There is biblical warrant for studying the lives of great men and women of faith. Much of the Bible consists of stories about people. God knows that we learn by example. Seeing how different people succeeded or failed in real life situations helps translate faith into practical insights to guide us through life’s many difficult situations and decisions. Bible stories show us that God saw a need to wrap theology in human flesh—the incarnation of Jesus Christ being the supreme example.
After looking in the first article at how studying the lives of past "Giants of the Past" can be helpful, this study looks at the lives of John Calvin, John Bunyan, and Charles Spurgeon. This series of articles was originally prepared for a Bible conference in June, 2006.
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For many years, men have gone to great hardship and effort to mine for gold. They have endured freezing temperatures in the Klondike, they have tunneled into the hard Rocky Mountains in spots that are difficult just to hike to, let alone to carry out gold ore. Men would shoot other men in arguments over a claim. They did it all to get the gold.
I’d like to tell you about some rich sources of spiritual gold that are there for the mining. These are found in reading the biographies of the great saints from the past. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, who has been called the greatest preacher in the English language in the 20th century (no small compliment!) said, “There is nothing more important for preaching than the reading of Church history and biographies” (Preaching & Preachers [Zondervan], p. 317).
There is biblical warrant for studying the lives of great men and women of faith. The rabbis said that God made people because He loves stories. Much of the Bible—far more than the didactic portions—consists of stories about people. God knows that we learn by example. Seeing how different people succeeded or failed in real life situations helps translate faith into practical insights to guide us through life’s many difficult situations and decisions. Bible stories show us that God saw a need to wrap theology in human flesh—the incarnation of Jesus Christ being the supreme example.
I began reading Christian biographies in the summer of 1970 when I read George Muller of Bristol by A. T. Pierson. God used that book to show me that I could trust Him and that He is a God who answers prayer. Since then I have read dozens of biographies or books on church history. It is rare that I come away empty. Sometimes the lessons are mistakes to avoid, but that also can be profitable! Here are four ways that reading Christian biographies has helped me:
Reading Christian biographies has helped me appreciate my spiritual roots. It helps me put our times and my own circumstances in perspective. It helps me realize that I’m carrying the torch handed to me by those who went before, and that I must hand it off intact to those who come after me.
There are very few new doctrinal errors or church problems that have not already come around in the past 2,000 years of church history. The Jehovah’s Witnesses are really just recycled Arians. The current non-lordship salvation controversy is a rerun of an error from the 18th century, promoted by a man named Robert Sandeman (1718-1771). If you’re having struggles in your church and the members are threatening to fire you, you can read how Jonathan Edwards’ church fired him, even after he had led them through the revivals of the First Great Awakening. You can read of how men of God endured persecution, hardship, and sometimes martyrdom, yet remained faithful to the Lord. Knowing the price that some of these men paid to hand off the message to us will give you strength to endure when you feel like quitting.
Dr. Albert Schweitzer was asked what is the best way to raise children. He wisely replied, “There are three ways: 1) By example, 2) By example, and 3) By example.” I disagree with the man’s theology, but he was right on that point. God has made us so that from our earliest days, we learn from models. We pick up attitudes and actions by watching how our parents and others around us live.
The same is true spiritually. We learn by watching models who “flesh out” Christian principles in their daily lives. When I was younger in the faith, I wanted someone to disciple me. I tried several different men, but it never seemed to work out. But in a very real sense, I have been discipled by some of the greatest Christians who have ever lived, by reading their biographies and their sermons and books. Here are some who have helped me most:
Five of my most influential models have been John Calvin (16th century), John Bunyan (17th century), Jonathan Edwards (18th century), Charles Spurgeon (19th century), and Martyn Lloyd-Jones (20th century). All were pastors and strong preachers. Their ministries affirm the power of biblical preaching backed by godly lives.
I have always admired men who can combine solid biblical scholarship with vibrant, genuine love for God. Through their deep study of the Scriptures, these men knew God and they knew the hearts of people. They were able to bridge that gap with powerful preaching. Each man had a passion to see lost people coming to faith in the Savior.
They each faced intense pressure to compromise the gospel or their doctrine. But they held the line. Each was involved in painful controversies that took an emotional toll on them. Calvin was a frail, painfully shy, scholarly man, but he was thrust into the limelight and constantly under opposition. Bunyan spent years in jail because he dared to preach without a license. Edwards was removed from his pastorate and he and his family (ten children at that time) nearly starved, because he came to hold that only saved people in the church could partake of communion. Many attribute Spurgeon’s final decline in health to his grief over the “Downgrade Controversy.” Lloyd-Jones paid a price by standing alone against the encroachment of liberalism into British evangelicalism.
Reading the lives of these men has motivated me to deepen my theological roots. They have shown me the shallowness of my love for Christ and the need to walk in daily reality with Him. I’ve been strengthened to take a stand on the theological issues that really matter, rather than go with the tolerant mood of our day. I have worked harder to base my preaching on solid biblical scholarship, but to communicate it in a way that connects with the average person. They’ve shown me that in whatever century, the simple gospel is still the power of God to salvation to everyone who believes.
Besides these great men, I have many more models. Francis Schaeffer has reinforced the need to blend compassion with truth, scholarship with evangelism, and orthodoxy with spiritual reality. His model of strong family life in the midst of fishbowl living has been of great help.
George Muller impresses me with the practicality of a life of prayer and faith. Hudson Taylor, Jim Elliot, and Bruce Olson all give me examples of men who bucked the Christian establishment and endured hardships to further God’s work in difficult areas.
Adoniram Judson has shown me a model of endurance and faithfulness through horrible trials and discouragements. Judson served 33 years without a furlough, often working 12-hour days. He endured a horrible two-year imprisonment and torture, after which he lost his wife and baby daughter and went through a time of severe depression. He later lost another wife. It took him 14 years of disciplined translation work after his first wife’s death (not counting the many years with her at his side) before he sent the completed Burmese Bible to the printer. Thinking about Judson helps me put in perspective the criticism that I endure in pastoral ministry. If Judson endured all that, I can survive a rough elder board meeting! Maybe I don’t have it so bad!
We’re all limited by the fact that we are creatures of our time and culture. We tend to view issues from the perspective that we almost unconsciously absorb from the theological and social climate in which we live. It’s as if we’re born in the forest and start walking, not quite sure where all the various trails come from or lead to. Reading Christian biographies is like climbing a high mountain so that you can get a feel for the lay of the land.
Reading biographies of men who grew up in different times under different cultural influences, broadens me. To read of Anglicans, Lutherans, Plymouth Brethren, Baptists, Presbyterians, and others who loved and served the same Lord widens my understanding of what God is doing. It makes me less sectarian, less consumed with minor issues and narrow viewpoints.
It also gives me perspective on how the Christianity of our day has drifted. As I read their lives and their sermons, I realize how shallow our ministries and churches are today. These men knew God in a way that I don’t! As I see the trials that they endured, I realize how emotionally fragile today’s pastors have become. Their trials drove them to rely on Christ in ways that we do not have to in our day. Instead of going deeper with Christ, we go to Christian psychologists for insights on coping with stress and burnout!
But these men worked circles around us. Their output is staggering! Many of them labored long hours in spite of illnesses that would cause us to get out of the ministry. Calvin, who was often ill, would lie in bed and dictate his commentaries in Latin to secretaries on one side of the bed. While they caught up, he would turn to the other side of the bed and dictate in French. Then he would pick up right where he left off with the Latin dictation!
So reading Christian biographies has taken me up the mountain for a clearer view of my own and others’ theological perspectives. This has helped me sort through which issues are crucial and worth fighting for. It has shown me areas where I need to grow more in the Lord. If I need a good dose of humility, I just read a Jonathan Edwards sermon. He was so far ahead of me in the Lord that reading him makes me wonder if I’m even saved! But that’s good for me at times.
I’ve discovered that there are two types of Christian biographies. Many of the older works fall into what I would call the “eulogy” genre. They approach the subject as we deal with the deceased at funerals: They emphasize his good points and overlook his faults. But more recent biographers tend to take a more honest look at their subjects, exposing the shortcomings and all.
If you uncritically read biographies of the “eulogy” genre, you can become depressed, thinking, “That guy almost walked on water. I’ll never attain the high level of spirituality he had.” But if you read more honest biographies (and read between the lines of the eulogy-type), you discover that God has used some very rough instruments. You find that the great strengths of some of the giants were also the flip side of great weaknesses and blind spots. Men and women who were unswerving in their commitment to Christ were sometimes stubborn and ran roughshod over people. And yet God used them greatly!
This is not to excuse their problems and sins, nor to excuse my own. But, like many pastors, I tend to be hard on myself. When I read of others who did great things for God, it helps me to realize that they weren’t perfect. Far from it!
John Wesley and William Carey had difficult marriages. Carey’s wife didn’t want to go to the mission field, and when she finally yielded to her husband’s pressure and went to India, she went insane. Jonathan Edwards had trouble relating to people socially and tended to stay holed up in his study. I wonder if he would have weathered the theological controversy that cost him his pastorate if he had been warmer relationally.
David Livingstone was a loner who had numerous conflicts with fellow workers. He carried a revolver and sometimes brandished it in the face of belligerent African chiefs. He essentially abandoned his wife and children, who suffered greatly without him. Yet God used Livingstone to open Africa to the gospel!
Many great missionaries sacrificed their families for the cause. Some were unable to relate well to people, including their own mates and children. C. T. Studd, famous for the quote, “If Christ be God and died for me, no sacrifice is too great for me to make for Him,” left his wife in poor health and went to Africa, returning to see her only once in the final 16 years of her life. He worked 18-hour days and expected everyone else to do likewise. His intense dedication to the cause of Christ made him intolerant of anyone who wasn’t equally committed. He alienated everyone around him, including his daughter and son-in-law, and was finally dismissed by the mission he had founded.
My point is not to be critical of these servants of the Lord nor, by pointing out their sin, to excuse my own. But seeing their shortcomings and failures helps me accept imperfect people, including myself. It helps me remember that there never has been a perfect church, so mine probably won’t be. The saints who are extolled as attaining such a high level of spirituality struggled with many of the same problems that I do.
And yet God did some significant things with these imperfect men and women. Thousands of lives have been changed. In some cases, the history of nations and of western civilization has been altered through these godly, yet very human, instruments. Maybe there’s hope that God can use even me! I pray that we all will be motivated to dig out the gold from these godly men of the past!
© Steven J. Cole, 2006
In my spiritual life, the men who have helped me the most possess two qualities: solid biblical scholarship and a fervent heart of devotion for God. Some men are impressive Bible scholars, but they are like spiritual dry toast. These men could look at a picture of a beautiful mountain scene and criticize the technical skill of the photographer, while missing the dramatic beauty of the picture. They are like builders who spend all their time looking at detailed blueprints, but they never get the whole thing built so that they can stand back and enjoy its beauty and function.
