Defying the Downgrade: The Courageous Leadership of Charles Spurgeon

All my life I have been a student of history and of leadership, just in terms of the lessons of history. If you’re at all aware, you generally brush up against history. And this happened to me at many points in life. And I can only say that, evidently, it was God’s purpose that those brushes take place. There’s something to learn from virtually everyone.

With us here today is Dr. Rick Lance who’s the Executive Director of the Alabama State Board of Missions, that’s the Alabama State Convention, spoke in chapel this morning. He and I both graduated from Samford University.

When I was a student at Samford in the late ’70s, I found a study place that was kind of hidden away and I kept going back there to study. It was kind of hard to find a quiet place on campus to study at times, and it was near what was the president’s dining room where strange occult things took place, I knew not of. It was always a closed door and every once in a while, there would be a dinner or something in there. And I would stay in this area—it’s basically where they stacked chairs. And just unmolested, undisturbed, I could study.

It was also near the elevator. So, one night I was studying and the things that are going on in that room that went on and the president was evidently hosting a dinner. I decided that I certainly didn’t want to interrupt anything going on and I realized that the door was open to this dinner and as I passed by, I might interfere. So, instead I decided that I would go down the stairs. I heard the elevator going down as I was going down. I went down the stairs, I didn’t even think really about the elevator going down. The elevator opened, and there was a man in a wheelchair. And then I instantly in 18, 19 years of age realized I am face to face and alone with George Wallace.

It’s one of those moments, which you kind of figure out, okay, I’m either going to do something or not. And I decided I’m going to introduce myself to Governor Wallace. I introduced to him; I had a conversation. He was very gracious, by the way. I think he was glad to have a college student come up and speak to him. He had a few moments, and he was quite a conversationalist, but I’ll never forget that conversation.

Frankly, in the annals of American history, there are a few people more controversial than George Wallace for all kinds of reasons. But I realize we, nonetheless, are as leaders and as students of leadership, we’re just constantly drawing from models and sources of inspiration that are probably amalgamated more in our minds than we could ever imagine. But it’s the historical ones that interest me the most. It’s the ones who are real life history, who lived lives on the canvas of their own times.

It’s from them, I think, I draw the most information, the most useful inspiration. Sometimes also great lessons about what not to do. There are negative and positive lessons to be learned from every character in history. And that means that sometimes it’s difficult to talk about certain leaders because to some, they are absolute heroes and to others, they are absolute arch enemies of the good and the right. So, we have heroes and demons throughout history and it’s sometimes difficult to take a person in full measure.

I’m going to go out on a limb today with you. I’m going to be talking about Charles Spurgeon, the great London pastor, as a model of leadership. And this is the first pastoral character that I have chosen to consider in these addresses. And it’s for the very special reason that Charles Spurgeon demonstrated convictional courage in the midst of a tumultuous time, in the context of a specific controversy that changed the world. But not then, only later.

But I’m also going to be releasing an article that’s entitled Charles Spurgeon’s Great Mistake, which is sure to get the attention of all of those who, as I, love Charles Spurgeon. Many people like to suggest that the greatness of a leader is that he never made a mistake. I think Charles Spurgeon made two massive mistakes in the midst of the Downgrade Controversy. And to fast forward in history, there were lessons that were learned well by conservatives in the Southern Baptist Convention in the 1960s and ’70s who learned from Spurgeon’s mistakes as much as they drew inspiration from Spurgeon’s courage.

In order to understand who, we’re talking about here, let’s just remind ourselves of just a few facts about Charles Spurgeon, because he’s one of those figures who is in the midst of history to such an extent, everybody thinks they know him, and few actually do. He’s the most published preacher. Other than that, which is found in the New Testament and the apostolic preaching, he’s the most published preacher in the history of Christianity.

The sum total of his preached words translated into print amount to between 20 and 25 million words. The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, the New Park Street Chapel Pulpit, you’re talking about volumes, about 60 volumes of printed sermons. And those sermons were not printed long after they were preached. Spurgeon’s preaching at the Metropolitan Tabernacle was so popular that a stenographer took down his message on Sunday. By Sunday evening, he had an original draft. By Monday, he was able to work through the typographical sheets. And some of you’ve seen some of those with his own hand correction. And by later that evening, they were on sale on the streets of London where they were among the bestselling printed items in the history of the English language.

