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Charles Spurgeon: The Life and Ministry of the ‘Prince of Preachers’ (Part 3)

Portrait of charles spurgeon

See first Part 1 and Part 2.

by Jeremy Walker | Pastor, Maidenbower Baptist Church

As the years passed and Spurgeon continued to mature as a preacher, membership at the Tabernacle reached over five thousand. As his health allowed, Spurgeon preached faithfully to the church who gathered in the center of London, as well as undertaking numerous preaching and other responsibilities during the week. Despite the many typical trials of life and labor as a Christian in the world, together with the profoundly atypical pressures that he faced on account of his peculiar gifts and calling, Spurgeon enjoyed the rich blessing of the Lord and sweet fellowship with many of God’s people.

Charles Spurgeon, the faithful veteran

But we should not imagine that Spurgeon was some genial pulpiteer. As we have already seen, his doctrine and practice as a Calvinistic Baptist made him many enemies, and he appeared fearless in holding fast to the truth once for all committed to the saints. That meant, on occasion, that he must go into combat either to defend that truth or to assault particular errors. Indeed, one of his earliest compositions—while still in his mid-teens and unconverted—was an extended essay entitled Antichrist and her Brood; or Popery Unmasked. His earliest London forays for the truth long predated even The Sword and the Trowel. While Spurgeon was still preaching at New Park Street, a little book called The Rivulet was published, purporting to be a hymnbook for Christian worship. Spurgeon eventually made public his opinion, in which he recognized the poetic quality of the work but delivered a broadside against its theology, which was deistic—finding more of God in nature than anywhere else—and lacked anything distinctively Christian. At the end of his review, Mr. Spurgeon warned: “We shall soon have to handle truth, not with kid gloves, but with gauntlets—the gauntlets of holy courage and integrity. Go on, ye warriors of the cross, for the King is at the head of you.”

Four years later, in 1860, a minister called J. B. Brown published The Divine Life in Man. Spurgeon was one of seven prominent Baptist preachers who published a letter expressing their fear that the work contained “pernicious error . . . subversive of the gospel,” and cautioning young ministers against “that style of preaching which, under the pretentious affectation of being intellectual, grows ashamed of the old and vulgar doctrines of . . . that scheme of dogmatic Christian truth which is popularly known under the designation of ‘the doctrines of grace.’” Spurgeon continued to defend the truth from the pulpit and in print.

In 1864 Spurgeon again breasted the ramparts, this time by preaching a sermon entitled “Baptismal Regeneration.” He warned his publishers beforehand that he was taking a conscientious step that would damage sales. Despite his esteem for evangelical Anglicans who were holding the line against encroaching Roman Catholicism in the Church of England, he felt that the practice of infant baptism effectively contradicted the doctrine of justification by faith, being popularly understood as actually effecting regeneration. He robustly charged the evangelical clergy with unfaithfulness, but without any malice toward them. While recognizing that he spoke from conviction, many friends distanced themselves from him as a result of these words. Incidentally, the sales of his sermons and books increased.

Some of these controversies were the first sallies in the extended battle that was eventually to cost Spurgeon his very life. During the 1860s Spurgeon spoke with eager anticipation of blessing ahead for the Baptists, but at that very time a new approach to the Bible was being taught in many places, called Higher Criticism, or ‘the New Theology’ as it worked itself out in practice. These convictions—or the lack of them, for this was essentially theological liberalism that tended to undermine and eventually deny the central realities of gospel truth, and therefore robust Christian faith and life—made their way increasingly into the churches, and were soon infecting ministers in the Baptist Union, a country-wide association of churches to which the Metropolitan Tabernacle (in common with hundreds of other congregations) belonged. Spurgeon corresponded and met with officials from the Baptist Union about the number of men who had adopted this heterodoxy, and urged the adoption of a robustly evangelical statement of faith, upon acceptance of which continued membership in the Union would be conditional. This suggestion was voted down, showing the extent to which error had already crept in, and the blindness of well-meaning men who wanted to uphold a so-called liberty of conscience that required nothing more than that a man accept baptism by immersion, effectively allowing him to state other beliefs after his own whim. The tension built, and the storm broke in 1887.

