Spurgeon’s Message of Christ’s Atoning Sacrifice: Part 1

Spurgeon’s Message of Christ’s Atoning Sacrifice

Part 1

Tom Nettles

I do believe that we slander Christ when we think that we are to draw the people by something else but the preaching of Christ crucified. We know that the greatest crowd in London has been held together these thirty years by nothing but the preaching of Christ crucified. Where is our music? Where is our oratory? Where is anything of attractive architecture, or beauty of ritual? “A bare service,” they call it. Yes, but Christ makes up for all the deficiencies.[1]

The Lord Jesus Christ on His cross of redemption was the center, circumference, and summation of the preaching ministry of Charles Haddon Spurgeon. Its themes he repeated continuously and tirelessly but always with a freshness of power and passion that would startle his hearers and set them in the congregation at Galatia before whose eyes Christ was plainly portrayed as crucified. Spurgeon was a cataract, an avalanche, a flooding Mississippi in his unrelenting emphasis on the death by crucifixion of the Lord Jesus Christ. Redemption is the “heart of the gospel” and the “essence of redemption is the substitutionary atonement of Christ.”[2] It is both the heart and “cornerstone of the gospel.” When announcing it as his theme in some amazement he would often ask himself, “How many times will this make, I wonder? The doctrine of Christ crucified is always with me.”[3]

Ironically, Spurgeon believed this truth to be so clearly delineated in Scripture that early in his ministry he doubted that it would ever be a point of controversy among Christians. “There are a few men who scoff at the statement and reject the thought of sacrifice,” Spurgeon acknowledged in 1859, but these “never will be more than a few; they can never be many.” The system which “denies the doctrine of atonement by the blood of Jesus . . . can never succeed [and] they will never convince the masses.” Rather than arguing with such scoffers we should destroy their arguments “by our own personal determination to preach more earnestly and more consistently `Jesus Christ, and Him crucified’.”[4]

In 1886, however, Spurgeon was troubled by the novel interpretations and philosophies of those who “deny the doctrines they profess to teach” and said that some who know what they believe “should just put our foot down and maintain our standing.”[5] By April of 1887 Spurgeon, in the first months of the Downgrade Controversy, upgraded the potency of his language; “Our warfare is with men who are giving up the atoning sacrifice.”[6] By October, Spurgeon wrote, “If we do believe in the inspiration of Scripture, the Fall, and the great sacrifice of Christ for sin, it behooves us to see that we do not become accomplices with those who teach another gospel.”[7] In December, after he had resigned from the Baptist Union, he showed he felt obliged to “argue” right earnestly, to “come out in earnest protest,” against those who “treat the Bible as waste paper, and regard the death of Christ as no substitution.”[8]

Spurgeon knew nothing of a Christianity without the blood of Christ because Holy Scripture itself establishes the doctrine of the death of Christ as “the very core of Christianity.” He contended that “a mistake on this point will inevitably lead to a mistake through the entire system of our belief.”[9] “Christ’s death for men is the great doctrine of the church” and so necessary to be dwelt upon continually that Spurgeon would “not feel satisfied without breaking bread on every Lord’s day”[10] and felt that it was impossible to think or preach on it too often.

A man is never blamed in heaven for preaching Christ too much. On earth the playing of that one string, a monotony to some, establishes such resonance and sympathetic vibrations among the people of God that they could hear no more astounding harmony in all other doctrines put together. “All good things lie within the compass of the cross,” Spurgeon would say. It is in the cross that one can begin to grasp the whole of reality because, “it’s outstretched arms overshadow the whole world of thought” and indeed the death of Christ is the “hinge of the world’s history.”[11] “Its foot is planted deep in eternal mysteries and its top pierces all earth-born clouds, and rises to the throne of the most high.”[12]

The Centrality of Redemption

For a number of reasons Spurgeon insists on this centrality of the cross. Indeed, that God himself intends it always to be fresh in our minds is seen in the establishment of two ordinances, both of which are pictures of the death of Christ and its effects.

