Was Spurgeon a Charismatic Cessationist?

I can only imagine the range of reactions to the title of this post! (And based on the number of hits this post gets every month, there are quite a few of you reading it. After reading this you might appreciate my honest review and confessions in another post: Strange Fire, Straw Men, and Arguing from Silence.  Also, you might benefit from a post about avoiding the reactionary theological errors that land people in the ditch on either side of the road.

People love to make it look like famous people from the past agreed with their positions. 

Spurgeon is one of those famous ones.  It can be shown from his writings that he believed that some of the gifts of the Spirit that the original apostles wielded have passed away (a theological position known as “cessationism”).  But at the same time you can read some pretty amazing (actually, miraculous) stories of how the Holy Spirit worked in Spurgeon’s ministry.

I want to include here a portion of one of Spurgeon’s sermons. In it, among other things, he gives testimony of spontaneous prophetic insight (or “impressions” as he called them) he was often given even as he stood in the pulpit.

We have often had very clear proof of God’s knowing what is in man’s heart, even in the ministry. Some months ago, whilst standing here preaching, I deliberately pointed to a man in the midst of the crowd, and said these words—”There is a man sitting there that is a shoemaker, keeps his shop open on Sunday, had his shop open last Sabbath morning, took ninepence, and there was fourpence profit out of it. His soul is sold to Satan for fourpence.”

A City Missionary, when going round the West end of the town, met with a poor man, of whom he asked this question: “Do you know Mr. Spurgeon?” He found him reading a sermon. “Yes,” he said, “I have every reason to know him; I have been to hear him, and under God’s grace I have become a new man. “But,” said he, “shall I tell you how it was? I went to the Music Hall, and took my seat in the middle of the place, and the man looked at me as if he knew me, and deliberately told the congregation that I was a shoemaker, and that I sold shoes on a Sunday; and I did, sir. But, sir, I should not have minded that; but he said I took ninepence the Sunday before, and that there was fourpence profit; and so I did take ninepence, and fourpence was just the profit, and how he should know that I’m sure I can not tell. It struck me it was God had spoken to my soul through him; and I shut my shop last Sunday, and was afraid to open it and go there, lest he should tell all about me again.”

I could tell as many as a dozen authentic stories of cases that have happened in this Hall, where I have deliberately pointed at some body, without the slightest knowledge of the person, or ever having in the least degree any inkling or idea that what I said was right, except that I believed I was moved thereto by the Spirit; and so striking has been the description, that the persons have gone away and said, “Come, see a man that told me all things that ever I did: he was sent of God to my soul, beyond a doubt, or else he could not have painted my case so clearly.”

And not only so, but we have known cases in which the thoughts of men have been revealed from the pulpit. I have sometimes seen persons nudge with their elbows, because they have got a smart hit, and I have heard them say, when they went out, “That is just what I said to you when I went in at the door.” “Ah!” says the other, “I was thinking of the very thing he said, and he told me of it.” Now, if God thus proves his own Omniscience by helping his poor, ignorant servant, to state the very thing, thought and done, when he did not know it, then it must remain decisively proved that God does know everything that is secret, because we see he tells it to men, and enables them to tell it to others. (source info below)

“We see He tells it to men, and enables them to tell it to others.”  This is basically a definition of the new testament gift of prophecy, explained and guarded by Paul in 1 Corinthians 14.  Spurgeon might say that the office of a prophet is no more or that authoratative, binding prophecies have ceased, but by that he means prophecies that are on par with Holy Scripture. (Btw, every continuist (i.e. non-cessationist) I know also believes this with Spurgeon.)  But by Spurgeon’s own testimony, prophetic impressions which revealed the secrets of men’s hearts had NOT ceased. Just read 1 Corinthians 14 again. Spurgeon’s experience was analagous with that of Paul’s churches.

So I like to refer to Spurgeon as a “Charismatic cessationist.”  His own experience may have contradicted at least some of the cessationist views he had held.  No doubt he continued to hold to some of those views, while personal experience required adjustment to others.  And this was Spurgeon, if not by confession, then by the evidence itself.

By the way, I know a lot of cessationists whose experience with the Holy Spirit is much more powerful and revelatory than their cessationist theology might suggest. By the way, this is the way most of us escape the cessationist dogma.  It’s by experience.

“Ah hah!”, someone is thinking, “See, you are admitting your theology is based upon experience… and not the Bible!”

