The Riches of Spurgeon (Part 1)

Rev. William Shishko

Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5

While the true greatness of a preacher will only be revealed at Christ’s tribunal, I would join my opinion with those of many others who make the earthly judgment that Charles Spurgeon was the most effective and useful of preachers since the days of the Apostles. Yes, as highly as I regard Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Knox, Whitefield, Edwards, and many other pulpit giants of the past, I become more convinced with every reading of a Spurgeon sermon that this English Baptist preacher of the 18th century is the preeminent model for one who would be a herald of the Word of God and the Christ of that Word.

Charles Haddon Spurgeon was born in Kelvedon, Essex in 1834. His father and grandfather were both Independent pastors, with roots in both the Dutch and English Dissenting traditions. Like Timothy, from infancy Charles Spurgeon had known the Holy Scriptures: “It would not be easy for some of us to recall the hour when we first heard the name of Jesus,” wrote Spurgeon, obviously including himself in this beautiful description of a covenant home. “In very infancy that sweet sound was as familiar to our ear as the hush of a lullaby. Our earliest recollections are associated with the house of God, the family altar, the Holy Bible, the sacred song, and the fervent prayer.” Spurgeon, who was destined to become Britain’s most illustrious preacher of the century, was converted on a snowy Sunday morning in early 1850 as a result of the less than illustrious “preaching” of a layman in a Primitive Methodist Chapel in Colchester, Essex. Under a brief and very personally applied development of the text “Look unto me and be ye saved all the ends of the earth,” Spurgeon’s heart was changed by sovereign grace. “‘Look!’ What a charming word 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 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 looks alone to Him.” That joy in almighty saving grace, and that experimental conviction of full, free justification by faith alone in Christ alone would leave an indelible mark on every part of the ministry that was soon to be his.

Spurgeon’s eminent speaking abilities wedded to his vast knowledge of the Scriptures were almost immediately put to use. Less than two years after his conversion, when Spurgeon was but 17 years of age, he was called to serve as pastor of Waterbeach Baptist Chapel. In 1854 he was called to serve as pastor of New Park Street Baptist Chapel, Southwark, London. Soon that building was filled to overflowing, necessitating the building of the Metropolitan Tabernacle in 1859. Apart from periodic bouts with illness which kept him from his pulpit ministry, Spurgeon preached at the Metropolitan Tabernacle until June 7, 1891, when he preached his last sermon. He died the following January at Mentone, S. France. During his 38 years of ministry in London, 14,692 members were added to the church (Spurgeon interviewed most of them personally!). In addition to his pulpit labors, he began a “Pastor’s College” to train men “evidently called to preach the Gospel,” helped to found the London Baptist Association, established an orphanage (known as “Spurgeon’s Homes”), and gave his assistance for the establishment of various other charitable and religious organizations. The Metropolitan Tabernacle, under Spurgeon’s remarkable leadership, became a veritable beehive of evangelistic and philanthropic activity in London and its environs.

Spurgeon was unashamedly committed to evangelical Calvinism. He fought battles against hyper-Calvinism (considered in detail in Iain Murray’s volume Spurgeon vs. Hyper-Calvinism, published by the Banner of Truth Trust) and Arminianism. He also stood firmly against the depreciation of the authority of Holy Scripture in what came to be called “The Downgrade Controversy.” (The amazingly contemporary nature of these controversies is developed in Iain Murray’s work The Forgotten Spurgeon, also published by The Banner of Truth Trust. Both of these volumes by Murray are highly recommended.)

Yet Spurgeon is known best as “The Prince of Preachers.” Not only did Spurgeon preach to thousands each week, attracting the largest congregations of any minister in the British Isles, but his printed sermons (known as “the penny pulpit”), issued each week and then appearing in annual volumes for over 40 years, have had the greatest circulation of any printed sermons in history. These sermons, totaling 3,561, fill 63 volumes, some of which extend to 700 pages! They are rightly said to comprise a “Body of Divinity” within themselves. F. B. Meyer reflects the assessment of many a minister whose preaching tutelage has come by reading these sermons: “I can never tell my indebtedness to them. As I read them week by week in my young manhood, they gave me a grip of the Gospel that I can never lose, and gave me an ideal of its presentation in nervous, transparent, and forcible language which has coloured (sic) my entire ministry.”

