Evangelicals love great preaching and preachers. If a list was developed to include the best preachers, the name Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834–1892), without any doubt, would appear. Many are quick to celebrate the life and ministry of the 19th-century Baptist preacher in London, and rightly so. In many ways, Spurgeon modeled core commitments of evangelical thought and practice. He was undeniably a multifaceted leader. From pastoring a megachurch to overseeing an orphanage to establishing a college, he carried a large number of responsibilities. And yet, he’s most often remembered as the “prince of preachers.”
But what drove his preaching? What shaped his study of Scripture? In his recent book, Tethered to the Cross: The Life and Preaching of Charles H. Spurgeon, Thomas Breimaier argues that Spurgeon “viewed the entire Bible through the lens of the cross of Christ, with an aim to bring about the conversion of sinners” (3). In his assessment, Spurgeon lived in a hermeneutical economy consumed with crucicentrism and conversionism (two of the four marks of David Bebbington’s evangelical quadrilateral). That is, Spurgeon’s biblical interpretation revolved around the atonement made possible by the cross of Christ, and the free offer of the gospel. Breimaier narrates Spurgeon’s framework of biblical interpretation by examining his formative years, his engagement with the Old and New Testaments, his ministry outside the pulpit, and his work in theological education.
Tethered to the Cross: The Life and Preaching of Charles H. Spurgeon
“Tethered to the cross” is how the renowned nineteenth-century English Baptist minister Charles H. Spurgeon (1834–1892) described the task of ministry and his approach to preaching. For nearly four decades, Spurgeon served as the pastor of the church at the Metropolitan Tabernacle in London. But what specifically guided the reading of Scripture by the man known as the “Prince of Preachers”? Tracing the development of Spurgeon’s thought and his approach to biblical hermeneutics throughout his ministry, theologian and historian Thomas Breimaier argues that Spurgeon viewed the entire Bible through the lens of the cross of Christ. This method led Spurgeon to interpret texts in a consistent fashion, resulting in sermons, articles, and instruction that employed cross-centered language, which was aimed at the conversion of unbelievers. With Breimaier as our guide, better understanding of how Spurgeon approached the task of interpreting Scripture and preaching the gospel might enable us, too, to be tethered to the cross of Christ.
Spurgeon’s hermeneutical principles emphasized a search for Christ in all of Scripture. Breimaier, who lectures in systematic theology and history at Spurgeon’s College in London, shows how Spurgeon was thoroughly committed to his theological heritage. And yet, he read deeply and widely. According to Spurgeon, “He who will not use the thoughts of other men’s brains, proves that he has not brains of his own” (43). While Spurgeon utilized a variety of sources, he often used his own conversion narrative to call people to look to Calvary.
Spurgeon’s biblical interpretation revolved around the atonement made possible by the cross of Christ, and the free offer of the gospel.
Breimaier demonstrates the robust nature of Spurgeon’s engagement with the Bible. In the Old Testament, Spurgeon searched for Christ in all the cracks and crevices. Each genre of biblical literature conveyed the beauty of Christ and his cross. Christ emerged in the historical narratives, as well as in the wisdom and prophetic books. As he preached Old Testament texts, Spurgeon picked passages with intentionality. His view of the Bible, according to Breimaier, led him to ensure the entire worship gathering pointed sinners to the cross (91).
In the New Testament, Spurgeon found the fullness of Christ on display. Breimaier reveals how Spurgeon selected and utilized sources to help shape his sermons around Jesus. His sermons made evangelistic pleas for sinners to look to Christ in faith in light of his atoning work. Spurgeon, while inviting sinners to come to Christ, described his message: “All is mercy; love is the sum and substance of our gospel” (156).
Spurgeon sought to use every ounce of his influence to point people to the good news. Breimaier shows how Spurgeon emphasized the cross and the free offer of the gospel outside of his pulpit ministry. He maintained the centrality of the cross and the call for conversions during theological controversies and in his ongoing publications. From his published magazine (The Sword and the Trowel) to his devotional writings, Breimaier highlights Spurgeon’s commitment to a Christ-centered ministry, one that pointed people to Jesus. He featured valuable resources in his publications, celebrating authors who held to the authority of the Bible, directed people to the cross, and engaged culture. Spurgeon even took public stands on theological controversies because he was concerned that “the gospel would be undermined” (205).
This commitment to crucicentrism and conversionism, according to Breimaier, shaped his understanding of theological formation and education. Spurgeon particularly concerned himself with using his resources and influence to help Christians be greater witnesses for Christ. He used The Bible and the Newspaper, a combination of newspaper headlines and biblical passages, to provoke theological reflection and to equip believers to engage the culture with the gospel. In addition, Spurgeon developed a team of leaders to equip the saints through evening classes and women’s classes. Further, Spurgeon emphasized the development of preachers through The Pastor’s College. In each of these, Spurgeon sought to equip the saints to advance the gospel. His curriculum was focused. It was a wheel, “the hub of which was the cross and gospel” (241).
Breimaier’s work provides an accessible evaluation of Spurgeon’s engagement with the Bible, both in his preaching and in other ministries.
Breimaier rightly identifies Spurgeon’s elastic hermeneutical economy. In fact, at times Spurgeon seems to have taken the approach, “Do as I say, not as I do.” In his devotional works, he “was not primarily concerned with locating the biblical passages within their immediate context” (66). This, in part, is due to his overwhelming desire to move to the cross and to call people to repentance and faith. Breimaier argues that even when preaching sermons, these commitments often “led him to find references to Christ in his text whether or not there was any overt or apparent christological content” (122). Though he himself would warn against spiritualizing the text, he would offer a “great deal of leniency” when the interpretations emphasized “the cross and the free offer of the gospel” (190).
Breimaier’s work provides an accessible evaluation of Spurgeon’s engagement with the Bible, both in his preaching and in other ministries. He provides a thorough evaluation of Spurgeon’s crucicentrism and conversionism. And, in so doing, he is fair to Spurgeon as a preacher and biblical interpreter. As the title of the book suggests, Spurgeon sought to be “tied and tethered to the cross” (206). We should do the same.