Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles Haddon Spurgeon by Tom Nettles is a magnum opus if I ever saw one. The subtitle nicely summarizes the path that is set before readers as they study the rich biography of the Prince of Preachers and gain insight into the theological landscape that dominated his ministry for almost 40 years.
The introduction leaves no room for ambiguity. Spurgeon was a Bible man, an uncompromising pastor who loved to proclaim the truth of Scripture. One man captures the essence of the British pulpiteer, when someone inquired about the secret of Spurgeon's effectiveness after his death: "Two things; first, he had one single object before him always, 'to win souls for God by preaching Christ, and Him crucified and risen'; second, his own personal faith in Christ was always feeding on Christ as revealed in Holy Scripture."
Eighteen marvelous chapters are packed into this book of nearly 700 pages. Over the next several days, I intend to present the high points, noting the strengths of the book and any criticisms that may arise. One thing is sure: Spurgeon was a towering figure in 19th century England and he continues to wield a mighty influence on preachers in the 21st century. His influence on this preacher has been inestimable. His integrity, passion for truth, love of evangelism, and heart for people is a mighty boon for the soul. I'm looking forward to the journey!
Chapter 1: Birth to New Birth
Living By Revealed Truth Begins where any biography ought to begin - at the beginning. Spurgeon was born on June 19, 1834 and was influenced at an early age by dead writers: "The old writers, who are, by far, the most sensible - for you will notice that the books that were written about 200 years ago by the old Puritans have more sense in one line than there is in a page of our new books - and more in a page than there is in a whole volume of our modern divinity!" Spurgeon was influenced by the likes of John Owen, Stephen Charnock, and John Bunyan - men who would inform his theological mind for the duration of his ministry.
The author unfolds the fascinating story of Spurgeon's conversion and rise to pulpit ministry. Spurgeon reports, "Ah me, how I seemed offended against the justice of God; I was impure and polluted, and I used to say, 'If God does not send me to hell, He ought to do it.' I sat in judgment upon myself, and pronounced the sentence that I felt would be just." He continues, "Then I was brought down to see my corruption, my wickedness, my filthiness, for God always humbled the sinner whom He means to save."
Spurgeon's testimony is remarkable, especially given the postmodern aversion to proclaiming the sinfulness of sin and the efficacy of the substitutionary atonement. For example, Tony Crank, Senior pastor of the One Love Church recently opined, "Some churches have become the kind of place where you point the finger, and you condemn and rebuke and you're really quick to do it, and so I think that is definitely lending itself to people not wanting anything to do with church and thinking church sucks!" Evidently the kind of approach that Crank opposes is precisely the kind of ministry that was instrumental in Spurgeon's entry into the kingdom of God.
The Puritan writer, Samuel Bolton agrees with Spurgeon's approach and opposes Pastor Crank: "When you see that men have been wounded by the law, then it is time to pour in the balm of Gospel oil. It is the sharp needle of the law that makes way for the scarlet thread of the gospel."
Spurgeon's conversion is instructive and his subsequent ministry informs the conscience of anyone who seeks to reach lost people. He remarked, "To preach in this great building the self-same gospel in the same simple tones. Sinners, look to Christ and be saved." Spurgeon taught a simple lesson that every pastor must heed. Sinners must be confronted with their sin. They must understand how they have violated God's holy law. And they must be exhorted to look to Christ, to believe in Christ, to embrace his salvific benefits that he purchased on the cross.
Chapter 2: Made for Gospel Ministry
Dr. Nettles continues to guide readers on a fascinating account of Spurgeon's ministry by beginning with his first sermon and first pastorate. Spurgeon himself admitted, "I felt my own inability to preach." Yet the rookie preacher acknowledged from the beginning that God had his number. Spurgeon affirmed the irresistible sovereign grace that God wielded upon his life, the One who "had plucked me as a brand from the burning, and set me upon a rock, and put a new song in my mouth, and established my goings."
Spurgeon affirmed the doctrines of grace at the beginning of his ministry and finished strong as a five point Calvinist. He proclaimed, "I am a Calvinist ... It is Calvinism they want in London, and any Arminian preaching will not be endured." My how times have changed. These days, a tepid Arminianism dominates many pulpits, especially in America. And when the doctrines of grace wane, the church diminishes in power and gospel effectiveness. But most of all, the glory of God is obscured.
