25 July 2010

Against Popish Ritual

Your weekly dose of Spurgeon
posted by Phil Johnson

The PyroManiacs devote some space each weekend to highlights from The Spurgeon Archive. The following excerpt is from "The Axe at the Root—A Testimony Against Puseyite Idolatry," a sermon preached Sunday Morning, 17 June 1866 at the Met Tab in London. I chose this excerpt because it goes with what I'll be preaching tonight at Grace Church.

hy did not God ordain worship by windmills as in Thibet? Why has he not chosen to be worshipped by particular men in purple and fine linen, acting gracefully as in Roman and Anglican churches? Why not?

He gives two reasons which ought to suffice. The first is, he himself seeks spiritual worship. It is his own wish that the worship should be spiritual, And in the second place, he is himself a spirit, and is to be spiritually worshipped.

Whatever kind of worship the great Ruler desires he ought to receive, and it is impertinence on my part if I say to him, "No, not that, but this." It is true I may say, "I am very sincere in all this, very earnest in it. It suits my taste. There is a beauty about it; it excites certain emotions which I think to be devotional."

What is all that but saying, "Great God, thou hast chosen such-and-such a way of being worshipped, but I will not render it to thee?" Is not that in effect saying, "I will not worship thee at all;" for must not worship, to be worship, be such as the person worshipped himself will accept?

To invent our own forms of worship is to insult God; and every mass that is ever offered upon the Romish altar is an insult to heaven, and a blasphemy to God who is a Spirit. Every time any form of worship by procession, celebration, or ceremonial of man's invention is offered to God, it is offered in defiance of this word of Christ, and cannot and will not be received; however earnest people may be they have violated the imperative canon of God's Word; and in fighting for rubrics they have gone against the eternal rubric that God as a Spirit must be worshipped in spirit and in truth.

The second reason given is, that God is a Spirit. If God were material, it might be right to worship him with material substances; if God were like to ourselves, it might be well for us to give a sacrifice congenial to humanity; but being as he is, pure spirit, he must be worshipped in spirit.

I like the remark made by Trapp in his commentary on this passage, when he says that perhaps the Savior is even here bringing down God to our comprehension; "for," saith he, "God is above all notion, all name." Certainly, this we know, that anything which associates him with the grossness of materialism is infinitely removed from the truth.

Said Augustine, "When I am not asked what God is, I think I know, but when I try to answer that question, I find I know nothing."

If the Eternal were such an one as thou art, O man, he might be pleased with thy painted windows. But what a child's toy must coloured glass be to God! I can sit and gaze upon a cathedral with all its magnificence of architecture, and think what a wonderful exhibition of human skill; but what must that be to God, who piles the heavens, who digs the foundation of the deep, who leads Arcturus with his sons? Why, it must be to him the veriest trifle, a mere heap of stones.

I delight to hear the swell of organs, the harmony of sweet voices, the Gregorian chant, but what is this artistic sound to him more than sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal? As a sight, I admire the choristers and priests, and the whole show of a grand ceremonial; but do you believe that God is imposed upon by those frocks and gowns of white, and blue, and scarlet, and fine linen? It seems to me as if such a notion brings down God to the level of a silly woman who is fond of finery.

The infinite God, who spreads out the heavens and scatters stars with both his hands, whom heaven and earth cannot contain, to whom space is but a speck, and time is as nothing, do you think that he dwelleth in temples made with hands, that is to say, of man's building? And is he to be worshipped with your organs, and your roodscreens, and your gaudy millinery? He laugheth at them, he treadeth on them as being less than nothing and vanity. Spiritual worship is what he regardeth, because he is a Spirit.

My brethren, if you could get together a procession of worlds, if you could make the stars walk along the streets of some great new Jerusalem, dressed in their brightest array; if instead of the songs of a few boys or men you could catch the sonnets of eternal ages; if instead of a few men to officiate as priests you could enlist time, eternity, heaven and earth to be the priesthood, yet all this would be to him but as a company of grasshoppers, and he would take up the whole as a very little thing.

But let me tell you that even God himself, great as he is, does not despise the tear that drops from a repentant eye, nor does he neglect the sigh that comes from a sinner's soul. He thinks more of your repentance than of your incense, and more of your prayers than of your priesthoods. He views with pleasure your love and your faith, for these are spiritual things in which he can take delight; but your architecture, your music and your fine arts, though they lavish their treasures at his feet, are less than nothing and vanity.

