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.
The writers of sacred Scripture employed this tactic. Paul anticipated the objections to his teaching on both justification by faith and election, and he refuted the errors (Romans 6:1-4; 9:19-26). He also addressed the error of not walking in “step with the truth of the gospel” when he confronted Peter’s actions (Galatians 2:11-14). The Apostle John also used the same method. He highlighted the difference between truth and error, light and darkness (cf. 1 John 2:4, 22; 4:3, 8). One of the clearest examples of this is 1 John 3:9-10: “No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God. By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother.” John is not content to merely assert that being born of God leads to practicing righteousness, he also makes it clear that if you do not practice righteousness, you are a child of the devil! Of course, John learned from the best. The Lord Jesus was the most brilliant at pushing the antithesis: the Lord did not stop at asserting that if “God were your father, you would love me” (John 8:42). He goes further: Because you reject me, he says, “you are of your father the devil” (John 8:44a).
Effective preaching, Spurgeon understood, not only proclaims truth, but it also rebukes and corrects error. Because Spurgeon believed the gospel to be the power of God for salvation and the means of propelling the saints on in gospel mission, he did not leave it to chance that people understood what he meant when he proclaimed it. His sermons are replete with pushing the antithesis. He knew that people needed to see just how the gospel/doctrines of grace came into conflict with the false teachings all around them. For example, consider a portion of a sermon entitled “The Parable of the Ark.” At this point in the sermon, Spurgeon has just declared that just as the ark had room enough and to spare for all the animals, the gospel has room enough for all the sinners that come to Christ. In order to drive the truth home, and confront error, Spurgeon explicitly and directly addresses Calvinism and Arminianism:
If the Father that hath sent him draw you, and you come unto him, doubt not there is room. Do not think, beloved, because we preach election, that we preach the election of a few. I find that this is a common mistake. Some one will say to me, “I don’t like your Calvinism, sir, because it says that there are a few elected, and that nobody else will be saved.” Nay, sir, but it does not say that there are a few elected, it says no such thing; it says they are a multitude, that no man can number, that have been elected, and who knows but what you are one of them? It does not turn you out. It gives you ten thousand times more reason for hope than the Arminian preacher, who stands up and says, “There is room for everybody, but I do not think there is any special grace to make them come; if they won’t come, they won’t come, and there is an end of it; it is their own fault, and God will not make them come.” The word of God says they cannot come, yet the Arminian says they can; the poor sinner feels that he cannot, yet the Arminian declares positively that he could if he liked; and though the poor sinner feels sometimes that he would if he could, and groans over his inability, this blind guide [i.e. the Arminian] tells him that it is all nonsense; whereas, it is, in truth, God’s own work to make a man feel that he is unable…Ah! there is more hope for you in the pure Gospel of the blessed God, than there is in those fancies and fictions of men which are now-a-days preached everywhere, except in a few places where God hath reserved unto himself a people who have not bowed their knee to the Baal of the age.
Spurgeon despised false gospels; he abhorred the Arminian “gospel” precisely because it rejected the truth of God’s Word. His love for his hearers compelled him to preach clearly against error. He wanted his preaching to be as a level highway, wherein the wayfaring men, though fools, shall not err therein. He wanted to make sure that no one would leave his sermon unsure of what he meant or believed. The errors of a man-centered, Arminian gospel were spread throughout the land in Spurgeon’s day (and our own). Many had “bowed their knee to the Baal of the age,” and it was Spurgeon’s intention to show the errors of this false gospel. If, like Spurgeon, we are convinced that false teaching is dangerous, ought not we clearly correct it?
In another sermon, preached from John 6:44, Spurgeon pushes the antithesis between the gospel truth that man is unable and unwilling to come to Christ and the Arminian error that man is able to come to Christ:
“Oh!” saith the Arminian, “men may be saved if they will.” We reply, “My dear sir, we all believe that; but it is just the if they will that is the difficulty. We assert that no man will come to Christ unless he be drawn; nay we do not assert it, but Christ himself declares it—’Ye will not come unto me that ye might have life;’ and as long as that ‘ye will not come’ stands on record in Holy Scripture, we shall not be brought to believe in any doctrine of the freedom of the human will.” It is strange how people, when talking about free-will, talk of things which they do not at all understand.
Spurgeon understood that many of his hearers were exposed to Arminian teaching. He recognized the need to confront such errors. He was not content to simply state that man is unable to come to Christ, but he sought to push the antithesis to make sure everyone understood what he meant and what he didn’t mean. He understood that even those influenced with the false teaching of Arminiamisn are liable to agree with such assertions as “man is unable to come to Christ,” or “God is sovereign.” He knew that unless he made it clear what he meant (and what the Scripture means) when he said such things, he was failing to push the antithesis and correct false teaching.
In a hundred different ways, Spurgeon made it clear: “It is not an Arminian gospel I preach to you.” The same approach is needed today. The error of Arminianism still secretly lurks among many churches who ostensibly reject it. We ought not to be surprised by this. Arminianism is man-centered and as long as there are still unregenerate churchgoers on this earth, some form of Arminianism will be embraced. The church must stand as the buttress of truth and clearly confront such assaults on the gospel of grace. One of the most effective ways to do this is to push the antithesis and clearly teach how the truth of God’s Word demolishes the errors of man-made religion.