He was born in 1834 in Kelvedon in Essex. He was born into a family of independent nonconformists. Now, to you that just may sound like some anecdote from church history, but you need to recognize that meant that his social placement was on the periphery of British life, certainly of English life. To be born an independent nonconformist meant that you were outside the Church of England. You could not go to any of the major universities and, most especially, to Cambridge or Oxford. You could get into one of the colleges, University of London, but otherwise nonconformists were just out of the picture, out of the best schools, out of the best universities, out of, as you know through at least some of the 19th century, out of Parliament.

But to be a nonconformist born in the region of England into which Spurgeon was born was to mean you were basically on the periphery of life. No one was expecting anything great from you. And yet, by the time he’s 19 years old, he is pastor of the largest Protestant congregation that is not affiliated with the Church of England in the world. That’s a pretty amazing development.

He became a preacher at age 15. He was converted as he was hearing preaching in a primitive Methodist chapel—we’re going to talk about that word in just a moment—in a primitive Methodist chapel. And he heard the message as it was preached. A preacher preached from Isaiah 45:22, “Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth: for I am God, and there is none else.”

He began preaching the same year. He’s 15 years old. So, he’s newly converted. He’s already preaching. And by the time… Just a few months went past, he’s called as pastor of a Baptist congregation at Water Beach in Cambridgeshire. In 1854, at the age of 19, he is called, after a very brief trial period of about three months, as the pastor of the New Park Street Baptist Chapel in London. Again, he’s 19 years old.

One of the things, I was talking to a student the other day, and he was a little perplexed by the use of the word chapel. And this will hit home in Kentucky, for some of you who’ve been here long enough to have certain memories. But especially in England, you see the word chapel a lot where you’d expect the word church. This is… New Park Street was the biggest, nonconformist or independent non-Church of England congregation in England, but it’s called a chapel. Why is it called a chapel? It is because of the Baptist congregational principle over against the Church of England and its claims of being a national church.

So, the word ‘church’ was avoided in the use of the title. So, if you go to England, you’ll see enormous buildings and large congregations and it says ‘Chapel’, which to us represents something very different, either private or miniature.

When it came to England, New Park Street Chapel was the biggest congregation at the time. Of course, it moved, and it became the Metropolitan Tabernacle at Elephant and Castle in 1861. So that’s the first year of the American Civil War, just to get some historical bearings here. And at that point, it becomes the largest Protestant congregation in the world, just in terms of attendance.

It is difficult, actually, to take measure of the total attendance, but it is easy to say that, at this point, a kind of the high-water mark of the attendance of these very large Protestant churches in England. The voice of Charles Spurgeon was basically heard throughout much of the British Empire within days of when he had spoken. So, in a day long before anything like digital media or even long before anything like broadcasting, Charles Spurgeon’s reach was all throughout the British Empire in a way that was unprecedented in the history of the Christian church.

He was the boy preacher. He was a boy wonder. His words were already put into, first of all, printed form and then book form, the New Park Street Pulpit in 1855, the Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, which was selling 25,000 copies a week. That’s 25,000 copies a week by 1865.

Eric W. Hayden, one of his successors, would comment that the Metropolitan Tabernacle and the New Park Street works all by themselves, the pulpit works, represent the largest set of books by a single author in the history of Christianity. Going on to say, “Today, there is available more material written by Spurgeon than by any other Christian author living or dead.” The only thing he didn’t say was past, present and future. But it’s actually hard to imagine that any future preacher would actually achieve that kind of published record.

The Metropolitan Tabernacle, as it was  known, was at Elephant and Castle. And in order to understand that, let’s just need to back out just a minute, because we tend to think of London, we tend to think of the Victorian era, and Charles Spurgeon really represented that Victorian era almost from beginning to end.

Victoria reigned longer than he lived. But the point is that during that Victorian age, Charles Spurgeon was a fixture. But what was that Victorian age? And I mean, here, not so much the British Empire as referenced or even the monarchy in terms of rule or the role of Parliament, but we now know in retrospect that the Victorian era in England was not what it appeared to be.

