Charles Haddon Spurgeon: A Witness For Today
Many of you have read a good deal by Charles Haddon Spurgeon and you are aware that millions of words have been written about him. He could very well be the subject of a whole series of addresses without any repetition, so that all I can do, is to give some leading features of his life in the hope that we will be helped to possess something of the spirit of the man whom God so used a century ago.
A Preacher in a Palace
Let us begin by going back to a scene which occurred in London on October 7, 1857. In India Sepoy troops had recently mutinied. Terrible barbarities had been inflicted not only on British soldiers but on their families and children and October 7 was therefore appointed by the government in London as a fast day, a day of solemn humiliation and prayer before Almighty God. While most churches in London held services the Directors of the Crystal Palace proposed something which had never been attempted before. They decided that the vast building for which they were responsible should also be used for a Christian service and that the Rev. C. H. Spurgeon be asked to preach. October 7, 1857 was a cold wet morning. Special trains began to run from 7.30 in the morning taking people to the Crystal Palace which was about eight miles south of the centre of London. By 12 noon, the hour when the service was to begin, 23,600 people had assembled. The Crystal Palace had originally been put up for the great exhibition in 1851. It was an amazing building, built mainly of glass, over 1,000 feet long and 175 feet high. On the stroke of twelve o'clock Spurgeon climbed the steps into the pulpit which had been erected for the purpose. Short in stature — not more than five feet six inches tall, his black hair was swept back from his boyish face, and he wore the big collar and tie which he liked in those early years. Obviously a considerable number of people could not see him but in the opening invocation, a short prayer, his voice was heard right throughout the building and without any microphone. Some who heard Spurgeon described his voice as a flute, as a silver bell, as winning as a woman's. Others said it was like a trumpet or an organ. The truth is that the voice heard as 12 o'clock struck was all these things.
After prayer the congregation sang:
Before Jehovah's awful throne,
Ye nations, bow with sacred joy.
Then followed the reading and a comment on Daniel's confession, in Daniel chapter 9. After further praise and prayer Spurgeon began,
Hoping to receive the help of God's Spirit, I shall now proceed to address you from a part of the ninth verse of the 6th chapter of Micah, "Hear ye the rod and who hath appointed it".
Spurgeon does not tell us how he was led to that text but we know it was his practice never to preach on a text that did not 'bite'. Only when a verse began to bite would he begin to consider it as a text for the pulpit. It was just such a text which he had on this occasion and his opening sentences gave the direction in which he was going to go. 'This world is not the place of punishment for sin, it may sometimes be a place', and, he went on to declare, there are rods used to smite nations for their sins. They were gathered, he said, to humble themselves before God and it was his duty as a servant of God to point them to some of the sins which required repentance. First, he instanced the toleration of immorality in public. Second, he proceeded to the sin of the oppression of the poor:
Behold this day the sins of the rich: how are the poor oppressed! How are the needy down-trodden! In many a place the average wage of men is far below their value to their masters. In this age there is many a great man who looks upon his fellows as only stepping-stones to wealth. He builds a factory as he would make a cauldron. He is about to make a brew for his own wealth.
Then the preacher's voice changed and he spoke as one of these mighty factory-builders finding supply for his cauldron: 'Pitch him in, he's only a poor clerk, he can live on a hundred a year. Put him in! There is a poor time-keeper: he has a large family; it does not matter; a man can be had for less: in with him! Here are the tens, the hundreds, and the thousands that must do the work, Put them in; heap the fire; boil the cauldron; stir them up; never mind their cries. The hire of the labourers kept back may go up to heaven; it does not matter, the millions of gold are safe. The law of demand and supply is with us, who is he that would interfere? who shall dare to prevent the grinding of the faces of the poor? Cotton-lords and great masters ought to have the power to do what they like with the people'.
Then, with changed voice the preacher went on:
Ah! but ye great men of the earth, there is a God, and that God hath said, He executes righteousness and judgment for all that are oppressed.
