I had every intention of writing and sharing a Music-Related post for today. However, in researching an alleged quote from Church history, I found myself completely immersed in a rabbit hole of Church history and simply couldn’t resist sharing what I found. I’ll have to put the original post on hold for now. This will be a dive into Western Church history.
I confess that I didn’t grow up with a lot of Church History, so I’m rather new to much of it, and what I think I know comes from a decidedly Pentecostal point-of-view, so I’ve had to relearn even what I thought I knew. One story I’d never heard was that of Charles Spurgeon’s resignation from the Baptist Union, over what is now referred to as the Down Grade Controversy.
Rather than get into the intra-Baptist fight and drama regarding Spurgeon and the Baptist Union, I’d like to bring our attention to the doctrinal substance of Spurgeon’s concern regarding the Down Grade in the Evangelical Church (of his day). We’ll be reading excerpts from the August 1887 edition of Spurgeon’s publication “Sword and the Trowel”. This is third article regarding the “Down Grade” but it’s the first one authored by Charles. The other two were written by Robert Shindler, a friend and fellow pastor of Charles Spurgeon. For a detailed archive of these related periodicals, please check out The Spurgeon Archive.
After the first two articles (March and April 1887, both entitled “the Down Grade”) had been published, namely as a warning to Churches regarding their embrace of modern (for that day) philosophy and the watering-down of the Gospel, there was quite the buzz in the Church, particularly within the Baptist Union, of which C.H. Spurgeon was a part. There was also a short (extremely short given Spurgeon’s long-windedness) note published in April regarding the response they had received for the article. While we are indeed reading history, I wonder if you can’t help but feel like we are getting a glimpse into what is going on in the Church today.
We are glad that the article upon “The Down Grade” has excited notice. It is not intended to be an attack on any one, but to be a warning to all. We are asked whether Methodists are upon “The Down Grade,” and we are happy to reply that we do not think so. In our fellowship with Methodists of all grades we have found them firmly adhering to those great evangelical doctrines for which we contend. This, however, is no answer to the historical fact that Arminianism has been the route by which the older dissenters have traveled downward to Socinianism; neither is it a reply to the charge that not a few have in these days gone far beyond Evangelical Arminianism, and are on the road to Unitarianism, or something worse. We care far more for the central evangelical truths than we do for Calvinism as a system; but we believe that Calvinism has in it a conservative force which helps to hold men to the vital truth, and therefore we are sorry to see any quitting it who have once accepted it. Those who hold the eternal verities of salvation, and yet do not see all that we believe and embrace, are by no means the objects of our opposition. Our warfare is with men who are giving up the atoning sacrifice, denying the inspiration of Holy Scripture, and casting slurs upon justification by faith. The present struggle is not a debate upon the question of Calvinism or Arminianism, but of the truth of God versus the inventions of men. All who believe the gospel should unite against that “modern thought” which is its deadly enemy.
On all hands we hear cries for unity in this, and unity in that; but to our mind the main need of this age is not compromise, but conscientiousness. “First pure, then peaceable.” It is easy to cry “a confederacy,” but that union which is not based upon the truth of God is rather a conspiracy than a communion. Charity by all means; but honesty also. Love, of course, but love to God as well as love to men, and love of truth as well as love of union. It is exceedingly difficult in these times to preserve one’s fidelity before God and one’s fraternity among men. Should not the former be preferred to the latter if both cannot be maintained? We think so. [Source; emphasis mine]
Thought it might seem odd to jump in after the first 2 articles, I think reading these notes is critical to understanding the position from which Charles Spurgeon and Robert Shindler wrote. This issue was not about the Calvin verse Arminian debate, it was about far weightier things, namely, the Atonement of Sin by the blood of Jesus, the inspiration of the Scriptures (Sola Scriptura), and justification by faith alone. It is Socianism that had crept in and made shipwreck of many a pulpit. A non-trinitarian heresy and more. Spurgeon credits Calvinism as a bit of a guard-rail against heresy, but his ultimate focus was on central evangelical truths of the Gospel. Now, with that mindset firmly in place, let us look to Spurgeon’s article in August of 1887. We will be looking at snippets pulled primarily for their eerie similarity with what we are seeing today. I encourage each of you to read the full article at the Spurgeon Archive.
