The Conversion of Charles Haddon Spurgeon: January 6 1850
There is no topic of greater significance than conversion. The great mass of human beings can be divided into two groups, the converted and the unconverted. Alas, we must say that most are unconverted. The question, ‘Are you converted?’ is often asked in sermons. There is no more important and earnest question than, ‘Am I converted, or unconverted?’
Luther once said that there was no more terrible word in the Bible than conversion. It’s not strange that he said those words. For the natural man, the fool, the blind sinner alienated from God, there is nothing more undesirable, disagreeable, unnecessary, and unnatural to flesh and blood than what is conveyed in the word ‘conversion.’ He will delight in the word ‘spirituality’ but he will deplore some two-penny preacher daring to ask him if he is saved. Once the Rev. Gerard Wisse of the Free Reformed Churches in the Netherlands was speaking with an unconverted man concerning his state of soul, and told him that God was able to triumph also over him, and cause him to say farewell to his bosom sins in order to seek for his life in the things of God’s kingdom. The man answered Wisse, ‘No, Reverend. I truly hope that God will not do so.’ Luther was right. Conversion is a terrible word.
Biblically we have to say this, that conversion follows regeneration, that it is the fruit of a birth from above. Regeneration is an inward work of God the Holy Spirit that translates a sinner from death to life. He does this in two ways, by persuading a man of his sin, and revealing to him the Saviour. The Lord Jesus says of the Spirit, ‘When he is come he will reprove the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment’ (John 16:8). The first mark of God at work in our lives is such conviction. The second mark is faith in Jesus Christ. Think of the three questions in the Heidelberg Catechism:
Q.88 What is true repentance or the conversion of man?
A. It is the dying of the old nature and the coming to life of the new.
Q.89 What is the dying of the old nature?
A. It is to grieve with heartfelt sorrow that we have offended God by our sin, and more and more to hate it and flee from it.
Q.90 What is the coming to life of the new nature?
A. It is a heartfelt joy in God through Christ, and a love and delight to live according to the will of God in all good works.
There are clearly two sides to conversion. Conviction of sin followed by rejoicing in God’s grace: these two must be present wherever there is true conversion. So there will be preaching which presses both of these upon the hearers.
Awareness of our Need of Christ Because of Our Sin
Listen to this contemporary preacher underlining the need of that first point: ‘Has the problem of your own bad record ever become a burning, pressing, personal concern? Have you faced the truth that Almighty God judged you guilty when your father Adam sinned, and holds you guilty for every single word you have spoken contrary to perfect holiness, justice, purity and righteousness? He knows every object you have touched and taken contrary to the sanctity of property. He knows every word spoken contrary to perfect absolute truth. Has this ever broken in upon you, so that you have awakened to the fact that Almighty God has every right to summon you into his presence and to require you to give an account of every single deed contrary to his law which has brought guilt upon you?’
The preacher goes on: ‘Has the problem of your bad heart ever become a pressing personal concern to you? I am not asking in theory whether you believe in human sinfulness. You might agree that there are such things as a sinful nature and a sinful heart. My question is, have your bad record and your bad heart ever become matters of deep, inward, pressing concern to you? Have you known anything of real, personal, inward consciousness of the awfulness of your guilt in the presence of a holy God? Have you seen the horribleness of a heart that is “deceitful above all things and desperately wicked”?’
This same preacher concludes: ‘A biblical Christian is a person who has in all seriousness taken to heart his own personal problem of sin. The degree to which we may feel the awful weight of sin differs from one person to another. The length of time over which a person is brought to the consciousness of his bad record and his bad heart differs. There are many variables, but Jesus Christ as the Great Physician never brought his healing virtues to anyone who did not know himself to be a sinner. He said, “I did not come to call the righteous, but sinner to repentance” (Matthew 9:13). Are you a biblical Christian — one who has taken seriously your own problem of sin?’ (from a transcript of a sermon of Al Martin’s, ‘A Bad Record and a Bad Heart’)
This kind of preaching is desperately needed today. Conviction of sin is necessary because the gospel is a plan for the salvation of sinners. It is designed for sinners. If we are not sinners, we do not need the gospel. If we do not feel that we are sinners, we do not feel our need of the gospel and will not embrace it. If we do not feel ourselves guilty, we will not look to Christ for pardon. If we do not feel ourselves to be polluted, we will not look for nor desire cleansing. We must therefore be convinced of sin in order to be saved.
