Nearly three hundred fifty years after Martin Luther nailed the 95 Theses to the castle church door in Wittenburg, Charles Haddon Spurgeon confronted the growing influence of Roman Catholic teaching within the Church of England. Led by Edward Pusey and others, the Oxford Movement called the Church of England to return to her pre-Reformation traditions and teaching. Spurgeon considered this a betrayal of the gospel and, beginning in 1864, would take a Luther-like stand for the truth. This essay will argue that Spurgeon drew from Luther’s model of bold leadership and teaching on justification by faith in his battle against the Oxford Movement.
“Every period is, on some account or other, a crisis. The conflict between the powers of darkness and the Spirit of truth concerns such vital interests, and is conducted with such unceasing energy, that each moment is big with importance, and every instant is the hinge of destiny.”1 So wrote Charles Haddon Spurgeon in 1866. In many ways, this statement could have been a description of the life of Martin Luther as he battled the Roman Catholic Church in his day and launched the Protestant Reformation. But what Spurgeon had in mind was not Luther’s battle, but his own.
Beginning in the early 19th century, in response to the “quiet worldliness” of the church, the rationalism of the Enlightenment, and the inactivity of evangelical churchmen,2 a movement arose out of Oxford that sought to bring the English Church back to its former glory prior to the Reformation. Led initially by John H. Newman3 and later by Edward B. Pusey, the Oxford Movement4 was driven by a series of publications, the Tracts for the Times.5 In them, they argued for the recovery of an older understanding of the Church, for apostolic succession, a sacramental6 view of salvation, the authority of tradition alongside the Scriptures, the use of the confessional, and other doctrines associated with Roman Catholic teaching. Though the movement was initially condemned, its writings continued to be distributed and discussed among the rising generation of Anglican priests. By the mid-1800s, the Church of England was reinvigorated, in no small part owing to the Oxford Movement, resulting in advances in literature, hymns, art, and architecture,7 the founding of new schools, and the building of hundreds of new churches,8 not only in England but throughout the British empire.9 It was in this context that Spurgeon began his pastoral ministry in 1854 at the New Park Street Chapel, later to become the Metropolitan Tabernacle.10
Separated by three and a half centuries, both Spurgeon and Luther recognized the threat to the gospel and the church in the teaching of Roman Catholicism, and both would engage in the fight for biblical truth. Though Spurgeon’s theological tradition flowed from the Reformed family of churches11 particularly through the English Puritans, he nonetheless drew heavily from Luther’s reformation legacy. This essay will argue Charles Spurgeon employed Martin Luther’s model of bold leadership and teaching on justification by faith in his battle against the Oxford Movement.
1. Spurgeon and Luther
Luther’s influence on Spurgeon began at an early age. At fifteen, Spurgeon wrote a 295-page essay entitled, “Antichrist and Her Brood; or, Popery Unmasked.”12 Though this essay was primarily influenced by his reading of the English Puritans,13 it is clear that Spurgeon had some understanding at this point of “Luther’s Reformation.” The chapter headings of this essay reveal Spurgeon’s anti-Catholicism, confronting the darkness, superstition, and persecution of popery. What is missing is a chapter on the doctrine of justification by faith, which lay at the heart of Luther’s theology. Though Spurgeon would have known about this doctrine, he did not come to saving knowledge of it until the following year. Through the preaching of an unknown deacon in a Primitive Methodist chapel, Spurgeon came to see that his salvation lay not in his works, but in the simple act of faith, looking to Christ for salvation. “There and then the cloud was gone, the darkness had rolled away, and that moment I saw the sun.”14 This Luther-like discovery would launch him into a life-long ministry of proclaiming and defending this message.