Self-evidently, the 19th century Spurgeon did not possess the many fine insights of philological, hermeneutical, and biblical-theological studies that have been done in the 20th century. Geerhardus Vos was but 29 years of age at the time of Spurgeon’s death! Spurgeon is not a model of consecutive expository preaching such as that done by Calvin, and revived in our own day by the late D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones. (Indeed, Charles Spurgeon rarely preached sermon series of any sort. He is the exemplar par excellence of topical preaching.) Nor is Spurgeon always the best model of grammatical-historical exegesis that is scrupulous about dealing with a text in its context. (One cringes at what Spurgeon does with a text like Genesis 15:11, “And when the fowls came down upon the carcasses, Abram drove them away,” under the sermon title: “Abram and the Ravenous Birds”!). And, as a Baptist, Spurgeon’s views of God’s covenant and His covenantal dealings with families as the basic unit of the church differ from our own (although there are many blessed inconsistencies that are obvious in volumes such as Come Ye Children: A Book for Parents and Teachers on the Christian Training of Children, published by Pilgrim Publications). Nevertheless, as models of thoroughly doctrinal, Bible-enriched, pastoral preaching that exalts Jesus Christ and freely offers Him to listener and reader alike, Spurgeon is unmatched. With good reason many a minister has urged fellow ministers and men preparing for the ministry to read at least one sermon by Spurgeon a week.

Over the course of the next few articles we will delve into some of the aspects of Spurgeon’s preaching that have made it so powerful and useful, both as it was originally delivered and as Spurgeon “though dead still speaks” by his printed sermons. There is no single discipline that has helped me keep my preaching fresh and Christ-centered from week to week (except perhaps listening to tapes of fine sermons preached in our own day) than the discipline of letting the great Mr. Spurgeon preach to me as I read selections from the volumes of his sermons. I trust that these articles will whet your appetite for the feast that awaits you in the works of this unique man of God who “had an intuitive knowledge of the ways of God and of the needs of the human heart, and in all his preaching his one object was to commend God to men” (William Robertson Nicoll, editor of the Expositer’s Bible).

The Riches of Spurgeon (Part 2)

A survey of the Complete Index to C. H. Spurgeon’s Sermons (1855-1917)—an indispensable aid to finding and using Spurgeon’s sermons—shows that the great 19th century British pulpiteer was richly doctrinal in his preaching. While evangelistic messages and sermons of pastoral encouragement were dominant, Spurgeon never shied away from opening, illustrating, and applying the grand doctrinal themes of Holy Scripture. Especially in his early ministry as the congregation at the New Park Street Chapel was growing rapidly, Spurgeon dealt forthrightly with the doctrine of God. In one year alone (1856) his sermon titles included “Divine Sovereignty,” “God’s Omniscience,” “Unimpeachable Justice,” and “The Majesty of God’s Voice.” Over the course of his ministry he preached over 150 sermons specifically on the person of Jesus Christ and some aspect of His work. Never embarrassed about his Calvinistic convictions (much to the embarrassment of many later Baptists who claim Spurgeon as their own!), Spurgeon preached messages specifically on every head of the so-called “Five Points of Calvinism,” and frequently rose to the ardent defense and proclamation of those truths in other sermons. Indeed, his sermons on “Election” and “Election No Discouragement to Seeking Souls” have been frequently reprinted because of their excellence in presenting the historic Calvinistic teaching. Spurgeon, most surely, would have held no sympathies for the contemporary idea that doctrine is “strong meat” and ought to be taught in specialized Bible studies (if at all), but surely not in the pulpit (and never on a Sunday morning when visitors will be present!). Nor would Spurgeon give an ear to the superficial observation that the Christian life is more important than Christian doctrine. “Those who do away with Christian doctrine are the worst enemies of Christian religion,” he declared.

Yet it was the way in which Spurgeon preached deep biblical doctrine that gave such force to his sermons. He was not content with laying the matter before his congregation like a chef would present a fine meal before diners. Spurgeon organized his points, illustrated them by metaphors, similes, and biblical and extra-biblical matter, and applied them in profound yet natural ways that grew out of the exposition and illustration. One rarely senses that application was added to Spurgeon’s preaching. It was almost always a thoughtful development of the sermon’s theme, now brought to bear on the lives and situation of the preacher’s hearers. Spurgeon’s doctrinal sermons are superb examples of the standard for preaching presented in the original Westminster “Directory for the Public Worship of God”:

“(The minister) is not to rest in general doctrine, although never so much cleared and confirmed, but to bring it home to special use, by application to his hearers: which albeit it prove a work of great difficulty to himself, requiring much prudence, zeal, and meditation, and to the natural and corrupt man will be very unpleasant; yet he is to endeavor to perform it in such a manner that his auditors may feel the word of God to be quick and powerful, and a discerner of the thoughts of the heart; and that if any unbeliever or ignorant person be present, he may have the secrets of his heart made manifest, and give glory to God.”

