In 1816, poet John Keats wrote a sonnet to describe the delight and awe he experienced when reading the works of Homer in English for the first time. While Keats knew Latin, he did not know Greek and thus had no access to Homer until a friend introduced him one night to a translation by the Elizabethan author, George Chapman.
Keats and friend spent the evening reading Homer aloud and by morning, Keats had written, “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” to capture the wonder he felt with what he had read. Keats wrote, in part:
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-brow'd Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Rare is the work that causes the reader to feel like an astronomer who discovers a new planet, but that was Keats’s experience reading Homer.
As one who reads a variety of books, papers, and articles, I, too, have had this experience from time to time while reading. Of course, it goes without saying that reading the divine, living, and active Word of God (Heb 4:12) allows the believer in Christ, filled by the Holy Spirit, to experience this awe and illumination on a supernatural level. Yet, rarely, have I experienced what Keats’s describes when reading a human author. But, when I have, it is life changing.
Over the last year, I have had such an experience whilst reading the earliest sermons of Charles Spurgeon. Written during 1851-1854 during the time of his first pastorate in Waterbeach, near Cambridge, these sermons are more than the early “trial-runs” of a young preacher. Yes, Spurgeon was 16-19 years old at the time, but even then his God-given gifts of genius and zeal were on display.
The sermons I have been reading are those he recorded in notebooks that are only recently seeing publication. Spurgeon had desired to publish these sermons himself as early as 1857, but the “pressure of rapidly-increasing work” kept them from wider reading.
In 2017, B&H Academic started what will become a nine volume series to publish all 400 of Spurgeon’s “lost sermons.” I’ve been asked to edit the fourth volume of The Lost Sermons of C. H. Spurgeon (due out from B&H Academic in November 2020) and through this process I’ve come to know again how Keats’s felt when reading Homer.
Waterbeach was a rural community that Spurgeon described as “a village notorious for its drunkenness and profanity.” As Spurgeon continued to preach his sermons and record them in his notebooks, he discerned a significant spiritual roadblock within the congregation, Antinomianism.
He relates, “In my first pastorate, I had often to battle with Antinomians,–that is, people who held that, because they believed themselves to be elect, they might live as they liked. I hope that heresy has to a great extent died out, but it was sadly prevalent in my early ministerial days.”
As a result, many of the sermons in this volume address topics related to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and sanctification, perseverance, holiness, and hypocrisy. As one example, in his 210th sermon, Spurgeon declares:
This will touch those who are the most moral. Religion is attended to because it is respectable and helps business. But we ought to have a single eye to God’s glory. Business, the world, are followed so hotly and religion too cooly. Surely this is God and Baal. But no. God must be our aim. His service, our delight. When we are too anxious or too elevated by our affairs, there is much danger. Hands too full make a heart too dull. May God make us wholly his.
He then continues, showing that the path to sincere and pure devotion to God is through Scripture alone:
We must not have a creed partly founded on Scripture and part on Man. It must be wholly what the Bible says and not at all what John Calvin, John Wesley, John Gill, or any mortal man says. Not the Bible and the Prayer-book, nor the Hymn Book.
No arguments must be allowed from tradition for infant sprinkling or believer’s immersion either. No pope, no canons, no synods, decrees, Nicene creed, or Athanasian creeds. If experience, so called, opposes Scripture, throw it away. We must not aim so much at consistency with ourselves as with the Word of God.
During his years at Waterbeach, the Baptist Church grew and many from the town came to hear Spurgeon and were converted. As Spurgeon's Autobiography relates, “it pleased God to turn the whole place upside down. In a short time, the little thatched chapel was crammed, the biggest vagabonds of the village were weeping floods of tears, and those who had been the curse of the parish became its blessing.”
As I have wrapped up my editorial work of these sermons, I can only join Susannah Spurgeon in her assessment that these earliest sermons “are valuable, not only because of their intrinsic merits, but also as the first products of the mind and heart which afterwards yielded so many discourses to the Church and the world, for the glory of God and the good of men.”
Indeed, like Keats, on first looking into Spurgeon’s sermons, I have found joy and awe in the work of Spurgeon, the man, but also in the work of Spurgeon’s God to whom Spurgeon’s sermons point on every page.