The Life and Ministry of Charles Spurgeon

Inaugural Spurgeon Lecture | Reformed Theological Seminary

Orlando, FL

Charles Spurgeon was the kind of Calvinist who would have celebrated the founding of the Nicole Institute of Baptist Studies at this non-Baptist Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando. One of the reasons we can know this is that Spurgeon appointed George Rogers to be the first principal of his Pastors’ College. Rogers was a Congregationalist and a paedobaptist. He could not even have been a member of Spurgeon’s own church, the Metropolitan Tabernacle.1

Spurgeon was a Baptist, but like some of us—and perhaps like Roger Nicole—he did not always find his deepest soul-brothers among his own Baptist denomination. He put it this way:

If I disagree with a man on 99 points, but happen to be one with him in baptism—this can never furnish such ground of unity as I have with another with whom I believe in 99 points, and only happen to differ upon one ordinance.2

In fact in the late 1880s during the Downgrade controversy over liberalism in the Baptist Union, it was the evangelical Anglicans who supported Spurgeon while he was vilified by most of the more liberal Baptists. There was in Spurgeon’s life and preaching such a robust, joyful, serious, Christ-exalting, atonement-cherishing, God-centeredness that he felt a kinship with anyone who had these same instincts, regardless of denomination. Here’s how he described his Calvinism:

To me, Calvinism means the placing of the eternal God at the head of all things. I look at everything through its relation to God's glory. I see God first, and man far down in the list. . . . Brethren, if we live in sympathy with God, we delight to hear Him say, “I am God, and there is none else.”3

He was through and through a Calvinist not out of any allegiance to a system or a tradition or a denomination, but because he thought Calvinism was simply a poor name for the full-blooded biblical gospel.

Puritanism, Protestantism, Calvinism [he said, are simply] . . . poor names which the world has given to our great and glorious faith,—the doctrine of Paul the apostle, the gospel of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.4

That’s why he was open and unashamed to preach the whole counsel of God even if it was called Calvinism. It was the gospel. “People come to me for one thing. . . I preach to them a Calvinist creed and a Puritan morality. That is what they want and that is what they get. If they want anything else they must go elsewhere.”5

But he was so riveted on the substitutionary atonement through the cross and on the supremacy of Jesus Christ that he could smell the aroma of new birth in many places outside his Calvinist tribe.

Far be it for me to imagine that Zion contains none but Calvinistic Christians within her walls, or that there are none saved who do not hold our views.6. . . I rejoice to confess that I feel sure there are some of God's people even in the Romish Church.7

On the first Sunday in the newly built, 5,600-seat Metropolitan Tabernacle in London, Spurgeon set these things in perspective. It was 1861. He was 27 years old. He had been at his church since he was 19 and was now moving into a huge new building.

I would propose that the subject of the ministry in 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 what is my creed, I reply, “It is Jesus Christ.”8

So I am sure he would be pleased not only with the founding of the Nicole Institute of Baptist Studies at RTS, but also that we are here mainly to magnify Jesus Christ and his word rather than the man, Charles Spurgeon.

But let me give you just one biblical warrant for making the life of this man the lens for looking at Jesus. You might think I would go to Hebrews 11 which is a great biblical warrant for loving Christian biography. But I am rather going to cite Philippians 3:17, “Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us.” Not just keep your eyes on Christ. And not just keep your eyes on Paul who imitates Christ (1 Cor. 11:1). But keep your eyes on those who “walk according to the example you have in [Paul].” So first there is Christ, then Paul, then those who follow Paul’s example, then the Philippians, each being inspired and guided by those before.

And, surely, there is no reason to think that this process of appropriate imitation and inspiration should stop after the third generation following Christ. So I would say, wherever you see a life lived in the power of Christ, according to the word of Christ, for the glory of Christ, “keep your eyes on that life.” Spurgeon is one of those lives. And that’s what we are doing.