For example, in the first sermon preached at the New Park Street Chapel in the year 1855, Spurgeon’s introduction to his message on “The Immutability of God” (from the text, “I am the Lord, I change not; therefore ye sons of Jacob are not consumed,” Malachi 3:6) included these words:

“...whilst humbling and expanding, this subject is eminently consolatory. Oh, there is in contemplating Christ a balm for every wound; in musing on the Father, there is a quietus for every grief; and in the influence of the Holy Ghost there is a balm for every sore. Would you lose your sorrows? Would you drown your cares? Then go, plunge yourself in the Godhead’s deepest sea; be lost in his immensity; and you shall come forth as from a couch of rest, refreshed and invigorated. I know of nothing which can so comfort the soul; so calm the swelling billows of grief and sorrow; so speak peace to the winds of trial, as a devout musing upon the subject of the Godhead. It is to that subject that I invite you this morning.”

Keep in mind that this is from the introduction to the sermon! In a portion of a paragraph Spurgeon used more thoughtful (and biblical!) metaphors than some preachers use in an entire sermon! The text and theme were then opened under three headings, i.e., 1. An unchanging God, 2. The persons who derive benefit from this glorious attribute, and 3. The benefit they so derive, all of which flow naturally out of the biblical passage. A hearer or reader could only joyfully accept Spurgeon’s invitation to consider the subject with him.

Much of Spurgeon’s force in his doctrinal preaching came from the vividness with which he felt and expressed truths that so often become cold formulae to us. This is especially true in his treatments of Christ’s atonement.

“A God bowing his head, and suffering, and dying in the person of manhood, puts such a singular efficacy into every groan and every pang, that it needs not that his pangs should be eternal, or that he should die a second death. The dignity of the person adds a special force to the substitution, and thus one bleeding Saviour can make atonement for millions of sinful men, and the Captain of our salvation can bring multitudes into glory” (from “Expiation,” a sermon delivered in 1864).

This statement, which is representative of many similar ones in Spurgeon’s sermons, displays an orthodox Christology wed to a passion to preach an atoning work that truly saves sinners. It says the same thing as “sufficient for all, but efficient for the elect,” but goes beyond what has become platitude to present a beautifully dressed image that lives in mind of both the speaker and the hearer.

Added to such vividness were Spurgeon’s common uses of easily understood illustrations to persuade his hearers to accept truths which may have been unpalatable or difficult. Here is how the master communicator sought to carry his congregation with him as he presented a truth which many preachers would either state harshly or refrain from altogether:

“It is infinitely benevolent of God, I will venture to say, to cast evil men into hell. If that be thought to be a hard and strange statement, I reply that inasmuch as there is sin in the world, it is no benevolence to tolerate so great an evil; it is the highest benevolence to do all that can be done to restrain the horrible pest. It would be far from benevolent for our government to throw wide the door of all the jails, to abolish the office of the judge, to suffer every thief and every offender of every kind to go unpunished; instead of mercy it would be cruelty; it might be mercy to the offending, but it would be intolerable injustice towards the upright and inoffensive. God’s very benevolence demands that the detestable rebellion of sin against his supreme authority should be put down with a firm hand, that men may not flatter themselves that they can do evil and go unpunished. The necessities of moral government require that sin must be punished” (from “Individual Sin Laid on Jesus,” a sermon delivered on April 10, 1870).

Here, by reasoning from the lesser to the greater, Spurgeon makes his doctrinal point effectively using an analogy to which all can relate. One cannot help but be persuaded by such an obvious and incisive parallel.

In our day in which doctrinal preaching is downplayed, let preachers see how the proclamation of the grand truths of the Scriptures was done by Charles Spurgeon. Boldness, vividness, reasoning, illustration, and application all became servants to make the doctrine that flowed from his mouth a living instrument that, by God’s grace, transformed individuals and congregations. And rather than bemoan what seems to be a lack of interest in doctrine among an apathetic populace, let those of us who preach week be week labor earnestly following examples such as these, in the confidence that doctrine adorned by the basic principles of good aflame with its truth and with love for people, will always have a hearing among those in whom the Truth Incarnate is saving and sanctifying.

In our next article we will consider the evangelistic appeals in Spurgeon’s sermons.