On the other hand, there are those who are fervent in their love for Jesus, but their doctrine is so shallow that you’re not sure if they know much at all about who Jesus really is. They get tossed around by every wind of doctrine that comes along. They build the house without any thought about the foundation or the plans. You wouldn’t want to move into such a house! But the men who feed me know the Scriptures and base everything on the Word. They have thought through the great doctrines of the faith, and out of such study have a heart of love for the Savior.
It may surprise you to learn that John Calvin was just such a man. He is usually perceived as a stern, cold, austere scholar. But when you read his writings, you learn that devotion for Christ and a desire for His glory drove John Calvin. Certainly any man whose writings are not only still in print, but widely read and extolled, nearly 450 years after his death, is worth getting to know!
Calvin was born in France in 1509. When Martin Luther nailed his now-famous 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenburg, Calvin was just 8 years old. Calvin’s home, like almost every other home in France, was Roman Catholic. His grandparents were common people; one grandfather was a barrel-maker and boatman, the other an innkeeper. Calvin’s father had improved his lot by becoming a successful lawyer. At first he determined that his son would be a clergyman, serving as a chaplain to one of the universities. But after Calvin had studied in this direction for a while, learning Latin and philosophy, his father changed his mind and decided that John should be a lawyer. Although John had no love for studying law, as a dutiful son he complied.
During these years, the printing press, which was less than 75 years old, was revolutionizing society by disseminating affordable editions of the Latin and Greek classics, as well as Greek and Hebrew Bibles. Many of the Reformation pamphlets and books were also being circulated. While Calvin studied law at Orleans, some of his friends had made the shift into the ranks of the Reformation. One was Calvin’s cousin, Pierre Robert, nicknamed Olivetanus (“Midnight Oil”) because of his habit of late night studying. Through his influence, Calvin began reading the Bible and began to abhor many of the superstitions and rites of the Roman Catholic Church. At some time in 1529 or early 1530 (some put it as late as 1532), Calvin was converted.
His only reference to his conversion is an obscure comment in the preface to his commentary on the Psalms. In setting forth his credentials to expound on the Psalms, Calvin compares himself with David, whom God chose from the sheepfold to be in a position of authority, in that God chose Calvin from humble beginnings to be a preacher of the gospel. He describes how he was pursuing a career in law. Then, in his words (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker reprint] preface to Psalms, pp. xl, xli),
And first, since I was too obstinately devoted to the superstitions of Popery to be easily extricated from so profound an abyss of mire, God by a sudden conversion subdued and brought my mind to a teachable frame, which was more hardened in such matters than might have been expected from one at my early period of life. Having thus received some taste and knowledge of true godliness, I was immediately inflamed with so intense a desire to make progress therein, that although I did not altogether leave off other studies, I yet pursued them with less ardor.
He goes on to say that within a year, he was surprised to find that people who desired purer doctrine were coming to him to learn. Being a shy and reclusive man, he sought a place where he could be more withdrawn from public view, but God did not allow it and instead thrust him into public notice. In his attempt to get away, and to escape from official persecution in France, Calvin moved to Basel, Germany. While there, he heard reports of Christians being falsely accused and burned at the stake in France. He knew that if he kept quiet and did not do all within his power to oppose such tyranny, he would be a coward and traitor to the cause of Christ. This motivated him to write and publish the Institutes of the Christian Religion (preface to Psalms, pp. xli, xlii). The word “Institutes” might better be translated “Principles,” but it has so long been called the Institutes that that title has stuck.
The original edition (published in 1536, written before Calvin was 27, less than six years after his conversion) was a relatively brief treatise (about 500 pages) intended as an elementary manual for general readers who wanted to know something about the evangelical faith. He wanted to correct some of the slanderous things being said about those holding to the Reformation teachings and he wanted to provide instruction in matters of salvation and godliness for those who did not yet have a knowledge of God. He wanted to show that evangelicals held to the great creeds of Christendom, that they sought to obey God’s moral law, and that they were loyal to the established political order.
Thus he had two main purposes in writing the Institutes: first, to show that the evangelical faith was not some radical new thing, but rather the faith of Christ and the apostles, and that it was the Catholic Church that had departed far from the truths of the Bible. Second, he wanted to give instruction in the principles of salvation and godly living for people who desired to know God, but, invariably, had been led astray by Rome. T. H. L. Parker says, “Calvin intended it to be elementary” (John Calvin [Lion], p. 42).
The original version had six chapters on the Law, the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, the sacraments, false sacraments, and final chapter on Christian liberty, church government, and civil government. The prefatory address to King Francis sought to persuade him to lift the persecution against evangelical Christians. John McNeill writes, “Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion is one of the few books that have profoundly affected the course of history” (The History and Character of Calvinism [Oxford], p. 119). Throughout his life, he worked on multiple revisions, until the final version of 1559.
The book met with immediate popularity, which seemed almost to embarrass Calvin. He kept it a secret in Basel and everywhere else he went that he was the author of the work. In August, 1536, he was on his way to Strasbourg by a roundabout way because of a local war. His party stopped in Geneva to spend the night, intending to resume their journey in the morning. Geneva had just decided for the Reformation a month or two earlier under the leadership of William Farel. Someone told Farel that the author of the Institutes was staying in town that night. Farel went straight to the inn and sought to persuade Calvin to settle in Geneva and help with the struggling new church.
Calvin protested that he was a scholar and writer, not a pastor or administrator. He told Farel that he would have to find someone else to help. Calvin said he was heading for Strasbourg in the morning. Farel finally grew so frustrated that he pronounced what Calvin later called “a dreadful imprecation,” saying that if he pursued his course of staying out of the limelight so that he could study, God would curse his studies. Calvin, who always had a sensitive conscience, was terror-stricken. He stopped his journey, settled in Geneva, and lived there until his death in 1564, except for three years (1538-1541) when he was banished by his opponents. Even during his banishment he sought to return to his private ways, but Martin Bucer laid hold of him in a manner similar to that of Farel and persuaded him that he must be in public ministry. He dreaded the return to Geneva when that invitation came, but he went in obedience to God.
Calvin has been one of the most maligned and misunderstood men in the history of the church. Jerome Bolsec, a monk who was converted to Protestantism, but fell out with Calvin over his view of predestination and returned to the Roman Catholic Church, accused Calvin “of being ambitious, presumptuous, arrogant, cruel, evil, vindictive, avaricious, greedy, and ignorant; an imposter and charlatan who claimed he could raise the dead; a lover of rich fare and a bi-sexual who indulged sexually with any and every female within walking distance and for whose homosexual habits his birth city … had sentenced him to be branded with a hot iron; and who, as an outcast of God, was ‘eaten with lice and vermin all over his body,’ wasted away as punishment for his sins, and died cursing and swearing as a blasphemer” (in Robert Reymond, John Calvin: His Life and Influence [Evangelical Press], p. 135! If any of these charges were true, Calvin would not have influenced thousands of godly men down through the centuries. But Bolsec’s outlandish vehemence shows how much some have hated the man! Here are some other examples (from Christian History magazine, Vol. V, No. 4, p. 3):
“Better with Beza in hell than with Calvin in heaven!” (A saying coined by Calvin’s enemies in Geneva.)
“[Calvin] belonged to the ranks of the greatest haters in history.” (Erich Fromm)
[Calvin was] “one of the terribly pure men who pitilessly enforce principles.” (H. Daniel Ropps, Catholic theologian)
“But we shall always find it hard to love the man [Calvin] who darkened the human soul with the most absurd and blasphemous conception of God in all the long and honored history of nonsense.” (Will Durant, historian)
“The famous Calvin, whom we regard as the Apostle of Geneva, raised himself up to the rank of Pope of the Protestants.” (Voltaire, French philosopher)
“Calvin has, I believe, caused untold millions of souls to be damned …” (Jimmy Swaggart, evangelist)
“If Calvin ever wrote anything in favor of religious liberty, it was a typographical error.” (Roland Bainton, Yale Church historian)
[Calvin was] the “cruel” and “the unopposed dictator of Geneva.” (Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church)
As the last quote alleges, he is often pictured as the mean despot who ruled Geneva with absolute authority. The fact is, he was a godly, humble man who was strongly opposed for holding to God’s truth. He never held civil office, and he wasn’t even granted citizenship until 1559, five years before his death.
Calvin’s opponents did not just argue against his views. Although by nature Calvin was very shy, frail, and hated conflict, his enemies often commanded their dogs to go after him, fired their muskets outside the window of his house and outside the church during his preaching. They sometimes tried to drown out his preaching by coughing loudly or talking. They threatened to kill him and they spread deliberately false stories about him. J. I. Packer says, “The amount of misrepresentation to which Calvin’s theology has been subjected is enough to prove his doctrine of total depravity several times over” (Great Leaders of the Christian Church [Moody], ed. by John Woodbridge, p. 213).
From his late 20’s on, Calvin suffered many physical infirmities: impaired digestion (he only ate one meal a day), migraines, lung hemorrhages, perhaps tuberculosis, chronic asthma, kidney stones, hemorrhoids, frequent fever, and gout. He did not sleep more than four hours a night. Even when he was ill, he kept four secretaries going with dictation in both French and Latin. He revised and expanded the Institutes over the course of his life, until the final 1559 edition. He wrote commentaries on almost every book of the Bible, based on the original Hebrew and Greek, which he knew well. His correspondence to leaders of the Reformation around the world and to others takes up 11 volumes. He preached two different sermons every Sunday, plus every day on alternate weeks (6 a.m., 7 in the winter). He averaged 170 sermons per year (Reymond, p. 84). The weeks he wasn’t preaching every day he lectured three times to pastoral students. He also met every Thursday with the church leaders, counseled with numerous individuals, and entertained many guests at his home.
When Calvin was 31, he married Idelette, the widow of a friend. She had two children from her first husband. She and Calvin had a premature son who died at two weeks old. They had a daughter who died at birth and another child was born prematurely and died. Idelette’s health declined from there. She probably had tuberculosis and died after nine years of marriage to John. While many of Calvin’s Geneva enemies attacked him, even naming their dogs after him, the most difficult thing for him to bear was when they attacked his wife. They spread rumors that she was a woman of ill repute and that her two children had been born out of wedlock. They said that the reason she and Calvin could not have children was God’s punishment for her previous immorality. Calvin saw her as his best friend and supporter, and her death left him overwhelmed by grief. He never married again.
Calvin believed that “the preacher’s primary task was to expound Holy Scripture, which is, so to say, the voice of God himself” (T. H. L. Parker, Calvin’s Preaching [Westminster/John Knox Press], p. 17; hereafter, CP). In Calvin’s opinion, preaching was like a visitation from God, through which He reaches out His hands to draw us to Himself (Christian History, [V, 4], p. 10). He insisted “that the preacher is to invent nothing of his own but declare only what has been revealed and recorded in Holy Scripture” (CP, p. 22). Parker says (p. 107), “Through all the variety occasioned by the variety of the texts there runs the Biblical point of view—the hidden God reveals himself for man’s eternal and temporal good. It is this that governs Calvin’s interpretation and application of his texts.”
