This entry is part 5 of 9 in the series: Preachers and their preaching
- Preachers and their preaching – John Calvin
- Preachers and their preaching – the Puritans
- Preachers and their preaching – Charles Simeon
- Preachers and their preaching – Phillips Brooks
- Preachers and their preaching – C.H. Spurgeon
- Preachers and their preaching – D.M. Lloyd-Jones
- Preachers and their preaching – J. Sidlow Baxter
- Preachers and their preaching – John Stott
- Preachers and their preaching – Fred Craddock
Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834-1892) is widely regarded as the ‘Prince of Preachers’. Converted at the age of 15, he began preaching soon afterwards. In 1854, at the age of just 19, he was called to the pastorate at New Park Street Chapel, Southwark, London. Throughout his life – and well beyond – a weekly sermon was published. These were bound up in annual volumes – The New Park Street Pulpit, and then (following a move to purpose-built premises) the Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit.
Although Spurgeon is sometimes depicted as a pulpiteer whose main qualities were his wit and humour, this is an extremely inadequate portrayal. It is true that he had a wonderful facility for illustration and anecdote, for simile and metaphor, but the prevailing sense one gets when perusing his sermons, his autobiography, or any of his other voluminous writings, is of a man who was deeply earnest about the gospel, and profoundly committed to the reformed faith.
The particular aspect of Spurgeon’s preaching that I want to comment on is practice of preaching from isolated texts – often single verses. He did not generally take a paragraph, say, of Scripture, and expound it. And he did not preach series of sermons. He did not preach through books, or even parts of books, of the Bible.
This is not because Spurgeon despised exposition. On the contrary, in a lecture entitled ‘On Commenting’ (included in Commenting and Commentaries) he noted that preaching in the ancient church consisted largely of the exposition of substantial passages of Scripture. He remarks, ‘I could almost wish that the custom were re-established, for the present plan of preaching from short texts…is very unsatisfactory. We cannot expect to deliver much of the teaching of Holy Scripture by picking out verse by verse, and holding these up at random.’ Yet that is precisely what he did himself, till the end of his days! And Spurgeon’s remedy for the lack of expository preaching was not to re-instate it, but rather to recommend an alternative in the form of giving a ‘running commentary’ on a passage of scripture during divine service. He he devoted considerable energy to these. Although it is Spurgeon’s sermons that are known and honoured to this day, he said that as a rule he spent much more time preparing his expositions than his discourses.
It seems, then, that Spurgeon’s practice of preaching from isolated, unconnected verses was maintained almost reluctantly, in compliance with the normal preaching habits of his day. In Preaching and Preachers, D.M. Lloyd-Jones, however, identifies another reason why Spurgeon avoided consecutive exposition:-
‘[Spurgeon] did not believe in preaching a series of sermons; indeed, he opposed doing so very strongly. He said that there was a sense in which it was impertinent for a man to decide to preach a series of sermons. He held that the texts should be given to the preacher, that he should seek the Lord in this matter and ask for guidance. He held that the preacher should decide but pray for the guidance and the leading of the Holy Spirit, and then submit himself this. He will thus be led to particular texts and statements which he will then expound in sermonic form.’
But, as Lloyd-Jones adds:-
‘I cannot see why the Spirit should not guide a man to preach a series of sermons on a passage or a book of the Bible as well as lead him to one text only.’
We give thanks to God for the influence of C.H. Spurgeon in his own place and time and well beyond. He was a great Christian soul, and a great preacher. However, no human being is beyond criticism, and we cannot but think that his chosen approach to preaching was less than ideal, and certainly not a model to be widely followed in our own day.