Paul Washer perused the bookshelf in my office. He suddenly turned to me, somewhat surprised, and said, “Where is John Gill?” I told him Gill’s works were on my computer, which was true. In the weeks afterward, though, I started digging more deeply into Gill’s thoughts and theology. Like everyone else, I had always spot-checked him on passages I was preaching, but I didn’t know much about what made him tick.
I quickly fell in love with the logic and clarity of his writing style. “Why don’t more pastors/Christians read Gill?” I asked myself. The main reason, I think, stems from false accusations.
A False Accusation
In the years following his death, he was caricatured as a “hyper-Calvinist.” That caricature stuck with him, posthumously, for years. Yet, Tom Nettles’ book, By His Grace and for His Glory, sufficiently put to rest any notion of hyper-Calvinism in Gill’s writings. In fact, those who take time to read his works will find quite the opposite. His theology is saturated with warm, inviting, Gospel-centered welcomings.
A Brief Life-Sketch1See “A Brief Memoir of the Life, Labours, and Character of the Reverend and Learned John Gill, D.D.,” in A Body of Doctrinal and Practical Divinity, reprinted 2007 (Paris, AR: The Baptist … Continue reading
Born to Christian parents in England in 1697, Gill mastered Latin and Greek by age 11. He later taught himself Hebrew by reading a Hebrew grammar and lexicon. At age 12, he likely was regenerated by the Spirit under the preaching of his pastor, William Wallis. The particular text that struck him was “And the Lord called unto Adam, and said unto him, where art thou?” (Gen 3:9). Seven years later, he made a public profession of his faith, being baptized by immersion.
On March 22, 1720, at age 22, he became the pastor of Goat Yard Church (Southwark, London). He faithfully served that flock 51 years until he died of natural causes at age 73. The congregation later changed its name to the Metropolitan Tabernacle where the great Charles Haddon Spurgeon ministered for nearly four decades (1854-1892).
A Lasting Contribution
Gill is the only man who ever lived (to my knowledge) who commented on every single verse in the Bible (by age 66) and wrote a systematic theology (by age 72). Given his training in logic, the order is noteworthy: exposition, first; systematic theology, second. Interestingly, this is exactly the reverse of John Calvin’s method (whom Gill read and respected). Calvin wrote his Institutes first (at age 26), and then later wrote commentaries on most books of the Bible. Calvin doesn’t attempt to comment on every single verse in the Bible, and he didn’t comment on the book of Revelation at all. We wish he had. Nevertheless, in Gill’s case, the logical order of “text-to-systematic theology” emerged organically and must have been intentional.
When Gill sat to write his magisterial systematic theology, A Body of Doctrinal and Practical Divinity, he had the advantage of (1) having grappled with every single verse in Scripture and (2) drawing from the deep well of 40+ years of theology seasoned by practical ministry and life experience. That gave him the unique perspective of how each individual verse in Scripture came to make up the whole body of God’s redemptive plan. Such advantages led him to several substantive conclusions:
(1) a Baptist covenant theology (i.e., one covenant progressively revealed and fulfilled in Christ) as opposed to Presbyterian covenant theology (i.e., one covenant under two administrations);
(2) a reformed view of salvation; and,
(3) a historic premillennial eschatology.
These three perspectives will help everyone who reads Gill understand him rightly. You may not agree with every jot and tittle in Gill’s positions, but everyone can appreciate (1) the deep thought he put into them and (2) the honest attempt he made to deal with the difficult texts. We especially appreciate his intellectual honesty. He often admits his trouble with certain verses (i.e., Rev. 20:8), even pointing out the weaknesses of his position. Yet, he makes a good-faith effort to explain it even if he, himself, is not completely satisfied. We find the same spirit of humility in Calvin’s writings, and we appreciate him as well. Such genuine scholarship is lacking today.
Another attribute we appreciate in Gill: He invested himself in the Hebrew language. He likely was the world’s foremost Hebrew scholar when he walked the earth. He even wrote a dissertation on Hebrew vowel points. Gill recognized the NT, while composed in Greek, was written by Hebrew thinkers. The better he understood Hebrew, the better he could understand how certain thoughts and idioms of Hebrew writers carried-over into their Greek writings. This comes out in his NT expositions. Yet, he went further. He invested himself in Jewish thought, customs, and culture. He read the ancient Jewish writings: the Targums, the Mishnah, the Talmuds, as well as other ancient and contemporary Jewish rabbis. His OT commentaries are filled with a robust Jewish understanding of OT texts before bringing-out the rich, Gospel-centered content in his expositions.
Gill clearly impacted Charles Haddon Spurgeon’s theology, life, and ministry. Spurgeon pastored the same congregation about 83 years after Gill. He speaks glowingly of Gill, defends him staunchly against critics, and cites him often in sermons. Obviously, Gill’s exposition of Gospel doctrines were driven deep into the breast of the great Spurgeon, and what came out was nothing less than glorious, Gospel-filled truth.
You will find great spiritual joy in reading John Gill more. The Spirit has used his writings to fill my soul with pure, unpolluted Gospel doctrines, which have helped me understand Scripture with greater clarity. If you asked me, “Outside of the Bible and The Pilgrim’s Progress, who/what should I read?” I’d say without hesitation, “Read more Gill.”
|1||See “A Brief Memoir of the Life, Labours, and Character of the Reverend and Learned John Gill, D.D.,” in A Body of Doctrinal and Practical Divinity, reprinted 2007 (Paris, AR: The Baptist Standard Bearer, Inc.).|