March 25, 2014

Spurgeon, Impressions, and Prophecy (Reprise)

by Nathan Busenitz

Spurgeon2I recently received an email asking a question that I have been asked from time to time. It pertains to the topic of spiritual gifts and cessationism. In today’s article, I’ve summarized the question and provided my response.

Question: You mention Charles Spurgeon as an advocate of cessationism. But Spurgeon confessed that on several occasions, while he was preaching, he received impressions from the Holy Spirit that gave him extraordinary insights to expose specific sins in people’s lives with incredible accuracy. From my perspective, those impressions seem to align with the gift of prophecy. How do you reconcile Spurgeon’s impressions with your claim that he was a cessationist?


It is important, at the outset, to note that Scripture – and not Spurgeon – is our final authority in these matters. I’m confident that Charles Spurgeon would agree with us on that point. Whatever we conclude about Spurgeon’s experiences, we need to remember that our convictions must ultimately be drawn from the Word of God.

Having said that, I do think it is helpful to think carefully about the issues you raise in your question. With that in mind, I’ve summarized my response under the following three headings.

A) Was Spurgeon a Cessationist?

Yes. The nineteenth-century ‘Prince of Preachers’ taught that the miraculous gifts of the apostolic age (including the gifts of tongues, prophecy, and healing) had passed away shortly after the first century.

In a sermon entitled, “Final Perseverance” (March 23, 1856), Spurgeon spoke of the spiritual power that was available to his congregation with this qualification: “Not miraculous gifts, which are denied us in these days, but all those powers with which the Holy Ghost endows a Christian.”

In a longer section, from a sermon entitled “Receiving the Holy Spirit” (July 13, 1884), Spurgeon reiterated the fact that he believed the miraculous gifts to have ceased in church history. He said this:

You know, dear Friends, when the Holy Spirit was given in the earliest ages, He showed His Presence by certain miraculous signs. Some of those who received the Holy Spirit spoke with tongues; others began to prophesy and a third class received the gifts of healing — so that wherever they laid their hands, disease fled before them. . . .

[The remaining] works of the Holy Spirit which are at this time vouchsafed to the Church of God are, in every way, as valuable as those earlier miraculous gifts which have departed from us. The work of the Holy Spirit, by which men are quickened from their death in sin, is not inferior to the power which made men speak with tongues! The work of the Holy Spirit, when He comforts men and makes them glad in Christ, is by no means second to the opening of the eyes of the blind!

Spurgeon’s point was that, even though the gifts of tongues, prophecy, and healing are no longer available to the church — Christians still experience the work of the Holy Spirit in a way that is just as profound and supernatural (e.g. the miracle of regeneration, or the ministry of spiritual comfort).

To those who claimed to receive new revelation from God, Spurgeon offered serious warning:

Dear Brothers and Sisters, honor the Spirit of God as you would honor Jesus Christ if He were present! If Jesus Christ were dwelling in your house you would not ignore Him, you would not go about your business as if He were not there! Do not ignore the Presence of the Holy Spirit in your soul! . . . To Him pay your constant adorations. Reverence the august Guest who has been pleased to make your body His sacred abode. Love Him, obey Him, worship Him!

Take care never to impute the vain imaginings of your fancy to Him. I have seen the Spirit of God shamefully dishonored by persons—I hope they were insane—who have said that they have had this and that revealed to them. There has not, for some years, passed over my head a single week in which I have not been pestered with the revelations of hypocrites or maniacs. Semi-lunatics are very fond of coming with messages from the Lord to me and it may save them some trouble if I tell them once and for all that I will have none of their stupid messages. . . .

Never dream that events are revealed to you by Heaven, or you may come to be like those idiots who dare impute their blatant follies to the Holy Spirit. If you feel your tongue itch to talk nonsense, trace it to the devil, not to the Spirit of God! Whatever is to be revealed by the Spirit to any of us is in the Word of God already—He adds nothing to the Bible, and never will. Let persons who have revelations of this, that, and the other, go to bed and wake up in their senses. I only wish they would follow the advice and no longer insult the Holy Spirit by laying their nonsense at His door. (Charles Spurgeon, sermon entitled, “The Paraclete,” October 6, 1872)

I could provide several additional examples from Spurgeon’s sermons. For the sake of space, I’ll move on …

B) What about Spurgeon’s Impressions?