One notable feature is the power that was manifest in Spurgeon's pulpit from the onset of his ministry. He remarked, "The pulpit is no place for weak, stunted, deformed, wretched-looking men." He maintained his commitment to Calvinism with bold resolve while at the same time fleeing from the erroneous doctrine of hyper-Calvinism. Indeed, this man was made for gospel ministry.
Chapter 3: The Metropolitan Tabernacle
The construction of the Metropolitan Tabernacle was a watershed moment in Spurgeon's ministry. Nettles remarks, "He believed that the completion of the Tabernacle signaled an advance for the gospel in the whole city." Spurgeon's new pulpit became the sounding board for the doctrines of grace which began in London but echoed around the globe as his sermons were being printed by the thousands.
Spurgeon articulated and proclaimed a strong Calvinistic message, never compromising the core planks that were formulated at the Synod of Dort. He preached with a style that was narrative driven but doctrinally rich.
Chapter 4: Preaching the Whole Counsel
The author highlights Spurgeon's passion to preach Scripture in its entirety. Dr. Nettles beautifully summarizes the essence of Spurgeon's ministry: "This is the main glory of ministry, to preach Christ - his substitution, that he became a curse for us, dying the just for the unjust in the stead of his people. Christ must be preached in a lively, earnest, spiritual manner in order for him to be set forth plainly as crucified, even as Paul did before the Galatians."
Spurgeon's bold style is emphasized: "We must preach Christ courageously ... Pray the message in before you preach it out."
While Spurgeon did not necessarily preach verse by verse, he was an expository preacher. The author notes, "For Spurgeon, true exposition meant, in Puritan fashion, using the whole Bible and all its doctrines in the unfolding of any one portion of Scripture." And preaching expository message, for Spurgeon meant doctrine must be the backbone of every sermon: "Full submission to the authority of Scripture demanded that one be ready to embrace every doctrine of the Word of God." For Spurgeon, watering down the message was tantamount to compromise.
At the end of the day, faithfulness in the pulpit meant proclaiming the power of the cross. This is gospel preaching. Spurgeon declared, "I believe that the best, surest, and most permanent way to fill a place of worship is to preach the gospel, and to preach it in a natural, simple interesting, earnest way." Powerful words for pastors to heed in the 21st century - preachers who all too often capitulate to the demands of culture and marginalize the message to appease carnal listeners.
Chapter 5 : Theological Method and Content
The author places the spot light on the most prominent feature of Spurgeon's ministry, namely, the proclamation of the gospel. While Spurgeon attracted thousands of admirers over the course of his ministry, he was also plagued with critics and naysayers. Nettles notes, "Spurgeon quickly learned that a preacher bent on pleasing all his critics would speedily leave the ranks of the ministry." But Spurgeon would not be distracted. He faithfully forged a gospel path for his hearers - a path that led to eternal life for everyone who believes.
Spurgeon's gospel focus was narrow and focussed and serves as a necessary reminder for preachers today. "Preach all you know about Christ ... To conceal the plain truth of salvation beneath a cloud of words, when God's honor and eternal human destiny are at stake, is treason to men's souls and diabolical cruelty." The cross was the centerpiece of Spurgeon's ministry. He never compromised his primary calling - the preaching of Christ crucified.
Spurgeon was an accomplished theologian. Nettles weighs in: "The Christian theologian must be clearly Christian and no less clear a theologian." Spurgeon's example is a rebuke to many modern preachers who glory in their aversion to theology. The notion of a pastor who preaches messages void of theology would have repulsed the prince of preachers.
Spurgeon was an unashamed admirer of the Puritans and Reformers. Nettles remarks, "Spurgeon advocated a pure Biblicism for theological construction. He loved the historic confessions and the pious and helpful writings of the Reformers and Puritans ..." Spurgeon taught the importance of reading dead readers - theologians with a backbone and the courage to proclaim the unchanging Word of God.
