The 110th anniversary of the death of Spurgeon
There are 7 characteristics that qualify Spurgeon as a helpful guide to preachers who need strength to preach through adversity.
At five minutes past eleven on Sunday night, January 31, 1892, the prince of preachers, CH Spurgeon, died. The following useful summary of his ministry was written by John Piper.
SPURGEON WAS A PREACHER
He preached over 600 times before he was 20 years old. His sermons sold about 25,000 copies a week and were translated into 20 languages. The collected sermons fill 63 volumes equivalent to the 27 volume ninth edition of Encyclopedia Britannica, and “stands as the largest set of books by a single author in the history of Christianity.”
In the words of his son, Charles, “There was no one who could preach like my father. In inexhaustible variety, witty wisdom, vigorous proclamation, loving entreaty, and lucid teaching, with a multitude of other qualities, he must, at least in my opinion, ever be regarded as the prince of preachers.” Spurgeon was a preacher.
SPURGEON WAS A TRUTH-DRIVEN PREACHER
Secondly, Spurgeon was a truth-driven preacher. I am not interested in how preachers deal with adversity if they are not first and foremost guardians and givers of unchanging Biblical truth. If they find their way through adversity by other means than faithfulness to truth, I turn away.
Spurgeon defined the work of the preacher like this: “To know truth as it should be known, to love it as it should be loved, and then to proclaim it in the right spirit, and in its proper proportions.” He said to his
students, “To be effective preachers you must be sound theologians.” He warned that “those who do away with Christian doctrine are, whether they are aware of it or not, the worst enemies of Christian living…[because] the coals of orthodoxy are necessary to the fire of piety.” Doctrinal truth was at the foundation and superstructure of all Spurgeon’s labors.
SPURGEON WAS A BIBLE-BELIEVING PREACHER
Further, the truth that drove his preaching ministry was Biblical truth, which he believed to be God’s truth. He held up his Bible and said, These words are God’s….Thou book of vast authority, thou art a proclamation from the Emperor of Heaven; far be it from me to exercise my reason in contradicting thee….This is the book untainted by any error; but it is pure unalloyed, perfect truth. Why? Because God wrote it.
What a difference where this allegiance holds sway in the hearts of preachers and people. I had lunch with a man recently who bemoaned the atmosphere of his Sunday School class. He characterized it like this: if a person raises a question to discuss, and another reads a relevant Bible verse, the class communicates, “Now we have heard what Jesus thinks, what do you think?”
Where that atmosphere begins to take over the pulpit and the church, defection from truth and weakness in holiness are not far behind.
SPURGEON WAS A SOUL-WINNING PREACHER
There was not a week that went by in his mature ministry that souls were not saved through his written sermons. He and his elders were always on the “watch for souls” in the great congregation. “One brother,” he said, “has earned for himself the title of my hunting dog, for he is always ready to pick up the wounded birds.” He was consumed with the glory of God and the salvation of men.
SPURGEON WAS A CALVINISTIC PREACHER.
He was my kind of Calvinist. Let me give you a flavor of why his Calvinism drew 5,000 people a week to his church rather than driving them away. He said, “To me, Calvinism means the placing of the eternal God at the head of all things. I look at everything through its relation to God’s glory. I see God first, and man far down in the list….Brethren, if we live in sympathy with God, we delight to hear Him say, “I am God, and there is none else.”
For Spurgeon, “Puritanism, Protestantism, Calvinism [were simply]…poor names which the world has given to our great and glorious faith – the doctrine of Paul the apostle, the gospel of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.”
But he did make distinctions between the full system, which he did embrace, and some central, evangelical doctrines shared by others that bound him together with them-like his favorite, the doctrine of the substitution of Christ for sinners. He said, “Far be it for me to imagine that Zion contains none but Calvinistic Christians within her walls, or that there are none saved who do not hold our views.”
He said, “I am not an outrageous Protestant generally, and I rejoice to confess that I feel sure there are some of God’s people even in the Romish Church.” He chose a paedobaptist to be the first head of his pastor’s college, and did not make that issue a barrier to who preached in his pulpit. His communion was open to all Christians, but he said he “would rather give up his pastorate than admit any man to the church who was not obedient to his Lord’s command [of baptism].”
His first words in the Metropolitan Tabernacle, the place he built to preach in for thirty years: I would propose that the subject of the ministry in this house, as long as this platform shall stand and as long as this house shall be frequented by worshippers, shall be the person of Jesus Christ. 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.”
But he believed that Calvinism honored that Christ most fully because it was most true. And he preached it explicitly, and tried to work it into the minds of his people, because he said, “Calvinism has in it a conservative force which helps to hold men to vital truth.”
Therefore, he was open and unashamed: “People come to me for one thing…I preach to them a Calvinist creed and a Puritan morality. That is what they want and that is what they get. If they want anything else they must go elsewhere.”
