The life of evangelical churches and their spiritual leaders has been portrayed in some recent films and series. Can they help us start conversations?
A fresh look at the infamous Down-Grade controversy.
Following Charles Spurgeon’s death in January 1892, his beloved wife wrote 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’”.
To which “affair” was Susannah referring? What “fight for the faith” did she have in mind?
The answer is the infamous Down Grade Controversy which played itself out between 1887 and 1888 when the acclaimed prince of preachers left the Baptist Union due to the growing presence of theological liberals within the denomination.
Over the course of nine heart-breaking months (August 1887-April 1888), Spurgeon penned seven key articles outlining his irreconcilable differences with the ‘New’ or ‘Progressive Theology’ which had already taken root in various nonconformist churches and was now showing up in the Baptist world.
Until the day of his death, Spurgeon never recovered from his war against liberalism. Today, our aim is to hone in upon the content of Spurgeon’s seven texts drawn up in the heat of the battle.
May Spurgeon’s defence of the Word of the Lord continue to inspire us all as we wage a good warfare in our generation.
Article 1: Another Word Concerning the Down-Grade (August 1887)
In his first all-out attack against theological liberalism, Spurgeon brought up two key themes which were to characterize his fight against the down-grade: firstly, evangelical doctrine; and secondly, evangelical spirituality.
With regards to doctrine, Spurgeon raged against liberals for the following theological reasons: “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”.1 Spurgeon, convinced that he was combating in the name of Scripture, the Protestant Reformation and the Puritans, spoke out against the contempt into which traditional evangelical teaching had been cast by the modernists.
Respecting spirituality, the Essex-born pastor claimed that unbelieving ministers were fascinated with amusements (play-houses, cards and dancing are some explicit examples) and had grown tired of devotional meetings. Such non-Gospel preaching infidels were emptying churches by the masses in an attempt to be “respectable, judicious, moderate and learned”.2
With the fire of God in his belly, Spurgeon proclaimed: “Avowed atheists are not a tenth as dangerous as those preachers who scatter doubt and stab at faith [...] Germany was made unbelieving by her preachers, and England is following in her track”.3
Spurgeon knew that his outspoken comments would not be well-received by the liberal wing of the church; but at the end of the day, what thief loves watch-dogs? He wraps up his first article by asking about the possibility of fellowship with modernist preachers and churches. “It now becomes a serious question how far those who abide by the faith once delivered to the saints should fraternize with those who have turned aside to another gospel”.4
More was to follow.
Article 2: Our Reply to Sundry Critics and Enquirers (September 1887)
As expected, Spurgeon faced an avalanche of criticism for speaking out against the ‘New Theology’ in his August article. In his second contribution to the debate, the Englishman justified his actions by citing various reasons why he was obliged to draw attention to the issue: his role as a minister of the Word of God, his zeal for the apostolic Gospel and the cause of the Lord in the world as well as the malignant effects of theological seminaries which were churning out unbelieving ministers.
Although Spurgeon did not like sounding the alarm, he was compelled by a powerful sense of duty as an ordained Gospel-minister. He was critical of other preachers and believers who had not felt the same impulse: “The house is being robbed, its very walls are being digged down, but the good people who are in bed are too fond of the warmth, and too much afraid of getting broken heads, to go downstairs and meet the burglars; they are even half vexed that a certain noisy fellow will spring his rattle or cry, ‘Thieves!’”5
He comes back to the theme of church unity and is more fully convinced that unity between evangelicals and liberals is nigh on impossible. He writes, “A chasm is opening between the men who believe their Bibles and the men who are prepared for an advance upon Scripture.
Inspiration and speculation cannot long abide in peace. Compromise there can be none. We cannot hold the inspiration of the Word, and yet reject it; we cannot believe the doctrine of the atonement and deny it; we cannot hold the doctrine of the fall and yet talk of the evolution of spiritual life from human nature; we cannot recognize the punishment of the impenitent and yet indulge the ‘larger hope’. One way or the other we must go. Decision is the virtue of the hour”.6
Spurgeon’s patience with liberalism was wearing thin.
Article 3: The Case Proved (October 1887)
Month by month, Spurgeon’s non-belief in fellowship with liberal churches grew. By the time his October article came out he now had clearly made up his mind regarding his situation within the Baptist Union: “One thing is clear to us: we cannot be expected to meet in any Union which comprehends those whose teaching is upon fundamental points exactly the reverse of that which we hold dear”.7 His retirement from the Union was a matter of time.
Spurgeon was particularly upset by the attitude of some important officials within his denomination who were unwilling to make much ado about the doctrinal and spiritual dwindling of Baptist ministers. It was their “paternal partiality” towards the denomination which led them, like blind Admiral Nelson, to claim they could see no danger.
