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.
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