Thankfully, there are many volumes of Calvin’s sermons still in print. I have read several of them and have found them to have many rich devotional insights. They are not carefully structured, but are more like a practical running commentary on the text. Calvin could prepare a sermon in an hour or less (Theodore Beza, The Life of John Calvin [Evangelical Press], p. 124). But remember that he had written commentaries on almost all of the texts that he preached on and he had an amazing memory that enabled him to recall almost everything! He emphasized the need for studious, thoughtful preparation (CP, p. 81). He preached without notes, directly from his Hebrew or Greek Bible (ibid.). He could remember all that he studied and bring it to bear on the sermon, even when it involved a wealth of historical detail (Beza, p. 124). He would explain the text simply, in language that the people could understand (CP, pp. 141, 148). He never cited Hebrew or Greek words directly in sermons (CP, p. 86), but he was always knowledgeable of interpretive issues and options. He often cites the views of other scholars (without naming them) before giving his opinion and the reasons for it.
Although he never used anecdotes in the pulpit, he sometimes used satirical humor. For example, he said, “One does not hear a single word of teaching from [the Pope’s] mouth; that would impair his dignity.” Or, “when women who put on make-up come out into the sun and get hot, the make-up comes off and one sees the wrinkles.” So it is with hypocrites (CP, p. 148).
In Geneva’s three churches, the Word was preached every day of the week and twice on Sunday, with sermons lasting for more than an hour. Calvin rarely preached topical sermons, but rather taught consecutively through books of the Bible. When he was banished from Geneva for three years, his first Sunday back in the pulpit he picked up with the next verse following his previous sermon three years before (T. H. L. Parker, John Calvin [Lion], p. 108)! Sometimes he would preach several sermons on a single verse. At other times, he would cover several verses (CP, p. 84). He preached 123 sermons on Genesis, 200 on Deuteronomy, 159 on Job, 174 on Ezekiel, 189 on Acts, and even 25 sermons on the 5 chapters of Lamentations and 5 sermons on the one chapter of Obadiah (CP, p. 159)!
The typical stereotype of Calvin is that he was a stern, stuffy, academic theologian, who constantly harped on predestination in a cold, heartless manner. But, actually, he was deeply devotional and godly in his personal life. He emphasized that a preacher must study the Bible because he loves it and because it moves him (CP, p. 39). He said, “To be good theologians we must lead a holy life. The Word of God is not to teach us to prattle, not to make us eloquent and subtle and I know not what. It is to reform our life, so that it is known that we desire to serve God, to give ourselves entirely to him and to conform ourselves to his good will” (CP, p. 15).
“For Calvin the message of Scripture is sovereign, sovereign over the congregation and sovereign over the preacher” (ibid.). Thus when he preached, Calvin put himself with the congregation under the preeminence of the message of Scripture. Parker (p. 119) observes that Calvin didn’t impatiently berate his hearers or rebuke them with a holier than thou attitude. Rather, “It is simply one man, conscious of his sins, aware how little progress he makes and how hard it is to be a doer of the Word, sympathetically passing on to his people (whom he knows to have the same sort of problems as himself) what God has said to them and to him.”
Although he was shy in private, in the pulpit he was passionate and dynamic. He was aware of the authority of the Word as coming from God, and so people needed to be pierced. “The preacher has to use vehemence, so that we may know that this is not a game” (CP, pp. 10, 12). The preacher must combine sweetness and gentleness with vigor and vehemence (CP, p. 14). He must speak as an ambassador, “in a way that shows he is not pretending” (CP, p. 115). In a comment that could be aimed at the modern trend toward entertainment and drama in the church, he said, “Let us learn that God does not intend there to be churches as places for people to make merry and laugh in, as if a comedy were being acted here. But there must be majesty in his Word, by which we may be moved and affected” (ibid.).
If you want to learn more, I highly commend Parker’s Calvin’s Preaching. From that work and from my reading of Calvin’s sermons and commentaries, let me summarize some of the key lessons that we can learn from his preaching.
The text should determine the structure and development of the sermon. Some texts require more explanation before we move to application. Other texts are fairly obvious in their meaning, but require practical understanding on how to implement the text into daily life. But the text should govern the message. A verse should never be a springboard for us to launch off on our own ideas.
The aim of preaching is that God may be the better honored and glorified among us (CP, p. 46). Calvin often reverently refers to God as “the Majesty.” His messages breathe a holy reverence for God.
Preaching on Paul’s statement that he is the chief of sinners (1 Tim. 1:13-15), Calvin says, “Paul humbled himself in this confession, in order that God’s glory might be the better known. And this is a general truth; God is never exalted as he deserves to be unless we are completely ashamed and overwhelmed” (CP, pp. 103-104). He often mentions our own complete poverty and wretchedness (CP, p. 95). Lest you think that Calvin piously blasted his hearers, Parker points out (p. 116) that Calvin aimed every sermon first and foremost at himself. He was not just imposing Scripture on others, but he had to be the first to obey it. Calvin humorously said, “It would be better for [the preacher] to break his neck going up into the pulpit if he does not take pains to be the first to follow God” (CP, p. 40). Parker observes (p. 119), “Because he is always aware of his solidarity in sin with all his hearers, there is no moral brutality of the strong Christian bullying the weak.”
Calvin says that when the word humbles us by true self-knowledge, we flee to the grace of Christ (CP, p. 30). The only subject being treated throughout every sermon is, “God as he gives himself to be known by us in Jesus Christ” (CP, p. 97). He said, “So, then, our faith must look to our Lord Jesus Christ and our gaze must be fastened entirely on him, or else we cannot approach God his Father—for in ourselves we are too far away” (CP, p. 99). This is not to say that every sermon focuses on Christ or the gospel. When he preached through Old Testament books, Calvin stuck to the historical context in his interpretation and exposition. But then he would apply it in light of Christ and the gospel (CP, p. 92).
The aim of all preaching is to change our lives. Even in his commentaries, you can scarcely find a page where Calvin does not apply the text in a practical way. In expounding on 2 Timothy 3:16, which says that Scripture is profitable for reproof and correction, he said, “Those who cannot bear to be reproved had better look for another school-master than God. There are many who will not stand it: ‘What! Is this the way to teach? Ho! We want to be won by sweetness.’ You do? Then go and teach God his lessons! ‘Ho! We want to be won in another style.’ Well, then, go to the devil’s school! He will flatter you enough—and destroy you” (CP, p. 14).
He said (CP, pp. 11-12), “When I expound Holy Scripture, I must always make this my rule: That those who hear me may receive profit from the teaching I put forward and be edified unto salvation.” He goes on to say that if we do not aim at that, we profane God’s Word. He asks, “Why do we come to the sermon?” He answers, “It is that God may govern us and that we may have our Lord Jesus Christ as sovereign Teacher” (CP, p. 26). Growth in holiness is always the bottom line of preaching.
I agree with J. I. Packer, who writes of Calvin (Great Leaders, p. 213),
He was, in fact, the finest exegete, the greatest systematic theologian, and the profoundest religious thinker that the Reformation produced. Bible-centered in his teaching, God-centered in his living, and Christ-centered in his faith, he integrated the confessional emphases of Reformation thought—faith alone, by Scripture alone, by grace alone, by Christ alone, for God’s glory alone—with supreme clarity and strength. He was ruled by two convictions that are written on every regenerate heart and expressed in every act of real prayer and real worship: God is all and man is nothing; and praise is due to God for everything good. Both convictions permeated his life, right up to his final direction that his tomb be unmarked and there be no speeches at his burial, lest he become the focus of praise instead of his God. Both convictions permeate his theology too.
Theodore Beza, who worked closely with Calvin in Geneva and became his successor after Calvin’s death, knew Calvin as few men did. He wrote of him (Christian History, p. 19), “I have been a witness of him for sixteen years and I think that I am fully entitled to say that in this man there was exhibited to all an example of the life and death of the Christian, such as it will not be easy to depreciate, and it will be difficult to imitate.” This understanding of Calvin as a godly man, who has had an almost unparalleled impact on the history of the church, suggests that we all can learn much from John Calvin and his preaching.
© Steven J. Cole, 2006
On March 24, 1974, the day after our wedding, my wife, Marla, and I rented a rowboat at Lake Arrowhead, California. Because my wife married a cheapskate, my intention was to rent the boat for only one hour. I planned to row out into the lake for about 20 minutes, sit and bask in the presence of my bride for about 20 minutes, and row back in time to avoid the charge for the second hour.
When I got to the point where I planned to sit for 20 minutes, I lined myself up with two separate points on shore to make sure I wasn’t drifting too far from my spot. Every so often, I rowed back to where I thought the two points lined up. But when it was time for the 20-minute row back to the rental place, I was in for a surprise. I discovered that in spite of my precautions, we had drifted much farther out into the lake than I had thought. To get us back to shore in time, I had to row like an Olympic crew member!
I have found that spiritually, it’s easy to think that you’re on course when actually, you’re drifting. For years in my pastoral ministry, I thought I was giving my people solid biblical principles to live by. I had graduated from a seminary whose motto, emblazoned in the original Greek at the front of the chapel, was, “Preach the Word” (2 Tim. 4:2). I had been trained in how to exegete Scripture, how to prepare and deliver biblical sermons, and how to counsel people from the Bible.
Like most of my evangelical pastor-comrades, my preaching was often flavored by the latest insights of psychology. Of course, I would never use psychological insights unless they were in line with Scripture. But, at the same time, I had been taught in seminary, “All truth is God’s truth.” If a psychologist stumbles across some biblical principle, why not use it? Doesn’t the Bible teach proper self-love, as long as I’m not proud (“love your neighbor as yourself,” Matt. 22:39)? Isn’t God’s love for me the basis for proper self-esteem? Aren’t parents supposed to build their children’s self-esteem?
So I preached sermons such as “Feeling Good About Yourself” and “Developing a Sense of Self-Worth,” based on Scripture (so I thought), laced with insights, quotes, and stories from the leading Christian psychologists, whose books and articles I read. I attended conferences where these men provided training in various aspects of pastoral ministry and counseling. I used videos and conferences by Christian psychologists to help train people in things like child-rearing and marital relationships. In the early 1980’s, I tried to publish a book on the Christian and emotions, which I thought at the time was solidly biblical. I’m thankful now that it never found a publisher.
Although we did not have support groups in our church (because I was too busy to organize them), I was open to using programs like A. A. to help minister to hurting people. After all, the 12 Steps sounded biblical, many evangelical churches used them, and they seemed to help people. I had an associate pastor who wanted to start such a group in the church, and initially I was agreeable.
