I initially listed twenty-seven potential subjects in preparation for this series of Christian biographies. Once I had my list, I arranged the names in chronological order. I didn’t necessarily intend to move through the list in that order, but so far, that’s what I’ve done. Today, however, I’d like to skip ahead approximately three hundred years past the time of John Calvin and consider a man who has personally spoken to me more than anyone else in church history.
I began this series in Hebrews 12, where we read, “Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us run with endurance the race that is set before us” (Heb 12:1). The author of Hebrews implores us to consider the lives of faithful men and women of the past to find encouragement as we run our portion of the Christian race. Specifically, concerning Abel, Hebrews 11 says, “Through his faith, though he died, he still speaks” (Heb 11:4).
Since this will be our last biography for a while, I couldn’t help but come prepared to discuss someone who has certainly spoken to me from the past and offered a tremendous amount of encouragement. And that someone is Charles Spurgeon.
For many people, Spurgeon may seem like an obvious favorite to choose, especially for Calvinistic Baptist pastors. But the way Spurgeon spoke to me is probably different than most. In fact, a significant part of Spurgeon’s background and ministry is only rarely covered by his biographers. Some of you may know about the Downgrade Controversy that came near the end of his ministry, but fewer people know about his struggles at the start of his ministry, which we’ll come to in a moment.
It’s been said that John Calvin was the greatest theologian the church has ever known outside of the apostles. Many consider Jonathan Edwards to be the greatest philosopher. George Whitefield has been called the greatest evangelist. And very few would dispute the claim that Charles Spurgeon was the greatest preacher. Before I talk about what made him such a great preacher, let’s consider how he became a preacher.
Spurgeon’s Christian upbringing
Charles Spurgeon was born in England on June 19, 1834. His father, John, was a pastor. His grandfather, James, was also a pastor. One of his brothers would later become a pastor. His twin sons would become pastors as well. Evidently, the ministry was a Spurgeon family tradition, which is not altogether unusual. I’ve known the same to happen to many families, including mine.
Spurgeon spent several years of his childhood with his grandfather who had a relatively large collection of Puritan books. Between his father and grandfather, not to mention his Christian mother, he was exposed to plenty of biblical teaching, even Calvinist and Puritan teachings, but none of it stuck. He would later say:
I had heard of the plan of salvation by the sacrifice of Jesus from my youth up, but I did not know any more about it in my innermost soul than if I had been born and bred a Hottentot. The light was there, but I was blind.
By the way, I’m not one hundred percent sure what Spurgeon meant by Hottentot, but I wouldn’t start using that term because I do know it’s now a racial slur in some African cultures.
In his Autobiography, Spurgeon talks about the years before his conversion. As he consumed his father and grandfather’s preaching and read those Puritan books, he became increasingly overwhelmed by guilt. He writes, “I was condemned, undone, destroyed, lost, helpless, hopeless. I thought hell was before me.”
I don’t have time to read it, but Spurgeon recalls a time when he seriously considered atheism. It’s a fascinating passage in his Autobiography. He speaks hypothetically about entering a world similar to John Lennon’s “Imagine.” What if there is no heaven or hell? By the end, he rejects the very notion and says:
I lifted my eye to God; and here I am alive, and out of hell. Therefore, I speak what I do know. I have sailed that perilous voyage; I have come safe to land. Ask me again to be an infidel! No; I have tried it; it was sweet at first, but bitter afterwards.
Spurgeon did not become a believer right away, though. He continued in this condemned, guilty state for at least five years.
At the age of fifteen, Spurgeon was on a mission to visit every church in the town of Colchester, England. He assumed that at least one of them could offer him relief from his sense of guilt. As he made his way to the Congregational Chapel one Sunday, he got caught in a snowstorm. The snow and sleet became so intense that he gave up and ducked into a small Methodist church instead. No harm done, he thought. His mother had spoken highly of this church, and he planned to visit it eventually anyhow.
Because of the snowstorm, the entire congregation was maybe a dozen people. Even the pastor failed to make it, so a thin-looking lay preacher steps into the pulpit to make an effort to preach a sermon. This man chose Isaiah 45:22 as his text. From the King James Version, he read, “Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth: for I am God and there is none else.”