At the age of 19, Spurgeon was called by the New Park Street Chapel to serve as pastor. As a new preacher in London, Spurgeon had his share of critics and being young, he had not yet become accustomed to the public attacks which came from many directions.15 But he found strength in the example of Martin Luther. In a sermon preached towards the end of his first year of ministry at the New Park Street Chapel, Spurgeon declared,
I have often admired Martin Luther, and wondered at his composure.… In a far inferior manner, I have been called to stand up in the position of Martin Luther, and have been made the butt of slander, a mark for laughter and scorn; but it has not broken my spirit yet, nor will it… But thus far I beg to inform all those who choose to slander or speak ill of me, that they are very welcome to do so till they are tired of it. My motto is cedo nulli—I yield to none.16
Since his first pastorate at Waterbeach, Spurgeon was intimately familiar with Luther’s Commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians.17Commenting on Galatians 2:6 and reflecting on his own opposition, Luther wrote, “In this matter of faith, I will give place to none, according to the proverb cedo nulli.”18 As Spurgeon faced opposition in his early ministry, he found a father in the faith in Luther. Luther’s motto became Spurgeon’s and this unwavering stance on the gospel would mark both of their ministries.
Spurgeon would go on to preach thousands of sermons and Luther’s influence on Spurgeon can be seen in those sermons.19Spurgeon often referred to Luther’s life to teach his congregation and students about prayer, meditating on Scripture, conversion, resisting the devil, pastoral ministry, and more. However, there were two prominent themes that Spurgeon would repeat when speaking of Luther: his bold leadership against the Roman Catholic Church and the doctrine of justification by faith alone. These two themes can be seen in the sermons that Spurgeon preached on the commemoration of the 400th anniversary of Luther’s birth.20
On Sunday morning, November 11, 1883, Spurgeon preached “A Luther Sermon at the Tabernacle” on Habakkuk 2:4, “The just shall live by faith.”21 Here, Spurgeon comes to the center of Luther’s theology: “I wish to take my little share in commemorating Luther’s birthday, and I think I can do no better than use the key of truth by which Luther unlocked the dungeons of the human mind and set bondage hearts at liberty. That golden key lies in the truth briefly contained in the text before us – ‘The just shall live by his faith.’”22 In his first two points, Spurgeon outlines the difference that faith will make in producing a just life, both individually and in society. Spurgeon echoes Luther’s rejection of any antinomian understanding of faith. However, in his third point, Spurgeon makes clear that though faith produces works, one is not justified by works or anything else, but by faith alone. “At one blow this ends all claims of righteousness apart from one mode of life.… Implicit trust in Jesus, our Lord, is the way of life, and every other way leads down to death.”23 It is this truth that demolished the teaching of Roman Catholicism that Luther spent his life proclaiming. And yet, the work is not finished. Luther’s torch has been passed down to the present day. “Today the truth proclaimed by Luther continues to be preached, and will be till our Lord himself shall come … but till then we must shine with gospel light to our utmost. Brethren, let us stand to it that as Luther lived by faith even so will we.”24
That evening, Spurgeon preached another commemoration sermon, “A Luther Sermon at Exeter Hall,”25 this time on Galatians 5:6. In this sermon, Spurgeon focused on the centrality of faith above ritualism. “When God raised up Martin Luther, who was born four centuries ago, he bore emphatic testimony against salvation by outward forms and by the power of priestcraft, affirming that salvation is by faith alone, and that the whole church of God is a company of priests, every believer being a priest unto God.”26 Justification by faith banished priestly ritualism and transformed not only the individual, but also the church, into an army of active ministers of God. As a Baptist, Spurgeon held strongly to Luther’s teaching on the priesthood of all believers, and this was rooted in the doctrine of justification by faith. In his first three points, Spurgeon unpacked the definition, necessity, and operation of faith. But in his concluding point, Spurgeon reflected on the fruit of Luther’s active faith. In the face of opposition and temptation, it was faith which enabled Luther to make an open declaration of his convictions and persevere in courage. But for Spurgeon, this was not merely historical curiosity. Luther’s faith stood as a model for all believers. “O you who make no profession, let this man’s outspoken faith rebuke you! His dauntless valor for truth caused him to be greatly hated in his own day with a ferocity which has not yet died out.”27
These two themes of justification by faith alone and faith’s fruit of courage marked Spurgeon’s use of Luther against the Oxford Movement in his day. As Spurgeon encountered growing Roman Catholic teaching and practice throughout England, as he saw the relative indifference among evangelical churchmen and nonconformists, he pointed to the example and teaching of Luther to bring about reform in his day.