Spurgeon then turned to the reasons why the poor also had need to humble themselves:
There are hundreds of you who are here today with the best hands in all the world, you prop up walls when you ought to be busy at your work, who when your time is bought and paid for steal it for something else. And how many there are in what are called "lower ranks'' — and God forgive the man who invented that word for we are none of us lower than the other before the Judge of all the earth — how many are there who do not know what it is to look up to God and say, "Though He has made me a servant I will discharge my duty and I will serve my master and serve my God with all my might".
The preacher then went on to speak of the sins of the church:
O, church of God, the rod has fallen and the church ought to hear it. I am afraid it is the church that has been the greatest sinner. Do I mean by "the church" that is established by law? No, I mean the Christian church as a body. We, I believe, have been remiss in our duty; for many and many a year pulpits never condescended to men of low estate. Our ministers were great and haughty; they understood the polish of rhetoric, they had all the grandeur of logic; to the people they were blind guides and dumb dogs, for the people knew not what they said, neither did they regard them. The churches themselves slumbered; they wrapped themselves in a shroud of orthodoxy, they have slept right on; and, whilst Satan was devouring the world, and taking his prey, the church sat still and said, "Who is my neighbour?" and did not arouse herself to serve her God.
Thus Spurgeon continued until he came to the application of which I can only give you a few sentences:
Oh! my hearers, permit me to charge home to your hearts; and would God that he would make the charge of my language against your consciences as heavy as the charge of British soldiers against the enemy! How many of you have been awakened, convinced of sin, of righteousness and of judgment! How many times have you vowed you would repent! How many times have you declared that you did hear the rod, and that you would turn to God! And yet you have been liars to the Almighty ... God may smite you yet; and if today you are despisers of Christ, remember, you have no guarantee you will be in this world another hour ... Oh! if I might have some souls won to Christ today, what would I give? What is all this great gathering to me? It is an extra labour, that is all. For this I do not labour. God is my witness, I sought you not; never once have I said a thing to cause a smile from any man. When God first sent me to the ministry he bade me fear no man and I have not yet met the man to whom I have feared to tell of God's truth.
There were many notable thing s about that service on that October day in 1857. For one thing, when Spurgeon got home to his house that Wednesday evening, he slept through solidly till Friday morning. Another incident connected with this occasion was reported many years later. A Christian man, then at the end of his life, was speaking to a friend of his conversion. He said it began in this way: 'One day in October 1857 I was a workman working in the Crystal Palace and I was doing a job in one of the galleries when the rest of the building was empty. Suddenly, as if from nowhere, I heard a voice which said, "Behold the Lamb of God which taketh away the sin of the world"'. It was a few days before October 7 and Spurgeon had gone there to test the acoustics of the building! His was the voice which resounded through the empty hall and to which this man, many years later, attributed the beginning of his conviction of sin.
But I have not yet told you what I think is the most remarkable fact of all. The man who climbed the pulpit that day was twenty-two years of age and the sermon you will find in just the third volume of his Sermons.1There were another sixty volumes of the New Park Street and Metropolitan Tabernacle series still to come at that date! Through more than another thirty years Spurgeon was to go on preaching in London and then, for a quarter-century after his death, right down to 1917, a volume of his sermons continued to be published every year— sixty-three volumes in all.
Someone may be inclined to think that was a sort of 19th-century publishing phenomenon, something that simply could not happen today. But it is happening today, for these very sixty-three volumes have been reprinted in recent years and in all parts of the world people are reading Spurgeon. I had a friend, now dead, who used to travel in Eastern Europe. He understood the language of Poland and of other East European countries very well and one place he visited in Poland was the home of a Roman Catholic priest. He was made very welcome and had every reason to think that this priest was a true Christian. On the last occasion when they were together, the priest confessed that the sermons which he preached were Spurgeon's! Only this year in Yugoslavia a volume of Spurgeon's sermons has been published in the Croat language.
