Thursday, April 19, 2018

Spurgeon on the Christian Life {Book Review}


N.B. This blogger received a complimentary PDF of this book from Crossway in exchange for an honest review. Except where noted, all references are page numbers from that edition of the book.

Introduction to Charles Spurgeon

Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834-1892) was an English Baptist pastor in the Reformed theological camp. Both his Baptist and Reformed convictions grew out of his study of the Scriptures and not allegiance to a human teacher or theological system. Although some reading this may not recognize his name, his renown and the reach of his writings were arguably as broad in his time as the late Billy Graham’s in mine.  Unlike Graham, Spurgeon served as a pastor throughout his ministry. He never ceased to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ, but he did so in the context of his pastorate. By today’s standards, we would say he pastored a megachurch, typically preaching to more than ten thousand souls on a Sunday and also marrying,  burying, and providing other pastoral care during the week.
Spurgeon was likely the most prolific writer of theological and devotional material in Christian history. His sermons alone comprise as many words as the 27 volumes of the ninth edition of the Encyclopedia Brittanica[i], and he did not write sermons only. “On just one rainy day during a holiday in France, for example, he managed to write out a month’s worth of daily meditations” (Michael Reeves, Spurgeon on the Christian Life, 160).
In the book under review, Michael Reeves notes, “On top of his preaching and pastoral ministry, he established and oversaw a host of ministries, including the Pastors’ College, the Stockwell Orphanage, seventeen almshouses for poor and elderly women, the Colportage Association, and a day school for children. He was involved in the planting of 187 churches (94 in London or nearby, 43 in the southeast, 19 in the north of England)” (159).
Moreover, he (or Christ through him) bore all this fruit in the midst of great physical and emotional suffering:
Aged twenty-two, as pastor of a large church and with twin babies at home to look after, he was preaching to thousands in the Surrey Gardens Music Hall when pranksters yelled “fire,” starting a panic to exit the building which killed seven and left twenty-eight severely injured. His mind was never the same again. His wife, Susannah, wrote, “My beloved’s anguish was so deep and violent, that reason seemed to totter in her throne, and we sometimes feared that he would never preach again.”
Then, from the age of thirty-three, physical pain became a large and constant feature of life for him. He suffered from a burning kidney inflammation called Bright’s Disease, as well as gout, rheumatism, and neuritis. The pain was such that it soon kept him from preaching for one third of the time (163).
His beloved wife also suffered from chronic illness for much of their marriage.
Is this not a man worth knowing in his words, since we cannot now in person?

Character of This Book

Spurgeon on the Christian Life by theology professor Dr. Michael Reeves is one of the latest volumes in Crossway’s Theologians on the Christian Life series. The introduction to this book explains the gap in recent Christian publishing which the series seeks to fill. In the editors’ words,
Yet, for all our abundance of resources, we also lack something. We tend to lack the perspectives from the past, perspectives from a different time and place than our own. To put the matter differently, we have so many riches in our current horizon that we tend not to look to the horizons of the past.

That is unfortunate, especially when it comes to learning about and practicing discipleship. It’s like owning a mansion and choosing to live in only one room. This series invites you to explore the other rooms (11).
This book is not biography, but you will know Spurgeon better by the last page. Nor is it critical analysis, although the author does explain his disagreement with Spurgeon on some points. Instead, it provides an overview of the major themes in Spurgeon’s writings and ministry with an emphasis on Spurgeon’s own words.  As such, it makes an excellent, approachable introduction to Spurgeon, and the endnotes would be a great launch pad for further exploration. For myself, as I had already gotten to know a few of Spurgeon’s books, it broadened my exposure to his other writings and better fleshed out ideas I’d picked up from the things already read. Spurgeon’s Christ-exalting pastoral heart makes this book a blessing to read even if one chooses not to read more.