The Victorian motto was basically that the culture should remain unchanged. British pride in the English-speaking civilization that they thought had reached its apex in the 19th century. It was to be exported to the world and unchanged at home. But it was rapidly changing. And some of those changes are brought about by technology, the most important of those technologies being the steam engine and that produced the locomotive and the train. And then the steam engine for the British shipping fleet and the British Navy, the world navy all over the world.

But it also in industrialization, it also meant urbanization as people were steaming their engines and then streaming into the cities and all that brought a lot of changes. It produced massive intellectual change because it was the century or two after the enlightenment with the dream of reason, an entirely rational worldview and even irrational Christianity as Emmanuel Kant would say religion within the bounds of reason alone. That means that you strip everything out of Christianity that isn’t ascertainable by reason alone. That’s basically taking out all the supernatural, taking out all claims of divine revelation, taking out all claims of divine election for Israel or for the church, taking out the miraculous eventually. And so, this reasonable religion is what the aristocracy of Britain increasingly accepted as their reasonable expectation.

The Church of England was already established in theological compromise during the Tudor era. By the time you get to the 19th century, the Church of England is a three-party church. It’s a low church party made up of people basically influenced by a Puritan tradition. And then there is a high church party, which is barely separated, and awkwardly separated, from Roman Catholicism in terms of its liturgy and its sacramental ministry.

And then you had the broad moderate, or middle church, position. And the middle church position is what basically held, but as we shall see, it didn’t hold much theology. And that was the point. But if that was the Church of England in the nonconformist world, and that meant nonconforming to the law of conformity to the Church of England, that’s how you became a nonconformist.

In the independent Protestant world outside the Church of England, the same three parties emerged just like the Church of England. You had a low church party where you had, say, what we would now call blue collar congregations made up of evangelical Christians filled with evangelical fervor. And then you had a high church party of its own sort where you had very elite aristocratic preachers in very beautiful neo-Gothic churches.

And then you had this broad middle. Now, one of the things we’re going to see is that in terms of religious groups and particularly Christian denominations, as would be the case in the British Baptist Union with reference to Spurgeon, it’s the middle that always holds things together and it’s the middle always sells out the faith. That’s exactly what happened in the British Baptist Union. That’s exactly what basically happened in the Church of England. It’s because the middle will not draw the lines necessary to maintain any kind of adequate theological basis for a continuation in orthodoxy.

Bradley Longfield, an American church historian writing about the Presbyterians in the United States, wrote a book with the title, The Presbyterian Controversy: Liberals, Fundamentalists, and Moderates. In fact, he says modernists, and fundamentalists, and moderates. The point is that there weren’t enough absolute liberals in the Presbyterian church in the north to take it over. But the moderate middle wouldn’t ever kick them out, wouldn’t establish a required confessional orthodoxy that would keep the liberals from control. So eventually even though that moderate middle was not liberal, it basically capitulated in full to theological liberalism. That’s what Charles Spurgeon sees on the horizon.

Spurgeon was an autodidact. He basically taught himself and don’t try that at home. I say as president of a theological seminary. There was one Charles Spurgeon, and you are not he. I need theological education; you need theological education. Charles Spurgeon would’ve benefited by theological education, but I’ll also say that if you have read all the theological works that Charles Spurgeon read during his teenage years, you would have something like a theological education. But Charles Spurgeon was an autodidact, he was a genius.

He was also, stalwartly committed to orthodox biblical Christianity. He saw his theological identity. He saw the Gospel. He read the Bible as inconsistency, especially with the reformers of the 16th century and with the Puritans within the Church of England, within the train of the English Reformation, and in particular, in the separatist tradition and particularly the Baptist tradition.

Now, his own parents were Independent Congregationalists. They were proud of their independency and not being a part of any denomination. They were actually quite disappointed when Charles Spurgeon became a Baptist, but he genuinely became a Baptist. He also became a member of the British Baptist Union. Now, the British Baptist Union is the official British denomination, the largest British denomination of Baptists in the United Kingdom. And like so many, the other denominations had experienced rather rapid growth in Victorian England.

