Don’t Prune the Truth: Lessons from Spurgeon’s Preaching of the Gospel of Grace

Jesus will lose none of those that the Father has given him (John 6:39).

Throughout church history, this message has consistently fallen under attack. Those who have boldly proclaimed the biblical gospel of grace (cf. Acts 20:24)—the depravity of man, the sovereignty of God in salvation, and the victory of Christ at the cross; in short, the doctrines of grace—have been forced to confront false gospels. One man who modeled a firm commitment to the gospel of grace was Charles Haddon Spurgeon.

 

The Gospel of Jesus Christ is a message that humbles the pride of man and exalts the sovereignty, holiness, and power of God. It is a message which tells us that man is utterly depraved and unable to save himself. It is a message which proclaims that God, in his love, has chosen to redeem a people for himself (Ephesians 1:5). It is a message which declares that God the Son (Jesus Christ), through his life, death, and resurrection, secured the redemption of those for whom he died. It is a message which will be received (via repentance and faith) by all those whom God’s irresistible grace is poured upon. And it is a message which boldly asserts that Jesus will lose none of those that the Father has given him (John 6:39).

Throughout church history, this message has consistently fallen under attack. Those who have boldly proclaimed the biblical gospel of grace (cf. Acts 20:24)—the depravity of man, the sovereignty of God in salvation, and the victory of Christ at the cross; in short, the doctrines of grace—have been forced to confront false gospels. One man who modeled a firm commitment to the gospel of grace was Charles Haddon Spurgeon.

Spurgeon, who lived and ministered in England during the 19th century, took seriously the words of the Apostle Paul to reject any gospel contrary to the one he received (Galatians 1:6-9). Because of this, Spurgeon explicitly rejected the false gospel of Arminianism―a “gospel” which denies the doctrines of grace. Spurgeon believed the preaching of the gospel to be inseparable from the doctrines of grace:

I do not believe we can preach the gospel, if we do not preach justification by faith, without works; nor unless we preach the sovereignty of God in His dispensation of grace; nor unless we exalt the electing, unchangeable, eternal, immutable, conquering love of Jehovah; nor do I think we can preach the gospel, unless we base it upon the special and particular redemption of His elect and chosen people which Christ wrought out upon the cross; nor can I comprehend a gospel which lets saints fall away after they are called, and suffers the children of God to be burned in the fires of damnation after having once believed in Jesus. Such a gospel I abhor.

The conflict over the “doctrines of grace” was not new to Spurgeon’s day. Over one hundred years before Spurgeon’s ministry, George Whitefield boldly preached the doctrines of grace (a.k.a. Calvinism). Whitefield (1714-1770) asserted: “I must preach the Gospel of Christ, and this I cannot now do without speaking of election.” The controversy was intense—with Whitefield arguing for the truth of the doctrines of grace and John Wesley arguing for the false teaching of Arminianism—and led to church splits, among other things.

But the controversy was not new in Whitefield’s day either: over a hundred years earlier (in the early 1600’s), the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands convened an international synod to confront the errors of Arminianism. Even John Robinson (1576-1625), the pastor of the Pilgrims prior to their voyage to America, argued for the doctrines of grace and against the false teaching of Arminianism. The biblical gospel, despite all the virulent assaults it has faced, has consistently risen victoriously over the false, man-centered Arminian “gospel.”

The focus of this post, however, is to briefly consider how Charles Spurgeon dealt with this issue during his ministry. Did Spurgeon seek to only address the doctrines of grace in an oblique manner, treading carefully due to how people might respond, or did he explicitly and clearly proclaim them? Did Spurgeon only declare the general principles of the doctrines of grace, or did he also confront the false teachings of his day with clarity and precision? Did Spurgeon operate in a world different from ours—where these issues didn’t cause controversy? Or did he understand that the doctrines of grace, if explicitly taught, could cause “problems” to arise? If so, did such an understanding lessen his commitment to teach them? As I seek to answer these questions, remember that Spurgeon firmly believed the gospel could not be preached without preaching the doctrines of grace (see above quote).

Setting the Scene: “Arminianism Secretly Lurks Among Us”

In the preface to his third volume of sermons, Charles Spurgeon described the spiritual landscape of his day:

In our land we have been favored with some blessed gleams of sunshine; but those who know the signs of the times are led very frequently to tremble for the ark of the Lord. Arminianism secretly lurks among us. Our ministers prune the truth, and conceal the great distinguishing doctrines of grace, in a manner much to be lamented.

The context is that even though the doctrines of grace have been accepted by many (“we have been favored with some blessed gleams…”), there is also a serious danger present. In Spurgeon’s view, the danger is enough to cause 19th century “sons of Issachar” to tremble. The danger is that “Arminianism secretly lurks among us.” This is not referring to Arminianism as it was preached in Arminian churches. There was no secret there. In Spurgeon’s day, just as in our own, there are those who boldly teach the false gospel of Arminianism. Spurgeon’s concern was more pointed: within churches blessed with the gospel of grace, Arminianism retains some level of influence. Even if ministers personally reject Arminianism, they do not boldly and explicitly preach against it—they “conceal the great distinguishing doctrines of grace.”

Spurgeon’s concern remains valid to this day. Many ministers and churches, while internally accepting the doctrines of grace, do not explicitly teach said doctrines. However, Spurgeon’s passion and example ought to be both instructive and encouraging. He understood the times and he was committed to never “pruning the truth.” By considering how he approached gospel preaching, we ought to be stirred to follow suit.

Spurgeon’s Agenda: “If God’s Truth Will Not Save Men’s Souls, Man’s Lies Cannot”

Like the Apostle Paul, Spurgeon no doubt considered himself under obligation to preach the gospel (Romans 1:14-15). His passion was to proclaim the gospel of Christ. In a sermon entitled “Gospel Missions,” Spurgeon asserted that the doctrines of grace have always led to evangelism and missions. He proclaimed that “the fathers of the [gospel] mission were all zealous lovers of the doctrines of the grace of God.” He further contended that “the great support of missionary enterprise, if it is to be successful, must always come from those who hold God’s truth firmly and boldly, and yet have fire and zeal with it, and desire to spread it everywhere.”

Spurgeon’s agenda, his underlying plan, in proclaiming the gospel of grace was to boldly assert the truth. The truth, he believed, would lead to the conversion of sinners, the motivation and comfort of the saints, and the evangelization of the world. He thundered from his pulpit: “I hold that a man who does not believe [God’s] gospel to be able to save men’s souls, does not believe it at all. If God’s truth will not save men’s souls, man’s lies cannot.” Spurgeon believed the gospel to be the power of God unto salvation (Romans 1:16). As such, he was obligated to preach it clearly, explicitly, and boldly. His plan was simple: preach the truth, no matter the consequences. He desired that all men hear and believe the gospel of grace. Such was his noble and godly agenda.

Preaching that Pushes the Antithesis: “It Is Not an Arminian Gospel I Preach to You”

Spurgeon’s agenda, indeed the agenda of any gospel preacher, was to preach truth and expose error. The Apostle Paul told young Timothy to “preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine” (2 Timothy 4:2). The 20th century apologist and scholar, Greg Bahnsen was known for highlighting the need for Christians to “push the antithesis.” In preaching and teaching this means that it is not enough to merely make a general statement about the truth. The point needs to be driven home by one of two ways: (1) confronting the errors that oppose the truth or (2) highlighting the distinguishing marks between truth and error. This helps to ensure that the hearers truly understand the truth being proclaimed.

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