Heroes of the Faith
It is of great profit to study the lives of those who have gone before us, making their lives count for Christ and the Gospel. Our featured Hero of the Faith is the great 19th century preacher, expositor, and writer, Charles Spurgeon.
Charles Haddon Spurgeon
(1834 - 1892)
"The old truth that Calvin preached, that Augustine preached, that Paul preached, is the truth that I must preach today, or else be false to my conscience and my God. I cannot shape the truth; I know of no such thing as paring off the rough edges of a doctrine. John Knox's gospel is my gospel. That which thundered through Scotland must thunder through England again.
"I do not come into this pulpit hoping that perhaps somebody will of his own free will return to Christ. My hope lies in another quarter. I hope that my Master will lay hold of some of them and say, 'You are mine, and you shall be mine. I claim you for Myself.' My hope arises from the freeness of Grace, and not from the freedom of the will."
--Charles Haddon Spurgeon
Preaching has fallen on hard times. At least, that's the impression you would gain by listening to much of what passes for preaching in American pulpits. Something is clearly missing--and that missing element is the deep passion for biblical exposition that always characterizes the great preachers of an era.
Today, the church is still blessed by outstanding expositors, but they are too few. Many preachers lack adequate models and mentors, and they find themselves hungry for a homiletical model who can both inspire and instruct. In Victorian London, there once was a preacher whose power and conviction shaped an entire culture. That man was Charles Haddon Spurgeon.
Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834-92) was England’s best-known Baptist preacher for most of the second half of the nineteenth century. Spurgeon was a legend in his own day, and was a household name in London before he reached the age of twenty. In 1854, just four years after his conversion, Spurgeon--then only 20--became pastor of London’s famed New Park Street Church (formerly pastored by the famous Baptist theologian John Gill). The New Park Church was once numbered among London's most famous and well-attended churches. Previous pastors had included Benjamin Keach, John Gill, and John Rippon. But the 1200-seat sanctuary held only about one hundred when Spurgeon arrived to preach a guest sermon. Within eighteen months, the congregation would be forced into the cavernous Exeter Hall in order to accommodate the thousands who came to hear their preacher. The scene then shifted in 1861 to the newly constructed Metropolitan Tabernacle in south London, where Spurgeon would draw a congregation of no less than 6,000 persons for thirty years.
More than anything else, Spurgeon was known for his preaching. His sermons were not directed toward an academic or scholarly audience. Instead, he spoke in a way that connected with his working-class congregations, drawing on imagery from everyday life for his sermon illustrations. Although, he was not a ‘plain’ preacher, by all accounts Spurgeon is recognized as a great orator. Even still, some did not approve of his preaching style. Spurgeon biographer, Lewis Drummond, reports that some condemned his preaching as “clumsy,” “theatrical,” and even blasphemous. Some even accused him of using theatrical tactics and manipulation.
However, theologian Helmut Thielicke (who observed Nazi propaganda and manipulation first-hand) absolved Spurgeon of such methods, saying, “Charles Haddon Spurgeon . . . was still unaware of the wiles of propaganda . . . . He worked only through the power of the Word which created its own hearers and changed souls.” Like Thielicke, others, admired his “high order of pulpit oratory,” his “daring homeliness,” and his “fresh and striking” illustrations. These qualities attracted over 5,000 worshipers each week for more than thirty years, many of whom listened to the great preacher in large secular buildings, such as London’s Exeter Hall and the Surrey Gardens Music Hall (which held more than 10,000 people). All of this was done before microphones! In fact, so powerful was Spurgeon’s voice that once, when testing the acoustics of London’s spacious Agricultural Hall, Spurgeon shouted, “Behold the Lamb of God which taketh away the sins of the world.” A workman was later to tell Spurgeon that he had heard the words while working in the rafters, and had been led to faith in Christ!
But as powerful a preacher as Spurgeon was, it was not because of his voice or his style. Some clue as to the source of his strength is found in the motto of Spurgeon’s church: “We Preach Christ and Him Crucified.” Elsewhere, Spurgeon said of his preaching, “I take my text and make a bee-line to the cross.” One scholar notes, “Spurgeon’s power in preaching came in his willingness to actually preach God’s Word. While others pastors of his day typically minimalized doctrine, Spurgeon preached a full-bodied gospel with substantive content and unashamed conviction. In this he was regarded as something of an exception, but he held fast to his biblical faith, Calvinist convictions, and evangelistic appeal.”
Part of his commitment to preach the Word came with a clear dependence on God. Spurgeon often said that as he ascended to the pulpit to preach, he would prayerfully say to himself, “I believe in the Holy Spirit, I believe in the Holy Spirit, I believe in the Holy Spirit….” For Spurgeon, preaching God’s word was a task only accomplished by the empowering of God’s Spirit. If these things came together--the consecration of the minister, the right preaching of the Word, and the filling of the Holy Spirit--the sermon was God’s means for building the church.
In addition to his regular pastoral duties, he founded Sunday schools, churches, an orphanage, and the Pastor's College. He edited a monthly church magazine and promoted literature distribution. Yet his popularity has continued into the twenty-first century, and his voluminous writings are still among the best-selling devotional and homiletical materials currently available. Over his lifetime, Spurgeon published many books, including, perhaps his best known Treasury of David, a commentary on the book of Psalms.
