Was Spurgeon a Calvinist?It seems incredible that the question should be asked, given the amount of literature available on Spurgeon and the clear and repeated statements the man himself made. But last year, two of my friends – both able evangelists, neither of them with much time for Calvinism or Calvinists (and neither of them, I think, really understanding either) – both expressed their admiration for Spurgeon and ended by saying 'But of course he wasn't really a Calvinist.' It isn't a new charge, of course – many of Spurgeon's contemporary Calvinists said the same thing. What is different about my two friends is that it's non-Calvinists who are saying it; and it set me wondering why; why two men should think that about Spurgeon today. What I want to do in this brief article is look at the two different reasons these friends gave and for each one examine whether there is a misunderstanding of Calvinism involved. Then, in conclusion, I want to suggest some lessons that contemporary Calvinists may need to learn.
1. The reasons they gave
Evangelist number one told me that Spurgeon wasn't really a Calvinist because he was willing to say to a mixed congregation – believers and unbelievers – 'Christ died for you.' In context, this followed the statement 'Calvinists are not seeing people converted today because they are unwilling to say to their congregation "Christ died for you."' With this latter statement there are a number of problems; is it true that Calvinists are not seeing people converted today – or, at least, are seeing fewer people converted than non-Calvinists? It may be – but are there any statistics? (Let us leave aside the admittedly vital question, 'How do we judge true conversion?') And if it is true, how do we establish that it is because Calvinists are not saying 'Christ died for you' to unbelievers? Much more importantly, if the statement 'Christ died for you' is so vital to gospel preaching, how do we account for the plain fact that not one of the evangelists in the Acts of the Apostles ever used the phrase – or anything implying it – in any of their recorded sermons? My evangelist friend – one of the most gifted and able men I know – went quiet at this point; it had never occurred to him (such is the power of presuppositions – ours too, of course, not just 'theirs'!). 'Don't they?' he asked. And then 'What about Isaiah? "The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all."' What indeed? Isaiah of course is not a New Testament evangelist and an Old Testament sermon to a rebellious but covenant community cannot be applied willy-nilly in preaching to pagans. But, just in case any should doubt Isaiah's doctrine of the atonement, the prophet tells us 'He bore the sin of many,' and no Calvinist doubts that.
But what of Spurgeon? Without doubt, he did believe in the doctrine of limited atonement which, properly speaking, does make it impossible to say to a mixed crowd or to a particular unconverted sinner 'Christ died for you.' Then too, he did sometimes – in his closing appeals – seem to invite people to Christ on the basis that Christ had died for them. But, let it be said, not very often. It is equally true that he sometimes invited people to Christ in terms that made him sound like a hyper-Calvinist (A hyper-Calvinist, in the sense in which I am using the word here, believes that the warrant of faith is within the sinner himself; that is, an unconverted person may believe that the gospel promises are for him or her if and only if he or she finds certain qualifications in his or her own self.) It is certainly true that, much more often, Spurgeon invited folks to Christ in terms that did not compromise his Calvinism in either direction.
What then shall we say of the 'lapses'? It is possible, of course, that they are editorial additions, since we know that his secretary Joseph Harrold often edited the sermons and was solely responsible for their editing after Spurgeon died. It is possible, then – but not, I think, likely. In fact, it is much more likely to be quite the reverse: because Spurgeon edited most of his own sermons, we cannot say these phrases were uttered incautiously in the heat of the moment, or taken down wrongly by stenographers. When Spurgeon himself reviewed the manuscript, he let the phrases stand. Why? Surely it is because the preacher was too concerned that sinners be commanded, invited and encouraged to come to Christ in terms that they could understand to worry about possible misunderstandings that people might read into his words? In this, he followed the apostle John – John 3:16, 1 John 2:2 for example.
When evangelist number two expressed his convictions about Spurgeon, I asked him to justify it, and he attempted to do so by referring to a sermon of Spurgeon's on Matthew 23:37 (Volume 45.2630). In the introduction to this sermon Spurgeon – obviously aware that his interpretation will be regarded by some as non-Calvinist, says 'I have long been content to take God’s Word just as I find it.' That, thinks my friend, proves that Spurgeon is not a Calvinist, or at least not a proper one, for he has not come to this scripture with his theology as a mould into which it must fit! Indeed, Spurgeon goes on '…and when, at any time, I have been accused of contradicting myself through keeping to my text, I have always felt perfectly safe about that matter. The last thing I care about is being consistent with myself. Why should I be anxious about that? I would rather be consistent with Christ fifty times over, or be consistent with the Word of God; but as to being for ever consistent with oneself, it might turn out that one was consistently wrong, consistently narrow-minded, and consistently unwilling to believe what God would teach. So we will just take the text as we find it; and it seems to say to me that, if Jerusalem was not saved,— if her children were not gathered together in safety as a brood of chickens is gathered beneath the hen,— if
Christ did not gather them, and protect them, it was not because there was any unwillingness on his part. There was always a willingness in his heart to bless Jerusalem, and, therefore he could truly say, “How often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings!” From this utterance of our Lord, I learn that, if any man be not saved, the cause of his non-salvation does not lie in any want of graciousness or want of willingness on the part of God. They who dare to say that it does, venture very far, and are very audacious in their assertions. This text says the very opposite; and so far as it is applicable to the sons of men in general, it declares that God wills not the death of any, but desires that they should turn unto him and live.'
