George Whitefield, the famed 18th century evangelist known for crossing the Atlantic Ocean thirteen times, was an instrumental figure in the Great Awakening. Also known as the “Grand Itinerant”, Whitefield often preached outdoors to crowds upwards of 20,000 people.
He was a passionate proclaimer of the gospel of Jesus Christ, urging lost souls to be born again. Yet, throughout the entirety of his ministry, he remained fully committed to the doctrine of God’s sovereignty in salvation.
For Whitefield, there was no contradiction between affirming the doctrine of God’s sovereignty in salvation and diligently proclaiming the gospel to the lost.
Two key facets can be highlighted: (1) the source of his doctrine and (2) the example of his ministry.
The Source of His Doctrine
This grand preacher was born on 1714 in Gloucester, England. In 1732 he began attending Oxford and it was there that he met Charles and John Wesley. After cultivating a relationship with the Wesley brothers, Charles gave George a copy of The Life of God in the Soul of a Man, written by a Puritan named Henry Scougal. It was through Whitefield’s reading of this book that he was stirred to consider what it truly means to be born again.
In 1735, God granted Whitefield the new birth. Whitefield began diligently reading the Scriptures, along with Matthew Henry’s commentary on the Bible. It was through the reading of God's Word that Whitefield came to affirm the doctrines of grace. This was not a system he was taught by his contemporaries, but something he learned from the Bible. “I embrace the Calvinistic scheme,” he wrote, “not because Calvin, but Jesus Christ has taught it to me” (cited from Arnold Dallimore, George Whitefield, 69).
The source of his doctrine was not primarily from the Reformers and Puritans, but from his own careful reading of Scripture. With his own pen he explained, “I believe God, His Spirit has convinced me of our eternal election by the Father through the Son, of our free justification through faith in His blood, of our sanctification as the consequence of that, and of our final perseverance and glorification as the result of all” (Letters of George Whitefield, 129).
From that statement, it is clear that he was taught from the Scriptures that God elects individuals unto salvation and preserves them in the faith.
In another letter, Whitefield penned these words:
This, however, is my comfort, "Jesus Christ the same yesterday today, and forever." He saw me from all eternity; He gave me being; He called me in time; He freely justified me through faith in His blood; He has in part sanctified me by His spirit; He will preserve me underneath His everlasting arms, til time shall be no more. Oh the blessedness of these evangelical truths! These are indeed gospel; they are glad tidings of great joy to all that have ears to hear.” (Letters of George Whitefield, 98)
These doctrines of grace were a great comfort to Whitefield. He did not attempt to change his conviction on these doctrines, as if they might be a hindrance to his evangelistic efforts. Whitefield was a man of the Bible and allowed the Bible to speak for itself on matters of the sinfulness of man and the sovereignty of God.
Whitefield knew that God had graciously saved him and that he had the personal responsibility to proclaim this message of Christ crucified to others wherever he went. Steve Lawson helpfully states “It was the doctrines of grace that ignited his soul with holy compulsion to reach the world with the message of Christ” (Steven Lawson, The Evangelist Zeal of George Whitefield, 49).
The Example of His Ministry
Whitefield crossed the Atlantic Ocean 13 times to preach the good news of Christ crucified for sinners. He was thoroughly motivated to proclaim the gospel to everyone who would listen.
During this period in American Church history, there was great dullness among Christians of the day. Edward Nindie recounts “To be sure, many of the clergy and of the laity led lives that were morally correct, and were everywhere regarded as exemplary Christians, but they were held in the grip of the chill formalism which was abroad in the land” (Edward Nindie, George Whitefield, Prophet-preacher, 90).
Whitefield’s preaching, along with that of men like Jonathan Edwards, was used by God to bring about the Great Awakening. At this time the current pattern of formalism was confronted and many souls were saved in the American colonies. True revival began to take place throughout New England.
Whitefield spent nearly 35 years preaching both in England and in the American colonies. This prolonged example of the faithful ministry of Whitefield serves as a testimony to his passion for Christ and commitment to biblical doctrine. He never saw the doctrines of grace as a deterrent to preaching the gospel to as many people as he could.
The reality of God's sovereignty in salvation does not negate the Christian’s personal responsibility to proclaim the gospel. This is clearly seen in Whitefield’s faithful example. From his study of Scripture, he believed in both the sovereignty of God and the urgency of the Great Commission, to go and make disciples by proclaiming Christ crucified.
What relevance does this bear for ministry in the church today? A belief in the doctrines of man’s total depravity and God’s sovereign election need not hinder personal evangelism. Whitefield’s example serves as a motivation for Christians today.
Scripture clearly teach that God is sovereign over all things including the salvation of sinners. Additionally, Christians are commanded to speak the gospel message to others. These two principles are not incompatible. The biblical teaching on God's sovereign grace ought to fuel and motivate believers to evangelize with confidence, placing their unwavering trust in His power over the salvation of souls.
Believers are called to be faithful, like Whitefield, to sow the seed of the gospel and trust the Lord with the harvest. There need not be a contradiction between having an exalted view of God and diligently laboring to reach lost souls. Christians must be faithful to sow the seed but trust in the Lord who gives the growth. This is the great pattern displayed through the life and ministry of the Calvinistic evangelist, George Whitefield.