Laying Aside the Grace of Oratory
When Spurgeon turned to the language of the Bible, he saw the Bible as the writing of God’s Spirit. Therefore, Spurgeon desired to recognize the eloquence or the rhetorical practice evidenced by the manner or style of the Biblical text. For example, when referring to the Biblical words, “My God!” Spurgeon declared, “There is more eloquence in those two words than in all the orations of Demosthenes or Cicero.”91 The Biblical text introduced for Spurgeon an eloquence superior to that of the classical masters. “I conceive that there was such a majesty about Jesus Christ,” says Spurgeon, that “he spake on earth, as not Demosthenese, Cicero, nor Pericles, nor all the orators of ancient or modern times could ever approach . . . his was pathos that could break the stony heart.”92
In contrast to some of his 19th century contemporaries who sought helpfully to recover a classical rhetoric familiarity for homiletics students, Spurgeon suggested that Jesus and not Cicero nor Aristotle was the one who should serve as the preacher’s model orator. Similiarly, the Bible, and not De Orator nor Aristotle’s Rhetoric, was Spurgeon’s primary manual for rhetorical principle and style.
Furthermore, though Spurgeon seems to have enjoyed music, musical instruments, good art and architecture, he nevertheless would speak of the vanity of these good things if they were looked to for a recovery of gospel power in a generation. “It does seem impossible, does it not?” he asks, “that the mere preaching of Christ can do this [work with power]? And hence certain men must link to the preaching of Christ all the aids of music and architecture.”93 Spurgeon therefore warned that if “religion consists in putting on a certain dress,” and the preacher becomes a “mere performer” by attracting people “by the sweetness of music or the beauty of architecture,” then religion becomes vain. Why? Because such use of power was “not so with Christ and his apostles; they were everywhere preaching the word and proclaiming that ‘faith cometh by hearing and hearing by the word of God.'”94
Importantly, Spurgeon was accused of attracting audiences by performing. One critic recounted Spurgeon’s “melodramatic-attitudes” and the fact that “he walked about on the platform just as if he had been treading the boards of the Drury Lane Theater, while performing some exciting tragedy.”95 Spurgeon’s response near the end of his ministry would have included an appeal to the motive behind those crowds attending the Tabernacle.
We know that the greatest crowd in London has been held together these thirty years by nothing but the preaching of Christ crucified. Where is our music? Where is our oratory? Where is anything of attractive architecture, or beauty or ritual? “A bare service,” they call it. Yes, but Christ makes up for all deficiencies.”96
Spurgeon may have underestimated his own giftedness for communication. But his statement possesses some genuine merit. The largest crowds in London, and perhaps in the Western world at that time, flocked to services that were recognized as “bare” because of their simplicity. They consisted in a prayer, congregational singing without an organ, and then a sermon. Spurgeon refers to the absence of an organ as testimony that something more than musical power can attract and change people. Spurgeon was not against organs. He called them “that wonderful box of music with which men praise God with wind.” But lasting power he felt lay elsewhere. “We have nothing but the plainest possible singing,” he recounted. “I am certain that the crowds do not come to hear that; and as for the preaching, I have purposely laid aside all the graces of oratory.”97
Spurgeon’s “laying aside” the “graces of oratory” may not be an exaggeration. On June 20, 1884, The Freeman for example, “tabulated the causes “contributing to the simplification of pulpit style” in the previous “fifty years.” The causes consisted of the Reform Bill, anti-slavery agitation, the Penny Magazine, cheap postage, the Corn Law League, the telegraph, and Charles Haddon Spurgeon.”98 “God deserves the best oratory, the best logic, the best metaphysics, the best of everything” Charles declared. “But if ever rhetoric” or education or a natural gift “stands in the way of the instruction of the people, a curse be on” them!99
God’s Familiar Speech
Spurgeon taught his students to preach familiarly because he believed that God preached in this same way. In Isaiah 1:18, for example, the text says: “Come now let us reason together, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow.” Spurgeon commented on this passage noting that the God whose “voice . . . shakes the earth with tempests” is the same God “who speaks to us” and says, “Come now, let us reason together.” Spurgeon points out that God the creator and judge lays aside his thunderous power, draws near to the sinner, and invites the sinner to converse with reason. It is as if God says, “Tell me, what is your difficulty? I will lay aside my glory, and will come down, and talk familiarly with you that we may have this question settled.”100