SPURGEON WAS A HARD-WORKING PREACHER
“I do not look to soft and leisurely men to instruct me how to endure adversity. If the main answer is, ‘Take it easy,’ I look for another teacher. Take a glimpse of this man’s capacity for work: No one living knows the toil and care I have to bear….I have to look after the Orphanage, have charge of a church with four thousand members, sometimes there are marriages and burials to be undertaken, there is the weekly sermon to be revised, The Sword and the Trowel to be edited, and besides all that, a weekly average of five hundred letters to be answered. This, however, is only half my duty, for there are innumerable churches established by friends, with the affairs of which I am closely connected, to say nothing of the cases of difficulty which are constantly being referred to me.”
At his 50th birthday a list of 66 organizations was read that he founded and conducted. Lord Shaftesbury was there and said, “This list of associations, instituted by his genius, and superintended by his care, were more than enough to occupy the minds and hearts of fifty ordinary men.”
He typically read six substantial books a week and could remember what he read and where to find it. He produced more than 140 books of his own-books like The Treasury of David, which was twenty years in the making, and Morning and Evening, and Commenting on Commentaries, and John Ploughman’s Talk, and Our Own Hymnbook.
He often worked 18 hours in a day. The missionary, David Livingstone, asked him once, “How do you manage to do two men’s work in a single day?” Spurgeon replied, “You have forgotten there are two of us.” I think he meant the presence of Christ’s energizing power that we read about in Colossians 1:29. Paul says, “I labor, striving according to His power, which mightily works within me.” “There are two of us.”
SPURGEON WAS A MALIGNED AND SUFFERING PREACHER
The seventh reason that qualifies Spurgeon for this type of study is the fact that he knew the whole range of adversity that most preachers suffer-and a lot more.
Spurgeon knew the everyday, homegrown variety of frustration and disappointment which every pastor experiences from luke-warm church members.
“You know what one cold-hearted man can do, if he gets at you on Sunday morning with a lump of ice, and freezes you with the information that Mrs. Smith and all her family are offended, and their pew is vacant. You did not want to know of that lady’s protest just before entering the pulpit, and it does not help you. Perhaps even worse are those occasions when frustration is provoked after the service. What terrible blankets some professors are! Their remarks after a sermon are enough to stagger you ….You have been pleading as for life or death and they have been calculating how many seconds the sermon occupied, and grudging you the odd five minutes beyond the usual hour.” It is worse still, Spurgeon says, if the calculating observer is one of your deacons.
He also knew unbelievable physical pain. Spurgeon suffered from gout, rheumatism and Bright’s disease (inflammation of the kidneys). His first attack of gout came in 1869 at the age of 35. It became progressively worse so that “approximately one third of the last twenty-two years of his ministry was spent out of the Tabernacle pulpit, either suffering, or convalescing, or taking precautions against the return of the illness.” In a letter to a friend he wrote, “Lucian says, `I thought a cobra had bitten me, and filled my veins with poison; but it was worse,- it was gout.’ That was written from experience, I know.”
For over half his ministry Spurgeon dealt with ever increasingly recurrent pain in his joints that cut him down from the pulpit and from his labors again and again. The diseases finally took his life at age 57 while he was convalescing in Mentone, France.
On top of the physical suffering Spurgeon had to endure a life time of public ridicule and slander, sometimes of the most vicious kind. In April 1855 the Essex Standard carried an article with these words: “His style is that of the vulgar colloquial, varied by rant….All the most solemn mysteries of our holy religion are by him rudely, roughly and impiously handled. Common sense is outraged and decency disgusted. His rantings are interspersed with coarse anecdotes.”
The final adversity to be considered was the result of all the others-Spurgeon’s recurrent battles with depression. It is not easy to imagine the omni-competent, eloquent, brilliant, full-of-energy Spurgeon weeping like a baby for no reason that he could think of. In 1858, at age 24, it happened for the first time. He said, “My spirits were sunken so low that I could weep by the hour like a child, and yet I knew not what I wept for. Causeless depression cannot be reasoned with, nor can David’s harp charm it away by sweet discoursings. As well fight with the mist as with this shapeless, undefinable, yet all-beclouding hopelessness….The iron bolt which so mysteriously fastens the door of hope and holds our spirits in gloomy prison, needs a heavenly hand to push it back.”
He saw his depression as his “worst feature.” “Despondency,” he said, “is not a virtue; I believe it is a vice. I am heartily ashamed of myself for falling into it, but I am sure there is no remedy for it like a holy faith in God.”
HOW DID SPURGEON DO IT?
In spite of all these sufferings and persecutions, Spurgeon endured to the end, and was able to preach mightily until his last sermon at the Tabernacle on June 7, 1891. So the question which begs to be asked in studying this man’s life and work is, “How did he persevere and preach through this adversity?”
