Crumbs from Spurgeon’s Table

[ 10 minutes to read ]

The preacher sought to find out acceptable words
– Ecclesiastes 12:10
Important lessons from Spurgeon’s sermons, or, Crusts of bread from the prince of preachers to the poorest of preachers.

[I]’m sure you’ve heard of Charles Spurgeon, right? He was a Baptist preacher in London in the nineteenth century. Bell rung? In the early days of internet usage I found “The Spurgeon Archive” and spent many hours reading sermons. In the days leading up to being called into ministry and in the early years of ministry, I read more Spurgeon than any other single author. I mostly read his sermons in those days, though I did read some of his other writings. When I go back to my earlier sermons, I see more of Spurgeon’s influence on my preaching than I realized at the time. It was Spurgeon’s sermons that gave the structure to my own sermons, which I still use to this day.

I’m not an expert on Charles Spurgeon. I have read a lot of Spurgeon and have much appreciation for him. There are many places to seek out the superlatives of Charles Spurgeon, so I’m going to bypass that for now. I want to look at a Spurgeon sermon and point out some lessons we can learn to help our own sermons. I went through an index and picked a sermon on Hebrews 2:10, titled: Christ—Perfect Through Sufferings. It was preached at the Metropolitan Tabernacle on November 2nd, 1862. I picked this particular sermon for two main reasons. First, I glanced at it and saw that it had the essential Spurgeon sermon structure. Second, it was a sermon about Christ, so I knew it would be a good representative of most of his preaching. The printed sermon has 7,442 words so I am not going to post it in this article. You can find it online here.

We are all aware of Spurgeon’s vocabulary, use of metaphor, vivid word pictures, and eloquence. I’m not so much dealing with those in this list. I’m presenting a list of 10 lessons in no particular order. The only order that needs be observed is that I am putting the most important lesson first. If you get nothing else from this article, get the first one and never let it go.

The Lessons

1. You are not Charles Spurgeon, nor will you ever be.
If you have any notion of such a thought as being like Spurgeon in your head, expunge it immediately. Occasionally I encounter someone endeavoring to compare some preacher or other to Spurgeon and I quickly conclude they do not know very much about Spurgeon. He started preaching at 17 years old and before he turned 20, he had preached over 600 times. He did that in 2-3 years.

I was 25 years old when I preached my first sermon and, on the day of my thirtieth birthday, I preached my six hundred and first sermon. It took me almost five years to get to that number and I was almost a full decade older when I started. Beside that, my first 600 sermons cannot compare to his.

2. Spurgeon was consistent in the length of his sermons.
He was reported to preach 40-50 minutes on average. The sermon I looked at had 7,442 words. He was reported to preach about 140 words per minute so this sermon would have been about 53 minutes long. Consistency is a good lesson here. In a regular ministry, it is a good idea to be fairly consistent with sermon length. Whatever the actual length is is not quite as important as consistency. When you preach consistently in length, you’re training the attention spans of your people to focus for that length of time. Perhaps this is even more important in our day.

3. Spurgeon was consistent in the structure of his sermons.
He typically had an outline that moved in a logical order. He generally had an introduction, body of three to four main divisions, and a brief conclusion. The picture with this post is a scan of his actual handwritten notes for a different sermon he took into the pulpit. You can find some samples of his notes online. He used this structure consistently. Our sample sermon has an introduction, three main divisions, and a brief conclusion. It is actually a profitable exercise for young preachers to take Spurgeon sermons, read them, and then write up the outline of that sermon. Now let’s get some lessons from the different parts of his sermon.

4. Spurgeon consistently had a brief introduction.
Our sample sermon introduction has 541 words, which is about 7% of the overall sermon. The introduction would’ve taken about 4 minutes. The lesson here is not that your introduction should be 7% of your sermon or be 4 minutes long. The lesson is that it should be brief. As a general rule, 5 to 10 minutes is probably a good aim, and the farther south of 10 minutes, the better.

Spurgeon used the introduction to set the stage for his sermon, which is the function of a good introduction. He was not an expository preacher. He was more of a textual/topical preacher. He generally took a text and focused on a main point in the text and developed it in a theological/topical fashion. If he did do contextual exposition, it would generally be in the introduction. He would also use the introduction to bring up particular theological themes relevant to the point of the text and the sermon.

In our sample sermon, he brought up the doctrinal points of God’s foreknowledge and predestination in regards to the fall and the salvation of man. This leads into the truth that Christ being perfected through sufferings was according to the foreknowledge and the foreordained plan of God. His main point to be developed in the sermon is the perfecting of Christ through suffering and he begins by showing the theological necessity and justification for it. He also does something that raises interest and attention in the hearers. He states what is at stake in what he’s preaching in the introduction.

Oh! how careful should we be who have to preach it never to alter it in the slightest degree. How should we lift our prayers to heaven that God would give us a clear understanding, first, of what we have to teach, and then a clear method of teaching what we have learned, so that no mistake may be made here, for a mistake here would mar that express image of God which shines in the gospel, and prevent our hearers from seeing the beautiful fitness and proportion which are so adapted to reveal the perfect character of God. We say the plan must be what it is; it could not be otherwise so as to be in keeping with the divine character; and, therefore, it is imperative upon us that we make no alteration in it, no, not of a word, lest we should hear the Apostle’s anathema hissing through the air like a thunderbolt from God — “If we or an angel from heaven preach any other gospel than that ye have received let him be accursed!”
(Emphasis added)

We don’t want to create an artificial crisis or overstate the case in our sermons, but it can be good to raise questions in the introduction, if the sermon is going to answer them. It can be good state a crisis, if the sermon is going to speak to it. It can also be good to bring up a controversy in the introduction, if the sermon is going to address it. These things can help bring the hearers in and alert them to why the sermon matters.

