by Dr. Andrew Corbett 4th February 2013
He’s known as the “Prince of Preachers”. There was once a time when kings and their princely sons were the first ones into battle with their armies to defend their people. And if this is what is required of princes, then Charles Haddon Spurgeon deserves the royal accolade. For when the Church was under vicious attack in the nineteenth century from both within and without, it was Charles Spurgeon who had the courage to step into the fray at great personal cost. These attacks came in three waves during Spurgeon’s career. While he fought valiantly, he most frequently fought alone and it was this sad aspect of his battles that arguable led to his premature departure.
No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him.
Second Timothy 2:4
Spurgeon was converted at the age of 15 after an irregular visit to a Methodist Church in Colchester where he sought refuge from the snow. Even at such a tender age he was acutely aware of his sinful condition. He knew that he did not have peace with God. But on this day, a lay preacher called his tiny congregation and their 15 year old visitor to “look unto Me, and be ye saved” (Isa. 45:22). It was this simple revelation that effected Charles Spurgeon’s faith in Christ as his Saviour.
“I believe that I had been a very good, attentive hearer; my own impression about myself was that nobody ever listened much better than I did. For years, as a child, I tried to learn the way of salvation; and either I did not hear it set forth, which I think cannot quite have been the case, or else I was spiritually blind and deaf, and could not see it and could not hear it; but the good news that I was, as a sinner, to look away from myself to Christ, as much startled me, and came as fresh to me, as any news I ever heard in my life. Had I never read my Bible? Yes, and I read it earnestly. Had I never been taught by Christian people? Yes, I had, by mother, and father, and others. Had I not heard the gospel? Yes, I think I had; and yet, somehow, it was like a new revelation to me that I was to ”believe and live.”
Charles Spurgeon, The Early Years (Autobiography)
From that time, Spurgeon became a fully devoted follower of Christ. His call as an evangelist was immediately obvious as he handed out Gospel tracts, wrote scriptures on scraps of paper to drop on the ground along his walks, and went house to house asking if he could be of assistance. His potential became apparent to the leader of the local Preachers’ Association, who gave him his first church preaching assignment when he was just 16. His text for that first sermon? Isaiah 45:22 “Look unto Me and be ye saved all the ends of the earth…”
Spurgeon’s father and Grandfather were both preachers. Much of the time he spent at his Grandfather’s as a young boy was invested in reading many of the Puritan books in the Rev. Spurgeon’s library. Charles Spurgeon learned to read books from a very young age. From his 20s, while pastoring a church of thousands, he made it his habit to read 4 “difficult” books a week. From the age of 17 Charles was appointed the pastor of a small chapel in Waterbeach, Cambridge. But within two years he received a call to the historic pastorate of New Park Street Chapel in London.
New Park Street Chapel began in 1650 as a Reformed (“Particular”) Baptist Church. When they called the 19 year old Spurgeon as their pastor in 1854, this 2000 seat church was barely drawing a hundred people to worship. But within a few months of Spurgeon arriving, it was full. Not long afterward they undertook a building expansion program to accommodate another 200 seats. Yet the crowds kept coming and queuing outside to get in so that there was an inordinate number of people standing during the service. The church hired large music halls each Sunday from 1856 to be able to seat those attending. Eventually the church decided to buy property at the Elephant and Castle in South London and contruct The Metropolitan Tabernacle. This new building was opened in 1861 and could seat 6,000. Spurgeon would pastor this church for 38 years, ended by his illness and death at the age of 57 in 1892.
In his book, THE FORGOTTEN SPURGEON, by Iain Murray, he identifies three great battles which Charles Spurgeon felt he must fight. Each of these battles had two attackers which Spurgeon took it up to. His first great battle was over the doctrine of “Election”.
though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls—
Spurgeon saw in Scripture that salvation was the result of the Holy Spirit working on and in a sinner’s life. Man could not imitate this divine work, neither could man add to it. To Spurgeon, it was a complete mystery who God’s Spirit was working on and in to bring them to salvation. But it was not a mystery how God wrought such a miracle in a person’s life : the preaching of the Gospel supported by prayer. Spurgeon pleaded with all men to be saved – but he knew that it was only by a work of the Holy Spirit that this was possible. Those who received this work did so because God had been gracious to them. The New Testament identified such people as “elect”. It describes God’s gracious election of sinners to salvation as “His predestined plan (or purpose).”