Charles Haddon Spurgeon was born June 19, 1834 at Kelvedon, Essex in England the first of 17 children. He was converted at the age of 16, remarkably in a snow storm through a lay Methodist preacher, and a year later became the pastor at Waterbeach Chapel in Cambridge—and never had any formal theological education. Yet he was perhaps the most well-read pastor in England. His 5,103 volume personal library was purchased in 1906 by William Jewell College in Liberty, Missouri for $2,500, and then in 2006 by Midwestern Baptist Seminary in Kansas City, Missouri for $400,000.

About three years later in 1854 at the age of 19 he began his ministry at New Park Street Church, London with about 200 people. Two years later, 1856, he married Susannah Thompson who bore him twin sons, Charles and Thomas (who followed his father as pastor after his father’s death). He preached at this church, later named the Metropolitan Tabernacle, for 38 years and died at the age of 57 in 1892 (four years before my grandmother was born).

Spurgeon is considered by many to be one of the greatest preachers since the days of the apostles. He had preached over 600 times before he was 20 years old. In those pre-radio, pre-television, pre-internet days, his sermons sold about 20,000 copies a week being translated into 20 languages. The collected sermons fill 63 volumes equivalent to the 27 volume ninth edition of Encyclopedia Britannica, and “stands as the largest set of books by a single author in the history of Christianity.”9 There were no microphones and he projected his voice so that 5,000 people could hear him week in and week out.

You might think that his son would be a biased witness, but on the other hand, sons of preachers are just as often critical of their fathers. It’s not a lopsided judgment when Charles says,

There was no one who could preach like my father. In inexhaustible variety, witty wisdom, vigorous proclamation, loving entreaty, and lucid teaching, with a multitude of other qualities, he must, at least in my opinion, ever be regarded as the prince of preachers.10

And surely that is not a bad title for one with such extraordinary gifts, and remarkable qualities that set him off in ability and accomplishment in a class almost by himself. And what I would like to do in the time we have is direct your attention to two of those qualities that have inspired me and that I pray will be instilled in the pastors being trained here at RTS and through the Nicole Institute of Baptist Studies.

1. Spurgeon loved God-centered, Christ-exalting, Bible-saturated truth and exulted over it in the pulpit.

Spurgeon defined the work of the preacher like this: “To know truth as it should be known, to love it as it should be loved, and then to proclaim it in the right spirit, and in its proper proportions.”11 He said to his students, “To be effective preachers you must be sound theologians.”12 He warned that “those who do away with Christian doctrine are, whether they are aware of it or not, the worst enemies of Christian living . . . [because] the coals of orthodoxy are necessary to the fire of piety.”13

Two years before he died he gave an illustration of how crucial truth is in the ministry and reveals some of the humor that marked his ministry in a very serious way.

Some excellent brethren seem to think more of the life than of the truth; for when I warn them that the enemy has poisoned the children's bread, they answer ‘Dear brother, we are sorry to hear it; and, to counteract the evil, we will open the window, and give the children fresh air.’ Yes, open the window, and give them fresh air, by all means. . . . But, at the same time, this ought you to have done, and not to have left the other undone. Arrest the poisoners, and open the windows, too. While men go on preaching false doctrine, you may talk as much as you will about deepening their spiritual life, but you will fail in it.14

And I can testify that in the last two months of transition at our church as my official ministry there has come to a close, the most common expression of thankfulness is from those people who say that the storms of suffering have not overturned the boat of their faith because of the ballast of God-centered truth—God-centered doctrine—laid down in the bottom of their boat through the preaching of God’s word. But it is absolutely crucial that preachers take all three admonitions seriously: “To know truth as it should be known, to love it as it should be loved, and then to proclaim it in the right spirit, and in its proper proportions.”

Paul speaks in 2 Thessalonians 2:10 of those who “are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved.” When preachers realize, as Spurgeon did, that people perish for not loving the truth then they will give themselves to knowing it and loving it and proclaiming it in the beauty of biblical proportions.

