Charles Haddon Spurgeon
History confirms that the people of God enthusiastically respond to the sure and powerful preaching of the Word. God's messengers have adorned the passage of history, starting from Abel to the prophets before the appearing of the Son of God, down to the incarnate Son, who proved to be the foretold prophet "greater than Moses," to the apostles called and trained by the Lord Himself, and subsequently by the host that published His Word even during the gloomiest periods of church history.
In the nineteenth century Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834-1892) proved to be one of those eminent lights. As a popular preacher, experiential and practical, with a burden for the lost, but no less a vision for the upbuilding and discipling of the converted, Spurgeon ranks easily with Chrysostom, Luther and Whitefield as a staunch defender of the evangelical faith and a trumpeter of the gospel of the grace of God.
Spurgeon belonged to an important tradition in English church history. He has been dubbed "the last of the Puritans," considering his earnestness for the welfare of men's souls, the soundness of his doctrine and his indefatigable labour of love by which his long ministry was spent. Such a title is misleading, for many others since his day have held high the torch of truth without compromise, but it certainly delineates him as a "man of God" in whom the spirit of Puritanism lived on undiminished.
Since his boyhood Spurgeon was steeped in the literature of the great Puritans: Sibbes, Alleine, Baxter and Owen. His preaching, like theirs, was a flowering of biblical doctrine. Just like Charles Simeon, his aim in the gospel ministry was to abase man while magnifying the Saviour Jesus Christ. It is recorded of him that "he had nothing to say if he could not speak of Jesus." It was not co-incidental, then, that at the inauguration sermon at the freshly-built Metropolitan Tabernacle, his announced ambition was clear-cut, an ambition from which he never deviated. "The subject of the ministry of this house," he declared, "shall be the person of Jesus Christ, the only mediator between God and man."
Spurgeon was descended from a line of godly dissenting ancestors. Both his father and grandfather were Independent ministers. Circumstances dictated that the boy Charles would spend his formative years with his grandparents; he returned home at the age of seven, where his mother continued to instil in her children the fear of the Lord, reading the Scriptures to them and praying for them individually. Her special intercession for young Charles was "O that my son might live for thee." She had to wait till her son was fifteen when her entreaties before the Throne were mightily answered.
Travail before birth
Spurgeon bears a lengthy and revealing testimony concerning the condition of his soul before coming to Christ. His autobiography, from which the following quotations are taken, is rich in conveying to us through what spiritual tribulations he had to go before finally embracing Christ by faith.
He suffered that mighty delusion of having to reform or do something impressive in order to make himself worthy of salvation. "Before I came to Christ," he narrates, "I said to myself, 'It surely cannot be that, if I believe in Jesus, just as I am, I shall be saved? I must feel something; I must do something.' I could pour scorn upon myself to think of some of the good resolutions I made!...Oh, the many times that I have wished the preacher would tell me something to do that I might be saved! Gladly would I have done it, if it had been possible" (The Early Years, Banner of Truth Trust, page 69).
The simplicity and effectivity of the gospel - as the (exclusive) power of God unto salvation - eluded him. Like some many others before and after him, he missed what in the Scriptures is obvious. He continues: "Yet that simplest of all matters - believing in Christ crucified, accepting His finished salvation, being nothing, and letting Him be everything, doing nothing but trusting to what He has done - I could not get a hold of it. Once I thought there was salvation in good works, and I laboured hard, and strove diligently to preserve a character for integrity and uprightness; but when the Spirit of God came into may heart, 'sin revived, and I died.' That which I though had been good, proved to be evil; wherein I fancied I had been holy, I found myself to be unholy. I discovered that my very best actions were sinful, that my tears needed to be wept over, and that my prayers needed God's forgiveness. I discovered that I was seeking after salvation by the works of the law, that I was doing all my good works from a selfish motive, namely, to save myself, and therefore they could not be acceptable to God" (ibid., p.69,70).
Thus he continued on, with the light shining before him, and yet escaping him. He was blind to the free righteousness to be received by faith, and by faith alone. Intellectually, let it be said, he know what the gospel was all about, he had read the Puritans, and heard many a sermon; he had received counsel from his parents, and yet his conscience would find no rest. "What a struggle that was which my young heart waged against sin! When God the Holy Ghost first quickened me, little did I know of the precious blood which has put my sins away, and drowned them in the depths for ever. But I did know this, that I could not remain as I was..." (ibid., p.70).
