The Gospel Focus of Charles Spurgeon
Article byApril 2012
Steven J. Lawson, The Gospel Focus of Charles Spurgeon (Orlando, FL: Reformation Trust, 2012). 127 pages.
Some years ago, Dr. Al Mohler observed that, "We read biographies because worthy portraits of our fellow human beings help us to make sense of the world. We are especially fascinated by the lives of those who have made a difference in the world--whose mark remains visible even now. The lives of the famous and the infamous make for compelling reading."
Steve Lawson has written a compelling new biography of Charles Haddon Spurgeon where, in a short scope (127 pages), he opens up Spurgeon's life and ministry. Specifically, he focuses on how the doctrines of grace also known as Calvinism were the catalysts and fuel for Spurgeon's evangelistic fervor.
Often the charge is laid against those who affirm the doctrines of predestination and election that it is impossible to hold these beliefs and be evangelistic towards an unsaved world. Apart from this indictment being biblically flawed, church history also dispels this notion. For instance, such great evangelists as Whitefield, Edwards, and Lloyd Jones, etc. were all Calvinists. In this new book, Lawson adds another great name is to this venerable list: Charles Haddon Spurgeon.
In the Preface, Dr. Lawson discusses his first encounter with Spurgeon's writing more than 30 years ago. Lawson was first beginning to wrestle with how the doctrines of sovereign grace would affect his preaching. He asked, "If God is sovereign in salvation, why preach the gospel?" (xviii). Concerning what he learned from Spurgeon, Lawson writes,
Here is what captivated me. This gifted preacher, perhaps the greatest since the apostle Paul, was, by his own admission, a Calvinist--Reformed to the core, deeply committed to the doctrines of grace. But at the same time, he was an evangelist. How could these seemingly opposite realities fit together? How could one be both staunchly Calvinistic and passionately evangelistic? Spurgeon showed me. In one hand, he firmly held the sovereignty of God in man's salvation. With the other hand, he extended the free offer of the gospel to all. He preached straightforward Calvinistic doctrine, then, in the same sermon, fervently urged lost sinners to call on the name of the Lord"(xix).
What makes this book especially exciting is that it presents to an entire new generation of Calvinistic Christians the truth that both the doctrines of free and sovereign grace and the need to plead with people to be saved are not opposing doctrines. Rather they work hand-in-hand, as Spurgeon rightly maintained throughout the entirety of his ministry. When we preach to all men, we do so because we know that God has a people for Himself who will be saved. When we preach, we know that we are not on a fool's errand, but we go to the lost with zeal knowing that Christ's sheep will hear his voice and be drawn to him. Lawson records how well Spurgeon captured this thought when he says, "That is why we preach! If there was so many fish to be taken in the net, I will go and catch some of them. Because many are ordained to be caught, I spread my nets with eager expectation. I never could see why that should repress our zealous efforts. It seems to me to be the very thing that should awaken us to energy--that God has a people, and that these people shall be brought in" (85).
There is a delicate balance to be maintained here. If we focus on the one hand only on man's responsibility to come to Christ, we fall into the error of shallow Arminianism. On the other hand, if we focus only on God's predestinating work in salvation we fall into the error of Hyper-Calvinism. Both extremes are to be avoided at all cost, as Spurgeon rightly did. Lawson correctly notes that Spurgeon "... held these twin truths--divine sovereignty and human responsibility--because both are unmistakably taught in the Bible" (22).
The first chapter, "Spurgeon's Life and Legacy," provides a helpful overview of Spurgeon's life, dealing with such topics as his early years, the important influences in his life, his conversion, his call to the ministry, his great successes as a gospel minister, the enormous work that he accomplished for the Lord, and the countless battles that he fought throughout his life. The chapter concludes with the final days of Spurgeon's life and his eventual passing from this earth to glory.