It is also true that Spurgeon reported occasions in which he experienced a subjective impression of some kind. Phil Johnson has catalogued a couple of those incidents at this link.

However, before we accuse Spurgeon of being a closet charismatic, it is helpful to keep a few things in mind.

1) Spurgeon warned against making too much out of subjective impressions:

Charles Spurgeon (sermon, “A Well Ordered Life”): To live by impressions is oftentimes to live the life of a fool and even to fall into downright rebellion against the revealed Word of God. Not your impressions, but that which is in this Bible must always guide you. ‘To the Law and to the Testimony.’ If it is not according to this Word, the impression comes not from God — it may proceed from Satan, or from your own distempered brain! Our prayer must be, ‘Order my steps in Your Word.’ Now, that rule of life, the written Word of God, we ought to study and obey.

2) Spurgeon also warned against associating with people who put great stock in subjective impressions:

Charles Spurgeon (sermon, “Enquiring of God”): I was once in conversation with two friends, one of whom was guided by his judgment, while the other was swayed by impressions, and I could not help noting that the man who was guided by impressions was, as such people always will be, “unstable as water.” If I am impressed in one way one day, I may be impressed in another way the next day, so impressions are unreliable guides. There was a young man, who was impressed with the idea that he ought to preach for me one Lord’s day; but as I was not impressed to let him do so, it stood over, and probably will continue to stand over for some little time. He had no gifts of speech, but he thought his impression was quite sufficient.

3) Spurgeon instructed his congregation to live by the Scriptures and not by their impressions:

Charles Spurgeon (sermon, “Intelligent Obedience”): Others, too, judge of their duty by impressions. “If I feel it impressed upon my mind,” says one, “I shall do, it.” Does God command you to do it? This is the proper question. If he does, you should make haste, whether it is impressed upon your mind or not; but if there be no command to that effect, or rather, if it diverges from the line of God’s statutes, and needs apology or explanation, hold your hand, for though you have ten thousand impressions, yet must you never dare to go by them. It is a dangerous thing for us to make the whims of our brain instead of the clear precepts of God, the guide of our moral actions. ” To the law and to the testimony,”—this is the lamp that shows the Christian true light; be this your chart, be this your compass; but as to impressions, and whims, and fancies, and I know not what beside which some have taken,—these are more wreckers lights that will entice you on the rocks. Hold fast to the Word of God, and nothing else; whoever he shall be that shall guide you otherwise, close your ears to him.

4) Spurgeon did not regard these subjective impressions as being prophecy or as consisting of the gift of prophecy. He did not believe that he was receiving inspired revelation from the Holy Spirit. Rather, Spurgeon regarded these impressions as a rare, subjective, and fallible way in which God sometimes guides His people.

Charles Spurgeon, “The Holy Spirit in Connection with Our Ministry” from Lectures to My Students: I need scarcely warn any brother here against falling into the delusion that we may have the Spirit so as to become inspired. . . . [Faithful preachers] only consider themselves to be under the influence of the Holy Spirit, as one spirit is under the influence of another spirit, or one mind under the influence of another mind. We are not the passive communicators of infallibility, but the honest teachers of such things as we have learned, so far as we have been able to grasp them.

Charles Spurgeon (sermon, “Enquiring of God”): Sometime, too, but rarely, God guides us by very vivid impressions. I have seen so much of people who have been impressed this way, and that way, and the other way, that I do not believe in impressions except in certain cases.

For those in the mainstream charismatic movement, the first three points listed above are vitally important; since many mainstream charismatics make a great deal out of subjective opinions and live accordingly. Spurgeon would have rightly denounced their way of thinking as being “unstable as water.”

For those in the more-conservative continuationist category, point 4 is especially pertinent. Spurgeon classed subjective impressions as one of the many ways in which God providentially leads and guides His people. Spurgeon did not equate them with any miraculous or revelatory gift from New Testament times. He did not seek subjective impressions (as many continuationists seek “prophecy”); he did not regard them as a normal part of his Christian experience, nor did he consider them to be either authoritative or infallible.

