All throughout church history, God has raised up men who are incredible stalwarts of the faith. Men such as: Martin Luther, John Calvin, William Tyndale, John Owen, Jonathan Edwards, C.H. Spurgeon, and Martyn Lloyd-Jones. The list continues on-and-on throughout the ages and continues to this very day with men like John MacArthur, R.C. Sproul, and Steven Lawson. However, there is one man, in my point-of-view, who is particularly overlooked in the Christian faith. His name, is George Whitefield. This may be a name that is known in our households and may even be recognized with the Great Awakening in America. However, do we know what this man did, not only for America, but for England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland? Martyn Lloyd-Jones, arguably the greatest preacher in the twentieth century, states that Whitefield is “the most neglected man in the whole of church history.” Yet, during his life, Whitefield was better known in the colonies than George Washington. How has this man been forgotten in the annals of history? This was a man who preached 18,000 sermons in thirty-four years of ministry, usually preaching three, if not four, sermons a day! Who traveled across the Atlantic eight times in the 18th century (roughly spending three years of his life on a boat). Who ran an orphanage in Georgia, was a founder and leader (for a time) of the Methodist movement and who sparked multiple nations into blazing fires for Christ. This man, George Whitefield, ought to be cherished and we should get to know him more. However, it must be stated, that we should not get to know him so that we can learn about how great George Whitefield was. Instead, we should get to know what zealously drove him to accomplish what he did. Let me be forthright so we don't get an unbiblical idea of the veneration of a saint; what literally drove this man to his death was the glory of Jesus Christ and the salvation of souls. The thousands of miles travelled, the thousands of sermons preached, the countless beatings, the sleepless nights were all done for the glory of Christ and the salvation of souls. I cherish George Whitefield because of who he cherished, Jesus Christ.
All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. -2 Timothy 3:16-17
George Whitefield’s spiritual life began at the age of twenty-one in 1735. From the day that he was converted he began to preach and he would continue this job until his death in 1770. What continually filled this man for three decades of preaching was not some emotional high or some “special” form of revelation outside of Scripture. Instead, it was grounded on Scripture and Scripture alone - Sola Scriptura. His devotion to the Word of God was seen very early on in his spiritual life. It is said that at times the only light in town that could be seen was the candle in Whitefield’s second story apartment as he poured over the Scriptures. Whitefield was so moved by the Scriptures that he was brought to his knees and prostrated himself before the living God who brought him this Gospel message. He would not only pour over the words but he would go back and pray through every word and line. Other books were of little importance to him in comparison to the Word of God: “I got more true knowledge from reading the Book of God in one month, than I could ever have acquired from all the writings of men. I found it profitable for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, every way sufficient to make the man of God perfect, thoroughly furnished unto every good work.”
The question that must be asked, dear brothers and sisters, is do we take God’s Word this seriously? God has revealed to us the way of salvation, the way of righteousness, and the way of hope in his Holy Word. Do we cherish it? Do we pour over the pages and pray the Words? If God has revealed himself in the pages of Scripture, why do we not take them more seriously than we do? Whitefield makes an emphatic point here: “God has condescended to become an author and yet people will not read his writings. There are very few that ever gave this Book of God, the grand charter of salvation, one fair reading through.” Brothers and sisters, we must be men and women of the Book! To neglect God’s Word results in irrational hyper-emotionalism or nominal Christianity. We will not grow in our fervency of Christ by taking God’s Word lightly or neglecting it altogether.
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. -Ephesians 2:8-10
Whitefield, from the time that he began the Methodist Movement with the Wesley brothers tried earnestly to earn his own salvation. It was not until he realized that there was nothing in-and-of himself that would be able to save him from the wrath of God. He realized that it was only by the grace of God that he was able to be saved from his sins. No matter of work or due penance was going to unhinge him from the destiny that awaited. No, it was only by the blood stained cross upon which our Savior died that he was able to be saved from his transgressions. Recounting his earlier life Whitefield humbly exerts that “If I trace myself from my cradle to my manhood, I can see nothing in me but a fitness to be damned. If the Almighty had not prevented me by His grace, and wrought most powerfully upon my soul, quickening me by His free Spirit when dead in trespasses and sins, I had now either been sitting in darkness, and in the shadow of death, or condemned as the due reward of my crimes, to be forever lifting up my eyes in torments.” This realization of his utter depravity placed upon him a true heart of humility. Whitefield took this passage from Ephesians 2 and ran with it. There were no gimmicks in his preaching or in his lifestyle. He did not have to woo the crowd with light shows and fog machines - quite the opposite. He realized that dead sinners cannot be brought to life unless it comes from above (John 3:3). He rested in the grace of God, preached the grace of God, sang the grace of God, knowing that it was not his merits or words that saved souls but by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone - Sola Gratia, Sola Fide, Solus Christus. Just as he was unable to save himself so he could not save others and thus he ran to the Lord in fervent prayer and gave himself unto HIM in devoted intercession. Pleading for the salvation of those who heard the Word of God.
