Blog Entry

Spurgeon's Evangelical Conversionism

By Ed Romine Mar 1, 2019

“You must believe in Jesus; you must be born again, and receive the new life.”[1]

 

            When Charles Haddon Spurgeon preached these words on February 13, 1876, such impassioned pleas for sinners to come to Christ were part of the grand tradition of evangelical conversionism. Indeed, Spurgeon loved to see unconverted sinners come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ.  According to David Bebbington, conversionism entailed more than “the belief that lives need to be changed,”[2] specifically, lives needed to be changed by the gospel of Jesus Christ. Bebbington also noted that “The call to conversion”[3] was seen as “the content of the gospel.”[4] Accordingly, it was the duty of preachers to urge their hearers to repent of their sins and cling to Christ by faith. So urgent was the call to conversion that evangelicals saw a danger in “offering only comfort from the pulpit.”[5] Rather, “hearers needed to be aroused to concern for their spiritual welfare.”[6] And that is exactly what Spurgeon did.

 

            For Charles Spurgeon, conversion was more than merely walking down a church aisle or repeating the “sinners’ prayer.” True conversion was a supernatural experience. The “great change”[7] could not be produced by “the fear of imprisonment, the authority of law, the charms of bribery, the clamour of excitement, or the glitter of eloquence,” but only by “the mysterious work of the Spirit upon the soul.”[8]

 

            However, this urgent attitude towards conversion was not new, but part of a growing evangelical tradition which began in large part with George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards. Writing on Whitefield’s conversion, historian Thomas S. Kidd has noted that “For Whitefield conversion was a titanic spiritual struggle…. [over] who would command your souls allegiance, God or the devil.”[9] So intense was his conversion journey that he could say. “Every day God made me willing to renew the combat.”[10] Indeed, Whitefield “carried the burden of his unforgiven sin and the separation it created between him and God,”[11] until at last Whitefield could say: “The spirit of mourning was taken from me, and I knew what it was to rejoice in God my Saviour.”[12] Simply, “In Whitefield’s world, conversion to faith in Christ was no polite, simple affair.”[13]

 

            Similarly, when one considers sermons such as Jonathan Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” it is not difficult to understand the urgency of conversion. In his sermon, Edwards painted graphic images of helpless sinners before a wrathful God, warning the unconverted that “God. . . abhors you” and that God held unconverted sinners “over the pit of hell” like a spider is held “over the fire.”[14]

 

            Indeed, considering the spiritual climate of Edwards’ and Whitefield’s day, it is not difficult to understand why conversions were dramatic. The common man was spiritually sensitive. Unlike today, death and sin were an ever-present reality. Such was the case that George Whitfield could warn “Though this is Saturday night, and ye are now preparing for the sabbath, for what you know, you may yet never live to see the sabbath.”[15] Tragically, young children were especially susceptible death and suffering. The stark reality of death was so pervasive that even schoolbooks took the opportunity to teach about death. For example, in the New England Primer, children learned of both the frailty of life and the immanency of death. For instance, the page for the letter “T” featured a woodcut of the grim reaper with the text “Time cuts down all, both great and small,”[16] while the letter “Y” bore the text “Youth forward slips, Death soonest nips”[17] with a woodcut of death holding an arrow to a child’s head.[18] Even the knowledge of original sin was inculcated as the text for the letter “A” reminded that “In Adam’s fall, we sinned all,”[19] teaching that all children are sinners by birth, not merely by choice. On this, George Marsden has noted that “Much of Puritan upbringing was designed to teach children to recognize how insecure their lives were. Every child knew of brothers, sisters, cousins, or friends who had suddenly died.”[20]

 

            Similarly, the Victorian England in which Spurgeon lived was well acquainted with the grim spectre of death. Furthermore, evangelicals also “accepted without question that heaven and a hell existed and that this earth was a testing ground.”[21] Disease was common, and influenza, typhus, typhoid, and cholera ravaged the land. Spurgeon remarked that “churches have been crammed with hearers, who, because so many funerals have passed their doors, or so many have died in the street, could not refrain from going up to God’s house to confess their sins.”[22]

 

             Furthermore, ever since John Bunyan’s allegory The Holy War the evangelical imagination has been engaged in the trenches of gracious gospel ministry. In The Holy War, the city of Mansoul, once loyal to El Shaddai, is taken over by the evil Diabolus. A great battle then ensued which culminated in Emmanuel gaining the victory for the city of Mansoul. Indeed, as one reads the work the urgency of conversion is magnified through the use of militaristic language. Ever mindful of Bunyan, Spurgeon’s own ministry mirrored such urgency as he preached because he knew that he was in a holy war for souls. Eternity hung in the balance for lost souls, and so every sermon issued an assault on spiritual darkness. For Spurgeon, the horrors of hell were too terrible to be trifled with. Indeed, Spurgeon lamented, “Oh! what would the damned in hell give for a sermon could they but listen once more to the church-going bell and go up to the sanctuary!”[23]

 

            Spurgeon’s language concerning conversion was direct, using terms such as ‘soul-winning.’ For Spurgeon, to go soul-winning was to enter war. In his view, “You must throw your soul into your work just as a warrior must throw his soul into a battle.”[24] The Prince of Preachers believed that all Christians ought to possess a burning desire to see other sinners saved from God’s fiery wrath, and for Spurgeon it was “a happy thing”[25] to “win souls for Jesus.”[26]

 

            However, the conflict for souls was not a game of mere numbers, indeed, Spurgeon warned against false conversions saying that “A false profession is one of the worst of lies.”[27] His strong words to false converts leave no doubt concerning the serious nature of living hypocritically: “The man that says, ‘I know Christ,’ and does not keep his commandments, is making his own damnation sure.”[28] Spurgeon was convinced that true conversion necessarily changed a person’s life, so much so, in fact, that Spurgeon declared that false converts preached a “devil’s gospel”[29] with their “hands, feet, and hearts.”[30] While this is indeed strong language it is true language nonetheless.

