Andrew Fuller found himself at the forefront of an evangelical missionary awakening in the latter two decades of the 18th century. Following a generation marked by doctrinal declension, including the popularity of a spiritually stifling hyper-Calvinism, a growing number of English Particular Baptists were becoming convinced that the Bible calls every generation of believers to intentional evangelism and discipleship among all peoples. They took ownership of the Great Commission for themselves and others soon followed.
Two centuries later, Christianity is truly a global faith. According to the Pew Research Center for Religion & Public Life, around 2 billion people currently claim the name of Christ. In 1910, 82 percent of professing Christians lived in the “Global North” in places such as North America, Europe, Japan, and Australasia. By 2010, over 60 percent of the world’s Christian population lived in the “Global South” of Africa, Asia, and South America. Christianity has “gone viral,” just as Jesus promised it would in Matthew 28:18–20.
Since 1845, Southern Baptists have been vigorous champions of global missions. Currently, around 4,800 full-time missionaries serve through the Southern Baptist International Mission Board. Thousands of churches have sponsored short-term mission trips and hundreds have adopted unreached people groups upon whom they focus their mission efforts. To date, Southern Baptists have given over $2 billion to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for global missions.
Andrew Fuller would be no doubt be pleased that missions-mindedness is at the very center of Southern Baptist identity.
In recent years, Southern Baptists have adopted an initiative called the “Great Commission Resurgence” and recommitted ourselves to faithful cooperation for the sake of global disciple-making. Southern Baptists want to be at the center of the work that God is doing to draw unto himself a people from every tribe, tongue, and nation (Rev. 7:9). This initiative will only succeed as pastors own it for themselves and lead their congregations to embrace the Great Commission as their mission.
Scholars argue that Fuller is a model for evangelical pastoral theology in the Baptist tradition. I would add that he was also a Great Commission pastor. As a missions-minded pastor-theologian, Fuller is a great role model for contemporary Southern Baptist pastors who desire to shepherd their churches toward greater faithfulness in key areas such as evangelism, discipleship, church planting, and global missions.
FULLER’S GREAT COMMISSION PASTORAL THEOLOGY
Fuller teaches us that Great Commission pastors embody at least three key theological priorities. Ideally, these theological priorities ought to inform every aspect of the pastor’s faith and practice.
First, Great Commission pastors should be committed to a gospel-centered approach to Christian life and ministry. During Fuller’s lifetime, the gospel came under threat from several different directions. Sandemanians argued that belief is intellectual assent to the facts of the gospel and rejected the biblical notion that repentance is a vital aspect of saving faith. Antinomians challenged the biblical idea that holiness is a necessary component of the authentic Christian life. Hyper-Calvinists tended toward fatalism in believing and sharing the good news, while Arminians tended toward man-centeredness in defining the content of the good news.
Fuller challenged each of these views in both preaching and print, criticizing them as sub-biblical, soul-damaging views that undermine clear gospel proclamation and authentic spiritual flourishing. He preached a robustly evangelical gospel that emphasized universal human sinfulness, God’s gracious initiative in salvation, the necessity of personal repentance, and a life of increasing conformity to the character of Jesus Christ. In his gospel preaching, Fuller affirmed historic Protestant (and biblical) doctrines such as justification by grace alone through faith alone and Christ’s substitutionary atonement for human sin. There is no Great Commission without the biblical gospel.
Second, and closely related, Fuller reminds us that Great Commission pastors affirm, defend, and commend sound doctrine. During the so-called “long 18th century” from 1689 to 1815, Great Britain was awash with anti-Christian thought, much of which was influenced by Enlightenment skepticism. Deism, which came in a variety of forms, was popular among cultural elites. More troubling, atheism and agnosticism were beginning to gain a hearing. Socinianism, a system that denied the Trinity, the full deity of Christ, and substitutionary atonement, remained popular among those who were not brave enough to embrace outright skepticism.