Now, a lot of that was just population growth. It’s one of the things, by the way, we find out little, little thing we ought to look each other in the eye and understand. And that is that church growth and population growth are historically very closely tied together, not accidentally. And they’re not absolutely tied together. There are churches in areas of population decline that grow. But the reality is big increases in church participation and in church membership are often very directly correlated with population growth. In England, the population is growing hugely. In London, the population is growing spectacularly. And very interesting, population is growing in London south of the Thames.

Now, this is crucial. So, by the time you have the Metropolitan Tabernacle, Charles Spurgeon has located his church at Elephant and Castle. If you go to Elephant and Castle today, it’s going to be one of the most ethnically and linguistically diverse places on planet Earth you could ever imagine. It was then a part of a vast growth of what we might call a blue-collar working-class Britain. And the Metropolitan Tabernacle was committed to this Christian orthodoxy. It was drawing people. But already there was a contrast in Spurgeon’s lifetime, very well-known contrast, between Spurgeon and more liberal preachers.

And the thing is that, unlike today, in Victorian England those liberal preachers continued to draw vast crowds. That’s what’s kind of counterintuitive to us. But in Victorian England, it was unthinkable for a certain class not to attend church. One of the differences in our highly secularized age is that there’s now no penalty to people in social costs for not attending church in the kinds of aspirational social circles that you would find in our culture, so they don’t have to go.

But the point is that at Metropolitan Tabernacle, there was a tremendous hunger for Orthodox Christianity. Also, for many other churches as well. But Charles Spurgeon was understood as the lion in London who preached the Gospel unchanged and unchanging, who believed in the inerrancy and infallibility of the word of God, who preached the faith without hesitation once for all delivered to the saints.

He saw huge problems looming on the horizon. The Downgrade Controversy as it is known, and the title of my address is Defying the Downgrade, really dates to 1887 and 1888. Now, he will die early in 1892. So, this is at the end of his life. What had happened? Well, one of the things that had happened didn’t happen in England first, it happened in Germany, and that was the rise of German higher criticism as it was known. And this was basically an anti-supernatural way of reading the Bible. This is the fountain head of liberal approaches to Scripture. You say, for instance, the Old Testament is in the Graf-Wellhausen theory. You say the Old Testament is not the inspired Word of God to the Jewish people, to Israel. You say it’s a collection of ancient near Eastern writings, indicative of the religious beliefs of those people.

Well, that’s a massive shift. You’ve just gone from this being the Word of God to it being a fragmentary record of different traditions of how ancient Jewish people have interpreted the faith. And this was the very fountain head of the biblical criticism that would then come not only to England, but to the United States, and with it comes theological liberalism.

That is not just a correlation. That’s a causation. You cannot have theological liberalism without higher critical understandings of Scripture, and anti-supernatural understanding of Scripture. And you can’t have that higher critical understanding of Scripture without embracing theological liberalism. They are actually one and the same thing.

Spurgeon understood this. He also understood that the theological declension was not just on Scripture itself, but on everything Scripture revealed, most particularly the doctrine of Atonement Christology, the doctrine of Christ. So, as he was observing… And remember, all these sermons are being preached by people, not on the scale of Spurgeon, but the amazing thing is that by, say, midweek, most of the major preachers in London would know what all the other major preachers in London have preached.

Spurgeon’s able to look at that. He’s also able to look of what’s going on in the universities. He’s able to look at what’s going on even in the nonconformist schools, and he understands that theological liberalism, those anti-supernatural approaches to Scripture have been making their incursions even there. He called this the Downgrade Controversy.

The first article that was drawing attention to the Downgrade Controversy was published in Spurgeon’s magazine, The Sword and the Trowel, but Spurgeon didn’t write it. Someone else wrote it as just a summary piece. But Spurgeon came quickly behind it as editor and his pastor to say, “This is exactly what we are seeing. We’re witnessing a downgrade.” He wrote this in August of 1887: “A new religion has been initiated, which is no more Christianity than chalk is cheese. And, this religion, being destitute of moral honesty, palms itself off as the old faith with slight improvements, and on this plea, usurps pulpits which were erected for Gospel preaching. The atonement is scouted, the inspiration of Scripture is denied, the Holy Spirit is degraded into an influence, the punishment of sin has turned into fiction and the resurrection into a myth, and yet these enemies of our faith expect us to call them brethren and maintain a confederacy with them.

