In contemporary times, the artistry and practice of rhetoric as a discipline, or at least its perception, has fallen on hard times. With even a cursory “ear” to current events of the evening news or an “eye” to the print media, it is possible to hear and see the “rhetoric of the Democrats,” or the “rhetoric of the Republicans,” or the “rhetoric of Hitler,” or “the Communist’s rhetoric.” Rhetoric is used and defined today in pejorative and negative terms almost exclusively. Rhetoric truly is a misunderstood discipline!
Rhetoric in itself is neither good nor evil. Its usage determines its morality. All of us use rhetoric! Whether we know it or not! We are all rhetoricians—trained or not! After all; “Life is Rhetoric!”
In his work Doctrine that Dances, Robert Smith lauds Aristotle’s categories of rhetoric. He brings back some religious respectability, credibility, and usability to rhetoric once again. Smith’s categories of rhetoric are stated as proofs:
The first mode of proof is ethos. That is the integrity, credibility, or character of the preacher. . . . [E]thos is the perceived character of a good man speaking well. . . .The second mode of proof is pathos. This is the emotive and passionate sector of the preacher. . . . The third mode of proof is logos. This is the gathering of content and material for the sermon.
Here Smith does a great service to all preachers who want to perfect the artistry of the sermon. He brings “rhetoric right into the church house” anew. Smith employs rhetoric because he understands that it can be used as homiletical theory and praxis for sermonic improvement. If used to define and refine preaching, rhetoric could be very much akin to “finding the pearl of great price” for those who desire to be pulpit craftsmen. Smith stands in a long line of pulpiteers who preserve the “Rhetorical Tradition” and its use in preaching. These, of course, include Augustine of Hippo and the Southern Baptist Convention’s own John Albert Broadus.
Spurgeon’s use of rhetoric in his sermon “Compel Them to Come In!” is easily demonstrated.
POSTURE IN SPURGEON’S ADDRESS
Rhetoric is a many-splendored thing. One way Spurgeon employs his oratorical abilities is with his use of posture. Posture can be defined as an “attitude [or] a frame of mind,” or an “arrangement of parts: the way that components of an object or situation are arranged in relation to one another.” He divides the text of his address into two distinct divisions. He declares: “First, I must find you out; secondly, I will go to work to compel you to come in.”
Spurgeon begins “to find them out” by making a survey of his audience. He does this in a metaphorical as well as actual manner. He considers the audience in attendance and also imagines beyond them as they become representative of all whom he “would compel to come in.” There is a certain measure of double entendre that can be missed with only a cursory reading of the sermon. He instructs his hearers to read and consider the immediately preceding aspects of Luke 14:23. There, he calls their attention to four images. These images from the Biblical text become his component parts, or posture if you will, for the first half of the address. These are: the poor, the maimed, the halt, and the blind.
The evangelist starts with those who are “poor in circumstance.” Then he sets about to describe these from the text of Scripture. He calls all who are “vagrants,” “highwaymen,” and “all . . . [who] have no resting-place for their heads.” Even those “who are lying under the hedges for rest” he exhorts to come in. None shall be excluded, he declares: “Unto you is the word of salvation sent.”
Our preacher then engineers a decisive contrast. He develops the idea of the “poor” very similarly as does our Lord when he spoke about the “poor in spirit.” Here he moves from the “physically poor” to those who are “spiritually poor.” He proceeds to describe them as those who have “no faith . . . no virtue . . . no good work . . . no grace and what is poverty worse still . . . no hope.” Spurgeon assumes the place of the Master himself in such a magnanimous manner and tone. He beckons to them:
Ah my master has sent you a gracious invitation. Come and welcome to the marriage feast of his love. “Whosoever will, let him come and take of the waters of life freely.” Come I must lay hold upon you, though you be defiled with foulest filth, and though you have nought [sic] but rags upon your back, though your righteousness has become as filthy clouts, yet must I lay hold upon you, and invite you first, and even compel you to come in.
As the text of his sermon is read (or heard) the incredibly compelling passion of Spurgeon’s should be received with the hearing ear even by the most hardened unbeliever. God has sent this preacher on an errand, and he must use all possible means to dislodge the hearers from their life’s circumstance and bring them to safety.
Spurgeon builds upon his prior idea of those who are “poor in spirit” by seeing those who are “maimed.” He states emphatically that this category of folk believe “they could work out their own salvation without God’s help.” They believe ever so strongly they could; “perform good works,” “attend to ceremonies,” and “get to heaven” on their own merits. The picture he paints is so very poignant. Spurgeon refers to the “Law” as a “sword.” It has cut off the hands of the person to whom it is applied and leaves him or her without any ability at all. The person is left completely maimed spiritually.
