Spurgeon, C. H. 2010. Lectures to My Students. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson.
Lectures to My Students is a compilation of Charles Spurgeon’s lectures to students of the Pastors’ College, a college Spurgeon (2010, vii) opened in 1856 to train students to preach rather than to become scholars. The purpose of the original lectures was to provide practical advice and encouragement to prospective ministers, which, once published, would influence pastors outside the college and in future generations (Spurgeon 2010, 6). The following summary examines the primary themes, concepts, and principles in twelve of the lectures from Spurgeon’s compilation.
Spurgeon’s pragmatic purpose drives his topics and the delivery. Many pastors want to know “how” to be and act like a minister, and the author delivers specific, poignant answers. Spurgeon primarily focuses on the concepts of a minister’s call, prayer life, sermonizing, social life, personal growth, and earnestness. Spurgeon’s delivery reflects the sagacity and pithiness of G. K. Chesterton with a whimsical style that engages readers from the start.
Three unifying ministerial themes: self-awareness, balance, and common sense envelop six key principles of ministry. Although Spurgeon masterfully weaves these three themes into all six principles with humorous anecdotes and proverbial wisdom, specific examples are provided for illustration purposes. First, Spurgeon (2010, 23-42) addresses the principle of an authentic call. A minister must honestly assess whether adequate desire and aptitude exist. The theme of self-awareness is palpable as Spurgeon addresses a minister’s call. The second principle is reliance on private and public prayer as “the minister who does not earnestly pray over his work must surely be a vain and conceited man” (Spurgeon 2010, 49). The themes of self-awareness and common sense highlight the importance of not praying with pompousness, vanity, or vulgarity and varying the length of prayers (Spurgeon 2010, 43-72). The third principle is diligent preparation. Regarding sermon preparation, the theme of balance is noteworthy as Spurgeon (2010, 73-113, 377-389) suggests strong content, but not too much; focused content, but not monotonous; spiritualizing the text, but with caution; and the generous use of illustrations, but not too many. The fourth principle is an authentic and upright social life. Both common sense and balance are evident as Spurgeon (2010, 171-179) addresses the importance of sociability without pretentiousness, gentleness without losing conviction, and slowness to speak without being “a dummy.” The fifth principle is continual growth empowered by the Spirit. The self-awareness theme again becomes evident as the minister must assess his mental, oratorical, moral, and spiritual growth patterns (Spurgeon 2010, 217-230). The final principle is zealous earnestness. The theme of balance is found as Spurgeon (2010, 325-341) highlights the importance of being zealous in preaching, but solace regarding results; kindling the flame of Christ’s love, but continuing to feed on the Word; and keeping close to God, but not shirking relationships with other men. In sum, Spurgeon wraps six biblical principles of ministry in the timeless wisdom of three thematic components: self-awareness, balance, and common sense.
The strength of Spurgeon’s work rests on the author’s wisdom presented with alacrity and clarity. Commenting on the book of James, Ralph Martin (1998, 17) explains that wisdom means “practical righteousness in everyday living.” In the case of Spurgeon’s work, wisdom means practical righteousness in everyday ministry as a pastor of a local church. Although Spurgeon’s content is orthodox and sensical, the real strength is in the author’s presentation. Four specific attributes highlight Spurgeon’s wisdom: disclaimers, forthrightness, humor, and pragmatism.
