(You won’t be able to fully file this brief article under our mainsail category of polemics, nor does it necessarily carry sufficient wind to be drawn from either discernment, and theology. It’s a quick burst of breeze that flutters, perhaps, across all three points of our masthead. If you forced me to pick, though, I’d dump this under theology … the sufficiency of Scripture, and consider it a plea for us to get back to it.)
Each Sunday afternoon, after church, I read a book. This week it was Arnold Dallimore’s Spurgeon: A New Biography. While today it’s not all that new, it was new to me. I’d never read it. It does not need my small voice to add to the legitimate laudatory praise it’s garnered from more certain notable voices, and that’s not my intent here. If you have not, however, read it, I heartily suggest you place it near the top of your “to read” stack.
While the book is a cradle-to-grave biography of the prince of preachers, it primarily engages the reader with a solid overview of Spurgeon’s actual ministry through the Metropolitan Tabernacle. And there is much to be gleaned from it that prompts one to wonder, why isn’t ministry done like that today?
Few, perhaps, would’ve expected that the 19 year old, preaching his first message to the 80 or so souls in the introductory congregation awaiting him, would become the “prince of preachers” who would, not that many years beyond, be proclaiming God’s Word often to crowds of 20,000 or more. But it was Spurgeon’s faithfulness to two noteworthy tasks that saw the continued blessings of God in his ministry.
The sanctuary was regularly overfilled, requiring tickets for admittance. And this was not because of a theatrically-supplemented, entertainment-driven, musically-hyped extravaganza that awaited within the walls. There was none of this. There was no piano. There was no organ. There was the Word, and Spurgeon faithfully expounding it. Crowds thronged to hear God speak, not to get a whiz-bang warm-fuzzy and grab a prompt 12 o’clock coach over to the Cracker Barrel.
Far from being “seeker sensitive,” Spurgeon first, and foremost, edified the sheep with the only nourishment on which they may grow – the Word. So popular was his exegesis that his sermons were reprinted and distributed worldwide to believers eager for the teaching of sound doctrine contained within them. Yet Spurgeon never failed to clearly, boldly, and with a loving, genuine plea, present the Gospel for the tares that might be strewn among the pews of Metropolitan’s wheat. (Though that plea was intentionally unaccompanied by altar calls; Spurgeon knew God saves while aisle-walking and prayer repetitions did not.)
There are two things that leapt out from Dallimore’s text for me about Spurgeon’s own abiding, constituent constitution. They were drawn, of course, from the overwhelming understanding that he was saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone – and he was saved to do the bidding of his new Master. The foundation of Spurgeon’s life and ministry was the bedrock of his desire to be obedient to the God who had saved him.
Dallimore notes that, merely days after Spurgeon’s conversion, at the age of 16, he wrote these prayerful words:
O great and unsearchable God, who knowest my heart, and triest all my ways; with a humble dependence upon thy support of Thy Holy Spirit, I yield myself up to Thee; as Thine own reasonable sacrifice, I return to Thee Thine own. I would be forever, unreservedly, perpetually Thine; whilst I am on earth, I would serve Thee; and may I enjoy Thee and Praise Thee for ever! Amen
Such was Spurgeon’s commitment to, and understanding of, His relationship with God, and the narrow road upon which he solemnly sought to trod.
It was from such that two points from Dallimore’s analysis of Spurgeon seemed particularly noteworthy to me. Compared to the modern church, they may seem as foreign to us as are the anachronistic flourishes of Spurgeon’s Edwardian prose as he penned his prayerful sacrifice to his God. Yet, they are why, I believe, God blessed his work, his ministry, and the countless souls touched by a man devoted solely to His service.
The first point that struck me is from this citation from page 64 of Dallimore’s text:
“We must recognize that Spurgeon was, above everything, a theologian. He had given thought to the great doctrines of the Bible from the time he had begun to read, and from that point he had been steadily building in his mind and heart a knowledge of the vast system of theology that is revealed in the Scriptures. Londoners were startled as much by what he said by how he said it, and this system of doctrine was the pervading quality of all his ministry.”
Is there any need for me to posit the obvious rhetorical query as we look around the church today, some 160 years later? Does the preaching and teaching of sound theological truths and fundamental doctrine seem to grip our pulpits and flocks today? How many of the “seekers” to whom we’ve been “sensitive” can even provide a reasonable list, much less, a thoughtful explanation, of perhaps half a dozen doctrines, drawn from the preaching they’ve heard, or the teaching they’ve received in today’s typical evangelical church?
The second point of note is drawn from page 48 of the biography:
“But, like Whitfield, Spurgeon did not make the gathering of a crowd his first interest. In view of the spiritual warfare in which the Christian is placed, he was concerned first of all that his people learn truly to pray.”
I’m sure you see the point from this. The obedient, sanctifying skills of the flock, especially in prayer, were far more important – and Biblically drawn as such – to Spurgeon than his motivation to “grow the church” or “build the brand.” Yet, by the time of his 25th anniversary celebration as pastor of Metropolitan Tabernacle, no less than 66 vibrant, globe-reaching ministries were in place from this single – not “multi-site” – congregation.
Dallimore emphasizes throughout, from contemporary-to-Spurgeon commentary, the humility with which Spurgeon served. He was in the limelight, to be certain, but it shone upon him because of what God was doing through the faithfulness to His Word, Spurgeon’s desire for the spiritual growth of his flock, and his keen understanding of the reality of spiritual things – the sheep he tended were targets of the enemy.
For us today, the vacuum caused by the loss of these two fundamentals has been filled with a plethora of counterfeit replacements. After all, counterfeiting is what the enemy does.
In place of sound doctrine and rich, systematized theological preaching and teaching, we have Christianized pop psychology, mystically-flavored emotionalism, and countless bullet-pointed tomes of sound-byte platitudes that offer solutions for your every practical and spiritual dilemma.
Instead of Biblically-instructed, Scripture-rich prayer, we have heresies like Jesus Calling hurled at pew sitters who think that Jesus will talk to them over their morning lattes. Spiritual warfare has become something akin to a gamer’s other-dimensional video world of spiritualized, emotions-driven adventure. You get points for every time you got to bind a demon this week, but you get none for “abiding in my Word.”
Like I said, Dallimore’s biography of the great man is well worth your read, but not because the man was great. Were he among us today, I’m certain Spurgeon would vigorously defer any laudatory praise he’d surely garner as the greatest of mega-preachers, denying himself any credit or praise-worthiness. Rather, he would point to the faithfulness of the God he served.
Fundamentally, what Spurgeon proved for his congregation then – and for the astute observer today – is the one issue that so many evangelical churches, including those in my own Southern Baptist Convention – will affirm, but won’t engage … the sufficiency of Scripture.
Spurgeon knew that the mission Christ has given us in His Word is fully capable of being accomplished with the method He has given us in His Word.
It’s just what the Bible promises. Instead of merely saying we believe it, maybe, like Spurgeon, we ought instead to actually be “doers.” The Word actually is sufficient. Spurgeon proved it … forgive us, Lord, for trying to prove him wrong.
Spurgeon: A New Biography by Arnold Dallimore, published by The Banner of Truth Trust, copyright 1985.
Another highly recommended resource – one that goes into more detail of Spurgeon’s lamentable “downgrade controversy” – is The Forgotten Spurgeon by Iain Murray, also published by The Banner of Truth Trust, copyright 1966.
Contributed by Bud Ahlheim
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