Throughout the history of the church, God has called and equipped individuals to stand opposed to apostasy and indifference, which attempts to cause moral and doctrinal decay. During the late nineteenth century, such an occasion arose as many so-called English Baptist pastors became so infatuated with worldly pursuits that many churches stopped engaging in prayer meetings and some even went as far as hosting dramas in the house of God. Charles Haddon Spurgeon was the man God called and equipped to shine the light of truth on the moral and doctrinal decay of the nineteenth century, which sought not only to “downgrade” the Baptist denomination, but also the life-saving gospel message of Jesus Christ.
Spurgeon was a man of humble beginnings, but someone who the Lord used greatly to preserve and spread the Word of God. This paradigm is seen throughout Scripture, which always leads one to the conclusion that it could only have been God working through the individual to accomplish what had been done. By looking back to Spurgeon’s upbringing, influences, and calling to ministry, the aim of this paper will detail how Spurgeon developed his faith, which led to his strong convictions and captivating preaching style. In addition to the many contributions Spurgeon made to Baptists, this paper will also look at the climate of Darwinism and Liberalism and how these theories and philosophies impacted the church. Lastly, this paper will highlight the long-lasting impacts of the “Down Grade” controversy and the legacy Spurgeon has left behind. The commitment, exhibited by Spurgeon, to moral and doctrinal purity is just as relevant to the church today as it was during the nineteenth century. Just as there was a multiplicity of factors attempting to oppose or water down the message of the gospel, the climate of the present-day church is much the same, if not worse. It will take men and women with the zeal and commitment of Spurgeon to combat these forces, in an effort, to transform the world, instead of being conformed by it. There are some hills worth dying on and for Spurgeon this was evident in everything he practiced, preached, and his resolve in the “Down Grade” controversy.
Born into an Anglican household in Kelvedon, Essex, in 1834, Spurgeon would experience a life-changing conversion at a young age. God would use general revelation, in the form of a snowstorm to force Spurgeon to take shelter in Newtown, Colchester and it would be in a Methodist chapel that God illuminated the special revelation of His word, thus opening Spurgeon’s heart to the life-saving message of salvation. John Pitt further enlightens how, “Spurgeon’s conversion was as dramatic as any found in the history of Christian centuries and was entirely true to the evangelical tradition. Although only sixteen when the great transaction took place, young Spurgeon was under very deep conviction of sin – much like John Bunyan’s conversion experience, it was an emotional crisis of the most severe kind.” Spurgeon believed salvation required a radical change and, “This change is a thorough and sweeping one, and operates upon the heart, and life of the convert… [And] the Bible is meant for mankind, and our text refers to any man, of any country, and any age.” An early Scripture which captivated Spurgeon was Isaiah 45:22: “Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other.” Spurgeon and John Oswalt reveal how this passage illustrates, “There is a call to experience the same salvation that the Israelites have experienced. To be sure, that experience is predicated on a turning around and looking to the Lord in trust.” As a show of trust in God’s plan, Spurgeon moved to Cambridge, England where he engaged in teaching Sunday school. Not knowing what the future held for Spurgeon, his first sermon actually occurred by filling in for a friend and it was given in a small cottage in Teversham. Shortly after, Spurgeon would become the pastor of a small Baptist church in Waterbeach, Cambridgeshire, which is where his first published gospel tract was produced in 1853. Early in his ministry, his preaching style and ability stood him apart from his contemporaries and by the age of nineteen, Spurgeon would become the pastor of London’s largest Baptist congregation, the New Park Street Chapel. Over the course of his life, it is estimated Spurgeon preached close to four thousand sermons and has close to fifty published works ranging from commentaries to sermons and devotionals. Spurgeon’s style of preaching attracted crowds of up to ten thousand people at the young age of twenty-two. Each week, he would write out his sermons and at the pulpit he would simply use an outline of the message, while stenographers transcribed the sermon, which would later be sold for a penny. To this day, these publications remain one of the most widely circulated and best selling publications.