These are left without any moral power to perform the good that they might want to do. And the evil that they did not wish was the thing they found themselves doing. Spurgeon paints a picture that becomes progressively worse as he develops it. Not only is the person void of hands to “perform good deeds,” but they fell “yet . . . [they] could walk [their] way there along the road by faith.” But this too is not possible, for the unbeliever is maimed in the feet as well as the hands. The “sword of the Law” has severed their hands, arms, and feet leaving the person in absolute destitution.
Here, Spurgeon turns somewhat away from the Lord’s use of the literalness and adjectival understandings of the halt. The folk of the day would have understood the term’s meaning to be one who was unable to walk. Spurgeon again employs a certain measure of double entendre. He shifts from a descriptor of one with a physical ailment to a descriptor of one who is spiritually unable to decide a personal moral or ethical dilemma. He calls to mind the notable passage about Elijah on Mount Carmel: “How long halt ye between two opinions? If the LORD be God, follow him: but if Baal, then follow him. . . .” Time does not permit a discussion of his other Biblical examples of “mental halting.” Spurgeon discovers many hearers in their personal “valley of decision.” For him, being disabled of mind is much worse than being disabled of body. A physical ailment can possibly be overcome temporally and eternally. But, the “halting” state-of-mind can lead the person to an everlasting condition from which they cannot recover. It is this latter category to whom Spurgeon appeals.
For the fourth time Spurgeon calls forth a literal-ness from our Lord’s parable. He adapts it for his sermon’s single purpose: “To Compel Them to Come In!” But never did he contravene the Lord’s intent. He used the “blind” of the parable to designate the lack of “spiritual sight” of his hearers.
Spurgeon turns at this juncture to his second division of the sermon: “I will go to work to compel you to come in.”
TONE AND PATHOS IN SPURGEON’S ADDRESS
Tone is “. . . a literary technique, that is a part of the composition [or address], that encompasses the attitudes toward the subject and toward the audience implied in a literary work. Tone may be formal, informal, intimate, solemn, somber playful, serious, ironic, condescending, or many other possible attitudes.” A literary understanding of tone can be coupled with the Aristotle's understanding of pathos to examine this second division of the address, then an extremely clear picture emerges of “Compel Them to Come In!” Pathos is “The persuasive appeal . . . to an audience's sense of identity, their self-interest, their emotions.” In the second half of the sermon Spurgeon utilizes six pathos dynamics in his appeal. He trusts these will move his hearers to leave their present unregenerate condition and “flee the wrath to come!” He “accosts” them, “commands” them, “exhorts” them, “entreats” them, “threatens” them, “weeps” over them, and finally “throw[s] [them] into . . . [the] Master’s hands.”
He accosts them!
The pastor-teacher takes his Lord’s command literally to go out and bring in the lost. The very idea of one accosting a person is rather contrary to other Biblical invitations. In fact he employs a Scripture that should not in any way be seen as an “in your face” encounter: “Come now and let us reason together.” He masterfully sets up another contrast with this somewhat docile invitation. He paints for his hearer’s consideration three gross and hideous pictures of Christ’s suffering: sweating drops of blood in Gethsemane, suffering tied to a pillar, and hanging upon the cross. Spurgeon pointedly, and what seems literally, steps in front of the persons in “the highway of life.” He stands between them rhetorically to sway them out of the way in which they trod. He pleads earnestly repeating Christ’s own words: “It is finished!” He then recounts Paul’s word to the Philippian jailer, “Believe on the Lord Jesus and thou shalt be saved.”
He commands them!
At this point Spurgeon asks a rather sobering question! “Do you still refuse?” He answers his own rhetorical question so his hearers would not misunderstand his concern for their imminent and ultimate dangers. “Then I must change my tone for a minute,” he declares. He moves to a much more strident position than before. This time he becomes extremely intense: “Sinner, in God’s name I command you to repent and believe!” He defends his means as Christ’s preacher. Spurgeon wants them to know that he pleads for them in Christ’s place. He shows his “credentials,” his “sincere [personal] affection,” his “commission to preach . . . [Christ’s] gospel,” and his office of “ambassador.” The command of “Go ye into all the world and preach the Gospel to every creature!” was Spurgeon’s modus operandi.
He exhorts them!