Towards the end of Spurgeon’s life, he became embroiled in what became known as the ‘Downgrade Controversy.’ As its title implies, this long-lasting debate was focused on the downgrade of theology in the life of the Church and the preaching from her pulpits. Almost prophetically, Spurgeon knew that the loss of theological conviction would mean the end of the effectiveness of the Church’s witness in the world. He resisted any compromise on substitutionary atonement, the authority and inspiration of Scripture, eternal punishment for unbelievers, original sin, and the absoluteness of Christianity. The lack of emphasis on substitutionary atonement which marked many of his contemporaries troubled him, for he saw no genuine gospel in any preaching which was embarrassed by Scriptural witness to what God in Christ did on behalf of the redeemed.
For this reason, Spurgeon (who taught many students to preach at his Pastors College) was concerned with the quality of the church’s preaching. As he stated: "I have always considered, with Luther and Calvin, that the sum and substance of the gospel lies in that word Substitution--Christ standing in the stead of man. If I understand the gospel, it is this: I deserve to be lost forever; the only reason why I should not be damned is this, that Christ was punished in my stead, and there is no need to execute a sentence twice for sin."
Spurgeon was concerned with the function and effectiveness of the sermon. A student at his famous pastor's college once asked how he could focus more clearly on bringing believers into the faith. "Do you expect converts every time you preach?" Spurgeon asked. The student quickly retorted, "Of course not." And the reply came back: "That is why you have none."
But Spurgeon made content his concern, trusting that God would use the substance of his message to penetrate the hearts of his hearers. "Sermons should have real teaching in them, and their doctrine should be solid, substantial, and abundant. We do not enter the pulpit to talk for talk's sake; we have instructions to convey, important to the last degree and we cannot afford to utter pretty nothings."
He warned his students to evaluate their sermons by content--and not by structure or design. "To divide a sermon well may be a very useful art, but how if there is nothing to divide? . . . The grandest discourse ever delivered is an ostentatious failure if the doctrine of the grace of God be absent from it; it sweeps over men's heads like a cloud, but it distributes no rain upon the thirsty earth; and therefore the remembrance of it to souls taught wisdom by an experience of pressing need is one of disappointment, or worse.""Brethren," he pleaded, "weigh your sermons. Do not retail them by the yard, but deal them out by the pound. Set no store by the quantity of words which you utter, but try to be esteemed for the quality of your matter."
Spurgeon held fast to Calvinist theology, even as he extended a universal appeal to the gospel. When asked how he could reconcile his understanding of election and his evangelistic appeal, he retorted quickly: "I do not try to reconcile friends."
That quality of vigor and vitality produced one of the most remarkable ministries of the church in the modern age--or any age for that matter. Upon Spurgeon's death, Texan B.H. Carroll was moved to deliver an address celebrating his British colleague's life and ministry: "With whom among men can you compare him? He combined the preaching power of Jonathan Edwards and Whitefield with the organizing power of Wesley, and the energy, fire, and courage of Luther. In many respects, he was most like Luther. In many, most like Paul."
But Spurgeon never intended to be the center of attention, in life or in death. He would always point to the cross. As Thielicke stated plainly, "His message never ran dry because he was never anything but a recipient." Spurgeon would be quick to affirm Thielicke's point. “He preached the grace of God with such power because he had experienced the grace of God”.
There is much more to say of Spurgeon. We could speak of his incredible wit and sense of humor, his deep love of his wife and family, or of his belief in the incalculable value of prayer, and many other things. There is also much to learn from the life of Spurgeon. Much to learn about staying firm in ministry despite public criticism, lovingly caring for other Christians, remaining committed to biblical theology, and boldly proclaiming the grace of God in the biblical Gospel of Jesus Christ.
John Piper is quoted as saying, "In the midst of the theologically discredited nineteenth century there was a preacher who had at least six thousand people in his congregation every Sunday, whose sermons for many years were cabled to New York every Monday and reprinted in the leading newspapers of the country, and who occupied the same pulpit for almost forty years without any diminishment in the flowing abundance of his preaching and without ever repeating himself or preaching himself dry. The fire he thus kindled, and turned into a beacon that shone across the seas and down through generations, was no mere brush fire of sensationalism, but an inexhaustible blaze that glowed and burned on solid hearths and was fed by the wells of the eternal Word. Here was the miracle of a bush that burned with fire and yet was not consumed."
In our era— distanced by more than a century from Charles Spurgeon— we would do well to remember this great man and the impact of his ministry. Beyond this, we should be reminded of the centrality of biblical confidence and theological conviction to the preaching task. Where are the Spurgeons of this generation? Where are the men who will speak the Truth of God’s powerful word boldly, while relying solely on the Holy Spirit to complete the work that is promised?
May Spurgeon’s ministry remind and lead us into a greater devotion to the Lord and ultimately a greater usefulness for Him!
Encounter with Spurgeon Helmut Thielicke
131 Christians Everyone Should Know Mark Galli
Charles Haddon Spurgeon John Piper
Lectures to My Students Charles Haddon Spurgeon
The Autobiography of Charles H. Spurgeon Charles Haddon Spurgeon, Susannah Spurgeon, and Joseph Harrald
Among God’s Giants J.I. Packer