Chapter two, "Unmistakable foundations," deals with Spurgeon's absolute commitment to the Bible as being the inspired, inerrant, Word of the living God. Dr. Lawson writes, "Spurgeon's strong belief in the doctrines of grace was firmly rooted and grounded in this truth. He did not proclaim the doctrines of sovereign grace simply because the Reformers or Puritans affirm them. Rather, he believed them because he found them clearly stated in the Bible. Though he considered himself a staunch Calvinist, Spurgeon asserted, 'I believe nothing merely because [John] Calvin taught it, but because I have found his teaching in the Word of God'" (19-20).
Lawson goes on to say, "Spurgeon's beliefs were found exclusively on what he saw plainly taught in Scripture. He was, as it were, the embodiment of sola Scriptura--Scripture alone" (20).
In chapter three, "Sovereign Grace," Dr. Lawson demonstrates to us how Spurgeon's gospel focused ministry was intimately connected to his commitment to the doctrines of grace. Lawson elucidates how each of the five points of Calvinism was applied by Spurgeon, helping him to be the effective evangelist that he was. Lawson affirms that, "Without question, the doctrines of sovereign grace were the foundation stones of Spurgeon's gospel ministry, was the high-octane fuel that powered his fiery preaching of the gospel. The marvelous truths of God's supreme authority in man's salvation kindled the fires of his heart and stoked the flames of his pulpit" (58).
One thing I found particularly helpful in this chapter was Lawson's highlighting of the theological context in which Spurgeon began preaching Calvinism. Here Lawson states,
When Charles Spurgeon burst onto the scene in the mid-19th century, he appeared heralding the doctrines of sovereign grace. At that time, Calvinism was no longer the dominant theology in England, as it had been in Puritan times. Instead, the doctrines of grace were becoming obscured from public view, cast aside as dusty and archaic relics of primitive 17th-century Europe. Victorian England had come of age, it was supposed, and its philosophers championed the autonomy of man, not the sovereignty of God. The teaching of the Reformation had all but faded from the evangelical scene" (37-38).
This context is frighteningly similar to our day. Today, humanism and postmodernism are dominant theologies. Today, the truth of God's sovereignty and His rule over all things are not in the minds of most. May the Lord help us as preachers of the Word of God to stand against such notions with the Bible truths that Spurgeon so firmly believed.
In chapter four, "Evangelistic Fervor," the author displays how warmly and eagerly Spurgeon sought to reach sinners in his gospel preaching. Under seven headings, (Bold Proclamations, Open Invitations, Tender Appeals, Sound Reasonings, Compelling Persuasions, Authoritative Commands, and Severe Warnings) Lawson demonstrates with many quotes from Spurgeon how he pleaded with sinners that they might fly to Christ by faith alone and be saved. (Here it is as though the author transports us to another time and place to hear Spurgeon preaching live--exhilarating!) Dr. Lawson gives an example of Spurgeon's passionate preaching by quoting from his great evangelistic message entitled, "Compel Them to Come In." Spurgeon begins his earnest appeal:
I know not what arguments to use with you. I appeal to your own self-interest. Oh my poor friend, would it not be better for you to be reconciled to the God of heaven, than to be his enemy? What are you getting by opposing God? Are you the happier for being his enemy? Answer, pleasure-seeker; hast thou found delights in that cup? Answer me, self-righteous man: hast thou found rest for the sole of thy foot in all thy works? Oh thou that goest about to establish thine own righteousness, I charge thee let conscience speak. Hast thou found it to be a happy path? Ah, my friend, "Wherefore doest thou spend thy money for that which is not bread, and thy labour for that which satisfieth not; harken diligently unto me, and eat ye that which is good, and let your soul delight itself in fatness (71).
As a pastor and preacher myself, this chapter was a fresh reminder for me to never hold back when it comes to pouring out my heart for the lost. It reminded me always make sure that I am pleading with men to come to Christ, for the good of their never dying souls. The example left by Spurgeon especially in this regard throughout his nearly four decades of ministry is exceptional--one that every true gospel minister should seek to imitate.
