Charles Spurgeon: Private Prophecies and New Revelation

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Charles Spurgeon has been mentioned a few times by both Christian cessationists and continuationists since Pastor John MacArthur’s recent Strange Fire Conference. Spurgeon is appealed to as a well-known and respected historic authority in this tense theological debate over spiritual gifts.

Phil Johnson who has worked with MacArthur since 1981 and owns The Spurgeon Archive, addresses the question of Spurgeon and cessationism.1

Pastor Johnson’s article begins.

Charles Spurgeon was a cessationist. He regarded the charismata as apostolic signs—unique gifts for a unique era. He taught (as did virtually every evangelical preacher of his era) that the miraculous gifts described in Acts and 1 Corinthians (including the ability to command physical healing or speak in tongues) ceased before the end of the apostolic era.

Nonetheless, Spurgeon is sometimes cited by contemporary charismatics as someone who would be sympathetic with the idea of modern supernatural prophetic utterances, because he himself occasionally acted upon strong subjective impressions as if they were special revelatory messages from the Holy Spirit. Here are a couple of examples from his sermons:

“Looking for One Thing and Finding Another” (sermon 3075):

Many old stories are current which we do not doubt are true. There is one of a man who never would attend a place of worship until he was induced to go to hear the singing. He would listen to the tunes, he said, but he would have “none of your canting preaching,” he would put his fingers in his ears. He takes that wicked precaution, and effectually blocks up Ear-gate for a while, but the gate is stormed by a little adversary, for a fly settles on his nose; he must brush it off, and, as he takes out his finger to do so, the preacher says, “He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.” The man listens, the Word pierces his soul, and he is converted.

I remember quite well, and the subject of the story is most probably present in this congregation, that a very singular conversion was wrought at New Park Street Chapel. A man, who had been accustomed to go to a gin-palace to fetch in gin for his Sunday evening’s drinking, saw a crowd round the door of the chapel, he looked in, and forced his way to the top of the gallery stairs. Just then, I looked in the direction in which he stood,—I do not know why I did so, but I remarked that there might be a man in the gallery who had come in there with no very good motive, for even then he had a gin-bottle in his pocket. The singularity of the expression struck the man, and being startled because the preacher so exactly described him, he listened attentively to the warnings which followed; the Word reached his heart, the grace of God met with him, he became converted, and he is walking humbly in the fear of God.

“The Call of ‘To-Day'” (sermon 3160):

An incident occurred this afternoon. An aged minister, an excellent man, came into my vestry, and shook my hand and said, “I have got this letter which I should like you to see.”

Well, I had many things to attend to, but he was so anxious and said, “I know you will like to hear it,” that I took the letter.
Before I read it he explained to me that he had a son who had made a profession of religion, but had gone aside from it, and it had pretty well broken his heart. At last, he was to go to America, and the father sent him away with a very heavy heart. The old man took off his spectacles.

The letter was from his son and it said, “I went to hear Mr. Spurgeon, and I have not the slightest doubt that it has had an influence on my whole life. The text was, ‘He is as a root out of a dry ground.’ The sermon was divided into four parts.”
I can recollect the sermon well enough. I was suffering from great pain at the time.

“The point which lasted longest was that in which he said that God had made Christ to grow up like a root, like a root out of a dry ground. He went on for twenty-five minutes,”—[then he gave an opinion of my style which I won’t read to you]—”but what surprised me most was that out of five or six thousand, he fastened his eyes or me though I was in the farthest gallery”—[the young man’s name was Thomas So-and-so—the son of the Baptist minister]—”and suddenly he shouted out these words, ‘There’s that wild, dare-devil Tom. God means to save him: and he will be a comfort to his father in his old age.'”

The old gentleman took off his spectacles again when he got to that and said, “And so he is.”
It went on, “I thought he was going to say my name.” He trembled lest the people should think his name was Tom.
Well, that cheered my heart to think of that young fellow, and I thought I would have a shot at some of you to-night, and I pray that it may go right straight through your hearts.

On the other hand, whenever Spurgeon discussed such things, he nearly always warned of the dangers of such mysticism. Here are a few of his famous comments on the subject:

“Our Manifesto” (sermon 2185):

I hope that none of us will ever fall into the snare of following the guidance of impressions made upon us by texts which happen to come prominently before our minds. You have judgements, and you must not lay them aside to be guided by accidental impressions.

“A Well-Ordered Life” (sermon #878):

Some, I know, fall into a very vicious habit, which habit they excuse themselves—namely, that of ordering their footsteps according to impressions.

Every now and then I meet with people whom I think to be rather weak in the head, who will journey from place to place and will perform follies by the gross under the belief that they are doing the will of God because some silly whim of their diseased brains is imagined to be an inspiration from above. There are occasionally impressions of the Holy Spirit which guide men where no other guidance could have answered the end. I do not doubt the old story of the Quaker who was disturbed at night and could not sleep and was led to go to a person’s house miles away and knock at the door just at the time when the inhabitant was about to commit suicide—just in time to prevent the act.