How God approached people in Isaiah 1, Spurgeon saw demonstrated in the incarnation of Jesus. “The Lord stoops down to us,” Spurgeon observed.101 In contrast to the philosophers, kings, and nobles of the time, Jesus demonstrated a “condescending tenderness” and spoke familiarly with ordinary sinners. 102 Jesus offers himself to us as a friend of sinners, “for that is what he really is.” “He does not stand upon a lofty height, and bid sinners ascend to him,” Spurgeon said. He comes down “from the mountain, and mingles with them. He “draws them to himself by the magnetic force of his almighty love.”103
Spurgeon sought to imitate this divine approach. One of the ways in which Spurgeon sought to demonstrate this same “stooping” manner when he preached was to express himself with a humble posture of familiar tenderness as he made appeals to his hearers. He spoke to them as he would to a friend. “Oh, friend,” Spurgeon could say, “consider what your obligations are!”104 Or, yet again, “Oh! Friend, I wish you would turn while God is smiting you gently.” 105 Or, “Oh, friend, if this cry be your cry. . .”106
Similarly, Spurgeon often expressed this condescending tenderness of Scripture’s manner by appealing to his hearers as “dear heart”: “I am not going to blame you, dear heart; but I do deeply pity you . . . 107 Or, he might say, “Hearest thou this, dear heart? Thou art shrinking from thy God; thou art anxious to run away from him; but that is where the forgiveness is.”108 Likewise, speaking directly with tenderness to sinners, he
will urge the hearer, saying something like, “Whenever you think of Jesus Christ and think highly of Him, dear heart, say to yourself, ‘all this is meant for needy sinners.”‘ 109 Spurgeon also makes direct appeals to his hearers as a friend without pretension. Spurgeon at times expresses this appeal with the phrase “poor soul.” “In all thine agony, poor soul, in all thy repentance for thy guilt, look unto Christ, and find pardon.”110 Or, “Ah! Poor soul, do not despair.”111 Or, “Ah, poor soul, all these suggestions are Satan’s lies!”112
This kind of familiar preaching infuriated his critics. As one critic declared: “We do not advocate the coarse jokes and vulgar familiarities, ‘How are your poor souls?’ and the like; which seem so attractive at the Surrey Music Hall.”113 But Spurgeon insisted that such direct familiarity reflected the Scripture’s manner. For example, Isaiah 55:1 says,
Ho! Everyone that thirsteth come ye to the waters. And he that hath no money, come ye buy and eat; yea come buy wine and milk without money and without price.
Spurgeon observed from this passage that God calls for the attention of sinners who, though He is eager for them, are not eager for Him. “Men pass by with their ears full of the world’s tumult; and God calleth, again and again, “Ho! Ho!” Be you rich or poor, learned or illiterate, if you are in need, and specially if you feel your need, “Ho, every one that thirsteth.”114
Likewise, it was Jesus in John 6:25-26 who said to his hearers, “Verily, verily I say unto you. Ye seek me not because ye saw the miracles, but because ye did eat of the loaves and were filled.”‘ At this, Spurgeon remarked:
What very plain talk this is! Our Lord does not try to gain popularity by the concealment of truth, but he tells these people to their faces, “You are only following me because of what you get out of me”; “Oh!” some worldly-wise man would have said, “that is a very imprudent speech; it will drive the people away” . . . Our Lord’s example should teach us to speak in his name nothing less and nothing more than the truth in all love and kindness. 115
For these reasons, in spite of his critics, Spurgeon continued to preach often with the “familiar” collage of a tender but plain directness. In the following example, Spurgeon appeals to the hearer directly as a sinner, a friend, and a brother. In addition, the lamenting “Oh” found in the Bible is present, as well as the Spurgeon’s empathy with the hearers in light of his own personal experience:
Look, sinner, – look unto him, and be saved . . . I know you, my friend; I “know the heart of a stranger;” for such was my heart . . . Oh, the heaviness of a guilty conscience! Oh, the long, dark, dreary winter of the soul, when sin blots out the sun, turns even mercy into misery, and sorrow makes the day into night! Ah! I know you, my brother; your selfrighteousness is all gone . . . The Lord help you . . . ! 116
Students of preaching would learn from Spurgeon that a Scripture manner leads preachers to cross social barriers of conversation to places of speech usually reserved, both in content and intimacy, for only the closest of friends. Seeking the magnetic force of love, the preacher speaks directly, tenderly and personally to his hearers as one friend would speak to another.
