First appeared at SharperIron Oct. 15, 2007 with the permission of Brookside Baptist Church.
The true minister of Christ feels impelled to preach the whole truth, because it and it alone can meet the wants of man. What evils has this world seen through a distorted, mangled, man-moulded gospel. What mischiefs have been done to the souls of men by men who have preached only one part and not all the counsel of God!
—C.H. Spurgeon, Metropolitan Tabernacle, 1859
Hyper-Calvinsim is all house and no door; Arminianism is all door and no house.
On April 28, 1854, a 19-year-old boy-preacher assumed the pastorate of New Park Street Chapel in London, England. He remained in this ministry for more than four decades. Throughout the course of his ministry, God did mighty works, and unusual advances were made for the gospel of Jesus Christ. During his ministry, Charles Spurgeon saw more than 14,000 new members added to New Park Street Chapel. He enjoyed the blessing and provision of the Lord through several expansions and building programs. He founded an orphanage and a college for training ministers. He preached to thousands each week. On one occasion, he preached to more than 30,000 people at one time. His was a household name, and even hansom (cab) drivers instinctively knew to take people over the river to “Charlie’s.” Two thousand two hundred and forty-one of his sermons were in print at the time of his death. Today, more than 300 million copies of his sermons and books are in print, making him one of the most prolific authors in the English-speaking world.
The preceding details of Spurgeon’s ministry are well known to most preachers who have had any measure of exposure to Church history. His rich spiritual heritage has been chronicled in scores of biographies and other literature related to his life. One aspect of his ministry, however, has received little or no attention until recently—the prolonged doctrinal controversy surrounding his practice of openly inviting all men to respond to the invitation of the gospel. The details and ramifications of this controversy can be found in a fairly recent book by Iain Murray entitled Spurgeon v. Hyper-Calvinism: The Battle for Gospel Preaching. Published in 1995 by Banner of Truth, this work provides an understanding of the nature, extent, and doctrinal issues surrounding the controversy.
In our day, a similar controversy is unfolding. Ironically, both sides claim Spurgeon as a champion for their views. Those involved in the conflict often tend to see only two possible sides to the question at hand. Furthermore, at times each side is unfairly caricatured. Some whose preaching has a strong emphasis on human responsibility are often unfairly accused of being Arminian or even Semi-Pelagianists. On the other hand, those who claim to follow the biblical teachings John Calvin later adopted are unfairly accused by the other side of holding a twisted and life-killing theological system. Sadly, the misrepresentations have grown so great that even those who adhere to the particular system being attacked would reject their theological position as it is articulated by the opposing side.
It is my contention that Spurgeon found himself embroiled in circumstances similar to the ones present today. The fact that both sides claim him as a champion is either evidence that one side has failed to understand Spurgeon or that Spurgeon was able to express his theological views in a careful and balanced fashion. In standing for truth and against error, Spurgeon did make some strong statements both against Hyper-Calvinism and Arminianism. An understanding of this particular conflict in Spurgeon’s ministry will be an invaluable source of help for us today as we strive both to stand for truth and to preserve the bond of peace. If peace must be broken for the sake of truth, then so be it. However, often peace is broken over misperceptions regarding the truth. Perhaps what Spurgeon experienced will be a stimulus to help both sides seek to live together in truth and harmony. To that end, let us listen to what Spurgeon has to say. (To avoid confusion, quotations appear in italics.)
I. Surveying Spurgeon’s Theological Position in Regard to Calvinism
Spurgeon’s Own Claims on the Matter
A. He obtained his doctrine from Jesus and Paul rather than from Calvin.
We only use the term “Calivinsim” for shortness. That doctrine which is called “Calvinism” did not spring from Calvin; we believe that it sprang from the great founder of all truth. Perhaps Calvin himself derived it mainly from the writings of Augustine. Augustine obtained his views, without doubt, through the Spirit of God, from the diligent study of the writings of Paul, and Paul received them of the Holy Ghost, from Jesus Christ the great founder of the Christian dispensation. We use the term then not because we impute any extraordinary importance to Calvin’s having taught these doctrines. We would be just as willing to call them by any other name, if we could find one which would be better understood and which, on the whole, would be as consistent with fact.
