Andrew Fuller and the Genesis of Modern Missions

by C. J. Moore August 13, 2020

“I believe it is the duty of every minister of Christ plainly and faithfully to preach the gospel to all who will hear it.”

Andrew Fuller

Astonishingly, the modern missions movement owes its genesis to a man who was never a missionary himself: Andrew Fuller. For most of his life, Fuller was a Baptist pastor-theologian in England. From 1782 until his death in 1815, he pastored Kettering Baptist Church. Though he had no formal education, he was widely known for his theological candor. In fact, he was awarded honorary doctorates from both Princeton and Yale. The famed “Prince of Preachers,” Charles Spurgeon, once said of Fuller: “I have long considered [him] to be the greatest theologian of the century.” Fuller helped establish one of the first Protestant mission sending organizations—the Baptist Missionary Society—and served as its first secretary, giving much of his life to raising the funds needed for its work to go forth. In 1785, seven years before Fuller’s close friend William Carey, the “Father of Modern Missions,” was sent to India, Fuller wrote The Gospel Worthy of All Acceptation, concerning himself with the duty of sinners to believe in Jesus Christ. If he could prove this duty was the duty of believers, then he could prove the need for God’s people to take the gospel to those who had never heard it.

Again, Fuller’s aim was to show that faith in Christ was the duty of sinners. His argument was intentionally combative toward a somewhat prevailing theology known as hyper-Calvinism. Biblical Calvinists believe in God’s full sovereignty—yes, even over man’s salvation. But Fuller, raised in a hyper-Calvinist church, was taught that it was not the dutyof sinners to believe in Christ because some sinners do not have the ability to believe in Christ. It is no wonder, then, that the hyper-Calvinists of Fuller’s day were heavily anti-missions. Why preach the gospel to those who cannot believe in it? Fuller was opposite these men. He believed that if he could convince his readers—and moreover, his co-laborers—that it was the duty of sinners to believe in Christ, then he could also prove that it was the duty of Christians to tell others of Christ. “From what has been advanced,” Fuller wrote, “we may form a judgment of our duty, as ministers of the word, in dealing with the unconverted.” In arms with the Apostle Paul, Fuller continues: “Woe unto us, if we preach not the gospel!” Fuller argued that all unbelievers have a duty to believe; therefore, all Christians have a duty to evangelize.

Though not a hyper-Calvinist, Fuller did remain a Calvinist—he believed in God’s absolute sovereignty. So, how did he wed his theology with the biblical mandate for missions? Again, the main argument of hyper-Calvinists was that the non-elect had no duty to believe in Christ because they had no ability to believe in Christ. To them, that ability was only available to God’s elect—that is, those who had been predestined by God for salvation. So, asking a non-elect sinner to believe in Christ would be both wrong and deceptive.

Fuller’s question was essentially this: what if the non-elect do have the ability? This is where Jonathan Edwards’ influence—particularly his book, Freedom of the Will—can be seen in Fuller’s life. All men have two types of ability: natural and moral. Man has the natural ability to believe in Christ because he can repent and trust in Him. However, man does not have the moral ability to do so because of his sinful nature. In light of his sinful nature and, thus, his sinful desires, the non-elect do not choose to believe in God, but it is not because it is something they cannot naturally do; it is because it is something they don’t wantto morally do. Fuller explains: “If the inability of sinners to perform things spiritually good were natural, or such as existed independent of their present choice, it would be absurd and cruel to address them in such language.” That is, if the non-elect do not have the natural ability to believe in Christ, Fuller says it would be wrong to ask them to do so, for “no man is reproved for not doing that which is naturally impossible.” However, Fuller argued that man does have the natural ability—just not the moral ability.

And the only one who can overcome this moral inability is God himself. God must give man the desire to believe. Once given this desire through regeneration, man will beirresistibly drawn to believe in Christ. So, Christians should call all sinners to respond to the gospel, and let God do His work as He wills. Christians should not only ask men to do what they are morally capable of doing; rather, they should ask men to do what only God can help them to do. We can be sure that God has an end, yet he also has a means: us.

Fuller’s argument was and still is convincing because his book is so saturated with Scripture and biblical reasoning. The decline of hyper-Calvinism in both Fuller’s day and ours owes some credit to his work. While it may seem strange that God says He is sovereign over man’s salvation and tells man to evangelize sinners, Christians should not seek to create a false dichotomy between the two. Fuller is proof that one can both believe in God’s sovereignty and God’s call to live missionally. Christians should be resolved to believe that it is the duty of all sinners—both those who have heard and have not heard the gospel—to believe in Christ. Fuller would surely affirm the sobering truth that all who perish without faith in Christ will unfortunately go to hell. Yet, the sobering reality of this truth is one of our greatest motivations to take the gospel to those who have never heard of Christ. Because of Fuller, a generation of missionaries were convinced to give their lives to the mission field, and that mission continues to this day.

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