The Spell That Opened Heaven: Funeral Message for Daniel Fuller (1925–2023)

I know nothing greater in human language than the eighth chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans. It is the towering chapter of the towering book of the towering apostle. The God of Romans 8, the Christ and cross of Romans 8, the salvation of Romans 8, the love of Romans 8, and the hope of Romans 8 are unsurpassed in greatness and worth in all the world. Even the logic of Romans 8 is more precious than life.

There is a connection between the beauties of the salvation and logic of Romans 8 and my relationship with Daniel Fuller. Fifty-five years later, I can still feel the spell that I came under in the fall of 1968 in Daniel Fuller’s hermeneutics class.

Most of my fellow students did not fall under this spell. When he announced a special elective to be held at his home, only six of us signed up. Dr. Fuller was not what you’d call “spellbinding.” Sometimes, in an almost painful sense, he was bumbling. There were students who would have said just what Paul’s adversaries at Corinth said: “His letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech of no account” (2 Corinthians 10:10).

But there were some who felt the spell that was cast by this weak, bumbling, incomparable teacher. I recall one day in a seminar on Galatians when he walked into the room with his arms full of books and papers. He looked frazzled. He was no doubt overworked. He was the academic dean in those days, as well as professor of hermeneutics. He put the papers down and stood between two overhead projectors, one for arcing and one for diagramming, and said, “Somebody ask me a question so that we can get started.”

Some students rolled their eyes at that. Me? It was like a catapult into academic heaven. I think I had been waiting all my life for someone who would show me that asking questions is the key to understanding — and someone who had enough humility that he would make himself vulnerable to students twenty years younger than he.

I recall the beginning of a class with Leon Morris, visiting professor from Australia, in which I raised my hand with a question, and he awkwardly paused, turned red in the face, and communicated by his terse answer that questions were not welcome during his lecture. I dropped the class. I had come under another spell. What was it, and what did it have to do with Romans 8?

From Pieces to Panorama

As with every spell, it’s hard to put into words — like the spell I came under when I met my wife, or the one I felt in the medical center of Wheaton College in September 1966, when God called me to the ministry of the word. These have never left, but to put them into words is not easy. Here’s my best effort to express the spell Daniel Fuller cast over my life starting in the fall of 1968 and continuing to this day.

Part of it was this: the combination in one person of intense, rigorous, detailed, meticulous observation of words and phrases and clauses and sentences, together with a comprehensive, coherent vision of everything that exists. It was the excitement of discovery by breaking things into their parts, mingled with the even greater excitement of seeing them come together in a beautiful, all-encompassing fullness.

I might have expected to find a professor with exegetical eyes like a microscope, who sees the text of Romans 8 broken out into a hundred exquisite pieces, and I might have expected to find a professor with theological eyes like a telescope, who sees the whole panorama of reality as a unified whole.

But I did not expect to find them in one person — the microscope and the telescope, the meticulous exegete and the comprehensive theologian, the hundred pieces of Romans 8 and the breathtaking beauty of a unified whole. That almost never happens. William Wordsworth said,

Our meddling intellect
Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things: —
We murder to dissect.

But not everyone. Not Daniel Fuller. For him, the meticulous observation of the smallest parts of Romans 8 was the assembling of the building blocks of a great temple of wonder and worship. I have lived in that temple for five decades and have found it to be an inexhaustible source of awe and strength. The only thing that gets murdered is pride.

Illustrated Glory

There is another aspect of the spell that Dr. Fuller cast over me. It was the use of homespun, almost childish illustrations of glorious truth that somehow did not trivialize the glory. I have heard many preachers and teachers over the years connect glorious truth with ordinary-life illustrations, and so often, instead of the truth shining with greater brightness, it disappears into a movie scene or a sitcom.

It didn’t work that way in the spell that Dr. Fuller cast over me. He came to Psalm 23:6, that great precursor of Romans 8:28, which says, “Goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,” and he pointed out that the verb translated “follow” is radaph in Hebrew, which virtually always means “pursue” or “persecute.” He said,

God’s goodness and mercy are pursuing us. Like a highway patrolman with his red lights flashing behind you to run you down and say to you, “‘All things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future — all are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s’ (1 Corinthians 3:20–23). ‘The eyes of the Lord run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to show himself strong on behalf of those whose heart is whole toward him’ (2 Chronicles 16:9). ‘I will rejoice in doing them good . . . with all my heart and all my soul’ (Jeremiah 32:41). I will never stop pursuing you for your good.”