¶ In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will,
Spurgeon had two groups opposing him regarding his doctrine of election. The first group were “Hyper-Calvinists”. These people dismissed Spurgeon’s understanding of ‘how’ God’s salvation came to a soul and claimed that God did not need the agency of man to effect salvation in another. They claimed that if someone was elect, there was nothing another Christian need do to. “If God wants to save them, He doesn’t need us to do it!” was the stinging (yet ignored) rebuke of Dr Rylands to William Carey the pioneer Baptist missionary. This was the sentiment of the Hyper-Calvinists. It naturally resulted in little to no evangelism because it taught that the “unelected” could not receive the Gospel anyway. But it also led “antinomianism” (anti= against + noma= law) because its proponents believed that since they were elected there was no sin they could commit which would “unelect” them. Spurgeon tells the story of one such man-
“In my first pastorate, I had often to battle with Antinomians—that is people who held that because they believed themselves to be elect, they might live as they liked . . . I knew one man, who stood on the table of a public-house, and held a glass of gin in his hand, declaring all the while that he is one of the Lord’s chosen people. They kicked him out of the public house, and when I heard of it, I felt that It served him right. Even those ungodly men said that they did not want any such ‘elect’ people there. There is no one who can live in sin—drinking, swearing, lying, and so on—who can truly declare that he is one of the Lord’s chosen people”
Spurgeon believed that God saved sinners by His grace – not by the sinner’s efforts. Since it was a mystery to him who God was saving, and not how God was saving, he strongly emphasized preaching and prayer as the primary means for God effecting salvation in a sinner. When he preached he called sinners to repent and turn to the Saviour in faith. Hyper-Calvinists criticised him for giving sinners false hope that they could indeed be saved. This was the same battle that John Wesley faced in the early days of his ministry largely be people of the same error now opposing Spurgeon. To Spurgeon there simply was no tension between God electing and effecting salvation in a sinner and that sinner’s responsibility to turn to the Saviour. He was accused by Hyper-Calvinists (Fatalists) and Calvinists alike, that he was ignoring Sovereign election of sinners to be saved since he preached to all sinners about their responsibility to turn to the Saviour.
The second group that took umberage with Spurgeon over his belief that God sovereignly saves sinners by grace (“election”), were Arminians who believed that God’s election was explained by His divine foreknowledge. They objected to the idea that only those whom God predestined to be saved would be. Instead, they claimed, anybody could become elected simply by making a decision to believe in Jesus as their Saviour. To Arminians, Spurgeon was teaching that certain people were predestined to go to eternal damnation and could not be saved even if they wanted to. For them, God’s grace was being equally extended to all people and it was now up to each person to decide to follow Christ as their Saviour. This understanding of the Gospel had been popularised by John Wesley. But Spurgeon also believed that people must make a decision to follow Christ and put their faith in Him as the Saviour. The battle with Arminians was whether it was the decision of the sinner to turn from sin, or the work of the Holy Spirit on and in the sinner that enabled them to decide, to turn, to believe, and to follow Christ as Saviour. For Spurgeon it was the latter. He felt strongly that any attempt to claim that a person’s whose mind and will was in bondage to sin simply could not turn to the Saviour in faith. Rather, Spurgeon contended, it was the Holy Spirit who worked on a sinner’s life to cause them to recognise their true sinful condition before a holy God and then worked in them to produce faith and repentance. Spurgeon battled for this “great truth” nearly all his ministry. He felt that the Arminian assertation that a sinner was indeed able to renounce their sin and “meet God halfway” amounted to “semi-Pelagianism” (Pelagius was 5th Century Welsh monk who taught that salvation was the result of man working toward God’s grace by repenting and doing good works).
Spurgeon’s conviction that God saved sinners by His sovereign grace did not limit his evangelistic zeal – on the contrary, it drove it. Spurgeon was an evangelist second to none. He felt that his conviction in God’s election by grace.
Around the time of Spurgeon there was a push to converge the Anglican Church “back” into the Church of Rome. The was a movement of Anglicans who published tracts arguing that the differences between Anglicans and Roman Catholics should now be put aside. This movement became known as The Tractarians. Evangelical Anglicans objected. But the result was the realisation that the Common Book of Prayer of the Anglicans promoted essentially the same soteriology of the Roman Catholic Church, that is: that God’s graces could only be transmitted by those authorised by someone who could trace their authority back to the original apostles (“apostolic succession”). One of the graces transmitted by an authorised minister is “the grace of regeneration through water baptism.”
It should not be surprising that Spurgeon, a Baptist minister, should have clear views on the subject of water baptism. While the Evangelical Anglicans protested that the Common Book of Prayer was not intented to promote baptismal regeneration (they argued that infant ‘baptism’ was a step of faith by a child’s parents to bring their child into the New Covenant), Spurgeon challenged them to accept that the Scriptures did not teach either apostolic succession (the ecclesiastical underpinning of both the Anglican and the Roman Churches), or infant baptism(wihich was known as “Christening”- making a Christian – because the minister declared that the infant was graced with regeneration through the sprinkling of batismal waters).
Spurgeon saw this as sacerdotalism (the idea that only some believers are authorised to minister the graces of God through baptism, Communion, and salvation) and was therefore contrary to Scripture. While many of Spurgeon’s Baptist colleagues did not support Spurgeon through this very public battle, he continued to argue the case for salvation being by grace – not by the ‘sacramental’ work of a “priest”. He also strongly argued from Scripture that water baptism was for a believer – not a potential believer.
