Dane K. Jöhannsson
Lead Pastor, Agros Reformed Baptist Church
Why John Gill? Cur Hoc Homo?
During the beginning days of the Downgrade Controversy (wherein many Baptists were abandoning the core doctrines of Orthodox Reformed Christianity), Charles Haddon Spurgeon, because of his refusal to bow the knee to the Downgrade and his unflinching adherence to sound doctrine, faced a very real possibility of the loss of friends and finances. In a letter to his co-pastor and deacons he recalled a similar moment of poignancy in the ministry of his predecessor, Dr. John Gill:
“I cannot, at this present moment, tell you what spite has been used against me, or you would wonder indeed; but the love of God first, and your love next, are my comfort and stay. We may, perhaps, be made to feel some of the brunt of the battle in our various funds; but the Lord liveth. My eminent predecessor, Dr. Gill, was told, by a certain member of his congregation who ought to have known better, that, if he published his book, The Cause of God and Truth, he would lose some of his best friends, and that his income would fall off. The doctor said, ‘I can afford to be poor, but I cannot afford to injure my conscience;’ and he has left his mantle as well as his chair in our vestry.” (Spurgeon, Autobiography: Vol.2, 477)
After his death, the great hymn writer and theologian Augustus Toplady, who was himself a close friend of Gill, wrote:
“Such were the indefatigable labours, such the exemplary life, and such the comfortable death of this great and eminent person. If any one man can be supposed to have trod the whole circle of human learning, it was Dr. Gill. His attainments, both in obscure and polite literature, were (what is very uncommon) equally extensive and profound. Providence had, to this end, endued him with a firmness of constitution, and an unremitting vigor of mind, which rarely fall to the lot of the sedentary and learned. It would, perhaps, try the constitutions of half the literati in England, only to read, with care and attention, the whole of what he wrote.” (John Rippon, Life and Writings: 136,137)
I believe that such a man as John Gill is worthy of imitation in his character, doctrine and steadfastness, regardless of his denominational associations. A great mass of Christians since his death have realized this; and he is all the more to be studied by us who claim the name “Baptist”. Sadly, due mostly to misunderstanding, misrepresentation and ignorance, many Baptists have shirked the voluminous and thorough writings of this great and brilliant servant of God.
His first biographer (as well as successor in the Ministry), the Rev. John Rippon, wrote the following (which is just as true today as it was when he wrote it in 1838):
“Dr. Gill is the only man, who hath, published both the Old and New Testament in the English language, so nearly including an exposition of every verse. … it is [also] somewhat observable, that it is the only Exposition of the Old and New Testament which the Baptists can, at present, peculiarly claim as their own, either in Great Britain, or in America.” (Life: 76-78)
It has been my joy as well as a great aid in my sanctification to give myself to the study of John Gill’s life, ministry and writings the past two weeks and it is my joy and my honor to deliver to you all a small sampling of this great man’s life and teachings the next two weeks. Today we will look at his life and character as well as a couple of aspects that we may find worthy of imitation; and next week we will look at his teaching on a few specific doctrines which engendered much strife and controversy in his life.
In the preparation of this biographical lecture, I have benefited from, and owe much to, the following resources in this order:
The Rev. John Rippon’s “Life and Writings of the Rev. John Gill, D.D.”, Dr. Tom Nettles’ essay on Gill in “The Baptists; Vol.1, Beginning in Britain”, Robert W. Oliver’s: “History of the English Calvinistic Baptists: From John Gill to C.H. Spurgeon”, The Autobiography of Charles Spurgeon, Ian H. Murray’s: “Spurgeon Versus Hyper-Calvinism”, as well as the audio lectures of Rev. Robert Walker, Dr. George Ella, Rev. Michael Philips, Rev. Brian McClung, and Dr. Dan Cozart (all which can be found on SermonAudio).
