Learning from The Forgotten Spurgeon

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the-forgotten-spurgeonOf the books I had the opportunity to read this year, Iain Murray’s The Forgotten Spurgeon stands out among them. Every time I read a book by Murray, I am greatly edified, and this time was no exception. At this point, it was the book I gained the most from reading in 2016. So, in this post I’d like to share some of the primary lessons I learned from it.

Originally published in 1966, The Forgotten Spurgeon looks to the controlling center of life and doctrine of Charles Haddon Spurgeon; the great Calvinistic, Baptist, Evangelical preacher of 19th C. England, as it emerged in the three main controversies of his long and faithful ministry; controversies that many have forgotten (hence the title of the book).

Murray first revisits the twenty-two year old Spurgeon straight shooting with a Calvinistic gospel message to the growing congregation at the New Park Street Chapel in London. At New Park Street, the young Spurgeon brought old truths, which had become commonplace in a city where Spurgeon fully believed God was hiding his face, and preached those old truths with great clarity, creativity, and passion. God used his preaching to bring revival to the church, if only for a time. Nevertheless, Spurgeon’s success in ministry did not come without a cost.

The second major controversy that Murray looks to is the Baptismal Regeneration debate of 1864, where Spurgeon faithfully stood against a resurgent Catholicism by insisting, as he did in his famous sermon entitled “Baptismal Regeneration,” that “baptism without faith saves no one,” contra the great Church of England. Concerned about a growing confusion even among evangelical Christians regarding the nature of true conversion, Spurgeon further saw the doctrine of Baptismal Regeneration as stemming from the practice of setting aside the Word of God to follow the traditions of fallible men. He directly confronted the problem on both levels.

Finally, Murray rightly gives attention to the infamous Down-Grade controversy of 1887-1891, which he notes, “drained the energies of [Spurgeon’s] closing years” (p. 177).  During this time, Spurgeon lamented the effect of Higher Criticism upon a great number of churches within Protestantism, a method of viewing and interpreting the Scriptures that led to outright apostasy in many cases, as it does today. This led to Spurgeon’s reluctant withdrawal and separation from the Baptist Union, believing as he did, that denominational unity is not worth having, if it is at the expense of genuine spiritual unity and explicit agreement in the fundamentals of the gospel.

Much can be gained from Murray’s careful research and insightful reflection on these things in The Forgotten Spurgeon, and I believe that all Christians, pastors especially, should work through the book at least once in their lifetime.

Here are some of the big points I took away from the book, in no particular order.

Unity is important enough to fight for.

It’s a bit counter-intuitive to think that spiritual unity could be achieved through conflict of any sort, but in fact there are times when conflict is the only possible way to pursue it.  Spurgeon understood the danger of setting aside truth for the sake of a superficial unity in the visible church. When unity in the church is prized over the revealed and objective truths of the gospel, both the gospel and genuine unity will eventually be lost.

What drove Spurgeon throughout the major conflicts of his ministry was actually a desire to see genuine spiritual unity in the church. He steadily refused to compromise on the central truths of Scripture, knowing the true unity could not be achieved apart from those truths, since they lead the people of God to the very person of Jesus Christ.

It is true that division in the body of Christ is dishonoring to God, as Christians are called to “preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph 4:3).  In many cases the preservation of unity in the church requires extending grace and understanding to one another in our disagreements over secondary and tertiary (and beyond) issues. This much is true and Spurgeon faithfully did this, gladly accepting those with whom he disagreed on secondary issues as brothers in Christ, refusing to turn his convictions, even those concerning the “doctrines of grace” which he held so firmly, into spiritual litmus tests for those who truly loved the Lord Jesus.

However, when it concerned the central truths of the faith, such as the authority of Scripture, the person of Christ, the atoning death of Christ, and the nature of true conversion, Spurgeon would not budge. And rightly so, for these are some of the truths that the unity of the church is built upon.

The destructiveness of tomorrow’s apostasy makes confronting today’s doctrinal compromise necessary.  

This is obviously related to the above point, but for me it is a valuable point on its own. I find that many gospel-loving brothers and sisters (including myself at times) often chafe against theological controversy and debate, for the reason that the issues being debated aren’t clearly causing trouble in the church at the time of debate. The problem with this is that Christians and churches don’t end up in heresy and apostasy overnight. Most heresies begin with comparatively slight errors.

As Spurgeon once said in a sermon, “Trimming now, and debasing doctrine now, will affect children yet unborn, generation after generation.” He didn’t confront doctrinal comprise in the church because he saw immediate effects of that compromise in the church, but because he saw down the road to where specific doctrinal compromises and errors would end.

This is much of the reason that he often confronted Arminian theology, for example; not because he believed an Arminian could not be a Christian, but because he believed Arminianism opened the door to more destructive errors. He knew that doctrinal compromise progresses in increasingly devastating stages.

I am challenged by Spurgeon’s concern for future generations. Some things need to be confronted, not because they will cause me direct harm; but because they pose a threat to my children, and to their children.

Faithfulness to Christ costs much, but is worth it.

Many remember Spurgeon as “a genial Victorian pulpiteer, a kind of grandfather of modern evangelicalism” (from the back cover). Widely quoted by Christians of competing theological schools, as if he were loved by all and had no enemies in his day, the real Spurgeon is widely forgotten, argues Murray.