Central to Scripture

One reason for its centrality is that the entire corpus of Scripture finds its coherence on the assumption of the cross. Spurgeon’s sermons on the Old Testament priesthood, sacrificial system, prophecy, prophets, kings law, exodus, and many other themes all roll along on a majestic and clearly-lighted road to Calvary.

Spurgeon (for the most part) does not force the issue in such texts, but shows that he has clear warrant for such a procedure. Biblical theology, acknowledging that all of it is subdued to the glory of God, moves relentlessly from Fall to Redemption. The Bible cannot be understood apart from Christ and Him crucified. Nor can the ministry and preaching of Spurgeon.

When Christ said, “It is finished,” all the “types, promises, and prophecies were now fully accomplished in him.” In fact, “the whole book, from the first to the last, in both the law and the prophets, was finished in him.” From Eden to Malachi from the red heifer to the turtle-dove, from a branch of hyssop to Solomon’s temple, whether great or small all types were fulfilled in him. All prophecies, all apparent contradictions, all mysteries, the offices of prophet, priest and king as well as all of Israel’s deliverers, to be worshipped and despised, to reign forever yet die and be buried–taken together they appear as indecipherable hieroglyphics till one comes forward and exclaims, “The cross of Christ and the Son of God incarnate.”[13]

Speaking of the rending of the veil at Christ’s death, Spurgeon inquires, “Does it not mean that the death of Christ is the revelation and explanation of all secrets?” Vanished are all the types and shadows of the ceremonial law. They are done away with, Spurgeon elaborates, because they are “fulfilled and explained in the death of Christ.”

But even beyond its essential relevance to biblical understanding, Christ’s death is the “key to all true philosophy.” “God made flesh, dying man–if that does not explain a mystery, it cannot be explained.” And more, “If with this thread in your hand you cannot follow the labyrinth of human affairs, and learn the great purpose of God, then you cannot follow it at all.”[14]

Central to Full Understanding of God and Man

Another reason for its centrality is that the cross is the epitomized display of the character of God and the depravity of man. God’s wisdom, power, justice, holiness, and love all are shown most clearly in the cross–more clearly even than in the law. Even the cross shows the utter moral horror into which mankind has fallen. “You need not talk about the virtues of the world,” Spurgeon would remind London; “It slew the Christ and that is enough to condemn it.” And to make the point more pungently, he adds, “We want no other proof of its guilt; you cannot bring evidence more complete and overwhelming than this, they slew the Lord of life and glory.”[15]

And in another place, Spurgeon points his congregation toward the struggle of Christ with our sins: “See dear Friends, what an evil thing is sin, since the Sin-bearer suffers so bitterly to make atonement for it.” Consider also the sobering implications of man’s flippant treatment of the Lord: “Beloved, the treatment of our Lord Jesus Christ by men is the clearest proof of total depravity which can possibly be required or discovered. Those must be stony hearts indeed which can laugh at a dying Saviour, and mock even at his faith in God!”[16]

And one dare not pass over without great melancholy and dread the way that men today ignore such an infinite wonder as the cross. The devils themselves are incapable of a greater sin than this: “The incarnate God bleeds to death to save men, and men hate God so much that they will not even have him as he dies to save them.” Though he stoops from his loftiness to their woe, they refuse to be reconciled to their Creator. “This is depravity indeed, and desperate rebellion.”[17]

In an equally infallible and consummate way the character of God is displayed in the cross so that in contemplating it Spurgeon would say, “I have seen the foot of it go down deep as our helpless miseries are; and what a vision I have had of thy magnificence, O thou crucified One!” Truth, justice, holiness, wisdom, immutability, wrath, compassion, love, and grace all coalesce in the cross of Christ and dwell together without the slightest diminution of any attribute. “Learn ye my friends,” Spurgeon called, “to look upon God as being as severe in his justice as if he were not loving, and yet as loving as if he were not severe. His love does not diminish his justice nor does justice, in the least degree, make warfare upon his love. The two are sweetly linked together in the atonement of Christ.”[18]