The Birth of a Baptist Stalwart: Baptizati Sumus In Christo Iesu
John Gill was born at Kettering, Northamptonshire, on the 23rdof November, 1697 to Edward and Elizabeth Gill. In the providence of God, the Gills were, in the words of Rippon, “equally delivered from the snares of poverty and affluence.” The Gill family spent their days in “peaceful industry, and genuine religion.” John’s father, Edward Gill, was a member of the Dissenting congregation in Kettering, which consisted of Presbyterians, Independents and Baptists seeking to dwell in unity. (Life: 2)
Within this church was a teaching elder by the name of William Wallis who presided as the administrator of Baptism by immersion to the adult persons among them who desired it. At some point the Baptists were compelled to separate from the Dissenting congregation and form their own church. Having formed this church they joined the “Particular Baptist” denomination with William Wallis residing as pastor. (“Particular Baptists” were distinguished from “General Baptists” by their teaching; those of the particular persuasion held that Christ’s redemptive work was intended and effectual only for a particular group of people, the elect; whereas those of the general persuasion held that Christ’s redemptive work was intended for all people in general in its scope and later applied to ‘the elect’ by virtue of their foreseen faith.) Edward Gill was one of the members of this church and was eventually elected to the office of deacon among them. He served in this office until his death, having, as Rippon states, “obtained a good report for his ‘grace, his piety, and holy conversation.’” (Life: 3)
John Gill, as soon as he was able, demonstrated an extraordinary capacity for instruction and learning which would follow him all the days of his life. He was soon out of the reach of common teachers and was sent by his father to the grammar-school in town, which he attended with many of the other children of dissenting families. He attended to the teaching in that place with “uncommon diligence and unwearied application; quickly surpassing those of his own age, and [even] others who were considerably his senior.”
He continued in the grammar-school until he was 11 years old. During this time, besides going through all of the common school-books from which he was taught, “he mastered the principle Latin classics, and made such a proficiency in the Greek [classics], as obtained for him marks of distinction from several of the neighboring clergy, who condescended, occasionally, to examine and encourage his progress, when they met him at the bookseller’s shop in the town, which he constantly attended, on market-days.” (Life: 3,4)
Gill himself, in vindication of his “Dissertation on Jewish Proselyte Baptism”, was forced to offer a defense of his learning, said that he had read the classics “and indeed Virgil, at nine years of age.” (Life; 111) Gill’s thirst for knowledge soon became somewhat of a proverb in the town, and whenever someone of the town wished to describe something as an absolute certainty they would say, “the matter is as sure as that John Gill is in the bookseller’s shop”! (Life: 4)
Sadly, but in God’s good providence, Gill left school by eleven years old, never to return again. This was due to an unfavorable incident. The teacher of the grammar-school was a member of the established Anglican church and would require the students under his care, even those of the dissenting families, to attend church with him on the week days during the hours of prayer. Many of the parents, considering this an imposition upon their freedoms, removed their children from under the teacher’s care. Our young friend John Gill was among such children.
The affluent families among the dissenters placed their children in other schools to finish their education. However, the Gills were unable to afford this for their son and searched in vain for ministers of good repute to finish his education. Some of the local clergy raised the funds for him to attend one of the seminaries .
“[S]pecimens of [John’s] attainments were sent to the proper persons in town, who replied, that he was too young, at present, to be admitted on their foundations; and that should he continue, which was a very supposable thing, to make such rapid advances in his studies, he would pass through the common circle of learning, quite in his juvenile days, before it was usual to employ young persons in the sacred service of the sanctuary.” (Life: 5) In other words, John was too smart to go to this school, because he would finish his studies and be ready to enter the ministry while still a juvenile.
In spite of these circumstances, the young John not only maintained his knowledge of Latin and Greek but also incessantly improved himself in both. To his extensive knowledge of Latin and Greek he added logic, rhetoric and also natural and moral philosophy. He likewise, and possibly most incredibly of all, at the age of 11, obtained Buxtorf’s Hebrew grammar and lexicon and taught himself the Hebrew language “without any living assistance”, making such swift advancement in the language that he “could soon read Hebrew with great ease and pleasure.” (Life: 5) I myself know of no Hebrew professors even in seminaries who can sit down with a Hebrew Bible and read it with even slight ease (and certainly not with any measure of pleasure).
