The Spurgeon Model
Enter the 19th Century. The Puritan vein of theology which had coursed through the Reformed English Church had greatly diminished. Only a few churches still held to those forlorn doctrines. The industrial revolution was changing life in England. Factory work was replacing farm work, and more people were moving from the country sides to the cities. You could now be whatever you set your mind to, success was now at an arm’s reach. Although religion was still vibrant in England during this time, much of it had become liberalized, influenced by the changes brought by the industrial age. Churches were now preaching a man-focused doctrine – a much different doctrine than the Puritans – which catered to the ‘pull-up-your-bootstraps’ philosophy accompanying the revolution taking place. The pulpit was being replaced with a stage and sermons with entertainment driven services.
But there was a man; well according to his age he would have been seen as a boy, but his maturity was that of one twice his age. At the age of 15, Spurgeon was persuaded of Christianity when a snow storm forced him to enter a small church with only a handful of people in attendance. The Pastor was unable to make it that morning, so a lay preacher preached on Isaiah 45:22: “Look unto Me, and be saved…” During his message, he set his eye on young Charles and pressed, “Young man, look to Jesus Christ. Look! Look! Look! You have nothing to do but to look and live.” At that moment, the Holy Spirit brought faith to Charles Spurgeon.
Within months, now 16 years old, Spurgeon attended a small church where, as he was told, a promising young man was to preach his first sermon. It turned out that the preacher was him. He later remarked, “It seemed a great risk and a serious trial; but depending on the power of the Holy Ghost, I would at least tell out the story of the cross, and not allow the people to go home without a word.” His first sermon displayed a gospel focus and reliance on the Holy Spirit that would carry him for the rest of his ministry. At the age of 17, he would become the pastor of this small country church, still holding on to his obligation to not allow the people to leave without a proper teaching of the Word every time he stepped into the pulpit.
Because of his success – doubling the size of the congregation in that small church – he would be asked to pastor the New Park Street Chapel in London. At age 19 he stepped into that pulpit as pastor of a 200 member congregation. Within months, the congregation would grow to 500, and by his one year anniversary as pastor there, the Chapel would be at full capacity. Expansions were made to seat 1,700, but that was still not enough. Tickets (free of charge) were handed out to accommodate the large crowds flocking to see this young prodigy. The congregation would have to move to a larger venue more than once, ending up in the Music Hall at Royal Surrey Gardens which housed 12,000.
At age 27, Spurgeon would go on to build the Metropolitan Tabernacle, the largest church of his day seating 6,000. The sanctuary would be filled Sunday morning and evening until his death. His zeal never waned, and his message was always fresh. 20th Century theologian, Helmut Thielicke, commented on the reason why this man could sustain such a ministry: “His message never ran dry because he was never anything but a recipient.”
What can we learn from Spurgeon? Why was his ministry so effective? There is no simple answer to this question and, unfortunately, there is no do-it-yourself manual for us to glean. Spurgeon was effective primarily because of his dependence on the Holy Spirit. This dependence was much different than the dependence we think of today. This was not a dependence on the Holy Spirit which focused on the displays of exceptional occurrences, spiritual emotional highs, and extra-biblical words from God, but rather on the enlightenment of Scripture, the miraculous gift of conversion, and growth in holiness. Most of the teaching during the 19th Century had turned its focus away from a Scriptural understanding to an experiential understanding and Spurgeon would have none of it:
"Worship him as the adorable Lord God. Never call the Holy Spirit “it”; nor speak of him as if he were a doctrine, or an influence, or an orthodox myth. Reverence him, love him, and trust him with familiar yet reverent confidence. He is God, let him be God to you."
It is here where Spurgeon’s Puritan influence shone through. B.B. Warfield, Spurgeon’s younger contemporary was convinced that in no other place could you find better teaching on the doctrine of the Holy Spirit than that of the Puritans, especially John Owen, and Richard Sibbes. Because of this influence, Spurgeon loved the Holy Spirit and was passionate to see Him work in the lives of believers. Sometimes, while he preached, he was constrained to burst out in prayer right in the middle of his sermon: “Come, Holy Spirit, come, we can do nothing without thee; but if we have thy wind, we spread our sail, and speed onward towards glory,” and another place, “Come, Holy Spirit now! Thou art with us, but come with power and let us feel thy sacred might!” He believed that a church must have the Holy Spirit if it is to continue as the church:
"[B]ut when the Spirit of God is departed, what remains but its old records, ancient creeds, title-deeds, traditions, histories and memories? It is in fact a mummy of a church rather than a church of God, and it is better to be fitted to be looked at by antiquarians than to be treated as an existent agency."
From his first message in that country church to his last at the Metropolitan Tabernacle, his model never changed. His trust in the Holy Spirit only deepened and his passion for the congregation to hear the Word increased. His whole ministry was reliant on the Holy Spirit as was seen even when he mounted the fifteen steps to his pulpit. Spurgeon would pray on each step, “I believe in the Holy Spirit.” For Spurgeon, the Holy Spirit and the Word of God walked hand-in-hand, carrying out the work of God.
He believed the Spirit would never bless compromises with doctrinal error or sin. Neither would He have anything to do with those who preach another gospel which was not centered on Christ. In a letter he wrote to his uncle, he told of how he wished to go to some land such as China, India, or Africa and spend his time there preaching day and night. He added that he also wanted more of the Holy Spirit, “then men must be converted; then the wicked would repent, and the just grow in grace.”
Now we may not be able to accomplish all that Spurgeon did in his life, nor are we all called to preach, but we can all still learn from his model. We must have a great dependence on the Holy Spirit because, as Spurgeon believed, sin infects us to our core and we have not the power to change that. It is the Holy Spirit who applies the atoning work of Christ to our hearts, and it is that same Spirit who graciously aids us in well-doing, giving us greater knowledge and understanding of God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. We must not substitute the Holy Spirit for the Word of God since it is primarily by the Word of God that the Holy Spirit works. Like Spurgeon, may we spend our lives for the sake of Christ knowing that we are nothing but recipients of the grace and mercy of God.