But then, after about 13 years in the pastorate, God graciously whacked me on the side of the head with a two-by-four to show me where I had drifted off course. At the time, I wasn’t unhappy with my view of the Christian life. I would have argued that I was solidly biblical, that I only used psychology to illustrate or supplement biblical principles, and that I was communicating in terms that my congregation could relate to.
God sovereignly brought together several factors to confront me with the need to change. One of the most powerful was that for the first time I read completely through John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. At the same time, the elders of the church I pastored had assigned another elder and me the task of reading a Christian psychology book that the support group planned to use. The contrast between Calvin on the one hand, and the Christian psychology book on the other was like day and night. God drew a line in the dirt and pointedly said, “Which side are you on?” I couldn’t straddle the line. I had to repent of the psychologized version of the faith I had drifted into and turn back to God-centered Christianity, founded on the all-sufficiency of Christ and the Scriptures.
That was in 1991, and since then I have grown more certain of the evil of blending Christianity and psychology. Just as in Israel of old, men both “feared the Lord and served their own gods according to the custom of the nations” (2 Kings 17:33), so I believe many American Christians have fallen into a syncretistic blending of Christianity and worldly psychology. But the two do not mix!
Before I look at some specific issues, let me emphasize that it took a while for these issues to come into focus for me. I began to have some concerns in the early 1980’s. But I continued to be supportive of using psychology to some degree up till April, 1991, when I came to a crisis point and I had to cross the line. Since then, I have grown more in my understanding of these matters. Some of you may disagree strongly with what I say. I don’t expect everyone to agree with me instantly. But I do hope that I cause you begin to re-think these matters in light of Scripture. I have to be very selective, but I want to present five areas where I believe so-called “Christian psychology” is at odds with biblical truth.
In the late 1980’s, it began to dawn on me in a greater way than ever before that there were many people sitting in my congregation every week who professed to be saved, but there was not much evidence of it in their lives.
In the fall of 1990, as I mentioned, the elders assigned to another elder and me to check out the book that the proposed “Recovery Group” led by my associate wanted to use. This elder and his wife had been on Campus Crusade’s staff for about 20 years and he taught at their seminary (my church was near Crusade’s headquarters and many of our people were on staff). His wife was one of the emotionally “hurting” people who wanted us to start these recovery groups.
The book we read was Henry Cloud’s, When Your World Makes No Sense [Oliver-Nelson, 1990]. I was told that it would help me understand these hurting people. I tried to give it every benefit of a doubt, but there was one part early in the book that troubled me, where Cloud asserts that for these hurting people, the “standard Christian answers” (dealing with sin, faith, obedience, time in the Word and prayer, etc.) did “not work.” He compares such things to the counsel given by Job’s friends, calling it “worthless medicine.” Then he proposes his solution, which is essentially a baptized version of developmental psychology.
As this elder and I were discussing Cloud’s approach, he told me that people like his wife who were from dysfunctional homes could not relate to my preaching because I emphasize obedience to God’s Word. Because they had strict, cold, authoritarian fathers, they don’t relate well to authority. I replied that I thought that I also put a strong emphasis on God’s grace as the motivation for obedience. But he responded that his wife couldn’t even relate to God’s grace—it went right by her. I was a bit taken aback, and so I said, “You mean that the many times I have spoken on God’s grace, she didn’t hear me?” He said yes, in her 20 years on Crusade staff, never once had she felt God’s grace and love on a personal level.
I thought about what he had said and asked some clarifying questions to make sure I understood him. Then I responded, “If your wife has never felt God’s love and grace, she is not converted!” I had been reading Jonathan Edwards’ classic, A Treatise on Religious Affections, in which he makes a strong biblical case that saving faith is not mere intellectual assent to the gospel, but that it affects the heart. This elder got very upset with me. But I stuck to my guns then and do so now, that if a person can sit in church for 20 years and never be moved by God’s grace and love as shown to us at the cross, then that person is not truly converted.
As I thought about what this elder, my associate, Henry Cloud, and others in their camp were saying, I realized that, in effect, they were saying that the transforming power of the gospel, which has sustained the saints in and through every conceivable trial, was not sufficient to deal with the emotional problems of these late 20th century Christians. And, I came to realize that the psychologized approach to Christianity was built on the inadequate theology that equates conversion with making a decision to invite Christ into your heart. But the two are not necessarily synonymous.
Biblically, conversion is the supernatural act of God whereby He imparts spiritual life to a person who is dead in trespasses and sins (Eph. 2:1-5). It is not something that man can effect at all (John 1:12-13). As Calvin (and Edwards) helped me to see, invariably God has revealed to the truly converted person something of His awesome majesty and holiness. Instantly, like Isaiah after his vision of God, the sinner is struck with his utter defilement of heart in the presence of this unapproachable light, and he cries out, “Woe is me, for I am undone!” Rather than feeling better about himself, he feels much worse as he realizes his true condition before the Holy God. Like the man in Jesus’ story, he is even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but he beats his breast and cries out, “God, be merciful to me, the sinner!” (Luke 18:13). And, of course, God is merciful to all who truly call on Him.
Psychologist Henry Cloud (p. 16) contends that any approach that makes the hurting person feel like he is to blame for his pain—whether due to a lack of faith in God or a lack of obedience, or whatever—is “judgmental” and only causes “untold damage.” But Calvin starts out The Institutes in quite the opposite direction:
For, as a veritable world of miseries is to be found in mankind, and we are thereby despoiled of divine raiment, our shameful nakedness exposes a teeming horde of infamies. Each of us must, then be so stung by the consciousness of his own unhappiness as to attain at least some knowledge of God. Thus, from the feeling of our own ignorance, vanity, poverty, infirmity, and—what is more—depravity and corruption, we recognize that the true light of wisdom, sound virtue, full abundance of every good, and purity of righteousness rest in the Lord alone. To this extent we are prompted by our own ills to contemplate the good things of God; and we cannot seriously aspire to him before we begin to become displeased with ourselves (1.1.1).
I believe that there are many people in evangelical churches who have been told, “Peace, peace, when there is no peace.” They think they’re right with God because they went forward or prayed a prayer, but they have never known anything of their own corruption of heart through the convicting ministry of the Holy Spirit. They do not feel, as Spurgeon put it, the noose around their neck, and so they do not weep for joy when the Savior cuts the rope. In many cases, they have not been truly converted. I believe that the Christian psychology movement is built on this faulty view of salvation that minimizes depravity and makes conversion something the sinner can do by deciding for Jesus.
One of the most pervasive errors to flood into the church in the past 25 years is that the Bible teaches that we need to love ourselves and grow in self-esteem. I was influenced toward this view in part by reading James Dobson’s, Hide or Seek , sub-titled “Self-Esteem for the Child.” He contends that there is an epidemic of low self-esteem in our society that is responsible for many of our social ills. His opening illustration is about Lee Harvey Oswald, and how this poor man constantly was put down. The only thing he could do well was shoot a rifle, so he finally was driven to do something where he could feel good about himself: he shot President Kennedy. The clear message is that if somehow this man had felt better about himself, maybe he wouldn’t have done this terrible deed. Dobson also wrote, What Wives Wish Their Husbands Knew About Women [Tyndale, 1975], in which he asserts that low self-esteem is the number one problem plaguing America’s Christian women (p. 22).
This notion pervades dozens of popular Christian books. In Worry-Free Living [Thomas Nelson, 1989], Frank Minirth, Paul Meier, and Don Hawkins state (p. 140) that a lack of self-worth “is the basis of most psychological problems.” They say (p. 139) that the reason David could defeat Goliath but Saul could not is that David had good self-esteem, whereas Saul did not. Or (p. 136), the ten spies who brought back a negative report on the giants in Canaan suffered from a negative self-concept, whereas Joshua and Caleb had a positive self-concept and respected themselves.
I have a brochure from the Rapha Treatment Centers, founded by Robert McGee, author of The Search for Significance. It has glowing endorsements from Billy Graham, Charles Stanley, Dawson McAllister, D. James Kennedy, Jerry Falwell, and Beverly LaHaye. The brochure explains, “Part of Rapha’s success is found in the unique ability to target and resolve problems of low self-esteem. At the core of all emotional problems and addictive disorders is low self-worth. It is never the only problem; but it is so major an issue that, if not dealt with adequately, one is kept from experiencing lasting, positive results.”
I had never gone that far in teaching self-esteem. I was “more balanced”! I taught that too much self-love was pride, but that we must have a proper amount of self-love so that we can have enough confidence to function in life and to serve God. I had used the truths of our position in Christ to support this, along with the command to love your neighbor as yourself.
Then I read Calvin! In discussing original sin, he shows how by fallen nature we all are prone to flatter ourselves because of innate self-love. He states (2.1.2),
Nothing pleases man more than the sort of alluring talk that tickles the pride that itches in his very marrow. Therefore, in nearly every age, when anyone publicly extolled human nature in most favorable terms, he was listened to with applause.
He goes on to say that such building up of fallen human nature teaches us to be satisfied with ourselves, but that “it so deceives as to drive those who assent to it into utter ruin.” Later, in discussing our need to love our neighbor as the fulfillment of the law, he states (2.8.54),
Obviously, since men were born in such a state that they are all too much inclined to self-love—and, however much they deviate from truth, they still keep self-love—there was no need of a law that would increase or rather enkindle this already excessive love. Hence, it is very clear that we keep the commandments not by loving ourselves but by loving God and neighbor; that he lives the best and holiest life who lives and strives for himself as little as he can, and that no one lives in a worse or more evil manner than he who lives and strives for himself alone, and thinks about and seeks only his own advantage.
Indeed, to express how profoundly we must be inclined to love our neighbors [Lev. 19:18], the Lord measured it by the love of ourselves because he had at hand no more violent or stronger emotion than this.
He goes on to refute certain men in his day who taught, as many modern Christian psychologists teach, that we must first learn to love ourselves before we can love God and others.
As opposed to self-love, Calvin repeatedly emphasizes humility as the chief virtue. In a chapter dealing with the bondage of the will in sin (2.2.11), he cites Augustine,
“When anyone realizes that in himself he is nothing and from himself he has no help, the weapons within him are broken, the wars are over. But all the weapons of impiety must be shattered, broken, and burned; you must remain unarmed, you must have no help in yourself. The weaker you are in yourself, the more readily the Lord will receive you.”
Calvin concludes, “But I require only that, laying aside the disease of self-love and ambition, by which he is blinded and thinks more highly of himself than he ought [Gal. 6:3], he rightly recognize himself in the faithful mirror of Scripture [cf. James 1:22-25].”
Also, Calvin has a wonderful chapter titled, “The Sum of the Christian Life: The Denial of Ourselves” (3.7). As I read Calvin’s solidly biblical treatment of the nature of man and sin, I realized that I had erred greatly by falling into the “proper self-esteem” teaching of Christian psychology. I realized that Christian psychology served to build man up in his sin and to pull God down as our good buddy who loves us unconditionally so that we can accept ourselves. But the Bible lifts God up in holy majesty, while it strips man of his pride and self-righteousness and lays even the most righteous man on earth in the dust so that he proclaims, “I am insignificant; what can I reply to You?… I abhor myself and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 40:4; 42:6).