The source of the truth in all Spurgeon’s preaching was the God-breathed, inerrant Christian Scriptures. He held up his Bible and said,

These words are God’s. . . . Thou book of vast authority, thou art a proclamation from the Emperor of Heaven; far be it from me to exercise my reason in contradicting thee. . . . This is the book untainted by any error; but it is pure unalloyed, perfect truth. Why? Because God wrote it.15

Spurgeon was not just a Bible-based preacher, but a Bible-saturated preacher. My passion for younger preachers today is that they not preach sermons that hover just above the text constantly making points that people do not see in the text, but that they explain what is in the text clearly and exult over what is in the text passionately, and that they do it in such a way that the people can see exactly where they got it—the very phrases, the very logic. Spurgeon has a famous passage where he pleads for preachers to be Bible-saturated, not just Bible-based.

Oh, that you and I might get into the very heart of the Word of God, and get that Word into ourselves! As I have seen the silkworm eat it into the leaf, and consume it, so ought we to do with the Word of the Lord; Not crawl over its surface, but eat right into it till we have taken it into our inmost parts. It is idle merely to let the eye glance over the word . . . but it is blessed to eat into the very soul of the Bible until, at last, you come to talk in Scriptural language, and your very style is fashioned upon Scripture models, and, what is better still, your spirit is flavored with the words of the Lord.

I would quote John Bunyan as an instance of what I mean. Read anything of his, and you will see that it is almost like reading the Bible itself. He had studied our Authorized Version . . . till his whole being was saturated with Scripture; and, though his writings are charmingly full of poetry, yet he cannot give us his Pilgrim’s Progress—that sweetest of all prose poems,—without continually making us feel and say, “Why, the man is a living Bible!” Prick him anywhere; and you will find that his blood is Bibline, the very essence of the Bible flows from him.16

I pray that RTS and the Nicole Institute of Baptist Studies will be lovingly known as Reformed Bible-saturated Theological Seminary and the Nicole Institute of Bible-saturated Baptist Studies. Spurgeon is a great example of loving the whole of biblical truth and exulting over it in the pulpit.

2. Spurgeon loved people and labored to win them and build them.

It appears that during his mature ministry there was not a week that went by that souls were not saved through his preached and published sermons.17 He and his elders were always on the “watch for souls” in the great congregation. “One brother,” he said, “has earned for himself the title of my hunting dog, for he is always ready to pick up the wounded birds.”18

Spurgeon let us see his heart for people’s eternal good when he said,

I remember, when I have preached at different times in the country, and sometimes here, that my whole soul has agonized over men, every nerve of my body has been strained and I could have wept my very being out of my eyes and carried my whole frame away in a flood of tears, if I could but win souls.19

He was consumed with the glory of God and the salvation of men. He embodies Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 12:15. “I will most gladly spend and be spent for your souls.” And 1 Corinthians 9:22, “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some.” He was driven never to be satisfied with past pursuits, but pressed ever forward (like Paul in Phil. 3:14) toward greater holiness and greater fruitfulness. “Satisfaction with results will be the [death] knell of progress. No man is good who thinks that he cannot be better. He has no holiness who thinks that he is holy enough.”20

The year he turned 40 he delivered a message to his pastors’ conference with the one-word title, “Forward!” In it he said,

In every minister’s life there should be traces of stern labor. Brethren, do something; do something; do something. While Committees waste their time over resolutions, do something. While Societies and Unions are making constitutions, let us win souls. Too often we discuss, and discuss, and discuss, while Satan only laughs in his sleeve. . . . Get to work and quit yourselves like men.21

Part of his motive in the indefatigable way he pursued the salvation of sinners was his earnest belief in future, eternal punishment and the glories of heaven.