How many strategies of grace abound in the life of Spurgeon! Those selected for this article are very limited and personal. The scope of this man’s warfare, and the wisdom of his strategies were immense.
Consider first the issue of despondency and depression. If this one can be conquered, all the other forms of adversity that feed into it will be nullified in their killing effect.
BELIEF THAT GOD IS SOVEREIGN OVER DEPRESSION
Spurgeon saw his depression as the design of God for the good of his ministry and the glory of Christ. What comes through again and again is his unwavering belief in the sovereignty of God in all his afflictions. More than anything else, this kept him from caving in to the adversities of his life. He said, It would be a very sharp and trying experience to me to think that I have an affliction which God never sent me, that the bitter cup was never filled by his hand, that my trials were never measured out by him, nor sent to me by his arrangement of their weight and quantity.”
This is exactly the opposite strategy of modern thought, even much evangelical thought, that recoils from the implications of infinity. If God is God, He not only knows what is coming, but He knows it because He designs it. For Spurgeon this view of God was not primarily an argument for debate, it was a means of survival.
Though he dreaded suffering and would willingly avoid it, he said, “I am afraid that all the grace that I have got of my comfortable and easy times and happy hours, might almost lie on a penny. But the good that I have received from my sorrows, and pains, and griefs, is altogether incalculable….Affliction is the best bit of furniture in my house. It is the best book in a minister’s library.”
PRAYER AND MEDIATION
Spurgeon consistently nourished his soul by communion with Christ through prayer and meditation. “John Owen’s book, Communion with God, has nourished me again and again when the soul asked, ‘Can God spread a table in the wilderness?’ Spurgeon gave careful attention to his own spiritual life. He warned his students, “Never neglect your spiritual meals, or you will lack stamina and your spirits will sink. Live on the substantial doctrines of grace, and you will outlive and out-work those who delight in the pastry and syllabubs of ‘modern thought.’
One reason Spurgeon was so rich in language, full in doctrinal substance and strong in spirit, in spite of his despondency, physical oppression and his embattlements, is that he was always immersed in a great book-six a week. We cannot match that number. But we can always be walking with some great “see-er” of God. I walked with Owen most of last year on and off little by little and felt myself strengthened by a great grasp of God’s reality. Spurgeon demonstrates that the key in all good reading of theology is utterly real fellowship with Christ.
“Above all, feed the flame with intimate fellowship with Christ. No man was ever cold in heart who lived with Jesus on such terms as John and Mary did of old….I never met with a half-hearted preacher who was much in communion with the Lord Jesus.”
MEDITATION ON ETERNITY
Spurgeon rekindled the zeal and passion to preach by fixing his eyes on eternity rather than the immediate price of faithfulness. The apostle Paul saw that the outer nature was wasting away. What kept him going was the abiding assurance that this momentary affliction was working for him an eternal weight of glory. Therefore he looked to the things that are eternal (2 Cor. 4:16-18). So did Spurgeon.
“O brethren, (he said to his pastors’ conference) we shall soon have to die! We look each other in the face to-day in health, but there will come a day when others will look down upon our pallid countenances as we lie in our coffins….It will matter little to us who shall gaze upon us then, but it will matter eternally how we have discharged our work during our lifetime.”
“When our hearts grow faint and our zeal wavers for the task of preaching he calls us to meditate with deep solemnity upon the fate of the lost sinner….Shun all views of future punishment which would make it appear less terrible, and so take off the edge of your anxiety to save immortals from the quenchless flame….Think much also of the bliss of the sinner saved, and like holy Baxter derive rich arguments for earnestness from ‘the saints’ everlasting rest’…There will be no fear of your being lethargic if you are continually familiar with eternal realities.”
CONFIDENCE IN CHRIST’S VICTORY
In the final analysis, the strength to go on preaching in the midst of adversity and setbacks came for Spurgeon from the assured sovereign triumph of Christ. Near the end of his life (1890) in an address to his pastors’ conference, he compares adversity and the eclipse of truth to the ebbing tide.
“You never met an old salt, down by the sea, who was in trouble because the tide had been ebbing out for hours. No! He waits confidently for the turn of the tide, and it comes in due time. Yonder rock has been uncovered during the last half-hour, and if the sea continues to ebb out for weeks, there will be no water in the English Channel, and the French will walk over from Cherbourg. Nobody talks in that childish way, for such an ebb will never come. Nor will we speak as though the gospel would be routed, and eternal truth driven out of the land. We serve an almighty Master….If our Lord
does but stamp His foot, He can win for Himself all the nations of the earth against heathenism, and Mohammedanism, and Agnosticism, and Modern-thought, and every other foul error. Who is he that can harm us if we follow Jesus? How can His cause be defeated? At His will, converts will flock to His truth as numerous as the sands of the sea….Wherefore be of good courage, and go on your way singing [and preaching!].”
Taken with permission from John Piper’s desiringGod website.
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