CONTRIBUTION TO BAPTISTS
Spurgeon practiced what he preached and he taught believers how to find instruction everywhere and even how to gather lessons from unpleasant circumstances. Spurgeon illustrates, “Many are stung by nettles, but few are taught by them. Some men are hurt by briers, but Solomon was improved by them, so do not begin stinging yourself with nettles, grip them firmly, and then use them for your soul’s health. Trials and troubles, worries and turmoils, little frets and little disappointments, may all help you if you will look upon them and receive instruction.” During his ministry, Spurgeon came under fire when he challenged the Church of England on the matter of baptismal regeneration, but due to his resolve, he never backed down. Craig Skinner reveals, “Theologically, Spurgeon’s greatest facility was his ability to declare the paradox of God’s will working in conjunction with man’s… reaching into heights and depths of argument and illustration well beyond many of his contemporaries.” He had an overly compassionate heart and believed firmly in the missional responsibility of the local church and Spurgeon was very good friends with James Hudson Taylor, the founder of the China Inland Mission. He was also very active in opposing slavery, which was a major issue facing America, which ultimately caused him to lose the support of the Southern Baptist Convention. Spurgeon believed:
Not so very long ago our nation tolerated slavery in our colonies. Philanthropists endeavored to destroy slavery; bat when was it utterly abolished? It was when Wilberforce roused the church of God, and when the church of God addressed herself to the conflict, then she tore the evil thing to pieces. I have been amused with what Wilberforce said the day after they passed the Act of Emancipation. He merrily said to a friend when it was all done, ‘Is there not something else we can abolish?’ That was said playfully, but it shows the spirit of the church of God. She lives in conflict and victory; her mission is to destroy everything that is bad in the land.
Just because something was popular or just because the majority was of the opinion the action was justified did not mean it was so in God’s eye and the debate over slavery was such an instance. Gregory Wills illuminates how Spurgeon’s ecclesiology rested squarely on the experience of regeneration. Wills explains, “[Spurgeon’s] commitment to the centrality of regeneration (new birth) shaped his ecclesiology from local polity to evangelical union. [Additionally,] Spurgeon’s church polity included three commitments: regenerate church membership, believer’s baptism, and congregational church polity.” These three pillars of the church were fundamental in Spurgeon’s organizational methods and he believed each of these was revealed in Scripture. Regeneration was where Spurgeon’s Baptist identity grew out from, but because of his stand for orthodoxy, he would eventually withdraw from the Baptist Union in 1887. This was in part due to the Baptist Union allowing modernist ministers in its membership, which Spurgeon believed weakened regeneration. Wills further demonstrates, “As modernism grew more popular, American Baptists based their ecclesiology increasingly on evangelical essentials, [so] when Spurgeon withdrew, the hailed him as a great Baptist Champion.”
Spurgeon believed Christ established the church according to a pattern, which made the polity of the church a matter of revelation and not one of expediency. This led to a Tabernacle process, which examined the life, character, and testimony of applicants before membership was granted. Spurgeon also held to the notion that Christ required congregational church government or independency. This would allow a certain level of autonomy, thus allowing churches the capability of exercising all the functions of a church of Christ. Spurgeon also believed each church should be able to appoint a minister instead of the common ordination process. He also believed in the distinction between elders and deacons of the church. Elders, he believed, should counsel others and help those searching for the way to salvation and also care for the sick and needy. Deacons, then, should be responsible for the finances, logistics of the service, and the maintaining of church discipline. Pitts adds, “Spurgeon’s ministry was Christo-centric, [because] for him, every road led to Christ. However he dealt with a text – and he was a master of the art of homiletics – it was always full of the gospel; and no sermon ended without bringing the hearers face-to-face with the claims and challenge of the Lord of all Good Life.” Interestingly, Spurgeon would not offer a traditional altar call at the conclusion of his services; instead, he would invite them to come back on Monday to visit him in his office. However, he would invite those down who had already made a commitment to following and serving the Lord.
