Note: Dr. Sam Horn is host of The Word for Life radio program.
See Part 1.
by Dr. Sam Horn
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.
Editor’s Note: In Part 1, Dr. Horn summarized Charles Spurgeon’s background and surveyed statements Spurgeon had made about both Arminianism and Calvinism. In Part 2, he takes a closer look at Spurgeon’s role in a debate between these two views.
II. The Controversy Examined
Many of us are well aware of Spurgeon’s Down-Grade Controversy. However, not so familiar to us is a controversy over Arminianism and Hyper-Calvinism that extended over a period of several years during Spurgeon’s early years of ministry at New Park Street Chapel.
Though hardly known today, this controversy was widely known in Spurgeon’s day, and the battle was carried out in print before an audience of more than 7,000 readers. Spurgeon was in his early 20s when this attack began
A. The Combatants
1. James Wells (1803–1872)
- He was the man on the other side, the opponent.
- He was the well-known and influential pastor of the Surrey Tabernacle, located in South London.
- He was Particular Baptist.
- He was strongly Hyper-Calvinistic.
- Very forceful and opinionated, he was nicknamed in private by Spurgeon as “King James.”
- He was 51 years old when the controversy broke out.
- He had been the pastor of this church for more than 30 years.
- He was a very popular preacher of the day—his church regularly had more than 1,200 people.
- He was a self-taught man with outstanding pulpit talents. He had been described as “a pulpit genius of great powers and the ablest man of his denomination.”
- Banks wrote this description of Wells:
We know his talent is great; his influence is immense; his success as a minister is, in these days, almost without parallel, and our love to, and esteem for him, is sincere, permanent, and practical.
- This description was given of him in the Gospel Standard:
No man ever lashed the Arminians more severely or more effectually than he did. “I have been used to carrying a whip,” he would say, “and must whip these free willers.”
2. Charles Waters Banks (1806–1886)
- He was the man in the middle. In trying to broker peace, he created a war!
- He was a kind and gentle pastor.
- He was a popular London preacher at Unicorn Yard Chapel.
- He was not as popular as Wells or Spurgeon. Nor was his church as large.
- He was the first of the older London preachers in the Particular Baptist churches who befriended Spurgeon. In fact, he ended up championing Spurgeon.
- An itinerant preacher, he traveled more 12,000 miles each year to preach at meetings—and he did so for more than 30 years.
- Before his salvation, he was a printer and a journalist—these loves never left him.
- In 1843, he purchased a printing press and began a small ministry periodical, Earthen Vessel, out of his home.
- This magazine was produced monthly for more than 43 years! It eventually had a very wide and broad readership. At the point of the controversy, it had a readership of more than 7,000 subscribers!
- Knowing that most of his readers were hearing a great many things about the “new preacher” at New Park Street Chapel—and many were “more than a little troubled” by what they were hearing—Banks determined to do Spurgeon a favor.
- In December 1854, he wrote a six-page article in which he expressed his esteem for his friend and attempted to set the record straight, hoping to remove doubts readers might have had about Spurgeon.
- While recognizing that some criticisms against Spurgeon were valid, Banks contended that they were mostly due to his immaturity.
- He was overwhelmingly supportive of Spurgeon’s ministry and of his tireless efforts to raise up a new life and spirit in the congregation to whom he had been appointed.
- Of Spurgeon, Banks wrote, “Should his life be spared, and his soul’s experience of divine things be deepened, we believe that when many of us are silent in the grave, he will be found of great use in the Church of Jesus Christ.”
- This warm commendation of Spurgeon was not well-received by Wells. In January 1855, he wrote a fiery response in the next issue of the Earthen Vessel.
- Wells stated that the “newcomer’s” preaching was dangerous, superficial, and deceptive.
- Wells acknowledged that Spurgeon did indeed have natural gifts, but he did not believe that Spurgeon had any supernatural endowment on those gifts—in fact, in the article he wondered whether Spurgeon was even converted.
- Wells warned, “A man cannot preach with any success what he does not know.”
- A major controversy had begun!
3. Spurgeon (See introduction.)
- For the most part, Spurgeon stayed out of the fray. He rarely if ever addressed this issue in a public forum outside of New Park Street Chapel and then only rarely and with great charity.
- For the most part, the fight was carried on by his attackers who hotly contested and refuted statements that Banks or others would throw up in Spurgeon’s defense.
B. The Cause and Dissemination of the Controversy
- Some contended that the real reason behind the controversy and the attacks mounted against Spurgeon was jealousy on the part of the older and more entrenched pastors who were threatened by the amazing growth and popularity of this boy-preacher in London.