The real Spurgeon spent much of his ministry embroiled in controversy, being ridiculed by passionate opponents, often standing alone defending the gospel. For much of his ministry, Spurgeon stood against the tide of popular opinion, fortified only by the Spirit of God, with his feet standing on the rock of Scripture. He experienced betrayal, was disappointed when friends failed to stand with him in times of controversy, and became well acquainted with the loneliness of a faithful gospel-preaching ministry. Spurgeon faced the temptation of spiritual compromise, and stood firm.

Yet, this was not because Spurgeon reveled in being an outsider. He had no Messiah complex. Rather, he reasoned (rightly): “If an act of sin would increase my usefulness tenfold, I have no right to do it; and if an act of righteousness would appear likely to destroy all my apparent usefulness, I am yet to do it. It is yours and mine to do the right though the heavens fall, and follow the command of Christ whatever the consequences may be.”

And again, “If a deed done for Christ should bring you into disesteem, and threaten to deprive you of usefulness, do it nonetheless.”

Spurgeon was strengthened by the conviction that although obeying Christ was often the more difficult and more painful choice, at least in the near term, he knew that in all situations it was well worth it. May God help us all believe this.

Minimalistic doctrinal standards fail to promote deep and lasting unity. 

Shortly after Spurgeon’s withdrawal from the Baptist Union, the leaders of the denomination sought to come with a generic evangelical statement of doctrine that would satisfy Spurgeon and bring greater unity to the denomination. The statement would have been easy for many in the Union to subscribe to, including many who were sympathetic to (or at least tolerant of) the errors for which Spurgeon left the denomination in the first place.

But Spurgeon’s conviction that only explicitly biblical statements of faith could unify the church had grown throughout the controversy, and he refused to see the minimalistic approach to doctrinal unity as a positive thing. He explains his reasons well in The Sword and the Trowel:

“Whatever the Council does, let it above all things avoid the use of language which could legitimately have two meanings contrary to each other. Let us be plain and outspoken.  There are grave differences – let them be avowed honestly. Why should any man be ashamed to do so? Policy must be our guide, nor the wish to retain this party or that.  Right is safe, and compromise by the use of double meanings can never in the long run be wise.”

Spurgeon knew that unless unity was established on the basis of explicit and thorough agreement in the gospel, it would crumble just as easily as it was achieved. This is very true, and worth reflection.

Faithfulness to Christ and true ministry success should not be measured in numbers. 

It is no secret that Spurgeon enjoyed a great deal of earthly success, at least by ministerial standards. Thousands upon thousands heard his sermons. Millions of copies of his works have been published. His name is known throughout the world, and even those who would most likely not have liked him when he lived, have affection for him well over 100 years after his death.

Murray takes note of Spurgeon’s success in memorable fashion when he writes,

“So great was the popularity of his sermons that at one time there was even an attempt made, without Spurgeon’s leave, to cable the Sunday morning sermon to America for Monday’s papers. By 1899, over a hundred million of his sermons had been issued in twenty-three languages; before his death 120,000 volumes of his largest expository work, The Treasury of David, were sold and to these figures must be added the influence of more than 125 which bore his name plus the issues of The Sword and the Trowel” (p. 16)

Yet, Spurgeon knew that these statistics were deceiving and that they were not a trustworthy guide to measuring the true success of his ministry. In fact, it seems that to some degree, Spurgeon was not entirely comfortable with the statistics pointing to his seeming success. As he once said, “Long ago I ceased to count heads…truth is usually in the minority in this evil world.”

I have often heard famous and “successful” pastors urge pastors of smaller churches to resist the urge to look to the numbers as the measure of their success. I admit, that usually when I hear such men say these things, I skeptically think to myself, “Sure, that’s easy for you to say. But would you say that if your church were the size of mine?  I doubt it.”

Yet, in Spurgeon’s case, it seems to me that he really did not measure his ministry by the numbers. He speaks on occasion about the importance of not being swayed by the numbers, about the importance of remaining neither overly encouraged nor discouraged by them. As he says in one place, “I do not wish for success in the ministry, if God does not give it to me; and I pray that you who are workers for God, may not wish to have any success except that which comes from God himself in God’s own way.” Amen to that.  Lord, give me this attitude in increasing measure.

One final reflection…

spurgeonEven the greatest of ministers run out of strength and meet their Maker. 

“Charles Haddon Spurgeon, born at Kelvedon, June 19th, 1834, fell asleep in Jesus on Sunday, January 31st, 1892.”  So read the inscription on his coffin.

The great and mighty “Prince of Preachers” had died, his body worn down from years of controversy and conflict, at the age of fifty-seven.

Years before he fell asleep in Jesus, Spurgeon reflected soberly and joyfully on the day he would pass from this life to the next, and prepared his people for the day of their deaths with these words:

“Ah! The bridge of grace will bear your weight, brother. Thousands of big sinners have gone across that bridge, yea, tens of thousands have gone over it. I can hear their tramplings now as they traverse the great arches of the bridge of salvation. They come by their thousands, by their myriads; e’er since the day when Christ first entered into His glory, they come, and yet never a stone has spring in that mighty bridge. Some have been the chief of sinners, and some have come at the very last of their days, but the arch has never yielded beneath their weight. I will go with them trusting to the same support; it will bear me over as it has borne them.”

Spurgeon would eventually cross that bridge. As will you. As will I. On that day all that will matter is the work that was done with and for Christ, whether work at home, work in the church, or work in the world. Therefore, that coming day should shape our priorities today, as it did for Spurgeon, and we must live in light of that coming day, as did Spurgeon.

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