Where the world comes to study the Bible

What Spurgeon has Taught Me About Ministry

Related Media

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.

An overview of his life:

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 (www.spurgeon.org) and many have been translated into Spanish (www.spurgeongems.org/spanish.htm). “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.

Some lessons from Spurgeon’s life and ministry:

1. Spurgeon has helped me learn how to preach the gospel more accurately and passionately.

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!”

2. Spurgeon has helped me to get my theology straight through reading solid books.

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.

3. Spurgeon has helped me understand the power of the printed word and thus motivated me to write.

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.

4. Spurgeon has helped me to stand for the truth without compromise and yet to show love to those who differ on non-essentials.

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.

5. Spurgeon has shown me the importance of prayer in ministry.

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

Related Topics: Christian Life, History, Leadership, Pastors, Prayer, Spiritual Life, Teaching the Bible, Testimony & Biography