Nicely browned

Charles Spurgeon was not the only man of God to be labouring during the heyday of the gospel's progress in Victorian London. On the other side of the river lived and worked that most excellent servant of Christ, Archibald Geikie Brown. He is the subject of Iain H. Murray's fairly recent biography, Archibald G. Brown: Spurgeon's Successor (Banner of Truth, 2011) ( Bookstore). In some senses the subtitle is a little misleading, for Brown - though also a student of the older man - was in many senses and for many years a co-labourer with Spurgeon, manifesting much of the same spirit and much of the same Spirit, if I might put it so. Brown did, for a brief time, though not immediately, follow Spurgeon at the Metropolitan Tabernacle, but he stands in his own right as a man worthy of our attention. (Indeed, the esteem in which a man as gifted and gracious as Brown held Spurgeon only casts an additional lustre on the greater man: we are tempted to say, "If this is the five-talent man, what must have been the man of ten talents!" Any illusions as to our own status and competence take a healthy battering in the process.)

Spurgeon, though this is not always accepted, believed that the Downgrade Controversy was the death of him. In March 1891, as a preacher he had trained left for Australia, Spurgeon bade him farewell with these words: "Good bye, Ellis; you will never see me again, this fight is killing me." AGB, as Murray often refers to him, is an interesting study in that he was serving as a preacher and pastor during the brightest period of the nineteenth century, then fought side by side with Spurgeon through the Downgrade, and continued to labour in gospel work for years after the death of his beloved friend. In each period there is much to instruct.

With regard to the full flood, AGB was at the forefront: his decision, commitment, and vigour in making Christ known rapidly won him much respect, love and antagonism from various quarters. He is, not least, a model of the kind of Christian compassion that ought to characterise a true man of God, entirely consistent with his confession yet never perverted into a merely 'social gospel.' Brown pursued and obtained the great and enduring transformation not of fallen cultures but of lost souls. When people are chuntering on about incarnational ministries in inner cities, Brown is both example and rebuke, showing us priorities and practices by means of which God will be much glorified. The Lord blessed his plain, pointed preaching with a great ingathering, as sinners were saved and a healthy and engaged church formed.

With the turn of the tide, AGB proved a most courageous fighter, a genuine Valiant-for-Truth. Among the articles from his pen at this time is a pungent, telling tract entitled The Devil's Mission of Amusement, which really ought to be required reading for every evangelical, especially those who call themselves Reformed, in the current climate. His essential contention is, in his own words, that "the mission of amusements is the devil's half-way house to the world." Here is a taster:
It is only during the past few years that "amusement" has become a recognized weapon of our warfare and developed into a mission. There has been a steady "down grade" in this respect. From "speaking out," as the Puritans did, the Church has gradually toned down her testimony, then winked at and excused the frivolities of the day. Then she has tolerated them in her borders, and now she has adopted them and provided a home for them under the plea of "reaching the masses and getting the ear of the people." The devil has seldom done a cleverer thing than hinting to the Church of Christ that part of her mission is to provide entertainment for the people with a view to winning them into her ranks. The human nature that lies in every heart has risen to the bait. Here, now, is an opportunity of gratifying the flesh and yet retaining a comfortable conscience. We can now please ourselves in order to do good to others. The rough old cross can be exchanged for a "costume," and the exchange can be made with the benevolent purpose of elevating the people.
If he were aware of the current state of play in most evangelical churches, doubtless the speed of his mortal remains' revolutions would do something to counteract the turn of the earth. Without vindictiveness and with untiring zeal, AGB contended for the truth and held the line of faithful, simple witness. In this respect, there is a fascinating essay attached to Murray's book, in which the author explains the conviction of men like Spurgeon and Brown that far from being an aid to gospel endeavour, the kind of performance approach to worship characteristic of so many churches today militated against both clear and decisive conversion and ongoing commitment to Christ with increasing abandonment of worldliness. The danger that sinners would be carnally attracted to mere entertainments rather than spiritually drawn to a crucified Christ was too great to overlook. This is a lesson that needs to be learned all over again.

As the waters began to ebb, and as many of those alongside whom he had taken a stand fell, perhaps we see AGB's sterling character most clearly. Unable to sustain the pastoral demands imposed upon him as his own health began to suffer, he was obliged to leave a settled ministry, but his continuing kingdom investments both in the UK and in the course of his many travels are eminently praiseworthy. He did not go on seeing the sort of blessing, at least numerically, to which he had been once accustomed, but he did not capitulate to the numbers game, nor adapt his convictions to suit his circumstances. He rather laboured on faithfully, persuaded that simple obedience and believing perseverance was the appropriate course for a child of the Most High and a servant of the King. This was not merely a failure to move with the times; if was a refusal to compromise. The fact that - sailing against the current of the age - he continued to see a measure of blessing, and retained the high esteem of so many, is a testimony to his character and work.

I would vigorously recommend Murray's book, especially to pastors and preachers. Yes, it will convict and rebuke, but also it will instruct and encourage. If nothing else, it paints a sweet portrait of Christian humility, faithfulness, and endeavour which we would do well to emulate. A splendid companion volume to the biography would be a small collection of AGB's sermons, The Face of Jesus Christ: The Person and Work of our Lord (Banner of Truth, 2012) ( Bookstore). I have a soft spot for such addresses: as a counterpoint to the kind of expository series which are often lauded today almost to the exclusion of other kinds of preaching, Brown - like Spurgeon - models another expository approach. I am aware that there are times when they go a little off-beam, but these men had a gift to take a short passage of Scripture, sometimes a verse or even a portion of a verse, and - without neglecting a proper awareness of its context and taking legitimate account of the proper sense of the words - to turn the Scripture jewel in gospel light, providing a rich, inventive, Christ-soaked, closely-applied discourse which stirs the soul. Brown's sermons hit home with that sweet strength that does the soul so much good. I would recommend them to any believer desiring a dose of light and heat, and also to those with an appetite for the truth sufficient to carry them into such pages.