LESSONS FROM SPURGEON ON CONTROVERSY
Article by Greg Morse
It may appear, at first glance, to be an odd text to hang in your bedroom:
Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you. (Matthew 5:11–12 KJV)
Whereas others might draw from a thousand wells before this one, Susannah Spurgeon framed Jesus’s words to remind her husband, Charles, of Jesus’s upside-down perspective. When his disciples face bitter opposition for his name’s sake, the proper response should be joy.
“Spurgeon was slandered in the newspapers, ridiculed by his opponents, and censured by many evangelical ministers.”
When we consider this Baptist giant, when we read his stirring sermons, when we remember that his life’s work rivaled that of one hundred men, when we read of the revival and the winning of countless souls to Christ, we can imagine the Prince of Preachers encountering little but unbroken success. Compared with so many of our ministries, his seemed to soar high in the clouds. We rarely consider, as Iain Murray contends, The Forgotten Spurgeon — the Spurgeon who needed Matthew 5:11–12hanging on his wall.
The forgotten Spurgeon stood among the tornadoes of several great controversies in his day. His protestation against Arminianism, his disgust at baptismal regeneration, and his resistance to an evangelical unity founded upon fragments of Christian doctrine (known as the Downgrade Controversy) made him the target for many arrows.
This Spurgeon, especially at the beginning and end of his ministry, had reason to reckon himself as “the scum of the earth” (24–25). The name Spurgeon, which we regard fondly, was, by estimation of its owner, “kicked about the street like a football” (28). He had occasion to remark in a sermon, “Scarce a day rolls over my head in which the most villainous abuse, the most fearful slander is not uttered against me both privately and by the public press; every engine is employed to put down God’s minister — every lie that man can invent is hurled at me” (63).
This Spurgeon was slandered in the newspapers, ridiculed by his opponents, and censured by many evangelical ministers who he anticipated would be his allies. This Spurgeon was a living example of the happy — but often hated — man of God to whom Jesus spoke in the Sermon on the Mount.
What can we learn from this forgotten Spurgeon?
This Spurgeon can teach us to handle controversy manfully and without compromising. His convictions, which he held to his dying day, cost him dearly. He did not practice that vice he so clearly preached against: “I think there is scarcely a Christian man or woman that has been able to go all the way to heaven and yet quietly hide himself and run from bush to bush, skulking into glory. Christianity and cowardice? What a contradiction in terms!” (“Speak for Yourself — a Challenge”).
If we would cast away the temptation to tiptoe into glory, and be of real benefit for Christ’s name in this world, Spurgeon teaches us that we would do well to resist loving our own names, be comfortable in the minority, and recognize (and reject) false unity.
“Let my name perish, but let Christ’s name last forever! Jesus! Jesus! Jesus! Crown him Lord of all!” (43)
Spurgeon warns us of falling in love with our own reputations and influence. This self-love, he identified, is a main ingredient in the undoing of the best of us. He exposes the steps to compromise of the person initially used by God:
The temptation comes to be careful of the position he has gained, and to do nothing to endanger it. The man, so lately a faithful man of God, compromises with worldlings, and to quiet his own conscience invents a theory by which such compromises are justified and even commended. He receives the praises of “the judicious”; he has, in truth, gone over to the enemy. The whole force of his former life now tells upon the wrong side. (170)
How many times have we seen or experienced this drift?
First, we are somehow exalted for special use. Then we quietly begin to notice it and relish the attention. Falling in love with recognition, we tighten our grip around our platforms in fear of losing them. We then calculate what we say, filtering out anything that may weaken our influence — including the unfavorable truths of Scripture. And finally, faced with the thing we used to call compromise, we invent reasons to support what we’ve become — why we’ve beaten the sword into a plowshare.
“When we begin sharing truth based on how well that truth will be received, we are halfway to compromise.”
Fierce loves fixed on unworthy objects mold Christians into cowards. If we have begun to love the music of our own name, manage our brand, or consider our popularity as necessary to the advancement of Christ’s kingdom, we have begun building our own kingdoms. May we say with Spurgeon, “I count my own character, popularity, and usefulness to be as the small dust of the balance compared with fidelity to the Lord Jesus” (219). It is Christ we proclaim, not ourselves (2 Corinthians 4:5).