B. Nonetheless, Spurgeon did not shy away from Calvinism.
The old truth that Calvin preached, that Augustine preached, is the truth that I must preach today, or else be false to my conscience and my God. I cannot shape the truth; I know of no such thing as paring off the rough edges of a doctrine. John Knox’s gospel is my gospel. That which thundered through Scotland must thunder through England again.
C. His Views on Arminianism
Well can I remember the manner in which I learned the doctrines of grace in a single instant. Born, as all of us are by nature, an Arminian, I still believed the old things I had heard continually from the pulpit, and did not see the grace of God. When I was coming to Christ, I thought I was doing it all myself, and though I sought the Lord earnestly, I had no idea the Lord was seeking me. I do not think the young convert is at first aware of this. I can recall the very day and hour when first I received those truths in my own soul… . One week-night, when I was sitting in the house of God . . . the thought struck me, “How did you come to be a Christian?” I sought the Lord. “But how did you come to seek the Lord?” The truth flashed across my mind in a moment—I should not have sought Him unless there had been some previous influence in my mind to make me seek Him. I prayed, thought I, but then I asked myself, “How came I to pray? I was induced to pray by reading the Scriptures. How came I to read the Scriptures? I did read them, but what led me to do so?” Then, in a moment, I saw that God was at the bottom of it all, and that He was the Author of my faith, and so the whole doctrine of grace opened up to me, and from that doctrine I have not departed to this day, and I desire to make this my constant confession, “I ascribe my change wholly to God.” [Emphasis added.]
I once attended a service where the text happened to be, “He shall choose our inheritance for us;” and the good man who occupied the pulpit was more than a little of an Arminian. Therefore, when he commenced, he said, “This passage refers entirely to our temporal inheritance, it has nothing whatever to do with our eternal destiny, for,” said he, “we do not want Christ to choose for us in the matter of Heaven or hell. It is so plain and easy, that every man who has a grain of common sense will choose Heaven, and any person would know better than to choose hell. We have no need of any superior intelligence, or any greater Being, to choose Heaven or hell for us. It is left to our own free-will, and we have enough wisdom given us, sufficiently correct means to judge for ourselves,” and therefore, as he very logically inferred, there was no necessity for Jesus Christ, or anyone, to make a choice for us. We could choose the inheritance for ourselves without any assistance. “Ah!” I thought, “but, my good brother, it may be very true that we could, but I think we should want something more than common sense before we should choose aright.”
D. His Charity Toward Arminians
There is no soul living who holds more firmly to the doctrines of grace than I do, and if any man asks me whether I am ashamed to be called a Calvinist, I answer—I wish to be called nothing but a Christian; but if you ask me, I do hold the doctrinal views which were held by John Calvin, I reply, I do in the main hold them, and rejoice to avow it. But far be it from me even to imagine that Zion contains none but Calvinistic Christians within her walls, or that there are none saved who do not hold our views. Most atrocious things have been spoken about the character and spiritual condition of John Wesley, the modern prince of Arminians. I can only say concerning him that, while I detest many of the doctrines which he preached, yet for the man himself I have a reverence second to no Wesleyan; and if there were wanted two apostles to be added to the number of the twelve, I do not believe that there could be found two men more fit to be so added than George Whitefield and John Wesley… . I believe there are multitudes of men who cannot see these truths, or, at least, cannot see them in the way in which we put them, who nevertheless have received Christ as their saviour, and are dear to the heart of the God of grace as the soundest Calvinist in or out of Heaven. (Emphasis added)
E. His Views on Hyper-Calvinism
I do not think I differ from any of my Hyper-Calvinistic brethren in what I do believe, but I differ from them in what they do not believe. I do not hold any less than they do, but I hold a little more, and, I think, a little more of the truth revealed in the Scriptures. Not only are there a few cardinal doctrines, by which we can steer our ship North, South, East, or West, but as we study the Word, we shall begin to learn something about the North-west and North-east, and all else that lies between the four cardinal points.