“At the back of doctoral falsehood,” he said, “comes a natural decline of spiritual life evidenced by a taste for questionable amusements and a weariness of devotional meetings.”

Well, Spurgeon would go on making his case. He would make the case that the church should have been well worn by what he called Unitarian lethargy. And remember Unitarianism is a heresy by definition. It denies the Trinity that’s… You can’t have Unitarianism in a Trinity. Otherwise, the whole point of Unitarianism is denying the Trinity. And that means to also, usually with very few exceptions, to argue against the deity of Jesus Christ.

Spurgeon said, “You could look at the Unitarians and pretty much figure out what this theology is. It’s not Christian.” He said, “You look at the Church of England, what he called the established church.” And, of course, he was a great enemy of the establishment as the established church. But he said, “Look, you can look at the Church of England.” Who couldn’t look at the Church of England and already figure these things out? But he says, “Nonetheless, they present themselves as cultured, these advocates of the Downgrade. And if they’re unchecked all will be lost.”

By November of 1987, he’s speaking similarly. He said this: quote, “As a matter of fact, believers in Christ atonement are now in declared religious union with those who make light of it. Believers in holy Scripture are in confederacy with those who deny plenary inspiration. Those who hold evangelical doctrine are an open alliance with those who call the fall, a fable who denied the personality of the Holy Ghost, who call justification by faith immoral and hold that there is another probation after death and future restitution for the lost.”

“Yes,” said Spurgeon. “We have before us, the wretched spectacle of professorly Orthodox Christians publicly avowing their union with those who deny the faith and scarcely concealing their contempt for those who cannot be guilty of such gross disloyalty to Christ. To be very plain, we are unable to call these things Christian unions. They begin to look like confederacies and evil. Before the face of God, we fear that they wear no other respect. In our inmost heart, this is a sad truth from which we cannot break away.”

Now, he went on to make very careful arguments about the fact that the great danger was not that there were so many of these liberals, but that there were so few who would call them out for what they were, so few who would have the courage to say that isn’t Christianity. There were too few who would draw lines. He went on to say, “We who believe holy Scripture to be the inspired Word of God cannot have fellowship with those who deny the authority from which we derive all of our teaching.”

Now, this would seem to be just axiomatic. And in fact, one of the things you see in his correspondence and in his writings, as well as his preaching, is that Spurgeon was absolutely perplexed as to why people would look at one plus one and not add up two. And he was more infuriated by the fact that in private, they would add up one plus one to two, but they would refuse to say so publicly.

Many people, including people who would vote against him in the British Baptist Union, would come to him and they would speak of their agreement with him. But when it mattered, they would not stand with him. Now, this went on to such a degree that you had Spurgeon openly calling out heretics in the British Baptist Union.

Now, again, he knew that there were already heretics in the land. I mean, Unitarians, by definition, are heretics. There are already heretics in the Church of England. And there are heretical preachers who even have hundreds and thousands of people going to hear them. But he was writing this of concern about the British Baptist Union. We cannot control the fact that Church of England will shield heretics. We can’t prevent Unitarians from being Unitarian. But we can expect Baptist to be Baptists. We can expect those who hold to, say they hold to, the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints, to hold to it.

Well, Spurgeon’s call was not successful. As a matter of fact, as the Downgrade Controversy would continue, he would be repudiated by the British Baptist Union. By the 28th of October 1887, Spurgeon, actually, voluntarily withdrew personally from the British Baptist Union. In response in January of 1888, the British Baptist Union ministers actually censured Spurgeon. He’d already voluntarily left, but they censured him.

And then in a far more lamentable move, the British Baptist Union, trying to find some way to paper over the controversy adopted a new confession, but it was not a confession that would prevent the teaching of heresy. By some estimations, the vote in the British Baptist Union against Spurgeon was something like 2,000 to seven. No need to worry about hanging chads. It was an overwhelming vote of repudiation against Spurgeon.

Spurgeon said at the end of his life, “I am quite willing to be eaten of dogs for the next 50 years, but the more distant future shall vindicate me.” Spurgeon was an unwell man by this point, and he was a broken-hearted man. He, like so many others, went to the south of France in order to try to recover from what we would now probably call congestive heart failure. He had very great difficulty breathing. He had a failing heart. He went to Menton in France and there, seeking to recuperate, he died on the last day of February, the last day of January of 1892.