He illustrated his situation by the case-history of Zaccheus, who was gently and yet authoritatively ordered to come down from the tree. He pictured himself as having to surrender his imagined righteousness and had to embrace Christ and His righteousness. He had to learn to sing Toplady's hymn as honestly and sincerely as he could:
"A debtor to mercy alone,
He confesses that he would never be able to make it his own cry: it was too high, too sweet, too consoling.
The Son breaking through the clouds of unbelief
Throughout his successful ministry Spurgeon referred to his own dramatic conversion experience to illustrate the fact that in one instance of time our whole relationship to our Creator may be re-orientated, with repercussions enduring throughout all eternity. Spurgeon used to preach that "the saved soul is as near and dear to God the first moment he believes as he ever will be; a true heir of all things in Christ, and as truly so as even when he shall mount to heaven to be glorified and to be like his Lord" - thus affirming the objectivity of salvation, how it does not depend at all on us but rather on its Giver, the Lord Jesus.
And yet, as God deals not with stocks and stones, but with men endowed with the faculties of intellect and will, those whom he draws to Himself are usually broken down by having their indebtedness made apparent to their consciences. Spurgeon's case is exemplary: "When I was in the hand of the Holy Spirit, under conviction of sin, I had a clear and sharp sense of the justice of God. Sin, whatever it might be to other people, became to me an intolerable burden. It was not so much that I feared hell, as that I feared sin; and all the while, I had upon my mind a deep concern for the honour of God's name, and the integrity of His moral government. I felt that it would not satisfy my conscience if I could be forgiven unjustly. But then there came the question - 'How could God be just, and yet justify me who had been so guilty?' I was worried and wearied with this question; neither could I see any answer to it.
The admittance of such a state of mind is all the more alarming since young Spurgeon was not a foreigner to Bible doctrine. He had enjoyed the best of child-rearing. The devotion that his parents and near relatives expressed towards him was a great asset, and yet it is a solid proof that conversion is of God's free and sovereign grace. He confesses: "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 that if I had been born and bred a Hottentot. The light was there, but I was blind: it was of necessity that the Lord Himself should make the matter plain to me."
And the all-knowing God, in His wise providential dealings with the children of men, does conduct our steps to bring us to the desired haven. It so happened that an outbreak of fever in the school at Newmarket brought Spurgeon's first term to an end before the appointed time. So he returned home for the winter holidays. On January 6, 1850, he was prevented by the snow and chilly weather from accompanying his father on a journey to Tollesbury.
What to all appearance was mere co-incidence was in actual fact the pivotal day of his whole life. He was led to a Primitive Methodist Chapel in Artillery Street close to their home on Hythe Hill.
Later on, as he reminisces on the eventful day, he writes: "When, for the first time, I received the gospel to my soul's salvation, I thought that I had never really heard it before, and I began to think that the preachers to whom I had listened had not truly preached it. But, on looking back, I am inclined to believe that I had heard the gospel fully preached many hundreds of times before, and that this was the difference - that I then heard it as though I heard it not; and when I did hear it, the message may not have been any more clear in itself that it had been at former times, but the power of the Holy Spirit was present to open my ear, and to guide the message to my heart.
"I have no doubt that I heard, scores of times, such texts as these - 'He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved;' 'Look unto Me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth;' 'As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life;' yet I had not intelligent idea of what faith meant. When I first discovered what faith really was, and exercised it - for with me these two things came together, I believed as soon as ever I knew what believing meant - then I though I had never before heard the truth preached. But, now, I am persuaded that the light often shone on my eyes, but I was blind, and therefore thought that the light had never come there" (ibid., p.84,85).
The foolishness of God is wiser than man
Spurgeon was very grateful for the environment in which he was placed in his younger years, especially as he was surrounded with Puritan books in which he loved to delve. And yet the decisive Word that penetrated his soul came not from the printed page but from the spoken. "The books were good," he says, "but the man was better. The revealed Word awakened me, but it was the preached Word that saved me; and I must ever attach peculiar value to the hearing of the truth, for by it I received the joy and peace in which my soul delights."