5. Spurgeon consistently stated where he was in the outline during his sermon.
He generally stated his main divisions at the end of his introduction. I used to to do this in my introductions, e.g. “We have three main reasons for . . . First . . . Second . . .” and so on. I still do this, but not in quite so obvious a way. It is a good idea to give some idea of the sermon outline. It encourages and helps people to take notes. Spurgeon would also state each main division as he got to it. He wasn’t always as obvious about his conclusion.

6. Spurgeon consistently gave the bulk of the sermons to his main divisions.
Our sample sermon has three main divisions that take up 85% of the overall sermon, or about 45 minutes. The divisions got shorter as he went. The first has 3,909 words and is about 53% of the overall sermon, or about 28 minutes. The second has 1,777 words accounting for about 24% of the overall sermon and 13 minutes. The third has 575 words for about 8% of the sermon and about 4 minutes of the time.

Why do the divisions take up such a disproportionate amount of time? I think the reason is obvious. Spurgeon’s notes were really more of a bare-bones outline than sermon notes. His preaching was more extemporaneous than manuscripted. You notice in the sample sermon he warms to his subject quickly and develops his first point quite fully. Why didn’t he do the same on all points and just take however long it took? He was obviously conscious of time and aimed for a consistent length in his sermons. He stated at the end of his first division, “Thus much, then, upon our first head; I would we had more time for our second; but we will pass to it at once.”

7. Spurgeon consistently had brief conclusions.
He did not always state that he was concluding. If you read closely, you can detect the conclusion in our sample sermon. It consists of 607 words so it is about the same length as the third division ended up being and is also similar in length to the introduction. So it is about 4 minutes long. Spurgeon did not rehash his sermon in his conclusion. He actually brought the conclusion from his sermon, so it is generally practical application or exhortation that follows from the body of the sermon.

8. Spurgeon consistently used illustrations in his sermons.
He used two types of illustrations: illustrations from scripture and illustrations from elsewhere, such as nature, science, history, literature, everyday life, etc. There are a few different illustrations in our sample sermon. He uses the fact that a doctor has to have some acquaintance with a disease in order to effectively treat it. He refers to a beggar asking for crumbs. He draws a comparison with the “innumerable and detestable” frogs from the plague in Egypt. He mentions the brazen serpent on the pole. He mentions the dry earth receiving rain. He makes a literary reference to Milton.

One obvious lesson from his illustrations is that they are short. The longest one in this sermon is about the brazen serpent and it is 232 words, or about 2 minutes. Generally, the longer illustrations are the ones from scripture. Often his illustrations are just a sentence or even a phrase. He makes the reference quickly and moves on. That’s what makes an illustration good. It’s a reference everyone gets so you don’t need lengthy explanation. If you have to spend a few minutes explaining the reference so that everyone understands how it illustrates the point, it’s a bad illustration so lose it.

9. Spurgeon consistently made application throughout the sermon.
As he gets to a point of exhortation, he presses it on the hearers then. His applications flow throughout the sermon rather than being like an afterthought tacked on at the end. As the application comes naturally, press it then. Often in exposition, application comes naturally in the text itself so a good exposition of the passage will include such application. Spurgeon likewise raised and answered common objections at natural places in the sermon, which can be a form of application.

Disease, sickness of body, poverty, need, friendlessness, hopelessness, desertion — he knows all these. You cannot cast human suffering into any shape that is new to Christ. “In all their afflictions he was afflicted.” If you feel a thorn in your foot, remember that it once pierced his head. If you have a trouble or a difficulty, you may see there the mark of his hands, for he has climbed that way before. The whole path of sorrow has his blood bedabbled footsteps all along, for the Man of Sorrows has been there, and he can now have sympathy with you. “Yes,” I hear one say, “but my sorrows are the result of sin.” So were his; though not his own, yet the result of sin they were. “Yes,” you say, “but I am slandered, and I cannot bear it.” They called him a drunken man, and a wine-bibber. Why, when you once think of the sufferings of Christ, yours are not worth a thought. Like the small dust of a balance that may be blown away with the breath of an infant, such are our agonies and our trials when compared with his. Drink thy little cup; see what a cup he drained. The little vinegar and gall that fall to thy share thou mayest gladly recede, for these light afflictions, which are but for a moment, are not worthy to be compared to the sufferings through which he passed.

And finally . . .

10. You are not Charles Spurgeon, nor will you ever be.
Spurgeon’s ministry lasted for 38 years and he was 57 years old when he died. In that time, his sermons were published weekly and sold around 20,000 copies per week in 20 different languages. His collected and published sermons are in 63 volumes and is still today the largest single-author set of books ever published. He also wrote and published over 140 other books besides his sermons. He pastored a congregation of 4,000 members, edited a magazine, answered 500 letters per week, read six books per week (usually of puritan theology), founded and oversaw more than 60 organizations, maintained a pastor’s college, had a near invalid wife and twin sons, regularly counseled what he called difficult cases, and lived with physical pain and constant criticism and slander. I have not listed everything the man did.

I am not Spurgeon and you are not Spurgeon, nor will we, or anybody else, ever be. We can learn from him though. If you think about it, he lived and experienced several lifetimes in his 38 years. He constantly urged his brothers forward and embodied the idea of wearing out rather than rusting out.

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