Spurgeon’s account of the sermon is quite humorous. You can almost hear the preacher’s ineloquent accent as you read it. Spurgeon says, “He had not much to say, thank God, for that compelled him to keep on repeating his text, and there was nothing needed—by me, at any rate—except his text.”
The preacher keeps repeating, “Look unto me. Look unto me. Look unto me.” After ten minutes or so, he points directly at Spurgeon and says, “Young man, you look very miserable, and you always will be miserable—miserable in life and miserable in death—if you don’t obey my text; but if you obey now, this moment, you will be saved.” Then, he shouts at the top of his lungs, “Young man, look to Jesus Christ. Look! Look! Look! You have nothing to do but to look and live!”
Spurgeon says, “And I did look.”
I saw at once the way of salvation. I know not what else he said. I did not take much notice of it. I was so possessed with that one thought. Like as when the brazen serpent was lifted up, the people only looked and were healed, so it was with me. I had been waiting to do fifty things, but when I heard that word, “Look!” what a charming word it seemed to me.
Oh I could have looked until I could almost have looked my eyes away. There and then the cloud was gone, the darkness had rolled away, and that moment I saw the sun; and I could have risen that instant, and sung with the most enthusiastic of them, of the precious blood of Christ, and the simple faith which alone looks to him. O that somebody had told me this before, “Trust Christ, and you shall be saved.”
Parents, notice that Spurgeon was led to Christ by a stranger, not his Christian parents. The same was true for his sons. They were led to Christ by strangers, not Charles and his wife.
Naturally, Spurgeon returned to the Methodist church the following Sunday, and the pastor preached on Romans 7:24. “O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” Spurgeon writes:
The preacher declared that Paul was not a Christian when he had that experience. Babe as I was, I knew better than to believe so absurd a statement. I resolved to go into that pasture no more, for I could not feed therein.
Spurgeon did return at least once about fourteen years later. The church invited him to preach during its anniversary celebration. He chose Isaiah 45:22 as his text. “Look unto me, and be ye saved.”
Spurgeon becomes pastor of Waterbeach Baptist
Within a year of his conversion, Spurgeon began preaching not far from Cambridge, and his preaching gift was evident from the start. A year later, he became a minister at Waterbeach Baptist Chapel. Waterbeach was a small town probably best known for its debauchery, but under Spurgeon’s preaching, the church grew from forty to more than one hundred members in less than two years.
It didn’t take long for word of this promising young preacher to reach the big city of London, and Spurgeon, who was still a teenager, was invited to preach at the largest Particular Baptist Church in London—New Park Street Chapel.
In case you’re unfamiliar with the name Particular Baptist, they were never a formal denomination. They were called Particular Baptists because they believed in a particular or limited—I prefer the term definite—atonement. In other words, the Lord’s atoning work on the cross provided definite salvation for particular people—namely, the elect of God. Other Baptists were known as General Baptists because they believed in a general or universal atonement. They believed Christ died for absolutely everyone. In short, the Particular Baptists were on the Calvinist side of the theological divide while General Baptists were on the Arminian side.
Eventually, the Particular Baptists made their way to America and thrived for many years. They later became better known as Regular Baptists. Today, some still refer to themselves as Particular Baptists, but more often than not, Calvinist Baptist churches use the title Reformed Baptist.
Spurgeon preaches at New Park Street
Getting back to Spurgeon, he was invited to preach at New Park Street Chapel. This church had once been pastored by several spiritual and theological giants such as Benjamin Keach and John Gill. You may not know Benjamin Keach, but most people have at least heard of John Gill because of his commentaries on the entire Bible. Despite the church’s remarkable history, it had fallen into serious decline. The sanctuary was built to accommodate twelve hundred people, but attendance on an average Sunday was down to maybe two hundred people.
Most Spurgeon biographers skip past this detail. They usually mention the church’s decline in membership and give Spurgeon credit for its revival, but they don’t examine the reasons for its decline. And this is an important part of Spurgeon’s story. This is the context Spurgeon steps into as a young minister. After preaching at New Park Street Chapel for only three months, the church calls him to be their pastor, and he remains with them from the time he is nineteen until his death thirty-eight years later.
