Contemplating Charles Spurgeon

Originally submitted to Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary by the Author for the completion of an assignment. 

Charles Haddon Spurgeon colloquially referred to as the “Prince of Preachers”, is an individual who needs little introduction. Head of a great number of organizations, including the Pastors College where he delivered the lectures recorded in Lectures to my Students He is perhaps most fondly remembered for his devotional materials, Morning and Evening, and The Interpreter, and his faithfulness as the pastor of the Metropolitan Tabernacle. Born, raised, and faithful during the heart of the 19th century, in Victorian London, Spurgeon was a contemporary of some of the greatest minds and ministers that the modern period has to offer. While not formally educated, Spurgeon’s preparation for ministry and teaching radiates through his winsome presentation of the Cross of Christ and the necessity of reading and studying in the life of every believer, especially in the life of the minister. In a recent biography, Spurgeon is noted as being a primarily Crucicentric preacher and this is of no doubt one of his enduring qualities to which many are indebted, however difficult his habits are for the student of hermeneutics. Spurgeon was in many ways a Biblically approved elder, conforming to the qualities listed in 1 Timothy. He was also passionate and observant taking care to always be aware of the circumstances in which he was ministering, a lesson all pastors can take to heart.

Summary of Contents

Lectures to my Students is a collection of four volumes of formal lectures given by Spurgeon on the nature and practices of pastoral ministry focusing on the history, understanding, and implications of what it means for the office of the ministry to demand everything from a man and that anything less is an insult to God and his fellow man.

In the first volume, 13 lectures tackle the internal/external relationship on topics such as prayer, study, speech, character, and other related issues which bear a unique contribution to the understanding of how a Minister’s inner life impacts the external ministerial work. On the demand of a “man’s all” Spurgeon remarks that the call of a minister should be a desire “which bears the test of trial, a longing from which it is quite impossible for us to escape, though we may have tried to do so; a desire, in fact, which grows more intense by the lapse of years, until it becomes a yearning, a pining, a famishing to proclaim the Word.” In short: a minister’s call will inevitably consume all things which pertain to his life on earth, and if his ministry does not consume his life then it is only a matter of time before the desire to proclaim the word overtakes him and brings his life into submission to the call of the Almighty. If the minister’s call consumes so much of a man’s life it should come as no surprise that half-hearted ministry is an insult not only to the caller but also to those who answer the call faithfully and those subjected to such half-hearted ministerial actions and practices.  

It is to be recognized that prayer is the topic by which one can examine the extreme impacts of the inner life upon the external ministry. Spurgeon’s remarks develop the sense that the minister ought to be in the activity and spirit of prayer as a mode of life. Prayer is not limited to the mere moments of private devotion but is something that permeates the life of the minister in conjunction with the private devotional life. It is in the privacy of the minister’s solitude that prayer and the heart’s affections for the sheep of God are molded into the deep abiding care that shepherding requires, however public prayer may at times be, Spurgeon equally offers a warning about the dangers of public prayer. Specifically, the pastor is cautious of “having an eye to the auditors; beware of becoming rhetorical to please the listeners. Prayer must not be transformed into an oblique sermon.” In this, the pastor’s prayer must not ever become a half-hearted show of spirituality aimed at pleasing on-lookers for it becomes a mockery of the shepherd’s access to the throne of grace on behalf of the sheep entrusted to him, including himself. 

In the last half of the first 13 lectures, Spurgeon’s focus shifts more prominently to things in the external practice of ministry, a theme which carries focus through the remaining volumes, tackling a more direct conversation of what a minister ought to do more so than what a minister ought to be in terms of character and inner life. The final volume is perhaps the most removed from the office and function of the traditional pastor for it is on the habit of writing and composing commentary which is a skill and task that an admittedly small number of ministers are called to develop and utilize for the life of the church. In one sense, the overall structure of the lectures across all 4 volumes can be said to go from a contemplation regarding devotional realities to occupational rarities for the whole of the office and function of the minister. Again, it cannot be understated that Spurgeon’s focus is on educating his current students and audience and these lessons plumb the depths of what it means for ministry to demand everything of the ministering man.

Critical Evaluation

Spurgeon’s Preparation and Qualification for teaching are best explored in Thomas Breimaier’s Tethered to the Cross. From Breimaier’s work, it can be observed that Spurgeon’s qualifications and preparation were very much non-traditional, in that he had very few years of training in an official or standard sense that was recognized by any sort of credential. In many ways, he represents someone like Mark, the traditional author of the second Gospel in the New Testament, rather than Paul, a powerful missionary and apostle for the early church who had previously been the church’s most vicious persecutor. This is especially notable when comparing the pacing and structure of both Spurgeon’s sermons and Mark’s Gospel. Most New Testament commentators will acknowledge that Mark’s Gospel is racing toward the passion of Christ and sweeps through vast amounts of time before drastically slowing pace for the passion and cross of Christ, in Tethered to the Cross Breimaier makes note that Spurgeon races to the cross in most of his sermons. 

At times this race is accomplished in a manner which breaks the surrounding context of a passage, a rather interesting occurrence given his remarks about the “twisting of texts” in the 7th lecture of volume 1, “Avoid that childish trifling and outrageous twisting of texts which will make you a wise man among fools, but a fool among wise men.” Granted, his purpose in the warning is not intended to be an indictment against those who allegorically travel to the cross from any text but rather is a warning that ministers ought not puff themselves up for their listeners in attempting to sound wise or cunning for, Spurgeon rightly recognizes in the introductory lecture of the second volume, that “We have a fixed faith to preach, my brethren, and we are sent forth with a definite message from God. We are not left to fabricate the message as we go along.”

Taking this into consideration it is a challenge for the minister to balance a faithful hermeneutic that does not abuse the scriptures in the pursuit of evangelism or encouragement like is the practice of some regarding Jeremiah 29:11 while also retaining a fixed focus on the eternal message of God displayed in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The minister must examine his sermons both regarding hermeneutical precision and beauty, and it’s calling out to the saints who have not yet come home to the good shepherd. In this way, perhaps it is best to have two passages in each service that are the focus text. One from which the edifying message is drawn for those believers already present, and a second which is drawn for the explicit purpose of presenting the Gospel to the congregation both to remind those believers already present of the foundation of their faith and to call out to those who may not have surrendered themselves to the call of Jesus Christ.

While Breimaier rightly recognizes the crucicentrism in Spurgeon’s many sermons it would be inappropriate to directly claim such serious centrality of the Cross in Spurgeon’s Lectures one may be so bold as to argue that Spurgeon’s lectures contain more central themes related to the minister’s dependence on the Holy Spirit than on the cross of Christ. It is this dependence on the spirit that drives Spurgeon to urge the attending ministers to attend to their private prayer life, understand their ministerial context, and ultimately give their all to the Lord’s work as they have been called to do so. In many ways, Spurgeon is to the Heritage of the Baptist denomination as Bonhoeffer is to the Lutheran tradition, specifically in that both emphasize the totality of the call of grace and the cost that it bears upon the man of God. Spurgeon’s lectures specifically examined this cost and call for pastors and ministers, Bonhoeffer focused more generally on the body of Christ. Spurgeon’s body of work available in Lectures to my Students, is an important part of the library of any pastor and is a commendable work for any father for as seen in Job the Father is the minister for the family.

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