The Riches of Spurgeon (Part 3)

One of the duties of the minister is to “do the work of the evangelist” so that his ministry will be truly fulfilled, cf. 2 Tim. 4:5. Simply put, this means that no Christian ministry is complete without specific and earnest efforts to bring the Gospel to sinners with the goal of seeing some, if not many, of them brought to Christ as Savior and Lord. This work, we believe, is accomplished primarily by preaching, for the Gospel preached is God’s unique power unto salvation to all those who believe, cf. Rom. 1:16.

This Gospel preaching is to display the very heart of God who freely calls sinners to come to Himself. “Ho! Everyone who thirsts, Come to the waters; And you who have no money, Come, buy and eat. Yes, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend money for what is not bread, and your wages for what does not satisfy? Listen carefully to Me, and eat what is good, and let your soul delight itself in abundance.” Is. 55:1 ff. It ought to demonstrate through Christ’s representative the hearty offer of Jesus Himself who cried, “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” Matt. 11:28. Such preaching should be marked by such apostolic fervor that it can say boldly, truthfully, and freely, “Now then, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were pleading through us: we implore you (i.e. “we beg you”) on Christ’s behalf, be reconciled to God.” 2 Cor. 5:20. And none of this zeal for a Gospel freely offered to sinners should be hindered by our commitment to Calvinism; indeed our belief that God does, indeed, have an elect whom He will save by the ministry of the Word should be the great spur to our evangelistic energies.

Nevertheless, such evangelistic zeal is (much to our shame) far too uncommon in Reformed pulpits today. In some cases a non-evangelistic spirit creates churches in which orthodox ministers “preach to the choir” from week to week (or perhaps it would be better to say “from weak to weak”!). In other cases, reaction to superficial and manipulative evangelism has created the opposite error of doing no (or very little) evangelism. In still other cases the frigid atmosphere of “hyper-Calvinism” has cooled or frozen the burden to proclaim genuinely free grace to sinners. In most situations, however, good ministers have been less the evangelists than they ought to be simply because they have not seen good models of evangelism that is truly bound by the Word of God and done within the strictures of historic confessional orthodoxy.

As in so many other areas, Charles Spurgeon provides a model that is rich with insight for and application to our own day. Spurgeon, “The Prince of Preachers,” was always “The Prince of Evangelistic Preachers.” In sermons that were second to none in doctrinal content, often including lines and phrases that were bodies of divinity in miniature, Spurgeon never neglected pointed, personal, and passionate calls for his hearers to trust in Christ Jesus alone for salvation.

Even the reading of Spurgeon’s sermons brings a sense of the earnestness and urgency with which Spurgeon pleaded with those who were present under his actual preaching. He used every righteous motive to, without hesitation or embarrassment, press the issues of life and death, heaven and hell, everlasting bliss and everlasting misery upon his hearers. Note the penetrating vividness of this conclusion to his sermon, “The Water of Life,” preached in 1867. Also pay attention to how the preacher sensitively identifies himself with his congregation, without ever giving up the role of the herald who speaks in the second person to those gathered to hear the Word of the Lord:

“God grant that there may be no...postponing here, lest we postpone ourselves into eternity, where there are no acts of pardon past. May we have Christ now. We may not live to see tomorrow’s sun. Albeit that the sun is well-nigh gone down, yet the light of this evening may not have gone before our life may be ended. How near to death we stand, and yet we scarcely think of it! Right on the edge of our graves sometimes we are, and yet we sport and laugh as though we had a lease of life! You forget death, most of you. The cemetery is so far out of town, but still you should not quite forget, for the hearse goes to and fro with awful regularity, and the church bell that tolls is not rusty, and those words, ‘Earth to earth, dust to dust, ashes to ashes’ are still familiar to the ears of some of us. It will soon be your turn to die. You, too, must gather up your feet in the bed, and meet your father’s God; God grant that you may be found right with him. Little do I know for whom these sentences may have a special bearing; but they may have a bearing, dear friend, upon you. I see some of you dressed in black; you have had to go to the grave mourning because of others: that black will be worn by others soon for you, and the place that now knows you shall know you no more for ever. Oh! by the frailty of life, by the near approach of the Master, or by the certainty of death, I pray you see to it that you breathe the prayer, ‘Lord, give me of thy grace.’ The Lord help you to pray it. Amen.”

