Could it be that, in heart and practice, many of us in Reformed churches are not preaching evangelistically because we allow our Calvinism to bind us rather than propel us as it should? Perhaps we can learn from a controversy in Spurgeon’s time.
When it comes to controversies and Charles Spurgeon, the conflict he is most known for was the “Down-Grade Controversy” toward the end of his ministry. The Down-Grade was a battle against late Puritan ministers who began sliding toward liberal doctrines, philosophical and moralistic preaching, and less than holy practices. This controversy received its name from Spurgeon who warned: “We are going down hill at breakneck speed.”
Yet, as Iain Murray makes known in his book Spurgeon v. the Hyper Calvinists, Spurgeon faced a lesser known but equally dangerous controversy. In his early ministry he was attacked by reformed ministers because they believed he was offering the gospel too freely.
These ministers taught that in preaching the gospel care should be taken that sermons spoke only to the elect. Thus, they preached (and taught others to do the same) that when people are called to respond to the gospel, they are not to be called to believe in Christ directly but rather they are to ask for faith so they can believe. Those who called sinners simply to believe, such as Spurgeon did, were then accused of preaching “duty-faith.” The Hyper-Calvinists viewed direct preaching to sinners as calling them to trust in their own ability – or even their own faith – rather than in Christ himself. These views led to separation within the Christian community in London and beyond.
The simple answer to Hyper-Calvinism is to point out that Christ called all to repent and believe. Jesus knew that only God could grant faith but he required sinners to respond nonetheless.
The lessons gained from this controversy can help modern preachers learn how to preach more evangelistically. Iain Murray ends his book, whose full title is Spurgeon v. Hyper-Calvinism: The Battle for Gospel Preaching, with these four lessons drawn from the conflict.
1) Genuine evangelical Christianity is never of an exclusive spirit. Much of the problem in this controversy was generated by a view of the truth which undermined evangelical catholicity. We get into trouble when we think we are the only true church, departing from the unity the Scriptures teach and Christ prayed the church would have (Ephesians 4:1-6; John 17:22-23).
2) Biblical truths must be presented to the world in the proper order and correct emphasis. Murray points out that this controversy brings out the danger which is created when biblical truths are constantly presented to the non-Christian in the wrong order. Spurgeon wanted to see both divine sovereignty and human responsibility upheld, but when it came to gospel preaching he believed that there needed to be a greater concentration on responsibility so ultimately the sinner would rest on Christ alone. The tendency of Hyper-Calvinism was to make sinners want to understand theology before they could believe in Christ, as though “they cannot be saved till they are thoroughly theologians.”
3) This controversy directs us to our need for profound humility before God. Again, Murrays says that:
It is arguable that in the eclipse of Calvinistic beliefs at the beginning of the eighteenth century, at a time when ‘reason’ was being made the test of all religious belief, the would-be defenders of orthodoxy who became Hyper-Calvinistic fell into the very mistake they were seeking to correct. As J.I. Packer writes, ‘In an increasingly rationalistic age, the reaction itself was rationalistic, within the reformed supernaturalistic frame.'”
As John Newton said of one Hyper-Calvinist, he “frequently finds more bones than meat, and is seasoned with much of an angry and self-important spirit.” Murray concludes that God brought this controversy into Spurgeon’s life to bring humility to him for the greater fruit that eventually came.
4) Exalting a gospel of doctrine over the gospel of Christ is deadly to Calvinism. Murray points out that when Calvinism ceases to be evangelistic, when it becomes more concerned with theory than with the salvation of men and women, and when acceptance of doctrine seems to become more important than acceptance of Christ, then it is a system going to seed and will invariably lose its attractive power. As Spurgeon said, “I have seen to my inexpressible grief the doctrines of grace made a huge stone to be rolled at the mouth of the sepulchre of a dead Christ.”
Metaphically speaking then, let us keep the grave of the risen Christ open through our preaching by following the wisdom gained in these lessons.