In this third piece, Spurgeon fends off various accusations that liberals had spat out against him. Some had claimed he was merely crying “Wolf!” Others maintained he was a new version of the Pope. Whilst others suggested he wanted to inaugurate a sort of Protestant Inquisition.
In reference to the wolf comment, the obvious difference between Spurgeon’s revolt and that of the boy in the fable was that there really was a wolf about, namely, theological modernism. It was no myth.
Concerning the Pope-accusation, the preacher retorted that it was the liberals who were the real papists: “To hide your beliefs, to bring out your opinions cautiously, to use expressions in other senses than those in which they are usually understood [...] is a meaner sort of Popery than even the arrogance which is so gratuitously imputed to us”.8 And finally, he laughed off the insinuation of an Inquisition asking: “What other harm have we done them? We would not touch a hair of their heads, or deprive them of an inch of liberty”.9
If liberals were free to call the Scriptures and the Gospel into question, then evangelicals were also free to dissociate themselves from them. It was this very liberty that Spurgeon was to exercise in his following article.
Article 4: A Fragment upon the Down-Grade Controversy (November 1887)
In November 1887, Charles Spurgeon announced the unimaginable. The chief Baptist preacher was to withdraw his membership from the Baptist Union which was so dear to his heart. He said in unmistakeable terms: “In our own case we intimated our course of direction in the last month’s paper. We retire at once and distinctly from the Baptist Union”.10 Enough was enough!
In spite of coming apart from his denomination, Spurgeon cried out for a Gospel-centred unity amongst all evangelicals. No other type of coalition could do. A union without the Gospel of Christ as the source would be treason against the King of heaven.
He lamented the false fellowship which was supposedly holding liberal and conservative Baptists together, “As a matter of fact, believers in Christ’s atonement are now in declared religious union with those who make light of it; believers in Holy Scripture are in confederacy with those who deny plenary inspiration; those who hold evangelical doctrine are in open alliance with those who call the fall a fable, who deny the personality of the Holy Ghost, who call justification by faith immoral, and hold that there is another probation after death, and a future restitution for the lost”.11
Given that the Baptist Union had not drawn up a specific confession of faith beyond that of believing in baptism by immersion, it had no disciplinary power to confront infidel ministers.
Without a solid scriptural foundation, Spurgeon believed he was wasting his time in a denomination which freely opened doors to all types of clean and unclean animals. Spurgeon and his church were gone for good!
Article 5: Restoration of Truth and Revival (December 1887)
Spurgeon’s November article had sent shock-waves throughout the Baptist world. What on earth was their most influential minister doing? How could he leave the communion he so loved?
In December, Spurgeon stood boldly by his decision citing the same reasons as in his previous articles: a manifest doctrinal and spiritual decline amongst many ministers of a liberal persuasion. The preacher penned, “It is clear to everyone who is willing to see it that laxity of doctrine is either the parent of worldliness, or is in some other way very near akin to it”.12
The sons of the Puritans and the grandsons of the Reformation had to stand up for doctrinal orthodoxy and separateness from all polluted forms of worldliness.
If liberals were to go to Sodom and Egypt for amusement then evangelicals had to get back to the means of grace which modernists so despised. Spurgeon called upon his fellow believers and ministers to get rid of all carnal pollution from their lives, to “seek a fuller baptism of the Spirit of God”, to “pray like Elijahs” and to “preach the faithful Word in clearer terms than ever”.13
He explains, “Such a course of conduct may seem to be a sort of standing still and doing nothing, but in very truth is bringing God into the battle; and when He comes to avenge the quarrel of His covenant, He will make short work of it. ‘Arise, O Lord, plead thine own cause!’”14
Article 6: The Baptist Union Censure (February 1888)
In the light of Spurgeon’s candid public comments and withdrawal from the Baptist Union, it was only natural for the denomination to react by censuring their once esteemed Gospel minister.
Spurgeon, however, hit back in February 1888 by pointing out that the denomination had no doctrinal authority to censure any minister save for the case of baptism by immersion. “If we go to its authorized declaration of principles, it is clear that the Union is incompetent for any doctrinal judgment, expect is should be needful to ascertain a person’s views on baptism”.15
Even the hint that the Union was willing to consider the possibility of drawing up a confession of faith did little to encourage Spurgeon. He was certain that the liberals within the Baptist camp would simply sign up to a slippery creed with double meanings which would prove to be of no theological use.