A few years ago a Banner of Truth Trust public meeting was held in Glasgow and a young woman was invited by friends to attend. She had not long come under evangelical influences and knew very little, but her Christian friends had spoken so enthusiastically about Spurgeon that on the way to this meeting she asked one of them 'and will Mr. Spurgeon be speaking this evening?' She had heard so much about him that she assumed he was some contemporary minister that she could hear. The fact is that Spurgeon is being read today in many languages and especially in the English-speaking world.
A Summary of 57 Years
Now we turn to the main brief facts of Spurgeon's life. He was born June 19, 1834, at a house which still stands in Kelvedon, Essex. When he was some eighteen months old he was taken to his grandparents' home at Stambourne and he lived with them till he was about seven or eight years of age. Perhaps this arrangement was because of poverty in his parents home, or because of his mother's health; we cannot be sure 2 but the fact is that his grandparents had the greater share in his education, certainly through those early years of childhood. Then he went back to join his parents who had moved to Colchester. Both his grandfather and his father were ministers of the gospel, Congregational ministers. Spurgeon went to school in Colchester, then for a year to a school in Maidstone. He was then fourteen and he already seemed to know as much as his teacher so that at the age of fifteen he went to Newmarket as a tutor in a school there. A year later, in 1850, he went to tutor and help in a school in Cambridge and he stayed there till 1853.
At the age of sixteen he preached his first sermon. In 1851 he became the part-time pastor of the small Baptist church at Waterbeach, near Cambridge. The previous year he had been baptised by immersion, having become a convinced Baptist. Then in 1853 he was invited to preach in London. At the age of nineteen, a completely unknown figure, he went up to the capital and on December 18, 1853, his voice was first heard in London at New Park Street Chapel, Southwark. The congregation soon called him as their minister and in that congregation (which in 1861 moved to the Metropolitan Tabernacle) Spurgeon remained until his death on January 31, 1892. So he served for approaching 40 years in London. He died in the South of France, his health utterly broken, at the age of fifty-seven. That, in brief summary was his life — brought up in East Anglia, 'the Galilee of England' he used to call it; surrounded by a great deal of Puritan and Nonconformist influence, with godly parents and grandparents; preaching in London from 1854 till 1891; his last sermon at the Metropolitan Tabernacle in June 1891 and dying the following January.
Devotion to Christ
As I thought about this article my greatest difficulty was how to begin to cover the subject. I decided that one way to attempt it would be to take a few texts of Scripture and show how Spurgeon himself exemplified and lived out these particular texts. As you know he preached on a vast amount of Scripture and perhaps it is a little artificial to identify him with one or two particular texts but it seemed to me as I thought about it that some texts stand out as pointers to an understanding of Spurgeon. To put it another way, Spurgeon's life is a great confirmation of certain statements of Scripture. Unquestionably the first of these texts or statements has to be 1 Peter 2:7: 'Unto you therefore which believe he is precious.' That text merits a first place not simply because it was the first text of Spurgeon's first sermon at Teversham near Cambridge, but rather because his whole life and ministry illustrates the devotion to Christ which lies at the heart of Christian experience.
'Unto you therefore which believe he is precious'. How did the Lord Jesus Christ become precious to Spurgeon? He tells us that as a child he laboured for some five years under conviction of sin, under a sense of his lostness and his need. 'For years', he says, 'I sought pardon and I found it not'. Some of his biographers have been amazed that a boy so well brought up in a Christian home should have had such a prolonged experience of lostness and sin but so it was and let me read you something of his testimony. Here he is preaching on the name of Christ as 'Wonderful':
Let me tell the story of my own wonderment at Christ. There was a time when I wondered not at Christ. I heard of his beauties but I had never seen them, I heard of his power but it was nothing to me. It was news of something done in a far country. I had no connection with it and I never observed it as wonderful. But once upon a time there came one to my house of a black and terrible aspect. He smote the door, I tried to bolt it, to hold it fast. He smote it again and again until at last he entered and with a rough voice he summoned me before him and he said, "I have a message from God for thee; thou art condemned because of thy sins". I looked at him with astonishment. I asked him his name. He said, "My name is the law" and I fell at his feet as one who was dead — Romans 7:9: "For I was alive without the law once: but when the commandment came, sin revived, and I died". As I lay there he smote me.