Selected Quotes

Although Spurgeon did not pursue a university or divinity school degree, his private reading and study and God’s  particular gifting made him a master of communication. I highlighted too many quotes to share here, but I offer a few for your consideration.
  • The most excellent study for expanding the soul, is the science of Christ, and him crucified, and the knowledge of the Godhead in the glorious Trinity. Nothing will so enlarge the intellect, nothing so magnify the whole soul of man, as a devout, earnest, continued investigation of the great subject of the Deity. And, whilst humbling and expanding, this subject is eminently consolatary. Oh, there is, in contemplating Christ, a balm for every wound; in musing on the Father, there is a quietus for every grief; and in the influence of the Holy Ghost, there is a balsam for every sore. Would you lose your sorrows? Would you drown your cares? Then go, plunge yourself in the Godhead’s deepest sea; be lost in his immensity; and you shall come forth as from a couch of rest, refreshed and invigorated. I know nothing which can so comfort the soul; so calm the swelling billows of grief and sorrow; so speak peace to the winds of trial, as a devout musing upon the subject of the Godhead (45-46).
  • Christ said, “Feed My sheep . . . Feed My lambs.” Some preachers, however, put the food so high that neither lambs nor sheep can reach it. They seem to have read the text, “Feed My giraffes.” (77).
  • Aspire to be understood rather than to be admired. Seek not to produce a wondering but an instructed audience (81).
  • Prayer with the heart is the heart of prayer: the cry of our soul is the soul of our cry (147).
  • You know, dear brothers and sisters, how a little act of kindness will cheer us when we are very low in spirit. If we are despised and rejected of men, if we are deserted and defamed by those who ought to have dealt differently with us, even a tender look from a child will help to remove our depression. In times of loneliness, it is something even to have a dog with you, to lick your hand, and show you such kindness as is possible from him (166-167).
  • You will find sin, self, Satan, and the world to be hard masters; but if you wear the livery of Christ, you will find him so meek and lowly of heart that you will find rest unto your souls. He is the most magnanimous of captains. There never was his like among the choicest of princes. He is always to be found in the thickest part of the battle. When the wind blows cold he always takes the bleak side of the hill. The heaviest end of the cross lies ever on his shoulders. If he bids us carry a burden, he carries it also. If there is anything that is gracious, generous, kind, and tender, yea lavish and superabundant in love, you always find it in him. These forty years and more have I served him, blessed be his name! and I have had nothing but love from him. I would be glad to continue yet another forty years in the same dear service here below if so it pleased him. His service is life, peace, joy. Oh, that you would enter on it at once! God help you to enlist under the banner of Jesus even this day! Amen (74-75, Spurgeon’s last words from his pulpit, June 7, 1891).

Recommendation

I enjoyed reading this book and found it added much to my appreciation of Spurgeon. My 7 pages of small-print highlights will provide food for further reflection, and I do want to continue learning more of Spurgeon’s life and writings. More importantly, the time spent with Spurgeon in this book made me want to love and exalt the Jesus we share that much more. My favorite chapters were in the last section of the book, the chapters on prayer, on suffering, and on final glory.

Reformed and/or Baptist readers should find much encouragement, insight, and kinship of spirit here.  A representative sampling of Spurgeon’s writings could not exclude his belief in predestination, the human inability to want to choose Christ apart from grace, and penal substitutionary atonement, so all those are included here. Readers who do not hold those views may not enjoy the book as much but will come away with a better understanding of why people like Spurgeon do hold and treasure what have been called "the doctrines of grace."

Contrary to the tolerant cultural trend in our day, Spurgeon was quite outspoken about false teaching and forms of Christianity which he believed to be contrary to Scripture. While this does not constitute a large portion of this book, some readers will disagree with his convictions and the zeal with which he expresses them. Then again, perhaps that is why we find it hard to read old books and why we need them and books like this one which guide us through the old writings.

To purchase:

Amazon (affiliate link): https://amzn.to/2H37qRt


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