The year is 1875. You’re a second-year student at the Pastors’ College. It’s been a long week of rigorous lectures and study on theology, mathematics, literature, rhetoric, biblical languages, and more. You’ve recently launched an evangelistic mission in a needy district of East London, so many of your evenings have been occupied. And as a member of the Metropolitan Tabernacle, you have meetings to attend and people to disciple. But now, it’s Friday afternoon, your favorite time of the week. Why?
Because this is the time you get to hear from Charles Spurgeon up close.
You’re chatting with your classmates when Spurgeon walks in the classroom with a hearty greeting and a large stack of books in his arms. There he is: the most famous preacher of the century. And yet here, he’s simply your pastor. After a word of prayer and brief preliminaries, Spurgeon begins to work through his stack. Out of his own personal reading, here are books he thinks future pastors should know about: new publications, classic works, Bible commentaries, and works of theology, philosophy, hymnody, science, and all kinds of other genres. Books worthy of investment are commended, while more dubious works are properly cautioned. You’ve always enjoyed this time and taken careful notes. Through Spurgeon’s recommendations, you’ve built a theological library and have been introduced to some of your favorite authors.
Then comes the highlight. As a father among his sons, Spurgeon delivers an hour-long lecture on some aspect of Christian ministry: preaching, sermon preparation, personal holiness, dealing with criticism, praying publicly, and much more. But these aren’t dry, academic lectures. No, these are warm, personal, sometimes hilarious, always instructive talks, drawing from Spurgeon’s personal experience and applying the wisdom and truths of Scripture to the work of a pastor. Soon you will be sent off into the difficult work of pastoral ministry. But the memory of these Friday-afternoon lectures will stay with you for many years to come.
It is from these lectures, given by Spurgeon at the Pastors’ College, that we have his classic work Lectures to My Students.
There are four series (or volumes) associated with Lectures. The first contains fourteen lectures, including some of Spurgeon’s most famous lectures on the life of the pastor. These include “The Minister’s Self-Watch,” “The Preacher’s Private Prayer,” and “The Minister’s Fainting Fits.” Several of these lectures also deal with Spurgeon’s favorite topic: preaching. From choosing a text to the importance of the voice, to the danger of wrongly spiritualizing a text, these lectures contain all kinds of practical wisdom from the Prince of Preachers.
The second series contains ten more lectures on an assortment of ministry-related topics, like pastoral growth, preaching for conversions, and dependence on the Holy Spirit. The third series, originally known as The Art of Illustration, contains seven lectures mostly focused on preaching and teaching. Here, Spurgeon teaches on the importance of illustrations and anecdotes, providing wisdom for how to use them and where to find them.
The fourth and final series, also known as Commenting and Commentaries, contains two lectures, one on the importance of “commenting” (public Scripture reading), and the other on the use of commentaries. The rest of the volume offers a catalog of commentaries. Amazingly, Spurgeon provides brief and insightful comments for 1,429 commentaries, on every book of the Bible, covering almost four centuries of Christian scholarship. This was a remarkable achievement in his day, and it stands as a reminder to preachers today of the importance of study.
Each of the four volumes is worth reading. (Keep in mind that modern publications of Lectures to My Students will usually publish Commenting and Commentaries separately.) I find that Spurgeon’s writing style continues to translate well into our day, so I would recommend finding an unabridged edition, with minimal (or no) modernization to the language. For those who are on a budget or prefer eBooks, PDF scans of Lectures can also be found online. At Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary’s Spurgeon Library, we hope to make scans of Spurgeon’s own copies available on Spurgeon.org in the coming year.
Why should a pastor or church leader read these lectures? Consider three reasons.
First, these lectures arise out of Spurgeon’s own pastoral experience, including the hardships of ministry. If you are a pastor and you have not yet experienced “fainting fits” or the spiritual discouragement that can come over pastors in their ministry, you would do well to read that lecture to prepare.
And if you are currently in such a dark experience, Spurgeon can become a pastoral mentor for you in navigating your way through it. Similarly, pastors would do well to read “The Blind Eye and the Deaf Ear” with careful attention. As a pastor of a church with a membership of over five thousand, here was Spurgeon’s counsel on how to wisely filter and respond to gossip, criticism, conflicts, and other pastoral difficulties. The wisdom here may prove crucial for a pastor’s survival in the ministry.
It’s easy to admire Spurgeon’s many accomplishments, but it would be wrong to think that his pastoral experience was simply one triumph after another. Rather, Spurgeon knew intimately the financial issues, health challenges, spiritual exhaustion, criticisms, and all kinds of other trials that pastors face. These lectures contain the wise counsel of one who persevered in faithfulness amid those trials.
Help for Preachers
Second, Lectures contains some of Spurgeon’s best teaching on preaching, presenting both a theological understanding of the role of preaching, as well as practical instruction on preaching itself. At the heart of Spurgeon’s philosophy of ministry was the preaching of the word, because God’s word is what saves sinners and unites the church. He often said to his students, “The pulpit is the Thermopylae of Christendom: there the fight will be lost or won.” If you’re a pastor who is growing weary of preaching and beginning to lose heart in that work, these lectures may very well be the encouragement you need to see afresh the importance of your preaching ministry.
“At the heart of Spurgeon’s philosophy of ministry was the preaching of the word.”
But how can you grow in your preaching? One way is by learning from other preachers. In these lectures, Spurgeon also gets into the mechanics of preaching and provides all kinds of practical wisdom. When was the last time you thought about the role of posture and gestures in your preaching? How can you make your sermons more interesting through the intentional use of illustrations? Are there ways you can improve your sermon-writing process? Spurgeon addresses all these topics and more. Many pastors today lack mentors to help them grow in their preaching. But in Lectures, pastors have an opportunity to be discipled in their preaching by the Prince of Preachers.
Our Glorious Call
Finally, in Lectures Spurgeon reminds us of the glorious call of pastoral ministry. As engaging, humorous, and illustrative as these lectures are, they also hold serious reminders of our weighty calling as Christian ministers. The first three lectures of the first volume — calling ministers to holiness, to a proper view of their calling, and to private prayer — could be consulted annually by pastors in self-examination. In a day when many preachers are marked by vanity, worldliness, and celebrity, Spurgeon presents to us a vision of the pastorate that is sober, self-controlled, and centered on Christ.
“Spurgeon presents to us a vision of the pastorate that is sober, self-controlled, and centered on Christ.”
Beyond the pastor’s private life, Spurgeon also presents a vision for long-term faithfulness. The lectures on ministerial progress, earnestness, and dependence on the Holy Spirit provide a roadmap for a lifetime of faithful ministry. Many today easily get caught up in church-growth metrics and social-media influence; Spurgeon calls pastors to preach the word, work hard, remain prayerful, and entrust the results to God. In all these lectures, he presents a vision of pastoral ministry that conducts itself in the fear of God and in love for his people.
Even pastors need mentors, and who else better to learn from than a fellow pastor who served faithfully in his church for 38 years and saw God work mightily through his ministry? So grab yourself a copy. Even better, find other pastors and church leaders to work through it together. And return to those warm Friday-afternoon lectures to hear from Spurgeon himself.