Spurgeon on Keeping in Step with the Spirit

This week I am at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary—one of my most favourite places in the world—teaching a course on Baptist theologians. At the end of the week we shall be looking at Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834-1892), that remarkable preacher-theologian. Here is a taster of the theological riches to be found in his preaching. These texts speak of the need of our churches to keep in step with the Holy Spirit. May God enable us to learn the theological lesson these texts proclaim. In an early sermon, “The Superlative Excellence of the Holy Spirit,” Spurgeon emphasizes that the Spirit must be treated with “deep awe and reverence.” Believers must be careful not to grieve him or provoke him to anger through sin. Moreover, if “the Holy Spirit be indeed so mighty, let us do nothing without him; let us begin no project, and carry on no enterprise, and conclude no transaction, without imploring his blessing.” (The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, 10:338).

In a later sermon, entitled “The Paraclete,” which was preached in 1872, Spurgeon reminded his audience that if they truly considered the Spirit to be their “sole force,” then they ought to: “Love the Spirit, worship the Spirit, trust the Spirit, obey the Spirit, and, as a church, cry mightily to the Spirit. Beseech him to let his mighty power be known and felt among you.” (The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, 18:564). And putting his own advice into practice, Spurgeon went on to cry: “Come, Holy Spirit now! Thou art with us, but come with power and let us feel thy sacred might!” (The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, 18:564).

Spurgeon was all too aware of the consequences of failing to heed such advice. In a sermon preached two years before “The Paraclete,” the Baptist preacher laid before the congregation of the Metropolitan Tabernacle what he called “A Most Needful Prayer Concerning the Holy Spirit.” His text was the prayer of David in Psalm 51:11: “Cast me not away from thy presence; and take not thy Holy Spirit from me.” After a personal confession, in which Spurgeon declared that he “would sooner die a thousand times, than lose the helpful presence of the Holy Ghost,” he used a vivid illustration, fresh in the minds of his hearers, to depict the church from which the Spirit has departed.

On the other side of the English Channel the Franco-Prussian War was raging, and, as Spurgeon preached, the war was going badly for the French, who would suffer a humiliating defeat at the hands of the Prussians at the end of that year. “Any church from which the Spirit has departed,” Spurgeon declared, “becomes very like that great empire with whose military glory the world was dazzled, and whose strength made the nations tremble. France, mistress of arms, queen of beauty, arbiter of politics, how soon has she fallen!…The nation once so great now lies bleeding at her victor’s feet, pitied of us all none the less because her folly continues the useless fight. Just so have we seen it in churches; may we never so see it here.” (The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, 16:562).

Spurgeon turns to the geography of Egypt to drive his point home even further. Areas of land in Egypt which were once fertile because of life-giving irrigation canals drawn from the Nile River are now desert simply because these canals have been allowed to lapse into disuse. So it is with churches, Spurgeon emphasizes. Churches “irrigated by the Spirit,” he declared, “once produced rich harvests of souls; left of the Spirit the sand of the world has covered them, and where once all was green and beautiful there is nothing but the former howling wilderness.” (The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, 16:563).

Sticking with Egypt for a further illustration, Spurgeon takes up an aspect of the history of that land. The nineteenth century witnessed the systematic ransacking of the Egyptian pyramids by European archaeologists and explorers. Prominent amongst the treasures found in these pyramids were the mummified bodies of the Pharaohs. Spurgeon clearly has little sympathy with the removal of these bodies of the ancient Egyptian kings. Their discovery and exposure to “every vulgar eye” awakens in Spurgeon “melancholy reflections.” These poor mummies, “once a Pharaoh whose voice could shake a nation and devastate continents,” are now mere objects for a museum. And now Spurgeon draws the comparison with the local church.

“[A]live by the divine indwelling, God gives it royalty, and makes it a king and priest unto himself among the sons of men; its influence is felt further than it dreams; the world trembles at it, for it is fair as the sun, clear as the moon, and terrible as an army with banners; but when the Spirit of God is departed, what remains but its old records, ancient creeds, title-deeds, traditions, histories and memories? it is in fact a mummy of a church rather than a church of God, and it is better fitted to be looked at by antiquarians than to be treated as an existent agency.” (The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, 16:563).