All of that to say: Spurgeon considered the subjective impressions he experienced to be categorically different than the New Testament gift of prophecy. That is why he was a cessationist. And modern cessationists would wholeheartedly agree with his assessment.

It is only by completely redefining the New Testament gift of prophecy — so that it primarily involves subjective impressions, rather than direct revelation from God — that modern continuationists can make any claim on Spurgeon as being an unwitting advocate of their position.

C) Conclusion

From the cessationist perspective, modern charismatics and continuationists have redefined the New Testament gifts in order to fit their contemporary experiences.

Biblically speaking, the gift of tongues consisted of the supernatural ability to speak authentic foreign languages. The gift of prophecy consisted of the authoritative and infallible reporting of revealed messages from God. And the gift of healing resulted in immediate, undeniable, and miraculous healings of real diseases.

None of those things is still happening today.

By contrast, those within the charismatic movement has completely redefined the gifts. Continuationists have redefined the gift of tongues to make it a non-rational private prayer “language.” They have redefined the gift of prophecy as a fallible, errant, subjective, non-authoritative word of spiritual advice or encouragement. And they have redefined the gift of healing to consist of either the failed efforts of faith-healers (like Benny Hinn) or the sincere prayers of believers who intercede for the sick and wait to see if God heals them over time. While praying for people and waiting on God is a good thing, it is not the same as the gift of healing that is depicted in the New Testament.

In the end, modern charismatics use New Testament terminology to describe their spiritual experiences. The problem is that those experiences simply do not match what was actually happening in the first-century church. To acknowledge that point is to be a cessationist.

* * * *

The emailer followed up with a second question, asking further about how we should understand Spurgeon’s impressions in light of the nature of biblical prophecy. Below is my reply to that second email.

Second Response:

Thanks for your gracious reply. It is a joy to discuss these issues as fellow brothers in Christ.

Regarding Charles Spurgeon, you wrote:

“Spurgeon defines what he did by calling them impressions and not prophecy. If we were to just move Spurgeon out of the way, settle on the cessation of the gifts, and go to the scriptures, where would we find these impressions in the NT so that if the Spirit moved upon us in these ways we would know that it was biblically sound since it is subjective in nature? This is what hangs me up because the only thing I know that fits is prophecy? Otherwise, wouldn’t Spurgeon’s own definition be extra-biblical?”

On the one hand, I appreciate those questions. On the other hand, I think they expose a fundamental flaw in your approach. It appears that you are beginning with Spurgeon’s experience, and then trying to fit the biblical definition of prophecy around it. But this is backwards. We need to begin with the biblical definition of the gift of prophecy. Scripture must govern our interpretation of experience, not the other way around.

When we examine the Scriptures, we find that biblical prophecy consisted of objective revelation from God. It included words (not subjective impressions) of wisdom and knowledge from the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 12:8). As a result, true prophecy was error-free and authoritative, since the prophet’s role was to faithfully report the message he had received from God. Those who spoke falsely in the name of the Lord were regarded as false prophets (Deut. 18:20–22; cf. 13:1–5).

Spurgeon3Biblically speaking, there is no distinction made in Scripture between Old Testament prophets and New Testament prophets. The expectations, terminology, descriptions, and function for each is the same. (I can go into much more detail on this point if it would be helpful.) For example, the New Testament uses identical terminology (side-by-side) to refer to both Old and New Testament prophets and prophecy. OT prophets are mentioned in Acts 2:16; 3:24, 25; 10:43; 13:27, 40; 15:15; 24:14; 26:22, 27; and 28:23. References to NT prophets and prophecy are interspersed without any distinction, comment, or caveat (Acts 2:17–18; 7:37; 11:27, 28; 13:1; 15:32; 21:9–11).

(On a side note, if you’re interested in how a cessationist defends the prophet Agabus, you can find my take on that issue here.)

Cessationists are convinced that the biblical gift of prophecy consisted of the Spirit-endowed ability to accurately relate objective revelation from God to people. New Testament prophets are to be held to the same standard as Old Testament prophets since the New Testament never distinguishes between the two. Thus, the content of their prophecy (whether foretelling or forth-telling) must accurately convey the true, error-free revelation they are receiving from God.

