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WHY GOD USED WHITEFIELD
by Dr. R. L. Hymers, Jr.
A sermon preached on Lord’s Day Evening, April 30, 2006
Our text tonight is part of what Christ told the Apostle Paul when He called him to preach. Jesus said,
“I have appeared unto thee for this purpose, to make thee a minister and a witness both of these things which thou hast seen, and of those things in the which I will appear unto thee; Delivering thee from the people, and from the Gentiles, unto whom now I send thee, To open their eyes, and to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins, and inheritance among them which are sanctified by faith that is in me”
The call and preaching ministry of the Apostle Paul is foretold at the beginning here, when Christ appeared to the newly converted Apostle and commissioned him to begin his great preaching ministry throughout the Roman world of that day. Paul became the greatest evangelist of the first century because God called him to this work and gave him the ability to do it.
Seventeen hundred years later, at Oxford University, God called a young student named George Whitefield (pronounced Whitfield) in a similar way. And because God called him and enabled him, George Whitefield became the “apostle” of the First Great Awakening, the leading preacher of a culture-changing revival that literally turned the English-speaking world “upside down.” Thousands came to hear him wherever he preached. Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones said, “When it was heard that he was in the neighborhood and about to preach, shopkeepers shut their shops at once, for they [wanted] to hear him. Business men forgot their business, farmers put down their tools. He could get a congregation of thousands [of people] any time day or night. He could get them [to come] in snow, sleet, frost, rain - it did not matter what the [weather] was like. In America in one very cold winter they…used to stand [there were never any seats] by the thousands listening to this man preach the gospel, and they would travel endless distances in order to get this great opportunity and privilege.” That’s the description of Whitefield’s ministry given by Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, probably the greatest preacher of the twentieth century, as he looked back to Whitefield’s evangelism in the eighteenth century.
Lord Bolingbroke called him, “The most extraordinary man of our times.” C. H. Spurgeon called him, “My own model.” Benjamin Franklin, who printed Whitefield’s sermons and writings, was his long-time friend, and spoke well of him on many occasions, although, sadly, he was never converted. It is estimated that Whitefield delivered over 18,000 sermons to ten million people. This is truly remarkable since there was no television, radio, or any other mass communication in his lifetime. The question naturally comes to mind, “Why did God use George Whitefield in such a remarkable way?” After reading about him for many years, I think it is safe to give three main reasons. And we will see that they are virtually the same reasons God used the Apostle Paul so greatly.
I. First, Whitefield experienced what he preached.
Christ said to Paul,
“I have appeared unto thee for this purpose, to make thee a minister and a witness both of these things which thou hast seen, and of those things in the which I will appear unto thee” (Acts 26:16).
This was also true of George Whitefield. He was born in 1714 in Gloucester, England. His father died when he was two years old, leaving his mother to run the inn they owned. At the age of fifteen he left school and went to work for his mother at the inn. After about a year, a friend who had worked his way through Oxford University encouraged him to plan for college. He returned to school to prepare for college. During this time he became religious, studied the Greek New Testament, and went to church twice a day.
When Whitefield was 17 he entered Oxford University as a “servitor.” This meant that he worked as a servant to the sons of the wealthy. His brothers told him that he would forget his religion once he got to college. But he refused to join the other students in their sin. When they could not persuade him to join them, he said, “They let me alone as a singular odd fellow.”
A short time later he met John and Charles Wesley, who were the leaders of a group of religious young men at the university. This group was known as the “Bible Bigots,” the “Methodists” and the “Holy Club.” The members practiced self-discipline, prayer, and did not allow a moment to be wasted throughout the day. They fasted on Wednesdays and Fridays, and visited the two prisons near Oxford to help the inmates. They were all members of the Church of England (Episcopalian) and believed that their good works helped them to earn salvation. The “Methodist” club was made up of nine men who met together to help each other study and follow the strict routine they had set up. John Wesley was the leader.
Whitefield practiced the club’s severe schedule, planning what he would do each hour and forcing himself to do what he planned, “that not a moment be lost.” His personality became so cast in this mold that these habits made it possible for him to accomplish immense activity throughout the rest of his life.
It was at this time that Whitefield read a book that changed his whole view of salvation. It was written by Henry Scougal and titled, “The Life of God in the Soul of Man.” Before he read this book, he believed that salvation could be earned by doing good. But Scougal’s book convinced him that he was wrong. He said, “God showed me that I must be born again, or be damned!”
Whitefield went through a long period of terrible emotional upheaval, “groaning under the weight of sin.” He undertook even greater self-denial. He wore dirty shoes and a patched gown. He talked very little, and his tutor thought he might be going insane.
