The great Christian preacher CH Spurgeon was not afraid of the power of the Holy Spirit. He not only encouraged other believers to privately pursue the Spirit but welcomed His presence in their public gatherings.
He describes moments where, in his words, the Spirit of God was manifest among them as they prayed. They sat dumb-struck with awe at the power of God. And the result? A blessing ‘coming down’ on them, and hundreds, and then thousands, flocking to hear the gospel preached and to experience the love of God in the heart of the city.
Reflecting on some extraordinary gatherings when he first arrived in London Spurgeon wrote,
The Holy Spirit overshadowing church meetings When I came to New Park Street Chapel (1854), it was but a mere handful of people to whom I first preached (about 200) yet I can never forget how earnestly they prayed. Sometimes, they seemed to plead as though they could really see the Angel of the covenant present with them, and as if they must have a blessing from Him. More than once, we were all so awe-struck with the solemnity of the meeting, that we sat silent for some moments while the Lord’s power appeared to overshadow us; and all I could do on such occasions was to pronounce the Benediction, and say, ‘Dear friends, we have had the Spirit of God here very manifestly to-night; let us go home, and take care not to lose His gracious influences.’ Then down came the blessing; the house was filled with hearers, and many souls were saved.[i]
Saved by a butter-smeared sermon!
CH Spurgeon was one of the greatest Christian preachers in history; the ‘prince of preachers’. His weekly sermons were printed in pamphlet form and read by many thousands (25,000 sold each week in 1865). There are many stories of changed lives through these printed sermons, including one woman who was converted through reading the single page of a sermon that had been used to wrap some butter that she had purchased.
Spurgeon joyfully retells these stories, and he was clear as to the source of his evangelistic influence: he was a man filled with the Holy Spirit. Spoiler Alert: CHS considered himself a cessationist. But as with all our great heroes of the Christian faith, the power of the Holy Spirit is deeply embedded in his story and his experience.
Words of Knowledge
His descriptions of his own words of knowledge (cf. 1 Cor 12.8) mid-sermon suggest a happy freeness in his spirit to follow the gift of the Holy Spirit. And with wonderful results. He writes,
‘I could tell as many as a dozen similar cases in which I pointed at somebody in the hall without having the slightest knowledge of the person, or any idea that what I said was right, except that I believed I was moved by the Spirit to say it; and so striking has been my description, that the persons have gone away, and said to their friends, “Come, see a man that told me all things that ever I did. He must have been sent of God to my soul, or else he could not have described me so exactly.”‘ 
In the next few posts we’ll look at these cases and, I hope, be challenged afresh to ‘earnestly desire spiritual gifts’ as the Bible exhorts us.
To read the first article in this series on CH Spurgeon click here
A South African Father
Chief Albert Luthuli was one of the guiding lights for the future peace of South Africa. His powerful autobiography Let My People Go tells not only his story, but the story of a people repeatedly subjugated by the callous and determined violence of the white South African regime. He led the banned ANC movement for fifteen years. Despite leading during the horror of state legislated violence and injustice, Luthuli achieved an amazing maturity and grace in his leadership which helped steer a broken country towards peace. He was awarded the Nobel Peace prize in 1960 following which the government continually restricted his movements until his death in 1967 in circumstances which seem suspicious.[i]
As Christians, especially in culturally diverse contexts, it is critical that we to do a bit of ‘cultural archaeology’, a bit of historical digging. We need to find out how we got to where we are, why people feel as they do, and we are also likely to discover wisdom that can point the way forward. Historians delight in all of this, but Christians keen on ‘mission’ ought to be diligent in these things too. Albert Luthuli was radically shaped by his Christianity. He didn’t abandon his people or culture, but carried his Christian faith into the complex arena of withstanding the unrelenting injustice in the South Africa of just a few decades ago. By highlighting his Christian faith I hope to encourage all South African pastors and believers in South Africa, to discover (or rediscover) this incredibly important father-figure in our shared history. We can all sit at the feet of Albert Luthuli and learn a thing or two. The video has numerous quotes and the book has been reissued recently. Get yourself a copy and do some digging.
Let My People Go is available on Kindle, as well as in a new paperback edition.
[i] see Albert Luthuli, Robert Trent Vinson (Ohio Short Histories of Africa)
In Evangelism, just do a little thing I suppose the danger is that if we think we can’t make a significant impact, like bringing someone to the point of conversion, or something that seems powerful or meaningful, we tend to just back off. The small seems trivial, even superficial.
CH Spurgeon didn’t think so. At the age of sixteen, as a new believer in Christ, he wanted to make the most of every opportunity to somehow share his faith.
He writes, ‘The very first service which my youthful heart rendered to Christ was the placing of tracts in envelopes, and then sealing them up, that I might send them with the hope that God would bless them.’ [tract = small leaflet containing brief explanation/story/illustration of the gospel message. Note: this article is not about tracts, but more here.]
If Spurgeon had bumped into one of today’s believer he may well have been advised to stop doing something so superficial and apparently ‘non-relational’. But, as with most compassionate believers, Spurgeon wasn’t only giving information but actually trying to connect with people. He continues, ‘I well remember taking other tracts, and distributing them in certain districts of Newmarket, going from house to house, and telling, in humble language, the things of the kingdom of God. I might have done nothing for Christ if I had not been encouraged by finding myself able to do a little.’
Spurgeon went on to become one of Christianity’s most effective, and celebrated church-based evangelistic preachers.
Do those things you did at the beginning…
Writing of his earlier experiences he says, ‘ I could scarcely content myself even for five minutes without trying to do something for Christ. If I walked along the street, I must have a few tracts with me; if I went into a railway carriage, I must drop a tract out of the window; if I had a moment’s leisure, I must be upon my knees or at my Bible; if I were in company, I must turn the subject of conversation to Christ.’ He was sixteen years old. [i]
Happily for those around him Spurgeon refused to give up his youthful ways. Later in his journals we read that at age thirty-nine, ‘We have been for a drive to Lymington…I had a fine supply of tracts and sowed the region well.’ [ii]
Don’t despise the small opportunities you have to ‘sow’, whether inviting someone to Alpha, or to watch your church’s online service, or help a neighbour, or share an inspiring video on social media. Just do a little thing, and bring a blessing to your not-yet-convinced friends and folk around you.
[i] and prior quotes, CHS, The Early Years, (1973 edition Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, p156)
[ii] CHS, The Full Harvest, (1973, Edinburgh: Banner p228)
More next time…
To read the first article in this series on CH Spurgeon click here
Is the gospel just an offer of forgiveness? Is there not a call to repent, to turn away from what’s wrong? How do we understand our responsibility to get the message out? Are we to be passive or active? And what are the joys of seeing people come to faith in Christ? Hearing several wonderful quotes from the book, I’m sure you’ll be inspired to speak up for the gospel.
When I first became a Christian I was introduced to some wonderful books and some great authors. One of the very best was Martyn Lloyd-Jones, the grumpy-looking Welshman who almost single-handedly revived interest in the English puritans and boosted the fortunes of a little publishing house called ‘The Banner of Truth’. I think Preachers and Preaching was my first Lloyd-Jones and after that I was hooked, reading all the published volumes of his brilliant Romans series, followed by this set on Ephesians. Brilliant stuff this. Good for your soul.
You can listen to some of Lloyd-Jones’ sermons here
For Lloyd-Jones on Revival and on Howell Harris’s massive influence on the Great Awakening click here
For a variety of reasons many Christians are nervous of what Paul refers to as ‘demonstrations of the Spirit’s power’ (1 Cor 2.4). But isn’t it the case that if we want the gospel of Christ to win hearts around the world (and in our own towns and cities) we need the power of God to accompany the word of God? Has there ever been a time when we didn’t need the Spirit to apply the gospel to hearts and minds, or the power of God to set captives free? Check out today’s 4-minute video for more.
Many of us are spending more time on our computers and less time with people. But we still have opportunities to share our faith with respect, wisdom, and confidence.
Puritan Joseph Alleine was keen to share the gospel in his day and can, at the very least, inspire us to be more confident about sharing our faith today. (Recorded before the lockdown)
When I get a good book I try and make it last. When I get a great book it takes over and I don’t regret reading into the early hours of the next day. Like Bizos’ amazing autobiography, this is a great book.