Joy in God Through Christ
Then there is the other side of conversion, what the Catechism calls, ‘the heartfelt joy in God through Christ.’ Again, this is the theme which is frequently on the lips of preachers: ‘The realization of the love of God lifts us above our circumstances so that amidst them we are filled with a sense of being his, in his loving care, with his joy and peace. God gives us such assurance that our hearts are full to overflowing with the consciousness of his love and what he has done for us. . . This is an ongoing life and God will deal with you and me as his children. You will be assured that it is God who is dealing with you and changing you, and the consciousness of his love will transcend the troubles that beset you so that you see them from the standpoint of God. I am not giving this to you in psychological terms, but I am telling you the way that Paul explains it to us and I have known something of this in my own experience. I think we need to take the fact of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the heart of every Christian very seriously and it may be that we have not done this enough. We have looked to other sources, we have tried other ways, whereas God has blessed us in Christ’ (John Gwyn Thomas, Rejoice Always, Banner of Truth, p. 37).
We are saying, then, that this other Biblical mark of true conversion is peace and joy. In Samaria after Philip had preached to them ‘there was great joy in that city’ (Acts 8:8). We are told that the Ethiopian eunuch ‘went on his way rejoicing’ (Acts 8:39). Despair is inconsistent with the Christian life. Doubt and depression are hostile to it. The believer will acknowledge, ‘My sins may have strength to unlock seven hells, but Christ has power to open a thousand heavens.’ Sarah said, ‘God has made me to laugh’ (Gen. 21:6).
Let me make one point clear. I do not agree with people who come to me and say, ‘It mustn’t be here’ (pointing to their heads), ‘it must be here’ (pointing to their hearts). I say, ‘No. It must be both here and there, both head and heart, and in hand too.’ Threefold godliness: the threefold fruit of true conversion is to know God, to love God and to serve God. Unknown means unloved. Unloved means unserved. So we have argued that for there to be true conversion there must be both awareness of our need, and of joy that Christ has met that need. There must be repentance towards God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. There must be a laying aside of our sins and a looking unto Jesus. There must be conviction of sin, and there must be acceptance of forgiveness through Christ. There is ‘heartfelt sorrow’ and ‘heartfelt joy.’ If both are needed then both must have been present in the conversion of Charles Haddon Spurgeon on January 6 1850. Let us examine his conversion.
Influences God Used to Bring About the Conversion of Spurgeon
Chapters six and seven in Spurgeon’s autobiography, The Early Years (Banner of Truth) are entitled respectively, ‘Through Much Tribulation’ and ‘The Great Change — Conversion.’ The first of these, which deals with the ploughing of his heart is 24 pages in length and the second which deals with his seeing Christ as his Saviour is 18 pages. The former is the preparation for the latter. The former describes some years of darkness and guilt; the latter describes a Sunday service when he entered the Primitive Methodist Church in Colchester.
Spurgeon’s home life was a wonderfully happy Christian environment in which various generations interacted and supported one another. He had young healthy parents. His mother Eliza was nineteen years of age when Charles was born. The woman he spoke of hearing in prayer for him when he was a little boy would have been in her twenties interceding for the salvation of her first born, and then the other children. She read the Scriptures and prayed with them every day, and every Sunday night she would gather all her children together and have a special study of Scripture. She was spoken of as ‘remarkable for her godliness, usefulness and humility.’ His father John preached the gospel fervently, was the head-clerk in a coal, coke and shipping office, and served as an Independent minister in Tolesbury, nine miles from Colchester. Charles inherited his father’s clear strong voice. His mother and father had seventeen children, nine of whom died in infancy.
