Key Themes in the Preaching of George Whitefield

Whitefield Preaching
By: Allen S. Nelson IV

During the Eighteenth Century, Great Britain and her American colonies were sovereignly blessed by the life and ministry of the Calvinist Methodist preacher, George Whitefield.  All orthodox Christians, regardless of their denominational affiliations, would do well to study Whitefield’s life to see his love for Christ and His gospel, his personal pursuit of holiness, and his concern for Christian unity, as well as his concern for the poor.  While his life on earth barely spanned half of one century, God’s continued use of Whitefield and some of his major preaching themes in the lives of countless Christians in the past three centuries is remarkable.

To summarize his preaching in one sentence, George Whitefield preached a warm biblically rooted theology of Calvinism that was practical, motivational, and invitational. He “quite deliberately addressed both the heart and the head in his sermons.”[1] Therefore, his preaching was practical because it sought to apply the deep doctrines of God to everyday life in the 18th century. It was motivational in the sense that it sought to move his hearers to do something – to conversion, or greater holiness of life. It was rich theology but not the kind that is to be studied only in a seminary classroom where students, professors, and docents discuss theology only with the mind, absent from the heart.

Finally, George Whitefield’s preaching was invitational in that he regularly and passionately invited lost sinners to come to Christ by grace through faith. Some, who do not understand Calvinism or George Whitefield, might find this inconsistent, but for Whitefield, inviting sinners to Christ was a natural outflow of his theology.

Thus, he could issue summons like,

“Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners…You know not but he came to save you. Do not go and quarrel with God’s decrees and say, ‘If I am a reprobate, I shall be damned. If I am elected, I shall be saved. And therefore, I will do nothing.’ What have you to do with God’s decrees? Secret things belong to him; it is your business to ‘give all diligence to make your calling and election sure.’ If there are but few who find the way that leads to life, strive to be some of them. You know not but you may be in the number of those few and that your striving may be the means which God intends to bless, to give you an entrance in.”[2]

There are a variety of ways to categorize the repeated themes in Whitefield’s sermons and still be faithful to his heart and ministry. As discussed above, he was enthusiastically evangelistic. But his evangelism did not flow from a preaching that was minimalistic or dismissive of other core doctrines of the Christian faith in order to merely get sinners to Christ divorced from sound theology. On the contrary, he sought to deeply ground any person’s conversion in the truths of Scripture so that, by God’s grace, the sinner’s faith would be genuine.

Therefore, one could say Whitefield’s preaching was orthodox, Christ-centered, experientially Calvinistic, and focused on key doctrines pertinent to both the lost and the saved, such as the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit and the imputed righteousness of Christ. Finally, Whitefield’s preaching also was a prophetic witness against the spiritual laziness of professing Christians in his day, warning them of the reality of false conversions and the fleeting time remaining to “close with Christ” in saving faith.[3]

Orthodoxy

First, George Whitefield preached what can be referred to as orthodox themes. He was robustly trinitarian preaching truth like, “My brethren, if Jesus Christ be not very God of very God, I would never preach the gospel of Christ again. For it would not be gospel.”[4] He had a high view of God affected his view of everything else. And though his sermons might not always fall under the category of “expositional,” he had a very high view of the Scriptures as “the infallible word of God.”[5] He preached things like, “the words which are now before us, are to this day as true as they were seventeen hundred years ago. Set your hearts to attend to them. O that you may, by divine grace, be awakened to hear them…”[6]

Whitefield preached the core tenets of the gospel, those things which if denied, it would be impossible for one to be a Christian. Themes like the humanity of Christ, His death on the cross for sinners, His burial, and resurrection, and the call to believe upon Him by faith permeated his messages. He also preached the reality of the judgment to come and the wrath of God, “eternal misery,”[7] that awaited those who refused to believe on Christ.

Christ-Centered

Whitefield had a high view of Christ, not merely theologically, but also experientially. He preached, “And have we not among us, thousands who call themselves Christians, who had rather part with Christ than their pleasures?”[8] For Whitefield, not only where the precious truths of propitiation, “the active as well as passive obedience of the Lord Jesus Christ,”[9] the death of Christ – “Can you hear of a panting, bleeding, dying Jesus and yet be dull and unaffected?”[10], and His resurrection regularly featured in his sermons, but so too were Christ’s loveliness. The joy, love, and pleasure found only in knowing Christ personally far outweighed the carnal indulgences of this world.