Spurgeon unapologetically embraced the doctrines of grace and proudly proclaimed the five points of Calvinism, including the doctrine of particular redemption. He lamented that "most of the mistakes which men make concerning the doctrines of Scripture are based upon fundamental errors with regard to the covenants of law and grace."
The author makes it clear that Spurgeon's sermons were chock full of theology: "Spurgeon's sermons were virtually an overflowing stream of systematic theology ..." Again, the contrast between Spurgeon's doctrinally rich sermons and the weak content in many American sermons is alarming.
Spurgeon was not bashful about confronting his Arminian brothers. Nettles notes, "He loved Arminians as sincere persons and loved the emphasis on Christ that they shared in common with him, but he truly abominated the distinctive elements of their doctrine ... The Arminian attempt to tame God, in Spurgeon's view, created an idol unworthy of respect and adoration." Spurgeon counted his Arminian friends as brothers and sisters but did not hesitate to remind them of their theological error.
Spurgeon did not equivocate when it came to controversial doctrines. He preached about a fiery hell and the almighty wrath of God. He preached about election and predestination. And he preached about a Christ who paid for the sins of everyone who would ever believe. He opined, "I had rather believe a limited atonement that is efficacious for all men for whom it was intended, than a universal atonement that is not efficacious for anybody, except the will of man be joined with it."
Biblical authority, theological depth, and doctrinal precision marked the life and ministry of C.H. Spurgeon. Compromise was not a part of his makeup. Fidelity to the truth was at the core of his pastoral identity.
Chapter 6: Spurgeon's Message of Christ's Atoning Sacrifice
"The Lord Jesus Christ on his cross of redemption was the center, circumference, and summation of the preaching ministry of Charles Haddon Spurgeon," writes Nettles. This is the theme that readers are drawn to again and again in this excellent biography. A few direct citations from Spurgeon will drive this truth home:
"Redemption is the heart of the gospel and the essence of redemption is the substitutionary atonement of Christ."
" ... The death of Christ was the hinge of the world's history."
"Christ's people shall be made willing in the day of his power, and the great attraction by which they will be drawn to him will be his death on the cross."
"The cross is the mighty battering ram wherewith to break in pieces the brazen gates of human prejudices and the iron bars of obstinacy."
Chapter 7: The Challenge of Church Life and the Governance of Worship
The burden of shepherding the flock was often times overwhelming for Spurgeon: "Sometimes I become so perplexed that I sink in heart, and dream that it were better for me never to have been born than to have been called to bear all this multitude upon my heart." The Metropolitan Tabernacle made a crucial error in electing deacons for life - a polity policy that will often times prove to be detrimental to the health of the church.
Chapter 8: The Gospel is Evangelism
Anyone familiar with Spurgeon's ministry understands the importance of evangelism as a normal part of church life. He shared the gospel personally and also preached the gospel passionately. Nettles adds, "Preaching to convert souls, for Spurgeon, meant laying out the full counsel of God to the sinner." Spurgeon's Reformed soteriology demanded a strong message that warned sinners: "Men must be told that they are dead ... and that only the Holy Spirit can quicken them." He resisted the Arminian approach to evangelism with holy fervor.
Chapter 9: Use of Evangelists
Chapter 9 is an extension of Spurgeon's approach to evangelism. Nettles highlights Spurgeon's Calvinistic zeal: "To keep back any part of the gospel is neither right nor 'the true method for saving men.' All doctrine is saving truth. 'If you hold Calvinistic doctrine, as I hope you do, do not stutter about it, nor stammer over it, but speak it out.' The lack of a full-orbed gospel is behind the evanescence of many so-called revivals."
Chapter 10: Theological Foundations for a Benevolent Ministry
Spurgeon placed the highest priority on the Word of God and proclaimed the truth of Scripture with blood-earnest faithfulness. But he also had a burden for practical ministry: "We want more Christian ministries of the practical sort." He was the primary visionary behind the Orphanage for Boys. Nettles summarizes Spurgeon's heart who "saw the needs of childhood not only in terms of food, shelter, and clothing, but in terms of family relationships, maternal care, and pure childish delight."