Spurgeon goes on to describe what he felt in his heart in those five years from about the age of ten years onwards. Finally, he says:
There came one by me of a sorrowful but loving aspect and he stooped over me and said, "Awake thou that sleepest and arise from the dead and Christ shall give thee light". I rose in astonishment and he took me and led me to a place where stood a cross and he seemed to vanish from my sight but he appeared again hanging on that tree.
Then he went on to describe what happened as he looked at Christ:
The broken bones rejoiced, the wounds were healed, the rags that covered me were taken off. I had melody within my spirit for I was saved, washed, cleansed, forgiven through him that hung upon the tree and Oh! how I wondered that I should be pardoned. His name then to my spirit was Wonderful.
If you read in Spurgeon's Autobiography the letters in his Diary when he was just fifteen years of age you will see exactly what he meant. He was converted in Colchester on January 6, 1850. Writing to his mother a few weeks later he says, 'I feel now as if I could do everything and give up everything for Christ and then I know it would be nothing in comparison with his love'. Writing of those early days in his Christian life he said, 'I used to rise with the sun that I might get time to read gracious books, and to seek the Lord. I could scarcely content myself even for five minutes without trying to do something for Christ'. That was the spirit of Spurgeon in the year 1850 — obedience to Christ, consecration to Christ. His time, his talents, all that he was he henceforth happily sought to give to the Lord Jesus.
Spurgeon's sense of the preciousness of Christ could be illustrated in many ways. Early in 1852 Dr Joseph Angus visited Cambridge. Angus was the Principal of Stepney College and a famous Nonconformist among the Baptists in London. A number of persons had recommended that Spurgeon be trained in this College and so it was arranged that Spurgeon would meet the Principal while he was in Cambridge. The time and place were fixed and Spurgeon went to the house at the appointed time. He was shown to a room by a maid and there he sat for an hour or more awaiting the interview. But the maid who had shown him to the room had forgotten all about him. Perhaps she had gone off duty. Dr Angus was actually also waiting in the next room, uninformed of the young man's arrival. Before the mistake was discovered the busy Principal had got up and left and so they never met, not, at least, until many years later. Spurgeon who was already helping at the little chapel in Waterbeach, took this as an indication that God did not mean him to go to London and undertake formal training. Instead he began serving the Lord Jesus Christ in a humble way in a country chapel. He was living the text, 'Unto you therefore which believe he is precious', and the story of his subsequent life could be summed up by saying that God wonderfully enabled him to maintain his first love to his Saviour.
Just before Spurgeon died in 1892 his wife was with him in Menton and some of the last words he spoke to her were these, 'Oh wifie, I had a blessed time with the Lord'. To be devoted to Christ, to love Christ, to do all for Christ, this was the first thing in his life as a Christian and by God's grace he was sustained to the end. No more fitting words could have been inscribed on his grave in London than those of William Cowper — words that C. H. S. had so often repeated:
E'er since by faith I saw the stream
Thy flowing wounds supply,
Redeeming love has been my theme,
And shall be till I die.
The Recovery of Preaching
To take you to another aspect of Spurgeon's life, there is a second text which readily comes to mind.
It is Romans 10:14, 15:
How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in him whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach except they be sent?