At fourteen months Charles was sent to live with his grandparents in Stambourne, Essex, right in the heart of Puritan and nonconformist England. Grandfather James, aged 58, lived in a large house built around 1620, and he had pastored the Independent church in the village of 500 people since 1810. He was its minister for fifty-four years. The large hall floor of the manse was paved with bricks and daily sprinkled in fresh sand. He was a big man, and when one day someone asked him how much he weighed he said, ‘Well, that all depends on how you take me: if weighed in the balances, I am afraid I shall be found wanting, but in the pulpit they tell me I am heavy enough.’
James seems to have been a model father. There is that wonderful incident of Charles’ father, John, as a small boy defying him, and James saying to him that if did that again he would meet our punishment to him he would never forget even if he lived to be a hundred. Then John did it again, and the father regretted speaking so theatrically to him. ‘Come with me,’ he said to John. They walked out together to a quiet part of the corn field John fretting what punishment he was going to receive. The father picked up two straws of wheat and lightly brushed the boy’s cheek. ‘There,’ he said, ‘I have kept my word, and you will never forget that punishment.’ Throughout his grandfather’s preaching people were converted. Spurgeon said of him, ‘The dew of the Spirit from on high never left the ministry. Wherever my grandfather went, souls were saved under the ministry.’
There is that lovely incident when Spurgeon was to preach in Haverhill but there was a problem in the transport and so he arrived in the chapel late. His grandfather was the chairman and after waiting some time he began the worship and finally announced a text, Ephesians 2:8, ‘By grace are ye saved.’ He preached until Charles entered the chapel and was welcomed to the pulpit by his grandfather. Charles Haddon Spurgeon said to his grandfather, ‘You can preach better than I can. Go on,’ but his grandfather refused. He told Charles his text and to where he had got in the sermon, and so Charles picked up where his grandfather had stopped and carried on, the old man sitting behind him in the pulpit occasionally interjecting, ‘Good. Good. Tell them that again Charles.’
James Spurgeon had inherited the excellent Manse library. It went with the church, and there Charles began reading such books as Pilgrim’s Progress, and Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, and Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. It was not long before he graduated to the Puritan works. Alleine’s Alarm and Baxter’s Call both exercised his soul. His father said of him, ‘It was always books and books.’ He also learned hundreds of hymns of Isaac Watts. Above all he studied and memorised Scripture: he was the reader in family prayers.
So most of the preaching he heard in the first fifteen years of his life was either from his grandfather or his father. But there were many other Christians too at that time of extraordinary blessing in the British Isles who also left their mark on him. There was a local farmer in Stambourne called Will Richardson, and a cook, Mary King at the school where he was an assistant teacher in Newmarket. So those were the Christian influences that Spurgeon came under.
The Dying of the Old Nature
When he was ten or eleven years of age God began to convict him of his own sinfulness. Until that time he had heard enough children’s speakers saying to him how easy it was to become a Christian. He said, ‘I really thought I could turn to Christ when I pleased, and that therefore I could put it off to the past part of my life, when it might be conveniently done upon a sick-bed. But when the Lord gave my soul its first shakings in conviction I soon knew better.’
He talks of his heart being fallow and covered with weeds, and then God beginning to plough it up, ‘The Great Husbandman came, and began to plough my soul. Ten black horses were his team, and there was a tough ploughshare he used, and the ploughs made deep furrows. The Ten Commandments were those ten black horses, and the justice of God, like a ploughshare, tore my spirit. I was condemned, undone, destroyed, lost, helpless, hopeless. I thought hell was before me’ (Autobiography p. 75).
He read Alleine and Baxter’s counsels to the unconverted and sighed, ‘Oh those books, those books! I read and devoured them when under a sense of guilt, but it was like sitting at the foot of Sinai. For five years as a child, there was nothing before my eyes but my guilt, and though I do not hesitate to say that those who observed my life would not have seen any extraordinary sin, yet as I looked upon myself, there was not a day in which I did not commit such gross, outrageous sins against God, that often and often have I wished I had never been born’ (Autobiography, p. 80).