He is referring to the day he entered the Methodist chapel for refuge from a snowstorm. There may have been a dozen or fifteen people. "I had heard of the Primitive Methodists, how they sang so loudly that they made people's heads ache; but that did not matter to me. I wanted to know how I might be saved, and if they could tell me that, I did not care how much they made my head ache. The minister did not come that morning; he was snowed up, I suppose. At last, a very thin-looking man, a shoemaker, or tailor, or something of that sort, went up into the pulpit to preach. Now, it is well that preachers should be instructed, but this man was really stupid. He was obliged to stick to his text, for the simple reason that he had little else to say. The text was -
"LOOK UNTO ME, AND BE YE SAVED, ALL THE ENDS OF THE EARTH."
"He did not even pronounce the words rightly, but that did not matter. There was, I thought, a glimpse of hope for me in that text...."
The speaker managed to spin out about ten minutes; evidently he was at the end of his tether. "Then, lifting up his hands, he shouted, as only a Primitive Methodist could do, 'Young man, look to Jesus Christ. Look! Look! Look! You have nothin' to do but to look and live." In decisive and memorable words, Spurgeon states exuberantly: "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 words it seemed to me! Oh! I 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" (ibid., p.87, 88).
Like every other conversion, Spurgeon's turning to God involved his intellect (he was well-informed of the gospel content), his emotions (he felt himself loved by Christ) and, most importantly, his will (he wanted to "look" at the crucified and risen Redeemer, and was enabled to do so by the Holy Spirit). As he reflected further: "There was never anything so true to me as those bleeding hands, and that thorn-crowned head. Home, friends, health, wealth, comforts - all lost their lustre that day when He appeared, just as stars are hidden by the light of the sun. He was the only Lord and Giver of life's best bliss, the one well of living water springing up unto everlasting life. As I saw Jesus on His cross before me, and as I mused upon His sufferings and death, methought I saw Him cast a look of love upon me; and then I looked at Him, and cried -
'Jesu, lover of my soul, Let me to Thy bosom fly'" (ibid., p.90,91).
Immediate conscious blessings
Spurgeon knew that from that moment on he had peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ (Romans 5:1). How precious this gift was can only be seen when we remember the prolonged struggles that he had to endure before casting the eye of faith on the all-sufficient Saviour.
"The Holy Spirit," he writes, "who enabled me to believe, gave me peace through believing. I felt as sure that I was forgiven as before I felt sure of condemnation. I had been certain of my condemnation because the Word of God declared it, and my conscience bore witness to it, but when the Lord justified me, I was made equally certain by the same witnesses" (ibid., p.92).
Another blessing, in many cases withheld from other believers (at least for some time), with which Spurgeon was enriched was the assurance of faith. Though later on in his life he was to undergo many bouts of depression due to the burden of the ministry, yet from the beginning he knew that Jesus Christ had done marvellous things for him. "Has Jesus saved me?" he asks rhetorically. "I dare not speak with any hesitation here; I know He has. His Word is true, therefore I am saved. My evidence that I am saved does not lie in the fact that I preach, or that I do this or that. All my hope lies in this, that Jesus Christ came to save sinners. I am a sinner, I trust Him, then He came to save me, and I am saved; I live habitually in the enjoyment of this blessed fact..." (ibid., p.93).
The core of the Gospel
Saved by the gospel, he was also called to proclaim it to his own generation...and, as it turned out, to subsequent generations, up to this very day, through his printed sermons.
But the man who is called to preach must know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, what the gospel is all about. Spurgeon had no misgivings about the substance and essential elements of the gospel. The gospel is the account of the substitutionary atonement accomplished by the Son of God on behalf of sinners. Spurgeon expands on this theme: "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 for ever; the only reason why I should not be damned is, that Christ was punished in my stead, and there is no need to execute a sentence twice for sin. On the other hand, I know I cannot enter heaven unless I have a perfect righteousness; I am absolutely certain I shall never have one of my own, for I find I sin every day, but then Christ had a perfect righteousness, and He said, " There, poor sinner, take My garment, and put it on; you shall stand before God as if you were Christ, and I will stand before God as if I had been the sinner; I will suffer in the sinner's stead, and you shall be rewarded for works which you did not do, but which I did for you." I find it very convenient every day to come to Christ as a sinner, as I came at the first. "You are no saint," says the devil. Well, if I am not, I am a sinner, and Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners. Sink or swim, I go to Him; other hope I have none. By looking to Him, I received all the faith which inspired me with confidence in His grace; and the word that first drew my soul - "Look unto Me" - still rings its clarion note in my ears. There I once found conversion, and there I shall ever find refreshing and renewal" (ibid., p.94).