Down-grade theology

During this year, Spurgeon published and wholeheartedly endorsed two articles in The Sword and the Trowel entitled “The Down-Grade,” written by Robert Shindler, a Baptist pastor and close associate of Spurgeon’s. The so-called Down-Grade Controversy had begun. In August 1887, Spurgeon personally entered the lists with “Another Word concerning the Down-Grade”:

It now becomes a serious question how far those who abide by the faith once delivered to the saints should fraternize with those who have turned aside to another gospel. Christian love has its claims, and divisions are to be shunned as grievous evils; but how far are we justified in being in confederacy with those who are departing from the truth? It is a difficult question to answer so as to keep the balance of the duties.

These articles exposed the doctrinal falsehoods being propagated, and the spiritual dullness and deadness that invariably followed. Further articles were written: there was a “Reply to Sundry Critics,” then “The Case Proved,” and after that, “A Fragment on the Down-Grade Controversy.” Spurgeon sadly came to the conclusion that he could not remain in union with errorists of this stripe. In October 1887, he wrote that

We cannot be expected to meet in any Union which comprehends those whose teaching is upon fundamental points exactly the reverse of that which we hold dear. . . . To us it appears that there are many things upon which compromise is possible, but there are others in which it would be an act of treason to pretend to fellowship.

He resigned from the Baptist Union over the apostasy in their ranks in the same month: “Fellowship with known and vital error is participation in sin.” He was fifty-three years old. He took this step independently, but the Metropolitan Tabernacle followed their beloved pastor. He made no effort to form a new association, but stood back and waited for the outcome, believing that the articles in the magazine provided sufficient evidence and reasoning for men and women to reach their own righteous conclusions.

In November 1887, Spurgeon publicly declared,

We retire at once and distinctly from the Baptist Union. The Baptist Churches are each one of them self-contained and independent. The Baptist Union is only a voluntary association of such churches, and it is a simple matter for a church or an individual to withdraw from it. The Union, as at present constituted, has no disciplinary power, for it has no doctrinal basis whatever, and we see no reason why every form of belief and misbelief should not be comprehended in it so long as immersion only is acknowledged as baptism. There is no use in blaming the Union for harbouring errors of the extremest kind, for, so far as we can see, it is powerless to help itself, if it even wished to do so. Those who originally founded it made it ‘without form and void,’ and so it must remain.

In response to suggestions that he establish a new denomination, Spurgeon answered that

the expedient is not needed among churches which are each one self-governing and self-determining: such churches can find their own affinities without difficulty, and can keep their own coasts clear of invaders. Since each vessel is seaworthy in herself, let the hampering ropes be cut clean away, and no more lines of communication be thrown out until we know that we are alongside a friend who sails under the same glorious flag. In the isolation of independency, tempered by the love of the Spirit which binds us to all the faithful in Christ Jesus, we think the lovers of the gospel will for the present find their immediate safety. Oh, that the day would come when, in a larger communion than any sect can offer, all those who are one in Christ may be able to blend in manifest unity! This can only come by the way of growing spiritual life, clearer light upon the one eternal truth, and a closer cleaving in all things to him who is the Head, even Christ Jesus.

Spurgeon was attacked on every side. Having been the instrument, under God, of so much blessing to so many within Baptist and other circles, he now found himself to some extent isolated. When the Baptist Union met for its general assembly, they had to deal with his charges of apostasy. The evidence that Spurgeon had received from the Union itself as to the nature and extent of the problem was designated by those who had sent it as ‘in confidence’ and so Spurgeon’s charges appeared to be without cause.

In April 1888, the Baptist Union gathered in conference. A resolution was introduced in an attempt to paper over the cracks: it used evangelical language but was carefully worded to avoid hostility to the New Theology. Spurgeon’s own brother—seemingly blind to what was at stake—seconded the motion, under the mistaken notion that it would further the evangelical cause. When the vote was called, a mere seven men voted against the resolution; two thousand supported it. Admittedly, some of those voting for the motion appeared to believe they were standing with Spurgeon, but the vote was trumpeted as a slap in the face and a bold rejection of the great preacher’s position. The Baptist Union continued its decline; it soon merged with the General (i.e. Arminian) Baptists and rapidly lost its gospel distinctiveness and effectiveness.

During all this, Mrs. Spurgeon continued severely unwell, and the pressure of the combat, together with his other cares and labors, further eroded Spurgeon’s own strength. Among the most painful episodes to his heart was a rebellion from among the men trained at the Pastors’ College, offended by Spurgeon’s determined stance against heresy. He was forced to dissolve the regular College Conference and form a new meeting.