Unlike evangelistic preachers who fall into the trap of Arminianism, Spurgeon is clear that only the sovereign grace of God can truly bring a soul to faith in Christ. Yet, at the same time, he makes memorable use of the full range of motivations to call these souls to decision, e.g., the inevitability of death, the brevity and unpredictability of life, the return of Christ. How much this is like the wise father who tells both biological and spiritual children, “Do not boast about tomorrow, For you do not know what a day may bring forth” (Prov. 27:1); and how well this conforms to the apostolic model of an urgent messenger imbued with the truth that “we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive the things done in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad,” and as a ministerial outflow can say, “Knowing, therefore, the terror of the Lord, we persuade men” (2 Cor. 5:10 ff.). Reformed ministers today who rightly stand against the manipulative techniques of evangelism based on flawed and erroneous views of the human will should ask themselves if, in throwing out the dirty bath water of Arminianism, they have also thrown out the baby of genuine biblical urgency in pleading with the lost. Spurgeon surely did not!

Spurgeon’s evangelistic calls appeared at some point in every sermon. Like lightning that strikes in various places during a strong summer storm, Spurgeon’s appeals to those who were unconverted or undecided with respect to Christ and the Gospel came at various places in his powerful sermons: sometimes in the introduction, periodically in the various points of his messages, and very often at the conclusion. This master preacher seemed to study to avoid sameness in both the place and manner of his evangelistic applications. As a fisher of men he cast his net thoughtfully and drew it in, always anticipating a catch. And, following his own dictum that “genuine love to God and fervent love to man make up the great qualification for a pleader,” Spurgeon’s appeals were marked by a tender earnestness that could not help but bring the compassion of God to a congregation through the heart, mind, and energies of the preacher. In this excerpt from a sermon appropriately entitled “Earnest Expostulation,” based on Romans 2:4 (“Or do you despise the riches of His goodness, forbearance, and longsuffering, not knowing that the goodness of God leads you to repentance?”), one can feel the influence of a minister who has pleaded with God for sinners before he pleads with sinners for God:

“Weary, but not quite wearied out, O impenitent man, I plead with thee! Though thou hast so often been pleaded with in vain, once more I speak with thee in Christ’s stead, and say—Repent of thy sin, look to thy Saviour, and confess thy faith in his own appointed way. I verily believe that if I had been pleading with some of you to save the life of a dog I should have prevailed with you a great while ago. And will you not care about the saving of your own souls? Oh, strange infatuation—that men will not consent to be themselves saved; but foolishly, madly, hold out against the mercy of God which leads them to repentance. God bless you, beloved, and may none of you despise his goodness, and forbearance, and longsuffering.”

In our Reformed commitment to address the congregation corporately as “saints” we may resist the concept of doing individual pulpit discipline by using terms such as “O impenitent man,” but let us remember that Paul himself could say in his address to the Galatians (4:19), “My little children, for whom I labor in birth again until Christ is formed in you,” and to the Corinthians, “Examine yourselves as to whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Do you not know yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you are disqualified (II Cor. 12:5). While we may reject what we believe to be Spurgeon’s approach to dealing discriminatingly with the congregation as a “mixed multitude” of individuals (actually, dealing with the congregation as a de facto gathering of sinners and saints), let us avoid the error of dealing with the congregation under a de facto “presumptive regeneration.” Spurgeon was possessed with the passionate heart of a passionate God who earnestly pleaded with His people: “Cast away from you all the transgressions which you have committed, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit. For why should you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of one who dies, says the Lord GOD. Therefore turn and live!” (Ezekiel 18:31 ff.). May God grant something of this passion to us, and deliver us from the practice of excusing our own coldness by criticizing the kind of heat given forth by someone else.

The Riches of Spurgeon (Part 4)

“Charles Spurgeon never let his forthright Calvinism hinder his concern for evangelism. Not infrequently he would twit his hyper-Calvinistic brethren with the folly of their position.

“Did (Christ) look upon Jerusalem and say, ‘I believe that the city is given up, predestinated to be destroyed’ and then coolly go on his way? No, not he. He believed in predestination, but that truth never chilled his heart. He wept over Jerusalem, and said, ‘O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how often would I have gathered thy children together as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not.’

“Did Christ o’er sinners weep,
and shall our cheeks be dry?”

The great British Calvinistic Baptist was possessed of the Spirit of His Lord who, on the one hand could say, “No one can [i.e., has the ability to] come to me unless the Father...draws him” (John 6:44) while he has already said in virtually the same breath, “All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will by no means cast out” (John 6:37). Such freedom in declaring all that God has said with respect to God’s sovereignty in salvation and the free offer of the Gospel should mark our preaching as well. And the declarations should come with the loving, earnest passion that marked our Saviour. Nothing less befits the minister who, in word, conduct, and spirit, is set apart to an office that represents the great Saviour of sinners, cf. 2 Cor. 5:20.