John worked with his father in the woolen trade until he was 19; all of the rest of his time was religiously consecrated to his studies. He improved his learning in many aspects of study, mastering the Latin and Greek fathers and becoming greatly acquainted with the Latin authors of foreign divinity (Calvin, Turretin, Van-Mastricht, Polanus etc.) as we see so liberally used in his later publications. (Life: 5)
As a child, John had only slight convictions of the evil of sin, and only occasional thoughts of a future state. Sometimes he was terrified with the fear of death, and hell and then at other times elated with thinking on the joys of heaven. These thoughts were however, as Rippon relates, “superficial and temporary, till he was about twelve years of age, when the operations of his mind became more serious.” (Life: 6)
Around that time, John heard his pastor, William Wallis, preach a sermon on Gen.3:9 “And the Lord God called unto Adam, and said unto him, where are thou?” For the remainder of his youth, these words “continually sounded in his ears, and these interrogatories were addressed to his heart – Sinner, where are thou? What a wretched sate and condition art thou in? – How miserable wilt thou be, living and dying in an unconverted state? – He considered himself as summoned before the judge of all, to answer for his conduct.” (Life: 6)
John began to more clearly and frequently see the depravity of his nature, the exceeding sinfulness of sin, his need of the Savior, and of a better righteousness than his own, even the righteousness of Christ, to be received by faith. He was at some point favored with a “comfortable persuasion of interest in him, through the application of several exceedingly great and precious promises to his heart, by the blessed Spirit of God. It was, moreover, his happy lot, in those early days, to have his mind irradiated with the light and knowledge of the evangelical doctrines, under the ministry of several Gospel preachers … And as these sublime truths came to him, not in word only, but in power, and also in the Holy Ghost, and in much assurance, he felt himself free from the bondage of the law, as a covenant of works, and was filled with joy and peace in believing.” (Life: 6,7) John, however, did not make a public profession of faith until he was almost 19 years old.
On November the 1st, 1716, the blessed day came when Mr. John Gill made a public profession of his faith in Christ, declaring satisfactorily to the church, “the dealings of God with his soul; and the same day Mr. Thomas Wallis, their pastor, … administered the ordinance of baptism to him by immersion in a river, according to the command of Christ and the practice of his apostles, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” (Life: 7,8) The following Lord’s day, November the 4th, he was received as a member of the church and partook of the Lord’s Supper (an ordinance that he would always favor and himself administer with great delight and efficaciousness). That same evening, Rippon tells us, “in a private house he read the 53rdchapter of Isaiah, as suitable to the preceding duties of the day, and expounded some passages of it. Those who were present estimated the service as a favorable specimen of the ministerial talents that the Lord of Zion had conferred upon him; and he was encouraged to proceed in the exercise of his gifts. Accordingly, the next Lord’s Day evening, at the same place, he delivered [his first] discourse on 1Cor.2:2 ‘For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified.’” (Life; 8) This verse would define the entirety of Gill’s life and ministry.
A Family Man: Et Erunt Duo In Carne Una
Soon after, Gill was urged by some of his friends in London to move to HighmanFerrers, six miles away. He spent some time studying under the Rev. Mr. John Davis and aided him in discipling and evangelizing the surrounding villages. While he was here he met a young lady, Elizabeth Negus, a member of Rev. Davis’ church. They married in 1718. Rippon accounts the nature of their marriage: “His marriage with this excellent person he always considered as the principle thing for which God, in his providence, sent him to that place; for she proved affectionate, discreet, and careful; and, by her unremitting prudence, delivered him from all domestic avocations; so that he could, with leisure and greater ease of mind, pursue his studies, and devote himself to his ministerial work.” (Life: 9,10)
I am too often tempted when reading about the great women behind these great men to become critical of my own wife; but thankfully I am usually taken off from this foolish line of reasoning by the memory of a minister who once told his wife she should seek to be more like Sarah Edwards (the wife of the great American theologian, Jonathan Edwards, who spent 12 hours a day in his study penning some of the greatest theological works every written while Sarah cared for their many children and managed the homestead). Shortly after the minister had said this to his wife, his wife pointed to the 26 volumes of Edwards’ writings on the shelves of his study and said, “The day you become like him is the day I will become like her.” Good point.