We are willing to make a large discount from our apprehensions on the score of natural timidity, the caution of age, and the weakness produced by pain; but yet our solemn conviction is that things are much worse in many churches than they seem to be, and are rapidly tending downward. Read those newspapers which represent the Broad School of Dissent, and ask yourself, How much farther could they go? What doctrine remains to be abandoned? What other truth to be the object of contempt? A new religion has been initiated, which is no more Christianity than chalk is cheese; and this religion, being destitute of moral honesty, palms itself off as the old faith with slight improvements, and on this plea usurps pulpits which were erected for gospel preaching. The Atonement is scouted, the inspiration of Scripture is derided, the Holy Spirit is degraded into an influence, the punishment of sin is turned into fiction, and the resurrection into a myth, and yet these enemies of our faith expect us to call them brethren, and maintain a confederacy with them!
Wow. It’s almost like he saw the Oprah interview of Rob Bell, or caught wind of Andy Stanley’s latest sermon series. Though the specific details of what was taking place may differ (slightly), the outcome and the root of the problem remains the same. We are seeing the Church make the same mistakes time and time again. We’ve grown numb to it. We’ve embraced the inventions of man and down graded the Gospel.
At the back of doctrinal falsehood comes a natural decline of spiritual life, evidenced by a taste for questionable amusements, and a weariness of devotional meetings. At a certain meeting of ministers and church-officers, one after another doubted the value of prayer-meetings; all confessed that they had a very small attendance, and several acknowledged without the slightest compunction that they had quite given them up. What means this? Are churches in a right condition when they have only one meeting for prayer in a week, and that a mere skeleton?
You know, it is indeed troubling that while social activism for “keeping prayer in school” has gone on, the decline in Biblical prayer as a form of Worship in our Churches as all but evaporated. What’s worse, we’ve allowed unbiblical forms of prayer (mysticism, centering prayer, eastern meditation, etc.) to capture the hearts, minds, and potentially souls of our youth. Our prayers have become boastful (Proclamations and Declarations of Promises owed us by God), self-indulgent (prosperity), and hyper-romanticized & sensual (IHOP). These heretical distractions are not new… but the church has all but stopped fighting. Spurgeon’s warnings now our reality… and we find ourselves asking the same question, “How much farther could they go? What doctrine remains to be abandoned? What other truth to be the object of contempt?”
As for questionable amusements—time was when a Nonconformist minister who was known to attend the play-house would soon have found himself without a church. And justly so; for no man can long possess the confidence, even of the most worldly, who is known to be a haunter of theatres. Yet at the present time it is matter of notoriety that preachers of no mean repute defend the play-house, and do so because they have been seen there. Is it any wonder that church members forget their vows of consecration, and run with the unholy in the ways of frivolity, when they hear that persons are tolerated in the pastorate who do the same? We doubt not that, for writing these lines we shall incur the charge of prudery and bigotry, and this will but prove how low are the tone and spirit of the churches in many places. The fact is, that many would like to unite church and stage, cards and prayer, dancing and sacraments. If we are powerless to stem this torrent, we can at least warn men of its existence, and entreat them to keep out of it. When the old faith is gone, and enthusiasm for the gospel is extinct, it is no wonder that people seek something else in the way of delight. Lacking bread, they feed on ashes; rejecting the way of the Lord, they run greedily in the path of folly.
Even the liberal/progressive attacks (prudery and bigotry) seem to be the same. While Spurgeon was appalled at the tolerance of ministers being seen enjoying the play-house (theaters); he’d no-doubt be beside himself at the notion of Craigh Groeschell’s 30-sec theology series built on Super Bowl 2015 commercials! Indeed, lacking bread, they feed on ashes.
What follows next is what I feel is the heart of the argument C.H. Spurgeon is laying out in this article.
An eminent minister, who is well versed in the records of Nonconformity, remarked to us the other day that he feared history was about to repeat itself among Dissenters. In days gone by, they aimed at being thought respectable, judicious, moderate, and learned, and, in consequence, they abandoned the Puritanic teaching with which they started, and toned down their doctrines. The spiritual life which had been the impelling cause of their dissent declined almost to death’s door, and the very existence of evangelical Nonconformity was threatened. Then came the outburst of living godliness under Whitefield and Wesley, and with it new life for Dissent, and increased influence in every direction.