One clarification should be made: Spurgeon’s use of Luther was not geared towards the academy. The historical details were not always precise,28 and his preaching on justification aimed first at conversion rather than theological debate. This is not to say that Spurgeon was not concerned for or incapable of historical and theological scholarship.29 Rather, Spurgeon was a preacher and his primary audience was not the intellectual elite, but the common person. In this, he followed the example of Luther:
Luther said, “When I am preaching, I see Dr. Jonas sitting there, and Oecolampadius, and Melanchthon, and I say to myself, ‘Those learned doctors know enough already; so I need not trouble about them. I shall fire at the poor people in the aisles.’” That is the way Luther preached, and God richly blessed his ministry because he did it.30
Like Luther, Spurgeon held to the priesthood of all believers and knew that reformation would only happen as the people were equipped with the truth. And so his preaching was aimed at the pew, seeking to stir his hearers with the courage and teaching of Martin Luther.
2. Faith’s Courage
The Oxford Movement had the advantage of operating within the Church of England. As the established state church, it enjoyed the privilege of government sanction, the respectability of history, and the funding of mandatory tithes and taxes from all citizens. Nonconformists, on the other hand, were relegated to a second-class status.31 Though they had come a long way since the Toleration Act 1689, they were still at an institutional disadvantage. Spurgeon understood that pushing back the Oxford Movement and the influence of the Church of England would require not only a change in the law, but a change in the hearts of the English people, through the courageous example of a leader.
In the August 1866 edition of The Sword and the Trowel, Spurgeon penned an article entitled, “The Holy War of the Present Hour.”32In this article, he tells the story of Arnold von Winkelried, a Swiss soldier who sacrificed his life, crashing through the ranks of the Austrian phalanx and allowing his comrades to burst through the gap and defeat their enemies. Then Spurgeon draws this lesson:
All great movements need the entire self-sacrifice of some one man who, careless of consequences, will throw himself upon the spears of the enemy. Providence has usually raised up such a one just when he was needed, and we may look for such a person to come suddenly to the front now. Meanwhile, is there not a man of the sort to be found in our churches? We believe there are many, and to aid in identifying them we will sketch the man required. He must be simple-minded, outspoken, bold and fearless of consequences. To him courage must be instead of prudence, and faith instead of policy. He must be prepared to be apparently despised and really hated, because intensely dreaded, tie must reckon upon having every sentence he utters distorted, and every action misrepresented, but in this he must rejoice so long as his blows tell and his utterances win a hearing. Ease, reputation, comfort, he must renounce, and be content so long as he lives to dwell without the world’s camp. Standing at the point of the wedge he must be ambitious to bury as many spears as possible in his own bosom that others may win the victory. Now who is the man who should naturally take up this position? Who in our churches is most called to it? Is it not the minister of Christ?33
Undoubtedly, Spurgeon considered Luther as the “one man” who sacrificed himself in his day, bearing the blows of the enemy, acting in courage and faith, rather than prudence and policy. And through his sacrifice, Luther began the great movement of the Protestant Reformation that pushed back the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. For Spurgeon, Luther’s example was a model for how victory was to be won in all spiritual and theological conflict. After all, this was the model that Christ set as he sacrificed himself for the salvation of his people, and the ministers of Christ were to follow his example.
This is what Spurgeon set out to do on June 5, 1864 in the sermon “Baptismal Regeneration.”34 On the Sunday after the 300th anniversary of John Calvin’s death,35 Spurgeon preached a sermon condemning the doctrine of baptismal regeneration found in the teaching of the Book of Common Prayer as unbiblical and damning. Spurgeon warned his publishers about the risk that this sermon would pose for the sale of his weekly sermons.36 He was also deeply aware of how this would expose him to the slander of his enemies, and yet, like Luther, he dared not go against his conscience.37 He had to speak regardless the cost. This sermon was his 95 Theses moment. And it was only the beginning.