If we begin with that understanding of prophecy, we immediately see that Spurgeon’s subjective impressions are categorically different than the biblical gift of prophecy. I believe Spurgeon himself understood this, which is why he never attempted to define his experiences in terms of the New Testament prophetic gifts. Instead, he rightly understood subjective impressions as being fallible and unreliable.

As to how he categorized them, it seems he placed those rare occurrences under the heading of God’s providential leading and guiding of His people (in the sense of finding God’s will). Thus he says, “There are occasionally impressions of the Holy Spirit which guide men where no other guidance could have answered the end” (sermon, “A Well Ordered Life”). And elsewhere, “Such strong impressions are not to be despised . . . for God does sometimes reveal his will in that way” (sermon, “Enquiring of God”). Again, Spurgeon did not place these experiences in the category of New Testament gifts, because he knew that they did not fit there.

Now, having said all of that, we might quibble about Spurgeon’s own acceptance of such impressions. For example, on more than one occasion, he affirmed the subjective impressions experienced by Quakers – something I personally would be very reticent to do. (Most conservative evangelicals would share my discomfort in that regard.) In that way, I do not think Spurgeon always handled this issue as carefully as he could have.

However, with regard to the cessationism/continuationism discussion, the bottom line concerning Spurgeon’s experiences is this: The Bible defines prophecy as consisting of objective and authoritative revelation from God which must be related by the prophet without error. By contrast, Spurgeon recognized his impressions to be subjective, non-authoritative, and fallible. As a result, he did not define his experiences as “prophecy.”

Neither should we.

Nathan Busenitz

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Nathan serves on the pastoral staff of Grace Church and teaches theology at The Master's Seminary in Los Angeles.
  • Beau Weber

    Thank you! This post has gone far in helping to clear up this issue for me. I appreciate the succinct clarity.

  • Fernando Rios


    In great measure I have benefitted abundantly from your posts here on the Cripplegate – not the least of which has been the recent discussion on cessationism & continuationism. I am personally indebted to the scholarly precision, clarity and sensitivity with which you’ve handled this subject. Thank you so much for the reminder us to look to the infallible Word of God to both inform and govern how we are relate to Him – not our experiences, nor even the teaching and/or position taken of erudite, sound Bible-teaching godly men whom we greatly esteem and admire such as Spurgeon, Piper, etc..

    Sincerely Appreciative,

    Fernando Rios

  • Tim Daigneault

    Thank you so much for this! I greatly appreciate your approach and strong stand.

  • Link Hudson

    Who cares what Spurgeon thought about it. It’s interesting if you are curious about history, but that’s about it. I’ll stick with the Bible.

    If he believed that God could lead through ‘impressions’ on rare occasions, why would he not believe it could happen more often? Where is his Biblical basis for that?

    More than mere ‘impressions’, the Bible teaches that the Spirit gives real spiritual gifts. It is in the Bible. Why do cessationists have such a big problem with it? The reason it, it contradicts their extra-biblical doctrines about the role of the Bible. The Bible trumps man’s theories about the Bible.

    • Jerod

      Your response here is typical what I see from many in the continuationist camp, namely, misrepresentations and unfair caricatures of the cessassionist position. I don’t know anyone who has “such a big problem” with the fact that God the Holy Spirit gives spiritual gifts. You’re right–it’s in the Bible (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:11).

      And your slam of Nathan for “caring” about what Spurgeon thinks is a little misguided. He’s responding to a legitimate question that someone had. He’s serving the body of Christ at large by answering the question. But I feel that you’re taking the moral high ground by saying “i’ll stick with the Bible.” Okay. Do that. So do we. Cessassionists do that. We stick to the Bible just as you profess to do.

      But you don’t ever read any writer/author/theologian who knows the Bible better than you for help? You never read the Spurgeons of the world to see how they handle specific texts dealing with issues about which you are curious? You have never read anything continuationist theologian that helped convince you of your views on the New Covenant role of the Holy Spirit (e.g., Carson, Piper, Grudem)?

      I appreciate your call to stick to the Bible, but don’t play the moral high ground and act as if you have never depended upon or been influenced by the exegetical conclusions of another human being.

