Lord Jesus, I am weary in Thy work, but not of Thy work. If I have not yet finished my course, let me go and speak for Thee once more in the fields, seal Thy truth, and come home and die.
These were the words uttered by George Whitefield as he was preparing to preach what would be his last sermon before his death. Eager to preach up to the moment of his dying breath, Whitefield’s devotion to his calling was extraordinary.
It is reported that Whitefield preached over 18,000 sermons in his life. He referred to himself as “one of God’s runabouts,” owing to the fact that he preached as much outside of the church as in it. Whitefield used voyages from England to America as opportunities to preach. Even his own marriage did not deter his preaching. He didn’t take a honeymoon, but instead stayed at his wife’s cottage for a week, all the while preaching twice a day in the surrounding area.
Considering both his dedication to his work and the effectiveness that God granted to him in it, Whitefield’s sermons have much to offer us today by way of instruction. In a previous entry, I identified the first five of nine valuable homiletical principles from Whitefield’s sermons that can benefit preachers today. I will now identify the last four.
- Apply the text so as to be understood: The uneducated, the simple, and the child could understand Whitefield’s sermons. John Foster remarked that Whitfield “had the effect of giving his ideas a distinct and matchless and vivid enouncement; insomuch that ignorant and half-barbarous men, seemed in a way that amazed even themselves, to understand Christian truths on their first delivery.”[i] Whitefield never jettisoned exegetical precision or doctrinal depth in order to be understood. Instead, he labored to explain even the loftiest ideas in a way that was easily accessible to the common man.
- Use good illustrations and illustrative language: Whitefield’s preaching used startling images and illustrations to make his listeners feel the pain of sin and the terror of hell. Then, with “tears in his voice he could describe the love of Christ until his audience cried with him for forgiveness.”[ii] Whitefield did not employ long, drawn-out stories. Instead, he used illustrative language to turn the ear of the hearer into an eye. As a result, listeners described his sermons as “unforgettable.” For example, in explaining the condition of the natural man, Whitefield said:
We see that we are naked: we, in some measure, confess it; but, instead of looking up to God for succor, we patch up a righteousness of our own (as our first parents platted fig-leaves together) hoping to cover our nakedness by that. But our righteousness will not stand the severity of God’s judgment: it will do us no more service than the fig-leave did Adam and Eve, that is, none at all.”
- Preach the gospel, calling for repentance and faith: For Whitefield, the preeminent point of preaching was to proclaim the gospel and call people to faith. Regardless of a person’s age or station in life, Whitefield would call for repentance and faith. The average sermon of his day was “dull, cold, heavy, and lifeless.” In contrast, Whitefield’s sermons were marked with a vibrancy and earnestness that was congruent with his appeal to repent and believe. The following captures the essence of Whitefield’s gospel appeal to all to come to Christ:
My dear friends, I would preach with all my heart till midnight, to do you good; till I could preach no more. O that this body might hold out to speak more for my dear Redeemer! Had I a thousand lives, had I a thousand tongues, they should be employed in inviting sinners to come to Jesus Christ! Come then, let me prevail with some of you to come along with me. Come, poor, lost, undone sinner, come just as you are to Christ, and say, if I be damned, I will perish at the feet of Jesus Christ, where never one perished yet. He will receive you with open arms; the dear Redeemer is willing to receive you all. Are there any cursing, swearing soldiers here? Will you come to Jesus Christ, and list yourselves under the banner of the dear Redeemer? You are all welcome to Christ. Are there any little boys or little girls here? Come to Christ, and He will erect his kingdom in you. All of you, old and young, you that are old gray-headed, come to Jesus Christ, and you shall be kings and priests to your God.
- Preach the whole counsel of God: Whitefield’s doctrinal convictions were not abstract truths that bore little influence upon his preaching. Rather, they were the source of his zeal as a Christian and a minister, and the foundation of his evangelistic endeavors. During Whitefield’s time, sermons were light on doctrine and tended to be more pietistic and moralistic because it was thought that this was more useful to the common man. However, even when Whitefield would preach on topics such as the doctrines of grace, he was never lifeless and he never divorced doctrine from application. For example, notice his own words concerning the application of the difficult doctrine of election:
The doctrines of our election and free justification in Christ Jesus . . . fill my soul with holy fire and afford me great confidence in God my Savior . . . Put them in mind of the freeness and eternity of God’s electing love, and be instant with them to lay hold of the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ by faith. Talk to them, oh talk to them, even till midnight, of the riches of his all-sufficient grace. Tell them, oh tell them, what he has done for their souls, and how earnestly he is now interceding for them in heaven. Shew them, in the map of the Word, the kingdoms of the upper world, and the transcendent glories of them; and assure them all shall be theirs if they believe on Jesus Christ with their whole hearts.[iii]
Whitefield’s impact cannot be overstated. He led a host of men and women to Jesus Christ and was instrumental in revival on both sides of the ocean. In an era where there was a “noticeable depression of both inner power and of appealing interest,”[iv] Whitefield’s preaching stood in sharp contrast. His preaching continues to provide principles to ponder in our twenty-first century context.
[i] Arnold A Dallimore. George Whitefield: God’s Anointed Servant in the Great Revival of the Eighteenth Century (Wheaton: Crossway, 1990), 199.
[ii] Bruce L. Shelley. Church History in Plain Language (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2008), 336.
[iii] Dallimore, 69-70.
[iv] E.C. Dargan. The History of Preaching Vol. 1 (Vestavia Hills: Solid Ground Books, 2003), 187.
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.