Baptist theologian John Gill (1697 – 1771), in his Body of Doctrinal Divinity, has an especially clear presentation of human salvation as grounded in the eternal God. This is a topic I have been trying to learn more about by studying Thomas Goodwin (1600-1679), but right now I find that Goodwin’s writing gives off too much light and glory for me to comprehend all of what I read there. Gill is a first-class theologian, but a little closer to my level. He also quotes Goodwin a lot, especially on this topic which is so central to Goodwin’s thought, marking Gill as a fellow student of Goodwin, but a few grades ahead of me. So I copy out here some key passages from Gill’s argument on this subject, and promise to have another try at Goodwin later.
We are in Book II: Of the Acts and Works of God, and have gone through discussions “Of the Internal Acts of God, and of his Decrees in general,” and then a discussion of election and rejection. This bring us to section 4, “Of the Eternal Union of the Elect of God Unto Him.”
“The union of God’s elect unto him, their adoption by him, justification before him, and acceptance with him, being eternal, internal, and immanent acts in God; I know not where better to place them, and take them into consideration, than next to the decrees of God, and particularly the decree of election; since as that flows from the love of God, and is in Christ from everlasting, there must of course be an union to him so early; and since predestination to the adoption of children, and acceptance in the beloved, are parts and branches of it (Eph. 1:4,5,6), they must be of the same date.”
As always when reading Gill, you must have a high tolerance for all things Calvinist. More on that below; for now, just don’t let your glee or dismay about that distract you. Track his argument from the greatness and God-ness of salvation to its “early” placement in the acts of God. Note also how he immediately makes a hierarchy of what is the source and the broadest term (union), and what are “parts and branches” of it (predestining to adoption, acceptance in the beloved). These things, or this comprehensive union and its parts, are “eternal, internal, immanent acts in God.”
Time-Acts and Our Secret Being
Gill immediately declares that he is not considering “any time-acts of union,” such as
(1)the incarnation with its uniting of human nature to the Son of God, or of
(2) regeneration which grafts us into the vine as sharers in its life, or of
(3) our being found united to Christ in death, to live with him forever.
These are all “time-acts of union,” and referring to the second (regeneration) especially, Gill says it is “our open being in Christ, in consequence of a secret being in him from everlasting by electing grace (see Rom. 16:7, II Cor 5:17 and 12:2)”
From these open and temporal acts, Gill turns to our union with God “as it is in its original, and as an eternal immanent act in God,” which he then describes as “no other than the going forth of his heart in love” which is “of a cementing and uniting nature.”
“In virtue of this, the people of God become a part of himself, a near, dear, and tender part, even as the apple of his eye; have a place in his heart, are engraven on the palms of his hands, and ever on his thoughts; the desires and affections of his soul are always towards them, and he is ever devising and forming schemes for their welfare.”
What I am trying to capture here is the way salvation is connected to the “eternal, internal, and immanent” life of God. In some way, salvation belongs in the life of God, not as a constitutive element of what it takes to be God, but as an act of God which never was not. Affirming this immanence of salvation to God, without obliterating divine freedom and gratuity, is part of the theological pathos of living with a high view of salvation and of God and of their interconnection.
There is a certain wisdom in this Reformed tradition, which thinks such gigantic thoughts about the scope and reach of salvation. Gill has a reputation for being a bit of a hyper-Calvinist, and one part of the evidence usually offered is the line of argument I am considering now. Immediately after chapter 4’s treatment of our union with God as eternal, Gill goes on to chapter 5: “Of Other Eternal and Immanent Acts in God, Particularly Adoption and Justification.” Aha. This notion of the “eternal justification” of the elect proved to be very controversial, even among Calvinists: F. Turretin disagreed (as Gill notes), and Spurgeon, though deferential toward Gill, thinks it best to affirm eternal election but to keep other realities of salvation (justification, adoption) as closely linked to an effectual call in history as possible, or in Gill’s terms to keep them as “time-acts of union.” Spurgeon admits that there are some elements of salvation which are so intimate to both God and to us that it is “difficult to say whether they were done in eternity or whether they were done in time.” To sort the problem out in at least a preliminary way, Spurgeon opts for a distinction, saying these things “were virtually done in eternity,” but are “actually passed upon us, in our proper persons, consciences, and experiences, in time.”
I have no interest in sorting out who’s a hyper-Calvinist: that term may mean “a Calvinist who denies that you should preach the gospel to all” –which Gill certainly was not– or it might mean “anyone who is more thoroughly Calvinist than I am comfortable with” –which Gill certainly was. It’s easy to be more Calvinist than I’m comfortable with, because I’m Wesleyan. But Gill was the kind of Calvinist who made other Calvinists nervous.
From all of that I avert my eyes for the time being. What I find fascinating is this question, tossed back and forth by Gill and Spurgeon: how much of salvation should we say is eternally true in God, belonging to his very heart from all time, as part of the conversation about our redemption which was never not taking place among Father, Son, and Spirit? And how much of it should be firmly, insistently located on the timeline of our finite experience, where the Word and Spirit meet us on our way?
I maintain high hopes that Goodwin will yet be my teacher on this. But Gill is instructive precisely as the thinker who went maximal on the question of how much belongs in God’s eternal, internal, immanent actions. If (with Turretin) you back off from Gill’s mark, or (with Spurgeon) you hold Gill’s view as a scriptural possibility about which you cannot be dogmatic, you can at least learn a lot from watch Gill charge out there and stake a claim on the frontier. I do believe he went there for the right reason: to make much of grace and say big things about salvation.