*Why bother about someone who lived about two centuries ago? As the preface to the ‘Theologians on the Christian Life’ series, of which the book under review is a part, points out, studying past theologians and believers gives us perspective:
“We tend to lack the perspectives from the past, perspectives from a different time and place than our own. To put the matter differently, we have so many riches in our current horizon that we tend not to look to the horizons of the past.”
Hence, a look at an aspect of the life and ministry of one of the great leaders in the last two hundred years would surely afford us some perspective.
The name of C.H. Spurgeon is beloved among evangelical [i] Christians. He is loved for the warmth and wittiness of his writing, as well as the biblical faithfulness which exudes from his sermons. Living between the years 1834 and 1892, his influence has far outlasted his short years.
But how well have we really known him? This volume by Michael Reeves has successfully helped to bridge that gap for us in the twenty-first century.
Spurgeon was pre-eminently a preacher. Coming from a long line of preachers, it is hardly a surprise that God chose to call him to the same vocation. In view of this, his life and ministry are relevant to modern preachers, as the book so clearly displays.
This is particularly because Spurgeon wasn’t merely a preacher; he was a Christ-centred one. And his devotion to Christ was not a mystical adoration, it was a thoroughgoing reliance on the person and work of the Redeemer. It resulted in several other points of emphasis in Spurgeon’s ministry. He spoke of the depth of human sin, the compelling need for the new birth, the daily reliance on the cross of Jesus for the believer’s sanctification, as well as a life of prayer. This dogged focus on Christ arose from his saturation in scripture, which he saw as leading to Jesus from every text, in much the same way every hamlet or town in England had a path that led to London.
Spurgeon was equally a pastorally minded theologian. Although he was well versed in theology, with knowledge of the biblical languages, yet he always sought to distill this in plain terms which ordinary people could understand.
A catholic Calvinist
He was what we might call a catholic Calvinist. He described his perspective thus:
“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.”
However, his Calvinism was derived from his devotion to Christ. He saw that everything hinged upon Christ and upon God’s sovereign grace in the salvation of sinners. So he was willing to extend a hand of fellowship to those who, while not adhering to Calvinism, clearly reveled in the beauty and glory of Jesus Christ. As Michael Reeves reminds us,
“He rejoiced in warm fellowship with Methodist, Arminian friends, viewing them as fellow brothers and sisters in Christ and “natural allies” in the gospel of free grace against ritualist and rationalist Christianity.
It is helpful to hear Spurgeon himself on this:
“We believe in the five great points commonly known as Calvinistic; but we do not regard those five points as being barbed shafts which we are to thrust between the ribs of our fellow-Christians. We look upon them as being five great lamps which help to irradiate the cross; or, rather five bright emanations springing from the glorious covenant of our Triune God, and illustrating the great doctrine of Jesus crucified.”
Spurgeon’s perspective is thus a helpful guide for some believers today, who zealously adopt the name of ‘Calvinist’ yet fail to extend charity to those who might not have grasped the full extent and beauty of God’s redemptive plan.
Converted to Christ after a 5-year period under conviction of sin, Spurgeon never doubted the importance of regeneration or the new birth. And he believed it was the commencement of the Christian life. Thus he came to view baptism as the public profession of this new life which had just commenced at regeneration. As Reeves narrates, ‘he believed that baptism is essentially about an outward expression of the believer’s faith, not a conferral of God’s grace.’
In view of the foregoing, Spurgeon was vehemently opposed to the practice of infant baptism (or paedobaptism). Aside from his conviction that the practice is not scriptural, he believed that it obscured the need for saving faith in Jesus Christ. Many orthodox believers in paedobaptism, no less than John Calvin or John Murray or most of the Puritans, would disagree. They would insist that baptism is a sign and seal of the covenant; unlike Spurgeon who claimed it was an expression or ‘avowal’ of faith.
Spurgeon was concerned, and I think rightly, about the dangers which the practice of infant baptism could breed in people. For so many in his day and ours believe themselves to be safely in God’s kingdom because they had received baptism as infants. However, I believe his concern was also shared by many who still held on to the practice because they saw that the flow of scripture required it. The problem lies in whether a full diet of scripture is presented in churches which practice it. Do they clearly teach that baptismal regeneration is unscriptural? Do they remind the parents of the child that their infant is to be brought up to eventually and truly profess faith in Jesus? Where these are lacking, infant baptism would lead to serious issues.
Spurgeon came to realize, just like a great number of witnesses throughout the history of the church, that the call to follow Christ often comes with suffering as a package. While suffering has no redemptive effect itself, it is a means by which God often fits his workers for ministry to others.
This brings to mind Peter’s counsel to believers in 1 Peter 4:12 that suffering should not be seen as something strange. Paul also instructs us that God will not allow us to suffer beyond the measure of God’s grace (1 Cor. 10:13). Our faith in Christ bears us up and leads us to trust in Him even more.
We should take the Puritans seriously
Those familiar with Spurgeon have long known that he loved the Puritans. This volume was helpful in showing why.
Aside from being brought up in a home which treasured their writings so much as to have a large stock of them, Spurgeon was struck by their depth and seriousness. As any reader of the Puritans would realize, they took the Bible seriously and would spend so much time and ink in ‘screwing the word into men’s hearts’ (their language)
In addition, the Puritans’ devotion to Christ, which shines through their writings, endeared them to Spurgeon. Here is a quote from Richard Sibbes[ii], one of the Puritans, which might have just been spoken by Spurgeon himself:
“The special work of our ministry is to lay open Christ, to hold up the tapestry and unfold the mysteries of Christ. Let us labour therefore to be always speaking somewhat about Christ, or tending that way. When we speak of the law, let it drive us to Christ; when of moral duties, let them teach us to walk worthy of Christ. Christ, or something tending to Christ, should be our theme, and mark to aim at.”
For the Puritans, theology was to lead to worship and prayer. One of the early representatives of this school, William Ames[iii] had even defined theology as the science of living to God. Their profound grasp of the doxological end of all theological study resonated with Spurgeon and made their writings his lifelong companions.
His favourite book after the Bible was the Puritan classic, The Pilgrim’s Progress[iv]. And Christian’s journey was for Spurgeon a true picture of the believer’s experience. Coming from the City of Destruction and moving on to the Heavenly Jerusalem, the believer meets all sorts of challenges and frustrations on the way. But under the watchful eye of his crucified but risen Saviour, the journey is completed successfully when the Christian enters into the joy of his heavenly Father. This was itself a summary of Spurgeon’s life and ministry.
And it continues to be a description of everyone who shares Spurgeon’s faith in the glorious Christ.
*Michael Reeves. Spurgeon on the Christian Life (Theologians on the Christian Life). Crossway, 2018. 192 pp. A complimentary copy of this book was provided by Crossway through the Blog Review Program.
[i] Evangelical Christians believe in the divine authority of the scriptures, the universal problem of sin, and the truth that only in Jesus Christ can people be reconciled to God and receive salvation.
[ii] Richard Sibbes (1577-1635) – Anglican pastor and theologian
[iii] William Ames (1576-1633) – English Protestant theologian and pastor
[iv] The Pilgrim’s Progress, published in 1678, is a Christian allegory written by John Bunyan (1628-1688)