‘Timeless’ ministry of Spurgeon examined in Alumni Academy
His sermons are still circulated around the world through books, pamphlets, and the Internet. He is quoted by thousands of pastors across the land each Sunday. His books are read and re-read. Church historians often say Charles Haddon Spurgeon was the prince of preachers, but it may accurate to say he still is.
“The ministry of a man like Spurgeon is timeless,” said Thomas J. Nettles, who studied Spurgeon for nearly 20 years in writing Living By Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles Haddon Spurgeon. “His attentions and affections were focused on things that were not merely ephemeral, but were eternal. The longevity of interest in him is something that certainly commends him to all of us.”
More than 125 alumni of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary attended a two-day Alumni Academy, Oct. 9-10, devoted to the life and ministry of the great British pastor.
Nettles, who retired from full-time teaching at Southern Seminary in May after more than 35 years as a professor of historical theology, served as the main lecturer for the conference. He taught on Spurgeon as a pastor-theologian, Spurgeon’s biblical preaching, his writing as a pastoral discipline, his commitment to benevolent ministry, and his involvement in theological controversies of the day.
Born in 1834, Spurgeon served as pastor of Metropolitan Tabernacle, a London megachurch, from 1854 until his death. When he died in 1892, Spurgeon was escorted to his final resting place at the head of a funeral procession that snaked five miles behind him.
In his first lecture, Nettles argued that God’s work in and through Spurgeon began early in his life, during his teenage years. Nettles identified nine lessons Spurgeon learned early in life that established the foundation for his ministry:
- Spurgeon learned to interpret his life, even his emotions, in theological terms and all the events of his life in light of God’s providence.
- As a young teenager, he became conversant with and convinced of the doctrines of grace through reading volumes of the Puritans from his grandfather’s library.
- He became convinced early that Baptist ecclesiology was a biblical ecclesiology, partly through hearing arguments from the Church of England in favor of infant baptism.
- He yearned for edification from the pulpit.
- He became convinced of the necessity of evangelism using any means possible that was faithful to the Bible.
- He showed early signs of a tendency toward sickness, suffering, and depression. Spurgeon was ill throughout much of his life and his ministry, which often saw him preaching 10 times per week and no doubt hastened his death.
- He developed a propensity for self-analysis that allowed him to relate his personal experience, especially his well-known conversion account at age 16, to others.
- He committed himself to a position of no-compromise with modernism and higher critical thought in the Baptist Union controversy in the late 19th century. Nettles unpacked Spurgeon’s role in the Downgrade Controversy toward the end of his life in which the prince of preachers defended biblical orthodoxy within the Baptist Union at a time when the denomination was embracing theological liberalism.
- He developed a commitment to Scripture as the final arbiter of all doctrine, teaching and practice. The principle of sola Scriptura was the bedrock for all of Spurgeon’s preaching, teaching and writing throughout his life.
One of Spurgeon’s great pleasures was the training of young ministers through the pastor’s college he established in London.
In that context, Spurgeon published his widely read Lectures to My Students and, as Nettles pointed out, set forth four evidences that a man has been called to preach God’s Word: he must have a saving experience of the gospel; he must have a superior esteem for the worthiness of the gospel; he must possess an inability to give himself to any other work than the gospel ministry; and he must have natural gifts for preaching and teaching.
“Spurgeon believed a man whom God calls to preach the Word must have a resolute confidence in the sufficiency of Scripture and must be committed to the exposition of it,” Nettles said.
Southern Seminary professors Michael A.G. Haykin and Donald S. Whitney also lectured on topics related to Spurgeon. Haykin serves as professor of church history and biblical spirituality and Whitney is professor of biblical spirituality and associate dean of the School of Theology.
Haykin examined the necessity of the Holy Spirit in the Christian ministry, a fundamental part of Spurgeon’s teaching. As a young man, Spurgeon had encountered robust teaching on the Holy Spirit in the works of the Puritans, Haykin said, and this taught the budding pastor that without the work of the Spirit, the changing of sinful human hearts is impossible. Spurgeon preached often on the Holy Spirit.
“The role of the Holy Spirit in conversion and ministry was a central theme in Spurgeon’s preaching and overall ministry,” Haykin said. “One of his best-known sermons from late in his life, called ‘The Greatest Fight in the World,’ preached with the Downgrade Controversy as the background, was on the Holy Spirit. In it Spurgeon said, ‘When the Holy Spirit is gone from a church, even truth itself becomes an iceberg.’”
Whitney addressed the piety of Spurgeon, asserting that meditation on Scripture was Spurgeon’s priority in his daily walk with the Lord. Whitney called Spurgeon’s godliness a “gregarious piety” because of his virtual constant interaction with people; Spurgeon was not a minister who needed lengthy seasons of time alone.
“Spurgeon practiced both direct and indirect meditation,” Whitney said. “He meditated on small phrases or brief parts of select passages and actively used his imagination in meditation.
“He meditated also indirectly in that he considered how everything conveyed biblical truth,” he continued. “Through this means he used a lot of simile and metaphor which is why his sermon illustrations were brief but were also so rich.”
Alumni Academy provides free ongoing instruction for alumni and prospective students of Southern Seminary. To find out more about the program, visit events.sbts.edu.