      And furthermore, your short comment is laced with rude and unfounded accusations. You should know, cessassionists land on the position they do about the New Covenant role of the Holy Spirit and spiritual gifts because of texts–explicit Biblical texts that have convinced them of their position. I don’t appeal to any “theory” about the Bible which determines my position on spiritual gifts. And neither does Nathan. There are dozens of other posts on this blog that deal explicitly and exegetically with everything you hold deal about your continuationist position. And yet, I don’t see you interacting with any of those posts or especially the Biblical texts in those posts. Just accusations and insults. Frankly, I’m getting tired of the elitism of most of the continuationists I interact with.

      • Link Hudson

        Jerod, I did not slam Nathan B. for posting about Spurgeon’s opinion. I said it was interesting if you are curious about history. My comments had more to do with certain circles of cessationists relying on the opinions of men rather than scripture. But I do think it is a bad thing for people to base what they believe on this issue on Spurgeon’s mere opinion. Where do any of his opinions promoting cessationism above have any basis in the scriptures? (Btw, I can appreciate Spurgeon, but he was not infallible.)

        That this for example,
        >>>Whatever is to be revealed by the Spirit to any of us is in the Word of God already—He adds nothing to the Bible, and never will. Let persons who have revelations of this, that, and the other, go to bed and wake up in their senses.<<<

        I am assuming that by 'Word of God' he is referring specifically to the Bible (and not Christ) since that is how it appears in contrast. This statement does not line up with I Corinthians 2. The Spirit reveals the deep things of God to the believer. Paul prayed for believers to have the Spirit of revelation. Revelation is not a one-time thing once for all in the Bible. That idea is not consistent with how 'revelation' is used in scripture. It's an idea that comes from Protestant doctrinal statements ABOUT the Bible rather than from the scriptures themselves.

        Getting a prophecy or word of knowledge is not adding to the Bible. Not all the prophecies in Biblical times were written in scripture. This is clear from reading the Bible, because it mentions prophets without telling us what they prophesied on various occasions. We don't know what the prophets who met Saul were prophesying, and we don't know what Saul prophesied. Ahab did not want the prophet Micaiah to prophesy over him with Jehosophat asked if there were not a prophet of the LORD present because Micaiah, Ahab said, never prophesied anything good about him. Micaiah must have prophesied before Jehosophat's request. But it wasn't recorded in scripture. Paul wrote of a man who had a revelation of the third heaven who saw unutterable things, things that he did not write down in scripture for us. The seven thunders in Revelation said something but John was not allowed to pass that revelation on to us in the book of Revelation.

        Revelation tells us about future prophets who will prophesy and do miracles– the two witnesses. I know some of the pre-trib dispensationalists try to argue that prophecy and miracles stop for a while and start up at the rapture. But there is no Biblical justification for these gifts starting and stopping. If it were going to restart toward the end, why not a while before the rapture, say around 1901 or 1906 (for those unfamiliar with the many references to second and third century prophecies and gifts of the Spirit and various references throughout church history.)?

        I don't know about your personal version of cessationism. But the Strange Fire conference sure appealed to extrabiblical doctrine for cessationism. They call it 'the doctrine of scripture.' Now there some versions of a doctrine of scripture that a continuationist should refer to, and cessationists and continuationists could agree on a statement but widely differ on their interpretation.

        But the idea of the Bible as the only source of revelation, the only authority, etc. is not found in scripture. All power on heaven and earth is given to Christ. The Spirit reveals what is given to Christ and delivers it to the disciples. We can agree that the scriptures are inspired– inspired by the Holy Spirit. Therefore they are authoritative. But if we believe in the Biblical teaching on the gifts of the Spirit and not a man-made doctrinal statement ABOUT scripture (or interpretation thereof), then we should accept that these gifts are genuine. They are given as the Spirit wills and cessationists have no authority to restrict the Spirit with their theological reasoning.

        I realize there are prooftexts, like Strange Fire liked to read the idea of cessationism into II Timothy 3, which makes no sense if you actually look at what the words in the verse mean logically ("All scripture is given…that the man of God may be thorooughly equipped" and NOT "Scripture is all that is given that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped.) In context, it makes no sense to argue that this teaches that all a man of God needs is scripture, since the verses prior speak of two sources Timothy learned from, the scriptures he grew up with (as in the Old Testament) and the message he had heard. A couple of chapters later, we read that Timothy had one of those gifts that came with the laying on of Paul the apostle's hands. Paul said to stir it up. Why would he only need to stir it up for two chapters if it was going to die out by the time he read chapter 3? If the II Timothy 3 really taught cessationism, II Timothy 4, Jude, and the book of Revelation would not be inspired because the prophetic gift would ahve ceased, and John couldn't have seen the visions.