Elizabeth Gill stood by John Gill’s side for more than 46 years until her death on October, 10th1764. John delivered her funeral sermon from Heb.11:16 “But now they desire a better country, that is, an heavenly: wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God ; for he hath prepared for them a city.” Rippon tells us that at the close of the manuscript there is an honorable account given of her, from her early life up to her departing moments, “but it seems he was so very much overpowered at the end of the sermon, where the account might have been given, that he was not able to deliver it.” (Life: 10) Hence we see Gill’s adoring love and great respect for his wife.
She bore him many children, all of whom died in infancy, except three. Elizabeth, (whom Gill described as, “a most lovely and desirable child, for person, sense and grace” in his funeral sermon which he gave on the occasion of her death at age 13) Another, Mary, who married the bookseller George Keith, and a son, John, who was to become a goldsmith. Both of these children were a great happiness to their parents, and the family always had reason to be thankful to God for their “domestic comfort, peace, and harmony.”
Pastor: Pasce Agnos Meos
Although Gill frequently preached in Churches and gatherings around Higham-Ferrers and Kettering (to the comfort and conversion of man), he did not take a pastorate until after the death of Mr. Benjamin Stinton (son-in-law of the famous Benjamin Keach) in 1719 when some of the members of Stinton’s church at Horslydown, Fair-street, (a mile from London Bridge), asked him to come and preach. He preached there for two months and was asked to remain permanently as their pastor. On Lord’s Day, September 20th, 1719, he accepted the call to the pastorate of Horslydown, but was not ordained until March 22nd1720. He remained the Pastor of this church for 51 years.
Theologian: Scientia Divinitatae
John Gill is known for a few things: his abilities in languages, his abilities in divinity and his abilities as a preacher/Bible commentator. Gill’s abilities in Latin, Greek and Hebrew have already been mentioned and we took note of the fact that Gill had mastered the essential classics of the Latin and Greek language at a young age. Hebrew he had taken great pleasure since his attainment of it at age 11, but in 1719, after entering the pastorate he sought to attain a far more extensive facility in Hebrew. Rev. John Skepp, pastor of the Baptist church in Cripplegate, London, died that year, leaving behind him a great wealth of Hebrew literature. Prior to Gill’s acquaintance with Rev. Skepp, he had seen little use for reading the Rabbinical literature, only accessible to those with a knowledge of Hebrew; but had through conversations with Rev. Skepp come to see its great usefulness in theology.
After Rev. Skepp’s death, Gill purchased most of his Hebrew and Rabbinical books and “now went to work with great eagerness, reading them, and many others, which he afterwards obtained of a Jewish Rabbi with whom he became acquainted. [Gill] plainly saw, that as the New Testament was written by men who had all of them been Jews, and who, notwithstanding their being inspired, must needs retain and use many idioms of their language [which we know is indeed the case], and allude to rites, ceremonies, and customs peculiar to that people; so that the writings of the Jews, especially the more ancient ones, who lived nearest the times of the apostles, could not but be of use for the better understanding the phraseology of the New Testament, and the rites and customs to which it frequently alludes.” With this opinion settled in his mind, Rippon tells us that, “[Gill] set about reading their Targums, the Mishnah, the Talmuds, the Robboth, their ancient commentaries, the book of Zohar and whatever else, of this kind he could obtain.” (Life: 57,58)
John Gill was made “Doctor in Divinity” by the University of Aberdeen in 1748 on account of his knowledge of the Scriptures, of the Oriental (Semitic) languages, and of Jewish antiquities. This was done without the Gill’s knowledge. On one occasion, when the deacons of a church in London met Gill on the street, they congratulated him regarding the respect which had been shown him by the University of Aberdeen, to which, Gill, after thanking them, pleasantly responded, “I neither thought it, nor bought it, nor sought it.” (Life: 59)