Zachary W. Eswine is Assistant Professor of Homiletics and Director of the Doctor of Ministry Program at Covenant Theological Seminary.
91. Charles Spurgeon, “A Sacred Solo,” in The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, Vol. 24 (Ages Digital Library, 1998), 489.
92. Charles Spurgeon, “The Gracious Lips of Jesus,” in The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, Vol. 54 (Ages Digital Library, 1998), 134.
93. Charles Spurgeon, “The Miracles of our Lord’s Death,” in The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, Vol. 34, (Ages Digital Library, 1998), 895.
94. Charles Spurgeon, “A Sermon of Personal Testimony,” in The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, Vol. 44 (Ages Digital Library, 1998), 373.
95. Spurgeon, The Early Years, 348.
96. Charles Spurgeon, “The Crisis of this World,” in The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, Vol. 39 (Ages Digital Library, 1998), 805.
97. Charles Spurgeon, “The Cloud of Doves,” in The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, Vol. 48 (Ages Digital Library, 1998), 65.
98. Patricia Stallings Kruppa, “Charles Haddon Spurgeon: A Preacher’s Progress,” Unpublished Dissertation (Columbia University, 1971), 166.
99. Spurgeon, An All Around Ministry, 112.
100. Charles Spurgeon, “Invitation to a Conference,” in The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, Vol. 49 (Ages Digital Library, 1998), 69.
101. Notice John Calvin, “If we heard God speaking to us in His majesty, it would be useless for us, for we would understand nothing. Therefore, since we are carnal, He has to stutter or otherwise he would not be understood by us.” Sermon on John 1:1-5, quoted in Ronald Wallace, Calvin’s Doctrine of the Word & Sacrament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1957), 3.
102. Charles Spurgeon, “The Approachableness of Jesus,” in The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, Vol. 14 (Ages Digital Library, 1998), 315.
103. Charles Spurgeon, “Christ Receiving Sinners,” in The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, Vol. 50 (Ages Digital Library, 1998), 397.
104. Charles Spurgeon, “The Secret Food and the Public Name,” in The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, Vol. 18 (Ages Digital Library, 1998), 779.
105. Charles Spurgeon, “The Fainting Soul Revived,” in The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, Vol. 62 (Ages Digital Library, 1998), 197.
106. Charles Spurgeon, “Longing to Find God,” in The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, Vol. 38 (Ages Digital Library, 1998), 546.
107. Charles Spurgeon, “Out of Darkness into Light,” in The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, Vol. 41 (Ages Digital Library, 1998), 53.
108. Charles Spurgeon, “There is Forgiveness,” in The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, Vol. 41 (Ages Digital Library, 1998), 459.
109. Charles Spurgeon, Able to the Uttermost (Ages Digital Library, 1998), 195.
110. Charles Spurgeon, “Sovereignty and Salvation,” in The Park Street Pulpit, Vol. 2 (Ages Digital Library, 1998), 100.
111. Charles Spurgeon, “Effectual Calling,” in The Park Street Pulpit, Vol. 2 (Ages Digital Library, 1998), 257.
112. Charles Spurgeon, “The Shadow of a Great Rock,” in The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, Vol. 53 (Ages Digital Library, 1998), 173.
113. Merivale, Modern Preaching, 263.
114. Charles Spurgeon, “Feeding on the Word,” in The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, Vol. 38 (Ages Digital Library, 1998), 650.
115. Charles Spurgeon, “Choice Teaching for the Chosen,” in The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, Vol. 45 (Ages Digital Library, 1998), 60.
116. Charles Spurgeon, “Man’s Extremity God’s Opportunity,” in The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, Vol. 47 (Ages Digital Library, 1998), 152.