Central to Evangelistic Power

A third reason for the centrality of the cross is that by it sinners are drawn to salvation. Certainly sinners are drawn effectually by the Spirit of God who changes the affections and subdues the will. But the content of this drawing is the enlightenment of the mind in the knowledge of Christ and its action is the embracing of Christ freely offered to us in the gospel. After an incomparable verbal barrage depicting the geographical and historical sweep of Christ’s drawing power, Spurgeon said, “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.” In a discussion of the kingship of Jesus and how it applies to missionary endeavors he described the magnetic power of Christ’s being set forth as a king at the lowest part of his humiliation. “This it is that touches men’s hearts,” he said. “Christ crucified is the conqueror.”

Not in his robes of glory does he subdue the heart, but in his vestments of shame. Not as sitting upon the throne does he at first gain the faith and the affections of sinners, but as bleeding, suffering, and dying in their stead . . . . And though every theme that is connected with the Savior ought to play its part in our ministry, yet this is the master theme. The atoning work of Jesus is the great gun of our battery. The cross is the mighty battering-ram wherewith to break in pieces the brazen gates of human prejudices and the iron bars of obstinacy. Christ coming to be our judge alarms, but Christ the man of sorrows subdues. The crown of thorns has a royal power in it to compel a willing allegiance, the sceptre of reed breaks hearts better than a rod of iron, and the robe of mockery commands more love than Caesar’s imperial purple. There is nothing like it under heaven.[19]

Central to Doctrine

The cross is central also because it is the coherent factor in biblical doctrine. Arguments abound that make a distinction between preaching designed to edify the saints and preaching that is strictly evangelistic. Such a neat division cannot be made between the two. Not even the sword of the Spirit, that sharp two-edged sword, could cut so fine. For example, is the book of Hebrews for edification of believers or is it evangelistic? What about the book of 1 John? Do those passages that edify believers not also show the way of salvation to unbelievers? Are not warnings designed at the same time to convict the ungodly and serve as a canon for examination for the saint? And do not passages of comfort give pleasure to the children of God and, by God’s grace, draw those who are spiritually blinded by making them jealous for such pleasures as are at the right hand of God? Some sermons intentionally are designed to call the unbeliever to repentance and faith; but if they do so through an exposition of the gospel, believers will inevitably be edified.

Some may isolate passages from the whole biblical context so severely that they can preach a sermon complete with an outline, word studies, and fairly acceptable advice without having any energy from the cross electrify its delivery. Spurgeon could not do this, and any attempt to do so is not a biblical message.

In a sermon on John 13:1. Spurgeon comes to the close by summarizing his intent. “I have been preaching what I trust will comfort God’s people;” he immediately adds, “but I wish some poor soul would come to Christ through it.” And, as if to establish the validity of his homiletical style and unity of exhortation and evangelism, states, “I believe that is the right way to preach the gospel.” Referring briefly to the parable of the prodigal, he began then to apply the Father’s words, “Let us eat.” “So dear brothers and sisters in Christ, let us eat,” Spurgeon encourages, “and then sinners will begin to feel their mouths watering, and they will also want to eat, and to have a share of the feast.” Pressing this point further and continuing to demonstrate the theory which supported his preaching, Spurgeon adds, “So if you and I enjoy the sweetness of the love of Christ, there may be some in the gallery, and some downstairs who will say, `We wish that we knew it, too’ and they will be wanting it; that is the way to make them eat.”[20]

The cross penetrates everything in Scripture, and if it does not penetrate our preaching then we are not fulfilling the calling of Christian ministers. It was everywhere with Spurgeon because he believed it to be the defining factor of every facet of God’s ways with men.