George Bizos is South Africa’s most respected and most influential lawyer. Along with other legal experts like Arthur Chaskalson, and Bram Fischer, Bizos used his fine legal skills from the ‘50s onward not only to repeatedly attempt to restrain and frustrate the wickedness of the Apartheid Government but to actually keep Nelson Mandela and the other Rivonia trialists alive. South African history would have been very different if he had failed. It’s an amazing thing that the thirteen year old boy who came as a refugee fleeing Nazi-occupied Greece, and who for years couldn’t leave the country for fear the authorities would rescind his residence status, ended up defending the fathers of the nation, and became a key author of the South African Constitution.
This is a wonderful book, with the pace of a spy novel and the intricacy of a courtroom blockbuster. It’s a testimony to years of painstaking work that led finally to political freedom for the majority of South Africans. It’s also a testimony to life-long friendship through thick and thin.
If you’re South African you obviously want to learn your history, but if you have any aspirations to be a leader in South Africa whether in business, in church, in government, or in your local community you absolutely must, in my view, read about these heroes who have given so much for the future of the country.
There’s an informative three minute video that highlights Bizos here
There’s a review of Bizos’ autobiography, An Odyssey to Freedom here
Speaking of his early meeting with Mandela: ‘He was proud and made no apologies for his blackness. He once described apartheid as a moral genocide – an attempt to exterminate an entire people’s self-respect; he was not prepared to bend his knee.’ 28
Quoting Greek thinker Pericles as an example of how to advance the cause of Africans in South Africa: ‘We decide or debate, carefully and in person, all matters of policy, and we hold, not that words and deeds go ill together, but that acts are foredoomed to failure when undertaken undiscussed. For we are noted for being at once most adventurous in action and most reflective beforehand.’ And after quoting Pericles he adds, ‘When I had finished, Nelson grinned. “That sounds just like what is needed here.”… The debates of the philosophers of Ancient Greece would permeate not only our discussions, but also our decision on legal strategy in the future.’ 74-75
On funding for the Treason Trial: ‘Christian Action in London took responsibility for fundraising and the Treason Trial Defence Fund was set up in South Africa to ensure that a proper trial could be conducted.’ 85
On Walter Sisulu: ‘Walter…grew up in a poor district of the Transkei and left school at sixteen to become a cowherd – but he had a brilliant mind. He was a short, pale man – his father, Victor Dickinson, was a white magistrate who had abandoned his two children and their Xhosa mother to move to Johannesburg. Walter would sometimes attend court to watch him preside, but his father never acknowledged him.’133
On Oliver Tambo: ‘ Oliver Tambo played a key role as the leader of the ANC in exile. On a visit to the United States, he was told that the student leader of a multi-billionaire banker was leading the anti-apartheid campaign at her university. Oliver asked to see her. Within days of meeting her, her father’s bank announced that it would not extend the repayment period of a large loan to South Africa. Other banks followed suit. The rand lost more than half its value against foreign currencies.’ 184
On discussions during negotiations just prior to Mandela’s release, when NM was given a small cottage to live in: ‘His time here was such that when he built his home in Qunu after his release it was designed on the same floor plan. Nelson welcomed his many guests wearing suits and ties, his collared shirts perfectly starched. He would take his daily constitutional along the garden paths and sometimes I would join him for the more confidential of our conversations. We learnt only later that the flowers were bugged.’ 195
NM to Govt representatives during the negotiations: ‘the majority need the minority. We do not want to drive you into the sea.’ 197
On FW de Klerk: ‘In his speech after his release on 11 February 1989, Nelson had told the world that President FW de Klerk was “a man of integrity”. Not long afterwards, he confided in me that he was mistaken…there was no personal warmth between them… “He has sometimes very little idea of what democracy means”. When Nelson was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize jointly with De Klerk in 1993, he was not sure whether he should accept it. He felt that…he should not have to share it with a man who had spent most of his political life upholding apartheid. His hesitation was compounded by his personal difficulty with De Klerk’s lack of humility or self-reflection…’ [At the prize giving event] ‘Nelson expected De Klerk to acknowledge the immorality of apartheid and the suffering it has caused the majority of South Africans in his acceptance speech…Instead, De Klerk said only that ‘both sides had made mistakes’… ‘At a private dinner hosted by the Norwegian prime minister to honour the two laureates, Nelson’s patience finally snapped. Before the one hundred and fifty invited guests, he spoke off the cuff. In horrible detail he described the treatment of political prisoners on Robben Island, recounting an incident in which prison warders buried a man in the sand up to his head and urinated on him. He attacked the apartheid regime for the oppression of black people and for the murders committed by its squads. ‘What mistakes did we make when you were brutalising us and locking us up and banning us and not allowing us to vote?’ he asked angrily of De Klerk.’ 213-214
On the violence before the first election: ‘My message to those of you involved in this battle of brother against brother is this: Take your guns, knives and your pangas and throw them into the sea.’ 215
Nelson Mandela on Greece: ‘Greece is the mother of democracy and South Africa, its youngest daughter.’ 240
George Bizos – 65 Years of Friendship (Umuzi, Penguin Random House South Africa)
What do we mean by ‘Preaching the Gospel’? After an intense period of internal unease which Spurgeon frankly described as ‘conviction of sin’, he at last found peace. Having visited numerous churches where good, solid sermons were preached, but preached only to the Christian, he finally stumbled into a Primitive Methodist meeting and heard the gospel preached to the non-believer. Good Bible teachers may think they have preached the ‘gospel’ when they have merely expounded a passage of the Scriptures for the edification of the believer. That is not quite the same thing as would have been understood by figures like Spurgeon, Whitefield, or Hudson Taylor. Proclaiming the gospel generally meant declaring who Christ is, and what He has done, and would include the need for the ‘sinner’ to respond by repenting of sin and putting their faith in Christ. Preaching the gospel was generally understood as an evangelistic declaration to the non-believer (to that person who has not yet put their trust in Christ). The rest was often referred to merely as ‘preaching the whole counsel of God’.
CH Spurgeon was very clear about this distinction and emphasised the difference constantly. As we’ll see in future posts, one of the reasons the Metropolitan Tabernacle (the congregation Spurgeon led) grew to 5000 was because he was determined not to make the very mistake those wonderful Bible-believing churches had made when he was searching for God. Instead he preached the gospel faithfully week in and week out, sometimes preaching an exclusively evangelistic message, but usually dedicating a large section (often the final third) of his message to the non-Christian. The point is he did both. He addressed everyone in his audience. He always had an eye to connect with those who had not yet come to Christ, simply because he had personally experienced the difficulty of good expositions of biblical passages or themes but which were irrelevant to him prior to conversion.
The Romance of Conversion And he never lost the wonder of the grace of God expressed to him in his conversion. ‘Home, friends, health, wealth, comforts,’ he wrote, ‘all lost their lustre that day when He appeared, just as stars are hidden by the light of the sun. He was the only Lord and Giver of life’s best bliss, the one well of living water springing up unto everlasting life. As I saw Jesus on His cross before me, and as I mused upon His sufferings and death, methought I saw Him cast a look of love upon me; and then I looked at Him, and cried, “Jesu, lover of my soul, Let me to Thy bosom fly.”
He said, “Come,” and I flew to Him, and clasped Him; and when He let me go again, I wondered where my burden was. It was gone! There in the sepulchre it lay, and I felt light as air; like a winged sylph, I could fly over mountains of trouble and despair; and oh! what liberty and joy I had! I could leap with ecstasy, for I had much forgiven, and I was freed from sin. With the spouse in the Canticles [Song of Songs], I could say, “I found Him;” I, a lad, found the Lord of glory; I, a slave to sin, found the great Deliverer; I, the child of darkness, found the Light of life; I, the uttermost of the lost, found my Saviour and my God. 
In Bexhill-on-Sea in Sussex, when the church had completed its construction of a school hall, they laid a stone in memory of Spurgeon with this inscription:
HOW C. H. SPURGEON FOUND CHRIST. “I looked to Him ; He looked on me ;
And we were one for ever.”—C. H. S. ‘Look unto Me, and be ye saved, all the ends 0f the earth; for I am God, and there is none else.’ —Isaiah xlv. 22.