When writing about his early years as pastor of New Park Street, Spurgeon refers to what he calls “the first serious attack” on his ministry. What was this attack? Who attacked him? And why were the Particular Baptist churches in London experiencing such dramatic decline?
Hyper-Calvinism in England
When Spurgeon began his ministry at New Park Street, there were approximately fourteen hundred Baptist churches in all of England. Incredibly, all of them were Particular Baptist churches. They were all Calvinistic. Sadly, though, many of the churches had slowly but surely fallen into Hyper-Calvinism. We see that digression even in the writings of John Gill who served the church a century before. I love his commentaries on the Bible, but they do contain traces of Hyper-Calvinism.
To be clear, a Hyper-Calvinist is not someone who is especially excited about Calvinism. Hyper-Calvinism has crucial theological distinctions from orthodox Calvinism. In fact, Spurgeon didn’t believe it was Calvinism at all. Instead, he referred to it as a false Calvinism. And this so-called false Calvinism has always been a temptation among Calvinist believers.
Years before Spurgeon came along, one of Andrew Fuller’s biographers wrote about this problem. He said:
By stretching what are usually called the doctrines of grace, beyond the scripture medium, they introduced a system of Hyper-Calvinism, which extended its baleful influence over nearly all the churches, and covered them with a cloud of darkness.
The author says Hyper-Calvinists stretch the doctrines of grace beyond Scripture. They often make the mistake of overemphasizing points of the doctrines of grace, which may seem like a strange thing to say. How can one overemphasize something that is true? But I’ll give you some examples. By overemphasizing certain points, they will entirely neglect other biblical teachings.
Preaching the gospel indiscriminately
For example, Hyper-Calvinists argue that we should not preach the gospel indiscriminately to all people. Believing that God has sovereignly chosen a people for salvation, they claim it undermines his sovereignty to offer the gospel to the non-elect. After all, the natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them (1Co 2:14).
Then again, the Bible also says, “Whoever believes in Christ is not condemned” (Jn 3:18). “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Ro 10:13). “Let the one who desires take the water of life without price” (Rev 22:17). The apostle Paul writes, “Christ we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone” (Col 1:28).
Preaching on Acts 3 where Peter says, “Repent, therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out,” Spurgeon comments:
Peter preached the Christ of the gospel—preached it personally and directly at the crowd who were gathered around him. … Grown up among us is a school of men who say that they rightly preach the gospel to sinners when they merely deliver statements of what the gospel is, and … they grow furious and talk of unsoundness if any venture to say to the sinner, “Believe,” or “Repent.” To this school, Peter did not belong.
Spurgeon goes on to speak about one Hyper-Calvinist preacher, in particular.
In another sermon he refers to brethren who do not think it to be their duty to go into the highways and hedges and bid all, as many as they find, to come to the supper. Oh, no! They are too orthodox to obey the Master’s will; they desire to understand first who are appointed to come to the supper, and then they will invite them; that is to say, they will do what there is no necessity to do.
In contrast with this, the apostles delivered the gospel, the same gospel to the dead as to the living, the same gospel to the non-elect as to the elect. The point of distinction is not in the gospel, but in its being applied by the Holy Ghost, or left to be rejected of man.
Warrant of faith?
In the writings and sermons of those days, you will occasionally come across the term “warrant of faith.” Hyper-Calvinists believe that preaching the gospel to an unregenerate sinner is useless. Instead, we should wait until we have seen a so-called warrant of faith in people before we preach the gospel to them. In other words, we should see evidence of spiritual life before offering them anything spiritual.
Spurgeon correctly understood that the warrant for inviting people to come to Christ for salvation is not the people themselves. The warrant is Scripture. The warrant is the Great Commission. The warrant is God’s command to go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation (Mk 16:15). Never does the Bible suggest we wait for sinners to come to us and ask, “Will you preach the gospel to me?” No, the clear command is that we go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation.
That’s just one facet of Hyper-Calvinism, but it’s enough to give you a sense of the spiritual climate among Baptist churches in Spurgeon’s day. Hyper-Calvinism led to the decline of many churches because it killed evangelism. Most people were content to apathetically sit back and think, If God wants more people here, he’ll lead them here. There’s nothing I can do about it. There’s nothing I should do about it.
