The Power of Evangelistic Questioning- George Whitefield

September 26, 2016

Robert Caldwell
Associate Professor at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary

This article originally appeared in Theological Matters and is used by permission.

George Whitefield (1714-1770) was arguably the greatest preacher of the 18th century. Converted as a university student at Oxford, the young convert devoted himself to knowing God by committing himself to intense spiritual discipline and Christian service within John Wesley’s Methodist movement. In time, Whitefield was ordained and soon began preaching, and it became apparent that he possessed a rare gift for preaching powerful evangelistic sermons. Within several years, Whitefield was an international celebrity as he preached justification by faith and the new birth throughout England and North America.

It was Whitefield’s preaching that helped ignite the First Great Awakening in 1740, a phenomenon that led to the conversion of thousands across the North American colonies. People came from far and wide to hear this 25-year-old phenom. It is sometimes said that virtually every New Englander heard Whitefield preach during the First Great Awakening, a testimony of the intense interest he generated. Benjamin Franklin estimated that upwards of 30,000 persons could easily hear his booming voice outdoors, a stunning figure in an age without modern amplification.

Interestingly, when we read the dozens of sermons that he published, we do not feel the affecting power and musicality that many witnesses noted when they heard him preach. Often words on a page simply cannot capture the sheer life that great preachers like Whitefield brought to their orations. We can, however, observe several rhetorical techniques that he employed in his sermons. One that I wish to look at here has to do with the art of probing questioning. Toward the end of his sermons, Whitefield often made application by delivering a barrage of questions designed to draw unbelievers into a period of self-examination. Question upon question was given to corner the unbeliever, leading them to a startling conclusion: “I have not been born again; I need a savior!” His examples are instructive of the way evangelistic preaching was done in the 18th century.

In a sermon on Luke 19:9-10, “The Conversion of Zaccheus,” Whitefield calls his listeners to measure their Christianity against the example of Zaccheus:

What therefore has been said of Zaccheus may serve as a rule, whereby all may judge whether they have faith or not. You say you have faith. But how do you prove it? Did you ever hear the Lord Jesus call you by name? Were you ever made to obey the call? Did you ever, like Zaccheus, receive Jesus Christ joyfully into your hearts? Are you influenced by the faith you say you have, to stand up and confess the Lord Jesus before men? Were you ever made willing to own and humble yourselves for your past offenses? Does your faith work by love, so that you conscientiously lay up, according as God has prospered you, for the support of the poor? Do you give alms of all things that you possess? And have you made due restitution to those you have wronged?

His point: If you are not like Zaccheus, then you are probably lost and need to be found by Christ.

Similarly, in a sermon on Matthew 18:3, “Marks of a True Conversion,” Whitefield went to great lengths exploring the dramatic change wrought in the soul when one is truly converted to Christ. He then unleashed a torrent of questions calling sinners to examine the true nature of their religious lives:

What say ye, my guilty brethren? Has God by his blessed Spirit wrought such change in your hearts? … [Have you] any well-grounded hope to think that God has made you new creatures in Christ Jesus? … Are ye sensible of your weakness? Do ye feel that ye are poor, miserable, blind and naked by nature? Do ye give up your hearts, your affections, your wills, your understanding to be guided by the Spirit of God, as a little child gives up its hand to be guided by its parent? Are ye little in your own eyes? Do ye think meanly of yourselves? And do you want to learn something new every day? I mention these marks [of true conversion], because I am apt to believe they are more adapted to a great many of your capacities.

In a sermon on Jeremiah 23:6, “The Lord our Righteousness,” Whitefield asks his listeners if they have ever come to regard Christ as “their righteousness” not merely as a theological affirmation, but in a way that coincides with a lively belief in his work done on behalf of sinners:

Can you then in this sense say, The Lord our righteousness? Were you ever made to abhor yourselves for your actual and original sins and to loath your own righteousness? For as the prophet beautifully expresses it, ‘your righteousnesses are as filthy rags’ [Isa 64:6]. Were you ever made to see and admire the all-sufficiency of Christ’s righteousness and excited by the Spirit of God to hunger and thirst after it? Could you ever say, my soul is athirst for Christ, yea, even for the righteousness of Christ? O when shall I come to appear before the presence of my God in the righteousness of Christ! Nothing but Christ! Nothing but Christ! Give me Christ, O God and I am satisfied! My soul shall praise thee forever. Was this ever the language of your hearts?

For Whitefield, such questions as these—personal, pointed and probing questions about one’s spiritual state—were employed to bring unbelievers face to face with their spiritual poverty and their need for Christ. From there, Whitefield would often end with a passionate plea to come to Christ.

Come then, poor, guilty sinners. Come away, poor, lost, undone publicans. Make haste, I say and come away to Jesus Christ. The Lord condescends to invite himself to come under the filthy roofs of the houses of your souls. Do not be afraid of entertaining him. He will fill you with all peace and joy in believing. Do not be ashamed to run before the multitude and to have all manner of evil spoke against you falsely for his sake. One sight of Christ will make amends for all.

Amen!