“Oh what a Christ have we!”[11] This statement could be signed to nearly every one of Whitefield’s sermons as each homily sought to extol the riches of Christ in order that the hearer’s mind would be deepened and the heart would be warmed to His infinite excellencies. Jesus is altogether holy, wise, beautiful, and lovely.[12] Whitefield’s preaching was not merely “about Christ,” but Christ-centered also in that he exhorted his hearers their need to be in Christ.

To be in him not only by an outward profession but by an inward change and purity of heart and cohabitation of his Holy Spirit. To be in him, so as to be mystically united to him by a true and lively faith and thereby to receive spiritual virtue from him, as the members of the natural body do form the head, or the branches form the vine.[13]

Experiential Calvinism

            It is no secret that George Whitefield was a staunch Calvinist, even stating that “Arminian principles being antichristian principles, always did and always will lead to antichristian practices.”[14] Whitefield, thus, preached on all 5 points of Calvinism regularly including the radical depravity of the sinful heart and its inability and lack of any desire to choose Christ. He preached on unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace (or effectual calling), and the perseverance of the saints.

            Whitefield was a Calvinist in basically every sense of the word doctrinally. What set him apart in his preaching and methodology is that he intentionally sought to apply Calvinism experientially. Or, maybe better put, his Calvinism constrained him to see Christianity in a particular (what he would call biblical) light. For him, God being wholly sovereign was not inconsistent with the responsibility of men to believe on Christ. As mentioned above, he regularly beckoned sinners to come to Christ, preaching, “Behold then I show you a way of escape – Jesus is the way…It is his Spirit must convert you. Come to Christ and ye shall have it.”[15]

Furthermore, those who claimed to be Christians ought to have concern for their souls. They ought to commune with Christ regularly in His word and prayer. They ought to be holy people as, “walking with God implies a settled abiding communion and fellowship with God.”[16] They ought to work for Christ, understanding that “you work not for life, but from life.”[17] The Holy Spirit gives true life to the sinner so that his affections, attitudes, and actions are changed by grace. It was inconceivable to Whitefield that the rich and weighty doctrines of Calvinism could ever produce in the heart a cold, dead orthodoxy, or a people who were unholy. These doctrines were not about winning an argument, but a means to a greater end, namely seeing and savoring the loveliness of Christ.

True Calvinism should produce in the believer a desire to strive after Christ regularly. It should cause Christians to seek Him in His Word and prayer. And it should produce a longing within the believer’s heart to do good works for his fellow man, including sharing the gospel. Holiness of life was not something for the Christian to do in order to be accepted by God, but a reality worked out in the Christian heart and life by the sovereign Spirit of God.

Regeneration and Righteousness

Perhaps what Whitefield is best known for in the broader evangelical world is his preaching on the new birth. The doctrine of regeneration could be found, in some extent, in much of his preaching. He steadfastly heralded “the necessity of our new birth in Christ Jesus.”[18]

All of Whitefield’s doctrines were rightly interconnected. Regeneration, therefore, was intricately linked to his understanding of total depravity and original sin. The sin of Adam in the Garden of Eden rendered subsequent generations “dead to God.”[19] “There is no freewill in any of you but to sin.”[20] The only hope of a dead sinner, then, was the grace of God in regeneration. The Holy Spirit, through the heralding of the gospel, must bring a heart from death to life in order that the person would then savingly be found in Christ through faith alone. He preached,

All thy efforts, exerted with never so much vigour, will prove quite fruitless and abortive, till…Jesus…comes by his mighty power, removes the stone of unbelief, speaks life to thy dead soul, looses thee from the fetters of thy sins and corruptions and by the influences of his blessed Spirit, enables thee to arise and to walk in the way of his holy commandments.[21]

            For Whitefield, the doctrine of regeneration was not only essential to understanding Christianity, it was also practical in his preaching. He did not ask sinners to repeat a canned prayer, at least not like many do today in evangelistic crusades or encounters. Rather, he implored the unconverted to cry out to God for mercy. He did not attempt to trick people to Christ or win them to Jesus with something outside the gospel. Rather, he preached the depths, heights, and riches of the glorious gospel. He preached Christ’s willingness to save the worst of sinners. He preached the necessity of a sinner coming to Christ. And then he left the sinner to God for His work, understanding that only God’s effectual work will ever bring a person from spiritual death to life. He was not enamored with “decisions” to be counted, but hearts truly changed by God’s power.  