Spurgeon was even tempted to atheism. In an extraordinary passage in his autobiography he sounds utterly post-modern. This is a commentary on the despair of John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ written a century earlier, and there is a veritable psychedelic trip that he takes as he describes an extraordinary vision he had of atheism.
I have never been thoroughly an unbeliever but once, arid that was not before I knew the need of a Saviour, but after it. It was just when I wanted Christ, and panted after him, that, on a sudden, the thought crossed my mind which I abhorred but could not conquer, that there was no God, no Christ, no Heaven, no Hell; that all my prayers were but a farce, and that I might as well have whistled to the winds or spoken to the howling waves. Ah! I remember how my ship drifted along through that sea of fire, loosened from the anchor of my faith, which I had received from my fathers. I no longer moored myself hard by the coasts of Revelation; I said to reason, ‘Be thou my captain;’ I said to my own brain, ‘Be thou my rudder;’ and I started on my mad voyage. Thank God, it is all over now; but I will tell you it’s a brief history. It was one hurried sailing over the tempestuous ocean of free thought. I went on, and as I went, the skies began to darken; but to make up for that deficiency, the waters were gleaming with coruscations of brilliancy. I saw sparks flying upwards that pleased me, and I felt, ‘If this be free thought, it is a happy thing.’ My thoughts seemed gems, and I scattered stars with both my hands; but anon, instead of these coruscations of glory, I say grim fiends, fierce and horrible, start up from the waters; and as I dashed on, they gnashed their teeth, and grinned upon me; they seized the prow of my ship, and dragged me on, while I, in part, gloried at the rapidity of my motion, but yet shuddered at the terrific rate with which I passed the old landmarks of my faith. I went to the very verge of the dreary realms of unbelief. I went to the very bottom of the sea of infidelity.
As I hurried forward at an awful speed, I began to doubt if there were a world. I doubted everything, until at last the devil defeated himself by making me doubt my own existence. I thought I was an idea floating in the nothingness of vacuity, then, startled with that thought, and feeling that I was substantial flesh and blood after all, I saw that God was, and Christ was, and Heaven was, and hell was, and that all these things were absolute truths. The very extravagance of the doubt proved its absurdity, and there came a voice which said, ‘And can this doubt be true?’ Then I awoke from that death-dream, which, God knows, might have damned my soul, and ruined my body, if I had not awoke. When I arose, faith took the helm; from that moment, I doubted not. Faith steered me back; faith cried, ‘Away, away!’ I cast my anchor on Calvary; 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. (Autobiography pp. 87-88).
Spurgeon gives a full description of his time under the law of God in a sermon he preached on a Thursday evening, March 3 1887, on the text, ‘But before faith came, we were kept under the law, shut up unto the faith which should afterward be revealed’ (Gal. 3:23).
I recall that experience, and how I thought of what was said of the old Roman empire that, under the rule of Caesar, if a man once broke the law of Rome, he was in prison everywhere. The whole world was one vast prison to him, for he could not get out of the reach of the imperial power; and so did it come to be in my aroused conscience.
Wherever I went, the law had a demand upon my thoughts, upon my words, upon my rising, upon my resting, what I did, and what I did not do, all came under the cognisance of the law; and then I found that this law so surrounded me that I was always running against it, I was always breaking it. I seemed as if I was a sinner, and nothing else but a sinner. If I opened my mouth, I spoke amiss. If I sat still, there was sin in my silence. I remember that, when the Spirit of God was thus dealing with me, I used to feel myself to be a sinner even when I was in the house of God. I thought that, when I sang, I was mocking the Lord with a solemn sound upon a false tongue; and if I prayed, I feared that I was sinning in my prayers, insulting him by uttering confessions which I did not feel, and asking for mercies with a faith that was not true at all, but only another form of unbelief. Oh, yes, some of us know what it is to be given into custody to the law!