When Spurgeon began preaching in London in 1854 it was a time when there was a certain feeling of change and transition in the air. There was a mood of uncertainty. The great preachers that followed the Methodist Revival had almost all gone. Those who remained were an old brigade. A new generation of preachers were now on the scene; perhaps more learned than their predecessors, and certainly more polished. They were not lacking in culture, education, or even eloquence, but somehow there was a lack of power and authority. The pulpit had become a place where men tended to read their sermons. People were no longer moved by preaching as they had once been. Then into this situation came a nineteen-year-old nobody from East Anglia who did not preach as most men were preaching. In his emphasis on the doctrines of grace he was preaching what had been preached one hundred and two hundred years before. His voice recalled afresh the days of Whitefield; it seemed to introduce a new era, a new age, in the capital's religious life. All that Spurgeon himself was conscious of in this regard was that God had sent him to preach. That was his one concern. God had called him and he was given some consciousness of the greatness, power and love of the God in whose Name he spoke. In sincerity he could say, 'I always try to enter the pulpit saying, "God be merciful to me a sinner"'. In later years he told his students that they must go into the pulpit as messengers from God and he often repeated, 'if the church despises preaching God will despise the church'. He believed that gospel preaching was the pre-eminent instrument which God had ordained for the conversion of men, for the turning of the world upside down. If not in words, at least by their attitudes, there were those in the churches of the 1850's who were beginning to doubt the statement in Romans 10:14, 15. Men were giving attention to literature, to writing and to other things but the authority of the pulpit was being lost. So with Spurgeon there was something new and something arresting. Here was a man speaking from the conviction that he had a divine commission, who believed that God had ordained that the Word should be preached to everyone. It was the very strength of this belief which so astonished Spurgeon's critics.
In the 1850's there was, of course, a great deal of church going. But it was often localised. In London the professional classes and mercantile classes, as they were called, generally went to church and they mostly lived in the same areas. There were other areas of London where few attended churches — costermongers, clerks, artisans, poor people, small shop keepers who kept their shops open to early afternoon on Sunday and then filled up the rest of the day with entertainment or pleasure of one kind or another. These people were packed by their thousands into the South of London — in the location which became the heart of Spurgeon's parish. His church was not built up in one of the areas where there were already many church goers. The 5,000 who came to fill the Metropolitan Tabernacle were mostly from districts where there was little church going. His was literally a mission church. It was said in later years that about two-thirds of Spurgeon's congregation were working-class people. Nor had they been gathered from other churches, as too often happens in mega-churches today. The majority came from a background devoid of spiritual blessings. As a preacher, Spurgeon was first of all an evangelist and in the thirty-eight years of his industry he admitted into church membership 14,691 men and women.
There is not the time now to talk of the evangelistic side of Spurgeon's preaching. If you have his sermons, look him up on texts such as, 'him that cometh unto me I will in no wise cast out'. Spurgeon loved that 'him' — it doesn't matter if he is rich or poor, costermonger or whoever he is, 'him that cometh unto me', will be welcomed. Or look him up on John 7:37, 'If any man thirst let him come unto me and drink'. Upon texts of this kind he never tired of preaching. And each hearer seemed to feel he was talking to them. Spurgeon broke with what had become a traditional pulpit manner and spoke to people as though he was conversing with them in their own home.
I have a book here entitled Preachers and Preaching, published in 1858,3and written by a learned gentleman of the name of Henry Christmas. In this book he is pleased to put Spurgeon under the heading of Eccentric Preaching. He deplores how 'vulgar' this young man could be and how colloquial, and one instance of the kind of language he regarded as beneath the dignity of the pulpit was this. He complained that Spurgeon had been heard to say, 'If you were on your way home and you found a crowd of boys throwing stones, you would shout at them and tell them to clear off, but if you found that one of those boys was your own son, why you would say, Come here, John, and you would smack him.' Spurgeon had been illustrating the point that God deals specially with his own children. Henry Christmas was shocked that a preacher could use such 'undignified language' in the pulpit!
There is a marvellous sermon which Spurgeon preached in 1858 called 'The Spies'. Its subject, drawn from Numbers, chapters 13 and 14, is the men who went into Canaan and gave an evil report of it. His second heading in the sermon is on the bad spies. Who are the bad spies of modern times? he asks. The first lot are dull and dreary professing Christians who talk as though the Scripture says, 'Groan in the Lord always and again I say groan'. Spurgeon imagines himself going to the home of one of those dreary Christians where he catechizes the children about their father's religion. 'Oh,' they say, 'we don't know anything about our father's religion but he doesn't let us laugh and he makes us pull down the blinds on Sunday'. Then he asks the wife. She says, 'He used to be gloomy before he professed religion but he's worse now'. Well, applying a text in this manner was very unusual in a London pulpit, the more so as the preacher was only twenty-two years of age.