In 1767, Dr. Gill published a work titled, “A Dissertation Concerning the Antiquity of the Hebrew Language, Letters, Vowels, Points, and Accents” to answer the assaults (which continues to our very day) of the higher critics who had cast doubt on the authenticity, authority and inspiration of the Old Testament, suggesting that the language it was written in was of doubtful antiquity and hence so was the doctrine espoused in it. If the Hebrew Bible as we have it cannot have existed (as they say) before the 12thcentury, then the religion is teaches cannot be considered to be original. Had he never written anything else, this very work alone would have proven Gill to be have been a prodigy of immeasurable proportions, and yet his biographer tells us that this work was written by Gill “in his leisure hours, for his own amusement, not with any design, at first, to publish it to the world; but by way of essay to try how far back the antiquity of the things treated of in it could be carried.” (Life: 82)
This same year, Dr. Gill collated the various passages of the Old Testament, quoted in the Mishnah, Talmuds and in the Robboth and noted the variations he found in them from the printed Hebrew text of his day and sent them to Dr. Kenncott, at Oxford, who was then collating the several Hebrew manuscripts of the Old Testament which were known in Europe. Dr. Kenncott wrote about Dr. Gill’s work in the preface to his publication in 1767: “I have been highly obliged by the Reverend and Learned Dr. Gill, who has extracted and sent to me the variations from the modern Bibles in the passages quoted in the Talmuds and the Rabboth: which variations, in these ancient books of the Jews, affect the Hebrew text of the Old Testament, as the variations in the ancient Christian fathers affect the Greek text of the New.” (Life: 87)
Theologian: Castigator Hereticorum
Augustus Toplady had this to say about Dr. Gill as a defender of the faith, “It may well be said of my learned friend, as it was of the Duke of Marlborough, that he never fought a battle which he did not win.” (Life: 65) Much of Dr. Gill’s work was as a tireless defending of orthodoxy. Many of his published works consist of repackaged sermons given to his congregation to build them up in the faith which he adapted to counteract the opponents of his day. Although Gill responded to many of the controversies of his day, there are a few that he gave significantly greater attention to: The Doctrines of Grace (Calvinism), Baptism, Antinomianism, and the Trinity. He rightfully saw these as the most important issues on which to comment. (Next week we will look at each of these, today we will only briefly look at his Calvinistic controversies)
Dr. Gill was not afraid of disagreements or controversies, he was, however, afraid of neglecting the truth. At an ordination sermon for the Rev. George Braithwaite in 1734, Gill asserted that a preacher of the gospel “ought to study the scriptures, and learn the doctrines of grace, as to be assured of them, to be at a point, at a certainty concerning them … [a minister] should adhere to them, abide by them, and continue in them [even though the] majority may be against them.” Truth does not conform itself to majority opinion and is not to be determined by the number of its admirers. (The Baptists: 200)
Gill ministered in London at a time when orthodox Christianity was being questioned. One anonymous writer in 1732 described the religious culture this way:
“[Unorthodoxy] is very often first manifested in [the] attacking [of] the divine decrees by applauding the doctrine of universal redemption as a sentiment that is full of benevolence; from thence they appear fond of pleading the cause of the heathens, and of the possibility of salvation merely by the light of nature in sincere improvement of the powers and faculties of men; and by degrees these charitable sentiments produce a small opinion of revelation, and of the necessity of it in order to salvation … No wonder they hereupon became sceptics and amongst other truths the doctrine of the Trinity is with them a matter of jest and ridicule.” (History of the English Calvinistic Baptists: 3,4)
The decline of godliness and piety was attributed by Dr. Gill to a decline in not only sound doctrine in general, but the doctrine of God’s sovereign grace in particular. Nettles writes, “[Gill] was convinced that a firm grasp of these truths would enhance morality and virtue, which cannot exist apart from internal holiness.” For Gill, those who best understood the doctrines of what is commonly called “Calvinism” would live the most consistently holy and peaceable lives. For Gill, it was, in fact, only those who treasure the righteousness of Christ, and trust in him for that righteousness, who have high enough views of the demands of the law. Free and sovereign grace does not lead to free and unholy living but rather the opposite. The more that one understands God’s free, sovereign, electing love, the more they are united to him in character, holiness and affection. Nettles reminds us that “Gill believed that the issues involved in a correct understanding of God’s grace so affected every part of one’s perception of divine revelation that error at this point would eventually be felt throughout the whole of Christian doctrine.” (The Baptists: 205)
