The Justified Life: George Whitefield’s Preaching on Justification by Faith Alone (Michael A.G. Haykin)
In the new issue of Credo Magazine, “George Whitefield at 300,” Michael A.G. Haykin has contributed an article titled, “The Justified Life: George Whitefield’s Preaching on Justification by Faith Alone.” Haykin is Professor of Church History and Biblical Spirituality at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. His most recent book is Rediscovering the Church Fathers: Who They Were and How They Shaped the Church (Crossway, 2011). Haykin is the director of the Andrew Fuller Center for Baptist Studies.
The final decades of the seventeenth century witnessed a distinct decline in public manners and morals in England. Attestation of this fact is found in both public documents and private testimonies. Here is the witness of one author, the London Baptist theologian Benjamin Keach (1640–1704), writing in 1701:
Was ever sodomy so common in a Christian nation, or so notoriously and frequently committed, as by too palpable evidences it appears to be, in and about this city, notwithstanding the clear light of the gospel which shines therein, and the great pains taken to reform the abominable profaneness that abounds? Is it not a wonder the patience of God hath not consumed us in his wrath, before this time? Was ever swearing, blasphemy, whoring, drunkenness, gluttony, self-love, and covetousness, at such a height, as at this time here?
Despite the presence of a number of gospel-centred ministries like that of Keach and various societies which had been created to bring about moral reform, homosexuality, profanity, sexual immorality, drunkenness and gluttony were widespread. And the next three decades saw little improvement.
When atheism was fashionable
The moral tone of the nation was set in many ways by its monarchs and leading politicians. The first of the Hanoverian monarchs, George I (r.1714–1727), was primarily interested in food, horses, and women. He divorced his wife when he was thirty-four and thereafter consorted with a series of mistresses. Sir Robert Walpole (1676–1745), prime minister from 1722 to 1742, lived in undisguised adultery with his mistress, Maria Skerrett (d.1738), whom he married after his wife died. As J. H. Plumb has noted of aristocratic circles in the early eighteenth century, the women “hardly bothered with the pretence of virtue, and the possession of lovers and mistresses was regarded as a commonplace, a matter for gossip but not reproach.” Not surprisingly other segments of society simply followed suit. Pornographic literature, for instance, multiplied almost unchecked. Newspapers advertised such things as the services of gigolos and cures for venereal disease, and one could purchase guide-books to the numerous brothels in London. It was, as Selina Hastings, a modern-day descendant of the famous eighteenth-century evangelical, has put it, “an age when atheism was fashionable, sexual morals lax, and drinking and gambling at a pitch of profligacy that he never since been equalled.”
The worldly bishop
By and large the bishops of the Church of England were, in the words of English historian J. H. Plumb, “first and foremost politicians,” not men of the Spirit. “There is a worldliness,” Plumb continues, “about eighteenth-century [bishops] which no amount of apologetics can conceal.” They undertook their clerical duties “only as political duties allowed.” The worldliness of these bishops showed itself in other ways as well. Jonathan Trelawny (1650-1721), Bishop of Winchester, used to “excuse himself for his much swearing by saying he swore as a baronet, and not as a bishop”! Such bishops had neither the time nor the interest to promote church renewal. Of course, the decadence of church leadership was by no means absolute; but the net effect of worldly bishops was to squash effective reform.
Moreover, the attention of far too many of the clergy under these bishops was taken up with such avocations as philosophy, biology, agriculture, chemistry, literature, law, politics, fox-hunting, drinking—anything but pastoral ministry and spiritual nurture. There were, of course, a goodly number of Church of England ministers who did not have the resources to indulge themselves in such pursuits, since they barely eked out a living. But few of them—wealthy or poor—preached anything but dry, unaffecting moralistic sermons. The mentalité of the first half of the eighteenth century gloried in reason, moderation, and decorum. The preaching of the day, remarks Horton Davies, dwelt largely upon themes of morality and decency and lacked “any element of holy excitement, of passionate pleading, of heroic challenge, of winged imagination.”
Even among many of the churches of the Dissenters, the children of the Puritans, things were little better. One knowledgeable observer of these churches bemoaned the fact that “the distinguished doctrines of the gospel—Christ crucified, the only ground of hope for fallen man—salvation through his atoning blood—the sanctification by his eternal Spirit, are old-fashioned things now seldom heard in our churches.” The Christian life was basically defined in terms of a moral life of good works. Spiritual ardour was regarded with horror as “enthusiasm” or fanaticism. The ideal of the era is well summed up by an inscription on a tombstone from the period: “pious without enthusiasm.”
It was the eighteenth-century Revival’s message of the new birth and justification by faith alone that brought positive changes and hope. This message had numerous heralds in that remarkable era, but none as widely appreciated and known as George Whitefield (1714–1770). . . .
Read the rest of this article today!
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.