Faith's Way of Increase
Another text which always reminds me of Spurgeon is Proverbs 11:24: 'There is that scattereth, and yet increaseth; and there is that witholdeth more than is meet, but it rendeth to poverty'. In the world's view, constant outlay and giving leads to loss; for the Christian it is the way to the riches of greater usefulness. In Spurgeon's phrase, 'Faith's way of gaining is giving'. Certainly he 'scattered'! One hundred million of his sermons printed before 1900; author of some 150 books, including 28 annual volumes of The Sword and the Trowel — to sustain quality amid such an output would have been entirely impossible without divine grace. Left to himself Spurgeon would have reached the bottom of the barrel long before his death. But the Word of God was proved true: expending all that he had, his resources multiplied. 'There is that scattereth, and yet increaseth'.
Many testimonies exist to the fact that Spurgeon's preaching increased in value. An American by the name of Wilkinson, for example, heard Spurgeon preach when he was twenty-four. Nearly thirty years later he was again in London and as he hurried to the Metropolitan Tabernacle he got into conversation with a servant girl who was obviously going to the same place. To his enquiry concerning her pastor, the young woman replied, 'Mr. Spurgeon preaches better and better all the time'. When the service was over the same visitor was to hear other members of the congregation express the view, 'Our pastor is, we think, constantly improving in his preaching'. 'His popularity,' Wilkinson observed, 'so far from weakening, grew and advanced with successive years'.
The principle of Proverbs 11:24 went much further in Spurgeon than his preaching and writing. He scattered blessing in many other ways. He started a college and by the time of his death nine hundred men had been trained there for the gospel ministry at home and overseas. In London alone some of these men were responsible for the building of about forty churches. Spurgeon generally went to the College once a week on Friday afternoons to lecture to the students. Then there were two orphanages, one for girls and another for boys, for which he was responsible. He started a Society of Colporteurs and ninety-six men by the time of his death carried books and scattered tracts all round the British Isles. Then there was his constant travelling to help and encourage other churches. However did he do it? The secret is in part revealed in Solomon's words, 'There is that scattereth and yet increaseth.' The more he expended himself in the cause of God, the more he was strengthened.
In the same connection, think of Spurgeon's use of money. He was first given an honorarium for preaching at a little place in Essex where he preached three sermons. The senior deacon handed him eight shillings and nine pence for his labours. In his years at the Metropolitan Tabernacle Spurgeon's annual income grew to between twenty and thirty thousand pounds. Before you are shocked I need to tell you that of that income little remained at his death because almost everything that came in went out. His salary from the Metropolitan Tabernacle was paid back into God's work by one route or another. His money went constantly to the Orphanages, the College, the colporteurs, and also to a fund for books for poor ministers. At death he left no great endowments for his family or for anything else. This pleasure in giving to others was, of course, related to the fundamental motivation of his life.
As B. B. Warfield says:
Love is the great enlarger. It is love which stretches the intellect. He who is not filled with love is necessarily small, withered, shrivelled in his outlook on life and things.
