On the evening of New Year’s Eve, 1891, Charles Spurgeon delivered a brief speech to a small group of friends in Mentone, France. “We have come so far on the journey of life,” he said, “and, standing at the boundary of another year, we look back.”
For the 57-year old London pastor, there was much to look back upon. In less than four decades, Spurgeon had preached in person to an estimated ten million people. He had published more words in the English language than any Christian author in history. Fifty-six million copies of his sermons were in circulation, many having been translated into more than forty languages.
His magnum opus – a commentary on the Psalms that took twenty years to complete – had been published and widely applauded. The Metropolitan Tabernacle saw a weekly attendance of 6,000 members and 14,654 people had been baptized over the years. Sixty-six ministries had spawned under Spurgeon’s guidance: a theological college, two orphanages, a book fund, a retirement home, a clothing drive, a Sunday school for the blind, a ministry to policemen, and dozens more.
Few pastors in the history of Protestant Christianity – Baptist or not – could lay claim to the sheer number of ministerial endeavors and successes as could the “Prince of Preachers,” Charles Haddon Spurgeon.
And yet, only four weeks before his death, Spurgeon’s words were flavored not with self-adulation, but with confession. “I look back, and remember what I might have done and have not done; what opportunities of usefulness I have not seized; what sins I have allowed to pass unrebuked; what struggling beginners in grace I have failed to help.” For Spurgeon, humility was not occasional; it was continual – and essential!
From the beginnings of his ministry as a young “Essex bumpkin” to its crescendo in the New Park Street Chapel and its grand finale in the Down Grade Controversy, the “Lion of London” that God had brought into this world only ten days after the great Baptist missionary William Carey died, tempered his achievements with a profound and proportional sense of unworthiness.
“Though I have preached Christ crucified for more than forty years, and have led many to my Master’s feet,” he said, “I have at this moment no ray of hope but that which comes from what my Lord Jesus has done for guilty men.” The lessons that Spurgeon offered his friends in the Hôtel Beau Rivage on the coast of the French Riviera in 1891 are as applicable to our own day as they were to those living in the late-Victorian era.
1. Decrease in self. Increase in Christ.
The Victorians were people of progress. Electric bulbs replaced oil lamps; engines drove carriages instead of animals. The Industrial Revolution had generated advances in technology, science, and medicine that had previously been unthinkable. Over the course of Spurgeon’s ministry, the population of England magnetized to the cities. Factory life replaced the farm for many. In fact, five years after Spurgeon moved to London, one half of London’s population under twenty years old had not been born in the city.
Anything was attainable for those who could work hard enough to grasp it. The expansion of railways and steam locomotion allowed for transportation to places only read about in novels. Progress was the Age’s greatest virtue; apathy, it’s greatest vice.
Few pastors in London worked harder on a weekly basis than Spurgeon did. In addition to raising twin sons, Spurgeon preached often up to ten times, wrote nearly 500 letters, digested six meaty books, and was constantly changing hats as pastor, president, editor, author, and itinerate evangelist.
In his lecture “The Necessity of Ministerial Progress,” Spurgeon challenged his students to improve their God-given abilities to read, study, think, and expand their breadth of knowledge. “Serve God with such education as you have, and thank him for blowing through you if you are a ram’s horn, but if there is a possibility of you becoming a silver trumpet, choose it rather.” Spurgeon believed that the Christian attitude of decrease did not prevent ministerial productivity – it should generate it.
However, an increase in accomplishment must always be accompanied by a decrease in self. Spurgeon was always careful to guard against the proliferation of pride. “In the true Church of Christ, the way to the top is downstairs; sink yourself into the highest place.” To his friends in France, he asked, “Have we been taught to go down that Jesus may rise, after the manner of John the Baptist, who cried, ‘He must increase, but I must decrease’”?
Even in his pre-London ministry as the pastor of Waterbeach Chapel, Spurgeon’s wholehearted dependence on God is evidenced. In the front flap of his first notebook of sermon skeletons, Charles wrote, “… and only skeletons without the Holy Ghost.” His brief prayers in these sermons for God’s help are also illuminating: “Help, Jesus;” “Lord, keep me from idols;” “Lord, help me again;” “Oh God, help;” “Lord, revive my stupid soul!”