Another doctrine that permeated many of Whitefield’s sermons, that he is unfortunately perhaps not as well known for, is the necessity of the imputed righteousness of Christ by faith. “Christ not only died but lived, not only suffered but obeyed for, or instead of, poor sinners.”[22]

Again, this is interconnected with his understanding of original sin. In Adam, the sinner is dead and guilty. Adam failed to uphold the Covenant of Works and all are held guilty of his transgression. But in Christ, the sinner is imputed with the righteousness of Jesus so that he or she can stand before God acceptable based on the merits of Jesus. “Whatever other scheme of salvation men may lay, I acknowledge I can see no other foundation whereon to build my hopes of salvation but on the rock of Christ’s personal righteousness, imputed to my soul.”[23]

Warnings

It is difficult to summarize the themes found in the sermons of George Whitefield without mentioning the context in which he preached. Many in his day, on both sides of the Atlantic, held to a nominal Christianity. Many in the Church of England identified with Christianity simply because they had been baptized in the Church as an infant. This caused Whitefield to consistently warn his hearers of the reality of false conversions in his day. But he did not stop with laypersons, as he warned of the danger, and the reality, of many unconverted ministers of the gospel as well. Being a preacher did not immune one from self-deception.

To Whitefield, many of his hearers had a head knowledge of Jesus with no attending warmness of the heart. They needed to be convicted of personal sin and savingly brought to Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit through the heralding of the gospel attended with his fervent pleas for sinners to come to Jesus. Whitefield’s Christianity was not about passing a doctrinal exam but knowing Christ personally. Now, knowing Christ personal did include knowing the deep truths about Him. But too many in his day could affirm doctrinal positions with their minds but have no true love for Christ in their hearts. Thus, sermon after sermon Whitefield warned his hearers of only knowing things about Christ, without knowing the Lord of glory in a saving way.

His warnings were not sugarcoated. He reminded his hearers that if they were outside of Christ, they were enemies of God and bound for an eternal judgment in hell. The modern-day tendency of preaching the “love” of God over and against the wickedness of man would not only not have crossed the mind of Whitefield, it would have not made sense. It would be like him preaching a round circle because God’s true love is made all the more manifest in the fact that He saves miserable wretches from their horrible godless condition.

Conclusion

            In conclusion, George Whitefield was one of those men for which all Christians should be thankful.  It has been over three hundred years since his birth and his impact is still felt and will continue to be felt in the centuries to come.  The gospel Whitefield preached was the gospel of Jesus and he showed that it is not just a gospel in which men must labor to deliver to the masses but also one that transforms its hearers.  Christians would do well to study the life of Whitefield, not to marvel at his great accomplishments, as he would spurn any attempt to make of him more than he was, but to marvel at his great God and to employ the same themes in their preaching as these themes are not owned by George Whitefield, but tied to the sacred text of Holy Writ.

More Resources


[1]Lee Gatiss, ed., The Sermons of George Whitefield, vol. 1. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012). p. 17

[2] Lee Gatiss, ed., The Sermons of George Whitefield, vol. 2. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012). Pp. 166-167

[3] Gatiss, vol.1, p. 278

[4] Ibid., p. 405

[5] Ibid., p.247

[6] Gatiss, vol.2, p. 8

[7] Ibid., p. 20

[8] Gatiss, vol. 1, p. 381

[9] Ibid., p. 265

[10] Gatiss, vol. 2, p. 365

[11] Gatiss, vol. 2, p. 402

[12] See Gatiss, vol. 1, p. 239

[13] Gatiss, vol. 2, p. 277

[14] Gatiss, vol. 1, p. 266

[15] Ibid., p. 401

[16] Ibid., p. 68

[17] Ibid., p. 227

[18] Gatiss, vol. 2, p. 106

[19] Gatiss, vol. 1, p. 51

[20] Gatiss, vol. 2, p.28

[21] Ibid., p. 151

[22] Gatiss, vol. 1, p. 265

[23] Gatiss, vol. 2, p. 162