I suppose I could have reacted to that illustration of the highway patrolman by saying, “Well, that’s mundane, trivial, goofy,” but that didn’t happen. Instead, I have been trying for fifty years to climb up into that glory, that the Creator of the universe is pursuing me with perfect goodness and omnipotent mercy all my days, like a highway patrolman, lights flashing, who wants to give me a ticket with the words, “You have been made an heir of the world!” (Romans 4:13).

Why didn’t I scoff at that illustration and roll my eyes? Why did I worship? I don’t know. It was the spell. I walked into Daniel Fuller’s spell and never left.

That Great Verse

The house he built in the spring of 1970 in the class on Romans 1–8 is the house I will live in forever, and I expect the wonders of chapter 8 to be as inexhaustible in a million years as they are today. The reason I say this is found in what may be the greatest verse in the Bible, Romans 8:32 — a verse that Daniel Fuller loved, a verse that was the fulcrum of his theology.

It is perhaps the greatest verse because no other verse is as clear in putting together the infinite depth of the foundation of our salvation with the infinite height and expanse of its blessings and happiness: “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?”

Dr. Fuller loved this verse because it is the great, irrefutable a fortiori in the Bible, an argument from the greater to the lesser, from the hard to the easy. If God has done the hardest thing imaginable to make us happy, then certainly, beyond any doubt, he will do the rest — whatever it takes — to make us supremely happy in him forever.

Paul loved the gospel-glory of the a fortiori argument. He used it in Romans 5:9: “Since . . . we have now been justified by his blood [impossible for the ungodly!], much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God.” How easy it is for God to save from wrath those who at infinite cost have been declared righteous by God himself!

And he used the great a fortiori again in Romans 5:10: “If while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son [enemies of God, reconciled? Unthinkable! And yet he did it], much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.” How easy for God to save those who are reconciled to him by the infinite cost of his Son’s blood!

Then comes the greatest of all — the great a fortiori of Romans 8:32: “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all [unthinkable! Giving up his own Son to spitting, mocking, torture, and death? Yes!], how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” If he did the hardest, how easy then to give us all we need to be happy in him forever!

Inexpressible, Inexhaustible Riches

In the very center of his book Unity of the Bible (because it is the fulcrum of the whole), Dr. Fuller exults over the inexpressible implications of this verse. Very rarely did Dan Fuller resort to the inadequacy of human language to make a point, but on page 218 he says, “Words become inadequate as Paul describes these riches” — the riches of the “all things” in Romans 8:32. Because he gave his Son, God will give us all things in him.

Dr. Fuller echoes the heart of the great apostle: “Though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ” (Ephesians 3:8). The “all things” are unsearchable. He explains, “‘Unsearchable,’ or (lit.) ‘not capable of being traced out.’” The “all things” of Romans 8:32 are unsearchable not because they are confusing, but because they are endless.

And not only endless, but as he says on the next page, immeasurable. “God . . . made us alive together with Christ . . . and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:4–7).

It will take an infinite number of coming ages for the infinite God to exhaustively show the riches of his grace toward us, because they are inexhaustible, unsearchable, immeasurable. They are the “all things” of Romans 8:32. They are as infinitely certain for us in Christ as the worth of God’s Son was infinite when God did not spare him but gave him for us all.

His Portion Now and Forever

This was the fulcrum of Daniel Fuller’s theology and the fulcrum of his life: “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things” — everything we need to enjoy God fully and forever? The lever of infinite cost catapults us into infinite joy.

Here is how Dr. Fuller stated the unity of the Bible: “The one thing that God is doing in all of redemptive history is to show forth his mercy in such a way that the greatest number of people will, throughout eternity, delight in him with all their heart, strength, and mind” (454).

That delight is Daniel Fuller’s portion now: no longer embattled, no longer bumbling — but overflowing. And it will be ours through faith in Christ. If Dan could have the last word, I think it would be this: “Let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price” (Revelation 22:17).

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