When a Cessationist Prophesies, or, What are We to Make of Charles Spurgeon?9
The recent Strange Fire conference generated a lot of discussion concerning the “prophetic” ministry of Charles Spurgeon (1834-1892). Given the fact that Spurgeon was, in all likelihood, a cessationist, the reactions have been interesting! Let me explain.
Spurgeon tells of one particular incident that occurred in the middle of his sermon.
“While preaching in the hall, on one occasion, I deliberately pointed to a man in the midst of the crowd, and said, ‘There is a man sitting there, who is a shoemaker; he keeps his shop open on Sundays, it was open last Sabbath morning, he took ninepence, and there was fourpence profit out of it; his soul is sold to Satan for fourpence!’ A city missionary, when going his rounds, met with this man, and seeing that he was reading one of my sermons, he asked the question, ‘Do you know Mr. Spurgeon?’ ‘Yes,’ replied the man, ‘I have every reason to know him, I have been to hear him; and, under his preaching, by God’s grace I have become a new creature in Christ Jesus. Shall I tell you how it happened? I went to the Music Hall, and took my seat in the middle of the place; Mr. Spurgeon looked at me as if he knew me, and in his sermon he pointed to me, and told the congregation that I was a shoemaker, and that I kept my shop open on Sundays; and I did, sir. I should not have minded that; but he also said that I took ninepence the Sunday before, and that there was fourpence profit out of it. I did take ninepence that day, and fourpence was just the profit; but how he should know that, I could not tell. Then it struck me that it was God who had spoken to my soul through him, so I shut up my shop the next Sunday. At first, I was afraid to go again to hear him, lest he should tell the people more about me; but afterwards I went, and the Lord met with me, and saved my soul’” (Charles H. Spurgeon, The Autobiography of Charles H. Spurgeon [London: Curts & Jennings, 1899], 2:226-27).
Spurgeon then adds this comment:
“I could tell as many as a dozen similar cases [emphasis mine] in which I pointed at somebody in the hall without having the slightest knowledge of the person, or any idea that what I said was right, except that I believed I was moved by the Spirit to say it; and so striking has been my description, that the persons have gone away, and said to their friends, ‘Come, see a man that told me all things that ever I did; beyond a doubt, he must have been sent of God to my soul, or else he could not have described me so exactly.’ And not only so, but I have known many instances in which the thoughts of men have been revealed from the pulpit. I have sometimes seen persons nudge their neighbours with their elbow, because they had got a smart hit, and they have been heard to say, when they were going out, ‘The preacher told us just what we said to one another when we went in at the door’” (ibid., 227).
On another occasion, Spurgeon broke off his sermon and pointed at a young man, declaring: “Young man, those gloves you are wearing have not been paid for: you have stolen them from your employer.” After the service an obviously pale and agitated young man approached Spurgeon and begged to speak with him privately. He placed a pair of gloves on the table and said, “It’s the first time I have robbed my master, and I will never do it again. You won’t expose me, sir, will you? It would kill my mother if she heard that I had becom a thief” (Charles H. Spurgeon, Autobiography: The Full Harvest, 1860-1892 [Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1973], 2:60).
My opinion is that this is a not uncommon example of what the Apostle Paul described in 1 Corinthians 14:24-25. Spurgeon exercised the gift of prophecy (or some might say the word of knowledge, 1 Cor. 12:8). He did not label it as such, but that does not alter the reality of what the Holy Spirit accomplished through him. This information could not be found by Spurgeon from reading the Scripture. But surely we do not undermine the latter's sufficiency by acknowledging that it was God who "revealed" this insight to him. If one were to examine Spurgeon’s theology and ministry, as well as recorded accounts of it by his contemporaries as well as subsequent biographers, most would conclude from the absence of explicit reference to miraculous charismata such as prophecy and the word of knowledge that such gifts had been withdrawn from church life. But Spurgeon’s own testimony inadvertently says otherwise!
In my interaction with cessationist Richard Gaffin concerning the experience of Spurgeon, he insisted that what occurred was merely a “Spirit-prompted insight that occurs incalculably and sporadically” (Are Miraculous Gifts for Today? Four Views, 294). However, the admission that such postcanonical information came from the Holy Spirit is telling. The fact that it may have occurred “incalculably and sporadically” is no argument for its not being a revelatory activity. My reading of 1 Corinthians 14 suggests that most prophetic ministry was incalculable, if by that we mean unpredictable, because it was subject to the sovereignty of God (see v. 30). The fact that such an experience did not “mark” (Gaffin’s word) Spurgeon’s ministry proves only that Spurgeon probably did not have the “gift” of prophecy; it does not prove he didn’t prophesy. So how does one explain the dozen or so instances when this occurred in Spurgeon’s ministry? The fact that he did not seek this experience is irrelevant to whether or not it happened and what it was when it happened.
Finally, in an article he wrote for Sword and Trowel in October 1865, Spurgeon declares:
“Our personal pathway has been so frequently directed contrary to our own design and beyond our own conception by singularly powerful impulses, and irresistibly suggestive providences, that it were wanton wickedness for us to deride the doctrine that God occasionally grants to his servants a special and perceptible manifestation of his will for their guidance, over and above the strengthening energies of the Holy Spirit, and the sacred teaching of the inspired Word. We are not likely to adopt the peculiarities of the Quakers, but in this respect we are heartily agreed with them.
It needs a deliberate and judicious reflection to distinguish between the actual and apparent in professedly preternatural intimations, and if opposed to Scripture and common sense, we must neither believe in them nor obey them. The precious gift of reason is not to be ignored; we are not to be drifted hither and thither by every wayward impulse of a fickle mind, nor are we to be led into evil by suppositious impressions; these are misuses of a great truth, a murderous use of most useful edged tools. But notwithstanding all the folly of hair-brained rant, we believe that the unseen hand may be at times assuredly felt by gracious souls, and the mysterious power which guided the minds of the seers of old may, even to this day, sensibly overshadow reverent spirits. We would speak discreetly, but we dare say no less.”
I’m sure we can all greatly appreciate and learn from Spurgeon’s wisdom and caution when it comes to these sorts of experiences. But we should also be greatly encouraged upon reading his comments to pay even closer heed to Paul’s exhortation, “Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy” (1 Cor. 14:1).