DOWN GRADE CONTROVERSY
William Estep illuminates how, “Spurgeon lived in an age conditioned by an intellectual and a religious climate quite different from our own.” With his tremendous fame and the high-demand for his sermons, he encountered some harsh criticism, especially in the climate and landscape of Darwinism and Liberalism. Spurgeon saw through the facade and recognized how these theories and philosophies were attempting to weaken the Baptist faith. These were hills worth dying on and Spurgeon believed, “Assuredly the New Theology can do no good towards God or man; it, has no adaption for it. If it were preached for a thousand years by all the most earnest men of the school, it would never renew a soul, nor overcome pride in a single human heart.” Leon McBeth cites the “Down Grade” as being the most serious controversy faced by the English Baptists in the late nineteenth century. McBeth then reveals how, “The controversy broke out in London and swirled around two outstanding Baptist leaders, Charles Haddon Spurgeon and John Clifford. Historians reckon that the controversy ended with the death of Spurgeon in 1892, but its consequences have still continued.” The controversy led to a split from the Union, resulting in Spurgeon’s church being the largest self-standing church. Against this backdrop, Dennis Swanson explains, “At the height of the Down-Grade Controversy Spurgeon and others created and signed a statement of faith stating the doctrines that distinguished them from those in the Baptist Union who were on the “down grade.” In 1891, The Sword and Trowel published the statement, which dealt with the inspiration and authority of the Scriptures.” Swanson then expounds how the “Down Grade” Controversy might have begun with the publication of two articles in Spurgeon’s widely distributed monthly journal, The Sword and Trowel, but were actually the product of Spurgeon’s close friend Robert Shindler. It was in this publication that Spurgeon, “Inserted a footnote on the first page of each of the “Down Grade” articles where he called for ‘earnest attention’ on the part of the readers, with the urgent warning that ‘we are going down hill at break-neck speed.’” The first article addressed the issue of nonconformist churches falling prey to theological error and despite the churches being established as Calvinistic in faith, rarely would any last past two to three generations. Swanson then shows how, “The second article continued the discussion of theological “Down Grade” concentrating on the Baptist churches [pointing out] earlier church leaders, although themselves sound in doctrine, had not been sufficiently bold to confront error.” Spurgeon and Shindler believed, “The first step astray is a want of adequate faith in the divine inspiration of the sacred Scriptures. All the while a man bows to the authority of God’s Word, he will not entertain any sentiment contrary to its teaching.” On the last point of a departure from Calvinistic doctrine, Shindler and Spurgeon seem more concerned about adhering to core evangelical truths and biblical inspiration than adhering to Calvinism. It also seems clear that Spurgeon had no aim in reopening old wounds over the Calvinist-Arminian debates. In fact, Spurgeon actually wrote, “The present struggle is not a debate upon the question of Calvinism or Arminianism, but of the truth of God versus the inventions of men. All who believe the gospel should unite against that ‘modern thought’ which is its deadly enemy.” During the entire controversy, Spurgeon is consistently seen striving for unity, but not at the expense of compromising the gospel message or core doctrinal beliefs. Even when he withdrew from the Union, it was done in an endeavor to maintain unity. The Union did not feel the same and issued a vote of censure against Spurgeon as a final blow in the controversy, leading many to revere him as a martyr to the faith.
Throughout the Down Grade controversy, Swanson explains how the charge was made that “Spurgeon was motivated by his desire to force conformity within the Union to his Calvinistic theology.” At this point in the controversy, Spurgeon was surprised by the reaction his articles had received and in many ways by the lack of any reaction. Spurgeon grieved, “A new religion has been initiated, which is no more Christianity than chalk is cheese.” However, Spurgeon steadfastly refuted this charge, declaring: “Certain antagonists have tried to represent the ‘Down-Grade’ controversy as a revival of the old feud between Calvinists and Arminians. It is nothing of the kind. Many evangelical Arminians are as earnestly on our side as men can be.” Even when other Separatist Baptists tried to convince him to start a new denomination, he declined saying, “There are denominations enough. A new denomination would not be any safer than the old – heretics could enter a new one as well as an old.” Battling the moral and doctrinal decay within the denomination took a toll on Spurgeon, as Estep further explains how, “The Down Grade Controversy took a greater toll on Spurgeon’s life and ministry than any other similar experience, [yet] when the Baptist leaders asked for documentation [proving Spurgeon’s claims,] he promised to protect the anonymity of his informer, Samuel Harris Booth, Secretary of the Union.” Sworn to confidentiality, Spurgeon was a man of his word and never named names. McBeth believes, “Spurgeon’s refusal to name those who had embraced heresy may have grown out of Spurgeon’s belief if he named them, it would have introduced personalities into the discussion. Further, he pointed out that the Baptist Union had no doctrinal standard except a belief in immersion. [Ultimately,] Spurgeon wanted the Union to adopt a doctrinal statement.” This would have ended the controversy, united the Union, and quite possible extended the life of Spurgeon who died in 1892 at the age of fifty-seven.
