A recent conversation about some of the differences between Calvinism and Hyper-Calvinism motivated me to pull Iain Murray’s book, Spurgeon V. Hyper-Calvinism: The Battle For Gospel Preaching, off my shelf and re-read it. I finished it in only two days.
An encouragement to me
I still remember the first time I read it. I believe it was in 2015, maybe 2016, as my tenure as pastor of a Hyper-Calvinist church was coming to an end. I no longer agreed with the doctrinal traditions of the church, and I was struggling more and more to preach what I believe is biblical without upsetting the church and causing division. I sensed my time as their pastor was coming to a close. Though I was upset about it—I loved the church and wanted to stay with them—I found a lot of encouragement in Murray’s book.
Ironically enough, I learned about the book only because a Hyper-Calvinist preacher recommended it to me. Looking back, I’m still unclear why he suggested I should read it. My best guess is that he believed I would see errors in Spurgeon’s arguments against Hyper-Calvinism, but instead, my soul was refreshed to read his quotes. Here’s a man who understands the flaws and dangers of Hyper-Calvinism, I thought. Here’s a man who not only faced criticism from his Hyper-Calvinist brothers, but also thrived through the controversy.
To be clear, I don’t mean Spurgeon thrived on the controversy. I mean he thrived despite the accusations and arguments against him and his theology.
Most people don’t know about the rather public contention between Spurgeon and Hyper-Calvinist pastors in his day. The conflict came relatively early in his ministry, and though some of his opponents derided him in widespread publications, he rarely responded to them. That’s not to say he was altogether silent on the matter, but he did not directly address these other men. He merely spoke out against the tenets of Hyper-Calvinism in some of his sermons without mentioning names.
What Iain Murray does in his book, and does incredibly well, is show both sides of the debate. He quotes from the Hyper-Calvinist publications, then he quotes Spurgeon’s indirect responses from his sermons. He shows where the Hyper-Calvinists among the Baptists stood, and he shows where Spurgeon stood. The entire history of the controversy is fascinating to me because, to some degree anyhow, I feel as though I’ve lived through it. On a much, much smaller scale, I feel as though I’ve walked in Spurgeon’s footsteps. I’ve had to move against tradition and suffer both public and private criticism from fellow pastors as a result.
Perhaps you can understand why the book was an encouragement to me six or seven years ago. Despite the sometimes hostile opposition against Spurgeon, he continued to faithfully preach the gospel and serve his church. He did not let it discourage him. In fact, he manifested the spirit of Paul, who said of his critics, “Whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice” (Php 1:18). As opposed as Spurgeon was to Hyper-Calvinism, he was quick to compliment his dissenters for the truth they preached.
Overemphasis on election
Two points in the debate stood out to me when I first read Murray’s book. The first was Spurgeon’s critique of the Hyper-Calvinist’s mishandling of the doctrine of election. I don’t have the book in front of me, so I can’t cite it, but I certainly remember the thrust of Spurgeon’s argument. He argued that the doctrine of election was meant to be understood by someone only after his conversion to Christ. In other words, election is taught to be a comfort to believers.
Unfortunately, Hyper-Calvinists tend to place the doctrine of election at the front and center of their preaching and thinking. It becomes the emphasis of everything they believe, teach, and even practice. They are constantly thinking in terms of God choosing some for salvation and not others. While that is absolutely true, first of all, election is not where gospel preaching starts. Just observe the preaching of Christ and his apostles to the masses. Yes, they taught election, but it was never the first thing.
Second, though the doctrine of election is true and biblical, it should not stifle our evangelism. Frankly, we don’t know everyone whom God has chosen, and we’re not supposed to. We are commanded to preach the gospel. We are commanded to call sinners to repent. We are commanded to evangelize indiscriminately. We are commanded to “preach the gospel to every creature,” as Spurgeon liked to say (Mk 16:15 KJV).
This kind of zealous, indiscriminate evangelism doesn’t happen among Hyper-Calvinists. You won’t hear apostolic gospel preaching from them. You won’t hear them call unbelievers to repent and turn back, that their sins may be blotted out, as Peter did (Ac 3:19). That sounds almost Arminian.
Instead, Hyper-Calvinists narrow their focus on the doctrine of election to such a degree that they essentially reverse the Great Commission in their minds. Rather than Christ telling the church to go and make disciples, they believe the church should wait for sinners to come to them (Mt 28:19). After all, the natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God (1Co 2:14). Consciously or not, they wait to see some evidence of God’s work in a person’s heart before they make any effort to evangelize, but that’s not an idea that comes from any plain teaching of Scripture. In fact, it contradicts the most plain teachings of Scripture.
Underestimating God’s love
The second issue in Murray’s book that resonated with me years ago was the matter of God’s love for sinners. This is another area where the Hyper-Calvinist’s overemphasis on election leads to misunderstandings—in this case, a misunderstanding about God’s very nature.
“Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated” is a verse that continually runs through the Hyper-Calvinist’s mind (Ro 9:13). In turn, he thinks of God’s affections and compassion in black-and-white terms. God either loves or hates. He cannot possibly feel something in between, which defies our own experiences as his image-bearers. While we, too, can either love or hate, we also feel degrees of both love and hate. I have friends I love, but I don’t love them to the same degree I love my wife or children. I believe God can love in different degrees as well.
Think of Christ weeping over the city of Jerusalem after three years of their stubborn rejection. He says, “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes” (Lk 19:42). Notice that Christ declares irreversible judgment against them, yet he expresses his heartbreak over them.
Think of God, who said of Israel, “All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and contrary people” (Ro 10:21). God held out his compassionate and merciful hands to the same people on whom Christ passed judgment because of their rejection of him.
Think of Paul, who said, “I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers” (Ro 9:3). He’s speaking about the same people as Christ and God in the passages I previously cited. He’s speaking about the same people whom he’s talking about later in Romans 9—that is, the non-elect, those hated by God.
If these aren’t expressions of love and compassion, I don’t know what is. Yes, in a very real sense, God either loves or hates. But in another very real sense, he loves the entire world. He loves all of his creation. In fact, this universal love of God is why Jesus teaches we must love our enemies. He says:
Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:44-48)
We are taught to love our enemies because God loves them.
Do I recommend the book?
Re-reading Spurgeon V. Hyper-Calvinism has stirred a lot of emotions from the past, but animosity isn’t one of them. Sincerely, I have tremendous love and respect for my Hyper-Calvinist brothers and sisters. Nothing I’ve said here comes from a spirit of bitterness or resentment. Like Spurgeon, I wish they could see the truth of God more clearly, but I still appreciate the truth they do profess and defend.
When I think about Murray’s book, I’ve wondered whether it would be beneficial to those still persuaded by Hyper-Calvinism, but I’m not sure. First, Iain Murray didn’t write it to critique Hyper-Calvinism or even defend orthodox Calvinism. It provides a window into the tension between the two during a specific time in Baptist history. Murray doesn’t write it as a theological study. It’s a biography. It’s a history book.
Second, as much as I was positively impacted by Murray’s book, I already agreed with its main character. I could shout, “Amen,” after every Spurgeon quote. In other words, I didn’t experience the book on the other side of the divide, so I don’t know how a Hyper-Calvinist would receive it. I don’t know what effects it might have. Would it clarify things? Could it change someone’s mind? I don’t know.
Even so, I have every reason to recommend it. If you enjoy Christian biographies, you should read it. If you like church history, you should read it. If you’re interested in the debate between Calvinism and Hyper-Calvinism, you should read it. Obviously, results will vary, but it’s a well-written, well-researched, easy read I believe most people could enjoy.