        "Who cares what Spurgeon thought about it?" is not an insult. I do not have a problem with people looking to other commentators for insight. I looked up one of Calvin's commentaries for some eisegesis myself when I taught a chapter a while back. But I shouldn't just take some opinion of Calvin that contradicts scripture and hold on to that instead of the Bible (e.g. that miracles confirmed the apostolic message once for all and that they were no longer needed after the scripture was complete and the original apostles died.) If I do, someone should call me on it.

        Sometimes it seems like there is an inverse pattern, that the more an evangelical talks about 'sola scriptura' that the more likely he is to hold to some extrabiblical set of teachings in a high regard in a place I would reserve for scripture. On certain key doctrines, everything he believes must more or less line up with what John Calvin, Spurgeon, the authors of the Westminster Confession, etc. else had to say. Some Reformed people treat creeds almost like scripture, too… from my perspective at least.

        As for your saying I don't interact with the posts he's made on the board. Actually I have recently. I would have liked to on other posts, but by the time I have read them, they were locked for comments, so that's not my choice. I usually read the blog if someone posts a link on some place I frequent online.

        I am not elitist about my beliefs on spiritual gifts. What the Bible teaches about them are for you, too, and all believers in Jesus.

        • Jerod

          And all of that is exactly why conferences like Strange Fire exist.

  • Harry

    “For those in the more-conservative continuationist category, point 4 is especially pertinent. Spurgeon classed subjective impressions as one of the many ways in which God providentially leads and guides His people. Spurgeon did not equate them with any miraculous or revelatory gift from New Testament times. He did not seek subjective impressions (as many continuationists seek “prophecy”); he did not regard them as a normal part of his Christian experience, nor did he consider them to be either authoritative or infallible.”

    I am sure that some would describe your evaluation of Spurgeon as Grudem’s definition of prophecy. Others may identify it as a “message of knowledge”. 1Cor 12:8. Do you hold that the gifts will reemerge in the last days immediately preceding the time of Christ’s Second Coming? Would you concede that prophecies might be useful in the guidance of the church? or do you insist that the church can be PERFECTLY guided to reach the right decision if it applies the teaching and principles and examples of the Bible without the direction of the Holy Spirit?

  • I appreciate the answers. I, too, have wondered how to explain Spurgeon’s comments. Also, it is a bit comforting to know that he came every week across people who sound like those I hear not infrequently. “God told me…” “I was impressed to…” It seems rampant even in some churches that profess to cessationism.

  • Harry

    Thank you for the articles Nathan. Is the gift of the indwelling person of theHoly Spirit along with the empowering for ministry is that an experience or knowledge? In Ephesians 3:16 where the Spirit strengthens my inner being, is that an impression I sense, an experience of growing confidence in Christ? In Romans 5:5 where the Spirit pours out God’s love in my heart, is that an impression of the action of God working in my life or an acknowledgement? When God imparts his sanctifying grace 1 Peter 1:2…through the Holy Spirit into my life, is that not more than an impression even more than an experience…a knowing…an assurance of the work of God, where the Spirit is not silent? Is fellowship with God through the Spirit, limited to an impression?

  • Harry

    When I read John 14:15-31 regarding the Holy Spirit, the disciples knew the Holy Spirit already, better than they think they do, they will know him more intimately, after Jesus has been exalted and has sent the Spirit of truth.

    I wonder at times if the Holy Spirit and the gifts may at times be construed as a credal position for Reformists whereas the Spirit is also to be experienced, otherwise the promise in John 14 of relief from abandonment is empty.

    The consciousness of the presence of the Spirit appears to a very great extent disappeared even in the believing community and perhaps the reformed community. It is possible to say that the only person who will understand the words about the Spirit is the one who has already experienced the Spirit which goes beyond an impression.

    Having said that I do enjoy your article!