Stemming from the wrong view of self and of God, I also began to see that Christian psychology does not direct people toward the proper focus of glorifying God and living to please Him, no matter what the cost. Rather, it uses God and the Bible for the selfish ends of happiness and inner peace. The Christian psychology books invariably quote numerous Scriptures and, at times, even expound on them. This gives these books the veneer of sounding biblical. But the heart of their approach is using God to make self happy or fulfilled, rather than submitting to God to glorify Him because He alone deserves it. That is the essence of idolatry!
I finally came to see that this was the problem with the popular 12 Step programs that have also invaded the church. When I was looking for some way to help these hurting people in my church, a man gave me a video and workbook that was being used in Chuck Swindoll’s thriving Fullerton Evangelical Free Church. I respected Chuck and had benefited from his preaching ministry, so I was hopeful that I could use the material.
But as I examined it, I became disturbed. It used Scripture references often, but it wove in all the familiar stuff about low self-worth. It said that the cure to our emotional problems comes when we learn to focus on ourselves, to love ourselves and build our self-esteem, which is the missing ingredient in our personalities. I realized that the 12 Step programs are simply using God (however you conceive him to be!) to make self happy.
In contrast to Christian psychology, Jesus states that if you want to follow Him the very first thing is to deny yourself and take up your cross daily (Luke 9:23). The two approaches cannot be blended. Either you repent of self-love and pride and die to self so as to live for the glory of God and His purpose, or you vainly try to use God to further your own happiness. To follow Jesus, self must constantly be dethroned.
Henry Cloud (ibid., p. 17) states flatly, “I tried the ‘standard’ Christian answers for myself and others, and I came to the same conclusions that Job reached: they are worthless medicine.” These standard answers are to tell people that they are in sin, that they don’t have enough faith, that they don’t spend enough time in the Word or in prayer, or that they are in some other way to blame for their pain (p. 16). In other words, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit are not enough. You need the insights of psychology to deal with your emotional struggles.
But the Bible is clear that the living Lord Jesus Christ is everything to the believer. “In Him all the fulness of Deity dwells in bodily form, and in Him you have been made complete” (Col. 2:9, 10). Furthermore, He has not left us alone, but has freely given us His Holy Spirit to indwell and empower us. If we walk by the Spirit, we will not carry out the desires of the flesh. Rather, His fruit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control—will characterize our lives (Gal. 5:16, 22, 23). Those qualities describe a psychologically mature, whole person. Being fruit, they take time to develop. They are not attained without effort and struggle. But the Bible does not say that these qualities are available to everyone from fairly normal backgrounds, but those from dysfunctional homes will have to wait for psychotherapy to come along to attain them! It promises this fruit to every believer who will walk in dependence on the Holy Spirit.
I am not suggesting that for the believer, life is effortless and easy, where we are never down, we never struggle with feelings of despair, depression, anxiety, or fear. The Bible shows us godly men and women who wrestled with overwhelming emotions as they went through horrible trials. Paul himself said that he was burdened so excessively that he despaired even of life. But did he go visit his therapist and learn to feel better about himself? No, he says that the point of his awful trial was so that “we should not trust in ourselves, but in God who raises the dead” (2 Cor. 1:8, 9).
One of the main purposes of trials is to teach us that same lesson, not to trust ourselves, but to trust even more fully the all-sufficiency of our Lord Jesus Christ. Sometimes trials also teach us that we need one another in the body, to bear one another’s burdens. So when I talk of the all-sufficiency of Christ, I am not excluding the need for fellow believers to listen and care and counsel. But we should be helping one another to appropriate Christ, not the latest techniques of self-focused psychotherapy.
This is related to the sufficiency of Christ and the Holy Spirit, of course. But it extends to all of Scripture. Christian psychology tells us that the Word is fine, as far as it goes, but that it does not deal with all the complex problems we face nowadays. The Bible is fine for dealing with spiritual matters of salvation, but when it comes to grappling with emotional problems, you need a trained therapist. For example, Christianity Today [2/10/92, p. 28] pontificated, “Myth: A pastor is competent to counsel his parishioners. Fact: Most pastors are armed with only a meager knowledge of behavioral therapies. A pastor’s calling is, primarily, a spiritual one, helping people to find strength in God’s presence and a sense of divine direction in the midst of difficulty. Psychological adjustment is a different matter, and when it requires serious attention, pastors should find ways of partnering with professional counselors or psychiatrists.”
Sadly, even R. C. Sproul, whose teaching I usually appreciate, buys into the view that Scripture is not sufficient for the believer. In his “Tabletalk” magazine [2/94], he ran an article by John Coe from the Rosemead School of Psychology. Coe develops the argument that Scripture is only part of God’s revelation. He cites Thomas Aquinas to testify that God not only speaks to us through the Word, but also in nature. Coe contends, “Only when all forms of revelation are taken together can we speak of the sufficiency of revelation.” He says, “the Bible provides the divine interpretation of aspects of history and nature. But alone it is insufficient.” He states that the author of Ecclesiastes “is conscious of both the insufficiency of the Bible alone as well as of natural wisdom alone.”
Coe is trying to establish that we need the wisdom gained through psychology to supplement Scripture, because “all truth is God’s truth.” The Bible doesn’t tell us all we need to know about medicine or mathematics. Thus it is foolish to ignore the “wisdom” of modern psychology.
But these arguments are fallacious and detrimental to the authority of Scripture. The real issue is, how do we determine what truth is, especially in the psychological realm? Psychology encroaches on issues that are dealt with quite clearly in the Bible: anger, lust (“sexual addiction”), bitterness, anxiety, abusive speech, depression, and many other areas. The whole Bible is aimed at helping us to have healthy relationships (“love your neighbor”). The Bible speaks to some medical issues, but that is not its focus. But it clearly tells us how to deal with the very problems psychology purports to help us resolve. And psychology invariably takes a different approach than Scripture, because it is self-focused and not concerned with pleasing God. Furthermore, it is fallacious to assume that psychology is a science on a par with modern medicine. There are literally hundreds of competing psychotherapies that do not have any scientifically established validity. If there are psychological “truths,” then they will line up with Scripture, in which case psychology is superfluous.
One of the things that strikes me in reading Calvin is that through Scripture alone he was able to extricate himself from the monolithic influence of Roman Catholicism. Because he was steeped in the Word Calvin lived a godly life in spite of almost constant bodily illness and in spite of intense opposition to his teaching. His universal test for everything was, What does Scripture say? As a pastor, he helped his people deal with all the trials of that time by preaching and counseling strictly from God’s Word. The Bible claims that it will equip the man of God for every good work. A psychologically or emotionally impaired person is not so equipped. God’s precious and magnificent promises, along with His divine power grant to us everything pertaining to life and godliness (2 Pet. 1:3, 4). What more do we need to face life’s problems? Certainly not worldly psychology!
If you’ve read any of the popular Christian psychology literature, I won’t need to prove for you that the Christian psychology movement greatly minimizes the biblical view of sin and personal responsibility. The movement consistently uses medical terminology that implies that the person is not responsible for his problems. He is “a sexual addict,” not enslaved to lust. He is an alcoholic, not a drunkard. He is in recovery, not repentance. A workbook called, “The Twelve Steps for Christians,” used by Chuck Swindoll’s former church in Fullerton states,
For Christians who suffer from an addictive disease, or who are the product of a family with addictive traits, the Church’s judgmental messages can be especially troublesome. They can keep a person from seeking recovery….
As we become willing to admit our dysfunction to ourselves and others in recovery, we will see that this process is healing and rewarding….
It goes on to tell us that we need “to acknowledge and even befriend our negative or repressed nature.” We will learn “to accept our unwanted tendencies such as anger, inappropriate sexual behavior, hostility or aggression.”
Did you notice, there was no mention of sin, corruption, repentance, or God’s undeserved favor? A few pages later the manual lists some milestones in recovery. One is that we “generally approve of ourselves.” Another states that “we are recovering through loving and focusing on ourselves.” “We feel comfortable standing up for ourselves when it is appropriate.” “We love people who love and take care of themselves.” “We have a healthy sense of self-esteem.”
I could go on and on citing examples of the psychobabble that has flooded the church. It simply echoes the current cultural emphasis on victimization and self-acceptance, no matter how terribly a person has sinned.
In stark contrast, Calvin is refreshingly humble in classing himself and all believers as sinners. In his great chapter on repentance, he states (3.3.10), “We … teach that in the saints, until they are divested of mortal bodies, there is always sin; for in their flesh there resides that depravity of inordinate desiring which contends against righteousness.” Later in the same chapter (3.3.20), he calls us to a life of “continual effort and exercise in the mortification of the flesh, till it is utterly slain, and God’s Spirit reigns in us.” He states, “Therefore, I think he has profited greatly who has learned to be very much displeased with himself, not so as to stick fast in this mire and progress no farther, but rather to hasten to God and yearn for him in order that, having been engrafted into the life and death of Christ, he may give attention to continual repentance.”
In his chapter on “Self-denial” (3.7.4; try to find a biblical treatment of self-denial in the Christian psychology books!), Calvin writes most insightfully of our sinful nature:
For, such is the blindness with which we all rush into self-love that each one of us seems to himself to have just cause to be proud of himself and to despise all others in comparison. If God has conferred upon us anything of which we need not repent, relying upon it we immediately lift up our minds, and are not only puffed up but almost burst with pride. The very vices that infest us we take pains to hide from others, while we flatter ourselves with the pretense that they are slight and insignificant, and even sometimes embrace them as virtues. If others manifest the same endowments we admire in ourselves, or even superior ones, we spitefully belittle and revile these gifts in order to avoid yielding place to such persons. If there are any faults in others, not content with noting them with severe and sharp reproach, we hatefully exaggerate them. Hence arises such insolence that each one of us, as if exempt from the common lot, wishes to tower above the rest, and loftily and savagely abuses every mortal man, or at least looks down upon him as inferior…. But there is no one who does not cherish within himself some opinion of his own pre-eminence.
If I were not feeling well, I would want the doctor to tell me the truth about my condition. He may give me hugs and tell me that I’m the most wonderful guy in the world. He may assure me that my problem is minor and tell me that I should ignore how I feel and tell myself how terrific I am. But if I’ve got cancer, all of his hugs and reassuring talk are worthless. I need to face the hard truth about my condition. Only then is there any hope that I will take the cure, as painful as it may be, and get better.
We don’t do sinners a favor by glossing over the serious, pervasive nature of their pride, lust, greed, jealousy, and self-centeredness. We only truly help sinners when we lovingly but honestly help them to see the truth as revealed in God’s Word. The closer anyone draws near to the unapproachable light of God’s holy presence, the more he sees the contamination of sin in his own heart. If he truly knows Christ as his Savior from sin, he will hate the sin he sees within, make efforts to root it out, and thankfully appropriate God’s abundant grace and forgiveness.