Three weeks later, he preached another sermon on Hebrews 13:13, “Let Us Go Forth,”38 calling evangelicals to leave the Church of England. This would be followed by two more sermons, “Children Brought to Christ, and Not to the Font”39 and “‘Thus Saith the Lord’: Or, the Book of Common Prayer Weighed in the Balances of the Sanctuary,”40 both attacking the unscriptural traditions of the Church of England. These four sermons would be published together in one volume and sold to the public.41 After 1864, Spurgeon would continue his attacks through The Sword and the Trowel, publishing 22 different articles in the next five years against Roman Catholicism and the Oxford Movement, and more in the years following. Spurgeon would even withdraw from the Evangelical Alliance in 1870 for his denunciation of evangelicals in the Church of England.42 In all this, Spurgeon ignited a firestorm of controversy. Hundreds of articles were written and hundreds of sermons were preached against him. Many of Spurgeon’s former evangelical allies turned against him. However, because of Spurgeon’s leadership, many notable pastors also joined him in this fight, along with many more lesser known ones.43
But Spurgeon’s goal was not only to stir up pastors to follow his lead, but also to mobilize the lay people. Living under a monarchy, Luther believed that reformation in his day would not advance apart from the support of the magisterial authorities. In his treatise To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation Concerning the Reform of the Christian Estate, Luther argued that the Roman Catholic Church had made itself impervious to all church reform, and therefore, called the political authorities to bring about reform within their lands.44
But Spurgeon lived under a democratic government. Additionally, as one who held to a congregationalist church polity, Spurgeon understood that the authority within the church lay fundamentally with the people, not with any magisterial authority. Therefore, any attempt to bypass the congregation in bringing about church reform would be futile. Speaking in 1866 to a Welsh congregation in London about the spread of Roman Catholicism in the Church of England, Spurgeon makes this point, “How well the Reformation went on under Martin Luther until kings came in to help it! … As soon as ever the kings touched the Reformation, the Reformation ceased. It never went further; it could not, it was impossible.” This was the problem with Cromwell’s reformation, that it “was achieved by carnal weapons.”45 Though their contexts were very different, Luther and Spurgeon both sought to involve the authorities of their day, whether magisterial or democratic, to bring about change.
As a Baptist, Spurgeon rejected the establishment of any religion by the state as unjust and the source of religious persecution. “The dogma of union between church and state … is the essence of Antichrist and the germ of persecution: an injustice to man, and an impertinence to God.”46 Therefore, he fought for the disestablishment of the Church of England. His goal was for the government to not coerce or extend patronage towards any religion. To do so would be to go the way of Rome. “To act as Rome has acted is to unprotestantise ourselves … is to degrade ourselves to their level by handling their weapons.”47 Rather, through his preaching and publications, Spurgeon sought to expose superstition within the Church of England and to stir the hearts of the people to call for the abolishing of the state church.
The main way that Spurgeon envisioned this happening was as people abandoned the Church of England. In his sermon “Let Us Go Forth,” Spurgeon used Luther as an example of courage. Here was one who was willing to leave the established church:
Many there were who said, “The Church of Rome has in it good and true men: let us try and reform her. Her cloisters are not without piety, her priests are not without sanctified lives—let us try and restore her purity”; but Luther heard the voice of God, “Come ye out from among her, lest ye be partakers of her plagues”; and therefore he led the van, taking for his watchword, “Let us go forth without the camp.” To this day the Christian’s place is not to tarry in the camp of worldly conformity, hoping, “Perhaps I may aid the movement for reform”: it is not the believer’s duty to conform to the world and to the world’s ways, and say, “Perhaps by so doing I may gain a foothold, and men’s hearts may be the more ready to receive the truth.” No, from the first to the last day of the Church of God, the place of witness is not inside, but outside the camp; and the true position of the Christian is to go forth without the camp, bearing Christ’s reproach.48
Historians have sought to explain Luther’s harsh handling of his opponents and some have traced the theme of passive blasphemy in Luther’s polemics. As Luther encountered active blasphemy, he refused to be complicit in that blasphemy by remaining quiet. Luther believed that those who remained quiet betrayed the cause of Christ.49 In many ways, Spurgeon reflected this view, shown in his scathing words against professing evangelicals who remained within the Church of England:
