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SPURGEON AND CONVERSION
by Dr. R. L. Hymers, Jr.
A sermon preached on Monday Evening, September 3, 2007
“Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted…ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3).
The second chapter of The Old Evangelicalism by Iain H. Murray (Banner of Truth, 2005) is devoted to C. H. Spurgeon, the “Prince of Preachers.” Spurgeon was the leading figure of the Third Great Awakening (1857-1861) and was, in my view, the most important Baptist pastor of all time. He was also a man who leaned toward the past. Conservative by nature, he has been called “the last of the Puritans.” Murray is exactly right to devote an entire chapter (“Spurgeon and True Conversion”) to him in his book. On the back jacket, Murray quotes Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones,
Modern evangelicalism is very unlike the evangelicalism of the eighteenth century and of the Puritans. The genuine evangelicalism is that older evangelicalism.
Spurgeon lived close enough to our time to be considered a bridge to the older evangelical view of true conversion. In his analysis of Spurgeon, Murray takes a more distinctly Calvinistic view of the order of conversion than I would. Yet much can be learned from this chapter regarding what Spurgeon thought about conversion, and Murray has done a great service by making available, in this easily read format, what Spurgeon thought about this all-important subject.
Spurgeon believed in real conversion, not a mere “decision.” He believed that true conversion includes a strong awareness of sin and a “looking” or “coming” to Jesus – union with Christ. Spurgeon said,
In all true conversions there are points of essential agreement: there must be in all a penitent confession of sin, and a looking to Jesus for forgiveness of it, and there must also be a real change of heart, such as shall affect the entire after life, and where these essential points are not to be found there is no genuine conversion (quoted in Iain H. Murray, The Old Evangelicalism, Banner of Truth Trust, 2005, p. 41).
Murray says that Spurgeon’s view of true conversion may sound simple, but “all that is involved is more profound than we can attain to in our present understanding…Our danger today is to suppose that the truth about conversion is only a preliminary to the Christian faith, something like the two-times table is for mathematics, and therefore that it need not detain our attention for long” (ibid.). He says that there are very few modern evangelical books on the subject of Biblical conversion. “What is central in the New Testament has been moved to the periphery, and this reflects a general situation in our churches” (ibid., p. 42). “But when the subject [of conversion] ceases to be paramount it ought to be no surprise that evangelistic endeavour falters” (ibid.). “If our practice was closer to Spurgeon’s who can doubt that true conversions would be more common among us. I propose, then, in this address to take up Spurgeon’s thought as a stimulus for us on this great issue” (ibid.).
Spurgeon believed in the necessity of law work in evangelistic preaching. Spurgeon himself had been “under conviction of sin for several years…But the important thing for him was not the length of time, it was the scriptural principle that law is necessary before gospel” (ibid., p. 48). Spurgeon said,
The Christian minister should declare very pointedly the evil of sin…Open up the spirituality of the law as our Lord did and show how it is broken by evil thoughts, intents and inclinations. By this means many sinners will be pricked in their hearts. Robert Flockhart used to say, ‘It is no use trying to sew with the silken thread of the gospel unless we pierce a way for it with the sharp needle of the law.’ The law goes first like the needle and draws the gospel thread after it (ibid., pp. 48-49).
Murray then traces how the preaching of the moral law was gradually left out of evangelism after the time of Finney. Yet, as important as the preaching of the law is in evangelism, conviction of sin is not the goal. The goal is for sinners to come to Jesus. “Law preaching” made Felix tremble, but he was not converted. Sinners must not take comfort in an awakening of conviction. As important as law preaching is, it is not an end in itself. Spurgeon said that “awakened sinners will be damned unless they believe in Jesus. You must not make a Christ out of your tears, you must not hope to find safety in your bitter thoughts and cruel despair. Unless you believe [in Jesus] you will never be established” [as a truly converted person] (ibid., p. 51).
Murray says that law should be preached to the unconverted, not because it teaches them “what they can do, but what they ought to do…It brings home to the non-Christian that he cannot change his own nature, he cannot save himself. It was of conversion that Jesus was speaking when He said, ‘With men this is impossible’ (Matthew 19:26)” (ibid., pp. 52-53). Preaching on the inability of the unconverted man, Spurgeon said,
Would to God we could bring you, not only to discouragement, but to despair of yourselves. When you… feel you are powerless we shall have hope for you, for then you will leave yourselves in the hands of him who can do all things. When self’s strength is gone, God’s strength will come in…I do not want to rouse your activity, you unconverted people: I want you to rouse you to the conviction that you are lost, and I pray God the Holy Spirit may convince you (ibid., p. 53).
Murray shows that the eighteenth century evangelist George Whitefield desired that lost people “might be convinced of your unbelief, and be led to ask faith of him whose gift it is” (ibid.).
Murray says that regeneration (the new birth) is instantaneous and once for all, never needing to be repeated. “Regeneration is an event, not a process. It is the entrance of the resurrection life of Christ” (p. 55). I believe regeneration is the other side of conversion (the human side) and so I teach that both are simultaneous and instantaneous. But this is really a minor difference, not worthy of further comment, in my opinion.