At that time, when I was in the custody of the law, I did not take any pleasure in sin! Alas, I did sin; but my sense of the law of God kept me back from a great many sins. I could not, as others did, plunge into profligacy, or indulge in any of the grosser vices, for that law had me well in hand. I sinned enough without acting like that. Oh, I used to tremble to put one foot before another, for fear I should do wrong! I felt that my old sins seemed to be so many, that it were well to die rather than commit any more.
Then, I could not find any rest while under the custody of the law. If I wanted to sleep a little, or to be a little indifferent and careless, then some one or other of those ten commandments roughly aroused me, and looking on me with a frowning face, said, ‘You have broken me.’ I thought I would do some good works; but, somehow, the law always broke my good works in the making. I fancied that, if my tears flowed freely, I might make some recompense for my wrong-doing; but the law held up the looking-glass, and I soon saw my face all smeared and made more unhandsome by my tears.
Then, also, the law seemed to blight all my hopes. I hoped this, and I hoped that; but then the law said, ‘Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them,’ and I knew I had not continued in all those things, so I saw myself accursed, turn which way I might. I had offended against the justice of God; I was impure and polluted; and I used to say, ‘If God does not send me to hell, he ought to do it.’ I sat in judgment upon myself, and pronounced the sentence that I felt would be just. I could not have gone to heaven with my sin unpardoned, even if I had had the offer to do it, for I knew that it would not be right that I should do so, and I justified God in my own conscience while I condemned myself.
I will tell you one or two of the things that shut me up dreadfully; and one was when I knew the spirituality of the law. If the law said, ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery,’ I said to myself, ‘Well, I have never committed adultery.’ Then the law, as interpreted by Christ, said, ‘Whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.’ The law said, ‘Thou shalt not steal,’ and I said, ‘Well, I never stole anything;’ but then I found that even the desire to possess what was not my own was guilt.
Then the law informed me that I was cursed unless I continued in all things that were written in the book of the law; so that, if I had not committed one sin, that made no difference if I had committed another sin, for I was under the curse. What if I had never blasphemed God with my tongue? Yet, if I had coveted, I had broken the law. He who breaks a chain might say, ‘I did not break that link, and the other link. No, but if you break one link, you have broken the chain.
Then I remembered that, even if I kept the law perfectly, and kept it for ten, twenty, or thirty years, without a fault, yet if, at the end of that time, I should then break it, I must suffer its dread penalty. So I saw that I was ‘shut up’. I had hoped to escape this way, or that way, or some other way. Was I not ‘christened’ when I was a child? Had I not been taken to a place of worship? Had I not been brought up to say my prayers regularly? Had I not been an honest, upright, moral youth? Was all this nothing? ‘Nothing,’ said the law, as it drew its sword of fire. So there was no rest for my spirit, nay, not even for a moment. What was I to do? I was in the custody of one that showed no mercy whatever, for Moses never said ‘Mercy.’ The law has nothing to do with mercy. That comes from another mouth, and under another dispensation; but before I turn to that other point, I would like to say that this may be the way he may bring you to the truth and to himself.
Now let me tell the story. It was on a day, never to be forgotten, when I first understood that salvation was in and through Another, that my salvation could not be of myself, but must be through One better and stronger than I. And I heard, and oh, what music it was! — that the Son of God had taken upon himself our human nature, and had, by his life and death, wrought out a perfect salvation, finished from top to bottom, which he was ready to give to every soul that was willing to have it and that salvation was all of grace from top to bottom, which he was ready to give to every soul that was willing to have it, and that salvation was all of grace from first to last, the free gift of God through his blessed Son, Jesus Christ.