Too much has sometimes been made of Spurgeon's humour but what is recorded in Proverbs 17:22 was too prominent in his life for us not to mention. That text reminds us, 'A merry heart doeth good like a medicine'. While this feature was in part a natural gift in Spurgeon, it was his conviction that every Christian has always good reason to be cheerful and thankful. Let it not be forgotten that he passed through great trials and sorrows. His wife Susannah was an invalid for most of their married life after the first ten years. His own health was often poor. In necessary public controversies he often passed through much anguish. But except for a few days of dark discouragement, he rarely lost hold of the truth that as Christians we have cause to rejoice. Of course his temperament came into it. William Williams, who was a close friend, said, 'Spurgeon had himself the most fascinating gift of laughter I ever knew in any man'. And he asks the question: 'Did not much of his power for usefulness lie in his bright and sunny disposition?' Certainly, it came into it. He was no joker in preaching but he did have a gift of humour and occasionally it would break out in undesigned ways. Once when preaching in an overcrowded country chapel a row of people were crammed on a bench at the back when it suddenly collapsed. In the resulting confusion Spurgeon was compelled to stop and to remind his hearers that, 'It is no use to trust in forms and ceremonies!' On many occasions Spurgeon could thus extricate himself from a momentary difficulty by the use of humour. Once he met a man whose name, as he ought to have remembered, was Mr. Patridge. But Spurgeon's memory slipped, if only by one letter of the alphabet, as he greeted the man with, 'Good day, Mr. Partridge'. 'Patridge,' replied the man. 'Oh,' said Spurgeon, 'I won't make game of you any more!' He could use his humour, too, in dealing with people with whom he feared it was impossible to reason. A good example of this is recorded by one of Spurgeon's friends who tells us that Spurgeon was a Liberal in his political views and that he had no sympathy with the pseudo-pietism which regards the duties of citizenship as outside the sphere of religion. At a General Election Spurgeon was on his way back from the polling station when he was met by a very devout gentleman who was shocked to hear that the preacher had been recording his vote. 'Oh, Brother Spurgeon,' came the protest, 'how can you do so? Do you not know that the new man does not vote?' 'No; it was the old man that voted,' said Spurgeon. 'Yes, but aren't we told to mortify the old man?' 'Well that's just what I did. I did mortify him. My old man's a Tory and I made him vote for the Liberals!'
Spurgeon also used this sense of fun with the students to drive lessons home or to make something stick in their minds. Speaking once of the necessity of knowing their people, and of being often in their homes, he said, 'some ministers are possessed with some of the attributes of divinity; they are invisible all the week and incomprehensible on the Sunday'. He would tell his students that some ministers have three hands, a left hand, a right hand, and a little-behind hand. 'Be punctual! I don't intend to be the late Mr. Spurgeon as long as I live.' 'A merry heart doeth good like a medicine'.
I have left to last what was for Spurgeon most important of all — the concern that he and every Christian should live and work for the praise and exaltation of God. Here a text which could be treated as a watchword in his life was Romans 3:4, 'Yea, let God be true, but every man a liar'. It was characteristic of him that on every dedication page of the New Park Street and Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit volumes stood the words:
To the one God of heaven and earth, in the Trinity of his sacred persons, be all honour and glory world without end, Amen. To the glorious Father, as the covenant God of Israel; to the gracious Son, the Redeemer of his people; to the Holy Ghost, the author of sanctification; be everlasting praise for that Gospel of the Free Grace of God herein proclaimed unto men.
As an illustration of what these words mean, listen a moment to Spurgeon preaching on 'the song of Moses' from Revelation 15:3.
Of this song, he says:
The first thing I would have you notice is this, that from beginning to end it is a praise of God, and nobody else but God. Moses, you have said nothing of yourself. O, great lawgiver, mightiest of men, did you not lead the thousands to battle, like a mighty commander? Is there not a word about you? Not one. The whole strain of the song is, "I will sing unto the Lord", from beginning to end. It is all praise of Jehovah; there is not one word about Moses, nor a single word in praise of the children of Israel. Dear friends, the last song in this world, the song of triumph, shall be full of God, and of no one else.
Without this key there is no understanding of Spurgeon's theology or ministry. 'To me,' he could say, 'Calvinism means the placing of the eternal God at the head of things ... if we live in sympathy with God, we delight to hear him say, "I am God, and there is none else"'. Throughout his preaching there runs a concern that God should be known and worshipped — as Creator, as Judge, as Sovereign, as Lawgiver, as the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ. He had been given to see something of the majesty and grace of God. The first text he took on his first visit to London, when he visited New Park Street in 1854, was James 1:17, 'The Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning'. The title of the first sermon in the first volume of the New Park Street Pulpit is 'The Immutability of God' ('I am the Lord, I change not, therefore ye sons of Jacob are not consumed' Malachi 3:6). Or pass on thirty-six years to the Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit volume for 1891— the last to be published in his lifetime — and at the head of those last sermons you will find 'Jehovah — Shammah: A Glorious Name for the New Year'.