Ye know not what spirit ye are of. If ye think to worship my God with all these inventions of man, ye dream like fools. I feel glowing within me the old iconoclastic spirit. Would God we had men now like Knox or Luther, who with holy indignation would pull in pieces those wicked mockeries of the Most High, against which our soul feels a hallowed indignation as we think of his loftiness, and of that poor paltry stuff with which men degrade his name.

C. H. Spurgeon


Sonja said...

What a wonderful and timely message. Our teaching this morning was about wrong and right worship, but it wasn't as elegantly simple as this. Even my thick head gets this while I've been pondering how to identify and correct my shortcomings and snares to giving up His true glory of which only He is worthy.

Thanks Pastor Phil, your Spurgeon archive and weekly posts are a great help to me. :)

donsands said...

Some deep words. Some good words. And powerful words.

God looks at our spirit and heart, as we worship Him in spirit and truth.
In Nepal and Ghana, their worship is so full of humble boldness and joy out of love for Christ. And here in America, it seems we try to impress.

Thanks for the post.

Adam said...

Hello Mr. Johnson,
How did you define "ritual" in your sermon? Do you (and Spurgeon) differentiate ritual from practices such as eucharist and baptism?

Halcyon said...


I have to say, as an artist myself (though not a catholic), I completely disagree with what Mr. Spurgeon has said here in regards to the material and the spiritual (except for that last part about God not despising "the tear that drops from a repentant eye"; that was awesome).

My disagreement is a matter of concern and not condemnation. I am concerned b/c Mr. Spurgeon's seemingly complete dismissal of the "material" sounds oddly gnostic in its implications.

I am glad that he enjoys (as we all should) "to hear the swell of organs, the harmony of sweet voices, the Gregorian chant" and to see "the choristers and priests, and the whole show of a grand ceremonial," but his thunderous dismissal of them and all "architecture," "music," and "fine arts" as "vanity" is dangerous. If the material world is so utterly useless in worshiping God, then why have church at all? Why those pulpits and pews? Why those buildings with its lofts and crosses? Why those hymnals and sermons written and spoken in language, a construction of man? Are they too not all equally "material" and thus equally "vain"? What of our bodies? Are they too not grossly "material"? In light of all this, should we not all become aesthetes in desert caves again, contemplating God in a complete spiritual way devoid of any vain and distracting physicality?

Of course, Spurgeon doesn't say that here (or anywhere for all I know), but my point is that I see no reason (given his view of the "material") why he shouldn't think that. That is my concern. His logic seems to lead us to a slippery slope.

I agree with Spurgeon that John 4:21-24 is saying that real worship is a spiritual affair (and thus the time will come when it doesn't matter which "mountain" that you worship in; vs. 21), but I don't see how Jesus is saying that all material forms of worship are now "vanity". I don't think the text says that. If I may speak a tad boldly about one of my betters, I think Mr. Spurgeon is making it say that for anti-Catholic reasons rather than for reasons of sound biblical exposition.

If all that Mr. Spurgeon is saying is that all our best efforts are filthy rags before God, then that is fine. But that is not all that he is saying (as far as I can tell): he is also saying that efforts in the artistic realm not only pale in comparison to God (something any sane artist would admit) but also that their very existence is a "mockery" to God as well as "vanity". That is where I disagree. As creatures made in God's image, we too are creators (though of a lesser sort); and whenever we create something that rings of truth and beauty, we are reflecting (however imperfectly) the image of God in that creation, truth, and beauty. Such a reflection brings Him glory. I wholly agree that such reflections are nothing when compared with the real thing (i.e., God Himself), but I completely disagree that God regards them as mockeries and vanities. The same God that is supposedly against the artistic flair of "popish ritual" is the same God who adorned His own house with gold and priests. The same God who does not despise the tear of the repentant eye neither despises the painting of the repentant hand.

I'm willing to be wrong about my understanding of Spurgeon's sermon, though it won't rock my world either way. Spurgeon is just a man. A great man, and a great Christian, but still a man all the same. As such, it's no crime to disagree with him, something I know that you know.

Halcyon said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Halcyon said...

Sorry for the double-post. Blogger threw a hissy-fit for some reason.

mikehoskins said...

@Halcyon -

Spurgeon's "Against Popish Ritual" was all about the *heart* of worship, not so much the form or mode.

I think you are reading too much into it - and misunderstanding the context of what Spurgeon is saying. If anybody would have been vehemently against Gnosticism, it would have been Spurgeon.

Do you want a short, Biblical summary of this message? Just contrast Luke 20:45-47 with Luke 10:27 and Luke 18:9-14.

The point is that the Catholic church Spurgeon rightly chastised, focused on the form and mode or worship, the outward opulence of the building, the music, the finery, icons, saints, traditions, works, etc.

