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Lessons from the life of George Whitefield

November 2014 | by Jean-Marc Alter

George Whitefield was one of the most influential preachers at the heart of the eighteenth century revivals in Britain and America.

27 December this year marks the 300th anniversary of his birth. An Anglican minister and itinerant preacher, he died in September 1770.

If both Britain and America are considered together, George Whitefield was arguably the best known preacher of his day and century.

When great preachers of the gospel are listed today, Whitefield’s name is invariably very near the top of the list. Dr Martin Lloyd-Jones once remarked: ‘Other men merely existed; Whitefield lived’.

What lessons can we learn from the life of this man of God, who was one of the founders of early Methodism?

God is no respecter of persons

George Whitefield had humble beginnings. His parents ran the Blue Bell Inn in Gloucester. He was the fifth son and seventh child, and did not have enough money to pay to attend university. As a result, he took the position of a servitor (servant) to the wealthier students at Pembroke College, Oxford University.

Whitefield was not of noble birth, nor from a well-to-do family. He was not wealthy nor was he obviously handsome — there was a noticeable squint in his eyes that contemporary portraits of him picked up on — yet the Lord chose to use him in a great and mighty way.

God can and does use anyone he pleases for his glory. How do we treat others? Who or what do we hold as being of the greatest value in this world? Do we look to the wise, the well qualified, the rich and famous, as the only ones worth following?

Do we wish that some famous celebrity would be converted, so that people would pay attention to the message of the gospel? While we certainly pray that all men be saved, we must remember this divine principle: ‘For you see your calling, brethren, that not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called.

‘But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty; and the base things of the world and the things which are despised God has chosen, and the things which are not, to bring to nothing the things that are, that no flesh should glory in his presence … as it is written, he who glories, let him glory in the Lord’ (1 Corinthians 1:26-31).

God does not always build his church the same way

At the start of the eighteenth century, Puritan influence was on the wane and church attendance at a low ebb. Then God sent forth his preachers and his church was revived. Whitefield was used by God to spearhead revival on two continents.

Some previous revivals, on the other hand, have been preceded by the spread of the printed Bible and by fierce persecution. During the nineteenth century, revivals often seemed to be the direct result of prayer meetings. But the revival which involved Whitefield was like a bolt of lightning directly from heaven.

Each revival from God has similarities with other revivals: the centrality of the Word of God; the preaching of salvation through faith alone in Christ; dependence on the Lord in prayer; self-denial and turning from sin. But each follows its own and sometimes very different structure.

Do we put God in a straitjacket and expect him to work in exactly the same way as he did in the past? Then, when we don’t see events unfolding as we expect, do we get discouraged and upset with the Lord?

This happened to some during the rebuilding of the Temple, after Israel’s return from exile in Babylon: ‘Then all the people shouted with a great shout, when they praised the Lord, because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid. 

‘But many of the priests and Levites and heads of the fathers’ houses, old men who had seen the first temple, wept with a loud voice when the foundation of this temple was laid before their eyes.

‘Yet many shouted aloud for joy, so that the people could not discern the noise of the shout of joy from the noise of the weeping of the people, for the people shouted with a loud shout, and the sound was heard afar off’ (Ezra 3:11-13).

‘Do not say, why were the former days better than these? For you do not inquire wisely concerning this’ (Ecclesiastes 7:10).

Whitefield was God’s answer to the needs of the church at that time. So today, we must seek God, but be satisfied for him to answer as he sees fit. The Lord Jesus Christ, after all, will build his church; he has promised to do so (Matthew 16:18).

God’s kingdom is built upon the clear declaration of the Word of God

Whitefield preached some 18,000 sermons — often three times a day, for 30 years; as well as delivering thousands of impromptu discourses.

God used the message preached to change the lives of those who heard. Are we like so many in this age who think that what people need to be converted is modern music, attractive people and entertainment?

We must be convinced that God knows best and that it is through the clear explanation and application of the truth of Scripture that people are changed and saved from hell and the power of sin (Romans 10:14).

Simply put, it is the clear, straightforward message of the Lord Jesus Christ, his person and work — the gospel — applied by the Holy Spirit, which saves. Whitefield was steeped in the Scriptures and used them to cut through the darkness and free those held prisoner by sin.

‘You must be born again’, was his favourite text. He was once asked why he continually preached on that text. He replied: because, you must be born again!’

For people to be saved they must hear the message of the gospel of Christ. For them to hear the message, it must be presented to them in a way they can understand; not laden with technical words, or full of funny stories, but clearly and honestly in a language that can be understood.

As the apostle Paul wrote: ‘And I, brethren, when I came to you, did not come with excellence of speech or of wisdom declaring to you the testimony of God. For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.

‘I was with you in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling. And my speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith should not be in the wisdom of men but in the power of God’ (1 Corinthians 2:1-5).

What can God accomplish with someone wholly committed to him?

From the time of his conversion to his death, George Whitefield sought to follow his Master and serve others — ‘I am a servant of all’. Despite failings and weaknesses like all of us, he was a man who showed love, compassion to others, and devotion to his Saviour.

He said, ‘God forbid that I should travel with anybody a quarter of an hour without speaking of Christ to them’, and, ‘If your souls were not immortal, and you in danger of losing them, I would not thus speak unto you; but the love of your souls constrains me to speak: methinks this would constrain me to speak unto you forever’.

How committed are we to the Lord? Oh, that we could truly say like Paul, ‘But what things were gain to me, these I have counted loss for Christ.

‘Yet indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith;

‘That I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being conformed to his death, if, by any means, I may attain to the resurrection from the dead’ (Philippians 3:7-11).

Jean-Marc Alter

The author is a member of Ebenezer Baptist Church, Swansea



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