The One Book: Spurgeon V. Hyper-Calvinism: The Battle for Gospel Preaching

 

I always feel a bit uncomfortable when I see someone asking a Christian author to sign a book; there’s something about it that just seems so antithetical to who we are as Christians. It’s not a sin, just one of those things that feels odd. That being said, there is one book I do have signed by the author and it’s a book I dearly love because of it’s impact on me.

There was a moment, early in my Christian walk, where in hindsight I can now see what was the beginnings of a slide into Hyper-Calvinism. This slide looked like me taking more interest in the doctrines of grace rather than in offering the Gospel of grace. I was increasingly contented in not calling people to repentance and faith because I had wrongly applied Matthew 7:6, “Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you.” Yet in God’s divine mercy, I was rescued from the freezing coldness of this heartless heresy through Iain Murray’s book Spurgeon V. Hyper-Calvinism: The Battle for Gospel Preaching.

I don’t remember how I came across the book but I do remember the warming light of its  content breaking into my immature thinking when I started reading it. I couldn’t put it down. And it seemed like after I finished each chapter I found myself repenting and praying, “Lord, help me to love those who are lost like Spurgeon did. No, help me love the lost like you do!”

The book itself focuses in on an early controversy in the ministry of Charles Haddon Spurgeon. A lot of folks are probably aware of Spurgeon’s battle against the rise of Arminianism in his own day, but far fewer are aware that the Prince of Preachers fought on a different front, that of Hyper-Calvinism, shining the light of Scripture on this equally destructive theology.

The Hyper-Calvinism of Spurgeon’s day expressed itself in both explicit as well as implicit ways. Explicitly, “the idea that all men should be called to faith in Christ” was appalling. To the Hyper-Calvinist, “Christ is only the savior of the elect and therefore it cannot be the duty of the non-elect to believe in him for a salvation not provided for them. To assert the opposite was stigmatized as a ‘duty-faith‘ error.”[1] In thus denying that a universal call is required they instead claimed that Scripture only warrants an invitation to those who are under the subjective experiences of conviction, those who are “heavy-laden”.[2]

Spurgeon forcefully responded that such an approach put the cart before the horse. “In our own day certain preachers assure us that a man must be regenerated before we may bid him believe in Jesus Christ; some degree of a work of grace in the heart being, in their judgment, the only warrant to believe. This also is false. It takes away a gospel for sinners and offers us a gospel for saints.... Brethren, the command to believe in Christ must be the sinner’s warrant, if you consider the nature of our commission. How runs it? ‘Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature.’ It ought to read, according to [the Hyper-Calvinists], ‘preach the gospel to every regenerate person, to every convinced sinner, to every sensible sinner.’ But it is not so; it is to every creature’.”[3]

But what of the charge that offering the Gospel to those who are not elect is in fact turning belief into a duty to be obeyed, a duty which in God’s sovereign choice they cannot possibly respond to. First, Spurgeon was absolutely clear (and correct) that the Gospel is a command and that rejecting the Gospel in unbelief is a sin. Spurgeon found himself with some ministers, many of whom were Hyper-Calvinists, disputing whether or not “it was a sin in men that they did not believe the gospel... Whilst they were discussing, I said, ‘Gentlemen, am I in the presence of Christians? Are you believers in the Bible or are you not?‘ They said, ‘We are Christians, of course.‘ ‘Then,‘ said I, ‘does not the Scripture say, of sin, because they believe not on Me (John 16:9)? And is it not the damning sin of men, that they do not believe on Christ?”[4]

Writing in his Autobiography, Spurgeon noted that it is “the very summit of arrogance and the height of pride for a son of Adam to say, even in his heart, ‘God, I doubt thy grace; God, I doubt thy love; God, I doubt thy power.‘ I feel that, could we roll all sins into one mass, - could we take murder, blasphemy, lust, adultery, fornication, and everything that is vile, and unite them all into one vast globe of black corruption, - they would not even then equal the sin of unbelief.”[5]

What Spurgeon was doing was getting at that mysterious tension seen throughout all of Scripture that even though God is sovereign over all existence, supremely so in the saving of men, choosing whom he will to respond to the Gospel, nonetheless, there is still a responsibility on every person to believe or not believe and God will hold them responsible accordingly.

Hence Murray could write that for Spurgeon “free-agency was not to be confused with free-will. Since the Fall, men have not lost their responsibility but they have lost the ability, the will, to obey God. Thus Spurgeon could say, ‘I dread more than anything your being left to your own free-will.’”[6]

Hyper-Calvinism argued that sinners could not be required to do what they were not able to do. But Spurgeon, exalting the sovereign power of God’s grace communicated in and through the Gospel, responded that that very ability the sinner needs comes to them through the Gospel call. And this is where the book shines so marvelously as Murray gives example after example of how Spurgeon did this. You cannot help but have your heart melted as you read sections of Spurgeon’s sermons where he pleads for sinners to come to Christ.

“Oh, my hearers, will any man choose for himself to be lost? Will he count himself unworthy of eternal life, and put it from him? If you will be damned you must do it yourselves. Your blood be on your own heads. Go down to the pit if you deliberately choose to do so; but know this, that Christ was preached to you, and you would not have him; you were invited to come to him, but you turned your backs on him; you chose for yourselves your own eternal destruction! God grant that you may repent of such a choice, for Christ’s sake. Amen.”[7]

What we have in Spurgeon V. Hyper-Calvinism is a model, not only of responsible theology in service to the church, but a model of how that theology is to be communicated and preached. Though we may not come across many (or any) Hyper-Calvinists today, I fear there are many who functionally so. We are rightly concerned to preach the right doctrine from the right text, but perhaps many have forgotten that we’re also meant to, as Spurgeon put it, “go into the highways and hedges and bid all, as many as we might find... and to invite them.”[8] May this book stir you to give the Gospel to all.

Stephen Unthank (MDiv, Capital Bible Seminary) serves at Greenbelt Baptist Church in Greenbelt, MD, just outside of Washington, DC.  He lives in Maryland with his wife, Maricel and their two children, Ambrose and Lilou.



[1] Murray, Spurgeon V. Hyper-Calvinism, p. 48.

[2] ibid., p. 72.

[3] ibid., p. 76.

[4] ibid., p. 85.

[5] ibid., p. 85.

[6] ibid., p. 80.

[7] ibid., p. 88.

[8] ibid., p. 71.