Meditate with deep solemnity upon the fate of the lost sinner ... Shun all views of future punishment which would make it appear less terrible, and so take off the edge of your anxiety to save immortals from the quenchless flame ... Think much also of the bliss of the sinner saved, and like holy Baxter derive rich arguments from “the saints’ everlasting rest.” ... There will be no fear of your being lethargic if you are continually familiar with eternal realities.22

When Spurgeon’s love for God-centered, Bible-saturated, Christ-exalting truth fed his zeal for perishing sinners, an avalanche of energy and ministry was created.

No one living knows the toil and care I have to bear ... I have to look after the Orphanage, have charge of a church with four thousand members, sometimes there are marriages and burials to be undertaken, there is the weekly sermon to be revised, The Sword and the Trowel to be edited, and besides all that, a weekly average of five hundred letters to be answered. This, however, is only half my duty, for there are innumerable churches established by friends, with the affairs of which I am closely connected, to say nothing of the cases of difficulty which are constantly being referred to me.23

At his 50th birthday a list of 66 organizations was read that he founded and conducted. Lord Shaftesbury was there and said, “This list of associations, instituted by his genius, and superintended by his care, were more than enough to occupy the minds and hearts of fifty ordinary men.”24

The missionary David Livingstone, asked him once, “How do you manage to do two men’s work in a single day? Spurgeon replied, “You have forgotten there are two of us.”25 I think he meant the presence of Christ's energizing power that we read about in Colossians 1:29. Paul says, “I labor, striving according to His power, which mightily works within me.” Oh that every pastor who draws here would learn the secret of striving in the power that Christ mightily works in him.

Spurgeon stands as a witness to what happens when love for God-centered, Christ-exalting, Bible-saturated truth feeds the flame of love for people—people who will perish without that truth—that God, that Christ. An explosion of zeal and energy and creativity for in the church. All of it aiming to glorify God and bring sinners into the fullness of joy in him.

So may God make Reformed Theological Seminary and the Nicole Institute of Baptist Studies a breeding ground for such love for truth and such love for people and such creative energy for ministry.

  1. Geoff Thomas, “The Preacher’s Progress” in A Marvelous Ministry: How the All-Round Ministry of Charles Haddon Spurgeon Speaks to Us Today, (Ligonier, PA: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1993), p. 61. Spurgeon said, he “would rather give up his pastorate than admit any man to the church who was not obedient to his Lord’s command [of baptism].” Ibid. p. 43. 

  2. Ibid. p. 61 (cf. Sword and Trowel, XXIV, 1883, p. 83). 

  3. Charles Haddon Spurgeon, An All Round Ministry, (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1960), p. 337. 

  4. An All Round Ministry, p. 160. 

  5. A Marvelous Ministry, p. 38. 

  6. A Marvelous Ministry, p. 65. 

  7. C. H. Spurgeon: Autobiography, vol. 2, (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1973), p. 21. 

  8. Bob L. Ross, A Pictorial Biography of C. H. Spurgeon, (Pasadena, TX: Pilgrim Publications, 1974), p. 66. 

  9. Eric W. Hayden, “Did You Know?” in Christian History, Issue 29, Volume X, No. 1, p. 2. 

  10. Autobiography, vol. 2, p. 278. 

  11. Charles Haddon Spurgeon, An All Round Ministry, p. 8. 

  12. Ibid. 

  13. A Marvelous Ministry, p. 128. 

  14. An All Round Ministry, p. 374. 

  15. A Marvelous Ministry, p. 47. 

  16. Autobiography, vol. 3, p. 268. 

  17. Arnold Dallimore, Spurgeon, (Chicago: Moody Press, 1984), p. 198.

  18. Autobiography, vol. 2, p. 76.

  19. A Marvelous Ministry, pp. 49–50.

  20. An All Round Ministry, p. 352.

  21. An All Round Ministry, p. 55.

  22. Charles Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students, p. 315.

  23. Autobiography, vol. 2, p. 192. 

  24. Dallimore, Spurgeon, p. 173. 

  25. Eric W. Hayden, "Did You Know?" in Christian History, Issue 29, Volume X, No. 1, p. 3.