This is particularly striking in the way Spurgeon developed the cross’s centrality to the doctrines of grace. “Remember dear friends,” Spurgeon tenderly reminds his hearers, “that redemption is that which gives effect to all the other great blessings of God.” All these “great blessings” need redemption to complete their design. Election, “the well-head of grace, needs the conduit pipe of redemption to bring its streams down to sinners.” Our being chosen of God makes sure our obedience and makes necessary the sprinkling of the blood of Jesus. If the saints are chosen in Him of what use would election be without Him? Would calling be of any purpose without redemption? “Vain would it be to be called if there were no feast of dying love for us to be called to, and no fountain filled with blood to which we might come at the call.” Christ’s redeeming death “is the fullness of all the blessings of God,” the “key of heaven, the channel of grace, the door of hope.” It constitutes the substance of our worship, and thus the motivation for our perseverance, on this earthly journey “and will be the theme of our eternal music above.”[21]

The Person Of The Redeemer

A key factor in Spurgeon’s understanding of the atonement, and one to which he refers explicitly very often, and implicitly without fail, is the person of our Lord Jesus Christ in the orthodoxy given shape by Nicea and Chalcedon. Adhering to the mystery of godliness has been seen as essential to biblical soteriology ever since the church first engaged in literary interaction with the world. Irenaeus, Tetullian, and Athanasius all argued for the full deity and humanity of Christ, two natures in one person, as particularly necessary “for us men and for our salvation.”

In his sermon, “Our Suffering Substitute,” Spurgeon says, “The Substitute was of complex nature [a favorite phrase with Spurgeon]. He was truly man, and yet He was truly God.” In his manhood Christ shares the substance of his mother and all the natural creaturely weaknesses of humanity but without original depravity or imputed sin. Though hell’s quiver of temptations was emptied upon him he stood invincible and invulnerable; indeed, “he could not be wounded by temptation.” If he were to redeem man by paying man’s debt for sin, and give man eternal life by conquering death then he himself must be man.

But let us also bear in mind that he was, in the Nicene phrase quoted frequently by Spurgeon, “very God of very God.” His perfect humanity did not lower his perfect deity. Spurgeon declares “We know nothing of a human atonement apart from the Deity of Christ Jesus. We dare not trust our souls upon a saviour who is but a man.” Neither all the men that have ever lived, nor all the angels that exist, nor all together, had they striven throughout eternity, could have wrought a sacrifice that should be a propitiation for the sins of a single man. They must utterly have failed. “None but the shoulders of the Incarnate God could bear the stupendous burden. No hand but that which set fast the spheres could shake the mountains of our guilt, and bear them away. We must have a Divine Sacrifice, and it is our joy to know that we have this in the person of our Lord Jesus Christ.”[22]

Deity was required in the atonement because of the infinite and eternal issues involved in sin against God. “It is not possible to hold a proper substitutionary propitiation for sin unless you hold that Christ was God.”[23] One of the classic developments of this idea is Anselm’s discussion of the proposition, “You have not yet considered what a great thing sin is,” in Why God Became Man. On occasion, Spurgeon combined the impact of this moral condescension on the part of our Lord with a contemplation of the metaphysical condescension. Not only did the Holy One come to dwell among sinners and bear their curse but the infinite, eternal, and unchangeable One put himself within the sphere and frame of the temporal and mutable to rescue them, from corruption yes, but also from the mutability and declension of the temporal condition also.

Who stooped to pick thee up, O insect of a day? Who stooped to save thee? Who but he who bears earth’s huge pillars up and spreads the heavens abroad? The Son of God omnipotent, eternal, and infinite, has fallen in love with the fallen sons of men, and for them has donned the garment of human flesh, and in that flesh has suffered to the death, and died a most shameful death upon the gibbet of calvary. Oh tell it everywhere that Jesus Christ, who is God over all, blessed for ever, has redeemed us! and after that, who will say that we do not belong to him?[24]