Murray correctly says that modern evangelicals are as wrong to identify regeneration with a “decision for Christ” as Catholics were to identify it with “baptism” (p. 56). He says,
The time of rebirth belongs to God. The one thing that is certain is that God brings men low before he raises them up. Before the Prodigal Son ‘came to himself’…he knew something of the pain of being in a far country (ibid.).
Some may be under conviction of sin for a long time before conversion, as was Spurgeon. Others may have a quick stab of conviction followed by a sudden conversion. Murray says, “Conviction does not save anyone but no one is saved without conviction” (p. 57). A person may come under conviction and yet not be converted. Also, a person may “believe” the doctrines of salvation without coming to Christ (pp. 57-58). Belief in the doctrines of grace never saved anyone. To be converted, one must be awakened to his terrible, sinful, lost condition and then actually be united with Christ, otherwise his “belief” will produce nothing but a dry acknowledgement of the facts of salvation, and he will never truly come to Christ Himself to receive the saving benefits the Saviour offers to sinners.
Spurgeon regarded the altar call (“coming forward”) as “calculated to confuse the meaning of conversion.” Spurgeon “knew that receiving Christ is never without a change of nature (regeneration) and such a change cannot be effected by any physical action such as asking a person to come to the front” (p. 63). “Spurgeon never added to his preaching an ‘appeal’ or ‘altar call’ for an immediate public decision on the part of individuals who wished to become Christians” (ibid.). “The ‘public decision’ as a means to number converts Spurgeon regarded as utterly untrustworthy” (pp. 63-64). He said,
Some of the most glaring sinners known to me were once members of a church; and were, as I believe, led to make a profession by undue pressure…I am weary of this public bragging, this counting of unhatched chickens (p. 64).
“Of other places where [Spurgeon] preached, including in the open-air…no such appeal was ever given” (ibid.). That is, Spurgeon never gave an “invitation” to come forward, raise the hand, etc. Having the enquirers dealt with “was a different matter, which he encouraged” (ibid.). But he did this in his vestry, often on Monday nights and other evenings of his work week, not as a sudden thing at the end of each sermon, as we usually see done in our day of “new school” evangelism.
In the later nineteenth century the idea [from Finney and his followers] became very popular…that if conversion could be ‘simplified’ into a once-done act, performed at [any time] by any person, then evangelism would be more successful. ‘Success’ came to displace every other priority. Spurgeon, and [some others of the “old school” of evangelism] were in a minority in warning that the gospel wrongly presented was doing injury and [would] bring calamity to the churches [in the future] (p. 65).
In particular, what [Spurgeon] came to miss in the wider [new] evangelical scene was the absence of the conviction of sin and the fear of God. [Conviction of sin] was disappearing in the churches, and with [it] came a loss of reverence and awe. The description of Christians as ‘God-fearing people’ passed out of fashion. Happiness, not fear [became] the one theme, But Spurgeon argued that the two [could not] be separated (p. 66).
“Spurgeon had no doubt that the superficial evangelism [of the ‘new school’] was a major contributing cause for the absence of [true] converts” (ibid.).
Murray quotes Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, who made this all very clear when he said, that in the “new” evangelism,
You need not feel much of your own sinfulness; you need not be aware of the blackness of your own heart. You just “decide for Christ” and you rush in with the crowd [at the “invitation time”], and your name is put down, and is one of the large number of “decisions” reported…It is entirely [different from] the evangelism of the Puritans and of John Wesley, George Whitefield and others [of the eighteenth century], which led men to be terrified of the judgment of God, and to have an agony of soul sometimes for days and weeks and months (page 69).
Murray closes this chapter by giving the view of an older evangelical, Dr. A. W. Tozer, who said,
The whole transaction of religious conversion has been made mechanical and spiritless. Faith may now be exercised without a jar to…the Adamic ego. Christ may be “received” without creating any special love for Him in the soul of the receiver (page 70).
There is an urgent need today for the recovery of the truth about conversion. A widespread controversy on this subject would be a healthy wind to blow away a thousand lesser things. A renewed fear of God would end much worldly thinking and silence a multitude of raucous services. There has been much talk of more evangelism, and many hopes of revival, but Spurgeon would teach us that the need is to go back to first things [as they were preached in older evangelism] (page 68).
I agree with Iain H. Murray with all my heart. That is why I so strongly encourage you to obtain a copy of his book, The Old Evangelicalism (Banner of Truth, 2005) and read it over and over until the “scales fall from your eyes,” and you feel a desire to join with those of us who want to go back to “the old paths” of real evangelism. A thoughtful modern reader will be challenged to at least consider the fact that nearly all of today’s evangelism has fallen short of what the old evangelicals once believed and preached up and down the land. I believe that we will never see a true classical revival of any magnitude unless we return to the beliefs and principles of the “old evangelicalism.”
May some who read Murray’s book be challenged to do just that! It will be hard to do so in these days of declension, but the results will glorify God and the Lord Jesus Christ. And many more souls will be brought to conversion than by using the modern tricks and manipulations to get “quick,” superficial results by the methods of modern evangelical decisionism.
(END OF SERMON)
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