From the beginning of his ministry to its conclusion, Spurgeon was careful not to rob God of his glory. Even before he left for France, suspecting he may not return, Spurgeon whispered to his secretary, “Remember, a plain stone, C.H.S. and no more; no fuss.”
“If we realize our chief end,” Spurgeon told his friends, “we reach our highest enjoyment.” Throughout his ministry, he often quoted the first question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, “What is the chief end of man? To glorify God and enjoy him forever.” In one sermon, he said, “The answer is exceedingly correct, but it might have been equally truthful if it had been shorter. The chief end of man is ‘to please God,’ for in so doing … he will please himself.”
Spurgeon’s desire to please God was the underlying mechanism that propelled his energetic endeavors. It was God’s name, he insisted, and not his own that must receive elevation and exaltation. Nowhere is this characteristic more clearly seen than when a denomination called “Spurgeonism” began to form around him. Wherever it reared its head, Spurgeon emphatically and consistently denounced the movement, not wanting to leave a legacy that championed his identity over the identity of Christ. “The grand object of the Christian ministry is the glory of God,” he said, and God will not have his glory pirated.
2. Expect more of God.
On August 19, 1861, Spurgeon held a special service at the Metropolitan Tabernacle on the centennial of William Carey’s birth. In large letters above the platform, Carey’s famous motto was written: “Expect great things from God. Attempt great things for God.” Spurgeon believed that preaching without expectation was “foreboding defeat.”
A younger brother in Christ once said to him, “I have preached in the streets, and I have seen no converts.” Spurgeon replied, “Do you expect people to be converted every time you preach?” “No, sir.” “That is the reason you do not succeed, because you do not expect to do so. According to your faith so be it unto you” (Matthew 9:22). To his friend in Mentone, he asked, “Have we not learned to expect more of God?
Spurgeon believed that a Christian’s expectation of God’s activities in the future must draw confidence from a recollection of God’s faithfulness in the past. “If you are familiar with the Lord of love … you will join me in abundantly uttering the memory of his great goodness.” For Spurgeon, God does not call those he will not equip. Nor does he equip those he will not preserve. The God who ordains the path also sustains the journey. Why? Because, “all the events of life are arranged and appointed. Not only is every turn in the road marked in the divine map, but every stone on the road.… We are not to cross a trackless desert.”
Christians can expect more of God because he has delivered on his Old Testament promise to send a Savior. “The infinite,” as Spurgeon once said, became “the infant” (John 1:14). In other words, God has walked a mile not only in our shoes, but also in our feet. The Word became skin and bones and blood. Our temptations were his temptations (Hebrews 4:15); our sufferings were his suffering.
Christians can expect more of God because Christ met, on our behalf, the expectations of the Father. Christians can attempt more for God because Christ succeeded in his attempt to save the world. “We are not left to pass through life as though it were a lone wilderness,” for Christ has traveled behind, before, and beside his pilgrim people.
3. Find joy in God alone.
At the age of twenty-two, Charles Spurgeon almost quit the ministry. He and Susannah had been married less than one year. Their sons, Charles and Thomas, were infants. After three years in the big city, Spurgeon’s ministry had solicited envy from his opponents, admiration from the evangelicals, and criticism from the press. Susannah often hid the morning newspaper to prevent Charles from reading its headlines.
The evening of October 19, 1856, commenced a season of unusual suffering for Spurgeon. His popularity had forced the rental of the Surrey Garden Music Hall to hold the 12,000 people congregated inside. Ten thousand eager listeners stood outside the building, scrambling to hear his sermon. The event constituted one of the largest crowds gathered to hear a nonconformist preacher – a throwback to the days of George Whitefield.
A few minutes after 6 o’clock, someone in the audience shouted, “Fire! The galleries are giving way! The place is falling!” Pandemonium ensued as a balcony collapsed. Those trying to get into the building blocked the exit of those fighting to escape. Spurgeon attempted to quell the commotion, but to no avail. His text for the day was Proverbs 3:33, “The curse of the Lord is in the house of the wicked” – a verse he would never preach again.