New Master, new direction...
As every Christian knows, and as Spurgeon faithfully taught during his long ministry, every child of God has to fight the good fight of faith. The remnant of indwelling sin still rages against the soul. Begun at conversion, this contention continues unabated during our earthly pilgrimage as God's children are being prepared for their heavenly home.
Spurgeon knew the importance of a disciplined life in the service of his new Master, Jesus Christ. "Self-examination is a very great blessing, but I have known self-examination carried on in a most unbelieving, legal, and self-righteous manner; in fact, I have so carried it on myself."
He knew the reality of temptation of the worst kind, such as he did not imagine would present itself before him. "I was brought up, as a child, with such care that I knew but very little of foul or profane language, having scarcely ever heard a man swear. Yet do I remember times, in my earliest Christian days, when there came into my mind thoughts so evil that I clapped my hand to my mouth for fear I should be led to give utterance to them."
His attitude towards the Holy Scriptures was significantly altered. "Before my conversion, I was accustomed to read the Scriptures to admire their grandeur, to feel the charm of their history, and wonder at the majesty of their language; but I altogether missed the Lord's intent therein. But when the Spirit came with His Divine life, and quickened all the Book to my newly-enlightened soul, the inner meaning shone forth with wondrous glory." He considered the veracity and infallibility of Scripture as the starting-point for the successful Christian life and more so for a Christ-magnifying ministry. He continues: "I was not in frame of mind to judge God's Word, but I accepted it all without demur; I did not venture to sit in judgment upon my Judge, and become the reviser of the unerring God. Whatever I found to be in His Word, I received with intense joy" (ibid., p.107).
And, we should add, what he learned therein he made it a firm commitment to make it known to others, to withhold nothing that would be profitable to his flock, in brief, "to declare the whole counsel of God."
Breadth of learning - under Christ's lordship
Unlike so many pastors and preachers, Spurgeon was well-known to be an avid researcher and reader in a wide variety of subjects. He was convinced that the truth of the gospel must be made known and illustrated with homely items.
He says, "Before I knew the gospel, I had gathered up a heterogeneous mass of all kinds of knowledge from here, there, and everywhere - a bit of chemistry, a bit of botany, a bit of astronomy, and a bit of this, that, and the other." This could be both frustrating and pride-instilling in a worldly man, but under the direction of Christ, Spurgeon came to know the value of such knowledge, well-used for the glory of his Master. He continues: "I put them all together, in one great confused chaos, but when I learned the gospel, I got a shelf in my head to put everything upon just where it should be. It seemed to me as if, when I had discovered Christ and Him crucified, I found the centre of the system, so that I could see every other science revolving in due order" (ibid., p. 108).
He never got tired of enriching his mind with the truth of God and His creation; and he was wise enough to hide his knowledge and use it only to make known the unsearchable riches of Christ. Taking up the proverb, "Go from nature up to nature's God," he reverses the order and says, "The best thing is to go from nature's God down to nature; and if you once get to nature's God, and believe Him, and love Him, it is surprising how easy it is to hear music in the waves, and songs in the wild whisperings of the winds, to see God everywhere, in the stones, in the rocks, in the rippling brooks, and to hear Him everywhere, in the lowing of cattle, in the rolling of thunders, and in the fury of tempests."
Under Christ, Spurgeon adopted naturally a philosophy that utilised all things for the furtherance of the knowledge of Christ, by whom and for whom are all things. He did not despise God's world, but used it as a stepping-stone to magnify His Saviour. The latitude of his learning is amazing, and the secret was as simple as it was profound: "Christ is to me the wisdom of God. I can learn everything now that I know the science of Christ crucified."
A servant of Christ
Though still of tender years, the gifts and abilities with which Spurgeon was endowed could not be hidden. Neither did their possessor desire to put his lighted candle under a bushel. Spurgeon was initiated into active Christian ministry as a Sunday school teacher. In 1850, he had come to Cambridge as an assistant teacher.