Alas! many are returning to the poisoned cups which drugged that declining generation, when it surrendered itself to Unitarian lethargy. Too many ministers are toying with the deadly cobra of “another gospel,” in the form of “modern thought.” As a consequence, their congregations are thinning: the more spiritual of their members join the “Brethren,” or some other company of “believers unattached”; while the more wealthy, and show-loving, with some of unquestionable devoutness, go off to the Church of England.
Let us not hide from ourselves the fact that the Episcopal Church is awake, and is full of zeal and force. Dissenting as we do most intensely from her Ritualism, and especially abhorring her establishment by the State, we cannot but perceive that she grows, and grows, among other reasons, because spiritual life is waning among certain Dissenters. Where the gospel is fully and powerfully preached, with the Holy Ghost sent down from heaven, our churches not only hold their own, but win converts; but when that which constitutes their strength is gone—we mean when the gospel is concealed, and the life of prayer is slighted—the whole thing becomes a mere form and fiction. For this thing our heart is sore grieved. Dissent for mere dissent’s sake would be the bitter fruit of a wilful mind. Dissent as mere political partisanship is a degradation and travesty of religion. Dissent for truth’s sake, carried out by force of the life within, is noble, praiseworthy, and fraught with the highest benefits to the race. Are we to have the genuine living thing, or are we to have that corruption of the best from which the worst is produced? Conformity, or nonconformity, per se is nothing; but a new creature is everything, and the truth upon which alone that new creature can live is worth dying a thousand deaths to conserve. It is not the shell that is so precious, but the kernel which it contains; when the kernel is gone, what is there left that is worth a thought? Our nonconformity is beyond measure precious as a vital spiritual force, but only while it remains such will it justify its own existence.
The case is mournful. Certain ministers are making infidels. Avowed atheists are not a tenth as dangerous as those preachers who scatter doubt and stab at faith.
One thing that really differs between our day and that of Charles Spurgeon, is that while he can cite the decline of fallen churches, in our day they seem to grow into mega-corporations. We are living in the days where the church has all but abandoned Biblical literacy.
Another very interesting thing to note here is the reference to the Episcopal Church. It bore different ramifications for his day, as it was the State borne church. Some scholars believe that it was this reference to the Episcopal Church that lead to the Baptist Union’s strong censure of Spurgeon. In our day, the Episcopal Church remains at the front of our modern-day down grade. Don’t get distracted, the root isn’t the Episcopal Church, the root is the lie of satan, “did God actually say…” (Genesis 3).
Let us skip to the final paragraph in this article, where we see a heart-broken Charles Spurgeon.
We fear it is hopeless ever to form a society which can keep out men base enough to profess one thing and believe another; but it might be possible to make an informal alliance among all who hold the Christianity of their fathers. Little as they might be able to do, they could at least protest, and as far as possible free themselves of that complicity which will be involved in a conspiracy of silence. If for a while the evangelicals are doomed to go down, let them die fighting, and in the full assurance that their gospel will have a resurrection when the inventions of “modern thought” shall be burned up with fire unquenchable.
The response to this letter was not what he had hoped it to be. After his death, Susannah (his wife) included the following in some of her writing:
For the information of readers of the Autobiography, who are unacquainted with my beloved’s articles upon “The Down-grade,” I thought it might be well to include in this chapter a condensation, or summary of them; but, on reading them with that object in view, I find it impossible to strike out a single word of his protest. It is equally impossible to transfer it all to this work, so the only course open to me is to omit it altogether, and to leave the testimony still to speak for itself from the pages of The Sword and the Trowel. From August, 1887, to February, 1892, scarcely any number of the magazine appeared without some reference to the Controversy and its various issues. The most pathetic “Note” of all was written within a few days of my dear husband’s home-going, for in it he revealed the fact, already known to all who were nearest and dearest to him, that his fight for the faith had cost him his life. Yet he never regretted the step he had taken; for, throughout the whole affair, he felt such a Divine compulsion as Luther realized when he said, “I can do no other.”
Will you stand and defend the Truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ? Will you stand for the authority, inerrancy, and sufficiency of God’s Written Word? When the world calls evil good and good evil, will you dissent? And will you, after having done all you can to stand, remain standing by grace through faith in the One True God and Savior, Jesus Christ our Lord?
Ephesians 6:10-20 (ESV) | The Whole Armor of God
10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. 11 Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. 12 For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.13 Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. 14 Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, 15 and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace. 16 In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; 17 and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, 18 praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints, 19 and also for me, that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel,20 for which I am an ambassador in chains, that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak.
In Christ Jesus,