Spurgeon declares, “Then again will I change my note,” signifying a change of tone. He maintains his extremely high level of passion, breaking into an extended exhortation in order to garner some level of sympathetic hearing. Spurgeon’s uses personal testimony here in order to persuade:
He [Christ] came to me times without number, morning by morning, and night by night, he checked me in my conscience and spoke to me by his Spirit, and when at last, the thunders of the law prevailed in my conscience, I thought that Christ was cruel and unkind. O I can never forgive myself that I should have thought so ill of him. But what a loving reception did I have when I went to him.
He continues in graphic detail to describe how he thought the Savior would be a God of anger rather than the God of love and compassion who did receive him. Instead of having “his eyes of lightening-flashes of wrath upon me,” he rather greeted him with a Savior’s eyes full of loving tears. He begs his hearers: “I exhort you, then, to look to Jesus and be [en]lightened. Sinner, you will never regret,—I will be bondsman for my Master that you will never regret it,—you will have no sigh to go back to your condemnation. . . .”
He entreats them!
In his spirit, Spurgeon appears to be at his wits end. What to do next? But he is nowhere through with his appeal to those who are lost and outside of Christ. He next makes an appeal—and appeal to their own personal interests. He knows well that a plea to the pride of vanity can work when many other emotive approaches might fail. This he does with a series of rhetorical questions he believes will cause personal introspection: Would it not be better to be reconciled to the God of Heaven rather than being his enemy? What are you gaining by opposing God? Are you happy to be his enemy? Is your self-righteous work a place where you can rest? Will your conscience speak not ill to you? Are you still cold and indifferent [after all my pleading]? He cries out lovingly: “I am resolved. . . . My brother I ENTREAT you, I entreat you stop and consider.”
He threatens them!
In his exhausting entreaty he describes, as only Spurgeon can, what it means to die without Christ. He imagines “death beds . . . thorny.” He “picture[s] [him]self standing at your bedside and hearing your cries . . . knowing you are dying without hope.” He sees himself “standing by your coffin . . . and looking into your clay-cold face.” Finally, he likens their rejection of Christ as “see[ing] you act the suicide this morning.” Could Spurgeon be more poignant and compelling that this? It is paramount for them to understand. Rejecting Christ is in effect— taking their own lives!
He weeps for them and throws them upon the Savior!
The hearer [reader] understands Spurgeon’s anguish and passion of soul by exposure to this sermon. As he closes, he turns to his final two ploys. First, he weeps for them! He weeps for them to remember. He weeps for them to recollect. He alone is the only one who “weeps” over them, and finally “throw[s] [them] into . . . [the] Master’s hands.” They will not weep for themselves. So, Spurgeon must ultimately release them to the Christ.
In this final and unexpected dual change of focus; Spurgeon turns his strong concerns away from the sinner to the Savior. He indeed has done all that can possibly be done by mortal preacher. He cries out with what seems to be a breaking-heart of prayer: “We can now appeal to the Spirit. . . . I cannot compel you, but thou O Spirit of God who hast the key of the heart, thou canst compel.” In this his final appeal, he delivers them over to the Savior and the Spirit as he rehearses a familiar passage from John’s Revelation: the picture of the Savior standing at the heart’s door and knocking. In his closing Spurgeon tells them what they doubtlessly have known from so many other previous sermons. The one who stands at the door and knocks also is “he who hath the key of David.” If Christ cannot persuade them by “heart-knocking” He can certainly persuade them by “heart-unlocking.” Spurgeon’s closing paragraph is so very moving and it captures the whole:
I thought it my duty to labour [sic] with you as though I must do it; now I throw it into my Master’s hands. It cannot be his will that we should travail in birth, and yet not bring forth spiritual children. It is with him; he is master of the heart, and the day shall declare it, that some of you constrained by sovereign grace have become the willing captives of the all-conquering Jesus, and have bowed your hearts to him through the sermon this morning.
Spurgeon is much the rhetorician. He uses every means within his arsenal of oratory to bring men and women, boys and girls to the Savior. But more importantly than being a rhetor—he is an evangelist. “Take the Gospel to sinners. Carry it to their door. Put it in their way. Do not allow them to escape. . .”; this was his evangelistic mantra. He pours out his very soul as preacher-teacher-evangelist of the Gospel “To Compel Them to Come In!”
This essay is adapted and originally appeared in Founders Journal.
Dr. Roger D. Duke is an ordained Baptist minister. He holds graduate degrees from Harding University Grad School of Religion, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and The University of the South at Sewanee's School of Theology. Duke recently retired early after teaching college and grad school for 20 years to pursue a career in writing and speaking. You can find his works here.