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Charles Spurgeon is one of the most quoted preachers of the past. Thousands still read his sermons and writings. Yet few, according to Iain Murray, remember Spurgeon’s theology. And even fewer remember his willingness to defend it. The Forgotten Spurgeon is not a normal biography. Instead, Murray’s book focuses on the three major controversies of Spurgeon’s ministry: his stand for historic Calvinism while at New Park Street in the 1850s, his involvement in the baptismal regeneration debate of 1864, and the Down-Grade controversy of 1887-1891.
Spurgeon’s biographers make special note of his popularity while at New Park Street Baptist. Hundreds were turned away each Sunday as the building overflowed with eager listeners. But the doctrine that Spurgeon preached, and the persecution and criticism that he endured because of it, is seldom mentioned. Spurgeon’s Calvinism was a favorite target of the public, news media, and even other pastors. This continued, in fact, throughout his entire ministry. He often felt alone in his defense of what he considered the only true gospel. Others also saw him as standing alone. One wrote: “[Spurgeon] was out of step with everyone else, because John Calvin’s ghost ‘rode him like a nightmare.’ ” The prevailing opinion, however, did nothing to modify Spurgeon’s defense of the gospel. On one hand he opposed the hyper-Calvinist belief that the gospel should only be preached to the elect. On the other hand, he saw Arminianism as destroying the whole system of theology, promoting superficiality and false assurance, and downplaying true conversion. To Spurgeon, this was more than a question of non-essentials.
The second controversy Murray deals with is the baptismal regeneration debate of 1864. The church of England was moving in a direction that evangelicals considered unacceptable. Much debate centered on questions concerning the use and meaning of the Book of Common Prayer. Spurgeon took the prayer book as a whole to task, arguing that it had no scriptural authority. But his main protest was against the Anglican’s growing acceptance of the doctrine of baptismal regeneration. To men like Spurgeon and the Anglican Bishop J.C. Ryle, this signified a “returning to Rome.”
The Down-Grade controversy lasted from 1887 until Spurgeon’s death in 1891. As higher criticism gained popularity among Protestants, a disregard for Scriptural authority and denial of Scriptural inspiration also grew, especially within the Baptist churches. Spurgeon’s main question now was whether believers should associate with those who advance such error. His conclusion? “Fellowship with known and vital error is participation in sin.” In 1887, Spurgeon withdrew from the Baptist Union. Rather than influencing any of his contemporaries, Spurgeon received a “vote of censure” from the Baptist council. It was this controversy in which Spurgeon was most alone, and in which he drew the most criticism. Regarding it, he remarked to a friend that “The fight is killing me.” He died a few months later.
Spurgeon had no desire to be divisive or controversial. He longed, instead, for the day when all believers could worship in unity. His willingness to take a strong stand against error came from “a spirit of compassion towards those who, not only in his own generation, but in ages to come, might be fatally deceived in receiving a gospel which is not a gospel. (Gal. 1:7).” He leaves us with a question that remains applicable today: “Shall truth be sold to keep up a wider fellowship?”
The Forgotten Spurgeon is terrific, though it isn’t an easy book. Murray takes us deep into the finer points of Spurgeon’s theology. For those interested in more than Spurgeon’s methods or personality, and for those who enjoy topics such as vicarious atonement, propitiation, or scriptural inspiration, I highly recommend it. Not only does it teach us about Spurgeon’s deepest convictions, but through his resolution, it encourages us to take a stand for the truth.