Even the Calvinistic doctrines that are commonly alleged to be prima facie arguments against evangelistic zeal become powerful spiritual weapons for Spurgeon’s assaults on unbelief in his preaching. Spurgeon’s Arminian devotees must be horrified to hear how their model evangelist inveighed against the teaching of a universal atonement:

“Many divines say that Christ did something when he died that enabled God to be just, and yet the Justifier of the ungodly. What that something is they do not tell us. They believe in an atonement made for everybody; but then their atonement is just this. They believe that Judas was atoned for just as much as Peter; they believe that the damned in hell were as much an object of Jesus’ Christ’s satisfaction as the saved in heaven; and though they do not say it in proper words, yet they must mean it, for it is a fair inference, that in the case of the multitudes, Christ died in vain, for he died for them all, they say; and yet so ineffectual was his dying for them, that though he died for them they are damned afterwards. Now such an atonement I despise—I reject it.”

Yet for the same preacher the doctrine of “limited atonement” is a powerful cannon ball to lob into the fortress of “Doubting Castle” and against the onslaughts of Romanism:

“My brethren, ours has the advantage of universality in its proclamation and in its bona fide offer, for there is no one living who shall believe in Jesus who shall not be saved by Christ; but it has a greater advantage than this; namely, that those who do believe are saved by it, and they know that Christ made such an atonement for them that for them to be punished for sin would be as much a violation of justice as it would be of mercy.”

In this as with every other aspect of the person and work of Christ that Spurgeon so faithfully expounded for so many years there is an inevitable turning of the doctrine into something that pertains to the actual salvation of sinners. This is the heart of Spurgeon’s power as an evangelistic preacher. It is the reason for the continuing popularity of his sermons as both models for preachers and as rich spiritual food for readers. One cannot read a sermon of Charles Spurgeon without coming away with a fresh, lively, sincere, and heart-affecting presentation of Jesus Christ who came into the world to save sinners. For that reason, alone, Spurgeon’s sermons provide a priceless treasury for us. How often our preaching is anemic because it suffers from a Christ-deficiency. Reading Spurgeon will revitalize your ministerial blood!

In two other important ways Charles Spurgeon the evangelistic preacher provides a challenge to all of us as we minister the Word of God from week to week:

First, he avoided all forms of “preparationism,” i.e. the idea that the unconverted must do or be something before they can be saved by the grace of Christ. Spurgeon called sinners to turn to Christ (not to be confused with walking an aisle!) immediately, just as they were. How refreshing is this Isaiah 55 type of clear appeal over against the oblique messages that all too often come from preacher’s mouths:

“I say to you, Jesus Christ stands like a great flowing fountain in the corners of the street, and he inviteth every thirsty soul to come and drink. You need not stop and say, ‘Am I thirsty enough? Am I black enough?’... Come as you are! Come as you are! Every fitness is legality; every preparation is a lie; every getting ready for Christ is coming the wrong way. You are only making yourselves worse while you think you are making yourselves better.... Come as you are! If you are the blackest soul out of hell, trust Christ, and that act of trust shall make you clean. This seems a simple thing, and yet it is the hardest thing in the world to bring you to it; so hard a thing that all the preachers that ever preached cannot make a man believe in Christ. Though we put it as plainly as we can, and plead with you, you only go away and say, ‘It is too good to be true!’ or else you despise it because it is so simple; for the Gospel, like Christ, is despised and rejected of men, because it has no form and comeliness and no beauty in it that you should desire it.”

How our own work as evangelists would be revived if we too would so make Christ known as the water of life, then invite people to drink freely of him, without our putting forbidding security guards at the fountain!

Second, Spurgeon truly believed that earnest evangelistic appeals that grew out of the person and work of Christ would be effective for the salvation of sinners. With his own inimitable humor (which in no small measure contributes to the delight in reading Spurgeon’s various works), Spurgeon lampoons the kind of preaching that possesses little or no passion for the conversion of the lost: There are sermons of such a kind that, unless God takes to ripening wheat by means of snow and ice, and begins to illuminate the world by fogs and clouds, He cannot save souls under them. Why the preacher himself evidently does not think that anybody will be converted by them! If a hundred persons or of half a dozen were converted by them, nobody would be so astonished as the preacher himself....