And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
For Spurgeon, this was a battle with eternal consequences. It was also a battle over authority. Did authority for a believer’s doctrine come primarily from the Church or from the Bible? For Spurgeon the answer was clear: the Bible. He was disappointed with Anglican ministers who claimed to be Evangelical (Bible believing) but refused to denounce its unBiblical teachings – but he was devastated that so few of his Baptist colleagues understood the ramifications of their indifference on this matter. However devastated he felt about his Baptist brothers failing to take a stand with him on this matter, compared to this he was about to be absolutely gutted over his next battle which saw him withdraw from the Baptist Union.
The 1880s was a time when German Liberal theology was gaining popularity. Added to this was the growing acceptance of Charles Darwin’s “scientific” attacks on the credibility of the Bible. Churches across England were emptying. Preachers began to put doubts into the minds of their congregation about how Divinely inspired the Bible really was. Christianity was being reduced to a noble idea but grounded in myths and legends not facts and truth.
At the end of the Puritan age] by some means or other, first the ministers, then the Churches, got on “the down grade,” and in some cases, the descent was rapid, and in all, very disastrous. In proportion as the ministers seceded from the old Puritan godliness of life, and the old Calvinistic form of doctrine, they commonly became less earnest and less simple in their preaching, more speculative and less spiritual in the matter of their discourses, and dwelt more on the moral teachings of the New Testament, than on the great central truths of revelation. Natural theology frequently took the place which the great truths of the gospel ought to have held, and the sermons became more and more Christless. Corresponding results in the character and life, first of the preachers and then of the people, were only too plainly apparent.
Robert Shindler, “The Down Grade,” The Sword and the Trowel (March 1887), 122.
Even The Baptist Union embraced this Liberalism whereby they could no longer endorse the Bible as being the Divinely inspired inerrant Word of God or that Jesus Christ was God in the flesh who uniquely came to redeem mankind. Spurgeon was so gutted over his beloved Union’s failure to endorse Scripture and the uniqueness of Christ’s redemption, that he pulled out of the Baptist Union. This was Spurgeon’s fiercest battle and the one that took the greatest toll. He was ridiculed as out-dated, not-keeping-up-with-the-times, and old-fashioned. His opponents misrepresented him as arguing for Reformed Theology over Arminian Theology. It was a battle that he fought valiantly but fatally. At the age of just 57 the stress of battle was partly responsible for claiming the life of this prince.
After he died, people soon forgot about Spurgeon’s three great battles. They remembered the thousands of people who came to Christ under his ministry. They remembered the schools and orphanages he founded. They remembered his many books, particularly the ones on the Psalms. But they forgot he was a man who dearly loved the Word of God and the Word made flesh to singlely redeem lost sinners. Sadly, Spurgeon never won these great battles. I’d like to say that these battles continue even today, but unfortunately there seems to be no-one of Mr Spurgeon’s calibre today who understands why and how to take the same dignified courageous princely battle stand. Perhaps God may yet raise up a young man in a coming generation who will be filled with the Holy Spirit, gifted to reach the lost, divinely enabled to reach multiple millions, build a church of significance, oversee the planting of hundreds of other churches, fight battles of primary doctrinal importance, and uphold the very Word of God as received in the 66 books of the Bible. God give us such a man in our day as You did in Spurgeon’s!
Today there are new assaults on Biblical (“supernatural”) Christianity. Liberalism now wears Gucci glasses and calls itself “emerging” Christianity. It denies the exclusive claims of Christ, the divinity of Jesus, the lostness of man without regeneration by the Holy Spirit, the necessity of repentance and submission to Jesus. It lambastes the Church as an “institution” (institution is now a code-word for ‘controlling organisation’) and despises “organised religion” (as if disorganised religion is a better alternative?). It doesn’t care whether you call it “Universalism” or “Inclusivism”, as long you deny divine judgment and everlasting damnation (they may even grant you ‘annihilationism’ because apparently that’s more loving than eternal justice). The natural outworking of these Biblical emmasculations is moral indifference – particularly sexual moral indifference. That is, since they dispense with an eternal God who has an eternal Son, who sent His Son into the world to endure eternal justice for “the many” (Matt. 26:28), there can be no restrictions on sexual conduct. Afterall, they reason, “restriction” is a form of control, and control is not a characteristic of love, and since God is infinite love, He can not restrict anyone’s sexual activity of preference. The Bible makes this reasoning utter nonsense! Yet, today we have many churchmen who have been beguiled into accepting this damnable reasoning and consequently have led their congregations into accepting what God calls idolatrous as well as immoral. They call their teaching “loving” but because it is a lie it is one of the most unloving teachings they can offer those who are trapped in sexual adictions.
Yes we have our battles today. And yes we still need men with the courage of Mr Spurgeon who know how to win the lost and stand up for the truth in battles over God’s right to order His creation. Like Spurgeon, we too encounter Hyper-fatalists who claim that God doesn’t need ourhelp to carry out His plan. Like Spurgeon we encounter those who downgrade the authority of the Bible and accuse us of being out-of-step with where people are at today. But like Spurgeon, we who believe the Bible’s message about the lostness and brokeness of all mankind, and the mercy and great kindness of God to send Christ as the Hope of the world, will continue to proclaim the truth despite the fact that we will be ridiculed and despised by our critics.