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George Whitefield’s Evangelistic Preaching

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Category Articles
Date March 19, 2018

Around 245 years ago, something significant happened in Exeter, New Hampshire, USA. A large granite stone marks the spot where the event took place. Sad to say, people walk by this historical marker every day without knowing its significance. They do not know that God did something special in their town on September 29, 1770: George Whitefield preached one of his last sermons.

When the people heard Whitefield was going to pass through their town, they begged him to stop and preach to them. The arrangement was for Whitefield to preach inside the church building at Second Parish, but six thousand people came to hear him speak and the event had to take place outdoors.

The size of the crowd should not surprise us; George Whitefield preached to large groups throughout the United Kingdom and America. In his lifetime, Whitefield preached around eighteen thousand sermons to approximately ten million people.

Many considered Whitefield to be one of the greatest preachers in church history. The famous eighteenth-century preacher and author J. C. Ryle made this comment about Whitefield’s preaching: ‘I believe no English preacher has ever possessed such a combination of excellent qualifications as Whitefield.’

Charles Spurgeon has often been called ‘the prince of preachers’. He admired Whitefield and considered him a model to follow, saying about Whitefield’s life and preaching, ‘Other men seemed to be only half alive; but Whitefield was all of life.’

Whitefield preached wherever God opened the door. He made seven trips to America, fifteen trips to Scotland, and two to Ireland. He also made one trip each to Gibraltar, Bermuda, and the Netherlands. There was no doubt about it, the world was Whitefield’s parish.

On September 29, 1770, Whitefield stood before the citizens of Exeter. Some in the crowd could tell that he was sick but they did not know that Whitefield was suffering from a life-threatening case of asthma. As Whitefield stood before the crowd, someone called out from the audience, ‘You are more fit to go to bed than to preach.’ ‘True sir,’ replied Whitefield, he acknowledged the seriousness of his situation. Whitefield then prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, I am weary in thy work, but not weary of it. If I have not yet finished my course, let me go and speak for thee once more in the fields, seal thy truth, and come home and die.’

Whitefield stood erect. For several minutes, he struggled to speak. Then he said to the audience, ‘I will wait for the gracious assistance of God.’ Suddenly, the Spirit came upon him and he preached for approximately two hours from 2 Corinthians 5:9, ‘Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faithful.’

Many believe this was one of his best sermons.

After preaching at Exeter, Whitefield rode to Newburyport, Massachusetts. Today it takes around thirty minutes to make the seventeen-mile trip by car in heavy traffic. Since he was on horseback and very sick, the trip probably felt like hours to him.

In Newburyport, he stayed at the home of Rev. Jonathan Parsons, the pastor of the Old South Church. During dinner, Whitefield excused himself to go to bed. He was exhausted. Suddenly a small group appeared at the manse, asking Whitefield to preach. He did so until the candle in his hand disappeared.

Dallimore describes the situation for us, ‘There he stood, candle in hand, and such was his zeal that he spoke on, heedless of passing time, till the candle finally flickered, burned itself out in its socket and died away.’

Whitefield then went upstairs to bed. He took time to read his Bible and pray, but throughout the night, he struggled to breathe. Finally, around 6am on September 30, 1770, George Whitefield stepped out of this life and into eternity.

A few days later, about three thousand came to Newburyport for his memorial service. As Whitefield’s request, a crypt was built for his body in the church basement underneath the pulpit. Today you can visit the Old South Church in Newburyport and take a tour, during which you can see the crypt where they laid Whitefield’s body.

There are many things we can learn from Whitefield’s life. Throughout his life, he was a man of integrity and, when facing opposition, he was respectful and kind. But there were two particular elements in his evangelistic preaching which are worth our consideration.

1. Whitefield’s Evangelistic Preaching was God-Centred

Thousands came to hear Whitefield preach, but the purpose of his teaching was not to entertain, or even to draw a crowd. Nor was the purpose of his preaching to make people feel good about themselves. The goal of Whitefield’s preaching was to bring souls to Christ. He preached a God-centred Gospel.

