Why Pastors Should Engage John Gill
John Gill was a Baptist minister in London during the 18th Century. In 1719 he took up the mantle of pastor at Horselydown Baptist church. Gill ministered to his London congregation for over fifty-one years. Of the ministers at Horselydown Baptist church, Gill was the third. The church itself was founded by the venerable Benjamin Keach, and had a considerable reputation at the time Gill came to be its minister. Even prior to his installment as minister, Gill was declared “a man of Great Piety, and Good Learning.” During his time at Horselydown, Gill carved a legacy as a renowned preacher, an author of more than 10,000 pages of writing, and as a stalwart of Baptist conviction.
Following in Gill’s footsteps, his church saw the likes of many notable pastors within the Baptist tradition. He proceeded the biographer and hymnist John Rippon and the prince of preachers Charles Spurgeon. Even Andrew Fuller, one of the fathers of the modern mission’s movement, attended Gill’s church for a time.
The heritage Gill has left is a point of serious scholarly debate. Since his death in 1771 scholars, theologians, and pastors have weighed in on the value of his teaching, whether he should be interacted with in churches or the academy, and what place he has in Baptist history. Despite the controversy’s that surround Gill’s theology, one thing is undeniably true: Gill has left a major footprint on Baptist history and Reformed theology. The question remains, should pastors engage with John Gill at all? I contend emphatically that, yes, pastors should engage Gill, and that his life and thought have much to offer us today. There are many reasons why I believe this, but I will constrain this post to three major points.
In the late 17th and early 18th centuries divisions arose within many denominations London. This schismatic time was partially the result of individuals refusing to subscribe to a Trinitarian theology. With reference to this moment in history, Raymond Brown writes: “Resistance to subscription became the prelude to heterodoxy.” Which was precisely the case. At a conference of ministers, many of whom were Particular and General Baptists, all but two Particular Baptists subscribed to Trinitarian theology, while just one General Baptist did as such. As a result, many General Baptist churches fell into Unitarianism, while only a few Particular Baptist churches did so. This context sheds light on why Gill saw it as necessary to write and speak clearly on the Trinity.
In his work The Eternal Sonship of Christ, Gill shows throughout history those who have denied eternal sonship and those who have affirmed the doctrine. Read Gill’s concluding remarks: “It appears that all the sound and orthodox writers have unanimously declared for the eternal generation and Sonship of Christ in all ages, and that those only of an unsound mind and judgment, and corrupt in other things as well as this, and many of them men of impure lives and vile principles, have declared against it.” It is on this basis, and the basis of his church’s confession, The Goat Yard Declaration of Faith, that on one occasion Gill led his church to remove the membership of one member who refused to affirm the eternal generation of the Son of God. Gill saw the end of rejecting eternal generation as the same fate of those refusing to subscribe to a fully Trinitarian theology: a slow slide into Unitarianism, this is why he approached the topic so severely. Given the current rumblings within evangelicalism surrounding this doctrine, Gill should be a staple on the nightstands of those questioning eternal generation!
In summary of Gill’s overall thoughts on Trinity, consider this passage from his Body of Divinity, “The doctrine of the Trinity is often represented as a speculative point, of no great moment whether it is believed or no, too mysterious and curious to be pryed into, and that it had better be let alone than meddled with; but alas! it enters into the whole of our salvation, and all parts of it; into all the doctrines of the gospel, and into the experience of the saints; there is no doing without it.”
Anyone interested in having a deeper understanding of the Trinity could look to far worse places than Gill! And, if nothing else, pastors who read Gill will benefit in finding that serious error, especially Trinitarian error, often warrants serious response.
Gill has been labeled many things: Hyper-Calvinist, High-Calvinist, Strict-Calvinist, Extravagant-Calvanist, Non-Invitation Calvinist, the list could go on. Regardless of his labels, one thing is certain: Gill was a staunch defender of Reformed theology.
The reason for these labels comes from an analysis of Gill’s soteriology and his lack of response to the modern question of the eighteenth century, which asks, do sinners have a duty to believe in Christ? Some have speculated that Gill’s lack of a response to the question points to a hesitancy within him to affirm the modernist or High-Calvinist position. Others believe that the historical consensus has been that Gill in fact was favorable of the modernist position, and that he went far beyond the reaches of Calvinism, saying the men have no duty to believe unto Christ. There are also others who view Gill’s lack of response and the supposed historical consensus around Gill’s Hyper-Calvinism to be misleading, citing the need for a new understanding of what constitutes a free offer of the gospel specifically, and Hyper-Calvinism in general. This is not an issue I wish to address in depth here, though it is important to note.
The reason this conversation about Gill matters is that he was a thoroughly Reformed theologian. Yes, he was a convictional credobaptist. But his Reformed theology extended well past his soteriology, though his soteriology is what primarily got him into hot water. To this point, Richard Muller cites a few discrepancies between Gill’s theology and the Reformed tradition in general, those points of contention being infant Baptist, recognizing the sacraments as ordinances, and his view of the millennium. Those points of contention not withstanding, Muller said that Gill’s “English Baptist theology is in large part an intellectual and spiritual descendent of the thought of those Reformers, Protestant orthodox writers, and Puritans who belonged to the Reformed confessional tradition.”
That said, one of Gill’s most notable works is his four-part treatise written in response to Daniel Whitby’s Arminian theology as a defense of Reformed theology titled The Cause of God and Truth. Any pastor, especially Baptist pastors, who wishes to learn more about how deep the roots of Reformed theology run within the Baptist tradition would be wise to consult Gill. Click To Tweet
Exposition: Biblical Languages, Scripture, and Systematic Theology
Lastly, Gill was learned in the biblical languages (Hebrew, Greek, and what Gill calls “the Chaldee Language” meaning Aramaic), he authored a commentary on every verse of Scripture (Exposition of the Old and New Testaments), and he wrote the first Baptist systematic theology (A Body of Doctrinal and Practical Divinity). Those accomplishments alone should stir a minister to want to interact with his works!
All this is to say Gill loved the Bible. He sought to understand it in the original language, on the text’s own terms. He then set out to explain it by offering commentary on every verse, and he desired to systematize and communicate the truths held therein. Gill’s endeavor to be mastered by the Scriptures, and to communicate them clearly and orderly as a minister to his people is an endeavor to which all pastors should aspire. Agree with his conclusions or not, pastors should read Gill because we need more pastors like Gill.
 Robert Oliver, “John Gill (1697-1771): His Life and Ministry,” in The Life and Thought of John Gill (1697-1771): A Tercentennial Appreciation, ed. Michael A. G. Haykin (Leiden: Brill Press, 1997), 12.
 Raymond Brown, The English Baptists of the Eighteenth Century (London: The Baptist Historical Society, 1986), 23.
 Timothy George and David S. Dockery, Theologians of the Baptist Tradition, (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2001), 22-23.
 John Gill, A Dissertation Concerning the Eternal Sonship of Christ, (accessed on Kindle), 28.
 John Gill, A Complete Body of Doctrinal and Practical Divinity, (Paris: The Baptist Standard Bearer, 2007), 138.
 Richard A. Muller, “John Gill and the Reformed Tradition: A Study in the Reception of Protestant Orthodoxy in the Eighteenth-Century” in The Life and Thought of John Gill (1697-1771): A Tercentennial Appreciation, ed. Michael A. G. Haykin (Leiden: Brill Press, 1997), 51.