Unfolding the Word of God

By Evan D. Burns

Andrew Fuller loved to stare long and hard at Scripture in deep meditation and study.  His pastoral methods were marked by providing good food for his flock and by protecting them from contaminated food.  Fuller despised false doctrine, and he was quick to engage those who promoted such error.  One way he protected his flock from confusion and uncertainty was by expounding difficult and seemingly contradictory passages in Scripture.  In a large section in the first volume of his Works called “Passages Apparently Contradictory,” Fuller would take a couple of verses with ostensible contradictions and clarify their coherence having considered each of their historical, literary, and theological contexts.  As he did this for his people, he modeled how ministers today can help their flocks have more confidence in the Word of God and more certainty in its inerrancy, infallibility, and sufficiency.  The Serpent loves to ask, “did God really say….?”  If we, like Fuller, would not rest till we had a satisfactory understanding of how the hard texts fit together, those entrusted to our care would have their eyes opened to wonderful things in God’s law.  “The unfolding of your words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple” (Ps 119:130).  The first two conflicting texts in his “Passages Apparently Contradictory” are:

“And ye will not come to me, that ye might have life.”—John 5:40.

“No man can come to me except the Father, who hath sent me, draw him….  It is written in the prophets, And they shall be all taught of God. Every man therefore that hath heard, and hath learned of the Father, cometh unto me”

“Jesus knew from the beginning who they were that believed not: and he said, Therefore said I unto you, that no man can come unto me, except it were given unto him of my Father.”—John 6:44, 45, 64, 65.

The following points demonstrate Fuller’s durable cogitation of difficult texts and how he could plainly harmonize without being too complex or too simplistic:

First, There is no way of obtaining eternal life but by Jesus Christ….  Secondly, They that enjoy eternal life must come to Christ for it….  Thirdly, It is the revealed will of Christ that everyone who hears the gospel should come to him for life….  Fourthly, The depravity of human nature is such that no man, of his own accord, will come to Christ for life….  Fifthly, The degree of this depravity is such as that, figuratively speaking, men cannot come to Christ for life….  Sixthly, A conviction of the righteousness of God’s government, of the spirituality and goodness of his law, the evil of sin, our lost condition by nature, and the justice of our condemnation, is necessary in order to our coming to Christ….  Lastly, There is absolute necessity of a special Divine agency in order to our coming to Christ….  Upon the whole, we see from these passages taken together, first, if any man is lost, whom he has to blame for it—himself; secondly, if any man is saved, whom he has to praise for it—God.[1]

[1]Andrew Gunton Fuller, The Complete Works of Andrew Fuller, Volume 1: Memoirs, Sermons, Etc., ed. Joseph Belcher (Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications, 1988), 667-69.


Evan D. Burns (Ph.D. Candidate, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is on faculty at Asia Biblical Theological Seminary, and he lives in Thailand with his wife and twin sons.  They are missionaries with Training Leaders International.