“The fight is killing me!” These were the last words of the great 19th century preacher Charles Spurgeon to his friends in England as he boarded a train from London, setting off for the south of France. The hope was that the warmer climate would give him some relief after three months of battling with gout compounded by a deadly kidney disease. But he never returned to English soil. Three months later he was dead at the age of 58. The fight had killed him. But the fight he referred to had nothing to do with gout or kidney disease.
In recent blogs we have dipped into the blood-stained history of the church that is filled with men and women gripped by the conviction that some things are worth fighting for. Some, like Spurgeon, were convinced that some things are worth dying for. For him, the battle for Truth was a fight to the death. What was so crucial?
The fight in which Spurgeon was engaged in the last five years of his life was known as 'The Down Grade Controversy'. That battle took its name from an expression used by Robert Shindler in a series of articles that Spurgeon published in his church magazine, The Sword and the Trowel, in 1887. We would probably use different words today; perhaps 'The Slippery Slope' would capture the intended sense. Spurgeon commended the first article to his readers with the following exhortation: “Earnest attention is requested for this paper. We are going down-hill at breakneck speed.”
Shindler’s articles were mostly historical surveys. He highlighted that every revival of true evangelical faith in earlier centuries tended to be followed by a drift away from sound doctrine within a generation or two. Neither he nor Spurgeon would have been surprised that the battle needs to be fought all over again in our day. So what was the slippery slope that Spurgeon considered so deadly? A quick survey of the main issues demonstrates that the battle is not simply a matter of historical curiosity, but is being re-fought in our day. The list sounds remarkably contemporary.
In one of the articles, published in the June 1887 edition of The Sword and Trowel, Shindler pulled the strands of his historical observations together as he saw the concerns of his own day focused in what was going on in the Andover Theological Seminary in Massachusetts. He highlighted 6 points where the downhill slide was gaining momentum:
- Slipping away from an orthodox view of the inspiration and infallibility of Scripture
- A view of the person of Christ that denied his divinity
- A denial of the vicarious sufferings of Christ and the doctrine of penal substitution
- A minimizing of the need for the work of the Holy Spirit since man was assumed to have sufficient power in his own nature
- The growth of the notion that those who have not heard of Christ “are not sinners or are not sinners so as to be exposed to perdition”
- A growing confidence that there will be another opportunity to respond to Christ when He is seen after death
There is nothing new under the sun. Spurgeon’s writings enable him to continue to preach from the grave and rouse a new generation to engage in the old fight. The question remains: do we consider such things worth fighting for? Are will willing to go all the way with Spurgeon to the point where we might have to say, “The fight is killing me”?