The ‘first serious attack’ on Spurgeon
When Spurgeon came to London, many of the Baptists denied man’s responsibility. Most every other evangelical church denied God’s sovereignty. Considering his age, it’s amazing that Spurgeon already recognized the errors on both sides and never hesitated to upset either side by boldly declaring the truth. He preached both the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man. If people know anything about Spurgeon, it’s that (1) he was a Calvinist—he preached the doctrines of grace—and (2) he was evangelistic in possibly every sermon he ever preached.
Getting back to “the first serious attack” on Spurgeon’s ministry, Spurgeon quickly drew serious criticism of himself and his preaching from well-known, well-respected Hyper-Calvinist pastors in London.
In those days, it was common for Baptist ministers to engage in public debates through newsletters and written publications. One prominent publication among the Baptists was The Earthen Vessel. The editor of that paper, Charles Banks, quickly realized that not everyone was comfortable with this new young, evangelistic preacher in town, so he wrote an article to ease their minds. In it, he said, “Mr. Spurgeon is as great a lover of free grace and real Calvinism as any man; but the bigotry of some, who cannot hear the truth unless expressed in certain phrases, seems to put him out of heart.”
Among those who did not agree with Banks’s assessment of Spurgeon was a prominent pastor in London named James Wells. He was a very popular preacher perhaps best known for his long sermons that frequently criticized Arminians and those he referred to as “free-willers.” Wells wrote a scathing response to Banks which was later published in The Earthen Vessel. Here’s a sample:
If the EARTHEN VESSEL intends to change Masters, let it do so at once … If it grow lukewarm, and is neither hot nor cold, we must cast it out of our mouths, nor must we take up its name into our lips.
Wells not only attacks Spurgeon but also Banks for writing a positive review of Spurgeon. He and others would continue to criticize Spurgeon in print for years to come. While we may be tempted to think the issue was merely a clash of personalities or perhaps envy on Wells’s part, I believe Wells was entirely sincere. He truly believed Spurgeon’s theology was unbiblical. He later wrote, “To preach that it is man’s duty to believe savingly in Christ is absurd. A babe in grace knows better.”
You can imagine how challenging the situation was for Spurgeon. He’s only twenty years old. He’s just arrived in the big city. He’s pastor of a church twice the size of his former congregation. And several well-respected experienced pastors throughout London are publicly ridiculing him. Whether Spurgeon was right or wrong, he had every reason to second-guess himself. He had every reason to tone down his bold evangelistic preaching, but he didn’t.
Holding fast to God’s Word
Later in life, Spurgeon said, “Let us hold fast, tenaciously, doggedly, with a death grip, to the truth of the inspiration of God’s Word.” And it was that conviction that saved him in his battle against Hyper-Calvinism. That conviction saved him in later battles against those who denied the infallibility of Scripture. That conviction is what made him such a powerful preacher.
Spurgeon did not hold to his convictions because he was proud, as though he couldn’t bring himself to admit when he was wrong. He did not remain steadfast because he was tribal, trying to stay in the good graces of one theological camp or another. In fact, he often stood virtually alone on these issues. His only concern was whether or not he stood in agreement with Scripture. He said:
My love of consistency with my own doctrinal views is not great enough to allow me knowingly to alter a single text of Scripture. I have great respect for orthodoxy, but my reverence for inspiration is far greater. I would sooner a hundred times over appear to be inconsistent with myself than be inconsistent with the word of God.
The Hyper-Calvinists in Spurgeon’s day had a way of approaching theological debates similar to Pelagius in Augustine’s day. Their primary charge against Spurgeon was that his theology (i.e., Calvinism) was inconsistent. Their dissent was more often based on what they perceived to be logical arguments than the actual teachings of Scripture. For example, they would ask, “How can you exhort a sinner to repent and believe when he is spiritually dead? That doesn’t make sense. It would be illogical and inconsistent.”