When will you come out? How far is the corrupt element to prevail before you will separate from it? You are mainly responsible for the growth of all this Popery, for your piety is the mainstay and salt of what would otherwise soon become too foul to be endured, and would then most readily be swept from the earth. You hinder reformation! You protect these growing upas trees which drip with death to the souls of men! You foster these vipers beneath your goodly garments! You will be used as a shield to protect the agents of the devil, until they need you no longer, and then they will cast you away! For the love you bear to your Redeemer, be duped no longer, and by your own hatred of monkery and priestcraft, come ye out from among them, be ye separate, and touch not the unclean thing.50
However, Spurgeon was not content merely to address evangelical churchmen. He also addressed Protestant dissenters. “How can you so often truckle to a Church which is assuming the rags of the old harlot more and more openly every day? Alliance with true believers is one thing, but union with a Popish sect is quite another.”51 Though Spurgeon did not deny the reality of individual believers within the Church of England, he rejected the notion that there might be an evangelical alliance with a Church that held to Popish doctrines and practices. This was a call for dissenting churches to raise their voices and disavow their relationship with the Anglican Church.
But Spurgeon believed that the injustice of a state church ought to be the concern not only for Christians, but for all English citizens. In an article describing the horrors of the Inquisition, Spurgeon warned his readers,
Against her common humanity is up in arms as much as evangelical religion. Her confessional is as dangerous to the mere moralist as to the Christian; her inquisition would be as ruinous to mercantile prosperity as to spiritual activity. Men of all religions and of no religion should deprecate the growth of a system which rendered the Inquisition possible.52
Like Luther, Spurgeon employed the media channels of his day to educate the people of his country and engage them in the fight against Roman Catholic teaching. In Luther, Spurgeon found the example of courage needed for reformation, and by his bold leadership, he sought to bring others into the fight along with him.
3. Justification by Faith
According to historian Owen Chadwick, the Oxford Movement was not so much concerned about religious doctrine as it was about religious experience. Those within the movement detected an antinomian passivity within Reformed theology and yet they were hesitant to turn to the social works agenda of Rationalism. As a result, they emphasized religious experience, “the sense of awe and ministry in religion, the profundity of reverence, the concern with conscience not only by way of duty, but by growth of holiness,”53rather than doctrine. The difference between the old high church and the Oxford Movement was not so much about theology, but in visible and external “atmosphere.”54
Even so, they did not hesitate to articulate their theological position in their publications—particularly the Tracts for the Times—and lectures. Led by Newman, Pusey, and others, the Oxford Movement sought to find some compromise—a via media—between Protestantism and Catholicism. In their doctrine of justification, they rejected the Roman Catholic teaching on merit and works of supererogation, and thus denied any charge of salvation through good works. And yet, they affirmed a “moderate” theology of justification, stressing the necessity of good works as a fruit of faith, even allowing that works could be accepted before justification, that justification could be a process, and that righteousness was not only imputed, but imparted.55 And so, in order to aid Christians in that process of justification, the Oxford Movement “called the Church of England to revive the ancient ways … not only in doctrine, but in liturgy and devotion … [in] daily worship, frequent celebrations, and more ornaments and vestures than were commonly to be found in English parish churches.”56
Spurgeon, however, rejected all this. The only difference he allowed between the Popery of Rome and the Popery of Oxford was in history and circumstances. In essence, they were “both equally deadly, and equally to be abhorred.”57 But what was the danger in “candles, vestments, crosses, altars”? Could not these things be adiaphora, things indifferent, as the Lutheran tradition taught? Reflecting the Reformed tradition before him, Spurgeon held to the regulative principle, which only permitted those things prescribed in God’s Word for the worship of the church. Things which were initially tolerated as adiophora by the early English reformers had now come to be viewed as necessary by those within the Oxford Movement.58 More importantly, Spurgeon saw how these rituals darkened the hearts of men to the light of the gospel. “I see this coming up everywhere – a belief in ceremony, a resting in ceremony, a veneration for altars, fonts, and Churches.… Here is the essence and soul of Popery, peeping up under the garb of a decent respect for sacred things.”59 Spurgeon’s concern was not merely for the growth in ceremony and ritual, but for what those things represented, namely a “resting in ceremony” rather than a resting in Christ. Too often these religious experiences became a substitute for saving faith.