A man-centred Gospel teaches that God’s priority for us is our happiness. You often hear people give this type of invitation to non-believers; ‘Come to Jesus Christ. He will improve your marriage and business.’ In a man-centred Gospel, people tend to present Jesus as a self-help guru.

Indeed, the Gospel changes people’s lives in many positive ways. My deceased friend, Holmes Rhinehart, loved to tell how Jesus Christ changed his life. Before he came to Christ, he was a drug addict and an alcoholic but the Lord Jesus Christ set him free from all his addictions. For this, Holmes Rhinehart was eternally grateful.

But a God-centred Gospel has a different focus. The most important thing is not our happiness, the most important thing is our legal standing before God. Since Whitefield understood this truth, he presented both the bad news and the good news.

This is the bad news. Whitefield wanted non-believers to understand that they were sinners, and since they were sinners, they did not have a right legal standing before God. They were law breakers and therefore they deserved God’s wrath and curse (Romans 1:18; 3:11-18; 3:23).

Whitefield was not harsh with the bad news; he had such a concern for souls that he preached at times with tears in his eyes. Like Jesus, he had compassion on the lost, seeing them as sheep without a Shepherd (Matthew 9:36). Sad to say, we seldom hear of ministers or church members today crying over men’s souls.

Whitefield’s young assistant, Cornelius Winter, made this observation about Whitefield’s preaching:

I hardly knew him to go through a sermon without weeping …and I truly believe his tears were tears of sincerity. And I have heard him say in the pulpit, “You blame me for weeping, but how can I help it when you will not weep for yourselves, though your immortal souls are on the verge of destruction…and you may never more have an opportunity to have Christ offered to you.

Whitefield also preached the good news. He made people aware of God’s grace:  God provided the way of salvation through Jesus Christ. When Jesus was on the cross, he took the punishment for the sins of his people and if we repent of our sins and place our faith in Christ alone for salvation, then we go free from the penalty of sin (Romans 5:1; 8:1; Ephesians 2:8-9). It is only after we have repented of our sins and trusted Christ for salvation that we have a right legal standing before God.

Thus, Whitefield taught what we call the doctrine of justification by faith alone in Christ alone. He explained this vital doctrine in a language the people understood. He wanted people to realise it was impossible for them to earn their salvation through good works, their only hope was to repent of their sins and place their faith in Christ alone for salvation.

Archibald Alexander in his book Justification by Faith makes this remarkable statement: ‘How shall a man be just with God is surely the most important question which can be possibly conceived.’ Alexander continue, ‘the doctrine of a sinner’s justification in the sight of God is fundamental.’

Therefore, we need to evaluate the evangelistic methods we use today. Whether from the pulpit or in a one to one conversation, we need to make sure that we are giving a God-centred message. We need to make sure non-believers understand their legal standing before God and point them to the Lord Jesus Christ.

When I share the Gospel with non-believers, I often raise this question to them, ‘Do you see yourself as a sinner, deserving God’s wrath?’ The answer to this question helps me understand if the non-believer understands their legal standing before God and their need for the Gospel.

Remember Jesus gave this invitation to people in Mark 1:15: ‘repent and believe in the Gospel.’ That’s the same invitation we must give to people today. Let’s make sure we proclaim a God-centred Gospel rather than a man-centred Gospel.

2. Whitefield’s Evangelist Preaching was Dependent on God’s Spirit

There is no doubt that God gifted Whitefield with unusual abilities. We make a mistake if we think we can merely reproduce Whitefield’s ministry. We also make a mistake if we believe we can attract a large crowd by trying to discover some secret of success from the past.

But Whitefield understood an important principle. Our ministry must be dependent upon the work of the Holy Spirit. Without the work of the Spirit, a Christian will minister in their strength rather than God’s power.

