Spurgeon and the Down-Grade Controversy
John F. MacArthur, Jr.
Excerpted from Ashamed of the Gospel © 1992 by John F. MacArthur, Jr. (Wheaton: Crossway). All rights reserved. Used by permission.
[At the end of the Puritan age] by some means or other, first the ministers, then the Churches, got on "the down grade," and in some cases, the descent was rapid, and in all, very disastrous. In proportion as the ministers seceded from the old Puritan godliness of life, and the old Calvinistic form of doctrine, they commonly became less earnest and less simple in their preaching, more speculative and less spiritual in the matter of their discourses, and dwelt more on the moral teachings of the New Testament, than on the great central truths of revelation. Natural theology frequently took the place which the great truths of the gospel ought to have held, and the sermons became more and more Christless. Corresponding results in the character and life, first of the preachers and then of the people, were only too plainly apparent.
n March 1887, Charles Spurgeon published the first of two articles entitled "The Down Grade" in his monthly magazine, The Sword and the Trowel. The articles were published anonymously, but the author was Robert Shindler, Spurgeon's close friend and fellow Baptist pastor. Shindler wrote the articles with input from Spurgeon, who footnoted the first article with a personal endorsement: "Earnest attention is requested for this paper. . . . We are going down hill at breakneck speed."
Tracing the state of evangelicalism from the Puritan age to his own era, Shindler noted that every revival of true evangelical faith had been followed within a generation or two by a drift away from sound doctrine, ultimately leading to wholesale apostasy. He likened this drifting from truth to a downhill slope, and thus labeled it "the down-grade."
"Down Grade" I
In that first article, Shindler recounted the history of the major protestant denominations in England since the beginning of Puritanism's decline in 1662. He noted that in the first generation after the Puritan era, virtually every non-conformist (non-Anglican Protestant) denomination in England drifted from orthodoxy toward an ancient form of theological liberalism called Socinianism. Shindler recounted how hundreds of post-Puritan churches had abandoned sound doctrine in favor of rationalistic skepticism, Unitarianism, and other liberal beliefs. The downward slide usually began slowly, almost imperceptibly. He suggested that denominations often "got on the down-grade" when they abandoned Calvinism (which emphasizes God's sovereignty in salvation) in favor of Arminianism (which makes human will the decisive factor). Other groups embraced Arianism (which denies the full deity of Christ). Still others simply became enamored with scholarship and worldly wisdom; consequently they lost their zeal for truth.
"The Presbyterians were the first to get on the down line," Shindler wrote. They took the route of worldly wisdom: "They paid more attention to classical attainments and other branches of learning. . . . It [was therefore] an easy step in the wrong direction to pay increased attention to academical attainments in their ministers, and less to spiritual qualifications; and to set a higher value on scholarship and oratory, than on evangelical zeal and ability to rightly divide the word of truth."
Shindler further stated:
As is usual with people on an incline, some who got on "the down grade" went further than they intended, showing that it is easier to get on than to get off, and that where there is no brake it is very difficult to stop. Those who turned from Calvinism may not have dreamed of denying the proper deity of the Son of God, renouncing faith in his atoning death and justifying righteousness, and denouncing the doctrine of human depravity, the need of Divine renewal, and the necessity for the Holy Spirit's gracious work, in order that men might become new creatures; but, dreaming or not dreaming, this result became a reality.
Some who abandoned the faith did so openly, Shindler said. But many purposely concealed their skepticism and heresy, preferring to sow seeds of doubt while posing as orthodox believers. "These men deepened their own condemnation, and promoted the everlasting ruin of many of their followers by their hypocrisy and deceit; professing to be the ambassadors of Christ, and the heralds of his glorious gospel, their aim was to ignore his claims, deny him his rights, lower his character, rend the glorious vesture of his salvation, and trample his crown in the dust."
Many of those who remained true to the faith were nevertheless reluctant to fight for what they believed in. Evangelical preaching was often cold and lifeless, and even those who held to sound doctrine were careless about where they drew the line in their associations with others: "Those who were really orthodox in their sentiments were too often lax and unfaithful as to the introduction of heretical ministers into their pulpits, either as assistants or occasional preachers. In this way the Arian and Socinian heresies were introduced into the Presbyterian congregations in the city of Exeter."
Thus within only a few decades, the Puritan fervor that had so captured the soul of England gave way to dry, listless apostate teaching. Churches became lax in granting membership privileges to the unregenerate. People who were, in Shindler's words, "strangers to the work of renewing grace" nevertheless claimed to be Christians and were admitted to membership—even leadership—in the churches. These people "chose them pastors after their own hearts, men who could, and would, and did, cry 'Peace, peace,' when the only way of peace was ignored or denied."
Shindler concluded that first paper on "The Down Grade" with these words: "These facts furnish a lesson for the present times, when, as in some cases, it is all too plainly apparent men are willing to forego the old for the sake of the new. But commonly it is found in theology that that which is true is not new, and that which is new is not true."