Dead Theologian of the Month – 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. 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 congregation quickly outgrew their building, moved to Exeter Hall, then to Surrey Music Hall. In 1861 the congregation moved permanently to the newly constructed Metropolitan Tabernacle.  Over his lifetime, Spurgeon published many books, including, perhaps his best known, Treasury of David – a commentary on the book of Psalms.

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.   

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.  Spurgeon would say: “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.”   

For this reason, Spurgeon (who taught many students to preach at his Pastors College) was concerned with the quality of the church’s preaching.  He said, “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.”  Spurgeon’s care in sermon content was blessed by God as thousands were converted under his ministry.  

There is much more we could say of Spurgeon.  We could speak of his incredible wit and sense of humor, his deep love of his wife and family, 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. May Spurgeon’s ministry lead us into a greater devotion to the Lord and so greater usefulness for him!   

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