More next time…
To read the first article in this series on CH Spurgeon click here
To read an encouragement from CH Spurgeon to help you begin to tell others about Christ click here
 The Autobiography of Charles H Spurgeon, Vol 1. (1897) London: Passmore and Alabaster, p. 109-110
 ibid p.109
An Introduction to the Greek New Testament by Dirk Jongkind There is a certain delicious joy in discovering that our trust in the New Testament as an historically reliable text is based on scholarship that is obsessively precise, unashamedly pedantic, and ruthlessly honest. The soul sings for joy, and feeds freely and fully on clean healthy food. Such freedom-bestowing scholarship is characteristic of Dirk Jongkind and the team at Tyndale House in Cambridge. In fact, it was Jongkind’s academic rigour, his strictness when it came to the text of the New Testament, that first caused me to write to him, announcing myself as a ‘fan’ and asking if we could meet at the Lausanne Congress in 2010. Although we came from different church traditions (and he very much the scholar, and me very much the dufus) our excited, energetic conversation that day, and the next, and the next, was easily the highlight of the conference for me. Jongkind’s credentials are outstanding (see his Scribal Habits of Codex Sinaiticus) but in this Introduction he has given us a very accessible book on a complex and important subject.
You don’t need to have any Greek at all to be able to enjoy this book. That’s because it’s not only an intro to theTyndale House Edition of the NT (‘the most accurate edition of the Greek New Testament published so far’) but it’s also an outstanding introduction to the process of NT textual criticism itself. There are insights into how decisions are made in manuscript selection so that we get the most accurate text possible, as well as interesting sections on how to deal with variations.
We often hear it boldly stated that the NT has changed over the centuries and people have deliberately messed with the text to change its meaning. Jongkind writes, ’Another way of answering the reliability question is to look for signs of deliberate tampering with the text. People have claimed to have found these, but they have also had to admit that these are few and far between and do not occur on the scale and frequency that one might expect if there were an attempt to systematically change the text. The phenomenon that comes closest to deliberate alteration of the text is the cleaning up of the spelling that we encounter in the older manuscripts, which is at time rather rough.’ (p.22) Apparently Byzantine scribes in particular just couldn’t let bad spelling go uncorrected.
Another statement on reliability gives us the broader context in which variants emerge: ‘For most of the approximately 135,000 words of the New Testament, no decision has to be made – either because there is no variation or because the variation is found in a single manuscript, in a group of relatively unimportant manuscripts, or in a subset of late manuscripts.’ (p.65) Jongkind then outlines the criteria (external evidence, copying, and internal evidence) on which to make reliable decisions where one is necessary.
Much more could be said, but this 120-page gem will put some steel into you, and help you have yet more confidence in the reliability of the New Testament text. Many new translations into many languages will be based on the Tyndale House Edition, but even if you don’t read Greek, it is heartwarming to know that, behind the scenes, scholars like Jongkind are still working hard on every available text, and are still confirming that what we have in our hands when we pick up our Bible is fundamentally what was originally written. Feast on my friends! Feast on!
An Introduction to the Greek New Testament Produced at Tyndale House, Cambridge by Dirk Jongkind is published by Crossway Books.
Among the many great conversions of the 19th Century, CH Spurgeon’s was one of the most famous. He told and retold this story many times throughout his preaching career. And here is the fullest version of it in his own words. It is a feast. Grab a cup of tea, sit down and enjoy!
The general, and the effectual appeal of the Gospel ‘The general call of the gospel is like the sheet lightning we sometimes see on a summer’s evening — beautiful, grand, — but who ever heard of anything being struck by it? But the special call is the forked flash from heaven; it strikes somewhere. It is the arrow shot in between the joints of the harness. The call which saves is like that of Jesus, when He said, “Mary,” and she said unto Him, “Rabboni.” Can I not recollect the hour when He whispered my name, when He said in mine ear,“Come unto Me”! That was an effectual call; there was no resisting it. I know I laughed at religion; I despised, I abhorred it; but oh, that call!’ [i]
A chance meeting ‘I sometimes think I might have been in darkness and despair until now had it not been for the goodness of God in sending a snowstorm, one Sunday morning, while I was going to a certain place of worship. When I could go no further, I turned down a side street, and came to a little Primitive Methodist Chapel. In that chapel there may have been a dozen or fifteen people. I had heard of the Primitive Methodists, how they sang so loudly that they made people’s heads ache; but that did not matter to me. I wanted to know how I might be saved, and if they could tell me that, I did not care how much they made my head ache. The minister did not come that morning; he was snowed up, I suppose. At last, a very thin-looking man, a shoemaker, or tailor, or something of that sort, went up into the pulpit to preach. Now, it is well that preachers should be instructed; but this man was really stupid. He was obliged to stick to his text, for the simple reason that he had little else to say. The text was, “Look unto Me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth.”
The simple gospel, simply applied ‘He did not even pronounce the words rightly, but that did not matter. There was, I thought, a glimpse of hope for me in that text. The preacher began thus: “My dear friends, this is a very simple text indeed. It says, ‘Look.’ Now lookin’ don’t take a deal of pains. It ain’t liftin’ your foot or your finger; it is just, ‘Look.’ Well, a man needn’t go to College to learn to look. You may be the biggest fool, and yet you can look. A man needn’t be worth a thousand a year to be able to look. Anyone can look; even a child can look. But then the text says, ‘ Look unto Me.’ Ay!” said he, inbroad Essex, “many on ye are lookin’ to yourselves, but it’s no use lookin’ there. You’ll never find any comfort in yourselves. Some look to God the Father. No, look to Him by-and-by. Jesus Christ says, ‘Look unto Me.’ Some on ye say, ‘We must wait for the Spirit’s workin’.’ You have no business with that just now. Look to Christ. The text says, ‘ Look unto Me.’”
Then the good man followed up his text in this way: “I am sweatin’ great drops of blood. Look unto Me; I am hangin’ on the cross. Look unto Me; I am dead and buried. Look unto Me; I rise again. Look unto Me; I ascend to Heaven. Look unto Me; I am sittin’ at the Father’s right hand. O poor sinner, look unto Me! Look unto Me.”
A pointed application! ‘When he had gone to about that length, and managed to spin out ten minutes or so, he was at the end of his tether. Then he looked at me under the gallery, and I daresay, with so few present, he knew me to be a stranger. Just fixing his eyes on me, as if he knew all my heart, he said, “Young man, you look very miserable.” Well, I did; but I had not been accustomed to have remarks made from the pulpit on my personal appearance before. However, it was a good blow, struck right home. He continued, “and you always will be miserable — miserable in life, and miserable in death, — if you don’t obey my text; but if you obey now, this moment, you will be saved.” Then, lifting up his hands, he shouted, as only a Primitive Methodist could do, “Young man, look to Jesus Christ. Look! Look! Look! You have nothin’ to do but to look and live.”
I looked until I could almost have looked my eyes away! ‘I saw at once the way of salvation. I know not what else he said, — I did not take much notice of it, — I was so possessed with that one thought. Like as when the brazen serpent was lifted up, the people only looked and were healed, so it was with me. I had been waiting to do fifty things, but when I heard that word, “Look ” what a charming word it seemed to me! Oh! I looked until I could almost have looked my eyes away. There and then the cloud was gone, the darkness had rolled away, and that moment I saw the sun ; and I could have risen that instant, and sung with the most enthusiastic of them, of the precious blood of Christ, and the simple faith which looks alone to Him. Oh, that somebody had told me this before, “Trust Christ, and you shall be saved.”
