Review: "Lectures to my Students"

Lectures to my Students
C. H. Spurgeon
Various publishers and editions

Every Friday afternoon Charles Spurgeon would head down to the Pastors' College - of all the institutions in which he was involved, the one that was perhaps dearest to his great heart - and attempt to put an edge and a point on the blades that had been tempered in the fires of the college forges all the week long. This is not the place to discuss the peculiar features and particular excellences of Spurgeon's plan for pastoral training, but it shows Spurgeon's sensitivity to the needs of his students that those Friday afternoons found him at his most deliberately engaging and his most transparently personal as he sought to put a little fire in their bellies before the Lord's day.

It is at this point that many current scholars will, perhaps, huff about a Baptist pietist, even a mere activist or enthusiast, given to taking gross liberties with the text - a genius, we grudgingly admit, but a fairly vulgar and far from polished tool in the Master's hands, and not quite the thing as far as exposition is concerned. Others will give you Spurgeon re-made in the image of Stout's Whitefield, a great advertiser and a pulpit actor of the first water, perhaps even a man who ought to be appreciated as an early model for the megachurch pastor. Please ignore such flawed assertions and myopic perspectives; pick up this book and read it for itself.

The full version of this volume (which is heartily recommended) is divided into four sections, the last of which (though the second in the original publishing sequence) is Spurgeon's infamous Commenting & Commentaries (which is where most of the reprinted commentaries with Spurgeon's endorsement find their - often, it must be said, selective - phrases of commendation). Our primary interest is in the first three sections of the full collection.

Of these, the first two seem to be constructed without the intention of progress that is apparent in many others of the older pastoral theologies. So, for example, Spurgeon plunges into his material with four chapters on 'The Minister's Self-Watch,' 'The Call to the Ministry,' 'The Preacher's Private Prayer' and 'Our Public Prayer.' And yet, as we begin to jump from topic to topic, we find each one not so much following on from the last as setting out another anchor point. In this way, as we proceed we find our souls both stretched in various directions and, at the same time, firmly held within a developing web of healthy principles and practices that give us a measure of establishment with the aim of stable development and genuine ministerial usefulness.

Most of the time, each element is essentially self-contained, although some topics do break over two or more chapters (the main exception is the third section, of which more below). Each chapter is fairly brief, and marked by typically Spurgeonic arrangements of the material, with thoughtful and engaging headings guiding us progressively through the matter at hand. The style is homely, full of quotations broadly drawn from various authors, marked by humour and practical insight. These 'lectures' very quickly turn into sermons - you can almost feel the momentum building in some of them - and so illustrate the very craft they are intended to illuminate. Each is generally marked by holy wit and sanctified common sense.

There are several specific blessings and some particular challenges from reading Spurgeon on pastoral ministry. One blessing is that these chapters are never mere 'how to' guides. To be sure, they are always practical, but they are never merely a set of mechanical rules for this and for that - for sermon construction, for prayer, and so on. Such technical discussions have their value, but Spurgeon does not so much give you a classroom discourse on the nature and excellence of the instrument as get the machine going and take you into the field to use it.

Again, our author covers topics not always covered elsewhere, and rarely with the kind of knockabout pungency found here. He speaks to us about getting the attention of our congregation, about the minister's fainting fits (if you have never had one, read this before you do - it will save you much grief), on choosing a text, on open-air preaching, on the voice, on posture and gesture. Such material digs up the heart and prompts careful reflection about the ways and the means in which we invest our pastoral energies and the manner in which we employ the tools and opportunities we have been given. Spurgeon will nudge you into rooms of experience you might never have visited and open windows for you to look out on views you might never have contemplated.

Furthermore, Spurgeon is always stimulating, even when provocative or plain misguided. For example, his chapter 'On Spiritualizing' is perhaps the one which is invariably singled out as worthy of being dismissed. I honestly wonder if some who speak so quickly have read perhaps a couple of his more extravagant sermons (remembering that, even if you cannot follow him in everything, he usually takes pains to demonstrate a proper understanding of almost every text he treats, albeit sometimes followed by a phrase like, "However, this morning we are going to take our text as . . .") and presumed that they know what is coming. However, the first third of the chapter is on abuses of the principle. Only then does he turn to the types, metaphors, allegories of Scripture, with further thoughts on generalizing universal principles, preaching on parables and miracles, before some further cautions on the kind of men who can employ such an approach wisely, and those who cannot, the whole illustrated with some judicious quotations and thoughtful comments. I am not saying that I can follow everywhere Spurgeon leads here, but he will make you ask yourself whether or not you have made the Scriptures too much of a dry stick and wrung out a little more sap than you might have intended.

The material on illustration - the entire third section - is worth a mention in its own right. Are you weary of those sermons and commentaries which open each chapter with some strained connection to some situation or event in the real world, or which offer the example of "Algernon (not his real name), a basket-weaver from Clapham, raised by wolves and incapable of eating vegetables," only to have Algy's case fully resolved by the close of the chapter by the penetrating insights and applications of our preacher/author? Spurgeon will help you think through the purpose, value, collections, selection and employment of illustrations, helping us to really enliven our sermons and put hooks in the ears of those who hear us.

I would not wish to ignore the spirit of consecration that pervades the whole. There is nothing here that is dry or dull, but it is all carried along by a man who demonstrates the very earnestness he encourages, characterised by a burning desire to see God glorified in salvation, in the fullest sense of the word. You are never allowed the sense that these are treasures for mere display; each is a tool for use in the great business of seeking and saving the lost in the declaration of the gospel. Overall, the volume is marked by a concern for character as well as capacity, for substance rather than style, for spirit as well as form in service to aim.

But there are a few notes of caution which ought to be sounded. Perhaps first and foremost is the fact that Spurgeon often forgets that you are not Spurgeon. This can be the case even when he is making allowances for us. For example, in the chapter on choosing your text he acknowledges that his strength comes from variety rather than profundity, and that he could not announce a series on a topic or sustain one on a book if you paid him to do so. However, there are few others who would feel well able to wait until Saturday evening before thinking of their morning sermon, or Sunday afternoon before sitting down to prepare for the evening, which was effectively what Spurgeon ended up doing, and pretty much where he sends you.

This then bleeds into a tendency to absolutism at certain times (a tendency by no means confined to Spurgeon's pastoral theology) and to make a general principle from a personal preference or habit. For example, Spurgeon says here that unless you already have conversions to show for your labours, you are not called to the ministry. Had he lived at another time, or in another place, he might have been a little more wary or balanced, or spoken more generally of fruitfulness. The same applies to some of the comments about text selection and the like.

The volume is, as it must be, of its time. Some of the comments, asides and applications will need to be adapted (for example, the kind of pulpit cant against which Spurgeon rails is just as current, although it finds slightly different forms and environments today). However, we do this with anything else from another time and place, and it should prove no great difficulty for the wise.

Finally, in this regard, we have mentioned already that there are some topics which you will have to wrestle with. You are not obliged to agree with everything that even a Spurgeon says, but you will need good and sound reasons to disagree, and may even find your own perspective improved and enriched even if not fundamentally altered by the process.

So, let me urge you, if you have not already done so (and even if you have), to get to grips (perhaps, again) with Spurgeon's Lectures to my Students. To open the pages is to walk into a family gathering, and to listen to a spiritual father among his labouring sons, an older pastor among his younger brothers. It will not be long, I hope, before you are made to feel thoroughly at home, and - listening in to that rich voice from a warm and full heart - start to obtain a blessing.