s observation of any internal qualification for faith. At the same time, Fuller rejected each of the distinctive Sandemanian assumptions about faith and argued against each one of them individually. Fuller showed great theological skill in demonstrating that the holiness requisite to faith formed no part of the absolute righteousness of the law by which we must be justified, but that justification by faith was based solely on the righteousness and death of Christ by whose work alone sinners obtain forgiveness of sins and the righteousness that leads to eternal life. Fuller gave close examination to the assertions and the arguments of Sandeman and other writers within that system, demonstrating fallacious and inconsistent reasoning at places. Scriptural exposition also played a major part of Fuller’s engagement with these doctrinal opponents and the implications of certain theological ideas constituted a third part of his rebuttal.
Throughout, as Fuller summarized each argument, he gave condensed statements of what he believed that he had demonstrated from his discussion of the relevant data. Fuller stated the case of every sinner outside of union with Christ when he wrote, “Intrenched [sic] in prejudice, self-righteousness, and the love of sin, he continues an unbeliever till these strong holds are beaten down; nor will he believe so long as a wreck of them remains sufficient to shelter him against the arrows of conviction; nor, in short, till by the renovating influence of the Holy Spirit they fall to the ground. It is then, and not till then, that the doctrine of salvation by mere grace, through a Mediator, is cordially believed.” In showing that saving faith must differ in its essential character, not just circumstance, from that of devils, Fuller affirmed, “The doctrine of the cross presupposes the equity and goodness of the Divine law, the exceeding sinfulness of sin, the exposedness of the sinner to God’s righteous curse, and his utter insufficiency to deliver his soul. To believe this doctrine, therefore, must needs be to subscribe with our very heart to these principles, as they respect ourselves; and so to receive salvation as being what it is, a message of pure grace, through a mediator. Such a conviction as this never possessed the mind of a fallen angel, nor of a fallen man untaught by the special grace of God.” In “Letter VII,” entitled An Enquiry whether, if believing be a spiritual act of the mind, it does not suppose the subject of it to be spiritual, Fuller set forth his thesis, “That for which I contend is, 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.”
In John Ryland Jr.’s discussion of Fuller’s writing in The Life and Death of the Reverend Andrew Fuller he summarized the correspondence on Sandemanianism and included his own judgment on the central issue of this doctrinal impasse. “Much less can a sinner, whose heart is enmity against the divine Law, think that it deserved to be honoured, by the Son of God becoming incarnate, assuming the form of a servant, and being obedient unto death; and that it was wise, and right, and good, for God to determine that no sin should be pardoned, unless the divine disapprobation of it could be manifested as decisively as if the sinner had suffered in his own person the full penalty of the law, and unless his pardon could be made evidently to appear an act of sovereign grace. 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 its consequences. Hence I still conceive, that regeneration, strictly so called, must in the order of nature precede the first act of faith.”
When faced with the possibility that sinful man might be brought to some form of neutrality, neither in hard-hearted opposition nor in cordial consent to the gospel, Full
er responded, “Is there a medium, then, between holy affection and hard-hearted enmity? If so, it must be something like neutrality. But Christ has left no room for this, having declared, ‘He that is not with me is against me.’ Let a sinner be alarmed as much as he may, if he have no holy affection toward God, he must be a hard-hearted enemy to him.” How is one moved from the first state to the second? “All that is pleaded for is the necessity of a state of mind suited in the nature of things to believing, and without which no sinner ever did or can believe, and which state of mind is not self-wrought, but the effect of regenerating grace.”
Fuller, as the chief apologist for the Baptist Missionary Society, knew that the success of the entire effort depended on the sovereign action of God, the purposeful efficacy of the regenerating operation of the Holy Spirit. This did not discourage him but buttressed his confidence that the use of the ordained means would be effectual for salvation. He indeed counted the “patience of our God as salvation” (2 Peter 3:15). The reader must judge, in light of this and the pervasive influence of Fuller throughout the nineteenth century among Baptists, just how representative the doctrine is that states, “We deny that any person is regenerated prior to . . . responding to the Gospel. . . . We deny that there is an ‘effectual call’ for certain people that is different from a ‘general call’ to any person who hears and understands the Gospel.” Fuller certainly would find it strange that such was defended as more consistent with gospel labors for he consented wholly to the “necessity of a new heart ere the sinner can come to Christ.”
Tom J. Nettles
Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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