Actually, people on both sides of the argument are guilty of interpreting their own experience (or lack) back into the biblical texts.  Experience is a powerful force of persuasion.  It’s hard to convince somebody who hasn’t eaten my wife’s chocolate pie that it’s to die for.  But it’s impossible to convince me that that pie is no longer available.  Because I experience it from time to time.

To clear the air, and perhaps connect with my readers who are cessationists, let me say that I do NOT believe that there is ongoing, binding, “special” revelation from God, outside of the Bible.  (So to this degree you could call me a charismatic cessationist too!)  God does not use prophets and apostles today to establish new truth for the church.  The Bible plays an exclusive role in this area now.  But just because we say that “special revelation” has ceased, does not mean that God no longer speaks to His children providentially, leading them in unique and personal ways, sometimes without the immediate use of the Scriptures, and working through them even in miraculous ways via spiritual gifts.  Spurgeon’s testimony of speaking to the shoemaker (above) is a classic example of this.  This was a revelation from God, spoken into Spurgeon’s heart, that was nothing short of miraculous.  It was part of what brought intense conviction to the soul of that shoemaker…and played a key role in his turning to Christ for salvation.  Dear cessationist friend, even the Westminster divines, who believed that special revelation had ended, made room for this kind of ongoing revelation.

Those who have read this far might enjoy or at least be stirred up by reading my post about John MacArthur’s Strange Fire Conference.  It’s called, Strange Fire, Straw Men, and Arguments from Silence.

Excerpted from “God, the All-Seeing One”

Sermon (No. 177)

Delivered on Sabbath Morning, February 14, 1858, by the
REV. C. H. Spurgeon
at the Music Hall, Royal Surrey Gardens.

10 thoughts on “Was Spurgeon a Charismatic Cessationist?

  1. Martin says:

    John Calvin believed that, while revelatory gifts had ceased to be normative in the church, nevertheless, “traces or shades” of them remained to the present day. Does that make him a cessationist or a continuationist? I would argue that cessationism does not require one to deny that “traces and shades” of the extraordinary gifts remain in the church today; it merely means that the full-orbed “office of prophet” as we see it operating in the early church, has ceased. We no longer have people who people who regularly receive new revelations from God regarding the “mystery of Christ” which they proclaim to the church through verablly inspired messages. Neither do we have men like Agabus, acknowledged to be prophets, who regularly stand up and communicate divine revelations that they have received by saying to their hearers, “Thus says the Holy Spirit.” Spurgeon’s experience was not of that nature. Rather, in the midst of his ordinary preaching ministry, he was on occasionly moved to utter what many would call a ‘word of knowledge’ that proved to be remarkably accurate. This would certainly prove Calvin’s view that “traces or shades” of the prophetic gift remain with the church to this day. It would not prove that the full-orbed “office of prophet” is still with us, or that we should expect the gift of prophecy to function today as it did, say, in the church of Corinth and other apostolic churches.

    • Martin,

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments. To me they confirm my idea that lots of cessationists have a better experience than their theology might predict. Spurgeon being an example. The accuracy and level of the prophetic insight in his dealing with the cobbler was amazing. I rank this level of prophetic operation right alongside anything we see in the New Testament. Even Spurgeon (in the sermon referenced in the article) compares himself to Jesus telling Nathanael that he had been under the tree.

      I do agree that the canon of Scripture is closed and there is no “new” revelation into the mystery of Christ given to prophets today. Any group that follows a “prophet”, whose word has equal or more authority than the Scriptures is a cult. But I have not found bibical evidence that suggests that prophets in the church age were ever responsible for establishing new doctrine or new insight into the mystery of Christ (which seems to be your very specific definition of the “office” of the prophet.) Where in the New Testament is there new revelatory doctrinal insight attributed to a contemporary prophet? Yes, the prophets of old were credited, but not actual contemporary prophets. I make this point to suggest that your view of the office of a prophet is an Old Testament one and not a New Testament one. 1 Corinthians 14 describes the role and the boundaries for contemporary prophesying and prophets. This has not changed up until today.

      Lastly, I would say that cessationism, as popularly taught by dispensationaists and anti-charismatics is actually an extrabiblical teaching. Certainly a lot of popular charismatic theology is also unbiblical. Again, cessationism, though it may have arguments based upon history and the apparent lack of the operation of certain gifts by large segments of the church over large periods of time, is not a doctrine that has any real foundation in the canon of scripture or in the immutable nature of our God. Hence, it is actually a “new” revelation into the mystery of Christ and His work -which in my mind places it in the category of heresy.