So much going on here. There’s so many failed opportunities. You think about the Church of England. As early as the middle of the 19th century, they had a bishop by the name of John Colenso who denied the divine inspiration of Scripture. A bishop of the church in this case, in the missionary church he’s Bishop of Natal in South Africa. And basically, even though they’re twists and turns in the story, the Church of England just would not take any action against a Bishop.

Now, later you come to the 20th century and John A.T. Robinson would be a bishop of the Church of England, and he would deny every single Christian doctrine including the axioms of classical theism, the existence of a personal God. And he remained a bishop.

I discussed on The Briefing, at the beginning of this week, the fact that John Shelby Spong had died. He was the Episcopal Bishop of Newark, New Jersey. Dr. Spong and I tangled at many different points. He was probably the nation’s most famous heretic. He was a bishop of the Episcopal church. He was very well known as advocate of same-sex marriage and all the rest. He and I ran into each other in an event in the Northeast where we were both speaking. We ended up debating. I debated him on television. I didn’t know until Sunday night, he died just hours before. I didn’t know on Sunday night; he had written about me and that encounter saying that evidently, I was ignorant of all the insights of modern biblical study.

I am intentionally one who rejects what he celebrated. You see the condescension in that. That’s the same thing Spurgeon had to put up with. It is irritating. But it’s just irritating. On the other hand, you just understand that’s the only bullet they’ve got in their gun to shoot. If you just knew better, you would unbelieve as much as we have unbelieved.

At one point, I’d referred to what I call ‘The Spong Paradox’. He’s written a book denying every single Christian doctrine, so he’s got no books to write. Having denied every single doctrine, he now has nothing with which to make a headline. Sadly, the headline most recently was his own obituary.

All this has been going on. And the fact is that so many people in denominations, like the Southern Baptist Convention, could look at that and say, “What? You know, that’s after all the Church of England. That’s the Church of England. It’s always been so elastic. It could fit everyone in the waistband.” Or, “Those are Unitarians being Unitarians.” Or, “That’s the Episcopal Church. It’s Newark, New Jersey, for crying out loud. What do you expect?” “It’s Harvard Divinity School. Neither divinity or a school, maybe Harvard.”

And just look at that and you go, “Okay, okay, well, you expect that. But what about here?” Well, the fact is that it’s that middle, that over the course of church history, especially since the Reformation, has been the great vulnerability, because the great mass of people who should defend the truth are often more scared by those who do defend the truth than by those who deny it.

I want to suggest some lessons from the life and the leadership of Charles Spurgeon. And this is where I might get into a little bit of trouble, because this is where I’m going to surprise people by talking about where Spurgeon failed. First, I want to point to the centrality of conviction in Charles Spurgeon’s ministry. There is a reason why those thousands upon thousands, upon thousands of people came to Metropolitan Tabernacles because they were going to hear the saving Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.

There is a reason why those people by the multiple thousands week by week were grabbing the penny pulpit sermons by Charles Spurgeon as they waited by the railway, or as they were making their way to work, or when they got home. It’s because they knew he was going to defend the faith once were all delivered to the saints. He had a remarkable ability to deliver the full wealth of Christian conviction in a sentence or a paragraph in a way that was rarely matched in the history of the Christian Church. And they knew he lived what he believed. And they knew that as a man, it was conviction that drove him, just as the blood through his circulatory system. He was bibline as he described himself as best as he knew to be—when he would bleed, he would bleed Bible.

The centrality of conviction meant that Charles Spurgeon was willing to give up everything. And you need to know, remember that in his class system in Victorian England, he was a renegade. He was willing to be a renegade over against the larger culture. And brothers and sisters, that’s pretty much where the Christian Church is going to be. That’s the predicament of our time. We’re going to be on the wrong side of the Thames. And if we can’t live on the wrong side of the Thames, we’re going to be on the wrong side of the truth.