Then I had this vision — not a vision to my eyes, but to my heart. I saw what a Saviour Christ was, divine as well as human. I saw what sufferings were his, what a righteousness his was. Now I can never tell you how it was, but I no sooner saw whom I was to believe than I also did believe in one moment. I did take him as my Saviour. To my own humiliation, I must confess that I did it because I could not help it; I was shut up to it. That law-work, of which I told you, had hammered me into such a condition that, if there had been fifty other saviours, I could not have thought of them, I was driven to this One (MTP, 1895, p. 101-104).
The Life of the New Nature
Eric Hayden has pointed out that in every one of the fifty-six volumes of ‘The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit‘ Spurgeon has given us an account of his conversion to Christ. On an average we have five descriptions of his spiritual awakening per volume, and never less than three. Sometimes there are as many as ten and twelve accounts. Spurgeon believed that ‘an ounce of personal testimony’ in a sermon was like ‘a pound of gunpowder.’ It was not that he gave more accounts of his conversion in the early years. In fact as he grows older the wonder of it seems to grow and he recounts that experience more frequently. But it is worth noting that he also speaks of his dark years under conviction of sin on 58 occasions.
It is without doubt the best known conversion in the history of the Church. It was on a wintry Sunday, January 6 1850, his school being temporarily closed because of an outbreak of fever, that the 15 year-old Spurgeon found himself in Colchester and on his way to the local Congregational Chapel. But the snow and sleet intensified so that he turned down a side lane called Artillery Street and came to the Primitive Methodist Church. He was thus able incidentally to continue in his determination to visit every congregation in Colchester to find someone who would tell him where he might find relief from the condemnation of the law. His mother had also talked with him positively about this congregation. It is any port in a storm, and so the teenager entered this building for the first time to attend the morning service. There were no more than a dozen or fifteen people present: even the minister had failed to arrive because of the weather. It was the wrong church, the wrong congregation, the wrong weather and the wrong preacher. Into the pulpit climbed a thin-looking man, a shoemaker or tailor, Spurgeon was never to know anything about him. He announced his text as Isaiah 45:22, ‘Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth: for I am God and there is none else.’
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. I remember how he said, ‘My dear friends, this is a very simple text indeed. It says, ‘Look.’ Now lookin’ don’t take a deal of pain. It ain’t liftin’ your foot or your finger; it is just ‘Look!’ Well, a man needn’t go to college to learn to look. You may be the biggest fool, and yet you can look. . . A child can look. One who is almost an idiot can look. However weak, or however poor a man may be, he can look. And if he looks the promise is that he shall live.’ He went on in his broad Essex accent, ‘Many on ye are lookin’ to yourselves. But it’s no use lookin’ there. You’ll never find any comfort in yourselves. Some say look to God, the Father. No, look to him by-and-by. It is Christ that speaks. I am in the garden in an agony, pouring out my soul unto death; I am on the tree, dying for sinners; look unto me! I rise again. Look unto me! I ascend into heaven! Look unto me. I am sitting at the Father’s right hand. O poor sinner look unto me! Look unto me! Some of ye say, “We must wait for the Spirit’s workin'”. You have no business with that just now. Look to Christ. The text says, “Look unto Me”.’
The preacher managed to spin that out for ten minutes and then, running out of anything fresh to say, looked at his congregation and picked on Spurgeon, ‘Young man, you look very miserable,’ he said. ‘Well,’ said Spurgeon, ‘I did look miserable, but I had not been accustomed to have remarks made from the pulpit about my personal appearance before. However, it was a good blow, struck right home.’ The preacher went on, ‘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.’ And then he shouted at the top of his voice as I think only a Primitive Methodist can, ‘Young man, look to Jesus Christ. Look! Look! Look! You have nothing to do but to look and live!’ 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.’
Spurgeon later said, ‘I thank God that I owe my conversion to Christ to an unknown person, who certainly was no minister in the ordinary acceptation of the term; but who could say this much, “Look unto Christ and be saved, all ye ends of the earth”.’ Both his sons were to be converted through preachers whom they did not know.