Joy unspeakable and full of glory! ‘I may be singular in this confession, but I make it, and know it to be the truth. Since that dear hour when my soul cast itself on Jesus, I have found solid joy and peace ; but before that, all those supposed gaieties of early youth, all the imagined ease and joy of boyhood, were but vanity and vexation of spirit to me. That happy day, when I found the Saviour, and learned to cling to His dear feet, was a day never to be forgotten by me. An obscure child, unknown, unheard of, I listened to the Word of God ; and that precious text led me to the cross of Christ. I can testify that the joy of that day was utterly indescribable. I could have leaped, I could have danced; there was no expression, however fanatical, which would have been out of keeping with the joy of my spirit at that hour. Many days of Christian experience have passed since then, but there has never been one which has had the full exhilaration, the sparkling delight which that first day had. I thought I could have sprung from the seat on which I sat, and have called out with the wildest of those Methodist brethren who were present, ‘I am forgiven! I am forgiven!’ … I thought I could dance all the way home.’ [ii]
More next time…
To read the first article in this series on CH Spurgeon click here
To read Spurgeon speak of the wonder and romance of conversion click here
[i] The Autobiography of Charles H Spurgeon, Vol 1. (1897) London: Passmore and Alabaster, p. 92-93
[ii] ibid p.105-108
My first visit to Hillsong Church A few years ago I was preaching in London. Three congregations came together in one venue (a slightly rundown-looking school hall), and we had a wonderful time. Several people testified of healing, and at least one person responded to the call to start following Jesus. The worship band were a bit thin on the ground though, just two acoustic guitarists, so it felt a little awkward. When I asked the reason why they couldn’t gather a full band the answer was straight-forward: it was a Bank Holiday Weekend. Fair enough. That afternoon I met with two friends who are pastors in London and we jumped on the tube to go and check out the evening service of Hillsong Church. On the way there we had the kind of conversations pastors have all the time. Neither of them had ‘lost’ anyone to Hillsong but they had both had people join them who had attended Hillsong for a season and for a couple of reasons had decided to join a more local church. The reasons weren’t bad: they found making friends difficult in the relatively large Hillsong context, they preferred a more congregational ‘feel’ to the Sunday experience, rather than the strong ‘performance’ dynamic etc.
What was waiting for us – and for me in particular – was a real surprise. Hillsong London was then about 2500-strong and meeting in the Mermaid Theatre (I think) in the City itself. The first thing I noticed was that, in radical contrast to the school hall experience of the morning, Hillsong had completely ‘owned’ the space. Visually I was more aware that this was Hillsong Church than that it was a rented theatre. There was no moment when I said, ‘Oh look! Michael MacIntyre is playing here next week!’ or, ‘Look at these exciting stills from We Will Rock You.’
We arrived as the meeting began and were enthusiastically greeted and guided towards the double-doors of the auditorium. Once there we were handed on to a well-informed usher who told us that there weren’t three seats available together but they could seat us towards the front in different rows but we’d be reasonably close. Would that be OK? We nodded and obediently followed.
Focussed worship There was absolutely no sign of a Bank Holiday Weekend at Hillsong London. There was a full, well-rehearsed and (therefore) confident band, perfectly mixed, with each band-member and singer fully engaged in the exuberant act of joyfully worshipping God. Even during the first song the energy levels were high and seemed completely authentic. By the second song we were at the kind of full-throated worship that we usually experienced on the final night of some of our conferences. That thought ran through my head and, as I looked around at the congregation packed into that theatre, passionately worshipping Jesus, I couldn’t help myself, and began to weep and pray. ‘Oh God! Please give us the thousands! Please God, here in London, please give us the thousands! Here in England, please God, turn the hearts of thousands to You.’ Selah.
After what I was told was 18 minutes of worship, the rest of the service (admittedly fairly formulaic – cf. liturgical – but hey, it was working) continued. Second thought: I’d rather have 18 minutes of God-saturated, glory-filled worship than 30 or 40 minutes of tentative, not-quite-sure-what’s-happening-next worship. One last thought: it was a guest speaker but he preached from the text on the importance of relationship-building and making friends in the context of a growing church community. Bang on.
A faith-filled shot in the arm
So when my American son-in-law gave me Live, Love, Lead by Brian Houston, Hillsong’s Kiwi founder, I was intrigued and looking forward to reading it.
Confession: I read this book over a two-year period, but I’ll tell you why. It’s a mixture of the Houston/Hillsong story and faith-building positivity, scripturally based and expansive. You’re looking forward with expectation and faith in God. So my practice was to read a paragraph, or two at the most, as the final thing I did before Jo and I set off to lead the Sunday services at Jubilee Community Church in Kloof St, Cape Town. And pretty much each time I took a bite out of Houston’s positive prose it reminded me to be people-focussed, encouraging, believing God to help folk in their trials, trusting God for great things to happen in the services, that the various leaders would be genuinely blessed, and just refreshing my memory to look to God and enjoy the moment. Even when he’s describing some of the almost overwhelming challenges that he’s faced in leadership Houston meets the challenge with a robust, God-centred faith. Here’s a very short example:
‘It’s believing that God can cause things to work together for good as we simply live our lives loving him, live our lives called according to his purpose – this is what transforms us. Maybe I’m just a positive person by nature, but I expect good things each day of the year…I believe without a doubt that every single moment of every single day…can reveal God’s goodness – in my life and yours.’
It’s not a theological treatise on prayer or providence, and it’s not trying to be, but if you’re looking for the occasional shot in the arm of encouragement, and wisdom for life, as you head in to work or to worship, this may be the book you’re looking for.
An old-fashioned doctrine ‘Conviction of sin’ can be described as the personal distress and guilt that accompanies the realisation that you are a sinner and that your specific sins have offended God; that you yourself have offended God Himself and that there is a serious problem between you. You may never have felt this before but suddenly, through some kind of exposure to the Bible, or to Christian teaching, or the Ten Commandments, you are aware of a vast difference between your behaviour and the purity of God’s moral character and demands. And all of this is now revealed. If you move towards it the scene gets darker. Surely it would be better to try and ignore it all? And even though Christians assure you that genuine freedom is possible in Christ, the difficulty of pressing through ‘conviction of sin’ is that conversion to Christ – a full surrendering of sin, life, and all at the foot of the cross – is the only solution. And who could ever really do that? ‘With man it is impossible.’ (Mark 10.27)
The great 19th Century Baptist preacher CH Spurgeon grew up surrounded by the Bible. Both his grandfather and father were pastors. But he was not converted until he was fifteen. And his teenage years were filled with self-righteousness, guilt, and discomfort. The spiritual question was how to get right with God. And the spiritual problem was his inability to apply the gospel to his own heart and life – how to find forgiveness for sin, how to find relief from guilt.
The problem of the Law and sin
Spurgeon wrote, ‘One of the things that shut me up dreadfully was, when I knew the spirituality of the law…Those words spoken by the Lord to the prophet Ezekiel came to my mind : “If he trust to his own righteousness, and commit iniquity, all his righteousnesses shall not be remembered ; but for his iniquity that he hath committed, he shall die for it.” So I saw that I was, indeed, “kept under the law.” I had hoped to escape this way, or that way, or some other way. Was I not “christened” when I was a child? Had I not been taken to a place of worship? Had I not been brought up to say my prayers regularly? Had I not been an honest, upright, moral youth?Was all this nothing? “Nothing,” said the law, as it drew its sword of fire : “Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them.” So there was no rest for my spirit, nay, not even for a moment. What was I to do? …
I do not say that all have felt the apprehension of coming judgment as I did; but this is how it came to me. I knew that I was guilty, I knew that I had offended God, I knew that I had transgressed against light and knowledge, and I did not know when God might call me to account ; but I did know this, when I awoke in the morning, the first thought I had was that I had to deal with a justly-angry God, who might suddenly require my soul of me. Often, during the day, when I had a little time for quiet meditation, a great depression of spirit would come upon me because I felt that sin –sin – SIN had outlawed me from my God.’
The threats were in capitals and the promises in small-print
‘If anyone had asked me what would become of me, I must have answered, “I am going down to the pit.” If anyone had entreated me to hope that mercy might come to me, I should have refused to entertain such a hope. … When I was for many a month in this state, I used to read the Bible through, and the threatenings were all printed in capitals, but the promises were in such small type I could not for a long time make them out ; and when I did read them, I did not believe they were mine ; but the threatenings were all my own.’
Our inability and our desire
Inevitably one of the shocks to Spurgeon was that, according to the Bible, there was nothing he could do to earn his way to forgiveness. He continues,
‘Before I came to Christ, I said to myself.“It surely cannot be that, if I believe in Jesus, just as I am, I shall be saved? I must feel something; I must do something.” I could pour scorn upon myself to think of some of the good resolutions I made! I blew them up, like children with their pipes and their soap, and fine bubbles they were, reflecting all the colours of the rainbow! But a touch, and they dissolved. They were good for nothing, – poor stuff to build eternal hopes upon. … Oh, the many times that I have wished the preacher would tell me something to do that I might be saved! Gladly would I have done it, if it had been possible. If he had said, “Take off your shoes and stockings, and run to John o’ Groat’s,” I would not even have gone home first, but would have started off that very night, that I might win salvation. How often have I thought that, if he had said, “Bare your back to the scourge, and take fifty lashes” I would have said, “Here I am! Come along with your whip, and beat as hard as you please, so long as I can obtain peace and rest, and get rid of my sin.” Yet that simplest of all matters – believing in Christ crucified, accepting His finished salvation, being nothing, and letting Him be everything, doing nothing but trusting to what He has done, – I could not get a hold of it.’ [i]
There is an answer for guilt, and shame, and, as he says here, it is found in the cross of Jesus Christ. Next time we’ll see how, through a humble but punchy gospel preacher, Spurgeon finally did ‘get a hold of it’ and go on to become one of Christendom’s greatest preachers.