Even many professing Christians affirmed heterodox doctrines colored by Enlightenment rationalism. A growing number of both Dissenters and Anglicans rejected the full truthfulness (inerrancy) of Scripture. Some embraced various forms of universal restoration, which is the belief that all people will ultimately be saved because of the finished work of Christ — including those who never hear the gospel and those who reject outright the good news. Some of Fuller’s fellow Baptists affirmed these heterodoxies, as well as other historic “in house” errors such as open communion and open membership. While less grave than the aforementioned errors, Fuller was convinced these latter views undermined a New Testament view of membership and the ordinances.
As with aberrant views of the gospel, Fuller challenged other threats to sound doctrine. He argued for a high view of Scripture, the necessity of belief for salvation, the Trinity, the full deity and humanity of Jesus Christ, and God’s providential control over all creation. Fuller was unapologetically Baptist and commended the historic Baptist view of the church as the closest approximation to New Testament ecclesiology. He understood that a pastor must at times be polemical if he is to shepherd the flock and lead them into greater spiritual maturity and missional faithfulness. Great Commission pastors today should follow his wise example.
Finally, Fuller shows us that Great Commission pastors are committed to cooperative missions. Fuller understood that it is never enough to simply get the gospel right — Christ commands us to get the gospel out. In 1792, Fuller, William Carey, and several other pastor friends founded the Baptist Missionary Society. Carey himself served as one of the society’s first (and certainly its most famous) missionaries, while Fuller served as the society’s secretary from 1792 until his death in 1815. Fuller traveled all over the British Isles to raise money for missions, preach missions sermons, and help ordain young men to serve as missionaries. His example encouraged many others to do likewise in their own contexts.
Over the course of a generation, the Baptist Missionary Society drew together most Particular Baptists into closer cooperation for the sake of making disciples in their churches, in under-reached corners in the British Isles, and among the unreached peoples of the earth. By 1820, the missionary awakening among the English Baptists had spread to other evangelicals and bore fruit among Baptists and other missions-minded believers throughout the British Isles and North America. Today, missiologists argue that missions is increasingly “from everywhere, to everywhere.” This is true in part because Fuller and others stepped out in faith and modeled how to cooperate intentionally and sacrificially for the sake of the Great Commission. We must do the same today.
A CALL FOR CONTEMPORARY GREAT COMMISSION PASTORS
Southern Baptist pastors should learn from Fuller’s example of Great Commission pastoral faithfulness. Like Fuller, today’s pastors should be committed to a gospel-centered vision that understands that the perfect life, atoning death, and victorious resurrection of Jesus Christ is at the heart of Christian life and ministry. I believe Fuller would be pleased with the renewed emphasis on the gospel that is taking place among Southern Baptists and many other evangelicals. There is no Great Commission faithfulness without gospel faithfulness.
Like Fuller, Southern Baptist pastors should be willing to define, defend, and commend sound doctrine. As was the case with Fuller, ours is an era plagued by numerous threats to the faith once and for all delivered to the saints. By God’s grace, Southern Baptists have inherited the theological renewal of the Conservative Resurgence in the 1980s and 1990s. However, contemporary Baptist pastors must remain vigilant in our affirmation of biblical truth. Doctrinal drift will always be a threat — and always takes us in a direction away from biblical faithfulness and a full-throated commitment to the Great Commission.
Like Fuller, contemporary pastors should lead their churches to cooperate with other churches for the sake of the Great Commission. Southern Baptists have ample opportunities to cooperate through our associations, state conventions, and the national convention. We can and should give generously — even sacrificially — to the Cooperative Program and our two annual missions offerings. Missions-minded pastors should also lead their churches to find other, more hands-on ways to cooperate with like-minded churches in evangelism, discipleship, mercy ministries, and church planting. Southern Baptists will only be Great Commission Baptists if pastors lead their churches to cooperate with other churches for the purpose of kingdom advance.
I pray that God will show us grace by raising up a generation of Southern Baptist pastors who, like Andrew Fuller before us, model Great Commission pastoral leadership for the glory of God, the health of our churches, and the sake of the nations.
Nathan A. Finn is associate professor of historical theology and Baptist studies at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and adjunct professor at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is a fellow for the Andrew Fuller Center for Baptist Studies and the associate editor of the center’s 16-volume Works of Andrew Fuller, to be published by Walter de Gruyter.