Do we waste our time debating over doctrine when what the world really needs is men and women passionate about missions? John Piper answers no. In fact, he says that language like this—that positions doctrine and missions against one another—is “at best historically naïve and at worst a smoke screen for the uninhibited spread of error.” Piper has a long-standing track record of caring deeply about both doctrine and missions. He has put together a brief sketch of another man who shared his vision, Andrew Fuller. In this short work, Piper highlights the significance of the modern missionary movement, gives a quick overview of Fuller’s life and work, and then zooms in on two crucial theological battles that Fuller engaged for the sake of missions. (Download a free copy — here.)
The Modern Missionary Movement
Piper begins by detailing the extraordinary work of the modern missionary movement: ““Between 1793 and 1865, a missionary movement never before seen in the history of the world reached virtually all the coastlands on earth.” This first wave of missionary activity saw William Carey go to India and closed with Hudson Taylor going to China. A second wave occurred from 1865 to 1934 when Cameron Townsend established Wycliffe Bible Translators with a focus on people groups and languages rather than countries and regions. Currently, we are in the third wave where the center of missionary sending has moved away from the United States and Europe to the south and east. Piper states the massive impact of this movement on more than just the Christian church: “You won’t read it in the secular history books or hear it on the nightly news, but judged by almost any standard, this modern missionary movement—the spread of the Christian faith to every country and almost all the peoples of the world—is the most important historical development in the last two hundred years.”
Andrew Fuller played a key role in the first wave of the modern missionary movement. He was born in 1754 and died at the age of 61 on May 7, 1815. He lived most of his years in the small town of Kettering, England where he pastored a Baptist Church for thirty-two years. He married Sarah Gardiner in 1776 as the Americans were declaring independence from Britain. They had eleven children—eight of them died by early childhood. Andrew faced more sorrow with the loss of his wife Sarah who died in 1792. In the same year, Fuller would join together with a small group of faithful men in his home to form the Baptist Missionary Society on October 2, 1792.
Fuller worked diligently as a pastor, theologian, and missions-promoter. When William Carey set off for India, Fuller gave himself to support Carey from the homeland. Fuller travelled often raising support for the society. He did all of this while faithfully preaching the word to his flock. Piper records that, “Beginning April 1790, he expounded successively Psalms, Isaiah, Joel, Amos, Hosea, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Daniel, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi, Genesis, Matthew, Luke, John, Revelation, Acts, Romans, and First Corinthians as far as 4:5.11.” Added to his work of promoting the missionary society and caring for his congregation, Fuller engaged the theological error of his day. Fuller stands as a model of what it means to work diligently for the Lord. Piper notes a line from Fuller’s son that even in the last year of his life he was still laboring away at his desk “upwards of twelve hours a day.” It was this desk labor as a theologian that Piper details in his work, showing the necessity of theological accuracy and purity for missions.
Doctrine for Missions
Piper examines two specific doctrinal controversies that Fuller engaged.
First, the error of hyper-Calvinism: Fuller knew hyper-Calvinism well since he had been raised in a church that suffered this error. He remembered that his pastor had little or nothing to say to the unconverted. He even admits that he himself for a time did not invite the unregenerate to come to Christ. Fuller lamented that the deadening doctrine of hyper-Calvinism had in some way or another nearly influenced all of the preachers he was associated with.
Piper records Fuller’s own words that pinpoint the problem. He points out their flawed reasoning as they claim: “It is absurd and cruel to require of any man what is beyond his power to perform; and as the Scriptures declare that ‘No man can come to Christ, except the Father draw him,’ and that ‘The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God, neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned,’ it is concluded that these are things to which the sinner, while unregenerate, is under no obligation.”
Fuller objects to this reasoning by showing the many biblical texts that call for the unregenerate to repent and believe (i.e. Psalm 2:11–12; Isaiah 55:1–7; Jeremiah 6:16; John 12:36; John 6:29). Second, Fuller employs Edwards’s distinction between natural and moral inability, which he advances in the Freedom of the Will.
Second, the error of Sandemanianism: Robert Sandeman (1718–1771) taught the false doctrine that faith is the mind’s passive persuasion of gospel truth. This reduction of justifying faith to mere intellectual assent was a great danger that Fuller out rightly rejected. Fuller reasoned from the Scriptures to show the true nature of saving faith. Faith is not passive, but active. It is a holy fruit of regeneration in the heart of man. Piper poignantly states what was on the line in the heresy of Sandemanisnism: “To sever the roots of faith in regeneration, and to strip faith of its holiness, and to deny its active impulse to produce the fruit of love (Galatians 5:6) was to turn the church into an intellectualistic gathering of passive people who are afraid of their emotions and who lack any passion for worship or missions.”
Andrew Fuller served as a defender of the truth of the gospel so that the work of missions might be done in power. He stood with Paul who said, “I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16). Piper has done a great service to the church with this little work that points to Andrew Fuller as a model of what it means to engage doctrine for the cause of missions.