Now, anyone who thinks this does not represent true Calvinism has, I believe, made two vital errors. Those errors, I suspect, are our fault as much as theirs; but I will come to that. First, what are those errors?
The primary one is that Calvinists 'get their system' from somewhere other than Scripture and impose it on the sacred text. I guess we have to admit straight away that some have done and do do that! Many of us have winced at those who want to assure us that when Christ said 'God so loved the world' he meant 'God only loves the elect,' – as if the Saviour did not have the vocabulary to express his meaning properly. But we also have to say that this is not true Biblical, evangelical Calvinism; however well-meaning, and however great its pedigree, it is a perversion. And it's a perversion that is at least as dangerous as Arminianism. By contrast, we would want to insist that the Scriptures alone are our authority; that our Calvinism is clearly taught in the Scriptures; that responsible and careful exegesis of all the Biblical data drives us to our theology – and then to turn the tables on our friends by showing how they impose their own presuppositions and theology on the Scriptures. (For example, what else can we make of Mark 10:45 – the Son of Man came to give his life a ransom for many – other than that the Saviour did not mean 'for all' or he would have said 'for all'?) The Scripture drives and controls our theology, not the reverse. If we are not faithful to the Scriptures – and to all the Scriptures – then let it be shown and we will recant. But (we need to warn our friends) take care; just as we do not abandon our belief in the deity of Christ when heretics point us to 1 Timothy 2:5 ('the man Christ Jesus') so we will not abandon our particular atonement when Christian friends show us (as if we have never seen it!) 1 John 2:2 ('he is the propitiation… for the sins of the whole world'). The cases are exactly parallel; in neither case are we surprised by the text, in neither case do we impose our theology on the text and in neither case is our theology challenged by a proper understanding of the text.
The second error is to think that Calvinists believe that God does not desire the salvation of all. Perhaps there are some (undoubtedly there are some) who call themselves Calvinists who believe this; once again, however, that is not the essence of Calvinism. Calvinists well know that God takes no pleasure in the death of a sinner, but rather than he should turn and live (Ezekiel 33:11); we know it, and rejoice in it. But faced with all the Scriptural data we see the need to make a distinction between the desire of God and the purpose of God. Plainly, not everyone is saved. Either then God does not have the power to save everyone (which makes God less than God and controverts plain Scriptures ) OR it is not God's purpose that everyone be saved. It is his will, but not his purpose. WHY should God's will be different from his purpose? Who knows? As Bunyan said on another issue, 'Where Scripture has no tongue I have no ears.' We are not told why and it is pointless to speculate; so we maintain both truths – not in tension, but in joy. The tension is only in the minds of those who lament our inconsistency!
2. Contemporary Calvinism is not like Spurgeon's.
But I said earlier that, if our non-Calvinist friends hold these errors it is probably our fault as well as theirs. We may want to say 'Hodge and Warfield and a thousand other Reformed theologians will put you straight if you but read them!' But it is not enough; they are reading us, and see not nearly enough to attract them. May I suggest two major errors of which we need to repent?
Firstly, we do not have the passion for the lost that we should have. That's been said often enough, and it's true. No-one looking at Spurgeon or at Whitefield could deduce that their theology made them cold, or ineffective evangelists. But our Calvinism is not like theirs in at least one important respect: many of us are more in love with our theology than we ever have been with souls. Many of us are more concerned with how other Calvinists see us, or with what Spurgeon called 'a foolish consistency' than we are with reaching the lost. Both Spurgeon and Whitefield preached in ways and did things which caused other Calvinists to question their theology; but we are too careful for that. Perhaps we value our welcome at the Leicester Conference far too much to do anything which might raise eyebrows, still less save souls! Both Spurgeon and Whitefield were different; they were innovative, adventurous and careless about their own reputations. When we are the same, others will have far fewer grounds for hating Calvinism.
Secondly – less importantly but not to be forgotten – we need to be more obviously people of the book. Until we know our Calvinism well and can defend it from Scripture alone; until we know what the most likely objections are and can answer them from the Scriptures alone let us not presume to teach others. Many of us can remember those heady days when first we glimpsed those doctrines of grace, and yearned that others should know them too. And that is right, surely. But immature zeal can do great damage – and anyway, reaching the lost is always more important.