Spurgeon was proved right: the rapid upshot of this failure to defend the faith once for all committed to the saints was so-called gospel ministers who did not believe the Bible to be the inspired and infallible Word of God, did not believe men were sinners, did not believe in Jesus the God-man and one Mediator between God and men, did not believe in his atoning sacrifice, in the operations of the Spirit of God, and did not believe in heaven or in hell. In short, they abandoned the truth which, under God, brings life to sinners dead in their sins. The result was swift and grim: churches died an agonizing death, and Christ and his gospel were trodden underfoot.

Grieving over this assault upon his Saviour and the truth as it is in Jesus, Spurgeon’s health rapidly declined. His sensitive soul was deeply scarred: he hated the conflict but fought because he would not see Christ dishonored, and he fought to the death. Speaking to College students on the preacher’s power, he remarked

trimming [the gospel] now, and debasing doctrine now, will affect children yet unborn, generation after generation. Posterity must be considered. I do not look so much at what is to happen to-day, for these things relate to eternity. For my part, I am quite willing to be eaten by dogs for the next fifty years; but the more distant future shall vindicate me. I have dealt honestly before the living God. My brother, do the same.

In July of 1888 he was so sick that he could not even write. It was not until December that he was well enough to set off again to Mentone for a period of recovery. At the end of the year, still struggling with gout, he had a bad fall at Mentone, and it was not until February 1889 that he returned to London. He was trying to work as hard as ever that year, but by November he had to flee the pain again, heading for Mentone. Toward spring of 1890 he again returned to London, still facing assaults for his stance in the Down-Grade Controversy. Another winter in Mentone followed, and in early 1891 he seemed to have recovered somewhat. However, the continuing demands of the warfare were proving too much. He was conscious of the fight and its cost. In March 1891, a preacher from the College called E. H. Ellis left for Australia. Spurgeon bade him farewell: “Goodbye, Ellis; you will never see me again, this fight is killing me.” It was only a month later that the final illness set in. As summer wore on Spurgeon was once forced to retire from the pulpit by what he called “overpowering nervousness.”

He preached for several more weeks, though, culminating with a sermon on Sunday, June 7, 1891. The day after he set out to revisit Stambourne, a scene of happy childhood memories, but returned after a few days, and was utterly devoid of health for about three months afterward. By October he had recovered only sufficiently to attempt the trip to Mentone, and he set out on the 26 accompanied for the first time ever by his beloved wife, Susannah, whose own health problems had always prevented her from going beforehand. Spurgeon rallied a little, but the end was drawing near. His last act of public service to Christ was to give out the hymn that closed a time of worship at Mentone on 17th January 1892: it was Anne Ross Cousins’ paraphrase of Samuel Rutherford’s words: “The sands of time are sinking/ The dawn of heaven breaks . . . And glory, glory dwelleth/ In Immanuel’s land.” Toward the end of the month, he was no longer able to speak. By January 28 his health had degenerated to the point of complete unconsciousness. The saint went to be with his Saviour on the evening of Sunday 31st January 1892. His battle was ended, and he entered into the joy of his Lord.

Spurgeon’s olive-wood casket made its slow journey back to London, arriving on Monday 8th February. Several thousands of mourners came to pay their respects. Five separate funeral services for different classes of people were required to accommodate those wishing to attend. The final funeral service took place on Thursday, February 11, closing with one of Mr. Spurgeon’s favorite hymns: “Forever with the Lord!/ Amen, so let it be.” A five-mile journey to Norwood Cemetery followed the tearful benediction, with thousands lining the streets and gathering for the interment. Archibald Brown spoke the closing words of hope, bidding his beloved friend and brother “Good night” rather than “Farewell”:

Champion of God, thy battle long and nobly fought is over! The sword, which clave to thy hand, has dropped at last; a palm branch takes its place. No longer does the helmet press thy brow, oft weary with its surging thoughts of battle; the victor’s wreath from the Great Commander’s hand has already proved thy full reward. Here, for a little while, shall rest thy precious dust. Then shall thy Well-beloved come; and at His voice thou shalt spring from thy couch of earth, fashioned like unto His glorious body. Then, spirit, soul, and body shall magnify thy Lord’s redemption. Until then, beloved, sleep! We praise God for thee; and, by the blood of the everlasting covenant, we hope and expect to praise God with thee. Amen.