For Further Reading:

  • George Whitefield, The Sermons of George Whitefield, The Reformed Evangelical Anglican Library 1.1, 2 vols. ed. Lee Gatiss (Stoke-on-Trent, UK: Tentmaker Publications, 2010).
  • Thomas S. Kidd, George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014).

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nom miller

Biblical examples (Zaccheus, Nicodemus, Cornelius) show that totally depraved people *are* able to reach out for God, and historical references such as this article reinforce the need to maintain the traditional invitation at the close of sermons that pose such questions and urge people to consider their sinful plight and the remedy available in the saving grace of God.

Les

From that Zaccheus sermon by Whitfield,

“With what different emotions of heart may we suppose Zaccheus received this invitation? Think you not that he was surprised to hear Jesus Christ call him by name, and not only so, but invite himself to his house? Surely, thinks Zaccheus, I dream: it cannot be; how should he know me? I never saw him before: besides, I shall undergo much contempt, if I receive him under my rood. Thus, I say, we may suppose Zaccheus thought within himself. But what saith the scripture? “I will make a willing people in the day of my power.” With this outward call, there went an efficacious power from God, which sweetly over-ruled his natural will: and therefore, verse 6, “He made haste, and came down, and received him joyfully;” not only into his house, but also into his heart.

Thus it is the great God brings home his children. He calls them by name, by his word or providence; he speaks to them also by his spirit. Hereby they are enabled to open their hearts, and are made willing to receive the King of glory. For Zaccheus’s sake, let us not entirely condemn people that come under the word, out of no better principle than curiosity. Who knows but God may call them? It is good to be where the Lord is passing by. May all who are now present out of this principle, hear the voice of the Son of God speaking to their souls, and so hear that they ma live! Not that men ought therefore to take encouragement to come out of curiosity. For perhaps a thousand more, at other times, came too see Christ out of curiosity, as well as Zaccheus, who were not effectually called by his grace. I only mention this for the encouragement of my own soul, and the consolation of God’s children, who are too apt to be angry with those who do not attend on the word out of love to God: but let them alone. Brethren, pray for them. How do you know but Jesus Christ may speak to their hearts! A few words from Christ, applied by his spirit, will save their souls. “Zaccheus, says Christ, make haste and come down. And he made haste, and came down, and received him joyfully.””

Amen and amen. I love that Whitfield was used by God and that he gave strong gospel invitations in his sermons, even if they were not in the manner of modern day altar calls.

doug sayers

Thanks Robert. As one who has spent a good deal of time refuting the flaws within the Reformed teaching of irresistible salvation (and irresistible damnation) I gladly recognize the importance of gleaning that which is good and true from our Calvinistic brethren. It is embarrassing to see folks on our side of the debate (over grace) simplistically reject any good example and teaching from Calvinists simply because… they are Calvinists.

I do hope we have learned from history that there is much more to saving faith and the assurance of salvation than can occur in one single event. One error among many Bible believers, which has been inherited from the Puritans is that “closing with Christ” can be settled after a single evangelistic appeal. (Maybe from God’s perspective but not ours)

What Whitefield describes here cannot be accomplished in a few moments after a sermon… even a good sermon!

    Andrew Barker

    Doug, one thing worth noting is that if you scan through what Whitefield is actually saying here in these quotes, there is very little if any reference to Reformed theology or Calvinism. When people preach the word of God then the hearers have a least an opportunity to respond to that word. He was a gifted orator and even professional actors eg Garrick, recognised his ability to convey a message to his listeners. The other thing is that Whitefield was very much a man of his time and he spoke to ‘men of his time’. I don’t think that the best speaker of our current age, whoever he/she might be, would have much success if they used his sermons verbatim. Maybe someone will give it a go? Certainly not me.

      Lydia

      Whitefield was a pro slaver. A “preacher” pro slaver. Big difference. There were “men of his time”, who weren’t.

        Andrew Barker

        Lydia: It really it too hard for us to judge I guess, but Whitefield was probably more of a showman than the majority of the Reformed wallers would wish to acknowledge. I don’t think that really comes over in the printed sermons. The issue with slavery is interesting. I can see that slavery sits quite well with some of the Reformed as in they can argue that God determined that person to be born into slavery, so hey ho, that must be God’s will for their lives. Whitefield certainly thought along those lines because he is on record as saying that his Bethesda orphanage relied on the use of negro slaves for its financial viability!!

        It would appear that Whitefield was not only a ‘man of his time’ but he was also a ‘man ahead of his time’ too. He was very conscious of his image and took great steps to control the content of the biographies/autobiographies which were being written about him. There are few people around in Christian circles who fit the bill today. Mega church pastors and the like, the celebrity Christians who think they can sin at will and continue in their posts because of God’s ‘grace’. They release information about what they have done in such a way as to try and mitigate any damage that may occur. Damage to their reputation that is! So great preacher he may have been, but there is more about the background of Whitefield which is not spoken about and perhaps needs to be taken into consideration. I’m not convinced his style of rhetorical questioning would necessarily go down well today or that it would be that effective. Each age needs to find ways of bringing the Gospel to their own generation. Copying past success is no guarantee of future benefits.

