Segment 3 | The enduring gospel faithfulness of George Whitefield
Here we invoke the observation of my late pastor, R.C. Sproul, “Knowing church history reminds us of God’s great work in the past, and it encourages us to trust Him in the present.”
The gospel, the “good news,” is simply defined as salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. Or, Jesus saves sinners to the glory of God.
Despite the confusion that resulted from the controversy coming from the 17th-century Methodist leaders, we have reason to be sanguine that in Methodism, the gospel actually was being preached and entrusted to other teachers in Britain as well as the New World, thanks to Whitefield. Dr. Steven Lawson, founder of OnePassion Ministries, a Ligonier Teaching Fellow, pastor, author and church historian, wrote:
“… many highly esteemed Anglican pulpits taught a moralistic, legalistic corruption of justification by faith. This doctrinal decline left the English church with little appetite for the preaching of the Word. Any burden for the lost had waned. Like the Apostles in the Garden of Gethsemane, English ministers had left off watching and were lulled into a deep sleep. Biblical convictions were replaced with the prevailing secular philosophies. There was a virtual famine in the land for the hearing of God’s Word.
It was into this spiritual void that God raised up the English evangelist George Whitefield. Like lightning from a cloudless sky, Whitefield stepped onto the world stage as the most prolific herald of the gospel since the days of the New Testament. God empowered Whitefield to become a blazing lamp set on a hill in the midst of Satan’s empire of darkness.
This powerful figure of unusual gospel fervor stood at the headwaters of an Evangelical resurgence. His thundering voice was the catalyst for spiritual awakening, as his preaching took the British Isles by storm and electrified the American colonies. By his evangelistic zeal, he stoked the flames of revival until they spread to the hearts of countless men and women. It can be argued that by his preaching, the British Isles were saved from the equivalent of the French Revolution. And on the other side of the Atlantic, a nation would be birthed in the wake of his gospel proclamation.” (The Evangelistic Zeal of George Whitefield, p. xviii)
The biblical doctrine of Spiritual regeneration hadn’t been a main focus for the Reformers, but Whitefield made it a prevailing emphasis in his preaching. Never allowing it to be relegated to secondary status, the evangelist wrote, “The doctrine of our regeneration or new birth in Christ Jesus … [is] one of the most fundamental doctrines of our holy religion … the very hinge on which the salvation of each of us turns.” (Whitefield, Sermon 49, in Works, Vol. VI, p. 257)
Again and again and again, Whitefield boldly, confidently asserted that to be made right with God, men must be born again. They must be in Christ “by an inward change and purity of heart and cohabitation of His Holy Spirit.” (Whitefield, Sermon 49, in Works, Vol. VI, p. 259).
Yet, it’s important to point out that Whitefield did not command anyone to be born again, as if rebirth were something they must work themselves up to by mental or emotional exercise. The language of Whitefield’s phrase to “be born again” starts with a passive verb, just as the Greek does in the source text of that phrase in John chapter 3. The new birth is something that happens to a person, it isn’t something that a person does. Whitefield understood that this doesn’t make the verbal call for a person’s rebirth unnecessary, in fact, the opposite: the proclamation, “You must be born again,” once heard, is the means that the Spirit uses to unilaterally bring about a person’s spiritual birth (John 6:63, I Corinthians 3:6, 15:10-11, Titus 1:1-4). This “inward witness” occurs within the person’s heart, yet it is sparked from without, because the task of spiritual regeneration is by the sovereign operation of God (Romans 10:14-17, II Corinthians 4:6).
Echoing John 3:8, Whitefield said that in granting new spiritual life, “God is a sovereign agent. His sacred Spirit blows when and where it wishes,” and standing behind the truth on regeneration is the doctrine of election. Whitefield exulted from Romans 9:15, “[God] will have mercy on whom He will have mercy.” (Whitefield, Sermon 41, in Works, Vol. VI, p. 149)
Just as there is nothing that a man can do to cause his physical birth, there is nothing he can do to induce spiritual labor in the new birth. This is a truth that Whitefield deeply believed and preached as he urged his listeners: you must be born again.
Despite hot discord that had peppered their relationship, at Whitefield’s memorial service in 1770, John Wesley was quick to confess the evangelistic impact that Whitefield had on both Britain and the American colonies:
“Have we read or heard of any person since the Apostles, who testified the Gospel of the grace of God through so widely extended a place, through so large a part of the habitable earth? Have we read or heard of any person who called so many thousands, so many myriads, of sinners to repentance? Above all, have we read or heard of any who has been a blessed instrument in His hand of bringing so many sinners from ‘darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God’?” (Sermons on Several Occasions, Volume 1, John Wesley, p. 596)
As the 19th-century Restorationists were so quick to point out, there had been much dissonance between Christian denominations. Yet, Whitefield had always kept denominational differences in perspective by proclaiming the need for his listeners to find identity in Christ alone. Denominational ties and religious affiliations aren’t inherently bad, but Whitefield contended that reliance upon them simply wouldn’t suffice in salvation. While preaching in Philadelphia, Whitefield exclaimed:
“Father Abraham, who have you in heaven? Any Episcopalians? No. Any Presbyterians? No. Any Baptists? No. Have you any Methodists, Seceders, or Independents there? No, no. Why, who have you there? We don’t know those names here. All who are here are Christians, believers in Christ — men who have overcome by the blood of the Lamb, and the Word of His testimony.” (Billingsley, The Life of the Great Preacher, p. 136)