“Long ago I ceased to count heads. Truth is usually in the minority in this evil world. I have faith in the Lord Jesus for myself, a faith burned into me as with a hot iron. I thank God, what I believe I shall believe, even if I believe it alone.” (146)
Have you ever felt the temptation to count heads — or followers, likes, and shares — to see what you should or should not say? I have. When we begin sharing truth based on how well that truth will be received, we are halfway to compromise. Spurgeon counsels us to consider the cost beforehand: truth is often in the minority; to stand with it means you may stand alone.
Yet those who stand for Christ’s truth never truly stand alone. You may go as Esther before the king without kin beside you, resolved that if you perish, you perish; you may preach like Stephen, as crowds press in around you, shutting their ears and hurling stones; you may rebuke King Herod’s adultery alone or say with Paul, “At my first defense no one came to stand by me” (2 Timothy 4:16) — but Christ shall be with you, even until the end of the age (Matthew 28:20). And if your cause is true, you will find, like Elijah, you are not the only one not to bow the knee to Baal (1 Kings 19:14, 18).
“It is, of course, the most easy to flesh and blood to deal in generalities, to denounce sectarianism, and claim to be of an ultra-catholic spirit; but though rough and rugged, it is required of the loyal servant of King Jesus to maintain all his crown rights and stand up for every word of his laws. Friends chide us and foes abhor us when we are very jealous for the Lord God of Israel, but what do these things matter if the Master approves?” (18)
Error loves vagueness.
As in Spurgeon’s day, the temptation to tolerate all positions and accept all perspectives on truth is strong in ours. We are told it is prejudiced, narrow, and even unchristian to draw lines. But to Spurgeon, promoting a type of “Christian unity” whose common denominator sinks lower than genuine Christianity in the first place is unacceptable. Unity of Jew and Gentile into one new man is bought with the blood of Christ; unity of gospel truth and gospel untruth is unity brought about by Satan.
Orthodox Christianity, he argued, is distinct. Not all views can be true. When the only standard left is for all in the flock to have four legs, wolves and goats stand at ease among us. The trend toward an undoctrinal, atheological, shapeless evangelicalism, beginning in Spurgeon’s day and seemingly ripening in ours, is one of the quickest ways to compromise our fidelity to Christ and witness in the world.
“Truth is often in the minority; to stand with it means you may stand alone.”
In saying this, Spurgeon did not intend to divide over every possible theological difference — lest every man be an island unto himself. But Spurgeon chafed at minimizing Christian zeal and truth in order to bring together contrasting theologies and to mix liberalism with historic Christianity. We may be called particular or dogmatic, but what do we care if what we promote is the Master’s truth?
“It is yours and mine to do the right though the heavens fall, and follow the command of Christ whatever the consequence may be. “That is strong meat,” do you say? Be strong men, then, and feed thereon.” (171)
His beloved wife, who hung Matthew 5:11–12 in their bedroom, said after his death at the age of 57, “His fight for the faith . . . cost him his life.” He fought the good fight of faith, he kept the faith, he finished the race (2 Timothy 4:7), claiming before his death, “My work is done” (173). He lived for his Lord, and now he basks in his presence.
To those of us who lag behind him, traversing our own times with all of their challenges and opportunities, temptations and labors, take up his oft-quoted hymn as we continue on in our race of faith:
Must I be carried to the skies
On flowery beds of ease,
While others fought to win the prize
And sailed through bloody seas?
Since I must fight if I would reign,
Increase my courage, Lord!
I’ll bear the toil, endure the pain,
Supported by thy word.
Though the heavens fall, though the earth gives way, though controversy and temptations of spiritual compromise stand before us, may we heed this forgotten Spurgeon, hang Matthew 5:11–12 in our hearts, and live before men and devils with the courage and hope that only Christ supplies.
Greg Morse is a staff writer for desiringGod.org and graduate of Bethlehem College & Seminary. He and his wife, Abigail, live in St. Paul with their daughter.