Evermore the Exigency of the Hour: “We Doubt Not That It Will Always Be Offensive to Carnal Nature”
One of the main reasons ministers hesitate to preach as Spurgeon did is because they know the doctrines of grace are liable to be difficult for people to accept. If this were not the case—if every minister believed that all the people would immediately submit to the gospel of grace—no gospel preacher would ever be tempted to prune the truth in the least bit! However, it is our nature to be tempted to lessen the force of our preaching if we know it may be difficult for people to receive it.
Spurgeon was not ignorant of the reaction that many people would have to the doctrines of grace. He fully acknowledged that his preaching of the gospel would be offensive to “carnal nature,” even among churchgoers. Nevertheless, this truth did not cause him to skirt around any gospel issue. On the contrary, he believed that clear teaching on the gospel (which includes pushing the antithesis) would lead to blessings (“glorious consequences”). In his opening remarks in the aforementioned sermon on John 6:44, he explained:
Coming to Christ, though described by some people as being the very easiest thing in all the world, is in our text declared to be a thing utterly and entirely impossible to any man, unless the Father shall draw him to Christ. It shall be our business, then, to enlarge upon this declaration. We doubt not that it will always be offensive to carnal nature, but, nevertheless, the offending of human nature is sometimes the first step towards bringing it to bow itself before God. And if this be the effect of a painful process, we can forget the pain and rejoice in the glorious consequences.
Spurgeon recognized that the gospel of grace, with all its offensiveness to human nature, is the very means (even “the first step”) of bringing the soul to submit to God. He understood that preaching the gospel can cause division and pain, but he also understood that this pain was part of the process of receiving God’s truth. It should be acknowledged that Spurgeon was not naive to the objections to his gospel ministry; he knew that some people might consider him to be causing more harm than good:
I am often charged with preaching doctrines that may do a great deal of hurt. Well, I shall not deny the charge, for I am not careful to answer in this matter. I have my witnesses here present to prove that the things which I have preached have done a great deal of hurt, but they have not done hurt either to morality or to God’s church; the hurt has been on the side of Satan.
Spurgeon was firmly convinced: the preaching of the gospel of grace only hurts the kingdom of darkness. The preaching of the gospel throws down strongholds and confronts man’s pride. May it never be said that something other than the explicit preaching of the gospel of grace is the need of the hour. The gospel is the solution to every problem facing man. Boldly proclaiming it, regardless of how people will respond, is one way to demonstrate our faith in its power (cf. Isaiah 55:11; Romans 1:15).
Some people may generally affirm Spurgeon’s ministry, but assert that there are times such preaching is not appropriate. Today, they might say, we cannot simply boldly proclaim the gospel and pointedly address false teaching. Too many problems would arise. People might be “turned off” to Christianity or the church. People who are “close” to accepting biblical doctrine may be “pushed away.” There may be a time to preach as Spurgeon did, but not until the church has reached a certain point. Perhaps the people in Spurgeon’s day were ready to hear such clear, pointed preaching, but today they are not. At least not now, not yet.
Timing and possible consequences are often presented as reasons to at least wait longer before explicitly addressing the doctrines of grace. But is such thinking in accord with the principles of sacred Scripture? I submit that it is not. The Apostle Paul declared, “For I have not shunned to declare unto you all the counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). Paul did not wait to teach on doctrines essential to the gospel of God’s grace: election, predestination, depravity, etc. In his letter to the saints in Rome, before even meeting them in person, he explicitly laid out such doctrines as election (Romans 9), total depravity (Romans 3), and the perseverance of the saints (Romans 8). He did not seek to “bring the people along” prior to teaching these doctrines. He sought to bring them along with these glorious gospel doctrines. We can be patient as we teach the doctrines of grace, as we deal with objections and opposition to the gospel. We can patiently endure the evil of false gospels as we correct them with gentleness (cf. 2 Timothy 4:24-25)—but being patient does not mean waiting to clearly and distinctly teach the doctrines of grace and confront false teachings.
There is often this notion that there is some sort of pathway to prepare people to hear the doctrines of grace. We seek this route because we recognize the gospel of grace is offensive and causes resistance. The truth, however, is that there is no plan to prepare people to hear the gospel of grace. It is the preaching of the gospel that is the very means ordained of God to change hearts and minds. When the truth is pruned, even in simply refusing to make clear the errors that it condemns, we blunt the sword of the Word.
There will always be a plethora of issues facing a church, but the clear preaching of the gospel of grace is always to be at the forefront. While pragmatic objections may abound (timing, demographics, history, etc.), such objections will never be able to rise above the divine mandate to proclaim the gospel to the whole creation. It is the gospel which can solve the numerous problems caused by human sin and ignorance. It is the gospel which can address the true needs of parishioners. The need of our day, just as in Spurgeon’s day, is for ministers to refuse to “prune the truth,” but instead boldly proclaim the unvarnished gospel of grace with clarity, precision, and passion, pushing the antithesis between truth and error. Preaching the gospel without explicitly making clear the great distinguishing doctrines of grace is akin to putting the glorious light of the gospel under a bushel. May it not be so among us.