How can we summarize the character and labor of such a man as this? The great mark of distinction, out of which flowed all else, was Christ-centeredness: “I am never ashamed to avow myself a Calvinist; I do not hesitate to take the name of Baptist; but if I am asked what is my creed, I reply, ‘It is Jesus Christ.’ . . . the Body of Divinity to which I would pin and bind myself forever, God helping me, is . . . Christ Jesus, who is the sum and substance of the gospel, who is in himself all theology, the incarnation of every precious truth, the all-glorious personal embodiment of the way, the truth, and the life.” Spurgeon’s confessional and doctrinal standpoint was the product of this Christ-centeredness and demanded by it. Ever since Christ saved him by faith, Christ was his all-in-all. If standing with and for Christ meant standing alone or apart from all other men, Spurgeon was committed to his Lord and Saviour. Fail to grasp Spurgeon’s devotion to “the best of Masters” and we shall never understand the man.

Out of this attachment to Christ followed total commitment to the word of Christ as the rule of faith and life. Spurgeon received and obeyed the Bible as God’s Word, preaching and practicing all he found in it, as God helped him. It was his armory:

Whether we seek the sword of offence or the shield of defence, we must find it within the volume of inspiration. If others have any other storehouse, I confess at once that I have none. I have nothing else to preach when I have got through with this book. . . . Brethren, the truth of God is the only treasure for which we seek, and Scripture is the only field in which we dig for it.

With this was married great faith. Spurgeon, having believed upon the Living Word and accepted the written Word, lived before the eye of God, leaving the consequences of faithful belief and obedience with the living Lord of heaven and earth. The praises and scorn of men, though pleasant or painful, were nothing to him in comparison with the approbation of God. He lived with a simple and child-like faith in anticipation of God’s promises being brought to pass, if not immediately, then in due time.

Spurgeon acted out of pastoral concern for the sheep of Christ. Whether it was the men and women who heard him as sheep without a shepherd, or the gathered church at New Park Street and the Tabernacle, or the unborn generations for whose inheritance in the truth he fought in the Down-Grade, Spurgeon acted for the wellbeing of the souls of men. He understood truth as that which saved and blessed, and error as that which damned and destroyed. Spurgeon’s definition of a Christian was a Biblical one, and so he ministered to them Biblically and faithfully, showing himself cut from the same cloth as Bunyan’s Great-heart.

Even in controversy, Spurgeon acted out of a desire for true unity among believers. Those who accused him of divisiveness could not have more mistaken the character of the man who said, “Christian love has its claims, and divisions are to be shunned as grievous evils.” However, Spurgeon recognized that this unity could not exist apart from or outside Christ and his truth, and he was not prepared to sacrifice Christ and his truth in the misguided pursuit of nominal unity among those who did not follow the Saviour. One only has to see his heart revealed in his life, his labors, and his letters to see that his love and esteem for the true saints of God crossed every boundary except the unshakeable rampart of God’s truth. When those professing Christ walked beyond this wall, Spurgeon could not and would not follow.

With all his particular idiosyncrasies, and the failings and transgressions common to every saved sinner, Spurgeon was, above all, a man who followed Christ. Such men, following Paul as the apostle followed Christ, are themselves to be followed. While he lived, Spurgeon was disparagingly called “the last of the Puritans.” If the qualities outlined above—the faith and the life of a man whose existence was bound up in and with and for Christ and him crucified—are Puritanism, then it should be our earnest determination that this prophecy be proved wrong! Spurgeon once stirred up his fellow ministers in this way: “Brethren, we shall not adjust our Bible to the age; but before we have done with it, by God’s grace, we shall adjust the age to the Bible.” Our age is one in which many, both within and without the professing church of Jesus Christ, are bending all their powers to adjust the Bible to the age, to render the faith once and for all delivered to the saints acceptable to the fallen minds and carnal hearts of the ungodly. If we would follow Christ, we too must plant the flag of our Savior in the soil of Scripture, and—living or dying—hold the line and advance the cause of Christ, as enabled by the grace of God. If the fight kills us, then we die, having lived, honoring Christ according to the grace that is in us. Spurgeon’s testimony and challenge call to us still: “I have dealt honestly before the living God. My brother, do the same.”

Jeremy Walker serves as a pastor of Maidenbower Baptist Church in Crawley, England, and is married to Alissa, with whom he enjoys the blessing of three children. He has authored several books, including Our Chief of Days: The Principle, Purpose, and Practice of the Lord’s Day, Anchored in Grace: Fixed Points for Humble Faith, and He is grateful to preach, teach, and write when he has the opportunity.

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