Evangelistic Calvinism: The Doctrines of Grace in the Sermons of George Whitefield (Thomas J. Nettles)
In the new issue of Credo Magazine, “George Whitefield at 300,” Thomas Nettles has contributed an article titled, “Evangelistic Calvinism: The Doctrines of Grace in the Sermons of George Whitefield.” Nettles is former Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author of many books, including Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles Haddon Spurgeon (Mentor), a book more than fifteen years in the making.
Here is the start of Nettles’ article:
As George Whitefield (1714-1770) surveyed his own family background, youth, his givenness to “an impudent temper, lying, filthy talking, and foolish jesting,” his brutishness, and roguishness, as well as his tendency to steal even from his mother, he could not but feel that his conversion had been a mighty rescue from outside of himself and in accord with a divine determination that would overcome every sinful propensity of his corrupted and degraded affections. “I can see nothing in me but a fitness to be damned,” he observed. “Whatever foreseen fitness for salvation others may talk of and glory in, I disclaim any such thing.” He could only conclude, especially when seen in the texts of the Bible, “If the Almighty had not prevented me by his grace, and wrought most powerfully upon my soul, quickening me by his free Spirit when dead in trespasses and sins, I had now been either sitting in darkness, and in the shadow of death, or condemned, as the due reward of my crimes, to be for ever lifting up my eyes in torments.”
Lay yourselves at the feet of sovereign grace
Partly in reflection on his own experience of salvation, Whitefield loved to point to biblical narratives that involved the salvation of unlikely candidates for the exalted status of children of God. These demonstrated that sovereign grace can reach and overcome the “worst of people, in the very worst of places.” At Jericho, a city under a curse since the time of Joshua, Jesus found Zacchaeus and blind Bartimaeus, proving that the curse does not eliminate the prospect that “some chosen vessels may be therein.” The prayer of Bartimaeus, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me,” was full of the sentiments depicting the “natural language of a soul brought to lie at the feet of a sovereign God.” He laid no claim to cure by merit but looked to Christ alone as able and willing to save. Bartimaeus served as an example of one whose inability was absolute but, nevertheless, at the call of Christ did what he could not do, that is, rise and make his way to him. He offered no objection from his inability to see Christ, but at the command of Christ began his walk. So Whitefield applied the idea, “What if we do call you to come and to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ that you may be saved? Does this imply that you have a power in yourselves to do so? No, in no wise, no more than Jesus saying unto Lazarus’s dead and stinking carcass, ‘Come forth,’ implied, that Lazarus had a power to raise himself from the grave. We call to you, being commanded to preach the gospel to every creature, hoping and praying, that Christ’s power may accompany the word and make it effectual to the quickening and raising of your dead souls.”
Whitefield wanted his hearers, with no promise of an effectual saving work of God, nevertheless, to use their natural and rational powers to do good, seek to know spiritual truth, and “while you are attempting to stretch out your withered arm,” perhaps “Jesus may work faith in you by his almighty power.” Whitefield had no hesitance to tell his auditory that they were inflicted with original sin from their father Adam and, as Bartimaeus was blind in body, so are they “a blind child of a blind father, even of the father Adam who lost his sight when he lost his innocence and entailed his blindness, justly inflicted, upon thee and me and his whole posterity.” As he invited his hearers to play the part of Bartimaeus, he told them to “Lay yourselves at the feet of sovereign grace.”
The story of Paul’s conversion was another instance of the most unlikely having been “chosen from all eternity by God and hereafter called in time, to edify and build up the church of Christ.” As he contrasted what Paul heard with what his travel companions heard, Whitefield gloried in the sovereignty of God who will have mercy on whom he will have mercy. Saul’s call to salvation came from the sovereign appointment of God to take one and leave the others to “perish in their sins.” Even so now some hear unto salvation, but many hear but do not understand. Whitefield could only exclaim, “O the depth of the sovereignty of God! It is past finding out. Lord, I desire to adore what I cannot comprehend. ‘Even so, Father, for so it seemeth good in thy sight!’” Paul’s salvation and calling is a clear example of “that precious but too much exploded and sadly misrepresented, doctrine of God’s electing love.” While some remain senseless and that others believed is explained in the phrase used of Paul, “they are chosen vessels” and are thus struck down and converted by “the almighty power of efficacious grace.” . . .
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We live in a day when those in the church want to have their ears tickled. We do not want a sermon, but a “talk.” “Don’t get preachy, preacher!” is the mantra of many church goers today. What is preferred is a casual, comfortable, and laid back chat with a cup of coffee and a couple of Bible verses to throw into the mix to make sure things get spiritual. One wonders whether Timothy would have been fired as a pastor today for heeding Paul’s advice: “preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (2 Tim. 4:2). Paul gives such a command to Timothy because he knew what was to come. “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths” (2 Tim. 4:3-4). Has that day come? Are churches filled with “itching ears,” demanding “teachers to suit their own passions”? Have we turned “away from listening to the truth”?
In a day when ears itch and truth is shown the back door, what could be more needed than men who actually preach the Word? George Whitefield (1714-1770) was one of those men. He was a preacher who preached in plain language, so that even the most common man could understand God’s Word. Yet, his sermons were incredibly powerful, often leading men and women to tears as the Holy Spirit convicted their souls. Whitefield not only preached the truth, but he pleaded with his listeners to submit themselves body and soul to the truth. He preached God’s Word with passion because he understood that his listener stood between Heaven and Hell. His robust Calvinism, in other words, led to a zealous evangelism.
This year, 2014, marks the 300th anniversary of Whitefield’s birth. These articles are meant to drive us back to Whitefield’s day, that we might eat up his theology, and drink deeply his passion for the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Contributors include: Thomas Kidd, Lee Gatiss, Michael A.G. Haykin, Thomas Nettles, Ian Hugh Clary, Mike McKinley, Mark Noll, Doug Sweeney, and many others.