This is where Spurgeon and Luther come together. Though Spurgeon and Luther would have disagreed on the allowance of external aspects of liturgy in corporate worship, both agreed on this point: a clear understanding of the doctrine of justification by faith is of ultimate importance. For Luther, this meant rejecting the growing iconoclasm and being slow to reform the church’s liturgy because he did not want his people to place their trust in their own works of reform.60 For Spurgeon, this meant denouncing the growing ritualism of his day that distracted people from the gospel.
Central to any reformation within the church is a clear proclamation of the gospel of salvation: “This great doctrine of a salvation which emanates from God and not from man, was not only the power of God to save the soul of Luther, it also became the power of God to reform the Church.”61 Therefore, it is particularly fitting that Spurgeon, a Baptist, began his battle against the Church of England with a sermon against baptismal regeneration. Whereas Luther confronted the abuse of indulgences, denouncing them as opposed to the truth of justification by faith, Spurgeon confronted the baptismal language of the Anglican liturgy which declared infants regenerate and bypassed the salvation that only happens through faith in Christ.
The form for the administration of this baptism is scarcely less plain and outspoken, seeing that thanks are expressly returned unto Almighty God, because the person baptized is regenerate. “Then shall the priest say, ‘Seeing now, dearly beloved brethren, that this child is regenerate and grafted into the body of Christ’s Church, let us give thanks unto Almighty God for these benefits; and with one accord make our prayers unto him, that this child may lead the rest of his life according to this beginning.’”62
His objection here was not with infant baptism, as practiced by other Protestants.63 Rather, he was outraged, because such teaching directly contradicted the doctrine of justification by faith alone, removing the necessity of faith for salvation. According to the Scriptures, regeneration, or new birth, is inseparably tied to salvation and does not happen apart from faith in Christ, by the work of the Holy Spirit.64 And yet, the liturgy of the Church of England, like the Roman Catholic Church, taught regeneration for all those who were baptized as infants. Spurgeon saw how this doctrine inoculated people from the gospel and robbed it of its power in their lives.
The man who has been baptized or sprinkled says, “I am saved, I am a member of Christ, a child of God, and an inheritor of the kingdom of heaven. Who are you, that you should rebuke me? Call me to repentance? Call me to a new life? … It is true, I drink and swear, and all that, but you know I am an inheritor of the kingdom of heaven, for when I die, though I live in constant sin, you will put me in the grave, and tell everybody that I died ‘in sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life.’”65
Here, Spurgeon refers also to the language of the burial service, which assured all those who died within the church of a “sure and certain hope” of eternal life. Whether expressed in baptism or in burial, membership within the Church of England had become a substitute for a life of repentance and faith in Christ.
At the heart of Spurgeon’s battle against the Oxford Movement was a battle for the gospel. Thus, he concludes,
We shall be clear, I say, of those who teach salvation by baptism, instead of salvation by the blood of our blessed Master, Jesus Christ.… Here shall come the great battle between Christ and his saints on the one hand, and the world, and forms, and ceremonies, on the other. If we are overcome here, there may be years of blood and persecution, and tossing to and fro between darkness and light; but if we are brave and bold, and flinch not here, but stand to God’s truth, the future of England may be bright and glorious.66
Because the gospel was at stake, no Christian could sit on the sideline, but all would have to be engaged in this battle for the truth.
The battle for the gospel was also a battle over authority. The Oxford Movement based their claims in the ancient traditions of the Church of England. Like Luther, Spurgeon proclaimed the authority of the Word of God over all the traditions of men. Luther’s famous statement at the Diet of Worms was not about the principle of freedom of conscience, as so many have argued. Rather it was about Luther’s discovery of the authority of the Scriptures and his “absolute obedience to the Scriptures against any authorities; be they popes or councils.”67 On the foundation of the Scriptures, Luther built his reformation and Spurgeon followed.