One observer on Spurgeon's life says that the chief characteristic of his mind was docility and submissiveness. Not docility before men, he added, but before God. His whole attitude could be summarized in the words, 'Speak Lord, for thy servant heareth'. Those of you who have read about Spurgeon know something of that tremendous controversy which shortened his life, the Down-Grade controversy. What was that controversy all about? It was really about the truthfulness of God; it was about whether God's Word is dependable; it was about whether God is holy and whether he will punish sin.
There were those who said, 'We believe in the gospel but we don't believe it is necessary to believe everything in the Bible and we doubt very much whether God, who sent His Son, is a God who would do the things which parts of the Bible say he does'. Spurgeon burned with jealousy for the truth of God. He could say with Paul, 'Let God be true and every man a liar'. He knew that if men were allowed to divide the gospel from the Scripture then they would soon have no gospel left. The gospel can only be seen in the context of creation, and law, and judgment; it is only in the light of those facts that we can understand our need of the gospel. Sin is transgression of the law; Christ died for transgressors of that holy law. Spurgeon saw clearly what so many were failing to see, there is no gospel unless we can depend upon the truth revealed about God himself.
One last word on Romans 3:4. They reminded Spurgeon that popularity and success finally count for nothing. He would have been far from approving any presentation of his life which spoke of his success and implied that if we follow him we may be similarly successful. Oh, no! That is not how he saw it; he knew that there were other men in the 19th century with full churches and when the Down Grade controversy came, the reason that most ministers didn't side with him was that they believed that the current of public opinion was going the other way and they wanted to be in the current of popular public opinion. They supposed that what was being said about evolution and about Scripture made it essential that the Christian message should be accommodated to the age, otherwise they would lose their success and influence. Spurgeon said, 'Let God be true, but every man a liar.' Success in this world is not the test, nor popularity: what counts is that we stand on God's Word. 'Judge nothing before the time, before the Lord come'. 4
We have met the auspices of the Evangelical Library. It is a work in which Spurgeon would have rejoiced. He would have been the first to urge us to use good books. Let the parents, and especially the mothers, remember what good came to Spurgeon by the books read to him by his mother. The reason he was such a mature man when he was in his early twenties was that as a boy he had been nurtured on Scripture and on the best Christian literature. I know we live in a different age but as parents we also can receive the help of God towards cultivating in our children a love of good books. You who are no longer children — young people, students still at school or college, preparing for life's work, you have to give yourselves to good reading. Without it you will probably drift along with the present age. The reason Spurgeon did not do that, and stood out as a Christian, was in large measure due to the strength he gained from the authors who were his life-long companions. The Scripture says, 'He that walketh with wise men will be wise'. Spurgeon walked with wise and great men. Most of them — Reformers, Puritans and others had long passed from the earth but he mixed in their company' he knew their thoughts, and they spoke with him. Thus Spurgeon learned standards different from those which were common when he began to preach. It seemed as though suddenly there was a voice from God in an age of fashionable superficiality. Spurgeon had grown up in the company of some of God's great saints. We may not be called to preach but the same principle holds good. 'He that walks with wise men will be wise'. Some of you are so busy that you hardly have any time to read. My friends, we must find that time if we are to serve the cause of Christ as we should! If you are to be useful in this world you need a mind well-stocked with Christian truths and a heart moved by their power. If you don't use good books to gain that kind of strength then I don't know how you will do. Let us discipline ourselves and use the good books we find in the Evangelical Library.
Somebody once said about Spurgeon that perhaps he came nearer than any other man in history to making the most of what he could possibly be. Whether that be so or not, it is true that if we belong to Christ we are all called to make the most of what we can possibly be. To seek to live near to God, to seek more of the Holy Spirit, to be more faithful in our use of the Scriptures — these are the means by which we are to find the grace to do our 'generation work' in this age of great need. The God who has been the dwelling place of his people in all generations will surely be a present help to us.