[i] All quotes from The Autobiography of Charles H Spurgeon, Vol 1. (1897) London: Passmore and Alabaster, p.83-90
To read the first article in this series on CH Spurgeon click here
To read how CH Spurgeon was finally converted click here
I first picked up The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels when I was sixteen. Of course, I didn’t feel like a precocious sixteen-year-old then. I felt like a free-thinking young intellectual discovering poetry and politics, and exploring the vast literary landscape with a hunger and delight that, frankly, I wish I could maintain now. Like many significant works of literature this little book had its own killer line. Not quite the first line, but certainly as memorable as the best of them. It read: ‘The history of all societies is a history of class struggle.’ I read on eagerly. Thus The Communist Manifesto became my first conscious encounter with what I later learned was a ‘worldview’ and it was exhilarating to read something that claimed to know what was really going on in the world.
My teenage romance with Marxism didn’t last too long and suffered numerous blows as I discovered not its power to transform but, disappointingly, its consistent failure. And when I later became president of the Students’ Union at a small college in Sussex I was appalled at the sanctimonious reverence Marx was paid. The primary example of this happened not at the National Conference but at an (ironically) exclusive and somewhat secretive gathering of three Students’ Union presidents at Sussex University. Our host, the Sussex Uni president, asked us to be seated. He then proceeded to unveil, by pulling down on a little fluffy cord, a red velvet curtain, behind which were revealed portraits first of Marx, then Lenin, and finally the then General Secretary of the Soviet Union, Yuri Andropov. Once this ceremony was complete he opened the meeting. It was both strangely religious and hopelessly sad.
But that kind of obsequious nonsense was the least of it. The philosophy itself was problematic. Apart from his impressive, often accurate view of the past, Marx’s vision for future revolution and collective ownership had already obviously failed in the terrifyingly authoritarian regimes that claimed him as their founder. Even George Orwell said – somewhere in Homage to Catalonia – thathe only saw communism work once, and then only for about three weeks, after which the usual egotistical impulse for status reasserted itself. One set of status/power/money lovers had been replaced by another set who soon began to act like those they replaced.
The Significance of Marx
Marx and Engels felt they had discovered a scientific assessment of social progress akin to Darwin’s theory of evolution. The parallel is oddly appropriate for many Christians: we may agree with much of what both Darwin and Marx observed, but may also have considerable doubts about the projections they made based on the observation.
And so to Peter Singer’s highly readable, Marx, A Very Short Introduction. He asks, ‘Can anyone now think about society without reference to Marx’s insights into the links between economic and intellectual life? Marx’s ideas brought about modern sociology, transformed the study of history, and profoundly affected philosophy, literature, and the arts. In this sense of the term – admittedly a very loose sense – we are all Marxists now.’ (3)
Hegel, History, and God
There were a number of points at which the thinking of others encouraged Marx to see religion as ultimately negative (for Marx this inevitably meant Christianity). In describing Hegel and the young Hegelians who influenced Marx Singer writes, ‘The goal of history became the liberation of humanity; but this could not be achieved until the religious illusion had been overcome.’ (22) Of course! Singer has unintentionally sent us back to a conversation in Eden in Genesis 3. And later, ‘theology is a kind of misdirected anthropology. What we believe of God is really true of ourselves. Thus humanity can regain its essence, which in religion it has lost.’ (23) And in an inevitable statement of absolute naturalism, ‘Thought does not precede existence, existence precedes thought.’ (24) Christians love the fact that in the beginning was thought and word, and all creation came into existence as a result of thought and word. But Marx only saw the way religion created compliance rather than progress.
Economic Injustice and its Cure
When Marx came on to his views of economic injustice we find some of his arguments compelling but his solutions naive. When pointing out that driving wages down to as close as is necessary to merely keep workers alive, while keeping for themselves a significant amount of the value the workers create, Marx is highlighting a genuine manipulation of human resources. (33) Sure. We need just laws, and we ought to have them. But Marx asserted ‘the solution is the abolition of wages, alienated labour, and private property in one blow. In a word, communism.’ (36) and claimed, ‘Communism…is the genuine resolution of the antagonism between man and nature and between man and man…It is the riddle of history solved and knows itself as this solution.’ Singer adds, ‘One might expect that Marx would go on to explain in some detail what communism would be like. He does not – in fact nowhere in his writings does he give more than sketchy suggestions on this subject.’ (37)
Marx and Engels consistently preached for a kind of millennial era of liberation, freedom from oppression, and peace among men. In one sense, the very best motivations of the communist vision are an echo of genuine Christianity, but with man, not God, at the centre. In fact it’s difficult to imagine the birth of Marxist philosophy in any but a Christian cultural environment, and a muscular 19th century Christianity at that. ‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his need,’ could have been bellowed out by William Booth and the Salvation Army; could, in fact, have been written by Luke in the Book of Acts (see Acts 2.45 [i], and 4.34 [ii]).
Marx was also echoing a widely held Christian sentiment when he asserted that history has a definite goal; that of humanity reaching its greatest potential in an era of liberation and freedom. He probably didn’t realise how much a view of God’s sovereignty, of providence, and the millennial hope he carried in his thinking about the future. Singer brings us up to post-Christian speed: ‘Few historians…now see any goal in history. They do not explain history as the necessary path to anywhere. They explain it by showing how one set of events brought about another.’ (57)
Revolution and Transformation
Marx believed that Capitalism would force its own failure as workers would realise their exploitation, rise up, and redistribute wealth on a fair and equal basis. Private property would be abolished. The State would draw the allegiance of all men and the common good would be the goal of all. Absolutely wishful thinking. Singer: ‘According to Marx’s view of history, as the economic basis of society alters, so all consciousness alters. Greed, egoism, and envy are not ingrained forever in the character of human beings. They would disappear in a society in which private property and private means of production were replaced with communal property and socially organized means of production. We would lose our preoccupation withour private interests. Citizens of the new society would find their own happiness in working for the good of all. (81) Surely only the most inexperienced revolutionary could believe that? ‘It has been said that later in life Marx developed a less Utopian view of communism, but it is difficult to find much evidence of this.’ (83) His view was so utopian in fact that he believed communism would become fully international in its reach, and therefore single nation-states would cease to exist, thus eradicating the impulse for war between nations. Armed forces would become a thing of the past. Cue not-the-only-dreamer, John Lennon. Actually though, while it’s certainly not imaginable now, it is nevertheless a hope that’s deeply embedded in the human psyche (we’re made in the image of God after all) and it echoes an idea worked out in Christian eschatology.
How do we assess Marx’s philosophy?
Singer: ‘More than a century after Marx made these predictions, most of them are so plainly mistaken that one can only wonder why anyone sympathetic to Marx would attempt to argue that his greatness lies in the scientific aspects of his work. Judged by the standards of Marx’s time, the gap between rich and poor has narrowed dramatically throughout the industrialized world…Real wages have risen. Factory workers today earn considerably more than they need in order to remain alive and reproducing…Capitalism has gone through several crises, but nowhere has it collapsed as a result of its alleged internal contradictions. Proletarian revolutions have broken out in the less developed nations [Marx predicted it would happen in the more developed ones]. (88) He supposed ‘that real wages would remain around subsistence level; in fact the increase in productivity has allowed real wages to rise.’ (91) The ‘conception of freedom Marx espoused contains within it a difficulty Marx never sufficiently appreciated, a difficulty which can be linked with the tragic mutation of Marx’s views into a prop for murderously authoritarian regimes. This is the problem of obtaining the co-operation of each individual in the joint endeavour of controlling our society.’ (92)‘Marx never intended a communist society to force the individual to work against his or her own interests for the collective good.’ (97)
Marx’s view of human nature was hopelessly optimistic. The economic injustices he identified were not simply the result of capitalist systems (though those systems enabled them) but of fallen human nature, sinful nature. And even though today we can see improvement to human rights and progress in many areas, enacted in many laws, the fundamental problem of human sin is still wildly underestimated. This doesn’t let ‘capitalism’ off the hook of course, let alone individuals greedy for their own advancement at the expense of others. In fact, those Christian leaders and pastors living in countries with ever-widening gaps between rich and poor need to develop a healthy desire and determination to work for a more just society. Nevertheless, the communism that developed in the twentieth century was never the utopia Marx dreamt of; that dreamt-of equality only ever appeared in propaganda films. Equally unconvincing are the arguments that true Marxism has never been properly tried. The reason it never lasts longer than a few weeks is because the philosophy radically over-estimates the goodness of human nature. What is needed is a philosophy that (goes beyond philosophy and) gets into the heart and changes human nature, that leads to repentance from sin and faith in Christ, and produces an unwavering resolve for social justice. To put it in the words of the most famous prayer, ‘Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.’
