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George Whitefield, Theologian

One modern biographer claims that Whitefield ‘showed no interest in theology’, but was more concerned with feelings, imagination, and experience. This is palpable nonsense . . . To quote again from Augustus Toplady, Whitefield was not merely an evangelist but ‘a most excellent systematic divine.

His divinity began with an error-free Bible. ‘If we once get above our Bibles and cease making the written word of God our sole rule both as to faith and practice,’ he declared, ‘we shall soon lie open to all manner of delusion and be in great danger of making shipwreck of faith and a good conscience,’ going on to speak of ‘the unerring rule of God’s most holy word’ (Sermon 2); elsewhere he only ever uses the word ‘unerring’ of Jesus (Sermon 58) or the Holy Spirit (Sermon 39). It was the quintessence of ‘enthusiasm’ said Whitefield, ‘to pretend to be guided by the Spirit without the written word; yet it is every Christian’s bounden duty to be guided by the Spirit in conjunction with the written word of God,’ every inward impression or suggestion being tested against that inerrant standard. . . .

Taught by his trustworthy Bible, Whitefield was a Protestant. He rejected the infallibility and inerrancy of the Pope or the Church and settled instead on the scriptures themselves as the final arbiter of his faith. As a result, he could be somewhat vehement in his dislike of Roman Catholicism . . .

Continuing to be taught by his trustworthy Bible, Whitefield became a Calvinist. Yet as he said in a private letter to John Wesley in August 1740, ‘Alas, I never read any thing that Calvin wrote; my doctrines I had from Christ and his apostles; I was taught them of God.’ Again, he wrote to another friend in 1742, ‘I embrace the calvinistical scheme, not because Calvin, but Jesus Christ, I think, has taught it to me.’ . . . He considered Arminianism, a progressive and liberal view of theology which downplayed the sovereignty of God in favour of a more liberated human free will, to be ‘antichristian’ both in principles and practice, and to share too much in common with Roman Catholicism, indeed, to be ‘the back door to popery’ (Sermon 14). . . .

Whitefield, however, was a firm believer in the Reformed doctrine of salvation and Reformed biblical theology, or as it is often known, covenant theology. . . . Whitefield was in harmony with the Anglican and Reformed tradition in general, holding as he did to predestination and reprobation (Sermons 41, 44), the inseparability of justification and sanctification (Sermon 14), the imputation of the active obedience of Christ (Sermons 14, 44) and the perseverance of the saints (Sermons 60 and 61). No wonder when he returned from Georgia in April 1741 and met Wesley, who disliked these doctrines and crusaded against them, he told him plainly face-to-face that they ‘preached two different gospels.

. . .

Another Reformed doctrine which Wesley despised but which Whitefield gloried in was particular redemption, or as it is sometimes known, definite or ‘limited atonement.’ This is the teaching that the Father’s election, the Son’s redemption, and the Spirit’s application of salvation are all coextensive; that God planned to save a certain people, his sheep, his church, the bride of Christ out of the corrupt mass of mankind, and sent his Son explicitly to achieve this goal, and his Spirit then to draw the elect to Christ. The opposite, Arminian, theory was that Christ came to die for everyone indiscriminately, not to actually save them but to make them saveable, on condition that they repent and believe, which they have the power to do if they want to. Both views limit the atonement in some way, of course: the Calvinist limits the number of people ultimately atoned for (some people are completely saved) while the Arminian view limits the effectiveness of the cross (all people are potentially saved if they fulfil the conditions on their side). It is often asserted that belief in definite atonement saps the energy out of evangelism somehow. Yet reading and studying the example of Whitefield shows just how facile and superficial it is to claim that one cannot be a Calvinist – one cannot believe in a Father who unconditionally chooses, a Son who intentionally redeems and a Spirit who irresistibly calls only the elect – and still be a passionate evangelist.

—Lee Gatiss, The Sermons of George Whitefield (Crossway, 2012), 29–32, 34.

Posted 2018·10·24 by David Kjos
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Posted in: Church History · Evangelism · George Whitefield · The Sermons of George Whitefield

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