In the second article, Spurgeon gave specific examples of how tolerance had led to disaster, writing that the, “Tadpole of Darwinism was hatched in a pew of the old chapel in High Street, Shrewsbury, where Charles Darwin had received his religious training and was first introduced to skepticism by a pastor who was enthralled with Socinianism.” Shindler and Spurgeon attributed the common denominator for those caught up in the “Down Grade” being:
The first step astray is a want of adequate faith in the divine inspiration of the sacred Scriptures. All the while a man bows to the authority of God’s Word, he will not entertain any sentiment contrary to its teaching. ‘To the law and to the testimony,’ is his appeal concerning every doctrine. He esteems that holy Book, concerning all things, to be right, and therefore he hates every false way. But let a man question, or entertain low views of the inspiration and authority of the Bible, and he is without chart to guide him, and without anchor to hold him.
Swanson explains, “During the years of the Down Grade Controversy, Spurgeon repeatedly warned of six areas of “down grade” in evangelical doctrine:
(1) The denial of the verbal inspiration (that is, the inerrancy) of Scripture. (2) The denial of eternal punishment and the affirmation of universalism. (3) The denial of the Trinity, mainly in terms of the rejection of the personality of the Holy Spirit. (4) The movement toward Socinianism or the denial of the deity of Christ and original sin. (5) The denial of the creation account in Genesis in favor of evolution. (6) The unhealthy influence of higher criticism on biblical scholarship, particularly as it relates to the Old Testament.
Spurgeon then summarized his position on the theological trends of his day, stating:
Look at the church of the present day; the advanced school, I mean. In its midst we see preachers who have a form of godliness, but deny the power thereof. They talk of the Lord Jesus, but deny his Godhead, which is His power; they speak of the Holy Spirit, but deny His personality, wherein lies His very existence. They take away the substance and power from all the doctrines of revelation, though they pretend still to believe them. They talk of redemption, but they deny substitution, which is the essence of it; they extol the Scriptures, but deny their infallibility, wherein lies its value; they use the phrases of orthodoxy, and believe nothing in common with the orthodox.
In the third article, the tone took on a sense of urgency, as Shindler continued firing volleys against those engaged in apostasy and Spurgeon warned how this new religion had turned the church into a playhouse, as many were being used for dramas and entertainment purposes. There was plenty of blame to go around; however, Spurgeon placed it firmly on the preachers and modernists, who he believed were destroying the church. MacArthur explains how the focus of the controversy changes because now Spurgeon was suggesting that true believers might have reason to sever ties with those who were propagating the new theology. “In [Spurgeon’s] estimation, the truth of the Word had been so seriously compromised that true Christians needed to consider the command of 2 Corinthians 6:17: ‘Come out of their midst and be separate; and do not touch what is unclean.’” After this, Spurgeon had become utterly obsessed and consumed by the controversy, leading to a decline in his physical health, which the Union used to attack Spurgeon, claiming his rants were that of a desperate and sick man. These personal attacks only fueled Spurgeon’s tenacity, especially considering, an answer or response to the allegations had still not been given by the Union. Spurgeon, a master of illustrations equated what was going on to, “The house is being robbed, its very walls are being dug down, but the good people who are in bed are too fond of the warmth, and too much afraid of getting broken heads, to go downstairs and meet the burglars; they are even half vexed that a certain noisy fellow will spring his rattle, or cry, ‘Thieves!’” The final compromise would revolve around the Union Council adopting a creed. The once popular “no creed but Christ” was no longer enough because as Spurgeon highlighted, “The objection to a creed is a very pleasant way of concealing objection to discipline, and a desire for latitudinarianism. What is wished for is a Union which will, like Noah’s Ark, afford shelter both for the clean and for the unclean, for creeping things and winged fowls.” However, even when a doctrinal statement was adopted, it was vague and bland, due to last minute modifications. MacArthur further demonstrates how, “Just as Spurgeon had warned all along, nothing was to be gained by compromising with the enemies of the gospel. The Baptist Union’s decline was, if anything, accelerated and those who embraced the ‘New Theology’ were emboldened after the Union Assembly, as they now held the reins of the Union.” The ripple effects of this controversy have lasting impacts to this day.