Indeed, unlike those who fall into a Stoic resignation when regular preaching ministry bears no fruit in the conversion of the lost, Spurgeon possessed an insatiable thirst to see people brought to Christ under his ministry. “We must see souls born unto God,” he told the men training for the ministry at his Pastor’s College. “If we do not, our cry should be that of Rachel: ‘Give me children, or I die.’... The ambassadors of peace should not cease to weep bitterly until sinners weep for their sin.”

When we wonder why our ministries seem to have such little impact on the perishing souls around us, rather than run to the most current evangelistic program or “seeker-sensitive” approach to reaching the lost, perhaps we should consider our own hearts first, and then earnestly cry to God to give us a zeal such as Spurgeon exemplifies. While his evangelistic model is certainly not perfect, it is, to my mind, one of the best ones we possess short of the inspired ones given in Holy Scripture. Here, as in so many other areas, may Spurgeon’s riches enrich our own ministries to saints and sinners alike.

The Riches of Spurgeon (part 5)

“He is the best speaker who can turn ears into eyes.” This ancient Arabic proverb offers wise advice to all speakers, and particularly to those who are called to proclaim the Gospel of everlasting life and peace. Our preeminent model is the Master Speaker himself, who used beautiful field lilies and finely plumed birds to illustrate the perfect care of our Father in Heaven. In His perfect mouth a widow’s mites became unforgettable lessons in giving, and the hairs of our head (however many or few!) abide as silent teachers of the sovereignty of God.

While most Reformed preachers prefer to nourish themselves and feed others on the meat of Pauline theological expression, dogmatic formulations, and the language of systematic doctrinal concepts (none of which is to be slighted), we must never forget that the staple diet of biblical preaching also includes the carbohydrates, starches, and fats of metaphors, similes, illustrations, and other forms of imagery that truly “turn ears into eyes.” Unturned cakes (Hos. 7:8) and lukewarm water that make one want to vomit (Rev. 3:16) communicate far more than lengthy discourses on the marks and effects of spiritual compromise. The pains of childbearing (Gal. 4:19, Rom. 8:22) say what words cannot as the preacher lays before his people his own agony for their regeneration and the yearning of earth for its own deliverance from the miserable effects of the curse. From the models of the Scriptures, the greatest preacher Jesus Christ, and the best examples of preachers in church history we who preach today must, indeed, learn to “turn ears into eyes.”

Here, too, Charles Spurgeon provides a wealth of help for us. Drawing from history (both sacred and secular), biography, literature, mythology, the developing sciences, and current events, Spurgeon consistently showed himself a master at turning the ears of his massive congregation into eyes that saw the truths their pastor so passionately believed and proclaimed. To read a sermon of Spurgeon is to enter a room full of the finest furniture and decorations. But (unlike so many Reformed sermons that may have similar or even better such “content”), these rooms are well illuminated by windows large and small that dot the entire space allowing the full range of spiritual light to enter in. Through this all important aspect of Spurgeon’s sermons one can truly see the truths of grace, feel the warmth of the Gospel, and experience the healing effects of Christ, the sun of righteousness (Mal. 4:2). This, I am convinced, is the “secret” of the success and influence of Spurgeon’s sermons in his own day, and the key to their enduring quality over a century after they were delivered. Like his Master, Spurgeon so spoke that “the common people heard him gladly” (Mark 6:37). We do well to learn from one who can help us in this area that is hardly known as a strength of our preaching.

To open the treasure box of a Spurgeon sermon or lecture is to find handfuls of perfectly cut jewels of metaphor. A call to mortification of sin and the benefit of life that comes by this discipline, cf. Rom. 8:13, becomes: “When this Achan is stoned and the accursed thing is put away, you will be surprised to find what joy, what comfort will immediately flow into your soul.” The ever-present propensity to lose optimism regarding the Gospel because of personal unbelief and the sins of the age is graciously rebuffed in this manner: “If anybody said to me, ‘The days are darker now than they used to be’, I should remember that the sun is still the same. Perhaps my friend has not lately cleaned his windows; or he has not drawn up his blinds; and that is why he thinks there is less light. It is very possible to be much more in the dark than you need to be. The gloom may be in the eyes rather than in the heavens. May I suggest a little looking at home, that you may see why your former blessedness is gone?” (How much more inviting it is to do self-examination after the wise use of such a figure rather than after the application of a verbal lash!) And the unchangeableness of biblical doctrine before winds of contemporary unbelief is presented this way: “The fair maid of truth does not paint her cheeks and tire her head, like Jezebel, following every new philosophic fashion; she is content with her own native beauty, and in her aspect she is the same yesterday, today, and forever.”