And in the sermon “Majesty in Misery” Spurgeon marvels that “the God, who had reigned in glory over myriads of holy angels, should be mocked by miscreants” who, in an infinite irony of the relation of the eternal to the temporal, “could not even have lived an instant longer in his presence if he had not permitted them to do so.” The incongruity is unfathomable that “he who made the heavens and the earth, stood there to be despised and rejected of men, and to be treated with the utmost contumely and scorn.”[25]

Substitution and Propitiation

Absolutely essential for a proper biblical view of the atonement is Spurgeon’s understanding that it is both substitutionary and propitiatory. He viewed these elements as inseparable and non-negotiable. In 1858 he preached, “Think how great must have been the substitution of Christ, when it satisfied God for all the sins of his people . . . . Think what must have been the greatness of the atonement which was the substitution for all this agony which God would have cast upon us, if he had not poured it upon Christ.”[26] Thirty years later he unfalteringly affirmed, “There is no way of salvation under heaven but by faith in the substitutionary sacrifice of Jesus Christ;” and, stirring in the ingredient of propitiation, he immediately continues: “and the way by which we are redeemed from eternal wrath is by Christ having stood as Substitute for us, and having died in our place.”[27]

Because of Christ’s propitiatory substitution justice and mercy peacefully embrace and confer double honour upon each other. These two elements combine inextricably into one point. Spurgeon explains it this way:

It was meet that the Substitute should bear a similar chastisement to that which should have fallen upon the sinner . . . . He bore the pain, the loss, the separation, the overwhelming which is intended by death. He was even forsaken of God . . . . The law demanded death, and death has fallen upon our great covenant head . . . . Let us rejoice that the Lord Jesus Christ has evidently by his substitutionary sacrifice put away, not a part and a portion of our sin, but the whole of it. By bearing death itself he has removed all our legal obligations, and has placed us beyond the reach of further demands.[28]

Spurgeon often emphasized that Christ’s position as covenantal head of the new race necessarily involved substitution. Jesus was not slain as a private individual, but he was put to death as a representative man, and by that death he sealed all the blessing of the covenant–all provisions of the eternal covenant were ratified. Spurgeon desired “more and more of this covenant doctrine” to be spread throughout England. A person who understands the “two covenants has found the marrow of all theology,” according to Spurgeon, “but he who does not know the covenants knows next to nothing of the gospel of Christ.[29]

The covenant of grace was well-ordered and made sure by the blood of Christ. “When the blood of Christ’s heart bespattered the divine roll, then it could never be reversed, nor could one of its ordinances be broken, not one of its stipulations fail.”[30] Among these was the determination to give to the people for whom the surety of the covenant had died new hearts and right spirits. While as covenant head his death produces forgiveness and justification, it also becomes the dynamic by which his people are made holy. “He forgives our sins with the designs of curing our sinfulness. We are pardoned that we may become holy.”[31] Spurgeon often pointed to the water and the blood from Christ’s side and, in the tradition of Toplady, spoke of cleansing from both the guilt and power of sin.[32]

In a sermon on Zech. 13:1 Spurgeon emphasizes the double nature of the evil of sin. The fountain opened in the atonement removes “the offence rendered to God’s honour and dignity.” God has “punished that sin in the person of his own Son.” The guilt, therefore, “of those for whom he was a substitute is put away consistently with the righteousness of the great Lawgiver.” But, there is a second mischief, namely, “that our nature has become unclean” and “our mind is in itself biased towards evil and averse from good.” God, therefore, does not grant a forgiveness that leaves “the sinner as he was in other respects.” When forgiveness is granted “a renewal of the nature is wrought; the fountain opened for pardon is also opened for purification.” Not only is the offense removed, the love of offending is mortified.

Herein is double joy, for does not every true penitent feel that mere pardon would be a poor boon to him if it is allowed him to continue in sin? My God, deliver me from sin itself, for this is the great burden of my soul. Oh could I have the past forgiven, and yet live an enemy to my enslaved by evil an a stranger to holiness–then were I still accursed! . . . To love the wrong is the beginning of hell.

[Go to Part 2]