Chapter five, "The Heart of the Gospel," focuses on the sum and substance of Spurgeon's gospel proclamation from the beginning to the end of his ministry; namely the glorious person of Jesus Christ our Lord. Here Dr. Lawson shows that Jesus Christ in the fullness of His person was the all-encompassing focus of Spurgeon's gospel preaching and ministry. Lawson quotes Spurgeon, "This is the sum; my brethren, preach Christ, always and evermore. He is the whole gospel. His person, offices, and work must be our one great all-comprehending theme" (101). Again, Lawson quotes Spurgeon, "I sometimes wonder that you do not get tired of my preaching, because I do nothing but hammer away on this one nail. With me it is, year after year, 'None but Jesus! None but Jesus!'" (89).
Chapter six, "Spirit-Empowered Witness," brings our attention to Spurgeon's understanding of the role of the Holy Spirit in the gospel ministry. From the ministry of Spurgeon, Dr. Lawson asks and answers the questions: "How must the Spirit work in promoting the gospel? How does the Spirit direct a believer's words in the presentation of the gospel? What is the Spirit's effect on one who hears the gospel?" (107). I found this chapter particularly satisfying because it shows repeatedly how deeply dependent Spurgeon was on the Holy Spirit for all good to come from his labors. Spurgeon believed that absolutely everything was subject to the sovereignty of the third person of the blessed Trinity. Blessing on his labors would not ultimately come from himself, nor his intellectual ability--but by the Spirit sent down from heaven who alone can prosper the work.
Lawson writes, "Spurgeon believed that the gospel would advance only as the Spirit enabled him and other ministers to proclaim it" (108). He says, "Spurgeon maintained that the Holy Spirit must ignite a holy passion within him for the proclamation of the gospel. He was keenly aware that it is one thing to know the plan of salvation, but something else to feel its truths deeply. Spurgeon was firmly convinced that the Spirit would cause the gospel to burn like a fire within his bones as he preached, giving him a passion for God, His truth, and those to whom he spoke" (112). Lawson quotes these words spoken by Spurgeon to his pastoral students:
I believe in the Holy Ghost." Having pronounced that sentence as a matter of creed, I hope we can also repeat it as a devout soliloquy forced to our lips by personal experience. To us the presence and work of the Holy Spirit are the ground of our confidence. If we had not believed in the Holy Ghost we should have laid down our ministry long ere this, for "who is sufficient for these things?" Our hope of success, and our strength for continuing the service, lie in our belief that the Spirit of the Lord restest upon us (106).
The book ends with a short conclusion entitled, "We Want Again Spurgeons," (1) wherein the author urges the reader to remember what made Spurgeon "the Prince of Preachers." Since we can never separate Spurgeon from what he believed, Lawson closes this stimulating biography by saying, "May the Lord grant to preachers in this present generation the mind, heart, and passion of Charles Spurgeon--a mind for truth, a heart for the world, and the passion for the glory of God. Truly, we want again Spurgeons" (126-127).
I cannot commend this compelling book too highly. As a lover of Spurgeon and one who fully espouses his doctrines (agreeing, again with him, that they are biblical), I believe Dr. Lawson has done a superb job in giving us yet another profile of a godly man of whom the world was not worthy. Spurgeon "being dead still speaks" through this wonderful, well-written and well-researched book. We are indebted to Steve Lawson for his labors for the church and the glory of Christ. Both ministers who occupy the pulpit and Christ's sheep who fill the pews should devour this work, for in doing so they will be challenged, edified, and built up in their most holy faith (Jude 20).
Rob Ventura is a pastor of Grace Community Baptist Church in North Providence, RI. He is a graduate of Reformed Baptist Seminary and is the co-author of A Portrait of Paul (Reformation Heritage Books). He is also a contributor to the Reformation 21 blog.
1. This phrase is from Spurgeon's comment in his autobiography when he said, "We want again Luthers, Calvins, Bunyans, Whitefields, men fit to mark eras, whose names breathe terror in our foemen's ears. We have dire need of such."
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