by Riley Fraas
Of all the great preachers and theologians in the hall of Church History, few are as broadly appreciated, read as far and wide still in our present day as Charles H. Spurgeon. Revered throughout evangelicalism as a preacher and evangelist, the preacher at the London Metropolitan Tabernacle exemplified the heavenly gift through his wit, his understanding and application of the human condition, his pointed focus, and soundness to the teaching of Scripture. I personally remember seeing his works in the bookstore at a large charismatic megachurch that I attended many, many years ago. That Spurgeon is still read so broadly is a testament to his staying power and appeal. In this book by the distinguished historian Iain H. Murray first published in 1966, Murray’s book focuses attention on episodes in Spurgeons life ministry which, according to Murray, had received short shrift in previous biographies and works on Spurgeon.
Murray’s premise is that Spurgeon’s role in doctrinal controversies has been downplayed because those who had hitherto written about him did not share the beliefs that he fought for in those instances of his ministry. They tend to either describe his involvement in doctrinal controversy as out of character, an aberration, or a forgivable flaw in context with all the “good” produced by him in contrast to the controversies, like winning the lost. Spurgeon’s response during times of controversy usually came in the form of sermons preached during the times of the controversies. Murray’s thesis seems plausible to me, though I must admit that I have never read any of the biographies of Spurgeon that he cites. Due to the efforts of Murray and others, I have a hunch that Spurgeon’s distinctive theology which sets him apart from much of what passes for modern evangelicalism, that is, his adherance to the teachings of the Puritans and Reformed soteriology are now better known than they were fifty years ago. That is, in my judgment Spurgeon is probably more widely recognized as a Calvinist today than he once was. But I decided to write this review because I think Murray’s book offers insightful thoughts from Spurgeon on many practical things which are still confronting ministers of the gospel today. My intention is not to write a comprehensive book review summarizing all the details in every chapter of the book, but to highlight insights which I find engage me in my current context, and hopefully others will benefit from them as well. I will stick to Murray’s book and will not be quoting any other works. I will use the term “Calvinism” to represent a soteriology which holds that salvation is unconditionally of the Lord from start to finish, which is the way in which Spurgeon embraced and used the label.
- The Preacher in Park Street
It is commonly thought in evangelical circles that Calvinist preaching does not appeal to the masses. If it can cause growth anywhere, it would seem to be only among the most intellectual and rationally educated demographic like university students, software engineers and physics teachers, or maybe in certain ethnic communities where people have been raised on it. According to this thinking, industrialized South London was no place where Calvinism should flourish, humanly speaking. Yet despite all of these human factors, Spurgeon’s ministry, particularly known for its bold exposition of the doctrines of grace from Scripture, flourished among factory workers, housekeepers, and chimney-sweeps. What a testimony this is to God’s grace! Doesn’t this sound a lot like the God we read about in the first chapter of Corinthians, who has chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise? And my own limited experience confirms that it is often the most humble of station that are best prepared to embrace a Sovereign God who works all things according to the counsel of his will. (Ephesians 1:11) Many of the people I’ve known in churches where the doctrines of grace were taught have been truck drivers, welders, municipal workers, or nurses. The example of the success of Spurgeon’s ministry in hardscrabble South London ought to serve as an example and encouragement to us preachers who are committed to the same doctrines that he professed. We base our hope for growth and discipleship not on the education or intellectual powers of the hearers, but only on the grace of God and the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit on the mind of the redeemed sinner. Murray also notes that Spurgeon was more noted for specifically preaching on the doctrines of grace earlier in his ministry, but that later in life, he widened his field, so to speak, by preaching on other topics more frequently without changing his position on the sovereign grace of God which saves. (35) Probably this is a growth cycle that many Calvinistic preachers go through as they mature and come to a greater understanding of the Scriptures. Over time, they come to understand the Scriptures better, so they find more doctrines and topics in each passage to address in preaching. The effect is a greater variety.
- The Lost Controversy
Spurgeon’s first major controversy arose through criticism from those Murray calls “Hyper-Calvinists”, who through peculiar attempts at logical resolution denied the free offer of the gospel to all hearers. It seems that Spurgeon had not yet come under the widespread attention of the larger Arminian camp which preached “free will” in opposition to Calvinism, but he had managed to arouse the ire of Hyper-Calvinists by the freeness with which he offered Christ crucified to all sinners who heard him. Actually, (as Murray notes,) Hyper-Calvinism is a misnomer because it disagrees with Calvin who clearly articulated and preached the free offer of the gospel.
According to Spurgeon, Hyper-Calvinists were guilty of not preaching the gospel to sinners as our Lord commanded, since Hyper-Calvinism preaches the gospel only to those who are sensible and conscious of their sinfulness, not to the dead and indifferent. The biblical way is to offer the gospel to senseless sinners, not sensible sinners on whom God has already been working. Spurgeon said of their preaching,
“I do not believe in the way in which some people pretend to preach the gospel. They have no gospel for sinners as sinners, but only for those who are above the dead level of sinnership, and are technically styled ‘sensible’ sinners.” (Murray, 49.)