I have been the subject of such impressions, myself, and have seen very singular results. But to live by impressions is oftentimes to live the life of a fool and even to fall into downright rebellion against the revealed Word of God. Not your impressions, but that which is in this Bible must always guide you. “To the Law and to the Testimony.” If it is not according to this Word, the impression comes not from God—it may proceed from Satan, or from your own distempered brain! Our prayer must be, “Order my steps in Your Word.

Now, that rule of life, the written Word of God, we ought to study and obey. The text proves that the Psalmist desired to know what was in God’s Word—he would be a reader and a searcher. O Christian, how can you know what God would have you to do if your Bible is unthumbed and covered over with dust? The prayer implies, too, that when David once knew God’s Word, he wished to fulfill it all. Some are pickers and choosers. One of God’s commands they will obey—another they are conveniently blind to—even directly disobedient to it. O that it were not so with God’s people, that they had a balanced mind in their obedience and would take God’s Word without making exceptions, following the Lamb where ever He goes!

“Order my steps,” Lord, not in a part of Your Word, but in all of it. Let me not omit any known duty, nor plunge into any known sin. There was, in David’s mind, according to this prayer, a real love for holiness. He was not holy because he felt he ought to be and yet would gladly be otherwise. If there were anything good and lovely, he desired to have it. If there were anywhere in God’s garden—a rare fruit or flower of purity and excellence—he longed to have it transplanted into his soul, that in all things his life might be the perfect transcript of the Word of God. Stick, then, to God’s Word. There is a perfect rule in the Divine statutes. May the Holy Spirit cast us in the mold of His Word.

“Two Episodes in My Life,” from “The Sword and the Trowel,” October 1865:

SUPERSTITION is to religion what fiction is to history. Not content with the marvels of providence and grace which truly exist around us, fanaticism invents wonders and constructs for itself prodigies. Besides being wickedly mischievous, this fabrication is altogether unnecessary and superfluous, for as veritable history is often more romantic than romance, so certified divine interpositions are frequently far more extraordinary than those extravaganzas which claim fancy and frenzy as their parents. Every believing man into whose inner life we have been permitted to gaze without reserve, has made a revelation to us more or less partaking of the marvelous, but has generally done so under protest, as though we were to hold it for ever under the seal of secrecy. Had we not very distinctly been assured of their trustworthiness, we should have been visited with incredulity, or have suspected the sanity of our informants, and such unbelief would by no means have irritated them, for they themselves expected no one to believe in their remarkable experiences, and would not have unveiled their secret to us if they had not hoped against hope that our eye would view it from a sympathizing point of view. 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.

“The Holy Spirit in Connection with Our Ministry” from Lectures to My Students, Vol. 3: 

I need scarcely warn any brother here against falling into the delusion that we may have the Spirit so as to become inspired. Yet the members of a certain litigious modern sect need to be warned against this folly. They hold that their meetings are under “the presidency of the Holy Spirit:” concerning which notion I can only say that I have been unable to discover in holy Scripture either the term or the idea. I do find in the New Testament a body of Corinthians eminently gifted, fond of speaking:, and given to party strifes—true representatives of those to whom I allude, but as Paul said of them, “I thank God I baptized none of you,” so also do I thank the Lord that few of that school have ever been found in our midst.

It would seem that their assemblies possess a peculiar gift of inspiration, not quite perhaps amounting to infallibility, but nearly approximating thereto. If you have mingled in their gatherings, I greatly question whether you have been more edified by the prelections produced under celestial presidency, than you have been by those of ordinary preachers of the Word, who only consider themselves to be under the influence of the Holy Spirit, as one spirit is under the influence of another spirit, or one mind under the influence of another mind.. We are not the passive communicators of infallibility, but the honest teachers of such things as we have learned, so far as we have been able to grasp them. As our minds are active, and have a personal existence while the mind of the Spirit is acting upon them, our infirmities are apparent as well as his wisdom; and while we reveal what he has made us to know, we are greatly abased by the fear that our own ignorance and error are in a measure manifested at the same time, because we have not been more perfectly subject to the divine power.

I do not suspect that you will go astray in the direction I have hinted at: certainly the results of previous experiments are not likely to tempt; wise men to that folly.

“Enquiring of God” (sermon 2996)

Sometime, too, but rarely, God guides us by very vivid impressions. I have seen so much of people who have been impressed this way, and that way, and the other way, that I do not believe in impressions except in certain cases. I was once in conversation with two friends, one of whom was guided by his judgment, while the other was swayed by impressions, and I could not help noting that the man who was guided by impressions was, as such people always will be, “unstable as water.” If I am impressed in one way one day, I may be impressed in another way the next day, so impressions are unreliable guides. There was a young man, who was impressed with the idea that he ought to preach for me one Lord’s day; but as I was not impressed to let him do so, it stood over, and probably will continue to stand over for some little time. He had no gifts of speech, but he thought his impression was quite sufficient. When I receive a similar impression, the revelation will be a proper one, and you will have the pleasure of listening to his voice, but certainly not before that.