      My belief is that it is not God who has changed…but it is the church who has stepped away from her glorious calling and endowments. I realize that good and Christ-loving people disagree on this. And I realize that people have been arguing over these issues for a LONG time. Meanwhile the angels look on and wonder if we will get back to the business of preaching the glorious gospel, in the power of the glorious Spirit, to win for the glorious Lamb of God the rewards of His suffering.


  2. Martin says:

    There is at least one passage that appears to teach that New Testament prophets, along with apostles, received divinely revealed doctrinal insights into the “mystery of Christ” which they expounded in their inspired messages to the apostolic churches– that is Ephesians 3:4. There, Paul says that he received insight into the “mystery of Christ, which was not made known to men in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God’s holy apostles and prophets.” He then goes on to say that this ‘mystery’ concerns the “revealtion” that Gentiles are co-heirs with Israel of the same promise and members of the same body. As an example of how that ‘mystery’ was communicated by New Testament apostles and prophets to the churches, see Acts 15:32, where two local church prophets, Judas and Silas, accompany the apostle Paul and Barnabus to deliver a decree concerning this doctrinal “mystery” to the believers in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia. After this decree was read to the church in Antioch (a decree affirming that Gentiles are co-equals with Jews in the body of Christ), we read that “Judas and Silas, who themselves were prophets, said much to encourage and strengthen the brethren.” Apparently, these two prophets preached to the congregation at Antioch by divine inspiration alongside Paul and Barnabus. The likelihood is that their preaching elaborated on the “mystery of Christ” which they had just communicated by way of apostolic decree to that congregation. So here we see prophets preaching alongside the apostle Paul by divine inspiration, unfolding the “mystery of Christ” to the church at Antioch. Now, I know Wayne Grudem would see the divine mystery spoken of in Ephesias 3:4 as being revealed to “God’s holy apostles, who are prophets.” But the passage in Acts shows two different categories of gifted men ‘encouraging and strengthening’ the church at Antioch through their inspired preaching (Paul an apostle, and Judas and Silas, “who were themselves prophets” like Paul); and almost certainly, the content of their preaching had something to do with the divine ‘mystery’ that was the content of the decree they delivered. This understanding of the ministry of New Testament prophets seems confirmed, as well, by Ephesians 4:11, where Paul clearly distinguishes the office of “prophet” from that of “apostle,” yet places the two offices in close proximity to each other, before evangelists, pastors and teachers. That makes perfect sense if apostles and prophets together had a foundation-laying function in the church which is now fulfilled..

  3. Martin says:

    I would encourage you to re-think your use of the word “heresy” to describe cessationism. You may consider cessationism an “error,” but since cessationists do not deny the continuing work of the Spirit in giving gifts to the church, and since they do not deny even that “traces and shades” of the extraordinary gifts may be operative in the church today– as God in His sovereignty wills– it seems a bit “over the top” to describe cessationists as promoters of ‘heresy.’ They are concerned, as are continuationists, to honor the work of the Holy Spirit. They simply do not have the same belief as continuationists concerning the particular manifestations of the Spirit’s work that we are warranted to expect as normative today. They are equally committed to the supreme, unparalleled authority of Scripture and to the truth of the gospel as are continuationists, so why not grant the fact that the differences that divide us are not over the cardinal doctrines of the faith– such as those that divide evangelicals from Jehovah’s Witnesses– but over what is a relatively secondary issue (I did not say that the issue is unimportant). I greatly appreciate the ministry of men like John Piper, D. A. Carson, and Wayne Grudem, and though I may disagree with some of their views concerning the gifts of the Spirit, I would never think of describing them as promoters of ‘heresy.’

    • Okay, Martin, I retract the use of “heresy”, in my previous comment! (I do think it is false teaching, however!) (-; I do concur with you that though important, this issue is not paramount.

      I would say that my experience has been that cessationists have historically been less accepting of continuists than the other way around. Some of this I guess is understable. Someone’s ‘non-use” of the gifts does not necessarily distract others or cause them immediate concerns. But my “use” of the gifts can really make an uninstructed person feel that I am out of my mind! So, with Paul, I must be patient and others minded, making concessions for those who don’t understand about the gifts…yet… (ala 1 Cor 14).

