Charles Spurgeon (1834-1892) was known as the Prince of Preachers, and for good reason. His sermons were numerous (63 volumes worth), convicting, and Gospel-centered. He preached up to ten times a week, to an estimated ten million people over the course of his life. And although his church in London became the largest in the world at the time, he brought a humility and a reverence to his calling, keeping his focus on Christ Jesus and the salvation of souls. It is because of this focus, and in his adherence to the infallibility and sufficiency of the Bible, that Spurgeon waded into a very public dispute called the Down-Grade Controversy.
In the 19th century there was a general shift towards liberalism and pragmatism in theological thought in Europe. Academics and some church leaders began to question not only certain portions of the Bible, but whether the Bible was any more than just a good moral guide for life. The fundamental issue came down to whether the Bible was the inspired Word of God or not. An error like this has grave implications upon the rest of one’s belief. If people don’t believe the Bible is inspired, then they get to pick and choose what they prefer, and inevitably they choose things that are much more pleasant and man-focused. This de-emphasis of difficult Biblical truths led many pastors and churches to soften their approach in the name of reaching out. They tried to attract people by minimizing Scripture, the supernatural works of God, and the fallen state of man. Their motives were most likely well intentioned, but they shifted the focus from Christ’s work to the work of man and self-improvement.
In Spurgeon’s mind, this movement away from solid Bible preaching and the placing of less importance on the depravity of man and the work of Christ, towards a results-oriented approach, was very serious. He did not view it as an issue for debate. At issue was the salvation of souls. Spurgeon was arguing that when people watered down the harshness of the Gospel message, they were not giving the Gospel message at all. The message to the world is confused even further when confessing Christians link arms with those who teach a false Gospel, all in the name of unity. Spurgeon addresses this from the August 1887 edition of his Sword and Trowel magazine in the midst of the controversy.
“It now becomes a serious question how far those who abide by the faith once delivered to the saints should fraternize with those who have turned aside to another gospel. Christian love has its claims, and divisions are to be shunned as grievous evils; but how far are we justified in being in confederacy with those who are departing from the truth? It is a difficult question to answer so as to keep the balance of the duties. For the present it behooves believers to be cautious, lest they lend their support and countenance to the betrayers of the Lord.”
“It is one thing to overleap all boundaries of denominational restriction for the truth’s sake: this we hope all godly men will do more and more. It is quite another policy which would urge us to subordinate the maintenance of truth to denominational prosperity and unity. Numbers of easy-minded people wink at error so long as it is committed by a clever man and a good-natured brother, who has so many fine points about him. Let each believer judge for himself; but, for our part, we have put on a few fresh bolts to our door, and we have given orders to keep the chain up; for, under colour of begging the friendship of the servant, there are those about who aim at robbing the Master.”
We live in a society that is still feeling the aftershocks of this movement in the 19th century. The general trend away from sound doctrine continued through the 20th century, leading to many of the current disturbing trends inside of Protestantism. Not only is there false teaching to be wary of, but the temptation to give in and join with those who have only gone down the slippery slope a little way is tempting for many. This is the case because many do not acknowledge that there is in fact a slope to begin with, that the slope is in fact slippery, and that going down it would eventually lead to continued and more grievous error. “It’s just a small compromise” one might say, but the Bible is clear about many things that our culture now rejects outright, traditional marriage and traditional gender roles being just two examples.
In most cases in church history, small compromises lead to huge error. Most likely, the people who made the compromise never envisioned, anticipated, or would even agree with the error that their compromise eventually lead to, but that is exactly the point that we all must remember. Ideas and decisions have consequences, both positive and negative, that are long-term and can be very serious. This is especially true for what we believe about our Lord and His revealed Word. Spurgeon recognized that very well, when most around him thought that he was overreacting. He knew where compromise would lead, and he was right.
Every generation deals with the temptation to water down a certain doctrine or soften the edges of a particularly difficult truth. We face what every Christian generation before us has faced: the voice of the evil one asking “Did God really mean what He told you?” Believe and trust that the Word of God is true and sufficient.