Occasionally, impressions do guide a man right. A Quaker, one night, could not sleep; and he had a very strong impression that he must get up and saddle and mount his horse. He did so, and rode along the streets, his horse’s hoofs noisily clattering in the silence of the night. He did not know where he was to go, but there was a light in one house, and something seemed to say to him, “This is the house to which you are to go.” He dismounted, and knocked at the door, and a man came down, and asked why he was there at that time of night. “Perhaps, friend,” answered the Quaker, “thou canst tell me, for I do not know, but I have been moved to come here.” “I can tell you indeed,” said the man, with much emotion; and he took him upstairs, and showed him a short halter with which he was about to hang himself when the Quaker came to his door. Such strong impressions are not to be despised, and I have no doubt that highly spiritual minds do become like the photographer’s sensitive plate, and do receive impressions. What another man may be a fool for talking of, such men may truly speak of, for God does sometimes reveal his will in that way.

Intelligent Obedience (sermon 3263)

Others, too, judge of their duty by impressions. “If I feel it impressed upon my mind,” says one, “I shall do, it.” Does God command you to do it? This is the proper question. If he does, you should make haste, whether it is impressed upon your mind or not; but if there be no command to that effect, or rather, if it diverges from the line of God’s statutes, and needs apology or explanation, hold your hand, for though you have ten thousand impressions, yet must you never dare to go by them. It is a dangerous thing for us to make the whims of our brain instead of the clear precepts of God, the guide of our moral actions. ” To the law and to the testimony,”—this is the lamp that shows the Christian true light; be this your chart, be this your compass; but as to impressions, and whims, and fancies, and I know not what beside which some have taken,—these are more wreckers lights that will entice you on the rocks. Hold fast to the Word of God, and nothing else; whoever he shall be that shall guide you otherwise, close your ears to him. If at any time, through infirmity or weakness, I should teach you anything which is contrary to this Book, cast it from you, hurl it away as chaff is driven from the wheat; if it be mine and not my Master’s, cast it away. Though you love me, though I may have been the means of your conversion to God, think no more of what I say than of the very strangers in the street, if it be not consistent with the teachings of the Most High. Our guide is his written Word, let us keep to this.

Johnson’s article ends here and I hope it is helpful in this current debate on Spurgeon’s position on spiritual gifts. I appreciate Phil letting me re-publish his article.

Here I blog,

Mark

  1. This article is used with permission and was originally published by Phil Johnson with the title “Spurgeon on private prophecies and new revelation” on November 7, 2005.
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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Brian Thornton October 21, 2013 at 7:24 pm

Is it possible to be a “cessational continuationist”? That is what Spurgeon appears to have been. Consider his own words: “Sometime, too, but rarely,
God guides us by very vivid impressions. I have seen so much of people
who have been impressed this way, and that way, and the other way, that I
do not believe in impressions except in certain cases.”
Honest question: How can Johnson or anyone label Spurgeon as a cessationist with such definity? Even if Spurgeon himself declares that he believes certain “charismastic” gifts to have ceased, but then says what I just quoted, isn’t that a bit of a contradiction? Even if he says these impressions are not to be believed except in certain cases, hasn’t he acknowledged that there must be some that are true and genuine?

2 sshaver October 21, 2013 at 11:10 pm

Spurgeon is dead. A great Calvinist preacher of the gospel for a different people in a different day and age … influenced by a different kind of Calvinism than today’s lopsided version as promoted within the SBC.
What else you got?

3 Mark Lamprecht October 21, 2013 at 11:19 pm

@Brian Thornton I struggled to understand Spurgeon’s position, too. I wonder if Spurgeon held that people no longer have gifts, but that God may work through individuals are particular times. IOW, maybe he thought no one had the gift of prophecy, but that God may reveal something prophetic to individuals on occasion. I just don’t know.

4 Mark Lamprecht October 21, 2013 at 11:21 pm

sshaver What else I have is a warning that this post has nothing to do with the SBC nor is it about Spurgeon’s Calvinism so don’t go there. Thanks.

5 sshaver October 22, 2013 at 9:20 am

Hey Mark.  Looks like you model the operation of your blog kinda like Dave Miller over at Voices.  Why would you post an article about Spurgeon on an “interactive” Christian blog site if you don’t want any discussion about the SBC or the historic significance of Spurgeon’s beliefs and teachings as well as his popularity among many baptists of all stripes.
Furthermore, if you’re going to introduce a  revered figure from history as  a starting point for discussion but have certain things you refuse to discuss that naturally evolve from such a topic, why would you post it to begin with?
Your “warning” assumes that I would DESIRE continued interaction on a “Christian” site that shys away from open and honest exchange.
Have it your way on your site Mark,  but the “warning” is Milleresque and laughable.

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