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Charles Haddon Spurgeon - The fuller picture

David Campbell
13 October 2022 21:56

[For the background to this series of articles see the post for May 2022, Forty years ago]

Charles Haddon Spurgeon

The fuller picture

Entering the world of Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834-1892) – of his life and ministry – is no mere matter of exchanging monarchs (from Charles III to Victoria), or modes of transport (from high-speed jets to horse-drawn carriages), or methods of communication (from the internet to the telegraph). It is to witness what for most of us are unimaginably large gatherings for the preaching of God’s word, God’s Spirit at work in revival, multiple conversions, a church of several thousand at worship and work for the best part of forty years, and sermons being printed by the hundreds of millions. It is also to enter a world of controversy.  

The book that prompted this article is Iain H. Murray’s The Forgotten Spurgeon. There is a Spurgeon who has not been forgotten – the great preacher, the hugely successful evangelist, the trainer of future ministers, the genial humorist, the large-hearted philanthropist; the Spurgeon over whose life and ministry there is a glow of romance. But there is a fuller picture to be had and Mr. Murray supplies it by bringing us face-to-face with Spurgeon the controversialist.

The Forgotten Spurgeon is not strictly speaking a biography. Readers new to Spurgeon will find in Spurgeon, A New Biography by Arnold Dallimore (also published by the Trust) an excellent modern introduction to his life. Hopefully that will whet their appetite for the fascinating two-volume Autobiography (again published by the Trust). But if The Forgotten Spurgeon doesn’t major on biographical details it nevertheless sets its subject matter within a biographical framework. In the course of his long ministry Spurgeon found himself engaged in three major controversies. Each was over doctrine and together they give us an invaluable introduction to key elements of his spiritual thought. Here were matters that Spurgeon considered to be of the highest importance for the gospel, the church, and the glory of God.

Biblical Calvinism

The first of these controversies belongs to the early years of Spurgeon’s ministry. The congregation to which he came in 1854 – of New Park Street Chapel in London – had seen better days. But the largely empty church was soon full to overflowing. Indeed, it was soon necessary to hold services in larger buildings – first, the Exeter Hall which could seat about four thousand people, and then the Surrey Gardens Music Hall which could hold between six and ten thousand. It was a remarkable time with many being awakened and brought to Christ. But it was also a time of bitter controversy.

The issue was the Biblical Calvinism which Spurgeon so forthrightly preached. Christ was to be lovingly pressed on all. And with the utmost confidence of success. For God had a people whom he had chosen to be saved, whom Christ had died to save, whom he was determined to save, and whom he was saving – regenerating them by the Spirit, enabling them to believe, and giving them grace to persevere to the end. This was the framework within which Spurgeon’s gospel preaching was decidedly set and it brought him into significant conflict both with Hyper-Calvinism and Arminianism.

‘Hyper-Calvinism’, writes Mr. Murray, ‘in its attempt to square all gospel truth with God’s purpose to save the elect, denies there is a universal command to repent and believe, and asserts that we have only warrant to invite to Christ those who are conscious of a sense of sin and need’ (p.49). Arminianism, on the other hand, denies that God has a purpose to save anyone. It teaches, and here I quote from Spurgeon himself, ‘that Christ’s death does not in itself secure, beyond doubt, the salvation of any one man living…that if man’s will would not give way, and voluntarily surrender to grace, then Christ’s atonement would be unavailing’ (p.82). 

The conflict with Arminianism (which by contrast with Hyper-Calvinism was widespread) was the severest element in this first great battle of Spurgeon’s ministry. By drawing extensively on Spurgeon’s sermons Mr. Murray helpfully explains why Spurgeon considered Arminianism to be so contrary to the teaching of the Bible and therefore so dangerous. He also considers its implications for evangelism – both then and now. The analysis is sobering. The Arminian evangelism of Spurgeon’s day led to ‘a lowered standard of conversion’ which in turn led to a ‘lowered conception of the real nature of true Christian experience’ (p.113). It does so still.