Marx, A Very Short Introduction is by Peter Singer and published by the Oxford University Press.
Is Singer too hard on Marx? Too soft? How does the gospel address the injustices Marx raised? Comment below.
[i] Acts 2.45 ‘and they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need.’
[ii] Acts 4.34 ‘there was not a needy person among them, for all who were owners of land or houses would sell them and bring the proceeds of the sales.’
A Mother’s Influence
There were numerous influences in young CH Spurgeon’s life: he lived for a season with his grandfather, an Independent Pastor who faithfully preached the gospel; his father who himself was a pastor; a school cook, from whom he first heard unashamed confidence in the sovereignty of God, and the doctrines of grace; and the various teachers who impressed upon him the importance of the Bible. But there was a very special place reserved for the most influential spiritual voice during his childhood and teenage years – his mother, Eliza Spurgeon.
Christian mothers should take heart from Spurgeon’s story and never give up praying for their children. Spurgeon describes more than prayer, as his mother was also instructing her children from the text of Scripture. Spurgeon mentions four key practices:
1. Sincere, heartfelt prayer, in private as well as with her children.
2. Time with the Bible, not only a Bible storybook, but actually reading a ‘grown-up’ Bible verse by verse.
3. This was followed by relevant application to each child of the verses that they read together.
4. In addition to that, she also read from the most relevant evangelistic books available. One of them was Joseph Alleine’s Alarm Call to the Unconverted – a passionate appeal (Spurgeon uses the word ‘pleading’) for those not yet right with God to consider their practices and beliefs.
‘I cannot tell how much I owe to…my good mother.’
Maybe there are some clues and keys in Spurgeon’s experience that will encourage us to be more confident in teaching our children so that they can make a well informed decision about their own faith and future. CHS writes:
‘I was privileged with godly parents…and taught the way of God from my youth up. There came a time when the solemnities of eternity pressed upon me for a decision. … When I was under concern of soul, the last persons I should have elected to speak to upon religion would have been my parents, not through want of love to them, nor absence of love on their part; but so it was. A strange feeling of diffidence pervades a seeking soul, and drives it from its friends. Yet I cannot tell how much I owe to the solemn words of my good mother. It was the custom, on Sunday evenings, while we were yet little children, for her to stay at home with us, and then we sat round the table, and read verse by verse, and she explained the Scripture to us. After that was done, then came the time of pleading; there was a little piece of Alleine’s Alarm, or of Baxter’s Call to the Unconverted, and this was read with pointed observations made to each of us as we sat round the table; and the question was asked, how long it would be before we would think about our state, how long before we would seek the Lord.’
A Mother’s Prayer
‘Then came a mother’s prayer, and some of the words of that prayer we shall never forget, even when our hair is grey. I remember, on one occasion her praying thus: ‘Now, Lord, if my children go on in their sins, it will not be from ignorance that they perish, and my soul must bear a swift witness against them at the day of judgment if they lay not hold of Christ.’ That thought of a mother’s bearing swift witness against me, pierced my conscience, and stirred my heart. …
I am sure that, in my early youth, no teaching ever made such an impression upon my mind as the instruction of my mother; neither can I conceive that, to any child, there can be one who will have such influence over the young heart as the mother who has so tenderly cared for her offspring. A man with a soul so dead as not to be moved by the sacred name of “mother” is creation’s blot. Never could it be possible for any man to estimate what he owes to a godly mother. Certainly I have not the powers of speech with which to set forth my valuation of the choice blessing which the Lord bestowed on me in making me the son of one who prayed for me, and prayed with me. How can I ever forget her tearful eye when she warned me to escape from the wrath to come.
I thought her lips right eloquent; others might not think so, but they certainly were eloquent to me. How can I ever forget when she bowed her knee, and with her arms about my neck, prayed, “Oh, that my son might live before Thee!” Nor can her frown be effaced from my memory,—that solemn, loving frown, when she rebuked my budding iniquities; and her smiles have never faded from my recollection,—the beaming of her countenance when she rejoiced to see some good thing in me towards the Lord God of Israel.’’
Abundant answers to Prayer
Of course, those of us who have benefited from the ministry of CH Spurgeon are still enjoying the results of his mother’s prayers. And she was, herself, thrilled at the incredible fruit that Charles saw through his work. Long after his preaching and church-planting ministry was established he recalled a conversation with his mother about her prayers:
‘My mother said to me, one day, “Ah, Charles! I often prayed to the Lord to make you a Christian, but I never asked that you might become a Baptist.” I could not resist the temptation to reply, “Ah, mother! The Lord has answered your prayer with His usual bounty, and given you exceeding abundantly above what you asked or thought.”‘[i]
More next time…
[i] The Autobiography of Charles H Spurgeon, Vol 1. (1897) London: Passmore and Alabaster, p.67-69
To read the first article in this series on CH Spurgeon click here
To read how Spurgeon was ‘convicted of sin’ click here
Strong Meat from the Cook [i]
The first lessons I ever had in theology were from an old cook [Mary King] in the school at Newmarket where I was an usher [a kind of assistant-tutor]. She was a good old soul, and used to read The Gospel Standard. She liked something very sweet indeed, good strong Calvinistic doctrine, but she lived strongly as well as fed strongly.
Many a time we have gone over the covenant of grace together, and talked of the personal election of the saints, their union to Christ, their final perseverance, and what vital godliness meant, and I do believe that I learnt more from her than I should have learned from any six doctors of divinity of the sort we have nowadays.
There are some Christian people who taste, and see, and enjoy religion in their own souls, and who get at a deeper knowledge of it than books can ever give them, though they should search all their days. The cook at Newmarket was a godly experienced woman, from whom I learned far more than I did from the minister of the chapel we attended.
I asked her once, “Why do you go to such a place.” She replied, “Well, there is no other place of worship to which I can go.” I said, “But it must be better to stay at home than to hear such stuff.” “Perhaps so,” she answered “but I like to go out to worship even if I get nothing by going. You see a hen sometimes scratching all over a heap of rubbish to try to find some corn; she does not get any, but it shows that she is looking for it, and using the means to get it, and then, too, the exercise warms her.” So the old lady said that scratching over the poor sermons she heard was a blessing to her because it exercised her spiritual faculties and warmed her spirit.
On another occasion I told her that I had not found a crumb in the whole sermon, and asked how she had fared. “Oh!” she answered, “I got on better tonight, for to all the preacher said, I just put in a not, and that turned his talk into real gospel.”
A former student remembers the fifteen year-old Spurgeon
A fellow assistant-tutor at the small ‘school’, later Prof JD Everett, of Queen’s College, Belfast, remembered Spurgeon with affection:
“In the summer of 1849, when I was not quite eighteen, I went to Newmarket to assist in a school… I was left for a week or so as the sole assistant. I was then relieved of part of my duty by a lad of fifteen, who came as an articled pupil. This was Charles H. Spurgeon, and for the next three months we shared the work between us. We boarded in the house, occupied the same bedroom, took our walks together, discussed our common grievances, and were the best of friends.
He was a keen observer of men and manners, and very shrewd in his judgments. He enjoyed a joke, but was earnest, hard-working, and strictly conscientious. … He was a delightful companion, cheerful and sympathetic ; a good listener as well as a good talker. And he was not cast in a common conventional mould, but had a strong character of his own.”