Spurgeon was quite ready to do that and unapologetic. And he demonstrated the power of the Gospel and the fact that so many of the major philanthropic social ministry organizations there in London can trace their origin to Metropolitan Tabernacle—orphanages, schools for boys and later for girls. All kinds of associations during that Victorian area that came out of Metropolitan Tabernacle. But all of it based in Scripture.

The first thing we learned from Spurgeon is the centrality of conviction. His point was, “If that’s not what’s central, then why are we here? If this isn’t what I’m here for, I don’t need to be here, and you don’t need to come here.”

Secondly, the necessity of courage. He was willing to stand against the tide. And again, we all say that we know we’re supposed to be willing to do that, but part of the reason why we’re drawn to examples like Spurgeon is because he actually did it. And he actually did it in a way that certainly contributed to his death, and to the death of his reputation.

This is what I worry about. I’m talking to you here. I worry about what we worry about. And it’s a reflex for us to worry about our reputation. Now, I think most of us have figured out, we can’t worry about our reputation everywhere, but we ought to worry about what we worry about in terms of our own reputation. There’s a certain kind of courage that doesn’t get valorized in the world around us, that comes down to the courage to be disregarded in this sense, to be cast aside, to be dismissed as on the wrong side of the Thames, on the wrong side of history. Spurgeon represents that courage.

Third, I want to point out the prudence of a strategy. I think this was Spurgeon’s great mistake. It’s not to Spurgeon we look for the positive example of a necessity and prudence of a strategy, it’s actually Spurgeon’s failure to have a strategy that comes to mind here. Looking at the Downgrade Controversy, it isn’t clear what Spurgeon thought might happen. It isn’t clear that Spurgeon had any definite consequence of his warnings in view.

He seemed to think that simply publishing so many of these theological alarms would cause the people to rise up and investigate this matter and do what is right, but he didn’t have a plan. When he was asked what do we do now? He would say, “Well, it’s up to the people.” He sounded the alarm, but there are a few things we need to note. In the courses and turns of the Downgrade Controversy, the British Baptist Union establishment, trying to gain the high ground of power here and trying to sideline and marginalize Spurgeon, they said, “Name some names. You make all these claims about the fact we’re two different religions. You make claims about people teaching against the atonement of Jesus Christ. You make claims against people in our churches and in our schools that are teaching the Bible something other than the Word of God. Give us chapter and verse. Give us the books. Give us the articles. Give us the names.

Now, one of the things we have to recognize is that Spurgeon operated in the culture of Victorian honor. That culture of Victorian honor meant that a private conversation was just like a written contract. Spurgeon had had private conversations with leaders of the British Baptist Union, and he would agreed if they would do their work, he would not name names.

Well, they didn’t do their work, but he felt bound, nonetheless, by his private affirmation that he would not name names. They did not live up to their private affirmation that such issues would be investigated, and the truth defended.

I think Spurgeon made a great mistake and the mistake was twofold in this sense. The lack of a strategy. He needed a strategy for exactly how the British Baptist Union could be recaptured, reformed, and corrected. Without that strategy, just calling the alarm meant that we look back and say Spurgeon was right, but at the time some who could have been Spurgeon’s allies and might have been his allies didn’t know what they were supposed to do. There was no understanding of polity and mechanism in order to affect any real change. And then the lack of documentation turns out to be a huge problem. It turns out that people need to see in order to understand the problem. They need to see the evidence–chapter, verse, quotation, book, article.

Now remember, Spurgeon said at the end of his life, that he was quite willing to be eaten of dogs for the next 50 years, but the more distant future should vindicate him. Well, I’m not sure exactly what he had in mind, and he died in 1892, but in the United States, the fundamentalist modernist controversy, the great first battle, you might say, between theological liberalism and theological Orthodoxy, took place in most of the northern denominations and catastrophically virtually all of them capitulated to liberalism.

And once again, the pattern was clear. It was the middle that refused to bring correction. Due to the cowardness of the middle, the entirety was lost. But you look at that and say, “Well, Spurgeon, certainly wasn’t vindicated there. I mean, he might have been vindicated in terms of the accuracy of his analysis, but he wasn’t vindicated in terms of any action or purpose.”