A Christian who depends upon the work of the Holy Spirit is a praying Christian. If we fail to pray, then we are saying to God, ‘I can do what you called me to do today in my strength. I do not need your help today.’

Steven Lawson gives this description of Whitefield’s prayer life:

Whitefield was devoted to God in earnest prayer. Through time spent on his knees, his heart for God was further depended and developed. The secret of his public ministry was not found primarily in his vivid vocabulary, dramatic skills, or Oxford education. The true source of power in his preaching lay far deeper. It was discovered behind closed doors in time alone with God.

If you survey the Book of Acts, then you will discover that the early church was devoted to prayer. Luke uses the church at Jerusalem as an example of this commitment to prayer: ‘And they devoted themselves to the apostles teaching, the breaking of bread, fellowship, and the prayers’ (Acts 2:42, emphasis author’s).

The Apostle Paul was a man of prayer, he was in constant prayer for the churches. He told the Philippians in Philippians 1:3-4, ‘I thank my God in my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy’. He also told the Romans in Romans 1:9, ‘that without ceasing I mention you always in my prayers’.

The reformers were men of prayer too. Ludwig gave this description of Luther’s prayer life, ‘When it comes to prayer, Luther was not a theoretician, but a practitioner.’ Ludwig then makes this statement, ‘There is not a day on which he does not devote at least three hours [to prayer].’

John Calvin has often been called ‘the theologian of the Holy Spirit’. Calvin was another man of prayer, his standard procedure was to pray through the Psalms. He made the prayers of the Psalmist his own and he combined his study of scripture with prayer.

Gary Neal Hansen in Kneeling with the Giants gives this general description of Calvin’s prayer life, ‘prayer was at the heart of his spiritual life and his theology. For Calvin, prayer is the central thing Christians are called to do, the true expression of authentic faith.’

John Knox was a man of prayer. In Taking Hold of God, Brian Najapfour gives this description of John Knox’s prayer life, ‘As a pastor, Knox prayed for his congregation, and as a father, he prayed for his family. He was truly a man of …prayer.’ On one occasion Mary Queen of Scots made this telling statement about John Knox, ‘I fear the prayer of John Knox more than the combined armies of Europe.’

While here on earth, the Lord Jesus Christ himself was devoted to prayer. Since Jesus spent time in prayer with the Father, then we should do the same thing. Besides, Jesus said in John 15:5, ‘Apart from me, you can do nothing.’

Christians often complain that the church in the western world has lost its influence but perhaps it is because we are no longer devoted, like Whitefield, to prayer. We are more devoted to methods and programs than praying.

I wonder what would happen if churches today enabled their pastors, like the Apostles, to practice Acts 6:4, ‘But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.’ At first, Satan would probably double his efforts against us, but in the end, the churches in the western world would be much stronger.

Whitefield had incredible natural talent, he could have easily relied on his abilities and strength but he understood the need to depend upon the Holy Spirit. He did so by his devotion to prayer.

Conclusion

Frank Lambert made this observation about Whitefield’s preaching. When Whitefield arrived in the New Word in 1739, he changed the scope and character of the colonial evangelical revivals. Before Whitefield, the revivals were mainly local and within denominational boundaries. But Whitefield’s preaching connected and fashioned the revivals into an inter-colonial movement. He proclaimed the new birth in every colony through the spoken and printed word.

Whitefield was not a perfect man. He did not follow the advice of his doctors and friends to take better care of his body and some wish he had taken a stronger stand against slavery. But behind his preaching was a man of integrity in his business affairs. When the Wesley brothers publicly attacked his theology, he responded with love.

Whitefield understood what we must never forget today. It is only through Jesus Christ that men receive salvation and it is only through Jesus Christ that men’s lives are changed for the glory of God. That’s why we need to make sure we proclaim a God-centred Gospel rather than a man-centred Gospel. We need to make sure non-believers understand their legal standing before God and we need to work to proclaim the Gospel with dependence upon the Holy Spirit through prayer.

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