CHS willing to learn from the most humble
“As to the early history of his theological views, I can add something to what has been already published. In Mr. Swindell’s household there was a faithful old servant,—a big, sturdy woman, who was well known to me and all the inmates as ‘cook.’ She was a woman of strong religious feelings, and a devout Calvinist. Spurgeon, when under deep religious conviction, had conversed with her, and been deeply impressed with her views of Divine truth. He explained this to me, and told me, in his own terse fashion, that it was ‘cook’ who had taught him his theology. … It is no discredit to the memory of a great man that he was willing to learn from the humblest sources.”
When the above article appeared in print, Mr. Robert Mattingly, of Great Cornard, Sudbury, wrote to the same paper:“About twenty-five years ago, I became acquainted with the [the cook], Mary King by name. She was then living in cottage lodgings, facing St. Margaret’s Church, Ipswich, and was a member of the Bethesda Strict Baptist Church, close by. She was a staunch Calvinist, logical, clear-headed, and had a wonderful knowledge of the Bible.
I have often heard from her lips the account of her [conversations] with the youthful Spurgeon, of which she was naturally not a little proud, as he had then attained the height of his marvellous popularity.”
Spurgeon hears of Mary King’s financial troubles and supports her
“During my acquaintance with her, I learned that she had outlived all, or nearly all, of a small income (I do not remember from what source). I wrote to Mr. Spurgeon, acquainting him with the facts, and received from him a prompt reply, thanking me for my letter, sending a hearty greeting to his old friend, and with characteristic generosity he enclosed a cheque for £5, with a request that I would minister to her immediate necessities, pay her 5s. a week, and generally use my discretion in dispensing the amount in his behalf. This I did, and reported to Mr. Spurgeon from time to time, always receiving a fresh cheque when the fund in hand became exhausted, and this was continued until her death about three years later.”[ii]
For the first in this series on CH Spurgeon click here
To read how Spurgeon’s mother’s prayers affected him click here
[i] See Heb 5.12, and 1 Cor 3.2. The King James has ‘strong meat’, although the newer versions tend to have ‘solid food’.
[ii] The Autobiography of Charles H Spurgeon, Vol 1. (1897 London: Passmore and Alabaster) p.53-55
I was about the age of fourteen when I was sent to a Church of England school,—now called St. Augustine’s College, Maidstone. We had three clergymen who came by turns to teach us their doctrines ; but, somehow or other, the pupils did not seem to get on much…
One of the clergy was, I believe, a good man ; and it is to him I owe that ray of light which sufficed to show me believers’ baptism…
He seemed always to have a respect for me, and gave me The Christian Year, in calf, as a reward for my great proficiency in religious knowledge. Proceeding with the Catechism, he suddenly turned to me, and said,
Clergyman — Spurgeon, you were never properly baptized.
Spurgeon — Oh, yes, sir, I was ; my grandfather baptized me in the little parlour, and he is a minister, so I know he did it right !
C.—Ah, but you had neither faith nor repentance, and therefore ought not to have received baptism !
S.—Why, sir, that has nothing to do with it ! All infants ought to be baptized.
C.—How do you know that ? Does not the Prayer Book say that faith and repentance are necessary before baptism ? And this is so Scriptural a doctrine, that no one ought to deny it. (Here he went on to show that all the persons spoken of in the Bible as being baptized were believers ; which, of course, was an easy task, and then said to me,—) Now, Charles, I shall give you till next week to find out whether the Bible does not declare faith and repentance to be necessary qualifications before baptism.
I felt sure enough of victory; for I thought that a ceremony my grandfather and father both practised in their ministry must be right ; but I could not find it,—I was beaten,—and made up my mind as to the course I would take.
C. —Well, Charles, what do you think now ?
S. —Why, sir, I think you are right ; but then it applies to you as well as to me!…
C.—Well, then, you confess that you were not properly baptized ; and you would think it your duty, if in your power, to join with us, and have sponsors to promise on your behalf?
S.—Oh, no ! I have been baptized once, before I ought ; I will wait next time till I am fit for it.
C.—(Smiling.) Ah, you are wrong ; but I like to see you keep to the Word of God! Seek from Him a new heart and Divine direction, and you will see one truth after another, and very probably there will be a great change in those opinions which now seem so deeply rooted in you.
I resolved, from that moment, that if ever Divine grace should work a change in me, I would be baptized, since, as I afterwards told my friend the clergyman, ” I never ought to be blamed for improper baptism, as I had nothing to do with it ; the error, if any, rested with my parents and grandparents.” [i]
[i] CH Spurgeon, Autobiography vol 1 (Banner of Truth Trust, Edinburgh, 1962), p.33-36
To read the first article in this series on Spurgeon click here
To read how Spurgeon learned great theological truths from the school cook click here
‘Minnows! Minnows!’ said my colleague and much-loved pastor Don Smith, as he threw the book down on to the table. It span towards me. ‘Don’t bother with these minnows!’
I could see that the book was a new volume about the great 19th century preacher CH Spurgeon.‘It’s like reading about a mighty whale through the eyes of a minnow: they want to tell you his secret, or make him agree with their views, or try and make him more respectable. You’re better off going to the man himself!’
Don and I were in the early stages of planting a church in the English coastal town of Eastbourne and our respect for each other, and our friendship, instantly sprang from our mutual admiration of the great preachers of church history, and especially Spurgeon.
There are a number of factors which make Spurgeon such an attractive subject for preachers and leaders in church life today, and as this series develops, we’ll enjoy them, drawing primarily on his own statements so that you get the whale and not the minnow. And all hopefully in bite-sized chunks.
We will be inspired by the fact that:
– After his conversion Spurgeon immediately began evangelising, and many doors opened for him
– He was an instant success with the working class, but treated with suspicion by well-educated, respectable ministers
– His sermons were so effective that literally thousands were converted
– His initial preaching in London drew sensational crowds and the interest of the secular press
– He was unashamedly committed to preaching from the Bible
– He was a proud Dissenter, never giving in to the pressures of elitist Christianity
– He was solidly calvinistic in doctrine and without doubt one of the most effective evangelists of the 19th century
– He was a master of off-the-cuff preaching, with an astonishing gift for illustration
– His collected sermons fill sixty-three large volumes. That series is the largest set of sermons by a single author in the history of Christianity
– Spurgeon is history’s most widely read preacher apart from the Biblical ones
– He was able to plant over two hundred churches from the time he founded a pastor’s college
– He suffered terrible losses in his personal life, and drew close to God, finding such tenderness in the presence of God that it deeply affected his preaching and writing
– He was committed to prayer, and to the church prayer meeting
– He enjoyed a beautiful family life, caring for his wife through her disability, and enjoying raising his sons
– He was theologically conservative but wide open to the supernatural activity of the Spirit
– He was committed to personal evangelism
– He was entirely self-educated, having neither university nor seminary training
– He was a voracious reader who soon became a bestselling author
The list goes on. If you’re a leader or a preacher in the Christian church the example and the wisdom of CH Spurgeon will delight your soul, inspire your faith, and spur you on to love and good works. I hope you enjoy this series.
CS Lewis talked about the quest to gain access to the ‘inner ring’, something he was unable to do at Oxford due to the snobbery of the English establishment, and the embarrassment Lewis caused fellow academics by writing about the devil as though he were a real being.[i] As you gain entrance to one ring, you discover yet another further in which holds yet more influence. Every effort is made to progress to the inner rings. Entrance becomes more costly. You can forfeit your soul as you gain the world. Once inside each ring, you strengthen its walls so that it remains difficult for others to enter (one UK pastor was telling me of South African émigrés to England who, having scrambled to get British passports and residency, are now solidly and immovably pro-Brexit).
Of course for outsiders like Lewis, slowly earning your way to an inner ring may not only take years but may turn out to be a hollow promise after all. But the nature of the old British establishment was that if you were born into the right family, went to the right school, had the right kind of accent and bearing, you could skip all those tawdry outer rings and accelerate right to the centre of things where commoners rarely, if ever, appear. The inner rings are inevitably smaller, and fewer people share the high-octane experience of access to key decisions and key information.
What MI6, the UK’s secret intelligence organisation, hadn’t bargained for was that once their trusted men were in the inner ring it was practically the only place they could let their guard down and share their experiences without fear of a snooping ear. And boy did they offload. Here were brothers, comrades, co-spies in a world where no one else knew their true work, not even their wives. And, from the 1930s through to the early 1960s, one man in particular – charming, intelligent, a veritable Bond – was picking them clean of every detail, every initiative, and every name.