I would suggest that Charles Spurgeon has been vindicated in just a few places. One of them, actually, is the Southern Baptist Convention. And what was different about the Downgrade Controversy and the controversy in the Southern Baptist Convention, especially in the latter part of the 20th century, is that conservatives in the SBC did have a strategy. They did have a plan. When… Once they sounded the theological alarm, they could back that up and say, “Here’s how this can be done. There’s an election of a President of the Convention. There’s the appointment of a committee eventually that will nominate persons to the boards. There’s an opportunity to affect change, and this is how it can be done. And eventually there are budgetary matters and other things that can be used in order to bring this about. There’s a basic confessional structure to the denomination that can be done.”

You look at the history of SBC before that, it’s frightfully like the British Baptist Union in so many ways. Right down to 1963, when the Southern Baptist Convention, in the midst of a controversy over the Pentateuch, just like Bishop Colenso. That was 1861. At virtually the same time, a century later, the Southern Baptist Convention had a professor of Old Testament that wrote basically the very same thing, denying the divine inspiration of the Pentateuch.

The Southern Baptist Convention did not take definitive action against that professor, but they did adopt a confession of faith. Hear echoes? And that confession of faith actually created more theological problems than it solved. Thus, the Southern Baptist Convention revised its confession of faith to correct that in the year 2000. And naming names, there’s no need to name names now, but conservatives were willing to name names then and say, “You’re asking where this is. Well, here’s an article. Here’s a book. Here it is. Here are the words.”

I’d like to think, and I say this with a sense of moment, I’d like to think that one of the places Charles Spurgeon was most vindicated was right here on this campus at 2825 Lexington Road in Louisville, Kentucky, where the alarm was sounded and had been sounded for a long time. But eventually there was the strategy and on the part of so many people, the courage and the conviction to make it happen. There was the support, eventually, of that very middle that had abdicated in so many other denominations that stood with us in the Southern Baptist Convention and at Southern Seminary.

When you look at your heroes, you’ve got to learn from them what to do and what not to do. And in the case of Spurgeon, the one place I believe he made such a mistake was the failure of a strategy. We learn from that.

Fourth, the inescapable issue of timing. Very quickly. You know, timing isn’t everything, but it has a lot to do with whether a great effort succeeds or fails. By the time Spurgeon sounded the alarm in the late Victorian era, the society had largely liberalized to the point that there was just not enough orthodoxy there to bring about widespread change. And by the way, Orthodox Protestant work in England, in Great Britain has been on the defensive for well over a century.

Timing is everything. It was late… We don’t know issues of timing, except in retrospect. So we don’t know. We just know we have to do this now. We don’t know what will happen. I just want to say this. We didn’t get to choose our timing—God did. This was not some supreme human achievement. It was just God’s gift. But it was God’s gift that the changes here could take place in such a time that nearly 30 years later we could be looking at having near 6,000 students.

And if you were in chapel this morning, you walk on this campus, you just look and you say, “By God’s grace, He gave us timing. He gave us the gift of time. It happened just late enough that people understood the urgency, but not too late that hearts and minds would not come with us.” And for the Southern Baptist Convention, that’s a great question right now in terms of timing. Do we really have what it takes to go through the 21st century with the same kind of vigor with which we ended the end of the last century?

The last issue is just the suicide of drift. The other thing you learn from Spurgeon is what Spurgeon was awakened to, and what he sought to awaken all Christians in England and elsewhere to, and that is the fact that drift is never healthy because nobody drifts home. You only drift out to sea.

So much to learn from a figure like Charles Spurgeon. I want to honor him for his convictional courage. I want to learn from him in every respect. I want to thank God that, in a time of declining faith in Britain, there was a man who preached the truth. And I do believe, even as he evidently believed, that years after his death, he would be vindicated. That’s what we also have to believe. We don’t know when, we don’t know where. Spurgeon was not thinking of us.

But let’s be determined to lead and to serve in such a way, and beginning right here in this institution, that people all over the place on planet Earth and places we can’t imagine, people not yet born, they’ll hear the saving Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, because of what was taught here and what is taught and preached in our churches.

Let’s pray. Father, we’re just so thankful for all you give us, including the stewardship of leadership. Father, none of us deserves this. May each of us be faithful in portion. Father, may we never merely drift, and may we lead to the glory of Christ. For it’s in Christ’s glorious name we pray. Amen.