- However, while this jealousy may have been a minor reason in some parts, evidence suggests that the conflict revolved around a serious doctrinal difference rather than personal or relational issues.
1. The Rise and Entrenchment of Hyper-Calvinism
- Over the years, the Particular Baptist movement in England had become increasingly more aligned with the views of Hyper-Calvinism than with those of genuine Calvinism.
- Of particular importance was the belief that strong appeals to repentance should not be made to men who have not first shown some evidence of being elect. The thinking was that to compel men to repent who were not elect and therefore were not able to repent was morally wrong; God does not give commands to men that they can’t fulfill. Therefore, since God had not elected these men and consequently they could not repent, it was wrong to compel them to repent. The gospel could be preached, but no appeal could be made.
- Against this view was the orthodox belief that God has and does command men to do things they are unable to do. For example, we are commanded to be holy as God is holy. We are commanded to keep the law and live. We are commanded to be perfect even as God is perfect.
- Since this truth is the case, all men—even the non-elect—are commanded to repent. While it is true that apart from God’s effectual call a lost man cannot repent on his own, God still commands him to such repentance. Therefore, it is the moral duty of every preacher of the gospel to compel men to repent.
- Those against this view (the Hyper-Calvinists) mocked this view and called it “duty faith.”
- By Spurgeon’s day, this antagonism to “Duty Faith” had become the established view in most of the Particular Baptist churches in London.
- It had been entrenched by men like John Gill (who had pastured New Park Street Chapel at one time) and William Huntington.
- It had been popularized by men like Wells.
- Wells considered the idea that all men should be called to faith in Christ (as Spurgeon did) as a form of “Fullerism” and called it a “grave error” introduced among good Baptists by Andrew Fuller (1754–1815) and his mongrel Calvinistic friends.
- He contended that since Christ is only the Savior of the elect, it cannot be the duty of the non-elect to believe in Him for a salvation not provided for them. To preach such “duty faith” was a serious breach of doctrine.
- Wells and his followers considered themselves as sent by God to “knock down this duty faith system and wheel away the rubbish!”
2. Spurgeon’s Perceived Departure from Calvinism
- From his own writings and sermons, it is abundantly clear that Spurgeon was very much out of line with the particular type of Calvinism adopted by Wells and his followers.
- He was thoroughly convinced that it is the duty of every man to repent and to believe the gospel, and he was convinced that it was the duty of every preacher to compel men everywhere to come to repentance.
- Here are his words on the matter:
The London people are 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.
- This difference was quickly perceived by others, and soon the word was out and about that this “upstart” at New Park Street Chapel was preaching a different gospel than that which Calvin was purported to have preached!
- In fact, A.C. Underwood in his work on Baptist history contends that this controversy was caused by Spurgeon’s departure from Calvinism. Here is the charge in his words,
The truth seems to be that the old Calvinistic phrases were often on Spurgeon’s lips but the genuine Calvinistic meaning had gone out of them. This explains the attacks made upon him, as soon as he began his ministry in London, by those who had never departed from undadulterated Calvinism.
- The truth was that what had become entrenched in the Particular Baptist churches in England at the time was not true Calvinism but rather “Hyper-Calvinism.”
- At the young age of 20, Spurgeon knew enough to recognize that it was the theology of Wells and his supporters that had really departed from true biblical Calvinism.
- From his reading of the Puritans, Spurgeon was convinced that they did not support Wells’ hyper views. He noted, “I have all the Puritans with me—the whole of them, without exception.”
- In response to the charge of “Fullerism,” Spurgeon gladly stood with Fuller and quoted Fuller as saying, “No writer of eminence can be named before this present century, who denied it to be the duty of men in general to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ for the salvation of their souls.”
- He believed that the emphasis articulated by Fuller (to which he had been charged of adhering) was an emphasis to be found in all of the Reformers, Puritans, and ultimately the Scriptures themselves.
- History and the Creeds of Protestant Christendom all side with Spurgeon and Fuller in revealing that it was Wells and his followers and not Spurgeon who had departed from orthodoxy in this point (duty faith).
- Note that Fuller and Spurgeon both were in accordance with the Articles of the Synod of Dort (1619) on this point.
