A Lesson from Spurgeon on Evangelism

A Lesson from Spurgeon on Evangelism

Tom Ascol

Charles Spurgeon has been aptly described as one of those “once-a-century” type of preachers in whom all of the powerful gifts which are useful in ministry are deposited.[1] His life and labors stand today, more than one hundred years after his death, encouraging and challenging ministers of the gospel who face the third millennium.

Any study of his ministry immediately reveals a man obsessed with evangelism. From the moment of his conversion to his dying day, Spurgeon maintained a deep burden for souls. He was a fanatic about it–in all of the right ways. As a pastor he took to heart the apostolic injunction to “do the work of an evangelist.” And he diligently tried to stir up evangelistic concern among his church and fellow preachers.

This fact confounds some students of Spurgeon’s life. For, along with his evangelistic fervor (and, we might add, despite modern claims to the contrary), he never wavered from a strong commitment to the doctrines of grace. He clearly understood, personally believed, and powerfully proclaimed what is popularly called “Calvinism.” And he did so not out of any kind of devotion to a man or philosophical system, but because he was convinced that the body of truth which historically flew under that banner was nothing other than biblical Christianity.[2] It was this understanding which enabled him to preach Christ so simply and persuasively.

Some who disagree with Spurgeon’s theology but appreciate his evangelism have difficulty reconciling his beliefs with his practice. Their reasoning typically goes like this: “Yes, Spurgeon was a Calvinist, but despite that fact, he was evangelistic.” Such an analysis, however, completely misses the mark. It would be far more accurate to say that “Of course Spurgeon was a Calvinist, and therefore he was evangelistic.” His devotion grew out of his doctrine and his belief gave direction to his practice.

It is here, perhaps more than anywhere else, that the “Prince of Preachers” has much to teach modern Baptists. There has been a return to Spurgeon’s theology by many Baptists over the last twenty-five years. This theological renewal is growing exponentially. But what has not been seen is a commensurate growth in Spurgeon’s kind of evangelism. And this ought to alarm all who want to see real, biblical renewal sweep across our churches.

There is a generation of Baptist ministers who grew up with evangelism that was modeled on salesmanship. And some modern evangelism workbooks are little different from Donald Trump’s The Art of the Deal. This kind of evangelism has wreaked havoc on churches, filling membership rolls with unconverted people and utterly confusing believers about the nature of real Christianity. Such evangelism is deadly and must be rejected out of hand. But, as Jesus warned, when an unclean spirit goes out of a man, if it is not replaced, then it will return and bring with it “seven other spirits more wicked than himself, . . . and the last state of that man is worse than the first. ” (Matt. 12:45). False evangelism must be replaced by the true. And Spurgeon can point the way particularly in terms of inward attitudes and desires.

Spurgeon was a capital “C” Calvinist and a capital “B” Baptist but his CHRISTIANITY was written in all capitals. In an address to the students at the pastors’ college he acknowledged the propriety of trying to make a paedobaptist a Baptist, and trying to help Arminians see that salvation is all of grace. “But,” he said, “Our grand object is not the revision of opinions, but the regeneration of natures. We would bring men to Christ, and not to our own peculiar views of Christianity. . . . To make proselytes, is a suitable labour for Pharisees: to beget men unto God, is the honourable aim of ministers of Christ.”[3]

It is almost impossible to find a printed sermon of Spurgeon’s which does not have some kind of appeal to the unconverted. They are filled with pleadings, arguments, warnings, and instructions to sinners, calling and inviting them to come to Christ. His own attitude is reflected in Bunyan’s portrait of a true Gospel minister in Pilgrim’s Progress. In his first sermon at New Park Street, Spurgeon used this scene to describe how a Gospel minister ought to regard the souls of men and women.