 

            But amidst the clamor of war Spurgeon rested in the knowledge that “There is a power in God's gospel beyond all description.”[31] In Spurgeon’s view, conversion required that “Our condition before God, our moral tone, our nature, our state of mind, are. . . totally different from what they were before.”[32] Simply, true conversion must bring lasting change.

 

            Furthermore, Spurgeon believed that conversion was deeply personal. On this point, he emphatically declared that a sinner must “personally repent of sin, personally believe in Jesus Christ, personally be converted, and personally live to the service and glory of God.”[33] Spurgeon believed that it was the duty of the sinner to believe in Christ alone and vicarious Christianity was not an option. However, it is equally true that the Holy Spirit must open a sinner’s heart to believe the gospel message. When asked about this apparent tension in the Scriptures Spurgeon stated that he had “long ago given up trying to reconcile friends who never fell out.”[34] For Spurgeon, there was no issue because the Word of God teaches both realities. God is sovereign in the salvation of sinners, and man has the divine duty to repent and believe. For example, while Spurgeon pleaded with sinners to “trust thy soul with him,”[35] he also petitioned God “to grant, poor soul, that thou mayest lay hold on Christ this morning.”[36] Spurgeon lived happily with what he saw to be a God-ordained tension in the Scriptures.     

 

            Spurgeon believed lives needed to be changed, eternally changed. Throughout his ministry his passion to see souls saved was never quenched. He pleaded with Christians not to “go to heaven childless” and lamented the lost myriads “going down to hell by thousands.”[37] Indeed, as the examplar of evangelical conversionism Spurgeon offered one final charge: “Young men, and old men, and sisters of all ages, if you love the Lord get a passion for souls.”[38]

 


Edward G. Romine is a Residency Ph.D. student in historical theology studying Spurgeon at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Missouri. He received his Master of Divinity and Master of Theology degrees from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He has been a preacher of the gospel since 2007. He currently serves as a Research Assistant at The Spurgeon Library.

 

 

 

 

 

 


[1] C. H. Spurgeon, The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit: Sermons Preached and Revised by C.H. Spurgeon. Vols. 7-63 (Pasadena, TX: Pilgrim Publications, 1970-2006), MTP 50:130.

[2] D. W. Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s (London: Routledge, 1989), 16.

[3] Ibid., 20.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 21.

[6] Ibid.

[7] MTP 19:703.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Thomas Kidd, George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014), 20.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid., 21

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid., 20.

[14] Jonathan Edwards, Sinners in the Hands of An Angry God: A Sermon Preached at Ensfield, July 8th, 1741. At A Time of Great Awakenings; and Attended with Remarkable Impressions on Many of the Hearers (Boston: Printed by n.p., n.d.; Edinburgh: Reprinted by T. Lumisden and J. Robertson, 1745), 16.

[15] George Whitfield, Sermon XXIII , “Marks of a True Conversion,” The Works of the Reverend George Whitfield, M. A. Late of Pembroke-College, Oxford, and Chaplain to the Rt. The Countess of Huntington. Containing All His Sermons and Tracts Which Have Been Already Published: with a Select Collection of Letters, Written to His Most Intimate Friends, and Persons of Distinction, in England, Scotland, Ireland, and America, from the Year 1734, to 1770, Including the Whole Period of His Ministry. Also Some Other Pieces on Important Subjects, Never Before Printed; Prepared by Himself for the Press. To which is Prefixed, An Account of His Life, Compiled from His Original Papers and Letters (London: Printed for Edward and Charles Dilly, 1772), 346.

[16] George Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 27.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid., 26.

[21] Christopher Hibbert, "Flesh and the Spirit," Life in Victorian England (E-Book; Newbury: New Word City, 2016), http://proxy01.mbts.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=ip,url,cpid&custid=s8385080&db=nlebk&AN=1370499&site=eds-live., accessed 12/17/2018.

[22] C. H. Spurgeon, The New Park Street Pulpit: Containing Sermons Preached and Revised by the Rev. C. H. Spurgeon, 6 Vols. (Pasadena, TX: Pilgrim Publications, 1970-2006), NPSP 3:50.

[23] NPSP 6:488.

[24] MTP 22:260.

[25] Ibid., 261.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid., 257.

[28] MTP 16:178.

[29] Ibid., 22:255

[30] Ibid.

[31] NPSP 1:57.

[32] MTP 20:402.

[33] Ibid., 24:99.

[34] Ibid., 46:422.

[35] Ibid., 9:504.

[36] Ibid., 15:336.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Ibid.