November 15, 2012

Spurgeon, Impressions, and Prophecy

by Nathan Busenitz

Spurgeon2 I 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?

Response:

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).

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.
  • disqus_g32J7pNzzI

    What ought to be: first and always revelation, to inform our reason, which under the Person of the Holy Spirit using the agency of God’s Word influences and demonstrates our experience. The last always being fallible this side of glory.

  • Tom

    So, when someone in our church says, “Jesus told me to do this…” our first reaction should be…

    • http://mriccardi.blogspot.com Mike Riccardi

      “Which chapter and verse?”

      :-)

  • Rich Harasick

    “Feelings come and feelings go,
    And feelings are deceiving;
    My warrant is the Word of God–
    Naught else is worth believing.

    Though all my heart should feel condemned
    For want of some sweet token,
    There is One greater than my heart
    Whose Word cannot be broken.

    I’ll trust in God’s unchanging Word
    Till soul and body sever,
    For, though all things shall pass away,
    HIS WORD SHALL STAND FOREVER!”


    Martin Luther

    • http://www.facebook.com/jacob.bozarth Jacob Bozarth

      That word above all earthly powers, no thanks to them, abideth;

      The Spirit and the gifts are ours through Him Who with us sideth:

      Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also;

      The body they may kill: God’s truth abideth still,

      His kingdom is forever.

      — Martin Luther

  • Jeff Schmitz

    But when you look at the things Spurgeon did – calling out people in his audience for having a shop open on Sunday, going so far as to call out the shop owner’s profit for the day, having never met the man nor been to his shop – is “impression” really the right word for this? Has our definition of the word changed?

    I have no problem with how you’ve explained prophecy and that Spurgeon wasn’t prophesying. But these “subjective impressions” were incredibly specific. I may be impressed that someone near me is experiencing some trouble and needs to hear the gospel or be encouraged in the Lord, but the impressions that Spurgeon had seem to be something different.

    I ask honestly – are the examples of Spurgeon confronting sins publicly (that he could have no knowledge about otherwise) categorically different from Peter calling out the sins of Ananias and Saphira?

    • Marco Scouvert

      Hi Jeff,

      Could you provide the sermon(s) in which Spurgeon specifically called these out about people in his congregation? Are there other instances you know of? The more specific, the more interested I would be to see what a response to his experiences will look like. Thanks Jeff.

      • Jeff Schmitz

        I blog I follow quoted it from Spurgeon’s autobiography, link: http://www.davecrabb.com/2012/11/13/a-question-for-my-cessationist-friends/

        He just happened to be discussing this when I came across Nathan’s post.

        • Marco Scouvert

          I thought it would be profitable to post Spurgeon’s words here for all to read:

          “While preaching in the hall, on one occasion, I deliberately pointed to a man in the midst of the crowd, and said, ‘There is a man sitting there, who is a shoemaker; he keeps his shop open on Sundays, it was open last Sabbath morning, he took ninepence, and there was fourpence profit out of it; his soul is sold to Satan for fourpence!’ A city missionary, when going his rounds, met with this man, and seeing that he was reading one of my sermons, he asked the question, ‘Do you know Mr. Spurgeon?’ ‘Yes,’ replied the man, ‘I have every reason to know him, I have been to hear him; and, under his preaching, by God’s grace I have become a new creature in Christ Jesus. Shall I tell you how it happened? I went to the Music Hall, and took my seat in the middle of the place; Mr. Spurgeon looked at me as if he knew me, and in his sermon he pointed to me, and told the congregation that I was a shoemaker, and that I kept my shop open on Sundays; and I did, sir. I should not have minded that; but he also said that I took ninepence the Sunday before, and that there was fourpence profit out of it. I did take ninepence that day, and fourpence was just the profit; but how he should know that, I could not tell. Then it struck me that it was God who had spoken to my soul through him, so I shut up my shop the next Sunday. At first, I was afraid to go again to hear him, lest he should tell the people more about me; but afterwards I went, and the Lord met with me, and saved my soul’” (The Autobiography of Charles H. Spurgeon [London: Curts & Jennings, 1899], 2:226-27).

          Spurgeon then adds this comment:

          “I could tell as many as a dozen similar cases in which I pointed at somebody in the hall without having the slightest knowledge of the person, or any idea that what I said was right, except that I believed I was moved by the Spirit to say it; and so striking has been my description, that the persons have gone away, and said to their friends, ‘Come, see a man that told me all things that ever I did; beyond a doubt, he must have been sent of God to my soul, or else he could not have described me so exactly.’ And not only so, but I have known many instances in which the thoughts of men have been revealed from the pulpit. I have sometimes seen persons nudge their neighbours with their elbow, because they had got a smart hit, and they have been heard to say, when they were going out, ‘The preacher told us just what we said to one another when we went in at the door’” (ibid., 227).

          I am in full agreement with starting with Scripture to interpret one’s experiences and not the opposite. But still wondering, how one might approach explaining what is taking place here? Especially with the specificity he seems to claim for his impressions. Thanks

  • Michael Coughlin

    This is excellent. I appreciate the time you took to put all this together so succinctly.

  • Michael Beck

    Professor Busenitz, your reply to his second question which states, “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” gets to the heart of the issue.

    How many continuationists do this very thing? “Missionary Joe had such and such an experience with tongues, and I trust him, so therefore…”

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