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The Humility of George Whitefield

George Whitefield sets an example for every one of us.

Whitefield was a born orator with a flair for the dramatic. The great actor David Garrick (1717–1779) is reputed to have said he would give a hundred guineas to be able to say ‘O!’ like Whitefield. . . . As J. C. Ryle put it, there was a ‘holy violence’ about him which grabbed people’s attention. . . .

Whether Whitefield ought to be imitated in these stylistic matters is debatable, though we need not doubt his integrity and sincerity as some have done; he was by no means attempting to be a mere entertainer or raise a personal following, as the rest of his life and ministry well attest. . . . Fishermen, after all, should be able to reel in the fish and not just toss in bait and cast out the line without a hook. . . . hectoring, badgering, and manipulating people has no apostolic warrant. Yet are we, like Whitefield, like Paul, like Jesus, emotionally committed to desiring conversion and spiritual growth in a way that our earnestness can be heard and felt and people made to appreciate how serious the gospel call truly is?

. . .

[W]e must be cautious at times about Whitefield’s style since he himself repented of some aspects of his early preaching. In 1748 he wrote to a friend, after revising all his published journals,

Alas! Alas! In how many things have I judged and acted wrong. I have been too rash and hasty in giving characters, both of places and persons. Being fond of scripture language, I have often used a style too apostolical, and at the same time I have been too bitter in my zeal. Wild-fire has been mixed with it, and I find that I frequently wrote and spoke with my own spirit, when I thought I was writing and speaking by the assistance of the Spirit of God. I have likewise too much made inward impressions my rule of acting, and too soon and too explicitly published what had been better kept in longer, or told after my death. By these things I have given some wrong touches to God’s ark, and hurt the blessed cause I would defend, and also stirred up needless opposition. This has humbled me much . . . I bless [God] for ripening my judgment a little more, for giving me to see and confess, and I hope in some degree to correct and amend, some of my mistakes.

He amended his printed sermons so that much of the ‘wild-fire’ was removed from them, yet it may still be detected here and there, particularly where he is addressing serious gospel issues in the teaching of others (such as in Sermons 9 and 10). All of us who preach regularly know how important it is to correct prevailing errors in church and society in order to be faithful shepherds of God’s people. Yet we also do well to remember the humility of Whitefield in his 30s as he looked back on his earlier ministry and sought to amend his words and his ways. ‘Those who oppose him he must gently instruct,’ in a way they can hear and be corrected by, said the Apostle (2 Timothy 2:24–26).

—Lee Gatiss, The Sermons of George Whitefield (Crossway, 2012), 16–17, 19–20.

Posted 2018·10·22 by David Kjos
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Posted in: George Whitefield · The Sermons of George Whitefield

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