Baptismal regeneration

The second major controversy is more briefly dealt with. A single chapter is devoted to it. But the doctrinal error that occasioned it had long tentacles. For as we read on we find it having a bearing (as did the first one) on Spurgeon’s third and final controversy, the bitterest of them all.

So what was the second one about? Baptismal regeneration. The background is the Tractarian movement in the Church of England and the resurgent Roman Catholicism for which it was responsible. Since the Reformation the Church of England had generally been firm in its Protestantism. That was to change with the publication from 1833 onwards of the Tracts for the Times. Under the influence of men like John Henry Newman a growing number of Church of England clergy embraced both Roman Catholic doctrines and practices.

Appeal was made in justification of this to certain statements in the Book of Common Prayer. When a child was baptised, for example, it was, according to the Prayer Book, ‘made a member of Christ, the child of God’. If it should die as a child the officiating clergyman was required to state that its burial was ‘in true and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life, through our Lord Jesus Christ’. Did this not mean that the Prayer Book taught baptismal regeneration? Protestant clergy denied it. Spurgeon was persuaded that it did.

The upshot was a sermon preached on 5th June 1864 with the title Baptismal Regeneration. Spurgeon was alarmed at the progress of Popery in England. It was, he said, ‘making advances such as you would never believe.’ And here was one reason why it was doing so: ‘this form of error known as baptismal regeneration…which is…Church-of-Englandism, because it is in the Prayer Book, as plainly as words can express it’ (p.134). The sermon (together with a later one, Let us Go Forth) charged evangelicals in the Church of England with sinful compromise and called on them to separate from the church. The result was a flurry of pamphlets, articles, and sermons in many of which Protestant Churchmen expressed their anger and dismay at what Spurgeon had said. They charged him indeed with aiding the very Popery he was attacking by weakening faith in the church’s formularies (p.141). As Mr. Murray observes (p.142), the controversy highlighted a concerning disunity among evangelicals, something that boded ill for the future.

The Down-Grade

The third, and for Spurgeon the most painful, controversy was The Down-Grade. The rise of Higher Criticism in the Protestant churches was undermining confidence in Scripture’s inspiration and accuracy. This in turn was leading to a falling away from Scripture’s teaching on such all-important matters as substitutionary atonement, the historicity of the fall, the personality of the Spirit, justification by faith, and eternal punishment. It was a shattering blow to Spurgeon to discover that within the Baptist Union (of which he was a member) there was widespread sympathy for these views. The refusal of the Union to take a stand against them led to Spurgeon’s withdrawal from the Union. Along with the isolation and criticism to which his action exposed him, this tragic decline in orthodoxy darkened the remaining years of his life.

In two most interesting chapters, chapters eight and nine, Mr. Murray draws the strands together. On the one hand, the Arminian evangelicalism with which Spurgeon had contended in his earlier years proved no bulwark against the progress of the Higher Criticism. Nor, on the other hand, did the Anglo-Catholicism he had denounced in the controversy over baptismal regeneration. On the contrary there was a lamentable willingness on both sides to accommodate the new views. It all served to accentuate Spurgeon’s isolation. Increasingly he was heard as just an echo of the past – a past which the church, by and large, had left behind.

It is not necessary to agree with all that Spurgeon said or did in the course of these three controversies to appreciate the importance of their history. The doctrines for which he contended were not secondary but primary. The sovereignty of God in salvation, the distinctives of Protestantism, the inspiration of Scripture as the safeguard of all its other truths – these are foundational matters. On all of them Spurgeon preached and wrote at length – in the columns of his monthly magazine, The Sword and the Trowel, and in the sixty-three volumes of his published sermons.

Which brings me to a final remark. For the present writer, the reading of this book was not only an encouragement to learn more about Spurgeon’s life. It was the impetus to buying and reading the sermons from which Mr. Murray so copiously quotes. They are readily available in print and online. Do seek them out!