I hope that you can see how far from biblical truth today’s “Christian” psychology movement has drifted so that you will completely renounce it. I hope you’ll also see how sound Calvin’s doctrine of the Christian life is so that you will begin to read him.
Some of you may be thinking, “Aren’t you being kind of extreme? Aren’t you throwing the baby out with the bath water? Isn’t there some good to be gained from psychology?”
Not much! There may be some useful insights in the same vein that Reader’s Digest offers some interesting observations once in a while. But psychology does not offer anything necessary for life and godliness that is lacking in the Bible. If a problem is due to organic or chemical dysfunction in the brain, a person may need a medical solution (although I urge caution with regard to the use of psychiatric drugs). But in terms of offering solutions to the emotional and relational problems we face, psychology has nothing to offer the believer, and it has much to deceive and confuse.
In a letter I asked James Dobson if he could name just one problem for which the Bible has no answer, but psychology does. His form-letter reply was that we need Christian psychologists to help parents determine if a six-year-old boy is emotionally and physically ready to enter the first grade; to help the parents of a gifted or retarded child cope; to help a man whose wife became schizophrenic and ran screaming down the street; to give counsel to a man thinking about mid-life career change; and, to help an adolescent who was extremely rebellious and resentful of his father.
Educational or vocational counseling is far different than the psychotherapeutic nonsense that is flooding the church, thanks to Dobson and others like him. Why do we need psychologists to help parents cope with a difficult child? Doesn’t the Bible give us wisdom for dealing with such trials? In the case of the schizophrenic woman, if her problem is organically caused, she needs a medical doctor. If not, she definitely does not need a psychologist, and neither does her husband. He needs to learn to love her as Christ loves the church. She needs to deal with whatever sinful thoughts and behavior are behind her breakdown and to learn to trust in the sufficiency of Christ. The last thing a rebellious teenager needs is to hear a psychologist tell him that he needs to build his self-esteem!
For thousands of years the Bible has been adequate to equip the saints to go through tragedy, to face persecution and even martyrdom. Why are we so insistent on turning from our all-sufficient Lord, the fountain of living waters, to hew cisterns for ourselves, broken cisterns, that can hold no water (Jer. 2:13)? We don’t need psychology. We need the Lord and His Word. I thank the Lord for His servant, John Calvin, who helped me to repent of so-called “Christian” psychology!
© Steven J. Cole, 2006
(The following summary of Bunyan’s life is culled from “Memoir of John Bunyan,” by George Offor, who edited Bunyan’s 3-volume Works [Baker], in volume 1.)
John Bunyan lived from 1628-1688 in or near Bedford, England (north of London). He is most famous for his allegory, Pilgrim’s Progress, which Spurgeon read over every year. He authored 59 books, including his story of his own conversion, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners. He spent 12 years in prison because he was not a member of the established Anglican Church, and he refused to stop preaching without the required license.
Bunyan was born into a poor family and was not highly educated. He served for a brief time in Cromwell’s army and then worked in his father’s trade as a tinker, a repairer of pots and pans. As a young man, an ungodly woman heard him cursing and scolded him that he was the most ungodly fellow she had ever heard and that he would spoil all the youth in town if they came into his company. Her rebuke made a more indelible impression on him than all of the sermons that he had heard up to that point. God used this unlikely woman’s rebuke as a seed that eventually led this young, foul-mouthed boy to deep repentance.
Bunyan lived a very ungodly life, but the Lord was at work in convicting him of his sin. He would have fearful dreams and visions in the night of demons that made him cry out in his sleep. Then one Sunday as he was engaging in sports, which was his usual custom, he was startled with the thought, “Will you leave your sins and go to heaven, or have your sins and go to hell?”
On another occasion, while he was going about his trade, he overheard several godly women talking while they were making lace to sell. They were chatting about the joys of salvation and how their own righteousness was filthy and unable to save them. He took it all in and never forgot it.
These and other such incidents led him to clean up his life and begin to be outwardly moral, but he had no rest for his soul. God had not yet changed his heart. These godly women attended a Baptist church in Bedford, and so Bunyan began attending there. The pastor, John Gifford, took him under wing. After going through terrible agony of soul for several years (you can read about this in Grace Abounding), Bunyan finally found peace in Christ. One book that helped him immensely in this struggle was Martin Luther’s Commentary on Galatians. He said, “I prefer the book before all others as most fit for a wounded conscience.” Bunyan was baptized at a time when baptism by immersion was strictly outlawed under severe penalties. Bunyan believed in believer’s baptism by immersion, but as a pastor, he also held that the local church must accept all whom Christ had accepted, regardless of their views on baptism.
As he grew in Christ, Bunyan served as a deacon, sensed an inward call to the ministry, and began to preach. The church recognized his gifts and publicly set him apart for the ministry of preaching the Word. Bunyan entered into this with a deep sense of his own unworthiness and with fear and trembling (which we all should feel at all times!). Sometimes up to a thousand people would gather secretly at midnight in a secluded spot, sometimes in driving hail or snow, to hear Bunyan expound the Word! Sometimes they met in barns or stables. He preached the truth boldly, which also meant confronting error. This, of course, made enemies among those who did not want to be exposed or corrected.
Eventually, he was arrested because he did not use the Book of Common Prayer at his services and he was not preaching in the established church. His captors said that they would free him if he promised to stop preaching. It was a severe temptation, because Bunyan had a wife (his second; his first wife had died) and four children, including a blind daughter that he cared for deeply. The thought of not being able to provide for his family and care for this daughter tormented him. But he was faithful to his calling. As he went out of court to be taken to prison, Bunyan said that he went “with God’s comfort in my poor soul.” When the magistrate warned Bunyan that if he ever got out of prison and preached in that realm again, he would hang for it, Bunyan replied, “If I were out of prison today, I would preach the gospel again tomorrow by the help of God.”
In the providence of God, although the state church tried to silence him in jail, Bunyan’s imprisonment allowed him time to write, and so the world has been blessed with Pilgrim’s Progress and his many other wonderful writings. He was allowed to have his Bible and Foxe’s Book of Martyrs in his cell. The great 18th century evangelist, George Whitefield, commended Bunyan’s works, saying that they “smell of the prison.” He continued, “Ministers never write or preach so well as when under the cross. The spirit of Christ and of glory then rests upon them.” Bunyan testified that it was in prison that God opened the Word to him in ways that he never experienced elsewhere. He said, “He can make a jail more beautiful than a palace, restraint more sweet by far than liberty, and the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures of Egypt.” In another place (“Prison Meditations,” #18), he wrote, “The prison very sweet to me, hath been since I came here, and so would also hanging be, if God would there appear.”
After 12 years in jail, Bunyan was released and eventually was granted a license to preach. He published more books, including Pilgrim’s Progress, which made him quite popular. He would sometimes preach to 1,200 at 7 a.m. in the dark of winter on a work day. About 3,000 flocked to hear him preach in London. Although Bunyan lacked any formal education and did not know Greek or Hebrew, the scholarly John Owen sat at Bunyan’s feet. When King Charles II asked Owen why he would go and hear that tinker preach, Owen declared, “May it please your majesty, if I could possess that tinker’s abilities for preaching, I would most gladly relinquish all my learning.”
Bunyan was a humble man who was always awed by God’s grace in saving such a sinner. In Pilgrim’s Progress he has a short poem, “He that is down need fear no fall; he that is low no pride; he that is humble ever shall, have God to be his guide.” During his final illness, he comforted his friends and those around him who were weeping, telling them that to live with Christ forever with peace and joy was far greater. His last words, while struggling with death, were, “Weep not for me, but for yourselves. I go to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will, no doubt, through the mediation of his blessed Son, receive me, though a sinner; where I hope we ere long shall meet, to sing the new song, and remain everlastingly happy, world without end. Amen.”
Spurgeon said of Bunyan’s grasp of the Word, “Prick that man anywhere and his blood is bibline.” There is not a paragraph in Pilgrim’s Progress that is not supported by Scripture. His grasp of biblical truth, gained simply by studying his English Bible with a concordance, is amazing. As you read Bunyan, it is obvious that his knowledge of God’s truths was not academic, but devotional and personal. Even if you do not have a large library or access to many books, Bunyan shows that you can be a knowledgeable, accurate, powerful expositor of the Word.
One of my favorite books is Bunyan’s The Acceptable Sacrifice, which is an exposition of Psalm 51:17, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and a contrite heart, O God, You will not despise.” (It has recently been re-published by Banner of Truth.) I admit that I would be hard pressed to write one sermon on that verse, much less a book, but Bunyan brings out insight after insight on what it means to have a broken and contrite heart before God. (I gleaned a page of helpful quotes from this book and posted them on our church web site.)
Bunyan has another book, The Jerusalem Sinner Saved, on the phrase in Luke’s Great Commision (Luke 24:47), where Jesus tells the disciples to preach the gospel “beginning in Jerusalem.” Bunyan develops the theme that it was in Jerusalem where the most wicked of sinners crucified the Lord, but it is to them that the gospel first was proclaimed, thus showing God’s abundant grace toward sinners.
Another book that has recently been re-published [Banner of Truth] is, Come and Welcome to Jesus Christ, which is an exposition of John 6:37, “All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out.” Bunyan skillfully lays out the truths of God’s sovereign election and irresistible grace, and yet sets forth the Savior’s tender appeal to all to come to Him. When I read Bunyan, I find myself thinking repeatedly, “Yes, there it is in the text! Why didn’t I see that?” He sets forth the truth in simple, plain observations from the text of Scripture.
Some of his other titles are: The Work of Jesus Christ as Advocate, from 1 John 2:2; The Greatness of the Soul, on Jesus’ words, “What shall a man give in exchange for his soul?” Christ, a Complete Savior, from Hebrews 7:25; The Strait Gate, on the great difficulty of going to heaven and how many professors will come short; and, Light for Them that Sit in Darkness, subtitled, “A discourse of Jesus Christ, and that he undertook to accomplish, by himself, the eternal redemption of sinners. Also, How the Lord Jesus addressed himself to this work: with undeniable demonstrations that he performed the same. Objections to the contrary answered.” This points out another lesson from Bunyan:
Bunyan has another treatise, The Doctrine of the Law and Grace Unfolded. Another is, A Treatise on the Fear of God. Another is, Of Justification by an Imputed Righteousness. Another is, The Saint’s Privilege and Profit, or, “The Throne of Grace,” which expounds on Hebrews 4:16. All of these are meaty, doctrinal expositions, but they were preached to common, largely uneducated people who flocked by the hundreds and even thousands to hear them. In our day, we’re being told that if you want to attract a large crowd, you’ve got to dumb down the sermon and never preach about anything uncomfortable, like sin or judgment. Bunyan’s ministry proves that this is false. He preached the terrors of God’s holiness and of judgment to come, but he also offered God’s free and abundant grace to the chief of sinners. Let us do likewise! One final lesson:
This lesson is true of each of the men that we will study. If they had not written, we would hardly know of them. Because they committed their works to paper, we can still read them and grow in the Lord through their insights.