In contrast to the two-faced language of the modernists, the Metropolitan Tabernacle’s pastor underscored the fact that, “That which I believe I am not ashamed to state in the plainest possible language; and the truth I hold I embrace because I believe it to be the mind of God revealed in His infallible Word”.16
Spurgeon’s conscience was in perfect peace. He had done what the Lord had required of him. And he assured the Baptist Union that, “I shall not cease to expose doctrinal declension wherever I see it”.17 He was a free man in spiritual communion with other ministers who loved the old-time Gospel of Christ crucified and resurrected.
Article 7: Progressive Theology (April 1888)
The April 1888 critique was the last of the seven texts that Spurgeon published over a nine-month period. He would eventually write upon the Down Grade Controversy twice more in December 1888 and December 1889 but with arguments similar to those used in the first septuplet of articles.
Until the day he died in 1892, he never got over the heartbreak of the liberalization of the British evangelical pulpit.
His final article was an assault upon the ‘New Theology’ calling it a “cross-breed between nonsense and blasphemy”. Only true fools would think they could improve upon the New Testament evangel: “When we call up before our mind’s eye the gentlemen who have set themselves this presumptuous task, we feel half inclined to laugh; the case is so much like the proposal of moles to improve the light of the sun”.18
Ultimately the liberal gospel led to a revival of justification by works and even the doctrine of Purgatory (since eternal punishment was simply not on the cards for modernism). It was a new religion, destitute of moral honesty, as it paraded itself in the name of the Christianity.
He scorned the infidels: “Do men really believe that there is a new gospel for each century? Or a religion for each fifty years? [...] New editions of the gospel are to be excogitated by the wisdom of men, and we are to follow in the wake of faithful preachers whose thoughts are not as God’s thoughts. Verily this is the deification of man!”19
In spite of many enemies and detractors, Spurgeon could have no fellowship in an evangelical-liberal coalition. He mocked the idea of such a communion, “We are all to be as one, even though we agree in next to nothing. It is a breach of brotherly love to denounce error. Hail, holy charity! Black is white; and white is black. The false is true; and the true is false; the true and the false are one. Let us join hands, and never again mention those barbarous, old-fashioned doctrines about which we are sure to differ”.20
The prince of preachers was content to remain in a minority as long as that small group was to remain faithful to the teaching of Sacred Writ. He was not to return to the Baptist Union fold.
In the light of Spurgeon’s mortal combat, there are some key lessons that contemporary evangelicals would do well to take on board.
Firstly, there can be no true evangelical unity between ministers and churches unless that fellowship is a Gospel-unity. Throughout the centuries, conservative Protestants have always believed in a coalition for the Gospel.
Secondly, faithful preachers of the Word of God should not be surprised to find themselves abandoned and alone once they begin to call things by their name. Spurgeon could have saved himself from many detractors if he had opted to keep his mouth buttoned. But he couldn’t! He spoke out as a faithful herald ordained unto the cause of the Gospel. Such faithfulness may, at times, lead to isolation.
Thirdly, the Down Grade Controversy shows us that when there is a conflict between the interests of an evangelical institution and the straight-teaching of the Word of God, the Bible must prevail! The moment an evangelical movement takes a stand against any fundamental doctrine of Scripture, it has ceased to be faithful to its high calling.
Fourthly, confessions of faith are exceedingly important. Ever since the day Luther attacked the liberal Erasmus over his ambiguous theological speculations, Protestantism has promoted the use of confessions of faith and catechisms to articulate faith clearly. We all need carefully worded and clear-cut confessions to protect us from the perils of theological liberals.
Fifthly and finally, the threat of false teaching is as real as ever. Although we know many formerly Protestant bodies which drifted off into the paths of modernism, we should keep on our toes within our own evangelical denominations. We must be very careful never to ordain anyone or vote anyone into church officialdom who is not crystal clear regarding his biblical convictions. Just because our denomination is known for orthodoxy does not mean that we always will be the case.
May Spurgeon’s courage and resolve serve us all as a reminder to fight to the end and to stand firm in the glorious gospel of the incomparable Christ.
1 SPURGEON, Charles H., The Down-Grade Controversy (Biblio Bazaar: Charleston, 2008), p. 32.
2 Ibid., p. 33.
3 Ibid., pp. 34, 35.
4 Ibid., p. 36.
5 Ibid., p. 42.
6 Ibid., p. 42.
7 Ibid., p. 53.
8 Ibid., p. 52.
9 Ibid., pp. 52-53.
10 Ibid., p. 57.
11 Ibid., pp. 55-56.
12 Ibid., p. 60.
13 Ibid., pp. 61-62.
14 Ibid., p. 62.
15 Ibid., p. 71.
16 Ibid., p. 73.
17 Ibid., p. 75.
18 Ibid., p. 80.
19 Ibid., p. 82.
20 Ibid., p. 83.