        Lastly, for the benefit of Andy :-) in his dealings with the Wesleys he is a good example of Christians who have opposing views showing respect for each other but NOT feeling the need to work together.

        Andrew Barker

        Lydia: I guess we have to ask the question was Whitefield ‘made’ to accept slavery in the same way that he suggests he was ‘made’ to abhor his original and actual sin?

          Andrew Barker

          Lydia: Given that Whitefield didn’t get his justification for slavery from the Bible, just where did it come from? And not only his agreement with slavery, but also his right to use the proceeds from slavery to finance his orphanages? Is this not anther version of “doing evil that good may come”?

        Les

        Familiarity with the scriptures would render asking that question unnecessary.

          Tom

          “Familiarity with the scriptures would render asking that question unnecessary.” Please explain more.

            Andrew Barker

            Tom, don’t know about you, but I’m still waiting for some ‘scriptures’ which say we are ‘made’ to abhor our original and actual sin. Odd really that while George Whitefield was complaining that he could only fund his orphanages on the back of the slave trade that John Newton was joining forces with William Wilberforce to abolish it.

              Tom

              Andrew:

              Yep, seems to be a difference between Whitfield and Newton as it relates to slavery.

                Andrew Barker

                Any news on those ‘scriptures’ with which you and I appear to be unfamiliar?

          Les

          Tom, simply that if one is familiar with the scriptures one need not ask is Whitfield was made to accept slavery in like manner as he was made to abhor his original and actual sin. Being made to do the latter does not necessitate that God made him do the former.

    Les

    Andrew is right that that there is very little reference to Reformed theology or Calvinism. Even today, I have been in many Reformed churches and on most any given Sunday, sermons are preached with very little reference to Reformed theology or Calvinism. It defies a common misperception.

    But the Reformed theology is there, embedded if you will. Look at Whitfield even in this sermon:

    ““But what saith the scripture? “I will make a willing people in the day of my power.” With this outward call, there went an efficacious power from God, which sweetly over-ruled his natural will.” And…”Thus it is the great God brings home his children. He calls them by name, by his word or providence; he speaks to them also by his spirit. Hereby they are enabled to open their hearts, and are made willing to receive the King of glory.”

    So his Reformed theology runs all through his sermon and undergirds it.

      Andrew Barker

      Les: You’re such a wag! :-) If you wish to think that way, you’re welcome, but you’re fooling only yourself. Where Whitefield sticks to scripture, we can agree. Where he doesn’t we have a duty, obligation, call it what you like, to point that out. I cannot detect much in the way of Reformed/Calvinistic thought in the comments quoted by Robert. Neither I suspect can you, otherwise you would have pointed it out!

      Les

      Oh Andrew it’s there. For instance,

      “Were you ever made to obey the call? Did you ever, like Zaccheus, receive Jesus Christ joyfully into your hearts? Are you influenced by the faith you say you have, to stand up and confess the Lord Jesus before men? Were you ever made willing to own, and humble yourselves for, your past offenses?”

      See those words “made” uttered twice? So in my earlier quotes, I was simply pointing out the Reformed theology imbedded in other parts of the same sermon. It they’re also in the OP quote as well, as an unbiased reading shows.

      And Lydia, the slave thing? Perhaps the OP writer didn’t get your memo that it’s unacceptable to quote from imperfect men. :)

Dan Nelson

You have appropriately identified the power of Whitefield’s preaching. He spoke on lofty themes but always brought them down to the personal application of his hearers. Whitefield was one of the most powerful preachers in the History of Christianity. My book: “A Burning Shining Light: The Testimony and Influence of George Whitefield” to be published by Boderstone Press gives a complete chronological account of his ministry. He made 7 trips across the Atlantic and 5 out of 6 people heard him preach in America personally. He died after people had begged him to preach before he went to bed and his buried in a church in Newburyport, MA. He is indeed what Stephen Mansfield said about him in the title of his biography on Whitefield: “The Forgotten Founding Father.” Jerome Mahaffey describes in his recent book how many of the ideas of the founder fathers of our country were formed through hearing the preaching of Whitefield. These questions served to help people probe their own souls and respond to God’s call. It will still work today.

    doug sayers

    Amen, Dan. It does work. We can take another page from our Reformed brethren in the use of catechism questions with our kids, as well. I wish I had used the catechisms more frequently with our kids.

Robert

Robert Caldwell,

As one who has taught Homiletics courses in seminary, I appreciate your point as it is one that I have always made:

“For Whitefield, such questions as these—personal, pointed and probing questions about one’s spiritual state—were employed to bring unbelievers face to face with their spiritual poverty and their need for Christ. From there, Whitefield would often end with a passionate plea to come to Christ.”

A person has to be convicted by the Holy Spirit before they see their need for Christ and the relevancy of the gospel. It is also true that the Spirit can use our messages, questions, citation of scripture, example, etc. to bring about this conviction. Asking pointed questions about a person’s spiritual state is something preachers should never shirk from doing. Questions lead to thinking, questions that lead to thinking about one’s spiritual state are extremely important. The World may be offended by such questions and tell us not to “talk about religion”, but we are dealing with people’s eternal destiny so we should ignore what the World says about the gospel, convicting questions, etc.

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