By Shane Kastler
Tom Nettles recent work on Charles Spurgeon is a much needed addition to the scholarship focused on the 19th century London pastor, known as “The Prince of Preachers.” In "Living By Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles Haddon Spurgeon", he focuses primarily on the theological beliefs of Spurgeon which drove so many of his ministerial actions. The well written tome, makes for excellent reading and provides level headed insight into understanding what made Spurgeon tick.
While the book is obviously somewhat biographical, the main thrust is theological. Spurgeon came of age as the son and grandson of Congregational ministers. Being sickly as a boy, he devoted much time to reading and early on immersed himself in the English Puritans. From this he developed a theological understanding that was much deeper than most his age. Not surprisingly he was preaching the gospel as a teenager; and pastoring one of the largest flocks in London shortly thereafter. But Spurgeon was no mere carbon copy of his forefathers. He had his own convictions and didn't mind differing with his father and grandfather on notable issues. Albeit with utmost respect toward his elders.
On the issue of baptism, Spurgeon shunned the infant baptism of his youth and sought to be baptized as a believer after his conversion at age 15. He considered this to be the Biblical mode and desired his parents to allow for it, even though they disagreed with it. His mother told him: “Son I had always prayed that God would make you a Christian, but I certainly never expected him to make you a Baptist.” Spurgeon responded that as God so frequently does: “He gave you what you asked for, then even gave you exceedingly, abundantly beyond what you had asked for.” After writing his father seeking permission to be baptized, Spurgeon waited anxiously for the reply that was slow in coming. Apparently wanting to ignore the issue, John Spurgeon finally acquiesced and left the matter up to Charles.
Spurgeon's stellar wit is on full display in Nettles' work as he gives numerous examples of barbs which the preacher often zipped at his opponents. Once when a Presbyterian book store owner approached Spurgeon with a book on infant baptism, saying: “Look at this book Reverend! It's a thorn in your flesh isn't it?” Spurgeon immediately responded, “Finish the verse sir! It is a thorn in my flesh....and a MINISTER OF SATAN.”
The London press despised Spurgeon from the outset and Nettles does an excellent job of showing this. One such quote from a London paper castigated Spurgeon saying:
“Some men there are who, taking their precepts from Holy Writ, would beckon erring souls to a rightful path with fair words and gentle admonition; Mr. Spurgeon would take them by the nose and bully them into religion.... While many see him as a pious Christian; we see him as a ranting charlatan.”
Liberals despised him for being too focused on the Bible and on conversion. Hyper-Calvinists on the other hand, ridiculed him for being too evangelistic. Spurgeon, for his part, seemed content to preach Christ, call sinners to repent, and let the naysayers go on barking as they wished.
From a theological perspective, Spurgeon was clearly an Evangelistic Calvinist, and made no apologies for it. (For a more focused, and concise look at Spurgeon's controversies see Iain Murray's excellent work “The Forgotten Spurgeon”) He thundered the “Doctrines of Grace” and didn't believe God could truly be understood apart from Divine election. Yet, he clearly numbered many Arminians of a freewill stripe as friends and fellow brothers in Christ. With Spurgeon we see a fine example of holding fiercely to convictions, while not necessarily letting it divide true fellowship among genuine believers. He never saw eye-to-eye with his parents on baptism, yet held a warm affection for them and had his father preach in his pulpit numerous times.
Spurgeon's life is a fascinating one to study, perhaps the most fascinating preacher outside of Scripture. And Nettles does a masterful job of adding commentary to the narrative with his own excellent insights and observations. For example, Spurgeon was not a lover of the city; in fact he loathed living in London. The fog and smoke seemed to choke him out and add to his already weak physical constitution. Sometimes this disdain for city life clouded Spurgeon's judgment from a Spiritual perspective as well. Nettles contends that he “idealized the country” and made it better in his mind than it actually was. In truth, sin is everywhere. But it seems to be more concentrated in cities where more sinners naturally are in close proximity. But Spurgeon was duty bound to do something about the sins of London. He saw the city and ultimately the world as his mission field and set out on a “gospel siege” of it with his only weapon being the gospel. He fed the hungry and ministered to the sick. He opened an orphanage and a Pastor's college, training young men in true theology and sending them out to preach and minister. In all truth, it is overwhelming to consider the problems London faced in the late 19th century. And it is equally overwhelming to consider all that Spurgeon did to face the problems.
Any study of Spurgeon's life would be incomplete if it didn't address the sometimes mammoth depressions that he faced; and Nettles does an excellent job of pointing these out. When seven people were trampled to death at the Surrey Gardens Music Hall, Spurgeon almost had a mental breakdown. Only 22 years old at the time; and the father of one month old twins; Spurgeon had to have some time out of the pulpit to recuperate from the tragedy. In some ways, this incident haunted him to his death.
Spurgeon was regularly cast down mentally, as well as physically. Nettles points out that even in his early twenties he frequently spoke of death and how much he longed for it because of his physical pains. It appeared evident, early in Spurgeon's life, that he was not destined to a long life on earth. So it's not too surprising that he died, exhausted and emotionally spent, at the age of 57.
In conclusion I would heartily commend this work by Tom Nettles as one of the best I've read on the life of Spurgeon. In getting past the factual details, the author presents the theological fuel that so often fired Spurgeon's life. As a Pastor, I found myself inspired by this titan of the faith; and as a Christian I marveled at how greatly God used him for His glory. Spurgeon was a rare gift to the church and there will likely not be another one like him. His combination of theological precision and practical application was unrivaled in his day and will possibly never be seen again. But all pastors (indeed all Christians should strive for it). Spurgeon was an amazing man. But His God is also our God; and who knows what God might do through other faithful servants in the future.
I am thankful to Tom Nettles for his meticulous research and clarity of thought in penning this excellent work. I recommend it's reading if one seeks to better understand Charles Haddon Spurgeon and what made him the man he was. Spurgeon's life was inspiring and his theology drove his ministry. If this were true of more ministers today, then the church of Jesus Christ would be much stronger and much more faithful than the watered-down caricatures of church we often see. Look to Nettles, and to Spurgeon, and most of all Jesus to find the route to faithfulness. Read this book and be edified, inspired, and encouraged to press on. Spurgeon spent himself in gospel ministry and died young. Let us all take up that mantel and be willing to do likewise if the Lord should so ordain.