Actually his first sermon was imposed upon him. He was requested to accompany another young man to a preaching centre. On their way Spurgeon asked the man what was his text. The man was startled and said that he was assuming that Spurgeon would be the preacher. Whether he liked it or not, Spurgeon had to stand up and "give them their meat in due season." It so happened that the congregation could hardly contain their enthusiasm, and this event was followed by other preaching appointments in barns and cottages in the vicinity.
He was still sixteen years old when he was called by a small Baptist church in Waterbeach. The unction with which he delivered the Word of God could not be mistaken. His ministry there continued with great blessings from above for three years. But such a small village could not expect to retain such a mouthpiece of God's truth.
It was to be expected that he would be invited to preach in more influential circles. The call finally came in 1853 from New Park Street Chapel in London. Spurgeon could not take it in, but the call was confirmed, and he was constrained to move ahead.
From the eighteenth of December, the day he arrived at New Park, news soon spread about this new preacher. Naturally the church could not house the crowds that flocked to hear the Word from his lips. They had to move to Exeter Hall where the seating capacity was much larger, but it was not long afterwards that the church had to make another move, this time to Surrey Garden Music Hall, an immense auditorium that could hold ten thousand people.
Eventually a project was set in motion to build a church, which project was successful: the result being "The Metropolitan Tabernacle." Spurgeon mused on those days of revival which not only his congregation was experiencing but other churches in different parts of England, Northern Ireland and Wales, were also coming under the sanctifying influence of the Holy Spirit. Spurgeon was then in his hey-day: "What prayer meetings we have had! Shall we ever forget Park Street, those prayer meetings, when I felt compelled to let you go without a word from my lips, because the Spirit of God was so awfully present that we felt bowed to the dust" (The Forgotten Spurgeon, Iain Murray, p. 35).
The same entrust to other faithful men
Spurgeon soon felt the need to train others for the gospel ministry. This burden that pressed upon his soul eventually gave fruit in the establishment of the Pastor's College. Every Friday afternoon he went to the College to give a lecture on preaching, addresses that later were published under the title, "Lectures to my Students."
His engagements in the Lord's battle involved him in several controversies, the most famous and momentous being three. These were his firm stand for the doctrines of grace, popularly known as Calvinism; the debate about baptismal regeneration; and finally the great struggle against the encroachments of Liberalism within the Baptist Union, which became known as the Down-grade Controversy.
But Spurgeon never allowed doctrine to cloud his vision to embellish the gospel with good works. His great heart had to respond to the social needs around him, and one of the concrete results was the Orphanage he had the opportunity to open. In 1866 a handsome gift of twenty thousand pounds enables him to open this house at Stockwell, providing a home and education for five hundred homeless boys and girls.
Another venture was the forming of the Colportage Association, to give rural people the opportunity to buy Christian literature at manageable cost. In one year the ninety-six colporteurs involved in this ministry reported a sale of twenty-three thousand Bibles.
Spurgeon was also responsible for starting a magazine by the name of "Sword and Trowel," for the dissemination of gospel truth. His sermons also were taken down by shorthand, revised every Monday morning and printed every Thursday. Spurgeon narrates a story about a certain Richard Knill who had "placed his hands upon his head and invoked the Divine blessing upon him, saying at the close that he believed that he would live to love Jesus Christ, and preach His gospel to the largest congregation in the world." And so it came to pass!
A treasure in earthen vessels
In the midst of the Down-grade controversy the preacher's health deteriorated; he was constrained to take periods of rest, oftentimes in the south of France, in a small town named Mentone. There he was relieved of his severs bouts of gout that plagued him from around forty years old onwards.
The inevitable had to happen. Worn down for his age, Spurgeon home-calling was announced by his "armour-bearer," Mr. J.W. Harrald, and printed copies of the telegram was fixed to the Metropolitan Tabernacle:
"Our beloved pastor entered heaven, 11.5 Sunday night. Harrald."
Paul's testamentary statement could well be applied to the stalwart soldier of Christ, who undeviatingly preached the same gospel Paul preached: "I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith" (2 Timothy 4:7).
Soon after his removal from the battle-field, a Free Church editor could easily foresee Spurgeon's enduring influence: he wrote that his sermons "will continue to be studied with growing interest and wonder, and will ultimately be accepted as incomparably the greatest contribution to the literature of experimental Christianity that has been made in this century."