The problem with the Hyper-Calvinist approach is that those who are truly touched savingly by God’s grace are the last ones who will consider themselves to be fully convinced or sensible of their condition. The awakened sinner only sees his wretchedness and misery, not his awakened state. Therefore, he will assume that the message of reconciliation preached to those who sense their sinfulness is not for him, since his senses do not even begin to plumb the depths of how truly sinful he is, he thinks. On the other hand, when the only requirement for receiving the gospel is that one be a sinner and rebel against God deserving of eternal hell, not necessarily one on whom the Holy Spirit is working, then the truly awakened will perceive that this is a message for them, and that Christ is truly offered to be their Savior.
Ironically, where the Hyper-Calvinists fall short on this point is at the same point where the Arminians fall short. By requiring that the hearer be in some sense prepared mentally and spiritually first in order for the good news of Christ’s death and resurrection to then be applied to him by the preacher, they were implying that the power of Christ’s atonement did not extend itself to the unbelief and hardened obstinacy of those for whom he died, but that something else is required before this atonement may be applied to sinners in preaching. In contrast, biblical Calvinism recognizes that it was not for the awakened and spiritually concerned that Christ died, but for hardened sinners and enemies of God, even for the very people who crucified him. In this way only the Calvinist message based on Scriptural teaching that Christ died to save to the uttermost all His elect is actually able to freely offer the gospel to all hearers. Hyper-Calvinism, then, with its offer of salvation limited to those who were already showing signs of being elect, falls short of a true representation of Calvinism, and more importantly, of Christ’s atonement as revealed in Scripture, because it does not offer Christ to hardened sinners.
Calvinists are precisely those who believe that hardened sinners are saved by grace in their state of spiritual death in keeping with Ephesians 2:4-5, But God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us, Even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ, If we are to be true to our beliefs, we must present the good news of reconciliation with God to the worst sinners imaginable in our preaching, that is, to those who are entirely unawakened and unenlightened, who are completely numb in a deathly stupor. This point hit me when I read Murray’s book. I began to feel convicted about one recent sermon in particular, at a wedding, when I recall having said something to the effect that “if the Holy Spirit is drawing you, then embrace Christ the Savior and be saved by him.” Although my intent was to be true to God’s sovereignty in salvation in the way that I presented the gospel, I am now of the opinion that I was being hyper-calvinistic in this type of appeal, as if Christ were not freely offered to those on whom the Spirit has not begun to work. But perhaps the more weighty consideration is that those on whom the Spirit is working will not be cognizant of the fact at that point in time, and that by putting in the description that those who should come are those who are being drawn by Him, I may cause certain hearers to exclude themselves from the invitation, namely those who are most sensible of their sinfulness! I am thankful to Spurgeon and Murray for helping to bring to my attention a serious flaw in my preaching. If I truly believe that salvation is of grace alone, as a good Calvinist, then I cannot fail to freely offer forgiveness of sins and eternal life to those who are completely dead in their sins and without any taste for the things of God, in the way that God has appointed, that is, upon condition of faith in Christ.
- Arminianism against Scripture
“Spurgeon held that Arminianism does not merely affect a few doctrines which can be separated from the gospel, rather it involves the whole unity of biblical revelation and it affects our view of the whole plan of redemption at almost every point.” (Murray, 74)
It’s hard to argue with Spurgeon’s position that Arminianism destroys the coherance of the biblical plan of redemption. The whole biblical plan of salvation fails if just one link in the golden chain of salvation found in Romans 8:29, 30:
For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover whom he did predestinate, them he also called: and whom he called, them he also justified: and whom he justified, them he also glorified.
But even more than messing up the plan of salvation revealed in Scripture, Spurgeon believed that Arminianism had dire consequences for the preaching of the free offer of the gospel itself. Murray writes, “[Spurgeon] held that if the Arminian position were true he would have no real redemption that he could preach, because it would throw the message of the gospel into confusion. (77)
The gospel of reconciliation with God through Christ is of course given within the context of the fuller sweep of biblical revelation. But even more than that, Arminianism, according to Spurgeon, undermines salvation itself. By teaching that not everyone for whom Christ died will be saved, Arminianism ends up holding forth a general atonement intended for everyone in general but no one in particular. That is to say, according to Arminian teaching, Jesus did not really die for anyone. Spurgeon says,
“The Arminian holds that Christ, when he died, did not die with an intent to save any particular person; and they teach that Christ’s death does not in itself secure, beyond a doubt, the salvation of any one man living…We say that Christ so died that he infallibly secured the salvation of a multitude that no man can number, who through Christ’s death not only may be saved, but are saved, must be saved, and cannot by any possibility run the hazard of being anything but saved.” (82)
To the Calvinist preacher of the gospel, it is a comfort to know that he has a full, real, specific, and particular atoning sacrifice to preach to all men in general. Because Christ died to save a particular people, his death is both powerful and effective to save them, and when they hear the gospel generally preached to all men, those who are called and chosen will respond in faith and obedience, all of which are fruits procured by the death of Christ himself on their behalf. That is to say, the blood of Christ conquers the sin of unbelief and turns it into faith. Arminianism, on the other hand, believes that the sinner dead in trespasses and sins must supply the faith himself (or at least, that his will is the determining factor,) meaning that Christ’s death has not fully washed his mind and renewed his conscience. Without the doctrine of particular redemption, then, there is not a full atonement.