When the congregation sang a hallelujah before they went out Spurgeon could join with them and as he walked back home through the snowy streets the words of David kept ringing through his heart, ‘Wash me and I shall be whiter than snow.’ God flooded his heart with joy and assurance. Spurgeon described it like this: ‘I looked to Jesus, and he looked on me; and we were one for ever. That moment my joy surpassed all bounds, just as my sorrow had aforetime driven me to an extreme of grief. I was perfectly at rest in Christ, satisfied with him, and my heart was glad; but I did not know that this grace was everlasting life till I began to read in the Scriptures, and to know more fully the value of the jewel which God had given me.’ He said, ‘I thought I could dance all the way home. I could understand what John Bunyan meant when he declared he wanted to tell the crows on the ploughed land all about his conversion. He was too full to hold; he felt he must tell somebody.’
This change was immediately observed by his family: ‘I remember standing before the fire, leaning on the mantelshelf, after I got home, and my mother spoke to me, and I heard her say outside the door, ‘There is a change come over Charles.’ She had not had half-a-dozen words with me; but she saw that I was not what I had been. I had been dull, melancholic, sorrowful, depressed; and when I had looked to Christ, the appearance of my face changed; I had a smile, a cheerful, happy, contented look at once, and she could see it; and a few words let her know that her melancholic boy had risen out of his despondency, and had become bright and cheerful.’ Until her death 38 years later she was to see that happy transformation sustained in her first-born child. That night he waited for the other children to go to bed before confiding with his father what had happened. By the middle of February (six weeks later) he was calling once a week with a tract at 33 homes.
The following Sunday Spurgeon returned to the Primitive Methodist Church in Artillery Street. He said, ‘The next Sunday I went to the same chapel, as it was very natural that I should. But I never went back afterwards, for this reason, that during my first week the new life that was in me had been compelled to fight for its existence, and a conflict with the old nature had been vigorously carried on. This I knew to be a special token of the indwelling of grace in my soul. But in that same chapel I heard a sermon upon Romans 7:24, ‘O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?’ And 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’s next visit to that church was 14 years later to preach at its anniversary services to 500 people packed into every corner. He chose as his text Isaiah 45:22 and pointed out the place he had occupied that January morning in 1850. There is still a gospel witness in Artillery Street in Colchester today it is called ‘The Spurgeon Memorial Evangelical Church’ and on November 30, 1991 Derek Hale was inducted as the pastor. The membership consisted of 4 people. Derek died last year and the church today is seeking a new pastor. It has between 20 and 30 in the congregation and at its carol service a few weeks back there were 40 people. When the Methodists sold the building the plaque on the wall above the pew where Spurgeon was converted was removed and given to Spurgeon’s College. Then Rural Ministries came into the ownership of the building, maybe through the generosity of a farmer, and it was reopened as a church. When they asked for the plaque back Spurgeon’s College could not find it, but it eventually turned up in someone’s garden shed. A lower ceiling has been put across from one gallery to another. The pews have now been removed and there are chairs in the chapel, but on the wall in that old spot the commemorative plaque is set.
Last Saturday night, two days after the actual 150th anniversary of the event, Gordon Murray, the Baptist pastor of Felixtowe, preached there on its challenge to today’s church. He felt the thrill of being there and looking from that pulpit to the spot where that 15 year-old boy sat and looked to the Lord Jesus.
Application to Ourselves
1. The patience of Spurgeon’s parents and grandparents. How easy it would have been for them to decision him and get him to repeat some formula prayer and make a formula confession. But they totally believed that conversion was God’s sovereign prerogative. So with hearts of love and pity and lives of prayer they encouraged and supported him during his years of wretchedness. How thankful we are to God that they did that. We might have had a still born boy who would have been useless to serve the church.
2. Are we converted? This subject of Spurgeon’s conversion ought to lead us to examine ourselves to see whether our conversion was like his in its nature and in its effects. There have been unconverted ministers in the history of the church. Wesley was one, Abraham Kuyper was another, and Thomas Chalmers was another. It would be very unusual if there were none in the world today. Are you a unconverted minister? Throw yourself with all your guilt and need of soul before the throne of God, leaning on Jesus. Look to him. Reach for his stretched-out sceptre. Give a bill of divorce to those who lie in wait for your soul. Say, ‘Lord, Thou alone art my life.’