Spurgeon, on the other hand, would ask, “What does the Bible say?” On one side of the coin, Jesus says, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (Jn 6:44). On the other side of the coin, Jesus commands the crowds, “Come to me” (Mt 11:28). The Bible presents us with an apparent paradox, and we can respond in one of two ways. We can either emphasize one side of the coin while neglecting the other, or we can simply believe both. Spurgeon said, “I will believe both. Whether I can explain it or fully understand it, I will believe both because that’s what Scripture says.”
The Arminian doesn’t know how to reconcile these things, so he tosses God’s sovereignty aside. The Hyper-Calvinist doesn’t know how to reconcile these things, so he tosses man’s responsibility aside. Spurgeon wasn’t willing to toss any part of Scripture aside, making him an enemy to both Arminians and Hyper-Calvinists.
Spurgeon’s influence on me
Let me read to you my all-time favorite Spurgeon quote. Then I’ll briefly explain why it’s my favorite. Spurgeon once said:
Brethren be willing to see both sides of the shield of truth. Rise above the babyhood which cannot believe two doctrines until it sees the connecting link. Have you not two eyes, man? Must you needs put one of them out in order to see clearly?
I’m here to talk about Spurgeon, not myself, but let me share with you why he has been so influential in my life.
I grew up in Hyper-Calvinist churches. I became a Hyper-Calvinist pastor. I believed in Hyper-Calvinism, though I never used that term back then.
Eventually, I became a full-time pastor with ample time to study the Bible. I also adopted the practice of preaching through entire books of the Bible verse by verse. I was forced to see every word in context. I had to expound upon every passage I came to whether I wanted to or not. To make a long story short, it was almost inevitable that I would eventually see inconsistencies with myself, and I did.
Like Spurgeon, I was becoming an outlier and didn’t know what to do. My church was deeply entrenched in Hyper-Calvinism. Every pastor I knew was a Hyper-Calvinist. Based on everything I learned growing up, Hyper-Calvinism was apostolic, orthodox teaching. This is what the church has always believed. You may remember Johannes Eck’s argument against Luther. He basically said, “Luther, how can you have the audacity to say you’re right when you’re the only one saying it? Everyone else, past and present, disagrees with you.” Who was I to claim the Bible contradicts my church’s tradition?
That’s when I turned to Spurgeon.
Spurgeon was on my radar because several pastors had previously warned me about him and others like him. They’d say, “Be careful reading Spurgeon. He’d preach the doctrines of grace as soundly as any man, but moments later, he’d preach Arminianism.” Those warnings were still in my head because people were now accusing me of the same thing, so I sought out Spurgeon and began reading.
Spurgeon primarily spoke to me in two ways. First, he led me to realize I wasn’t alone. I had not invented new doctrines out of thin air. Beyond Spurgeon, many pastors and churches throughout history believed the very things I could now see in Scripture. Furthermore, having peered into the past for myself, I could see the evolution of Hyper-Calvinism. It was not orthodoxy. It was not a continuation of apostolic doctrine.
Second, Spurgeon equipped me with confidence. I don’t mean confidence in myself. I mean confidence in the Word of God. I was immersed in Hyper-Calvinism for so long that it was a struggle to accept straightforward biblical teachings in some areas. Then I read Spurgeon. “Have you not two eyes, man? Must you needs put one of them out in order to see clearly?”
I was afraid of betraying my convictions. I was torn between truth and tradition. I felt I had to choose between God’s Word and my job, friends, and family. Then I read Spurgeon. He said, “What right have you to set up your feelings against the Word of Christ.” Fair enough, Charles.
That’s how Spurgeon first spoke to me. I will forever be thankful to God for him. I’m also indebted to Iain Murray for writing his book Spurgeon V. Hyper-Calvinism. Without that book, I may have never known about Spurgeon’s early struggles with Hyper-Calvinism in London. Ironically enough, a Hyper-Calvinist pastor recommended that book to me. To this day, I’m not sure why.
I’d love to go on—I could spend all day discussing how Spurgeon still speaks to me—but let’s continue. I’ll have to give you the abridged version of the remainder of his ministry.
From New Park Street to the Metropolitan Tabernacle
Under Spurgeon’s preaching, New Park Street Chapel grew substantially. Within only a few months, more than five hundred people were attending. The church had outgrown the building within the first year. No church in London had ever seen that kind of rapid growth.