John Bunyan gives a portrait of a man whom God intended to be a guide to Heaven; have you ever noticed how beautiful that portrait is? He has a crown of life over his head, he has earth beneath his feet, he stands as if he pleaded with men, and he had the Best of Books in his hand. Oh! I would that I were, for one moment, like that pattern preacher; that I could plead with men as John Bunyan describes. We are all of us ambassadors for Christ, and we are told that, as ambassadors, we are to beseech men as though God besought them by us. How I do love to see a tearful preacher! How I love to see the man who can weep over sinners; whose soul yearns over the ungodly, as if he would, by any means and by all means, bring them to the Lord Jesus Christ! I cannot understand a man who stands up and delivers a discourse in a cold and indifferent manner, as if he cared not for the souls of his hearers. I think the true gospel minister will have a real yearning over souls something like Rachel when she cried, “Give me children, or else I die;” so will he cry to God, that he may have his elect born, and brought home to him. And, methinks, every true Christian should be exceedingly earnest in prayer concerning the souls of the ungodly; and when they are so, how abundantly God blesses them, and how the church prospers! But, beloved, souls may be damned, yet how few of you care about them! Sinners may sink into the gulf of perdition, yet how few tears are shed over them! The whole world may be swept away by a torrent down the precipice of woe, yet how few really cry to God on its behalf! How few men say, “Oh that my head were waters, and mine eyes a fountain of tears, that I may weep day and night for the slain of the daughter of my people!” We do not lament before God the loss of men’s souls, as it well becomes Christians to do.”[4]

Spurgeon argued that it is not just certain kinds of preachers who can be soul-winners. Rather, every preacher should work hard to see his hearers saved.

From all our congregations a bitter cry should go up unto God, unless conversions are continually seen. If our preaching never saves a soul, and is not likely to do so, should we not better glorify God as peasants, or as tradesmen? What honour can the Lord receive from useless ministers? The Holy Ghost is not with us, we are not used of God for his gracious purposes unless souls are quickened into heavenly life. Brethren, can we bear to be useless? Can we be barren, and yet content?[5]

This passion, for Spurgeon, was unquenchable. He saw, quite rightly, that the manifested glory of God was at stake.

Once more, if we are to be robed in the power of the Lord, we must feel an intense longing for the glory of God, and the salvation of the sons of men. Even when we are most successful, we must long for more success. If God has given us many souls, we must pine for a thousand times as many. Satisfaction with results will be the [death-] knell of progress. No man is good who thinks that he cannot be better. He has no holiness who thinks that he is useful enough.[6]

This consuming passion will inevitably determine how a man preaches. For one thing, it will cause him to work hard to be plain in speech. “We shall say to ourselves. ‘No; I must not use that hard word, for that poor woman in the aisle would not understand me. I must not point out that recondite difficulty, for yonder trembling soul might be staggered by it, and might not be relieved by my explanation.’ . . . If you love men better, you will love phrases less.”[7] The goal to see souls won to Christ through preaching will also cause a minister to work hard to be interesting. “How, in the name of reason, can souls be converted by sermons that lull people to sleep?”[8] Humor can play a legitimate role in preaching for this very reason. Spurgeon reasoned that it is “less a crime to cause a momentary laughter than a half-hour’s profound slumber.”[9]

He is so strong on this that it is easy to misunderstand him. He is not arguing that the preacher is responsible for the evangelistic success of his ministry. What he is responsible for is faithfulness to the evangelistic task. God in His sovereignty will save whom He will when and where he will. Spurgeon never doubted that. But, what he refuses to let us forget is that at the heart of a faithful ministry is a deep passion for the souls of men and women. He said,

If sinners will be damned, at least let them leap to hell over our bodies. And if they will perish, let them perish with our arms about their knees, imploring them to stay. If hell must be filled, at least let it be filled in the teeth of our exertions, and let not one go there unwarned and unprayed for.[10]

If our doctrine does not lead to devotion, then something is seriously wrong. We have not finished with our task until head, heart and hand all agree. Such sanctified integration of our personalities will not be perfectly attained until we see our Lord face to face. But we must strive to that end here and now. Having received the evangel, we must be engaged in evangelism. And the more clearly we have grasped the former, the more passionately we should give ourselves to the latter.