Around the year 1733, the Arminian Dr. Whitby published a “Discourse On the Five Points”. It was considered to be a masterpiece on the subject in the English language and judged as “unanswerable” by Calvinists. It was the supposed nail in the coffin of Calvinism. Almost every opponent of Calvinism ganged-up on Gill and asked “Why do you not answer Dr. Whitby?” Rippon tells us that, “Induced hereby, Mr. Gill determined to give it another reading, and finding himself inclined to answer it, he entered upon the work; and in 1735, and the three following years, he published, in separate parts, ‘The Cause of God and Truth’, in four volumes.” (Life: 39)
Gill’s work is made up of four separate parts. Part one gives answer to sixty passages of scripture collected by Whitby and others in an effort to demonstrate that the doctrines of grace oppose the plain teaching of Scripture. Part two gives a positive presentation of sixty-two passages upon which the systematic presentation of Calvinism is dependent. Whitby had sought to prove that these passages do no teach Calvinism and Gill shows such an attempt simply does not work. Part three gives a defense of the doctrines of grace proper, in response to Whitby’s objections to them. Part four consists of an array of pre-Augustinian patristic citations. Gill demonstrates that the patristic view of grace, while not as distinct and coherent as those of Augustine, nevertheless, give little reason for Arminians to claim them as witnesses for their own views. (The Baptists: 201,202)
This great work issued from the press at a time when England was generally alarmed with the growth of Roman Catholicism. Although several learned men were preaching against some of Popery’s distinguishing tenets, Gill was of the opinion that the increase of Popery was greatly owing to the Pelagianism, Arminianism and other supposed rational schemes, contrary to divine revelation which were at the time being propagated. Therefore, Gill proposed that, rather than chopping away at “the branches of Popery, the axe should be laid to the root of the tree Arminianism and Pelagianism, which are the very life and soul of Popery.” (Life: 42,43)
Theologian: Praedica Verbum!
Gill is perhaps best known today for his “Exposition of the Old and New Testaments”, which is available for free online on a number of websites as well as in pdf and print formats. It is still widely used, possibly only being surpassed in English readership by Matthew Henry’s commentary. Gill took part in a weekly Wednesday night lectureship for 26 years which he left off on the 24thof March, 1756. He gives two reasons for leaving his post: first, his natural strength was waning and no longer admitted him to preach as frequently; and, secondly, “that [he] might have a little more time and leisure to attend to and finish, an arduous work upon [his] hands: An Exposition of the whole Old Testament, part of which [he planned to] propose for publication.” (Life: 72)
For what it’s worth (and I for one think it is worth much) Spurgeon had this to say regarding John Gill as a commentator:
“A very distinguished place is due to Dr. Gill. Beyond all controversy God was one of the most able Hebraists of his day, and in other matters no mean proficient. … Probably no man since Gill’s days has at all equaled him in the matter of Rabbinical learning. … For good, sound, massive, sober sense in commenting, who can excel Gill? Very seldom does he allow himself to be run away with by imagination, except now and then when he tries to open up a parable, and finds meaning in every circumstance and minute detail; or when he falls upon a text which is not congenial with his creed, he hacks and hews terribly to bring the Word of God into a more systematic shape. Gill is the Coryphaeus of hyper-Calvinism, but if his followers never went beyond their master, they would not go very far astray.” (Lectures to My Students: 667,668)
