Charles Spurgeon: Looking Through Spurgeon

By Geoff Chang

Originally published in the Midwestern Magazine, Issue 41


Charles H. Spurgeon | 1834–1892

The Spurgeon Library at Midwestern Seminary is one of the most beautiful spaces on campus, containing 6,000 volumes from C. H. Spurgeon’s library, along with various letters, manuscripts, and historical artifacts related to his life and ministry. But for all that we have here, it is only a small glimpse of his extraordinary life.

Spurgeon pastored the Metropolitan Tabernacle in London, a congregation of over 5,000 members, the largest evangelical church in the world in the heart of the British empire. Throughout his 40 years of pastoral ministry, he preached up to 13 times a week and sold over 50 million sermons. His sermons were translated into nearly 40 languages and distributed throughout the empire and beyond. With the support of his church and his sales proceeds, Spurgeon founded the Pastors’ College, which trained nearly 900 men for pastoral ministry. These graduates went on to plant or revitalize about 200 churches in Britain alone. But Spurgeon was not only a pastor, preacher, and college president, he was also a philanthropist. In 1884, one deacon counted 66 charitable ministries operating out of the Tabernacle, including two orphanages, almshouses, a book fund for poor pastors, a clothing bank, street missions, various Sunday Schools for poor children, and more.

It would be easy to regale visitors of the Library with stories of his life and ministry, but to merely leave a visitor with a sense of Spurgeon’s greatness would be to miss the point. From the founding of the Spurgeon Library, our goal has been to preserve the life and legacy of C. H. Spurgeon, not that we might look to Spurgeon but through Spurgeon.

The Danger of Looking to Spurgeon

For many pastors, Spurgeon’s ministry has taken on a legendary status in their imagination. After all, which pastor would not want to see thousands converted under his preaching, millions of copies of his sermons published, and the city transformed by his church’s efforts? Of course, such a desire would not necessarily be wrong. However, it is strange when I encounter a reverence for Spurgeon and his methods that border on superstition. I once heard of a pastor who purchased a vial of water (supposedly) from the River Lark where Spurgeon was baptized and used it to “anoint” himself before preaching![1]

However, this kind of pragmatic or superstitious view of Spurgeon’s ministry misses the point in two significant ways. First, the power of his ministry laid not in any of his methods but the work of the Holy Spirit. What Spurgeon experienced in his day was nothing less than a Spirit-wrought revival. Certainly, he believed in the Spirit’s use of means, like the preaching of the Word and the consecration of the preacher. But Spurgeon rejected all worldly pragmatism that compromised the purity of the church and the truth of the Word. Despite the many self-anointed revivalists of his day, Spurgeon repudiated the idea that a revival could be manufactured. Instead, he believed that every conversion was a miracle effected by God’s sovereign grace through the gospel.

Second, we must not forget that Spurgeon was a needy sinner like every one of us. He confessed to his struggle with pride. As he took on more projects, he became overworked and struggled to delegate his responsibilities. He was not always careful in his choice of words. Not only that, but Spurgeon dealt with all kinds of suffering. Due to the tremendous pressure, he battled with depression and other psychological trauma from his ministry. Throughout his life, he dealt with gout, kidney stones, smallpox, and many other ailments. In other words, Spurgeon did not see himself as some kind of superman. Rather, he was deeply aware of his need for God’s sustaining grace. This, perhaps, was the secret to his ministry: not his strength, but weakness. These struggles forced him to depend on God in prayer every moment he got up to preach.

To merely look to Spurgeon is actually to misunderstand the most fundamental things about who he was and what he accomplished. Instead, our goal should be to look through Spurgeon.

The Gift of Looking through Spurgeon

When I was deciding what to work on for my doctoral dissertation, one of my mentors encouraged me to study Spurgeon—“Edification guaranteed!” It turns out he was right. I could not think of a better way to spend four years than reading Spurgeon’s sermons and writings. However, to my surprise, it was not just his teaching that I found encouraging. I was encouraged and challenged by his life just as much.

Looking through Spurgeon means seeing in Spurgeon a model of faithfulness. This does not mean growing a beard or mimicking his personality. Rather, it means obeying Paul’s command to imitate our leaders as they imitate Christ. As a pastor who preached week after week, conducted membership interviews, counseled members, led his elders and deacons, practiced church discipline, trained other pastors, experienced opposition, and much more, Spurgeon provides for pastors today a partner and mentor in ministry, who modeled faithfulness amid many challenges.

Of course, not only pastors but all Christians can benefit from looking through Spurgeon. For those who will take time to read his many sermons and books, what they will see first and foremost is Spurgeon’s Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. In his first sermon in the newly constructed Metropolitan Tabernacle, Spurgeon declared:

I would propose that the subject of the ministry of this house, as long as this platform shall stand, and as long as this house shall be frequented by worshippers, shall be the person of Jesus Christ. I am never ashamed to avow myself a Calvinist…I do not hesitate to take the name of Baptist…but if I am asked to say what is my creed, I think I must reply—“It is Jesus Christ.”

This is why Spurgeon remains so relevant in our day. He did not merely address the contemporary issues of his day, but he preached the eternal gospel. Though dead, he still speaks, and he points all Christians to the riches found in Jesus Christ.

The story is told that on one occasion, a group of American pastors decided to travel to London in the 1880s and they decided to hear the two greatest preachers of their day. One Sunday, they went to a prominent church in London, with a congregation of over 3,000 members. The Americans were struck by the preaching, and they left marveling and saying, “What a great preacher! What a great preacher!” The following Sunday, the pastors went to the Metropolitan Tabernacle to hear Spurgeon preach. This time, they left, marveling and proclaiming, “What a great Savior! What a great Savior!” In this, Spurgeon sets a worthy goal for all of our ministries. May we help others look not to us, but through us, to see our great Savior.

 

Geoff Chang | Assistant Professor of Church History and Historical Theology; Curator of the Spurgeon Library

 

[1] In full disclosure, we also have a bottle of murky water taken from the River Lark on display at the Spurgeon Library.

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