There are some who do not think it to be their duty to go into the highways and hedges and bid all, as many as they find, to come to supper. Oh, no! They are too orthodox to obey the Master’s will; they desire to understand first who are appointed to come to the supper, and then they will invite them; that is to say, they will do what there is no necessity to do (i.e., present the gospel to those who are already saved). In contrast with this, the apostles’ delivered the gospel, the same gospel to the dead as to the living, the same gospel to the non-elect as to the elect. The point of distinction is not in the gospel, but in its being applied by the Holy Ghost, or left to be rejected of man.
In our own day certain preachers assure us that a man must be regenerated before we may bid him believe in Jesus Christ; some degree of a work of grace in the heart being, in their judgment, the only warrant to believe. This also is false. It takes away a gospel for sinners and offers us a gospel for saints.
Note: The last quote must not be misunderstood. Spurgeon did believe that a man could not believe until God first did something in that man’s heart. That this is so is seen in his own testimony of how he came to salvation (see point C). What he is referring to here is the idea that was prevalent in his day which held that the gospel should not be presented to anyone until there was evidence that God had regenerated that person. In contrast to this idea, Spurgeon contended that we should follow the example of the apostles and preach the same gospel to all men and leave the work of quickening (apart from which no one could exercise faith) to God.
One final quote from a letter to his father will suffice to show Spurgeon’s feelings toward Hyper-Calvinism.
The London people are rather higher in Calvinism than I am: But I have succeeded in bringing one church to my own views, and will trust, with Divine assistance, to do the same with another. I am a Calvinist; I love what someone called “glorious Calvinism,” but “Hyperism” is too hot for my palate.
F. Spurgeon’s Views on the Importance of Preserving the Theological Tension
The system of truth revealed in the Scriptures is not simply one straight line, but two; and no man will ever get a right view of the gospel until he knows how to look at the two lines at once. For instance, I read in one book of the Bible, “The Spirit and the bride say, Come. And let him that heareth say, Come. And let him that is athirst come. And whosoever will, let him take of the water of life freely.” Yet I am taught, in another part of the same inspired Word, that “it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy.” I see, in one place, God in providence presiding over all, and yet I see, and I cannot help seeing, that man acts as he pleases, and that God has left his actions, in a great measure, to his own free-will. Now, if I were to declare that man was so free to act that there was no control of God over his actions, I should be driven very near to atheism; and if, on the other hand, I should declare that God so over-rules all things that man is not free enough to be responsible, I should be driven at once to Antinomianism or fatalism. That God predestines, and yet that man is responsible, are two facts that few can see clearly. They are believed to be inconsistent and contradictory, but they are not. The fault is in our own weak judgment. Two truths cannot be contradictory to each other. If, then, I find taught in one part of the Bible that everything is fore-ordained, that is true; and if I find, in another Scripture, that man is responsible for all his actions, that is true; and it is only my folly that leads me to imagine that these two truths can ever contradict each other. I do not believe they can ever be welded into one upon any earthly anvil, but they certainly shall be one in eternity. They are two lines that are so nearly parallel, that the human mind which pursues them farthest will never discover that they converge, but they do converge, and they will meet somewhere in eternity, close to the throne of God, whence all truth doth spring.
(Below, Part 2 examines the (hypercalvinism) controversy, and Part 3 summarizes Spurgeon’s appeal to Scripture and lessons to be learned from the conflict.)
Dr. Sam Horn serves as president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). He served formerly as pastor/teacher at Brookside Baptist Church and on the administrative staff of Northland Baptist Bible College.