Entrance into the UK spy organisation’s inner rings was surprisingly easy for Kim Philby. He simply asked a friend of his father’s to recommend him. ‘I know their people!’ was recommendation enough. In the 1940s the old boy network was considered as sound as a pound. A typical Eton old boy was as British as you could be. But it was at Cambridge that Philby first encountered the vision of a communist society. And it was an idealistic vision that held his loyalty for the remainder of his life. In fact he was so devoted to this ideal that he gave uncritical obedience to his KGB handlers from first to last. Philby’s beliefs as a student were well known, but when the Soviets recruited him they advised him not to join the Communist Party but rather to appear to grow out of that youthful phase and adopt more right-wing views. He obeyed, and became the KGB’s most senior operative; one who infiltrated the British security system to the highest levels. Philby, the Eton and Cambridge old boy, who loved cricket and was a thoroughly good egg, was ushered into the inner ring, and became the most notorious spy of his generation. He was so thoroughly British that the British refused to doubt him, and the KGB refused to trust him.
As Ben Macintyre describes in this highly readable account of Philby’s adventures, he actually became head of the UK’s anti-Soviet division – an almost unbelievable feat. The most senior Soviet spy in Britain became the head of the Britain’s anti-Soviet operations. And the information Philby was sending to the Soviet Union was so thorough and so accurate that the KGB began to be suspicious of him and had him followed.
After two other well-to-do Cambridge recruits were exposed as Soviet spies and defected, the spotlight fell (accurately) on Philby. He must have tipped them off. The CIA in America was certain of it. MI5 (British security service) and MI6 (British foreign intelligence service) had differing views on Philby. MI5 were convinced he had been a double-agent. MI6 thought those horrible people at MI5 were just slandering him, and had nothing concrete against him. And so, as an old boy truly in the security of a tightening inner ring, Philby was exonerated and declared to be so in Parliament by fellow-Etonian, Harold Macmillan. Incredibly, a few years later he was working for MI6 again.
Of course, it all finally caught up with him, and he was probably (Macintyre, and others infer) allowed to escape to Moscow where he received by the Soviet authorities. It was hardly a hero’s welcome for a lifetime or risk and deceit. He was kept at arms length. He lived in a small flat, avidly reading through old cricket games in old copies of the Times when he was able to get them, desperate of news from home. A humbling isolated end. A Briton in exile.
Philby’s betrayal, not only of country, but of friends, was intensely difficult to process by those who were closest to him. They were left devastated by his defection when the watertight evidence was revealed. We’re told Nicholas Elliot, in MI6, never fully recovered from the shock of it all. His closest friend was working for the Communists. He re-lived whole segments of his life with a new perspective. The realisation that he had spilled the beans on numerous activities which was relayed to the Soviet Union must have been unbearable to him. And the American James Angleton, another close friend, nearly destroyed the CIA through increasingly invasive internal witch-hunts prompted by the post-Philby paranoia.
Suave, sophisticated, well educated, gracious, the quintessential British gentleman, Kim Philby deceived them all. And all for an ideal it seems he didn’t care to review beyond his earlier infatuation with it. Somehow he looked past Stalin’s crimes and doggedly held on to a pristine ideal. He looked past the ruthless disappearance of KGB handlers who were suddenly under suspicion, and kept looking for the communist dream. He didn’t live to see the fall of it all along with the Berlin Wall in 1989.
As a result of his winnowing work he frustrated numerous cold-war operations, sent hundreds of agents to their deaths, and told a gazillion bare-faced lies, not least of which were his declarations of innocence in his mother’s flat before a crowd of reporters after Macmillan’s statement in the House of Commons. You can see footage of that and of him speaking in the USSR here
‘Meet it is I set it down that one may smile, and smile, and be a villain’, said Hamlet. Macintyre’s superbly readable account of the secret world of high-class spies has certainly been one of my most engaging reads of this year, and is a subject which continues to fascinate. Surely it’s time for a film version.
Ben Macintyre, A Spy Among Friends. Published in the UK by Bloomsbury.
Douglass began teaching other slaves to read in clandestine Sunday School settings, one of which was violently broken up when the slave-owners discovered it. Eventually, disguised as a sailor, he made his daring escape to the northern states and won a tenuous freedom as a fugitive slave. Soon his incredible speaking gifts and his story made him a key player in the abolitionist movement in America. Preaching from church to church, and speaking from meeting to meeting he quickly became one of America’s most famous orators. In fact, scepticism that he was the real deal was a spur to autobiography: an audience member stated that Douglass could not possibly have accomplished such learning and oratorical skill because he recognised him as the former slave Fred Bailey. Douglass thanked his self-contradicting opponent for inadvertently verifying his story and began work on his Narrative. He travelled to Ireland, England, and Scotland commanding enthusiastic crowds. Several British abolitionists organised payment to Thomas Auld, Douglass’s legal ‘owner’, to release him permanently from slavery. This payment of £150 was obviously controversial for some of the abolitionists but for Douglass it legally ensured his freedom on American soil.
Douglass and Lincoln In America he vigorously campaigned against slavery, launched and edited a newspaper, and continued to expose and rebuke the hypocrisy of religious slaveholders.
Douglass’ story is of immense importance in itself, apart from his critique of the American church. Read ‘What America Owes to Frederick Douglass’ here He was so influential that Lincoln invited him to the White House on several occasions as advisor during the Civil War. When Douglass attended Lincoln’s second inauguration he wrote, ‘I had for some time looked upon myself as a man, but now in this multitude of the elite of the land, I felt myself a man among men.’ When Douglass met Lincoln at the reception afterwards (after being temporarily blocked by security) they discussed the inauguration speech. Lincoln told him ‘There is no man in the country whose opinion I value more than yours.’ [i]
In the post-war period he worked for the full civil rights of freed slaves, as well as supporting women’s rights in the US. He later served in a variety of positions for the US government as a member of the Republican Party. You can read more about his life and work in David Blight’s excellent biography Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, Simon & Schuster (Oct 2018).
Biblical Christianity enables us to critique and reject error Douglass was careful to draw a distinction between the Christianity of the Bible and the practices of those who called themselves Christian in pre-emancipation America. It was the gobsmacking (and, frankly, terrifying) blindness of some Christians of that period that spurred me to include Douglass’s story in the Church History Review even though he’s not an evangelist or church leader. Having finished the first version of his autobiography, Douglass wrote:
‘I find, since reading over the foregoing Narrative, that I have, in several instances, spoken in such a tone and manner, respecting religion, as may possibly lead those unacquainted with my religious views to suppose me an opponent of all religion. To remove the liability of such misapprehension, I deem it proper to append the following brief explanation. What I have said respecting and against religion, I mean strictly to apply to the slaveholding religion of this land, and with no possible reference to Christianity proper; for, between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference—so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked. To be the friend of the one, is of necessity to be the enemy of the other. I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land.’ [ii]
Post-civil war America and the African American Struggle On an historical and sociological note, British academic Ali Rattansi, surveying the post-civil war period wrote,
‘The historical and continuing impact of racism on African American lives is hard to exaggerate. As some have remarked, for several centuries after the forced arrival of blacks from Africa as slaves from the 17th century onwards, they had to suffer under a system of affirmative action for whites. The formal emancipation of the slaves resulted only in an extraordinarily lop-sided playing field on which it was impossible for the blacks to enjoy equal opportunities without serious redress and redistribution to counter generations of cumulative inequality. The latter never occurred.
African Americans freed from slavery found the post-emancipation US a hostile and dangerous country with entrenched inequalities and high levels of official and unofficial opposition to black advancement. To take one telling example, from the 1860s to the 1930s, under the Federal Homestead Act the American government allocated at low or no cost some 246 million acres of land for farm homesteads, much of it taken from Native Americans, to about 1.5 million people, almost entirely from the white population…Many blacks found themselves having to labour in the same plantations and fields as before, and their segregated schools, housing, and other facilities had a level of resources well below those enjoyed by the white population.’ [iii]
[i] The Washington Posthere [ii] Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, 1845, p. 71(Dover Thrift Edition, 1995)
[iii] Ali Rattansi, Racism, A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: 2007 OUP) p.143-4
For the first post in this series on Frederick Douglass click here