3. Have we known conviction of our sin? In some there is great anxiety and painful efforts to save themselves. Others are persuaded that they cannot save themselves. With some this is accompanied by depth of feeling and terror of conscience. With others this is absent. It would be a very different kind of conversion story given here in twenty years’ time should the centenary of Martyn Lloyd-Jones‘ conversion be recorded. No date can mark it: no single message used by God. If Spurgeon’s conversion is like that of Saul of Tarsus then Lloyd-Jones’ is like that of Simon Peter. But both are New Testament conversions because the result for both of them is that they renounced themselves, and any self-justification, self-righteousness and gave up every excuse about their sin and unbelief. Both were ready to fall at the feet of Jesus and say, ‘Lord, if thou wilt, thou canst make me clean. Lord save me, or I perish.”
4. Our services must serve the end of encouraging conviction of sin in the stranger, the careless and amongst the children of the church. It is the work of the Holy Spirit, of course, and he convicts through the law. We have to learn how to encourage conviction without being dour and dull. We have to learn how to preach the law without being heavy and legalistic. But there are other means of convincing men of their sin, such as discovering the holiness of God, seeing the glory of God in Jesus Christ, manifesting the love of God in Christ. But whatever serves to bolster the flesh, harden the conscience, make the heart callous is to be repudiated as the plague.
5. The heart of the Christian faith is a Person, the Lord Jesus Christ. We are not to compensate for the amorality of our day by launching a one man campaign on antinomianism. At the centre of our religion is the Son of God not the law of God. Though we want to see men seeing their sin and need we want them to see Christ most of all. Our counsels to men and women are the same as those of McCheyne, ‘For every look at your sin take ten looks at the Saviour.’
6. The greatest blessing that comes from the conversion of Charles Haddon Spurgeon is the factuality of it. That this conversion took place — which has been to the enrichment of the world for 150 years, and the impact of whose life shows no sign of diminishing but rather, all the time increasing — that is the cause of wonder, love and praise. Even if in this new century there will not be another Spurgeon converted — and such men are unique even in a thousand years — we yet have Spurgeon. Everywhere you meet him he is all man. He is happy and sensible and kind-hearted and full of God and tender. As pastor, husband, father, friend, with children, women, the common people, the nobility he is perfectly at home. I can say to myself in moments of doubt, ‘I’ve got Spurgeon.’ I worship the God who saved Spurgeon.
7. All of us can have this hope, that we may at times be feeling we are in the wrong pulpit of the wrong church on the wrong day preaching the wrong sermon to the wrong congregation, and then a young man can come off the street and hear us and listen to the gospel and be saved and himself become a mighty warrior for Christ, and under him ten times as many people turn to God as ever turned under our ministry. And that Sunday, when that event could happen, might be this coming Sunday.
8. If we knew that some unbeliever was going to be present at a service and that if only he would look to Jesus then untold multitudes would be converted under his ministry then who would we invite to be this man’s preacher? John MacArthur? Al Martin? Billy Graham? John Blanchard? And yet God used an utterly anonymous man who seemed at that time to Spurgeon to be ‘stupid.’ Isn’t that enormously encouraging? Salvation is of the Lord.
9. If under Spurgeon’s sermons one million people might have been converted then Spurgeon has a million spiritual children. But if under that Colchester man’s preaching only one boy might have been converted, yet we can say that that man had one son and a million grandsons!
10. Forty years ago Iain Murray wrote a book called The Forgotten Spurgeon. It would be an absurd title to a book on the ‘Governor’ today. The title now has to be explained to people because we are a Spurgeonic movement and his battles are familiar to us and we identify ourselves with him, drink at his fountains, and thank God continually for saving that teenager 150 years ago this month.
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