My question, dear brothers and sisters, is where is our hope? Is it in our works or our penance? Are we going to heaven because we are faithful attenders at church or because we said a prayer in the fifth grade? Or is it because we see our utter hopelessness without Christ; that we truly are dead in our trespasses and sin and the only one who can save is Jesus Christ alone (Eph. 2:1-10)? If our hope is in anything besides Christ, dear brothers and sisters, I would ask that we turn and run to Christ. He is faithful and just to cleanse you and forgive you of all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9). He is the only source of true hope and joy! Run and embrace him! We cannot merely stay at the point of recognizing our sins; we must also repent and turn to the author and perfector of our salvation. Recognize your necessity for Christ and run into His open arms!
How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” -Romans 10:14-15
Whitefield, once he was saved immediately began to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Like a match that starts a forest fire, Whitefield engulfed the British Isles and the American continent with a message of Grace. After his first trip to America, Whitefield was met with resistance from the Church of England. They did not allow him to preach from their pulpits and barred him from their churches. This did not stop this wildfire. He simply went to the street corners and open fields and began to preach the gospel in the open-air. People would come to him by the thousands. In one particular sermon, Whitefield estimated that he preached to some 80,000 bystanders (this is a time when there were no microphones!). In the year of 1739, four years after his conversion, it is estimated that there was an average of 650,000 listeners every month. Not only did he have sizable crowds, he traveled around the British Isles, across the Atlantic eight times, and traveled up and down the East Coast of America. In the fall of 1740, Whitefield preached a total of 175 times in seventy-five days. Not only that but he traveled an estimated 6,000 miles to do so (on horseback). Whitefield was so mission-minded that if he was with someone, he would not go more than a quarter of an hour without sharing Christ. Whether that was a stranger or friend, Whitefield would give it fifteen minutes before he began preaching.
These are not mere facts for the sake of sharing them. I share these facts to show that Whitefield had a desire for the lost and for them to see their need for Christ. Granted, this man was an extraordinary preacher, used by God to preach to vast numbers, but the simplicity of being faithful to the command is what is at stake. God commands in Scripture that we faithfully preach Christ. Do we do it? We have a great opportunity that surrounds us every day. Our neighbors, friends, family, and co-workers need to hear of this grace that has so enriched us. We do not need to preach to millions of people - nor will we ever. But God does call us to preach Christ in our day-to-day lives. Are we faithful in presenting the message that He has placed in our hands so that we may glorify Him alone - Soli Deo Gloria? Let us examine ourselves and ask if we are being faithful to the call that has been placed upon us.
Finally, it must be said that George Whitefield was no perfect man. He is a sinner just like every single one of us. He did many things that were wrong and many things that he did right. He slipped, he fell, and he got back up. Just like Christian in “Pilgrims Progress”, he made great strides but he also stepped off the path. Men like George Whitefield serve as reminders to us - he is not Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is the ultimate goal and is the one we must strive for in all things. Jesus Christ is the one who walked this earth, lived a perfect life, died for our sins and rose from the grave. We find Him in the Scriptures, we commune with Him in prayer and fellowship with the saints, and we glorify Him by faithfully sharing the Gospel. He is the one that we must strive after, he is the one who is our goal, to him be honor, glory, power and dominion forever and ever amen!
Here is some reading material on George Whitefield:
The Evangelistic Zeal of George Whitefiled by Steven J. Lawson
George Whitefield’s Journals by George Whitefield
2 Volume George Whitefield Biography by Arnold Dallimore
The Collected Sermons of George Whitefield by George Whitefield and J.C. Ryle