God of Ages Past
The Awakening We Need Today
Over 38 years of pastoral ministry at New Park Street Chapel (later to become The Metropolitan Tabernacle), Charles Spurgeon and the church added nearly 14,000 people into membership. Of that number, how many would you guess were brought into the church through baptism — as new souls won to the Savior?
I would have guessed up to 3,500. Most, I would have reasoned, transferred from other churches to hear the generation’s greatest preacher. Further, 3,500 people baptized — on average 92 a year, nearly 2 per week for 38 years — seems like a downpour of blessing compared to the trickle of conversions I am accustomed to.
In his wonderful book Spurgeon the Pastor, Geoffrey Chang gives us the answer. “Spurgeon took in 13,797 people into membership. Of that number 10,063 (73%) were taken into membership through baptism,” the rest through transfer (20%) and by profession (7%) (110). Meaning, “most of the membership of the Tabernacle was made up of those who were converted through the ministry of the church” (112).
In one generation, over 10,000 brought into one local church through baptism. Can you imagine?
The astonishment deepens when Chang documents how Spurgeon detested lax standards of baptism and membership. Meaning, the church did not baptize on a whim. Those ten thousand did not raise a hand in one moment of passion and wade into the pool a few minutes later. Spurgeon refused to boast of “unhatched chickens” (112). Rather, the church remained serious about regenerate membership, with a process on the front end that towers over many churches today.
Above all, Chang writes of Spurgeon, “he wanted to see people brought into the church from the world” (111). His hunger to see God save souls was contagious. He could not conceive of the church of Jesus Christ not winning her Master’s spoils.
I should reckon it to be a burning disgrace if it could be said, “The large church under that man’s pastoral care is composed of members whom he has stolen away from other Christian churches.” No, but I value beyond all price the godless, the careless, who are brought out from the world into communion with Christ. (111)
“Spurgeon could not conceive of the church of Jesus Christ not winning her Master’s spoils.”
How many pastors and churches today think this way? Or, most convicting to me, how many believe this way? How many really believe God can build our churches primarily through baptism? I struggle to. How many really believe we can see a revival of a neighborhood, town, city, or nation with that old rugged gospel? I struggle to. How many really plead for God to move mightily among us as of old? I struggle to.
Stories like these stir a restlessness in me.
I read of God’s work in other lands and times, and wonder at such little resemblance to my own experience. They lived in an epic, it seems. I turn the pages of Scripture to read of my forebears “who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight” (Hebrews 11:33–35). What would they read flipping through the pages of my life?
Continuing on, I read of a mighty gospel “turning the world upside down” (Acts 17:6). In special epochs — distant epochs — I read of major cities casting their idols into the fire (Acts 19:18–19), and of conviction for sin shattering hearts by the hundreds and thousands (Acts 2:37–41). I read of Great Awakenings on our own shores, as many looked up from their snake-bitten condition to Christ and were healed. Homes and streets were filled with heavenly conversation, they say. Multitudes lived with sobriety over sin and a fear of the wrath to come. Hearts seemed fuller, worship more robust, and the next life with Christ the grand desire.
Different times, I sigh. Then seemed to have something happening, something inbreaking, something at stake. Before them waters parted and revivals fell and mountains moved into the heart of the sea. Life was less certain, perhaps (I did not cite the next verses in Hebrews 11, detailing torture, flogging, and sawing in two), but as the fingers of time pressed firmly upon the neck, immortal beings felt their fleeting pulse and lived nearer, at least as I imagine, to the world to come.
Same Yesterday and Today
But on most days, that world and those times feel behind us. We live now — in a world of smartphones, freeways, and antibiotics. Modern man is too scientific, too enlightened — my unbelief contributes — to be won as less sophisticated generations were.
Today, more and more simply dismiss claims of religion, the Bible, and even objective truth. Today, the throb for that inarticulate something is often dulled by the endless buffet of amusements. Today, the breach between this world and the next is wider. The graveyard lies farther away. Loved ones are pulled through the door less unexpectedly; and when they are, we soothe ourselves with good vibes and vague hopes. Death’s noose is loosened just enough that few consider their end.
I am tempted to believe that the God of today is less immense, less relevant, and generally more nonintrusive than in former years. Like a president who has served his terms, he retired to his heavenly estate to enjoy the quiet life. We preach of God, but how often do we meet him? We teach classes on the Great Commission, but how often do we baptize? But what makes my soul bleed is this: How often have I even noticed the scarcity — or cared? Look up from your screens and worldly interests, Jesus says: “I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see that the fields are white for harvest” (John 4:35).
Spurgeon, seeking to rouse the church (and his own soul), likened many Christians to the disciples falling asleep in Gethsemane:
Christ is up yonder interceding, and we are down here sleeping, the most of us. Christ is up there showing his wounds, and pleading before the Father’s throne that he would visit the sons of men, and give him to see of the travail of his soul, and here are we, not watching against his enemies, nor helping him by our prayers; but are busy here and there wasting precious time, while immortal souls are being lost. We are sleeping like men in the midst of harvest when the grain is waiting for the sickle. (“The Church Aroused”)
His sermon text: “Awake thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light” (Ephesians 5:14 KJV).
Ye of Little Faith
Perhaps this is all an errant assessment — romanticizing the past and overlooking present triumphs. God has certainly not retired. Does a single hour pass without heaven rejoicing over the repentance of a sinner?
But from my view, in my own limited experience and spheres, something feels lacking. Perhaps you feel it too. Less soldierly, more civilian. Less awake, more drowsy. Less expectant, more complacent.
Risk great things for Christ? Stop scrolling and watching and coasting, and live in this greatest of all stories? Leave the Shire for adventure? No, I too often think with Bilbo, “Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner! I can’t think what anybody sees in them!” (The Hobbit, 6).
“The gospel that sent a thunderclap through the world is the same we tell forth now.”
The difference is not with the times as much as it is with me. The God of yesterday — the God of Moses and David and Paul and Luther and Whitefield and Spurgeon — is the God of today. The gospel that sent a thunderclap through the world is the same we tell forth now. The Spirit, the mission, the urgency, the enemies have not changed. His promise to be with us now and unto the end of the age has not undergone amendment (Matthew 28:20). My faith and wakefulness and prayer and questing (or lack thereof) better explain castles untaken, souls unwon. Sentinels sleep upon the watchtower.
I’ve needed to repent before our Lord for my small estimations of the King’s power and his willingness to work powerfully today. Maybe you have reason to do the same. Through even this one example of Spurgeon’s ministry, I’ve become more restless not seeing people added to the church regularly:
More rainless than the desert sand,
No place more parched in all the land,
This drought — above all droughts — abysmal,
The empty pool, the dry baptismal.
Satan laughs, accusing fraud:
“Behold the shortened arm of God!
Behold the fountain, now a tomb;
Behold the barren, lifeless womb!”
Satan nor his works renounced,
No triune loyalties pronounced.
No signal of heaven’s addition,
No evidence of Great Commission.
Spurgeon kept the baptismal pool filled — even when no baptisms were scheduled (81). His people would always have the mission set before them. May our pools be figuratively filled with importunate prayers, compassionate tears, and joyful proclamations of the excellencies of our glorious Christ. May we be fully awake, fully alive, sowing much. And let us look to the God of our ancestors to answer us from heaven.