It is very difficult, at least in the U.S., to get anything published. The competition is incredible, and the publishers want things that will sell on a popular level. I once met a Zondervan publishing representative and asked him how I could get my sermons published. He said, “You must be named W. A. Criswell or James Boice. They are the only two men whose sermons we will publish.” Criswell and Boice were both very well-known pastors and Christian leaders. Sometime after that, I met Dr. Boice and told him what the Zondervan representative had said to me. I asked him how an unknown nobody like me could get my sermons published. He sympathetically acknowledged the problem. All he could offer was, “Try to write something at first that they want. Then maybe you’ll get your foot in the door to write something they need.”
Well, I’ve never been able to do that, but I’ve kept writing my sermons in a readable fashion. The discipline of writing helps me to be concise, focused, and clear. The Internet provided a way for me to get them out of the drawer and put them in a place where people can access them. While it is not as visible as being published in a book, I do get emails from people all over the world, thanking me for the sermons, and sometimes sharing with me how God has used them in their lives.
So if you are able, I’d encourage you to write at least some of your sermons in manuscript form. At the very least, you can use them with your own congregation and they can even be used in your own life. I’ve sometimes gone back and read a sermon that I had forgotten about, and God used His Word to minister to me, even though I was the one who wrote the sermon in the first place!
© Steven J. Cole, 2006
One day many years ago, I was jogging in the forest near my house. As I jogged, I was praying a “God-sized” prayer—that God would bless my ministry as He blessed the ministry of the great British preacher, Charles Haddon Spurgeon. I had been reading Spurgeon’s Autobiography. His ministry was blessed not only by huge crowds flocking to hear him preach every Sunday, but more significantly, by thousands of genuine conversions. Since at that time I was the pastor of a small church in a small Southern California mountain resort town, to ask God to bless me as He had blessed Spurgeon was a big prayer!
Suddenly a thought popped into my mind that I believe came from the Lord. It was, “What about John Spurgeon?” The question hit me with such force that I stopped jogging for a few moments to think about it. Even many who have heard of Charles Spurgeon have never heard of John Spurgeon. I had not heard of him until my recent reading. John was the father of Charles. He was a pastor and the son of a pastor. He lived into his nineties, outliving his famous son (who died at 57) by ten years. But in spite of his long life and many years of faithful ministry, if John Spurgeon had not had a famous son, he would have gone to his grave and no one would even recognize his name.
Thousands of pastors like John Spurgeon have walked with God, shepherded His flock for a lifetime, and gone to their reward without any notice in the sight of the world. I thought, “Would I be willing to serve God faithfully, be a godly husband to my wife and a godly father to my children, even if I never achieved any recognition?” The more I thought about it, the more I realized, “Yes, that’s what I want: to be faithful to the Lord in my personal walk, in my family, and in shepherding God’s flock.” The Lord never says, “Well done, good and famous servant,” but He does say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” My job is to be as faithful as John Spurgeon and to let God take care of the rest.
I share that story before we survey the life of Charles Spurgeon because it is easy to look at his life and either wish that we could be used as powerfully as he was, or to grow discouraged because we are not. As we look at his life, we need to keep in mind that he was uniquely called and gifted. We cannot imitate him or even come close to him in many of his impressive strengths. But, even so, there is much profit in studying his life and ministry and gleaning what we can apply personally. In my copy of Iain Murray’s The Forgotten Spurgeon, which I read in May, 1990, I wrote, “This is a provocative study that motivates me to go deeper theologically and to hold unswervingly to the Word even if I am the only voice. Spurgeon stood strong and true, even when others were accommodating.” I hope that as a result of our time together, you will be spurred on to become better acquainted with the life and ministry of Charles Spurgeon.
Charles Spurgeon was born in a small village in England on June 19, 1834. As a toddler, for reasons that are not known, he went to live with his grandparents until he was about five. His grandfather, James Spurgeon, was a pastor. As he grew older, Charles discovered his grandfather’s books and began to read many of the Puritans, including John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, which Spurgeon read once a year all of his life. Later as a young man, when he wanted to court Miss Susannah Thompson, a young woman who attended New Park Street church, Charles sent her Pilgrim’s Progress. She later became Mrs. C. H. Spurgeon.
At about age 10 and lasting for five years, Spurgeon went through a time of deep conviction of sin. This experience takes an entire chapter in his autobiography. Here is a brief portion of what goes on for many pages (Autobiography [Banner of Truth], 1:58-59):
When but young in years, I felt with much sorrow the evil of sin. My bones waxed old with my roaring all the day long. Day and night God’s hand was heavy upon me. I hungered for deliverance, for my soul fainted within me. I feared lest the very skies should fall upon me, and crush my guilty soul. God’s law laid hold upon me, and was showing me my sins. If I slept at night, I dreamed of the bottomless pit, and when I awoke, I seemed to feel the misery I had dreamed. Up to God’s house I went; my song was but a sigh. To my chamber I retired, and there, with tears and groans, I offered up my prayer, without a hope and without a refuge, for God’s law was flogging me with its ten-thonged whip, and then rubbing me with brine afterwards, so that I did shake and quiver with pain and anguish, and my soul chose strangling rather than life, for I was exceeding sorrowful….
For five years, as a child, there was nothing before my eyes but my guilt, and though I do not hesitate to say that those who observed my life would not have seen any extraordinary sin, yet as I looked upon myself, there was not a day in which I did not commit such gross, such outrageous sins against God, that often and often have I wished I had never been born…. Before I thought upon my soul’s salvation, I dreamed that my sins were very few. All my sins were dead, as I imagined, and buried in the graveyard of forgetfulness. But that trumpet of conviction, which aroused my soul to think of eternal things, sounded a resurrection-note to all my sins; and, oh, how they rose up in multitudes more countless than the sands of the sea! Now, I saw that my very thoughts were enough to damn me, that my words would sink me lower than the lowest hell, and as for my acts of sin, they now began to be a stench in my nostrils so that I could not bear them. I thought I had rather have been a frog or a toad than have been made a man. I reckoned that the most defiled creature, the most loathsome and contemptible, was a better thing than myself, for I had so grossly and grievously sinned against Almighty God.
If a modern American child told his evangelical parents thoughts like these, they probably would take him to a Christian counselor! But Spurgeon could look back on these difficult years and write (Autobiography, 1:54):
A spiritual experience which is thoroughly flavored with a deep and bitter sense of sin is of great value to him that has had it. It is terrible in the drinking, but it is most wholesome in the bowels, and in the whole of the after-life. Possibly, much of the flimsy piety of the present day arises from the ease with which men attain to peace and joy in these evangelistic days. We would not judge modern converts, but we certainly prefer that form of spiritual exercise which leads the soul by the way of Weeping-cross, and makes it see its blackness before assuring it that it is “clean every whit.” Too many think lightly of sin, and therefore think lightly of the Savior. He who has stood before his God, convicted and condemned, with the rope about his neck, is the man to weep for joy when he is pardoned, to hate the evil which has been forgiven him, and to live to the honor of the Redeemer by whose blood he has been cleansed.
For five years, nothing seemed to relieve his guilt and misery. Then, on a snowy January 6, 1850, the 15-year-old Spurgeon arose before sunrise to pray and read his Bible (this account is from Ernest Bacon, Spurgeon: Heir of the Puritans [Eerdmans], pp. 22-23; also in Autobiography, 1:87-88). But he found no rest for his soul. Later in the morning, he started walking toward a church that his mother had recommended, but the fury of the storm forced him to turn down a side street, where he wandered into a Primitive Methodist Church. Only 15 people were there that morning, and the minister could not come because of the snow.
An uneducated man, who could hardly read the Bible, went to the pulpit and read Isaiah 45:22, “Look unto Me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth.” He made a few simple comments, about how it doesn’t take any effort or skill to look. He called upon his small congregation to look unto Jesus Christ, who suffered on the cross for them.
Then, he looked directly at Spurgeon and said, “Young man, you are very miserable. And you will always be miserable if you don’t do as my text tells you; and that is, Look unto Christ.” Then he called out loudly, “Young man, look; in God’s name look, and look now. Look! Look! Look! You have nothing to do but look and live.” Spurgeon reports, “I did look, blessed be God! I know I looked then and there; and he who but that minute ago had been near despair, had the fulness of joy and hope.” Spurgeon was saved!
Although his parents believed in infant baptism, the young Spurgeon studied the Word and became convinced of believers’ baptism. Five months later he walked eight miles to a spot where he was immersed upon confession of his faith. His mother later said to him, “Ah, Charles! I often prayed the Lord to make you a Christian, but I never asked that you might become a Baptist.” Spurgeon, with his characteristic humor, could not resist replying, “Ah, mother, the Lord has answered your prayer with His usual bounty, and given you exceeding abundantly above what you asked or thought.” (Autobiography, 1:45.)
Although I would never counsel a young man of 17 to become a pastor, that is what young Charles Spurgeon did, just two years after his conversion. It was at Waterbeach Baptist Chapel, six miles from Cambridge. Two years later he accepted a call to the New Park Street Baptist Chapel in the south of London. Although the church later changed the name (Metropolitan Tabernacle) and location, Spurgeon labored there for 38 years, until his death at age 57.
Spurgeon’s ministry at New Park Street grew rapidly. The congregation of 200 was in a building that seated 1,200, but it was in a dingy, unattractive section of town, and the church was in decline. But soon thousands were flocking to hear this boy wonder. Spurgeon, who was mature beyond his years through reading the Puritans, remained humble in spite of his instant success. In fact, he says that his early success appalled him (Autobiography, 1:263). His success brought him into the limelight and resulted in numerous public attacks, often in the newspapers. One minister predicted that he would be like a rocket, spectacular in his rise, but swift in falling back to earth. Another questioned openly whether he even was saved! But through it all, Spurgeon remained straight on his theology and he did not allow the criticisms to distract him from his object of preaching the gospel.
Spurgeon’s preaching was refreshing to his hearers because, unlike much preaching in that day, he spoke in plain, everyday language. He also did something else that brought criticism: he used humor in the pulpit. A woman once rebuked him for making a humorous comment in a message and he replied, “If you had known how many others I kept back, you would not have found fault with that one, but you would have commended me for the restraint I had exercised” (Autobiography, 2:440). But he used humor sparingly and always for a purpose. Robertson Nicoll said of him (The Forgotten Spurgeon, p. 46), “Mr. Spurgeon is thought by those who do not know his sermons to have been a humorous preacher. As a matter of fact there was no preacher whose tone was more uniformly earnest, reverent and solemn.”