In 1757 and 1758, respectively, he published his “Exposition of the Prophets, Both the Larger, and the Smaller” in two volumes, with an “Introduction to Them on Prophecy” and a dissertation at the close of them an introduction the apocryphal writings. In 1761 he began publishing the remainder of his “Exposition of the Old Testament”, beginning at Genesis and ending with Solomon’s Song. By 1766 all four of the remaining volumes had been published, totalling six volumes of almost verse by verse exposition on the Old Testament. In addition to these six on the Old, he also published three volumes of exposition on the New Testament, completing his exposition of the whole Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. In its current published form, these 9 volumes of Exposition on the whole Bible make up 7,515 pages! What makes this achievement even more astonishing is that it was written all by one man, without aid or dictation, all from his own pen in his own handwriting, without any eyes proofreading each sheet but his own! (Life: 72-78 ; 110-113) Spurgeon once stated, “[Gill] was always at work; it is difficult to say when he slept, for he wrote 10,000 folio pages of theology.” (Lectures: 667)
As we mentioned before, Gill is the only one to ever write a complete commentary on the entire Bible, commenting on almost every single verse, in the English language. You may ask, “What about Matthew Henry? Don’t we have his complete commentary on the Bible?” The answer is, Yes… sort of. Matthew Henry only lived to see his exposition of the Old Testament published, although he had committed the New Testament to the press, “‘as far as the Acts of the Apostles go,’ intending to proceed with the follow part [the epistles and apocalypse], which, said he, ‘of all others, requires the most care and pains in expounding.’” However he left off the task to finish his book, “A Method for Prayer”, passing from this life shortly after. (Life: 76)
We can rightly ask at this point, “How did the good Doctor accomplish such a task? How could any one man perform all this labor?” Thankfully we have the answer. It should be obvious that it would have been naturally impossible for any person to have done so much work in one life, as John Rippon puts it, “without method, unremitted exertion, and cheerful perseverance.” It must be remembered that Dr. Gill was quite literally nevertired of reading and study. His meat and drink was to know God’s will and to do it.
Rippon gives us in detail Dr. Gill’s method for preparing the Exposition:
“Had the indefatigable man studied and preached two or three sermons weekly, as he did, and made these no part of his Commentary, he never could have prepared [even] half the work for the public eye; but the substance, or at least the heads, of almost every sermon he preached being inserted in their proper place, the very week they were delivered, the might mass increased with his months. There was seldom a week-day without a line. And, as each evening he left the weight of his mind on paper, he was quite prepared with a new morning, to enter on new sections. In going through any single book of Scripture, he would sometimes take only a single verse for his sermon; more frequently six or eight – and seldom above ten or twelve.” (Life: 114,115) Thus, we see that because John Gill was a devoted and committed preacher of God’s word, he was by default a devoted and prolific commentator upon God’s word. What we have in his massive expositions are largely the heart of his preaching unto his people day in and day out.
Dr. Voluminous:Flos Scholasticorum
John Gill was aptly nicknamed “Dr. Voluminous” in his day, and it would indeed still take a lifetime to read everything that came from his pen. Of just his major popular works, which can still be easily purchased, we have around 12,123 pages of rich theology in small print. This would include his “Exposition of the Old and New Testaments” 7,515 pages, his two-volume “Exposition of Solomon’s Song” 875 pages, his four-volume defense of Calvinism “The Cause of God and Truth” 1028 pages, his collected six-volumes of “Sermons and Tracts” 1,662 pages, and his “Complete Body of Doctrinal and Practical Divinity” 1,023 pages. This is just the material still in print, there is likely an additional 1,000 pages of material that is no longer in print.
Character: Estote Imitatores Dei
In the last section of this biographical sketch I would like to look at John Gill’s character as a friend, and as a Christian. We have some revealing comments by those who knew him as a friend that will give us some insight into his heart. For time I can only quote one of them.
