Comprehending the meteoric rise to prominence of George Whitefield only deepens my commitment to the doctrine of the sovereign grace of God. That a man converted to Christ at age 20 and ordained to the Gospel ministry at age 21 would become, by age 23, one of the most recognized names in England is astounding.
Three strands, woven together, bind us as evangelicals in the twenty-first century to Whitefield the evangelist. The first strand is the doctrines of grace. Whitefield wrote and spoke of them incessantly, but not in a calculated, creedal monotone. Rather, he made them resonate with all of the symphonic richness of the glories of the triune God. In his biography of Whitefield, Arnold Dallimore records these words of the great preacher: “The doctrines of our election, and free justification in Christ Jesus are daily more and more pressed upon my heart. They fill my soul with a holy fire and afford me great confidence in God my Savior. … I know Christ was my all in all.” Far more important than Whitefield grabbing hold of the doctrines of grace, the doctrines of grace had grabbed hold of Whitefield. So glorious was this truth to Whitefield that he sought to publish it to every creature. This was his theme as he preached in the fields and exhorted brothers in the Gospel ministry.
Writing to another leader in the open-air preaching movement, Whitefield stated with characteristic strength and clarity: “Put them in mind of the freeness and eternity of God’s electing love, and be instant with them to lay hold of the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ by faith…. Press them to believe on Him immediately!… Speak every time, my dear brother, as if it were your last.”
In the open air of a large field, Whitefield preached a sermon titled “Christ the Only Rest for the Weary and Heavy Laden.” The strength of the “gracious invitation” with which he concluded this sermon indicates that the elect/non-elect and assurance/false assurance debates that keep so many in the Reformed camp from engaging in aggressive evangelism were far from Whitefield’s Biblical or practical theology. One only wishes that his vocal inflections and intonations could be heard as he thundered to the congregation, “And this brings me, thirdly, to consider the exhortation Christ gives unto all of you, high and low, rich and poor, one with another, to come unto him that you may have rest…. Here is a gracious invitation…. Here is mercy upon mercy. Let me beseech you to come unto Christ…. Go to him this night; here is an invitation for all of you who are weary souls … do not delay; one moment may be dangerous: death may take you off suddenly. You know not but that a fit of apoplexy may hurry you from time into eternity…. Come, come unto him … Jesus Christ will save you.” Whitefield constantly and forcefully set forth the outward, evangelistic call of the Gospel to every creature. He left the inward, effectual call to the ministry of the Holy Spirit.
The second strand that binds us to Whitefield is that significant opposition to evangelism comes from inside the church. A defining element in Whitefield’s theological/pastoral formulation was the vehemence with which he was opposed by many churchmen of his day. His decision to move outside of church buildings to engage in open-air ministry drew harsh criticisms. “Censorious, uncharitable and slanderous” were strong charges leveled against Whitefield in an open letter written by the “President, Professors, Tutors and the Hebrew Instructor at Harvard College” (this was at a time when Harvard was still a bastion of Christian orthodoxy). At the conclusion of that same document, his esteemed critics summarized their position: “We think it our duty to bear our strongest testimony against that itinerant way of preaching, which this Gentleman was the first promoter among us, and still delights to continue in.” This is not dissimilar to the assertions leveled in our day, from within the Reformed camp, against Dr. D. James Kennedy and the Evangelism Explosion ministry he founded.
Whitefield was not to be deterred. Increased opposition brought an ever-increasing resolve to obey God rather than man, similar to the response given by Peter and John to the elders of Israel: “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you more than to God, you judge. For we cannot but speak the things we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:19b–20). “My preaching in the fields may displease some timorous, bigoted men, but I am thoroughly persuaded it pleases God, and why should I fear anything else,” Whitefield explained. After all, Jesus was clear in asserting that “the harvest truly is plentiful” (Matt. 9:37) and that those fields “are already white for harvest” (John 4:35). Years later he wrote, “I intend therefore to go about preaching the Gospel to every creature.” Spiritual descendants of this great man will take seriously his exhortation to do the work of an evangelist (2 Tim. 4:5), in spite of the contrary voices within the confines of the church.
The final strand tying us to Whitefield needs to be an emulation of his evangelistic passion and zeal. While unequivocal in embracing the doctrines of grace known as Calvinism, his greater passion and zeal was that sinners would be saved and come to be known as Christians. He preached in the open air under the auspices of Independents, Presbyterians, Baptists, and Quakers. Additionally, he was a co-laborer with John Wesley. Whitefield defended such collaboration by saying, “I truly love all that love the glorious Emmanuel, and though I cannot depart from the principles which I believe are clearly revealed in the book of God, yet I can cheerfully associate with those that differ from me, if I have reason to think they are united to our common Head.”
Christians, hold tenaciously to the doctrines of grace and boldly evangelize with the powerful Gospel. Whitefield’s life and ministry provide powerful proof that these are united under our common Head, Jesus Christ.