First, regarding disclaimers, Spurgeon has an uncanny knack of making an assertion with absolute certainty, just prior to announcing that his certainty is not quite absolute. Reminiscent of the Book of Proverbs, where the righteous are rewarded, but not always (e.g. Prov. 11:18), Spurgeon weaves disclaimers throughout. For example, when discussing spiritualizing a text, Spurgeon (2010, 101, 113) dissents from never going beyond the obvious meaning of the text, but then provides seven disclaimers, such as not straining the text and using discretion. Second, regarding forthrightness, Spurgeon’s straightforward approach leaves nothing to the imagination. For example, Spurgeon (2010, 29, 32, 34) clearly communicates that ineptness is not acceptable, results are important, and if people are not following, then the pastor is not leading. Third, Spurgeon’s humor allows the poignant message of wisdom to be more easily swallowed. For example, Spurgeon (2010, 38-39) recognizes that many zealous and devoted men have a “conspicuous absence of brains,” and were certain of their call to ministry “because they had failed at everything else.” Spurgeon’s tongue-in-cheek turn of phrase will not soon be forgotten by his readers. Fourth, Spurgeon’s pragmatism is likely unmatched even in recent times. For example, instead of pontificating on the theory of public prayer, Spurgeon (2010, 55-72) provides seventeen maxims. Instead of theorizing about sermon preparation, Spurgeon (2010, 73-83) provides a practical checklist, which includes such items as doctrine, congruence, focus, arrangement, and clarity. Although Spurgeon’s six principles are solid, students of his lectures are better off seeking the author’s sagacious thought process behind the principles.
Two specific weaknesses also stand out. First, Spurgeon’s forthrightness may, at times, do more harm than good. Specifically, Spurgeon (2010, 13-22) asserts that a minister must be mature, advanced, and vigorously pious down to the smallest detail. Furthermore, ministers must not be stilted, fussy, or pretentious, and always be on duty, sociable, cheerful, conversational, gentle, sensible, and firm (Spurgeon 2010, 171-179). Unrealistic moral expectations, with no outlet to communicate struggles with sin, have been the downfall of many pastors. As Craig Groeschel (2010, 7-15) explains, attempting to “live up” can lead to image management resulting in short-term posing and long-term destruction of the soul. Admittedly, Spurgeon opposes inauthentic behavior, but sin issues reside much deeper than a pastor’s behavior. Second, Spurgeon, the plain preacher of the gospel, surprisingly misses the opportunity to consistently integrate the impact of the gospel into each principle espoused. Gordon Fee (1987, 391) explains that the Apostle Paul, like Spurgeon, prohibits immorality, but only after explaining that the reason for failure is always a “misunderstanding of the gospel.” In Paul’s teaching, “The imperative follows the indicative” (Fee 1987, 391). Spurgeon provides behavioral imperatives regarding character, prayer, sermonizing, social life, personal growth, and earnestness, but does not consistently emphasize the gospel indicative that empowers the imperatives. Without consistent gospel messaging, the reader could disconnect his new nature in Christ from his conduct, which may result in the futility of sin management.
The future of the body of Christ depends on the training and development of leaders. Scott Douglas (2014, 84) notes that churches “survive by the capable and continued leadership of their pastors, who have learned from those who came before them.” Spurgeon’s lectures allow pastors to sit under the mentorship of one of the most influential pastors in modern history. The value of Spurgeon’s work in its larger academic context is, without question, its ability to provide practical guidance to pastors ministering in a local church community. Although published a century and a half ago, the timeless wisdom and enduring principles remain relevant in this highly accessible work.
Part-time and full-time pastors, lay pastors, young pastors, and soon-to-be pastors will all benefit from Spurgeon’s lectures. Seasoned pastors will also relate to Spurgeon’s entertaining anecdotes and stories, while lay leaders will appreciate the author’s common-sense wisdom applicable to all forms of ministry. The lectures are not recommended for pastors or scholars desiring a theology of pastoral ministry, or those attempting to understand pastoral ministry within the context of the Ancient Near East or Second Temple Judaism. However, if the reader is seeking an accessible and entertaining guidebook wrapped in timeless wisdom written from the perspective of a seasoned pastor, then Spurgeon’s lectures fit perfectly.
Douglas, Scott M. 2014. “Developing Leaders for Pastoral Ministry.” The Journal of Applied Christian Leadership 8, no. 2 (Fall): 84–90.
Fee, Gordon D. 1987. The First Epistle to the Corinthians. The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans.
Groeschel, Craig. 2010. Dare to Drop the Pose: Ten Things Christians Think but Are Afraid to Say. Colorado Springs: Multnomah.
Martin, Ralph P. 1998. Word Biblical Commentary. Vol. 48, James. Dallas: Word.