Though the Oxford Movement appealed to an older tradition prior to the English Reformation, Spurgeon appealed to an even older authority, the teaching of the prophets and apostles in the Word of God. Whereas Roman Catholicism had built a doctrinal fortress,68Spurgeon envisioned Scripture as “the great corvus” capable of pulling down that “piece by piece the mischievous system of falsehood, be it never so great or high.”69 One of the clearest examples of this is his sermon, “Thus Saith the Lord.” While his critics accused him of being ignorant of “historical theology” and “logical terms,”70 Spurgeon again and again takes them back to the Scriptures and demands for Scriptural proof of their teaching. In the main body of this sermon, he works through the Book of Common Prayer and examines the sacramental language associated with the rites of baptism, confirmation, absolution, burial, ordination, the crowning of monarchy, and excommunication. For each of these practices, Spurgeon asks, “Is there a ‘Thus saith the Lord’? … Will any person find us a text of Scripture?”71 Much like the sermon “Baptismal Regeneration,” Spurgeon argued that the Church of England’s use of the Book of Common Prayer undermined the authority of Scripture.
Like Luther, Spurgeon understood that true reformation had to be built on the Word of God. There, the gospel is found, and all other systems of salvation are torn down. “As long as one Bible remains, the religion of free grace will live.… Because of this, let us be comforted in this day of blasphemy and of rebuke-comforted because though ‘the grass withereth, and the flower thereof falleth away: but the word of the Lord endureth for ever. And this is the word which by the gospel is preached unto you.’”72
Throughout his ministry, Spurgeon was committed to promoting unity among evangelicals regardless of denomination, so long as the gospel was held in common. Whether Methodist, Congregationalist, Presbyterian, Baptist, or even Anglican, Spurgeon believed that “all who were born again were members of the church of Jesus Christ.”73 In spite of differences on secondary matters like baptism or church polity, Spurgeon worked alongside evangelicals from other denominations in the cause of evangelism, missions, and social justice. He even believed there could be true believers in the Roman Catholic church, like the priest he encountered during his vacation in Brussels who preached “that the blood of Jesus alone could save.”74 As long as the central message of the gospel was rightly held, Spurgeon was glad to acknowledge their fellowship in Christ. Luther, on the other hand, refused to unite with other Protestants because of their differences on secondary matters.75 While Spurgeon distinguished his Baptist convictions from the gospel and could downplay those differences for the sake of unity,76 Luther saw his convictions on secondary issues as being closely tied to the gospel, so he refused to compromise them.
However, as his battle against the Oxford Movement shows, as soon as Spurgeon detected a threat to the gospel of justification, his attitude changed. He could downplay differences on secondary matters, but if those differences touched on primary matters of the gospel, he would take Luther-like stand. Spurgeon understood there could be no true unity apart from the gospel. Therefore, Spurgeon would preach against any teaching which undermined the gospel and he would require the same theological clarity from Christians around him. In times of controversy, Spurgeon’s commitment to unity would give way to his commitment to orthodoxy, and he would harden in his convictions, even against his fellow evangelicals. This was particularly evident in two intense periods of controversy: first, against the ritualism of the Church of England at the beginning of his ministry at the Metropolitan Tabernacle, and then against theological liberalism in the Baptist Union towards the end of his ministry.77 In both controversies, Spurgeon would follow Luther in combating theological error and would disassociate from those who did not share his gospel convictions. Spurgeon understood that silent passivity could be as confusing as false teaching, and in word and action, he sought to uphold the truth of the gospel.
Nearly 350 years after Luther nailed his 95 Theses on the door of the castle church in Wittenburg, Spurgeon continued the fight against Roman Catholic teaching in the heart of London. Though Spurgeon was assailed on many sides for his stand, he knew that he stood in the company of reformers who had gone before him, and therefore he was not alone. One hundred fifty years later, the examples of Luther and Spurgeon remain relevant for the church and continue to inspire courage and faithfulness for the preservation and proclamation of the gospel.