GEORGE WHITEFIELD, EVANGELIST
by Bob Wheeler
We recently had the occasion to read a remarkable sermon by George Whitefield entitled “The Method of Grace.” It is a fascinating example of evangelistic preaching and is well worth taking to heart today.
Whitefield (1714-1770) was perhaps one of the most phenomenal preachers ever to preach in the English language. The famous 18th Century evangelist traveled extensively through England, Scotland and the American colonies, and was a leading figure of the Great Awakening of the 1740’s. He almost always drew huge crowds wherever he went. Untold thousands owed their conversions to the instrumentality of his preaching.
The text for this particular sermon was Jeremiah 6:14, in which the prophet Jeremiah, speaking of the corrupt religious leaders of his day, said, “They have healed also the hurt of the daughter of my people slightly, saying, Peace, peace, when there is no peace.” Whitefield then began his sermon with this striking observation: “As God can send a nation or people no greater blessing than to give them faithful, sincere, and upright ministers, so the greatest curse that God can possibly send upon a people in this world, is to give them over to blind, unregenerate, carnal, lukewarm, and unskilled guides.” Such preachers, Whitefield said, were prone to curry favor with their audiences by giving them a false assurance – by papering over the real and serious spiritual problems that plague the nation. A faithful preacher, however, will tell his listeners the truth, so that they might achieve a genuine peace to their souls.
Whitefield then proceeded to do exactly that. He began by stressing that true religion is an inward thing, “a work wrought in the soul by the power of the Spirit of God.” Then he pointed to the fact that we are guilty of having committed actual sins. But even more that that, we are sinners by nature. “If we look inwardly, we shall see enough of lusts, and man’s temper contrary to the temper of God. There is pride, malice, and revenge, in all our hearts . . .”
Whitefield pointed out that sometimes, when people first come under the conviction of sin, their initial reaction is to try to do better, — to try to reform their lives outwardly through their own effort. But without a renewed heart a person may be doing many of the right things outwardly, but for the wrong reasons, and that hardly gains credit with God. “. . . nature cannot act above itself. It is impossible that a man who is unconverted can act for the glory of God; he cannot do anything in faith, and ‘whatever is not of faith is sin.'” Even the good works of Christians are tainted by impure motives. “. . .my repentance wants [i.e., needs] to be repented of . . . Our best duties are so many splendid sins.”
He then pointed out that many people who were reared in a Christian environment may think that they are Christians, when in fact they are not. They have what is sometimes termed “a historical faith” – an attachment to the Christian religion mainly for social and cultural reasons – lack what Whitefield called “a true faith, wrought in the heart by the Spirit of God.”
Here we can see one of the most striking differences between Whitefield’s preaching and what often passes for “evangelism” today. Whitefield began by laboring to convince his listeners that they were sinners. Then, and only then, did he proclaim the promise of forgiveness of sins in Christ Jesus. You have to get them lost before you can get them saved!
Having described the lost condition of his unconverted listeners Whitefield then went on and came to the crux of the matter. In order to achieve genuine, lasting peace, “You must be enabled to lay hold upon the perfect righteousness, the all-sufficient righteousness, of the Lord Jesus Christ, you must lay hold by faith on the righteousness of Jesus Christ, and then you shall have peace . . . Before we can even have peace with God, we must be justified by faith through our Lord Jesus Christ, we must be enabled to apply Christ to our hearts, we must have Christ brought home to our souls, so as his righteousness may be made our righteousness, so as his merits may be imputed to our souls.” Here we can see that two different things are involved in salvation. One is the act of “justification,” whereby Christ’s righteousness is “imputed” or charged to our account, and we are thereby counted righteous in the sight God. The other element of salvation is regeneration, or the New Birth, the work of the Holy Spirit in our souls, convicting us of sin, bringing us to faith in Christ, and imparting to us spiritual life. The former element does not happen without the latter.
Whitefield ended his sermon with a heartfelt plea to sinners to flee to Christ for salvation. He warned them of the danger of hell. He cited his own personal experience as an unconverted person. And even though he was a staunch Calvinist he urged his listeners to act, although he did not issue an alter call or ask people to walk down an aisle.
Whitefield’s sermon is a startling reminder of what is involved in a genuine conversion, and what evangelism is supposed to be like. What is at stake is eternity, and what is involved is the inward transformation of the soul by the power of the Holy Spirit. And what are needed are faithful preachers who will boldly tell people what they need to hear, not what they want to hear. May God raise up such men in our time!