Finding that none of these exercises helped, he spent further hours in prayer and did not allow himself to eat anything but coarse bread and sage tea - without sugar. He was unable to do his studies, constantly reading his Greek New Testament. A few days before Easter he was so weak he couldn’t climb upstairs, and a doctor confined him to bed for seven weeks. Lying in bed, he wrote long lists of his sins, past and present, and confessed them to God each day, throughout the morning and evening. But with all of these efforts, he still did not have the “life of God” in his soul.
It was at this point, seven weeks after Easter, in 1735, that Whitefield was converted. He said,
It was suggested to me that when Christ cried out, ‘I thirst,’ His sufferings were near at an end. Upon which I cast myself on the bed, crying out, ‘I thirst! I thirst!’ Soon after this, I found and felt in myself that I was delivered from the burden that had so heavily oppressed me.
Whitefield laid hold of Christ “by a living faith,” and was blessed with “a sense of the pardoning love of God.”
Whitefield’s conversion came three years before Charles Wesley, and then John Wesley, were converted. A few months after his conversion he was ordained and preached his first sermon, at the age of twenty-two. For the next 34 years Whitefield preached the gospel of Christ and the absolute necessity of the new birth. Like the Apostle Paul, he preached what he himself had experienced. That, I would say, is the first reason God used him so greatly.
II. Second, Whitefield preached “outside the camp.”
I believe that to be the second reason God used him so greatly. Bishop J. C. Ryle pointed out that plain, eloquent gospel preaching was “an entire novelty in London.” The clergymen of his denomination (Episcopalian) turned against him. Bishop Ryle said, “They were especially scandalized by his preaching the doctrine of…the new birth, as a thing…baptized persons greatly needed! The number of pulpits to which he had access rapidly diminished. Church wardens, who [cared nothing about] drunkenness and impurity, were filled with intense indignation about [his preaching on the new birth]. Bishops who could tolerate [such heresies as] Arianism, Socinianism, and Deism, were filled with indignation at a man who [preached] the atonement of Christ and the work of the Holy Ghost, and began to denounce him openly.” From this time, no one wanted him to preach in their church.
Shut out of all the churches, Whitefield went to the open fields in and around London. After reading much about him, I believe it was largely because the ministers denounced him that made people want to hear what he had to say. Whitefield said,
Let not the adversaries say that I have thrust myself out of their synagogues. No - they have thrust me out.
But the common people, by the thousands, came to hear him preach in the open fields. In this, also, he was like the Apostle Paul.
“But when the Jews saw the multitudes, they were filled with envy, and spoke against those things which were spoken by Paul, contradicting and blaspheming” (Acts 13:45).
Like Paul, Whitefield left the “synagogues” of the Episcopalians and turned to the thousands of common people who went to hear him in the fields. Although the Episcopalians rejected him, he was embraced by the Methodists, Presbyterians and Baptists. But I believe that there was a third reason for his success.
III. Third, Whitefield preached during a time of great revival.
Many great preachers have not been as successful. Raymond Lull (1235-1313) was stoned to death during his first sermon at Majorca. John Huss (1369-1415) was burned at the stake as were Latimer and Ridley, and John Rogers - and many others.
Whitefield would undoubtedly have been excommunicated, imprisoned, and very probably burned at the stake, if he had lived a few generations earlier. But the time when he spoke was just right, in the plan of God. The churches were weakened by heresy and neglect. The laws were relaxed. And, most importantly, the people were eager to hear the gospel preached at that time.
Into this God-prepared setting stepped George Whitefield - preacher of the ages! God-sent revival swept away the rubbish of man-made religion, and the glory of the Lord filled America and England.
Will that happen again in the English-speaking world? Probably not. But God is moving mightily in the Third World tonight. And God is moving in smaller ways even in our country. One by one the people come to Christ. Let us be faithful in season and out of season, even though there is no true revival here. Let us spread the gospel throughout our city.
“To open their eyes, and to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins, and inheritance among them which are sanctified by faith that is in me” (Acts 26:18).
Let us preach the gospel to every creature as George Whitefield did. Let us tell them that Christ died to pay the penalty for their sin! Let us tell them that Christ is risen from the dead to give them life! Let us tell them, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved” (Acts 16:31). Amen.
(END OF SERMON)
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Solo Sung Before the Sermon by Mr. Benjamin Kincaid Griffith:
“Send the Light” (by Charles H. Gabriel, 1856-1932).
THE OUTLINE OF
WHY GOD USED WHITEFIELD
by Dr. R. L. Hymers, Jr.
“I have appeared unto thee for this purpose, to make thee a minister and a witness both of these things which thou hast seen, and of those things in the which I will appear unto thee; Delivering thee from the people, and from the Gentiles, unto whom now I send thee, To open their eyes, and to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins, and inheritance among them which are sanctified by faith that is in me” (Acts 26:16-18).
I. Whitefield experienced what he preached, Acts 26:16.
II. Whitefield preached “outside the camp,” Acts 13:45.
III. Whitefield preached during a time of great revival,