It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair. – Charles Dickens
The above is a fitting description of the era in which George Whitefield (1717 – 1740) preached. A. Skevington Wood, referring to this period in English history, comments on the sore spiritual condition endemic of that time and place:
Christianity for the most part ceased to be a vital force. The spiritual life of people had largely been smothered by the dense atmosphere of materialism . . . There can be no serious uncertainty concerning the need for revival.[i]
Such a need was divinely met, and revival did come. And, when it did, it was Whitefield’s preaching that God used as an instrument to bring it about. In light of this, one commentator contends that the “history of preaching since the apostles does not contain a greater and worthier name than George Whitefield.”[ii]
Considering the powerful way that Whitefield was used of God, his homiletical approach is worthy of attention. Unfortunately, the written versions of Whitefield’s sermons that are available to us today do not capture the magnificence of their delivery in the oral form. Still, Whitefield’s sermons have much to offer us by way of instruction. In my research of Whitefield’s sermons, I have identified nine valuable homiletical principles that can benefit preachers today.
Make your main homiletical idea clear
The main homiletical idea is the central point derived from exegeting the text. This main idea is what ties the sermon together. Whitefield’s employment of this principle is exemplified in a sermon he preaches on Genesis 3:15, where he announces to his hearers that he is going to tell them “good news” and show them how their first parents “came to stand in need of this promise, and what is the extent of the meaning.” In this and his other sermons, Whitefield was careful to make the main idea clear.
Avoid needless speculation
In the same sermon on Genesis 3:15, Whitefield avoids getting sidetracked by the speculative question of how long after creation the fall happened. He states, “How soon man fell after he was created, is not told us; and therefore, to fix anytime, is to be wise above what is written.” This was in distinction from most preaching of the era, which was characterized by “metaphysical subtleties, hairsplitting distinctions, attenuated reasonings, the dogmas, fancies, speculations about things of no particular consequence then or now.”[iii]
Set the text in its proper context
This is a particularly noteworthy principle, since Whitefield preached in many different places and at many different times. One might think that for such an itinerant preacher, setting the context may not be of importance. However, Whitefield was noted for walking through the preceding verses and commenting on them, setting his particular preaching passage in its larger context. Establishing the context helps the hearer to be mindful of the larger picture, especially when a passage is short.
Whitefield’s sermons were noted for giving “clear distinction and logical treatment of the material.”[iv] When analyzing his sermons, there is often no discernable outline that can be identified. However, Whitefield does methodically work through the text, and presents the material in a logical and clear manner that makes it apparent to the hearer how he has derived his conclusions from the text. While it is true that Whitefield aimed for heart change, he also recognized that such change was not simply the product of an emotional appeal, but also through the crafting of an orderly sermon.
Demonstrate the Christo-centricity of the text
Whitefield’s sermons demonstrate that the totality of the Bible points to Jesus. He notes in one sermon, “We generally look for Christ only in the New Testament; but Christianity, in one sense, is very near as old as creation. It is wonderful to observe how gradually God revealed his Son to mankind.” His point is that from Genesis on, the Bible is God’s progressive revelation concerning his Son and the redemption of fallen man. Whitefield showed his listeners how every portion of the Bible leads to Jesus.
In the next installment, I will go over the remaining four principles gleaned from Whitefield’s preaching.
[i] A. Skevington Wood. The Inextinguishable Blaze: Spiritual Renewal and Advance in the Eighteenth Century (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2006), 15.
[ii] E.C. Dargan. The History of Preaching Vol. 2 (Vestavia Hills: Solid Ground Books, 2003), 307.
[iii] E.C. Dargan, The History of Preaching Vol. 1 (Vestavia Hills: Solid Ground Books, 2003), 232.
[iv] Ibid., 232.
About David Thommen
David is a graduate of Western Seminary. He serves as the Assistant Director of Western Seminary's Doctor of Ministry program and The Spurgeon Fellowship and teaches in the Bible and Theology department. David also serves on the executive committee of the Northwest Chapter of ETS and has served in Pastoral Ministry for over 10 years. He currently serves as the pastor at New Life Church Robinwood.