The prince of preachers has left a rich legacy behind. Spurgeon never sugarcoated any message and he always spoke to the heart of the matter. He wanted his listeners to understand, “There is a disease upon you which has already brought you down to spiritual death, and will bring you down to hell. The most moral of you, the most amiable of you, unless Jesus shall look upon you in love, is carrying about within himself a plague of the heart which will be your eternal ruin; Jesus must save you, or you are lost. Man’s only home is to come from Him.” In many of his sermons, illustrations were used to allow light to shine upon the biblical truth being conveyed. Spurgeon said, “There exists no reason why the preaching of gospel should be a miserable task either to the speaker or the hearer. Pleasantly profitable let all our sermons be. A house must not have thick walls without openings, neither must a discourse be all made up of solid slabs of doctrine without a window of comparison or lattice of poetry.” Out of Spurgeon’s immense devotion to God arose a charitable heart towards social concerns. Rooted in this construct, David Duke demonstrates, “The three pillars of Spurgeon’s social concern rest upon: his call for absolute devotion to God in Christ; his concern for the salvation of individual souls; and his emphasis on Christian character which develops from the new nature found in Christ.” Duke reveals how Spurgeon’s life was lived so deeply in Scripture that, “He could not escape the powerful calls for justice and peace, [and] while his primary concern was for individual souls, his compassion for all souls in every dimension of their lives compelled him to speak fervently for radical changes in the attitudes of his society and Union.” Spurgeon always sought the moral high ground in this fight against modernism, but the Baptist Union would never be the same. Spurgeon’s cost in this fight was great, as his friends turned against him, his health declined, and the church he loved was corrupted. While some questioned Spurgeon’s departure from the Union, MacArthur equates Spurgeon staying in the Union to Abraham staying in Ur, in the hope of converting the entire household out of which he was called. Following Spurgeon’s passing, Shindler brilliantly encapsulates the heart and desire of Spurgeon when he wrote, “May the Lord graciously purge His Church of all false doctrine, all false teachers, and all who are traitors in the camp of Israel! And may the Spirit from on high be poured out upon all flesh, that all the ends of the earth may see, and own, and rejoice in, the salvation of our God!”
During the late nineteenth century, as many so-called English Baptist pastors became so infatuated with worldly pursuits that many churches stopped engaging in prayer meetings and some even went as far as hosting dramas in the house of God, Charles Haddon Spurgeon arose as the man of God who was called and equipped to shine the light of truth on the moral and doctrinal decay. The “downgrade” of the Baptist denomination, was a hard fought war, one in which ultimately took years off the life of the protagonist. Spurgeon himself warned everyone, “There is truth and there is error and these are opposite the one to the other. Do not indulge yourselves in the folly with which so many are duped-that truth may be error, and error may be truth, that black is white, and white is black, and that there is a whitey-brown that goes in between, which is, perhaps, the best of the whole lot.” Following Spurgeon’s passing, Estep illuminates how “Thomas Spurgeon was reported to have remarked to a Baptist leader that the Union had killed his father, whereupon, the leader replied, ‘and your father almost killed the Union.’” This controversy serves as a stark reminder that if one fails to stand for doctrinal purity, he or she will fall for anything. In today’s climate, tolerance and compromise have become the weapons being used to downgrade the moral and doctrinal purity of the gospel message.
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