Such word pictures abound like pretty wildflowers on a rural countryside. “All worlds are but sparks from the anvil of His omnipotence.” “Grace is the light, our loving heart is the [film], Jesus is the person who fills the lens of our soul, and soon a heavenly photograph of his character is produced.” “Now the sparks of the gospel fall into your soul as if they dropped into an ocean in which they are quenched forever.” “There are many books that are excellently bound, but there is nothing within them.” They are accompanied by memorable phrases that preach sermons in themselves: “As surely as you rob God of obedience, sin will rob you of comfort.” “Grace is the dawn of glory.” “Few are the dainties from the King’s table which come to the dish of mistrust.”

Here one finds masterful similes that make their point by being either down to earth or thoughtfully clever. “Omitted duty is like a little stone in the sole of your shoe.” “Some people I know of are like inns, which have an angel hanging outside for a sign, but they have a devil within for a landlord,” and (one of my favorites!): “I know some whose wretchedness is chronic—like polar bears they are only at home on the ice.” Notice how your ears have become eyes! Humor, too, is sanctified for the service of the preacher. While never going beyond the bounds of propriety, one can almost imagine the twinkle in his eye as Spurgeon (who loved a good laugh!) lovingly and unforgettably tells fellow preachers what many congregation members would be too respectful to say, “I heard one say, the other day, that a certain preacher had no more gifts for the ministry than an oyster. In my judgment that was a slander on the oyster, for that worthy bivalve shows great discretion in his openings, and he also knows when to close.” Like his Master who drew on yeast, seeds, and little children to illustrate his points, Spurgeon drew on oysters, polar bears, and tiny stones. Do you do the same in your preaching? Nowhere does Spurgeon’s skill at “turning ears into eyes” show itself more than in his rhetorical pictures that throw light on the meaning of Christ’s work. Here is how the theology of “Christ crucified, dead, and buried” is made vivid by the use of various biblical materials woven with the tools of personification, action, suspense, metaphor, and simile:

“At last the time came when hell had gathered up all its forces, and now was also come the hour when Christ, as our substitute, must carry his obedience to the utmost length; he must be obedient unto death. He has been a substitute up till now; will he now throw down his vicarious character? Will he now renounce our responsibilities, and declare that we may stand for ourselves? Not he! He undertook, and must go through. Sweating great drops of blood, he nevertheless flinches not from the dread assault. Wounded in hands and in feet he still maintained his ground, and though, for obedience sake, he bowed his head to die, yet in that dying he slew death, put his foot upon the dragon’s neck, crushed the head of the old serpent, and beat our adversaries as small as the dust of the threshing floor.”

One must wonder aloud if people would be so hungry for non-biblical (and unbiblical) “pictures of Christ” if such eminently biblical “pictures of Christ” drawn from the actual content of the Scriptures were more a mark of our preaching. All of this, of course, takes work. Even with Spurgeon’s remarkable memory, the crafting of such items for the pulpit did not come without much general and particular preparation. Such preparation is, however, part of our work as preachers. We should labor at it with the confidence that God will use it to turn our often dark, stuffy sermons into bright and airy proclamations of the living Word of God. Pay attention to the innumerable things that can turn your sermon lessons into illustrations. Study how other preachers (like Spurgeon) have done this in an exemplary manner.

Discipline yourself to speak on all occasions with the use of similes, metaphors, and images that make even regular conversation sparkle. Review your sermon outline with the thought of “turning ears into eyes.” Then go to the pulpit stripped of the idea that fine doctrinal formulations alone make a sermon. Let the people see your doctrine, breathe your teaching, taste the things of the Christ you are privileged to proclaim, feel the truths of sin and holiness, war and peace, hell and heaven, and even smell the fragrance of the Gospel, cf. 2 Cor.2:14f. Both you and the congregation you are called to serve will sense the difference immediately!

May this series on “The Riches of Spurgeon” entice you to read more of the productions of this pulpit master who “being dead still speaks.” And may they, in particular, help you to be preachers of the truth who aim at the conversion of the lost as well as the edification of the saints; and who do it with well-dressed sermons that truly adorn the Gospel of grace.

For the past sixteen years William Shishko has served as pastor of the Franklin Square, NY congregation of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. He is also serving, at present, as a member of the Christian Education Committee and of the Subcommittee on Equipping Ordained Officers, which is responsible for oversight of Ordained Servant, from which these articles are extracted (vol. 7, no. 2 [Apr. 1998], 7:3 [Jul. 1998], 8:1 [Jan. 1999], 8:2 [Mar. 1999], and 8:3 [Jul. 1999]).