Regarding the delivery and style of his preaching, I would commend to you his well-known, Lectures to My Students, which he delivered at his Pastor’s College over the years. It has much practical, seasoned wisdom on subjects such as sermon delivery, voice, posture, content, the use of illustrations and anecdotes, and the pastor’s own walk with God. It is a gold mine! Spurgeon regularly preached to about 6,000 people at each service in the Metropolitan Tabernacle. But before it was built, he preached to an estimated 20,000 in the Surrey Music Hall! Remember, this was before microphones were invented!
I would not call Spurgeon’s sermons “expository” in the strict definition of the term. He never preached through an entire book of the Bible verse-by-verse. Rather, he jumped all over the Bible each week, as he felt led by the Spirit. Usually, his text would be a single verse and invariably, he would aim at least part of it at the lost. I am often amazed at the insights that he could dig out of a single verse. He sometimes preached four or five sermons on a single verse over the years, each one with a different slant. He would typically introduce the sermon and then announce the points that he would work through before he went through each one. He was always exalted the Savior and had many practical applications.
I would not recommend Spurgeon’s method of sermon preparation to anyone, but it worked well for him. He would dismiss himself from his dinner guests on Saturday evening at around 6 p.m. and go to his study to prepare his Sunday morning sermon. Then on Sunday afternoon he would prepare for Sunday evening. I’m not sure when he prepared for his mid-week messages. He was able to consult the original Hebrew and Greek and he would read many commentaries (or have his wife read them to him) on the text that he was preaching (Autobiography, 2346; A Marvelous Ministry, pp. 50-51). Finally, the outline would come together.
He would carry only the outline into the pulpit. At least two stenographers would transcribe his sermon as he preached. Then early in the week, he would edit the sermon manuscript for publication, and send it off to the press. The normal weekly circulation of the printed sermons was 25,000, although that figure was often higher, especially when he preached on popular subjects. At the time of his death, over 50 million copies had been sold. Today the figure is over 300 million, including translations into 41 languages (A Marvelous Ministry [Soli Deo Gloria], p. 52). Spurgeon would be amazed that today you can buy the entire New Park Street and Metropolitan Tabernacle pulpit series on one CD. Many of his sermons are online at the Spurgeon web site ( and many have been translated into Spanish (. “In 1992, a century after his death, there were more works in print by Spurgeon than by any other English speaking author, living or dead” (Marvelous Ministry, p. ii). His printed works would fill the 27 volume ninth edition of Encyclopedia Britannica!
One reason that Spurgeon could prepare sermons in such a short time was that he was always reading the deep theological works of the Puritans. He would read about five or six thick volumes each week, usually getting through a book in one sitting! He could read a page almost as fast as he could turn the page and he retained it all. One man who knew Spurgeon said that he tested the thoroughness of his reading several times and never found him at fault (Autobiography, 2:345-346). At the time of his death, Spurgeon had a library of 12,000 books, and he knew them all well (The Forgotten Spurgeon, p. 41). Although he was self-taught, Spurgeon shows us that a pastor must be well-grounded in theology.
Spurgeon was an incredibly productive and busy man. There is a chapter in the Autobiography (chapter 19, pp. 309-330), “A Typical Week’s Work.” Reading it is enough to make me want to go take a nap! Spurgeon personally interviewed every new member who joined the church (Marvelous Ministry, p. 43). At the time of his death, the church had a membership of 5,311 and during his pastorate had taken in 14,691 new members (Autobiography, 2:505). They averaged about 40 baptisms per month and two funerals each week, not to mention weddings. He responded to an average of 500 letters per week (Marvelous Ministry, pp. 43, 55). He often spoke in other churches during the week, sometimes preaching as often as ten times a week (Autobiography, 2:193; C. H. Spurgeon, Arnold Dallimore [Moody Press], p. 122).
In addition to all of this, Spurgeon started a pastor’s college; an orphanage; a monthly magazine, which he edited and contributed to; a book fund ministry; a fund for the poor; a society that helped needy expectant mothers; a book distribution ministry; mission Bible schools; a temperance society; a tract society; and, many more organizations. At his fiftieth birthday, they read a list of 66 organizations that he had founded and was closely involved with (Dallimore, p. 173).
By his early thirties, Spurgeon’s health began to decline. He suffered from gout, a painful inflammation of the joints, especially in the feet. He also had rheumatism and later, Bright’s disease, a kidney disorder. The gout led to bouts of intense depression. He spent approximately one-third of the last 22 years of his ministry out of the pulpit due to illness (Autobiography, 2:194, 410; Dallimore, pp. 133-142). From her early thirties on, Spurgeon’s wife was a semi-invalid and seldom was well enough to attend church services to hear him preach. By the way, they had twin sons, one of whom (Thomas) later pastored The Tabernacle after his father’s death.
Spurgeon went through several controversies over the course of his ministry, but the final one was the most difficult and the emotional toll of it may have contributed to his early death. It is called the Downgrade Controversy (all the major works on Spurgeon cover this, but especially Iain Murray, The Forgotten Spurgeon; also, see John MacArthur, Ashamed of the Gospel [Crossway], pp. 197-225). The Baptist Union, of which Spurgeon had been a part, began to tolerate those in its membership who denied the substitutionary atonement of Christ and who embraced other liberal views that were opposed to biblical truth. Higher criticism had led some to deny the inerrancy of Scripture. Others doubted the biblical view of creation because of Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species. In 1887, after many futile efforts to have the Union adopt a doctrinal statement or to remove those who were denying core doctrines of the faith, Spurgeon withdrew from the Union. Because of his influence, intense pressure was put on him to reconsider and come back, but he refused to compromise.
Spurgeon’s stance caused many critics to accuse him falsely, but they never answered any of his allegations. He firmly maintained, “Fellowship with known and vital error is participation in sin” (cited by MacArthur, p. 212). The Union finally responded to Spurgeon’s withdrawal by formally censuring him. Even some of the students from the Pastors College turned against Spurgeon. But he stood fast and took the long-range view. Speaking to his Pastors College in 1889, he said (An All Round Ministry [Banner of Truth], pp. 360-361),
“Posterity must be considered. I do not look so much at what is to happen today, for these things relate to eternity. For my part, I am quite willing to be eaten of dogs for the next fifty years; but the more distant future shall vindicate me. I have dealt honestly before the living God. My brother, do the same.”
Spurgeon preached to his beloved congregation for the last time on June 7, 1891. He spent long periods of time trying to recover from his illnesses in Mentone, France, on the Mediterranean coast. He died there on January 31, 1892.
Preaching the gospel well is not an easy task! The longer I preach, the more I realize how difficult it is. Many of the modern examples of evangelistic preaching are shallow and man-centered. As Spurgeon said, much of the flimsy piety in evangelical churches is because people have never felt the rope around their neck before they learned about the cross. I encourage you to read Spurgeon’s sermons to deepen your own understanding of the gospel and how to proclaim it biblically to fallen sinners from many different texts of Scripture.
Spurgeon not only preached the gospel with theological accuracy, he also preached it with a great love and passion for the souls of lost and dying people. He exuded a love for the lost and a passion to see them come to the Savior. Although I am not an emotional man, Spurgeon spurs me to pray, “Lord, give me a heart for the lost! Don’t let me be complacent about those who are perishing!”
I am amazed at how Spurgeon was so clear on his theology even as a teenage pastor! While I have understood and believed the truth of God’s sovereign election since my college days, I did not come to understand the doctrine of particular redemption until many years into the pastorate, when I read John Owen’s classic, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ. There are many other issues on which I am still struggling for clarity and understanding.
Spurgeon has motivated me to read some of the solid theological works from the past. As pastors, we need to be theologians so that we can see and refute the many winds of false doctrine (Titus 1:9). We need to be able to take sound doctrine and apply it personally and to our people. Martyn Lloyd-Jones observed that Paul did not write Romans for theologians or seminary students, but for the common people of the church in Rome, many of whom were slaves. Sound doctrine practically applied must be the foundation for our walk with God and it must permeate all of our preaching. Spurgeon challenges me to go deeper.
As I mentioned, millions of Spurgeon’s printed sermons were distributed worldwide, in English and also in many foreign languages. They are still being read and used by God today, over 100 years after Spurgeon’s death. Now that many of them are on the Internet, only God knows how many are still being helped by their solid biblical content.
I write out all of my sermons and make them available for people as they come into our church services. I also send them each week via email to several hundred people around the world and I have posted all of them on our church web site. While I am not well-known like Spurgeon (or John MacArthur), I often receive emails from people who have been helped by reading them. One of the most touching was from a woman in Tennessee, who told me that reading my sermons every morning had sustained her over the months since her husband had died. She had a teenaged daughter who had been straying into the world, who was going to a psychologist for her depression. But she also started reading my sermons. She stopped going to the psychologist, the Lord delivered her from her depression, and she was leading a Bible study with her friends! So I encourage you to put your sermons in print as often as you can.
Although Spurgeon was a strong five-point Calvinist, he was cordial towards those of Arminian persuasion, such as the famous evangelist, D. L. Moody. Spurgeon even allowed Moody to preach in his pulpit. After Spurgeon’s death, his wife sent his pulpit Bible to Moody to show Spurgeon’s kind regards for him (Lyle Dorsett, A Passion for Souls [Moody Press], p. 291). Although Spurgeon was a committed Baptist, who preached strongly against infant baptism, the men he put at the head of the Pastors’ College and the Orphanage both held to infant baptism. Iain Murray writes (Spurgeon & Hyper-Calvinism [Banner of Truth], p. 15), “In the Down-Grade controversy …, Spurgeon regarded it as a tragedy that Baptists put their denominational unity before a higher claim.”
At the same time, Spurgeon was uncompromising when the truth of the gospel was under attack. When men in the Baptist Union began denying core doctrines that would compromise the gospel, Spurgeon tried to bring the Union back in line. When that failed, he also tried to maintain cordial relationships with some of the men who did not accept the errors, but who lacked the courage to stand against the errors and fight. But, finally, and with great sorrow, Spurgeon had to take a stand for the truth and separate from the Union, even though it resulted in his being attacked and slandered.
Ray Ortlund, a godly older pastor, advised me early in my ministry, “Steve, you’ve got to decide where you want to give blood in the ministry.” He explained that some issues are not all that important, and you don’t want to waste time and energy fighting over them. But other issues are worth shedding blood for. On these, you take a stand and fight, even if you get wounded in the battle.
One final note: Spurgeon was a man of prayer, who knew the importance of prayer if we want our ministries to count for eternity. On one of his visits to Europe, Spurgeon met an American pastor who said, “I have long wished to see you, Mr. Spurgeon, and to put one or two simple questions to you. In our country there are many opinions as to the secret of your great influence. Would you be good enough to give me your own point of view?”
After a moment’s pause, Spurgeon said, “My people pray for me” (The Forgotten Spurgeon, p. 44). Pray that God will use you as He used Spurgeon. Whether it is John Spurgeon or Charles Spurgeon will be up to the Lord.
© Steven J. Cole, 2006