- Arminianism and Evangelism
“Arminians say that sinners are commanded, therefore they must be able; Hyper-Calvinists say they cannot be able, therefore they must not be commanded. But Scripture and Calvinism sets forth both man’s inability and his duty-and both truths are a necessary part of evangelism.” (106)
The thing which most sticks out for us in our present day, as fifty years ago when Murray wrote this book, is the contrast between the modern method of evangelism and Spurgeon’s gospel-preaching. Spurgeon did not try to make conversion into an easy thing by boiling it down to a decision for the better of two options. His God was bigger than that. Rather, he would forcefully preach the inability of the hearers to respond, followed by a command to repent and believe the gospel. Murray supplies another quotation from Spurgeon,
“We may lay God’s commands, like an axe, to the root of the tree, but, reasonable as these commands are, you will still refuse to give God his due; you will go on in your sins; you will not come to him that you may have life; and it is here that the Spirit of God must come in to work on the souls of the elect to make them willing in the day of His power. But oh! In God’s name, I warn you that, if, after hearing this command, you do, as I know you will do, without His Spirit, continue to refuse obedience to so reasonable a gospel, you shall find at last that it will be more tolerable for Sodom and Gomorrah; than for you; for had the things which are preached in London been proclaimed in Sodom and Gomorrah, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. Woe unto you, inhabitants of London!…I charge you by the living God…obey this divine message and you shall have eternal life; but refuse it, and on your own heads be your blood forever and ever!” (107)
What a contrast we find in such quotations with the easy-believism of our day. As in the day when Murray wrote this book, we find little that will stand the test if this kind of preaching is the model of gospel-preaching. Spurgeon preached both the necessity of believing and the hearers’ natural inability to believe with equal fervency, with glorious results. Could we do that in our preaching? What might happen if we did?
The other aspect of his preaching which is noted by Murray in contrast to the Arminian type of evangelism is his emphasis on regeneration. Spurgeon believed, based on Scriptural teaching, that only a life-giving miracle of the Holy Spirit can raise a sinner dead in sin and unbelief to life in Christ. He did not shy away from preaching this doctrine even to the unconverted, because he believed that to make the hearers’ eternal destiny seem to depend on their own decision-making would be to invite false conversion and impiety. I find this aspect of his preaching to be convicting. How many of us of the Reformed or Calvinistic persuasion make a point of preaching on the topic of regeneration, and how do we associate this topic with the gospel? Yet so many of the great evangelists of old have preached on regeneration as the other side of the coin from the “free offer.” George Whitefield and the great awakening comes to mind. What would a ministry of the word look like in this day and age if it had a similar emphasis on regeneration by the Spirit of God?
- The Downgrade
The one other aspect or controversy of Spurgeon’s ministry that I would like to touch on regards is that which Murray calls the “Downgrade.” The Baptist Union of which Spurgeon had been a part and among which he had ministered for several years had undergone such change that the doctrine of the infallibility of Scripture was being undermined. Although Spurgeon has been accused by some of separating from the Union over his rigid adherance to Calvinism, Spurgeon’s own quotations show that this was far from the truth. He was fighting over the very foundation of Christian truth, that Scripture is the only and the inerrant rule for the faith and practice of the church, a position which was being actively weakened and undermined at the time in the Baptist Union of which the Metropolitan Tabernacle was a part. I find it instructive and interesting that Spurgeon’s main concern in this controversy was such that he laid aside, if you will, the debate between Calvinists and Arminians in order to defend the position of Scripture in the Christian church. It seems that Spurgeon would have been content to continue serving in a Union which included some Arminians, doubtlessly in an attempt to win them over to a more biblical view of salvation, if it could only be agreed that the sixty-six books of Holy Scripture were the inerrant and infallible authority. This episode offers a glimpse into Spurgeon’s view of fellowship between the churches. I personally find it instructive as one who serves in a conference which includes a diversity of views on the topic of soteriology. In what ways are Spurgeon’s efforts at finding unity in a common view of Scripture as inerrant and divinely inspired to be imitated? Or is it regretful in some way that he tried to remain an influence on the Union for as long as he did? I find the question of where to draw the line in terms of fellowship between churches to be one of the trickiest knots facing Christian churches today. Where do you balance the safety of high standards of doctrinal purity with the desire to be an influence on a broader range of churches through fellowship? Spurgeon’s example is something I will be chewing on for insights into this conundrum.
I would highly appreciate your comments below. My intent is to get a discussion going. –RF