I spent the last few days reading Spurgeon v. Hyper-Calvinism: The Battle for Gospel Preaching by Iain Murray. It was well worth the $4.72 I paid for this book at WTS Books. It was yet another solid read by Iain Murray. He’s done us a great service again, though this book is quite short (under 160 pages).
Why might someone want to read this book? Well, for a few reasons. One the one hand it can be used to refute Arminians who think that Calvinism itself hinders evangelism. It shows this by putting forth Spurgeon as a very evangelistic, historical Calvinist. It shows that Hyper-Calvinism (which does hinder evangelism) is a deviation which should not be confused with the real thing (all those people in the SBC who are afraid of Calvinism should read this).
With the resurgence of Calvinism among young church leaders, we may see a resurgence of Hyper-Calvinism as well. It was this that led Murray to write the book in the 1990s. I have only met a few Hyper-Calvinists by doctrine. However, sometimes we can inadvertantly be Hyper-Calvinists in practice. I felt that conviction as I read the book. I have not been as zealous in pleading with people as perhaps I should have been.
Murray begins with a very brief historical sketch of Charles Haddon Spurgeon to set the stage. He began his ministry at a time when Arminianism was beginning to spread among English Baptists, and part of the reason was that Hyper-Calvinism had infected many of the English Baptist congregations. The two controversies of Spurgeon’s early ministry were against these to sub-biblical theologies. By and large they attacked him, though he recognized some indiscretion on his part as he looked back in latter years.
Murray turns to the Combatants and the Cause of the Controversy. It began in earnest when a well-meaning publisher wanted to show other Hyper-Calvinists that Spurgeon was a man whose ministry they could welcome, even if he wasn’t “fully onboard”. This draw the ire of the leading Hyper-Calvinists who began exchanging letters to the editors and articles on the matter with some who defended Spurgeon. Spurgeon himself never entered the fray via the periodicals. Most of his responses were in the form of instructing his people from the pulpit.
Murray then moves into The Case Against Spurgeon. They claimed he was touched by an Arminian spirit (attitude, not a ghost or something). But many of their arguments had a problem- they were refuted by numerous honored Puritan pastor-theologians like Richard Sibbes, John Owen, Thomas Boston and the other Marrow Men. They argued that non-elect people could not be told to repent and believe since they were unable to do so. They called the practice of so doing “duty-faith”, quite derisively to make it sound like a work. The Hyper-Calvinists fell into the same trap as the Arminians, though it took them in a different direction. For God to command something of people implied they had the ability to fulfill the command. Arminians accepted this, and believed all people had the ability, not just the duty, to repent and believe. Hyper-Calvinists, believing non-elect people lacked the ability, also lacked the duty. In this they were trying to be logically consistent.
The problem is that duty is not connected to ability. God’s commands are reflective of His nature, not our ability. As such they reflect our responsibility, what we are to do. All people are commanded to obey God in all things, though only regenerate people have the ability to actually do that.
Murray turns to Spurgeon’s Fourfold Appeal to Scripture. As noted above, most of this is culled from his sermons.
1. Gospel Invitations are Universal. The Hyper-Calvinists added so many qualifications as to make the biblical proclamation nearly unrecognizable. They focused on the facts of the gospel, but did not call someone to believe unless they saw certain signs that they might be elect and God was at work to bring them to faith- such as great conviction of sin or a period of seeking. Spurgeon stuck to the biblical argument, and did not make qualifications by reading his theology into the text. He boldly called people to come to Christ by faith and repentance for Christ has promised to save all who do. That they come, or why they come, is a different matter- Spurgeon focused on the gospel invitation which did not contain the limits placed on them by the Hyper-Calvinists.
2. The Warrant of Faith. The command to believe was objective, and rooted in God’s character as one who can be trusted and delighted in. The Hyper-Calvinists added that subjective element of “experience” before they would call a person to faith. This places the warrent to believe on something about the person, rather than God’s objective command to all.
3. Human Responsibility. Like the Arminians, they confused free agency to free will. Since the Bible teaches free agency (responsibility) Arminians hold to free will. Since the Bible rejects free will (we are enslaved to sin) they also reject free agency. Some problem, just moving in opposite directions. Spurgeon believed (rightly) that the Bible taught divine sovereignty over all things AND human responsibility. He did not fully understand how they fit together. He didn’t think he should be able to figure out God- there were going to be elements of mystery. Spurgeon affirmed that which was clearly taught in Scripture (mystery should not be used as an excuse to deny these things) and did not try to make things fit based on his faulty rational faculties. This is actually the place where Hyper-Calvinism usually rears its head- the denial of free agency, that we “will and act” so that all is monergistic and we do become puppets.
4. The Love of God. Just as there is both common and saving grace, there is also common as well as saving love. The sun shines, and rain falls, on both the righteous and unrighteous. There is a love that God has for all His creation. But He does not love all His creation savingly. Hyper-Calvinists denied this general or common love of God for people (the opposite extreme of the Arminians who see no special love for the elect). Murray brings in the thoughts of John Owen here “let us not entangle our own spirits by limiting his grace … We are apt to think that we are very willing to have forgiveness, but that God is unwilling to bestow it. … root out all the secret motives of unbelief concerning God’s willingness to give mercy, grace, and pardon unto sinners…” So the reason of damnation remains in the creature, not God. God is not preventing sinners from repenting, but people refuse to believe God would forgive and continue to hate Him.
Murray does not end with just the historical situation and biblical arguments. He has a chapter on the Lessons from the Conflict. He, like Spurgeon, warns of the exclusive spirit that can form around doctrine. The Hyper-Calvinists tended to deny that those who disagreed with them on these matters were saved. They would not have fellowship with them. Spurgeon, on the other hand, did not see such things are reasons to break fellowship since our fellowship is meant to be in Christ, not doctrinal formulations. Disagreement over core issues would break fellowship (which liberals tend to deny), but some conservatives wrongly make any disagreement a rationale to break fellowship or doubt another’s salvation. Spurgeon did not want differing views on baptism to hinder fellowship, for instance.
As pastors, we are not to think we have done our job merely because we have explained proper doctrine. We are to press it home with application and even pleading at times. We must call people to believe, to repent and to live differently. Apart from this there will be no conversions or spiritual growth. Proper formulation is not gospel faithfulness.
We must also present things in the proper order. The doctrine of election is not for unconverted people, or to be used to keep the gospel from the unconverted. Election is not a strong theme of the preaching in Acts. Most mentions of election are in conversations among Christians. The doctrine is dominant in Paul’s letters, which were to Christians. It is used to comfort and encourage Christians. This is the proper use of these great doctrines. They are used improperly to obscure the preaching of the gospel to the lost. The great Calvinistic evangelists like Spurgeon, Whitfield and others, understood this. They didn’t deny those truths, or obscure them, but they also didn’t use them to add qualifications to otherwise clear invitations to faith and repentance.
Lastly, he notes that when adherence to the doctrines of grace obscures adherence to Jesus himself, Calvinism loses its attractiveness and power. It then begins to decline, as it was in Spurgeon’s day. There are some Calvinists from who this has happened. Thankfully, many of the young Calvinists are in the forefront of planting gospel-preaching churches. They are not militant about their Calvinism, but sadly many are in denominations that are militantly against them. That’s a post for another day, maybe since others have been following this more closely than I have.