As many are called by the gospel are unfeignedly called; for God hath most earnestly and truly declared in His Word what will be acceptable to him, namely, that all who are called should comply with the invitation. He, moreover, seriously promises eternal life and rest to as many as shall come to him and believe on him. It is not the fault of the Gospel, nor of Christ offered therein, nor of God, who calls men by the gospel, and confers upon them various gifts, that those who are called by the ministry of the Word refuse to come and be converted. The fault lies in themselves. (Philip Schaff, A History of the Creeds of Christendom, vol 1, p. 522)
3. The Spread of the Debate Through the Periodical Earthen Vessel
- And so the controversy began, a controversy that would last for a good portion of Spurgeon’s ministry.
- Unwittingly, the controversy was fanned and kept alive by the platform provided in the Earthen Vessel.
- The last intention of Banks had been to start such a controversy, but his statement that “Spurgeon was emphasizing in his preaching what ministers of truth in our time have long neglected to enforce” launched the battle.
- Wells’ strong response was written under the pen name “Job,” but Banks knew immediately (as did the readers) who the author was since he had submitted other pieces in the past under the pen name of “Theophilus.”
- In his rebuttal, Wells went after his good friend Banks on the grounds of disloyalty and of seeking patronage of Spurgeon.
If the Earthen Vessel intends to change Masters, let it do so at once, and the living in Jerusalem will have done with it. . . If it grows lukewarm, and is neither hot nor cold, we must cast it out of our mouths, nor must we take up its name into our lips.
- A pastor named Richard Sibbes responded in kind against Wells’ invective:
God Almighty grant that we may be true prophets; and then, to all our cruel correspondents we will say—fire away—cut up, cast out, and condemn theEarthen Vessel, much as ye may, ye will do us no harm. The temple of the Lord is being built.
- Clearly, the fight was on, and others were now entering the fray.
- Note the similarities to the modern conflict:
a. Strong personalities were on both sides.
b. A lack of theological understanding was on one side.
c. The conflict was kept alive through the platform of written media.
d. Others kept the fight going.
C. The Case Against Spurgeon
1. It Was Contended That Spurgeon’s View of Sovereignty Was Weak.
- An article appeared in the February edition of the Earthen Vessel entitled “Mr. Spurgeon’s views of Responsibility and Sovereignty.” It was a review of a published sermon of Spurgeon’s entitled, “God’s Sovereignty and Man’s Responsibility.”
The writer of this article has read Spurgeon’s sermon … and was thoroughly hostile to what he had read. He was shocked that Spurgeon could find fault with William Huntington’s views of human responsibility, and still more shocked that Spurgeon apparently believed that God desired the salvation of all who hear the Gospel. Mr. Spurgeon says that God stretched out his arms daily to save them (the Jews), and yet he didn’t save them; which I say is positive proof in itself, that he did not stretch out his arms to save them.
- Wells picked up this point and wrote a series of letters in the Earthen Vessel in which he contended that Spurgeon held a weak or flawed view of sovereignty.
2. It Was Argued That Spurgeon Was in Serious Error by Holding to the View Known as “Duty Faith.”
- There is no doctrine in existence that more insidiously destroys the vital truths of the gospel from the churches than this duty-faith doctrine. It is by this doctrine that such numbers are converted—Such a conversion as it is… It is very unpleasant to me to make these almost personal allusions to Mr. Spurgeon… I know no man I should feel more attachment to, were he but straight in the truth; but it is not so; I lament it; and none but the Lord can alter it! (Wells)
- Wells contended that “duty faith” was a serious error because it …
a. Dishonored God.
b. Pointed the sinner to himself for a remedy against sin.
c. Was calculated therefore to mislead and deceive.
3. It Was Argued That in Calling Spiritually Dead Men to Exercise Faith in Christ, Spurgeon’s View of the Gospel Was Contradictory, Misleading, and Deeply Flawed Theologically
- Wells contended that Spurgeon’s gospel was “contradictory.” He argued that Spurgeon taught human sinfulness, but by calling his hearers indiscriminately to faith in Christ (duty faith), he was preaching a doctrine of works, for dead, captive sinners cannot exercise faith!
- It was basically contended that this view was flawed because it focused too much on the love of God for the lost rather than on His holy and sovereign hatred of sin.
- “God has a hatred for sinners which is both eternal and purely sovereign.” (Banks in a published letter in the Earthen Vessel)
- This view ended up finding popular (though misguided) amplification by other Particular Baptist preachers in Wells’ circle:
I believe that God does hate some of you and that He always will! Do what you will, He will hate you, whether you believe or not—whether you pray or not—whether you repent or not—God hates you and will hate you! (unnamed young preacher)
In Part 3, we will look at “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.