A Lesson from George Whitefield

Illustration: George Whitefield preaching
Photo credit: see below

A Lesson from George Whitefield

This year we are commemorating the anniversary of the birth of two men who lived two centuries apart – John Knox (b. 1514) and George Whitefield (b. 1714). Knox was a Scot who helped to further the Reformation in England and Whitefield was an Englishman who was instrumental in fanning the flames of revival in Scotland (1742). They were different in many ways but they had one thing in common. They had the spiritual discernment to tackle the root of the problem of their day in church and nation.

There are patterns in church history which show that at the beginning of every new spiritual era there is invariably a prophetic note struck which challenges and denounces the prevailing state of things. With John Knox it was the abominable idolatry of the Romish Church, destructive of men’s souls. Behind it was “Satan intending nothing less than that the light of Jesus Christ should be utterly extinguished within the whole Isle of Britain.” He confronted Satan and denounced the false worship, preparing the way for the proclamation of the only saving Gospel again.

With Whitefield it was the state of the Church in England. When Whitefield came to London in 1730s to begin his ministry he found a veritable Babylon. “The life of England was foul with moral corruption and crippled by spiritual decay.” Immorality of all kinds prevailed. The country, and London in particular, was in an uncontrollable orgy of gin drinking. It is not surprising that crime was rampant. 

But Whitefield did not lay the blame for this at the door of the common people. He saw that the problem was with the bishops and the clergy. They were “blind leaders of the blind”. Bishops wilfully ordained unconverted men. Sinners were encouraged to live in nominal Christianity. The Gospel was buried out of sight. The principle grasped by Whitefield at that time was that the sins of the church are far more offensive to God than the sins of the nation. He used the forgotten principle that “the time is come that judgment must begin at the house of God” (1 Pet. 4:17) and applied it to his day.

The Church is the house of God. The Holy One is building the Church for the praise of His glory. “Holiness becometh thine house, O Lord, for ever.” (Ps. 93:5) He is the Master of the house, the Father of the family. He is to be obeyed and honoured. Because He loves the members of His house He rebukes and chastens His own children when they disobey and dishonour Him. The sad fact is that the Church is subject to corruption and decay. The Early Church declined into the Church of the Dark Ages. The glorious Puritan era of the 1640s and 1650s descended into Deism and rationalism by the end of the century.

When Whitefield, filled with zeal for the glory of God, denounced the bishops and the clergy of his day it raised a veritable storm and led to a flood of abuse against him. The Spirit of glory and of God rested on Whitefield. The Church was shaken to its foundations, as many were awakened out of a deep sleep and spiritual death. There was a separation between the precious and the vile. The battle lines were drawn. Whitefield could say: “By the help of my Master I will go on and attack the devils in his strongholds.” The nation was saved from the kind of Revolution that occurred in France. Whitefield saw, as Calvin and Knox before him did, that unless the Church was restored the eternal undoing of thousands of souls would continue.

If we are to see a new spiritual era in our nation we need the prophetic note to be stuck in our churches: judgment must begin at the house of God. For too long ministers in our national churches have been content to sit alongside unconverted clergy and downright heretics. Scarcely a voice is heard exposing the grievous sins of the Church in the eyes of God. Legislation undermining the Word of God has been condoned by the Church. Now the forces of unbelief are taking over. There has been an almost complete capitulation, and ministers and congregations are fleeing to seek refuge elsewhere. Persecution grows ever stronger.

God will purify His Church. Our tribulations belong to “this present world”. The judgment that begins with us for our good and for a season will ultimately pass to God’s enemies for ever (1 Pet. 4:17-18).

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Photo credit:
George Whitefield preaching
By Belcher, Joseph [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons