Part Two - Stumbling Early
As a young minister in the Primitive Baptist Church I was privileged to have something that I fear many in the same situation do not. I had a pastor and father in the ministry who took me under his wing. Perhaps it’s just my particular locale, but I noticed that not a few young elders are ordained to the ministry and promptly let loose without the guidance that they need. Hyper-Calvinism has affected this people in so many areas by abating their sense of responsibility, I feel that some of the older elders shrug off giving counsel to the newly-ordained under the pretence of ”God doesn’t need my help” or misapply the truth that one man can’t teach another man to preach. In my latter years among them, I noticed a few young men who were being considered as possible candidates to the ministry. At the time I did not think they had reached the point where they should be ordained. If ever they should be, I can remember thinking that they would simply be turned loose into the “full work” of the gospel ministry. Unfortunately, when this is the practice of an order which, generally speaking, has gone to extremes against formal education, their preachers become vulnerable to the accepted interpretative grid imposed on the scriptures, and will likely stumble right out of the gate.
While some of this was true with me, I was at least blessed with a pastor who lived close by and was more than willing to meet with me one-on-one. We used to sit together in his den and discuss matters of doctrine. I can specifically recall asking him very early about Romans 10, and being told that it had nothing to do with eternal salvation. Paul just wanted his Jewish brethren to be saved from the error of their way was the response I got. Thus, I was being guided into the paradigm of time salvation, a teaching that would dominate my mind and make me guilty of eisegesis for several years. He loaned me a copy of The Writings of the Late Elder John Leland. Having never heard of him, I simply assumed that he was "in succession" with us, for what other reason could my pastor have for sharing it. I only wish now that I would have spent more time in it than I did. Even if I did however, it may not have made any difference. Seeing that I wasn’t yet fully aware of everything that clashed with Hardshellism, I would have seen no incompatibility with how he prayed for the lost or viewed the gospel as the means of salvation. If I had, would I have been delivered from error at a much earlier age?
I remember seeing on my pastor’s bookshelf a copy of Dr. John Gill’s commentary as well, along with his Body of Divinity. This was the first time I had heard of the learned theologian. Much the same as with Elder Leland, if I would have known the peculiar points of difference between Hardshellism and Calvinism, I would have seen them in his writings and maybe started off more sound in the bible than I did.
John Gill is indeed a very interesting name in this discussion. I can recall his name occasionally mentioned in sermons or idle conversations, and not a few of the elders have a copy of his commentary. So it must be that he is the great champion of Hardshellism, right? The primary support for this claim is that Gill changed his position on regeneration from mediate to immediate, and that therefore he became “in succession” with them. This is not only false but avoids the real issue at hand. Even if it could be proven that Gill changed his mind on this, so what? Immediate regeneration is proof of Hardshellism only when it is coupled with optional gospel conversion. Otherwise, we will have simply placed Gill in the ordo salutis camp. From there we would then have to determine as to whether he held to a logical or temporal order in the occurrence of regeneration and gospel conversion. The only way Gill, or anyone else for that matter, could ever be said to imbibe Conditionalism is to show where he abandoned his views on absolute predestination (a whole nother task) and believed that some sinners who were regenerated by the immediate operation of the Holy Spirit were not converted at the exact same moment and never would be. In other words, they never heard the gospel, not just at the initial spark of the new birth.
I may be getting ahead of myself, but soon after leaving this order a few years ago there was a small attempt to win me back. A local elder copied an excerpt of Dr. Gill's comments on some remote passage in Lamentations in which the learned scholar used the expression "temporal salvation", as if to suggest he imbibed this modern novelty. He sent this to me via email, and a short discussion ensued. I asked the elder to see what Gill has to say on the passages which really matter; those texts that are pivotal in the controversy of Hardshellism vs. Calvinism. I'm not shocked that I received no response on how the learned scholar handled those bible passages which yoke the gospel with salvation (e.g. Romans 1:16; Romans 11:14; 2 Thes. 2:13).
Knowing what I do now, I have no hesitation whatsoever in saying that if Dr. Gill or John Leland were alive today, they would not even be allowed to join the church, much less be “invited into the stands”. The claim that these men are "in line" with the present generation is a woeful deception; successful among the lay people who either fail to test the claim or know not their specific beliefs which contradict present-day conditionalism (e.g. praying for the lost, preaching to the lost, how key verses are interpreted).
Getting back to me, it was not long into my spiritual journey before I became aware of some of these great giants of the Calvinistic faith such as Gill, Spurgeon, or A.W. Pink. As expected I would filter their writings, ignoring what I thought was bad, and keeping only the good. I was extremely puzzled as to how the Prince of Preachers, for instance, could preach such a lovely discourse on the sovereign grace of God only to wad it all up and throw it out the window in the last minute by inviting the people to repent and believe in Christ. How could this phenomenal gift not see his contradictory position? I found the same sort of thing when I gleaned through Dr. Gill’s commentary or when reading the writings of Pink. At one moment they would state the truth of God’s sovereignty in salvation; in the very next, they would appear to me as "Arminian”. Of course, as I would come to learn, they were not mistaken at all. It was the man standing in the mirror who was carrying election and predestination to the point of fatalism. It was I who thought God’s will of decree did away with any perceptive will telling me that I was to preach the gospel to every creature. One of the most humbling moments for me, therefore, was the day when I could read one of the sermons of blessed Spurgeon or any other who did not throw to the wind their responsibility in light of God’s sovereignty, but strove to maintain their balance.
They were right. I was wrong.