When The Sword and the Trowel began in 1865, Spurgeon believed that the main challenge facing the church was the growing ritualism in the Church of England. In the first five years of its publication, Spurgeon would publish at least 22 different articles attacking Roman Catholicism and the Oxford Movement. Now, twenty years later, in 1885, Spurgeon understood that the battle lines had shifted. To be sure, ritualism was still very much alive. But a new adversary had arisen, whose influence was being felt not only in the Church of England but among all denominations.
For the moment, the main battle is with Rationalism. We see comparatively little of overt atheism, deism, or honest infidelity; but we are surrounded by men who subscribe out creeds and hate them, employ our terms and attach false meanings to them, and even use our pulpits as places of vantage from which to assail the vital verities of our faith. (S&T 1885:iii)
Spurgeon’s battle with rationalism would result in the most painful conflict of his life, namely the Downgrade Controversy of 1887-1888. In the years leading up to the controversy, Spurgeon had been sounding the alarm that this new rationalism was “no more Christianity than chalk is cheese.” The controversy would come to a head in the fall of 1887, leading to his resignation from the Baptist Union. In the following spring, the Union would publicly censure Spurgeon and issue a declaration that they believed vindicated their evangelical theology. Many former students and allies turned on Spurgeon and criticized him for his stand. According to Susannah, his wife, the Downgrade Controversy was “the deepest grief of his life,” and it “cost him his life.”
Yet, amid this battle, Spurgeon believed that the gospel was not dependent on associations and para-church ministries, but on the faithful ministries of local churches. The best thing he could do in defending and advancing the gospel was to continue to promote a faithful gospel ministry in his own church.
A ministry which, year by year, builds up a living church, and arms it with a complete array of evangelistic and benevolent institutions, will do more by way of apology for the gospel than the most learned pens, or the most labored orations. (S&T 1890:3)
Here are just a few highlights from these five years. As you read through these issues, send us a note on Twitter (@SpurgeonMBTS) if you find anything interesting!
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Another Note of Warning – Spurgeon decries the horrific practices of child trafficking in his day and calls Christians to take action, beginning with prayer.
What I beg of my readers is, that they will, in secret, pray day and night that this tremendous evil may be put down. Special hours should be set apart for quiet personal intercession for our guilty cities. Under God we have nothing to look to but the prayers of the saints and the moral sense of the masses of decent people; laws scarcely touch the evil; the police wink at it; the great ones of the earth are tainted with it. Let us pray. Omnipotent grace can do that which we cannot hope to accomplish of ourselves.
Sinful Silence – There are times when silence is prudent. There are also times when silence is sin.
TREATISES in abundance have been produced upon the sins of speech; but are there not also sins of silence? Spurious silver of speech is current, but base gold of silence is not unknown. A man may transgress as truly by holding his tongue as by speaking unadvisedly with his lips. If by being quiet we could escape from all responsibility, life would be an easy matter, and the coward’s millennium would have arrived. If absolute silence would screen us from duty it might be the highest prudence. But it is not so: our position in life involves us in certain obligations of speech, and if we do not act according to them we shall be verily guilty.
Unity and how not to promote it – What happens when Christians protest against the proliferation of denominations and begin to call themselves the church of Christ?
All Christians desire the unity of the church. No one justifies the divisions of Christendom, or wishes to perpetuate them. The evil results of division are seen at home, and felt abroad in the mission-field; and anything practicable which would bring the churches together, and make them truly one, would command the attention and the favour of all good men. Oh that once again we all rallied to the cry of “ One Lord, one faith, one baptism”!
Out of this most laudable desire grows many an idle attempt, and foisted upon it there may come many a device of the enemy which will work serious mischief.
The Down Grade – This article by Robert Shindler was published in March of 1887, tracing the pattern of theological decline throughout church history. Spurgeon writes in the footnote, “Earnest attention is requested for this paper. There is need of such a warning as this history affords. We are going down hill at break-neck speed.”
These facts furnish a lesson for the present times, when, as in some cases, it is all too plainly apparent men are willing to forego the old for the sake of the new. But commonly it is found in theology that that which is true is not new, and that which is new is not true.
Another Word concerning the Down-Grade – In August of 1887, Spurgeon weighs in on the controversy with his attack on this “new religion” which is “no more Christianity than chalk is cheese.”
A new religion has been initiated, which is no more Christianity than chalk is cheese; and this religion, being destitute of moral honesty, palms itself off as the old faith with slight improvements, and on this plea usurps pulpits which were erected for gospel preaching. The Atonement is scouted, the inspiration of Scripture is derided, the Holy Spirit is degraded into an influence, the punishment of sin is turned into fiction, and the resurrection into a myth, and yet these enemies of our faith expect us to call them brethren, and maintain a confederacy with them!
The Baptist Union Censure – The Council of the Baptist Union censured Spurgeon for insinuating the heterodoxy of unnamed Union members. But Spurgeon’s unwillingness to name names was due to the fact that there was no creed. Without a proper evangelical creed, the Union had no theological basis for their association.
The censure passed upon me by the Council of the Baptist Union will be weighed by the faithful, and estimated at its true value. “Afterwards they have no more that they can do.’’ I brought no charges before the members of the Council, because they could only judge by their constitution, and that document lays down no doctrinal basis except the belief that “ the immersion of believers is the only Christian baptism.” Even the mention of evangelical sentiments has been cut out from their printed programme. No one can be heterodox under this constitution, unless he should forswear his baptism.
Remarks on Inspiration – Spurgeon believed that at the heart of the battle against rationalism was the doctrine of the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture.
The turning-point of the battle between those who hold “the faith once delivered to the saints” and their opponents, lies in the true and real inspiration of the Holy Scriptures. This is the Thermopylae of Christendom. If we have in the Word of God no infallible standard of truth, we are at sea without a compass. No danger from stormy weather without can be equal to this loss within. “If the foundations be removed, what can the righteous do?” And this is a foundation loss of the worst kind.
The Eighth Wonder of the World – The construction of the Eiffel Tower was a parable of the temptation for churches to compete with one another in all kinds of ways.
Far be it from our churches to vie with each other, and go in to build their Babels. To be largest in number, to have the most intellectual persons in our ranks, to attempt the most ambitious missions— these are little enough as objects of ambition. Just now, the tendency is to seek to wield the most potent political influence in Parliaments, Councils, Boards, and Corporations. There may be reasons for this thirst for power; but we earnestly trust they will never even seem to have weight enough to decoy Christians from their legitimate calling; which is, not to win positions, but to win souls; not to canvass votes, but to convince consciences. The hunt after respectability is another form of this tower-building. So is the longing to have the finest building, the largest organ, the most learned doctor, the most eloquent preacher. What! In the worship of God is there to be competition? At our Maker’s feet are we to try to outshine each other?