“In the midst of his days also, it was his practice, once a week, to meet his ministering brethren, at their accustomed coffee-house; or else to spend a friendly hour with them under the hospitable roof of Thomas Watson, an honoured member of the Baptist Church, then meeting at Cripplegate. That gentleman kept an open table on Tuesdays for the dissenting ministers of three denominations. The Doctor generally met with them, took his part, cheerfully, in conversation, with the brethren present; and maintained it, on their return home, whether they came back on foot, or by the boat as they now and then did. Coming back one day by water, an excellent minister of the Independent denomination, of who Dr. Gill was particularly fond, said to him, when there was a great swell of the tide, and some of the gentleman were uneasy, ‘Ah! Doctor, youdon’t fear, you love muchwater (poking fun at his being a Baptist)’: ‘Yes,’ he replied, ‘I do love much water in its proper place, and I love you too; but Brother Bentley, a littlewater, in a barber’s basin, is enough for some people (poking fun at his being Paedobaptist who held to the mode of sprinkling)’. You know what I mean, Brother.’ ‘Yes,’ said Bentley, in good humor, ‘I do’. All smiled. The banter was quite in the spirit of genuine friendship; and it was natural for one of them, when they were gon on shore, and parting, quite in a fraternal way, to say, ‘Well, Doctor, much water, however, has done no one of us any harm.’ ‘True,’ said Gill, ‘and we are all sure, that sprinkling alone would never have brought us safe to shore.’” (Life: 117,118)
As a Christian, a person’s last words often give us an insight into their overall character and especially their spiritual. Rippon tells us that in his last letter, shortly before his death, he wrote: “I depend wholly and alone upon the free, sovereign, eternal, unchangeable, love of God, the firm and everlasting covenant of grace, and my interest in the Persons of the Trinity, for my whole salvation; and not upon any righteousness of my own; nor on any thing in me, or done by under the influences of the Holy Spirit; not upon any services of mine, which I have been assisted to perform for the good of the church do I depend; but upon my interest in the Persons of the Trinity; the free grace of God, and the blessings of grace streaming to me through the blood and righteousness of Christ, as the ground of my hope. These are no new things to me, but what I have been long acquainted with; what I can live and die by. I apprehend I shall not be long here, but this you tell to any of my friends.” (Life: 133,134)
His dying state was prolonged and very gradual, and frequently attended with intense and violent pains in his stomach, as well as a loss of appetite. “But he bore the visitation of his heavenly Father with patient composure, and sweet resignation to the divine will; never uttering a single complaint.” (Life: 132) The peacefulness of his soul, his internal joy and assurance of salvation, never left him. “The last words he was [ever] heard to speak were, ‘O my Father, my Father!’ [And] thus he gloriously terminated his mortal career, without a sigh or a groan, on the 14thday of October 1771, at about eleven o’clock in the forenoon, at his house in Chamberwell, Surrey, aged seventy-three years, ten month, and ten days.” (Life: 134,135)
Should We Follow John Gill? Imitatores Mei Estote Sicut Et Ego Christi
My answer to this question is yes. In three aspects I think that Gill is worthy of careful and prayerful imitation:
As a student of the word: John Gill was tireless in his pursuit of truth founded upon and consisting in a constant and cheerful examination of God’s word. His mastery over languages, logic, rhetoric, theology etc. were all aimed at the sole purpose of understanding the Scriptures all the better and living in joyful obedience to them.
As a defender of the truth: John Gill never backed down from the truth, regardless of what it cost him. He lovingly and fairly defended what he found and could articulate in the Scriptures. He knew that right understanding leads to right living and out of love to God and fellow man always sought to correctly understand and faithfully defend his understanding of the Scriptures.
As a man of focus and discipline: John Gill gave all of his energy and labors to achieving his goals. He let nothing get in the way of this. Maybe he was two focused, but he certainly serves as a rebuke for lackadaisical theologizing of our generation.
John Rippon, Life and Writings of the Rev. John Gill, D.D.: Harrisonburg, Virginia; Sprinkle Publications, 2006.
Tom Nettles, The Baptists: Key People Involved In Forming a Baptist Identity Vol.1: Ross-Shire, Scotland; Christian Focus, 2005.
Robert W. Oliver, History of the English Calvinistic Baptists From John Gill to C.H. Spurgeon: Carlisle, PA; The Banner of Truth Trust, 2006.
C.H. Spurgeon, Autobiography: Volume 2: Carlisle, PA; The Banner of Truth Trust, 2006.
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