      By the way, you write very well, and convey a congenial tone even in debate. I commend you for this humility, which conveys the humility of our Lord. I hope that I have also honored the Lord in my communication.

      May the Lord bless and prosper you as you seek to promote His glory through the preaching of the gospel.

  4. Martin,

    Yes, I overlooked the Eph 3:4 text, which does say that contemporary prophets received insight into the mystery. Thanks for bringing that to my attention. I need to be more careful about saying there is no biblical evidence of NT prophets being given entirely new revelation.

    My brother, I can tell that you are a scholar. But your preunderstandings are very clearly showing up in your claims about Acts 15 prophets! There was no new revelation granted at the Jerusalem council. Paul had already given the revelation to the apostles at Jerusalem and received the right hand of fellowship for his work among the Gentiles. Peter had already received the same revelation through his ordeal at Cornelius’ house! But after Peter’s hypocrisy at Antioch (his failure to walk in the light of Gentile inclusion), Paul and others went back to Jerusalem to contend for the truth. (At least this is my understanding of the timeline.)

    Judas and Silas, in coming back to Antioch with Paul and the others, to “deliver the decree” were not bringing any new revelation to the Antioch brothers. They were actually delivering an apology letter! These two “prophets” only confirmed what the church already knew to be the truth. They didn’t bring revelation about the mystery of Christ. They brought a message that basically said, “We’re gonna stop insisting that you be circumcised. We were wrong. But we still think you ought to stay away from meat sacrificed to idols and from sexual immorality…” Hardly new revelation, Martin. This seems beyond debate, doesn’t it?

    Not only is this so, but my earlier statements of the role of prophets in the NT age (being unchanged) is only confirmed in Acts 15:32, when we allow the Scripture to tell exactly what Judas and Silas ministered at Antioch: “Judas and Silas, also being prophets themselves, encouraged and strengthened the brethren with a lengthy message.” Sounds just like 1 Cor 14:3 to me. Sounds like they were preachers who were especially gifted prophetically. Just like Spurgeon, perhaps. If this text is left to speak on its own, there is no suggestion that these two ministers introduced newly received doctrinal light. Furthermore, it appears that Silas decided to join up with Antioch. He had learned a lot through the process.

    Martin, I don’t know you personally, but I think you should give up your position on this one! Be like Silas and come on over. Yes, it will bring you some pain from the hardliners in Jerusalem! Trust me. I know by experience. I’ve got the scars to prove it.

    After all, I too am a recovering cessationist….

  5. Martin says:

    Thanks for your reply. I don’t have a lot of time right now to dialogue, but I just wanted to agree with you that my ‘pre-understanding’ of the prophetic office certainly informs my reading of Acts 15. The question is, whether my ‘pre-understanding’ of the prophetic office is accurate or not! If it is accurate, then what we read in Acts 15 is certainly “consistent” with it. As I see it, whenever the apostles and prophets of the early church through their preaching “elaborated” on established truths that were ALREADY known and understood by the churches to which they ministered– their ‘elaboration’ on known truths, precisely because it came in the form of inspired speeches given by the Spirit of God, constituted “revelation” from God. Not all of that revelation, however, was destined to be preserved as canonical for the whole church. We see a parallel here with the ministry of Jesus. We are told that He did many things during His earthly ministry that are not recorded in Scripture– and no doubt, that includes His preaching unrecorded sermons in which He “elaborated” on truths that are given somewhere in the four gospels (John 21:25). Those unrecorded sermons were as ‘revelational’ to the people who heard them as anything that we have in the canon of Scripture, because they were preached by the Son of God– yet they were not preserved for us, because we do not have need of them; what we have in Scripture is sufficient for us as a foundation on which to build our lives (Matthew 7:24-27). It does not seem odd to me, therefore, that the early Christians heard divinely inspired sermons by the first-century apostles and prophets that elaborated on doctrinal truths that were already known. Those sermons were as ‘revelational’ as what we have recorded in Scripture– even though they have not been preserved for us. The reason they have not been preserved is because what we have recorded in the Scripture is sufficient for us as a foundation on which to build our lives.

  6. Missy Berry says:

    I have rather enjoyed your last two blogs, immensely. I am encouraged by your willingness to speak truth, not as a hammer but as nail lifter..one that gently pulls up what has been nailed down. 🙂

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