Pretty soon Spurgeon’s church moved to Exeter Hall which could hold nearly five thousand people. They outgrew that building as well, so plans began to construct the Metropolitan Tabernacle. Meanwhile, they met in the Music Hall of Royal Surrey Gardens because it could hold twelve thousand people. They reached maximum capacity during the very first service. Thousands more had to be turned away.
As much as Spurgeon’s popularity attracted criticism—he once said, “My name is kicked about the street as a football”—it also attracted many allies among younger preachers. In turn, Spurgeon founded the Pastors’ College when he was only twenty-two years old. The Pastors’ College was a little different than most seminaries, though. Spurgeon wasn’t interested in raising up scholars. Instead, he trained only preachers who were already filling pulpits. He funded the entire operation by selling his printed sermons, which sold about twenty-five thousand copies each week.
Spurgeon’s time at the Surrey Music Hall was a season of significant revival for the church, but it ended abruptly. Spurgeon discovered his church would be forced to share the facility with various secular entertainment programs on Sunday. He refused, saying, “I neither can nor will give way in anything in which I know I am right; and in the defense of God’s holy Sabbath, the cry of this day is, ‘Arise, let us go hence!’” In other words, it was time for them to go. Spurgeon was a man of principle, not pragmatism.
Later that year, construction of the Metropolitan Tabernacle began. It opened a year or so later. It was the largest Protestant sanctuary in the world, seating six thousand people. Better yet, until Spurgeon’s death thirty-one years later, that sanctuary was filled every Sunday morning and evening.
Charles Spurgeon’s legacy
I’m not sure how he did it, but in addition to his pastoral responsibilities, not to mention his role at the Pastors’ College, Spurgeon preached as many as ten times a week. People used to plead with him to slow down. They said he’d break under that kind of stress. He responded:
If I have done so, I am glad of it. I would do the same again. If I had fifty constitutions I would rejoice to break them down in the service of the Lord Jesus Christ. … We find ourselves able to preach ten or twelve times a week, and we find we are the stronger for it. … “Oh,” said one of the members, “our minister will kill himself.” … That is the kind of work that will kill no man. It is preaching to sleepy congregations that kills good ministers.”
Eventually, Spurgeon started a publication called The Sword and the Trowel, which defended biblical truth as more and more theological errors gained popularity. He also started the Stockwell Orphanage for boys. Later, he started the Girls’ Orphanage. He led 127 lay ministers who did missionary work throughout London. By the time he was fifty, Spurgeon had founded sixty-six organizations that were used to advance the gospel.
By the end of the nineteenth century, more than one hundred million copies of Spurgeon’s published sermons had been sold. To this day, 3,800 of his sermons are still in print. He also wrote and published 135 books. I won’t have enough time in my life to read them all. I have no idea how he managed to write them all.
Spurgeon faced several theological controversies throughout his life, but the Downgrade Controversy near the end was probably the worst. The name Downgrade comes from an analogy. Spurgeon compared many of the Baptist churches to a train barreling down the side of a mountain, gaining speed as it goes. Those churches were abandoning orthodoxy in many ways. They were severely undermining the authority of Scripture. They combined secular entertainment with worship. But Spurgeon’s warnings fell on deaf ears. In 1888, the Baptist Union voted to censure Spurgeon.
Spurgeon preached his final sermon on June 7, 1891. He died on January 31, 1892, at the age of fifty-seven. On the side of his grave, we read the following words:
E’er since by faith I saw the stream
Thy flowing wounds supply,
Redeeming love has been my theme,
And shall be till I die.
Then in a nobler, sweeter song,
I’ll sing thy power to save.
When this poor lisping stammering tongue,
Lies silent in the grave.
Spurgeon still speaks, and his legacy is too great to capture with a few words. But if I were to try, it might suffice to say he believed the Bible, preached it, and genuinely loved people. Frankly, I haven’t said enough about this last point. Spurgeon wasn’t exaggerating when he said:
I remember, when I have preached … that my whole soul has agonized over men, every nerve of my body has been strained and I could have wept my very being out of my eyes and carried my whole frame away in a flood of tears if I could but win souls.
That’s Charles Spurgeon.