Chapter 11: Personal Theory and Preferences in the Production of Godly Literature
Both Spurgeon and his wife were lovers of books. Mrs. Spurgeon began a Book Fund which was a deep encouragement to pastors in western Europe. Spurgeon's writing ministry flourished for most of his ministry. Soon his sermons were being sent all around the globe
Chapter 12: Literature About Right, Wrong, and Truth
One of the most enduring qualities of this chapter was the discussion that focused on Spurgeon's love for Jonathan Edwards. Nettles writes, "Spurgeon's spirituality savored of an Edwardsean aroma ... Spurgeon had a personal appreciation for careful scholarship and its usefulness to the church. He always longed, however, that scholarship and orthodoxy be suffused with the pulsation of spiritual life."
Chapter 13: Theology and Controversy
"We do not wish to fight; but if we do, we hope that the pity will be needed by those with whom we contend." Spurgeon was not one to pick a fight but when truth was on the line, he didn't back down either. He bravely battled Arminians and Hyper-Calvinists. Unlike many modern pastors, refused to pretend a cordial relationship when truth was sacrificed at the altar of relevance: "He would not pretend fellowship with those with whom he disagreed upon vital points of truth."
The author presents several notable theological controversies that Spurgeon confronted including the Rivulet controversy, his battle with atheistic evolution, and his skirmishes with Plymouth Brethrenism.
Chapter 14: Destroy or Be Destroyed
The author continues the discussion and reveals Spurgeon's passionate defense of the truth as he stepped into the fray against the Roman Catholic Church. Spurgeon once remarked, "Showing charity to priests is like showing charity to tigers and rattlesnakes."
Nettles recounts Spurgeon's run-in's with the Church of England. For instance, he called baptismal regeneration, "a wretched and rotten foundation" and a "deceitful invention of antichrist." His repudiation of infant baptism was clear. He referred to the font as a "mockery."
Chapter 15: The Downgrade Conflict
The author carefully describes the downgrade conflict, the theological slide which Spurgeon confronted directly and ultimately led him out of the Baptist Union. Spurgeon painfully notes, "I have cut myself clear of those who err from the faith, and even from those who associate with them."
Little room was left for the imagination to wander when one considered Spurgeon's position on controversial matters. He was a man who would not be swayed by theological error. He was a bastion of truth in an age of compromise.
Chapter 16: Spurgeon and Baptists in America
Of course, Spurgeon's influence was felt around the world but his influence in America was especially profound. George Truett pays the Prince of Preachers a wonderful compliment: "[He] had no sort of fellowship with the nerveless, hazy, intellectual libertinism that plays fast and loose with the eternal verities of Christ's gospel ... [He taught] the great themes of divine revelation: the sovereignty of God; the holiness of God; the love of God; the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ; the solemn wonders of the cross; the divine forgiveness of sins; the fellowship of Christ's sufferings; the fellowships of Christ's sufferings; the power of his resurrection."
Chapter 17: Sickness, Suffering, Depression
It is common knowledge that Spurgeon suffered greatly throughout his life. He was tormented from all sides, had numerous physical ailments and battled depression for most of his adult life (as is chronicled especially in Iain Murray's terrific book, The Forgotten Spurgeon. His godly example is also known well: "Our happiness does not depend upon our understanding the providence of God." Nettles remarks, "Spurgeon never doubted that his exquisite pain, frequent sickness, and even despondency were given to him by God for his sanctification in a wise and holy purpose."
So Spurgeon developed a theology of suffering that grew out of his own painful crucible. His response was nothing less than God-centered and serves as an inspiration for anyone who endures a dark night of the soul.
Chapter 18: Conduct in the Face of Death
Spurgeon was not a perfect man. He struggled with indwelling sin and battled the flesh all the way to the Celestial City. But Nettles makes the point abundantly clear. Spurgeon finished well. The British pastor said, "Should you even lie in all the despair and desolation which I described, I would persuade you to believe in Jesus. Trust him, and you shall find him all that you want."
Living By Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles Haddon Spurgeon is a sweeping epic that beautifully illustrates the life and legacy of one of the most prolific pastors ever. Tom Nettles has done a great service for the church by researching and writing with the depth of a seasoned theologian and the heart of a caring pastor.