He was also speaking to the Protestant church of his and of our day. In fact, this message is very convicting, to me, personally.

I have to remember the object of my worship -- Jesus Christ. Whether worship makes *me* feel a certain way or not, whether it appeals to *my* intellect or not, whether it is *my* style or not, does not matter one little bit. He is not condemning style as much as spirit, intent, and focus.

What, then, is the focus of my worship? Me, my church, my religion, my tradition, my outward expression, or God Himself?

How, then, is God worshiped? From the outward appearance and the flesh, or from the heart?

I am concerned b/c Mr. Spurgeon's seemingly complete dismissal of the "material" sounds oddly gnostic in its implications.

This is the first part I think you got out of context. It's like saying 1 Peter 3:3-5 condemns women wearing jewelry or cosmetics at all. I believe that would also be out of context.

He actually make the case here:
It seems to me as if such a notion brings down God to the level of a silly woman who is fond of finery.
and here:
Spiritual worship is what he regardeth, because he is a Spirit.

Read John 3:1-8, especially v. 5-6. You rightly pointed out John 4:23-24 (the very next chapter). This was the very same author who also wrote John 1:14-18 and 1 John 4:1-6.

It appears that John had to correct various Gnostic heresies (1 John 2:18-25). Also see Paul's writings in 1 Timothy 6:20 -- "falsely called knowledge" -- Greek gnosis -- Gnostic.

Now the Bible does divide between the inner man and the outer man -- just not the way the Gnostics did.

As I understand it (somebody correct me if I am wrong) Gnostics believed the body was bad and the spirit was good. They divided, then, into 2 camps -- those that indulged the flesh (to contrast how bad the body was compared to God and the spirit) and those who were ascetics who deprived the flesh (to defeat the flesh in their own strength).

In both cases, these heretic Gnostics ended up focusing on the flesh and inventing their own systems of works religions, on their own fleshly terms. It was a false spiritualism that actually worshiped the flesh, in the guise of defeating the flesh.

In reality, they really didn't understand either the flesh or the spirit. Thus, they utterly rejected God's Word concerning worship, just as Catholics (and Protestants) often do.

Halcyon said...


Thank you for responding and trying to understand.

I never said that Spurgeon was espousing gnosticism, just that his "logic" seemed to imply a certainly unconscious gnostic attitude. I was concerned because I know that Mr. Spurgeon is most assuredly not gnostic, yet his logic about the "material" seemed to be sliding in that direction (remember my use of the term "slippery slope").

I completely got that Mr. Spurgeon was very rightly chastening Catholic and Protestant alike for inordinate focus on the objects of worship rather than the Object of worship (i.e., God). I have absolutely no problem with that. My problem (or "concern," rather) was that his condemnation seemed more sweeping. In attacking Catholic refinery and ceremony, he equally lumped ALL "architecture," "music," and "fine arts" together as "mockery" and "vanity" in God's eyes. In other words, he seemed to be equally condemning the human artistic act itself rather than just the inordinate focusing. That is why (as an artist) I called foul.

Allow me to restate (and add to) something I said in my original comment: If all Mr. Spurgeon was doing was stating that our meager offerings don't stack up to God Himself OR that inordinate focusing on objects of worship rather than the Object of worship is wrong, then I have no issue with him (and as such, I don't have an issue with him on those points). What I do have an issue with is his sweeping dismissal of ALL artistic creations as "mockery" and "vanity". In his attempt to (so to speak) kill the enemy, it seems that he hit some innocent by-standers.

Unknown said...

I wonder if Spurgeon would have thought it strange if he showed up to church dressed like Rik Warren? I wonder if God would have thought less of him?

Spurgeon has missed the point of the dress. The dress is not to impress God. God doesn't change. The dress is to help us understand holy. Like a prom dress or a wedding dress. The clothes are not holy as in magic or as in pleasing to God but aiding in man's understanding of holiness. God doesn't need our worship. This is not the point. Man needs God and man needs holiness.

I agree that Spurgeon sounds quite gnostic. Spirit is not necessarily opposed to physics and the context was when Jesus spoke with the Samaritan woman and when he gave her her history he also gave a summary of the history of the Samaritan people. The context was contrasting the ethnic Judaism with the Universal Church to come, a church or spirit of truth. The spirit includes the physical. When he speaks of Jerusalem and the mountain this is also the image of sacrifices no longer taking place in the Temple only because the berrakah was close to fulfillment.

Main two problems: misunderstanding of church being for man's understanding, which is necessarily physical, not God's, he is pure act and has no potential and secondly, spirit is not opposed to physical.