An eyewitness recorded, “The cries and shrieks at this period were truly terrific. . . . They pressed on, treading furiously over the dead and dying, tearing frantically at each other.” Spurgeon nearly lost consciousness. He was rushed from the platform and “taken home more dead than alive.” After the crowds dissipated, seven corpses were lying in the grass. Twenty-eight people were seriously injured.
The depression that resulted from this disaster left Spurgeon prostrate for days. “Even the sight of the Bible brought from me a flood of tears and utter distraction of mind.” The newspapers added to his emotional deterioration. “Mr. Spurgeon is a preacher who hurls damnation at the heads of his sinful hearers…a ranting charlatan.” By all accounts, it looked as if his ministry was over. “It might well seem that the ministry which promised to be so largely influential,” Spurgeon said, “was silenced for ever.”
When Spurgeon ascended the pulpit on November 2, two weeks later, he opened with a prayer. “We are assembled here, O Lord, this day, with mingled feelings of joy and sorrow.… Thy servant feared that he should never be able to meet this congregation again.”
Although he would never fully recover from this disaster, Spurgeon’s ministry did not end on October 19, 1856. He later said, “I have gone to the very bottoms of the mountains, as some of you know, in a night that never can be erased from my memory…but, as far as my witness goes, I can say that the Lord is able to save unto the uttermost and in the last extremity, and He has been a good God to me.”
Spurgeon’s joy was based not only his own ability to recover, but on God’s ability to replenish. It was a joy that would balm Spurgeon in future controversies when he felt beleaguered and bewildered. The joy Spurgeon had after 1856 was a radical joy – a joy deeply rooted in the soil of the supremacy of the God who was great and grand enough to make good things come out of evil. As Joseph told his brothers, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Genesis 50:20).
The same God who called Spurgeon to London would not abandon him on the banks of the Thames River. On the contrary, God used this horrible event in his life to save the lives of countless others, for the widely circulated negative press put the young pastor’s preaching on England’s radar – and eventually on the world’s.
At 11:05 pm on January 31, 1892, Spurgeon fell into a coma from which he did not awake. During the final year of his life, he had been brought much encouragement by the unity that he saw demonstrated in the various expressions of the church. “During the past year I have been made to see that there is more love and unity among God’s people than is generally believed.”
His earliest sermons were filled with a passion for Christian unity and cooperation, but in the last month of his life, those seeds had fully blossomed. “When our Lord prayed that his church might be one, his prayer was answered, and his true people are even now, in spirit and in truth, one in him. Their different modes of external worship are as the furrows of a field; the field is none the less one because of the marks of the plough.”
After his death, a telegraph alerted the world to Spurgeon’s passing. Evangelicals from differing theological tribes and traditions sent their condolences to Susannah. One scholar has noted, “If every crowned head in Europe had died that night, the event would not be so momentous as the death of this one man.” Over 100,000 people passed by Spurgeon’s coffin at the Norwood Cemetery.
The same newspapers that had once inflicted so much damage upon the young preacher’s ministry now offered recognition of a life well lived for others. In the year following Spurgeon’s death, a new biography of Spurgeon surfaced every month. Some were filled with unpublished conversation with the preacher; others contained letters and recollections of personal encounters and episodes. And yet, for the small group of friends to whom Spurgeon spoke on New Year’s Day Eve, 1891, their pastor’s departing words must have undoubtedly followed them the rest of their lives:
We would have it so happen that, when our life’s history is written, whoever reads it will not think of us as ‘self-made men,” but as the handiwork of God, in whom his grace is magnified. Not in us may men see the clay, but the Potter’s hand. They said of one, “He is a fine preacher;” but of another they said, “We never notice how he preaches, but we feel that God is great.” We wish our whole life to be a sacrifice; an altar of incense continually smoking with sweet perfume unto the Most High. Oh, to be borne through the year on the wings of praise to God to mount from year to year, and raise at each ascent a loftier and yet lowlier song unto the God of our Life! The vista of a praiseful life will never close, but continue throughout eternity. From psalm to psalm, from hallelujah to hallelujah, we will ascend the hill of the Lord; until we come into the Holiest of all, where, with veiled faces, we will bow before the Divine Majesty in the bliss of endless adoration.”