George_Whitefield_preaching (Joseph Belcher, 1857)In my previous post, I mentioned that John Owen devoted a great deal of time and energy to understanding the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. We see that emphasis fleshed out further in the rise of evangelicalism in the eighteenth century. One eminent evangelical who manifested that focus on the Spirit was the renowned preacher George Whitefield (1714–1770).

Whitefield was especially known for preaching the new birth message; that is, he frequently discoursed on the doctrine of regeneration. It’s no surprise, then, that he was also very interested in the person and work of the Holy Spirit, the agent of regeneration. And we see evidence of this fascination in his sermons.

The only way for people to experience the new birth, Whitefield proclaimed, was if the Holy Spirit caused them to be spiritually reborn: “For it is by receiving his blessed Spirit into our hearts and feeling him witnessing with our spirits, that we are the sons of God.”[1] The Holy Spirit is the one who causes us to live with an “active faith” who works “a thorough change . . . in the whole man.”[2] Whitefield boldly stated that all “must receive the Holy Ghost, before we can be truly called the children of God.”[3] And he argued that it was necessary to receive the Holy Spirit if one would be saved through faith in Christ. These two things went hand in hand. Indeed, “we must be really united to God by receiving the Holy Ghost.”[4]

Because of our sin, we are “a mixture of brute and devil” and are unable to come to Christ on our own. Thus “we all must receive the Holy Ghost, before we can dwell with and enjoy God.”[5] As Whitefield noted, “[y]ou have been called by the word time after time and it has had no effect upon you.”[6] But when the Spirit works in you, then you are able to come to Christ: “You will then lay hold on him by faith, his Spirit will draw you unto himself. He will make you to be willing in the day of his power. He will give you faith in him.”[7] We are only able to walk with God if the Spirit of God has removed “the prevailing power of the enmity of a person’s heart,” the enmity inherited from our first parents.[8]

For all his emphasis on the Spirit, though, Whitefield did not affirm the sign gifts as active in his day: in arguing that the Spirit was the common privilege of all believers, he said, “here I would not be understood to speak of receiving the Holy Ghost as to enable us to work miracles, or show outward signs and wonders.”[9] He thought the gifts were most likely given only “when some new revelation was to be established,” such as at the revelation of the Mosaic law and the “gospel dispensation.”[10] For his part, he said, “I cannot but [118] suspect the spirit of those who insist upon a repetition of such miracles at this time,” for in his day, the world was familiar enough with Christianity that “there need not be outward miracles but only an inward co-operation of the Holy Spirit with the word, to prove that Jesus is the Messiah which was to come into the world.”[11]

Whitefield didn’t need to affirm the validity of the sign gifts to invite criticism. He held an orthodox view of the Spirit as “the third person in the ever-blessed Trinity, consubstantial and co-eternal with the Father and the Son.”[12] But he focused so heavily on the Spirit that many squirmed in their seats. One detractor from Maryland, Stephen Bordley, highlighted his doctrine of the Holy Spirit as the center of his preaching, a sign that Bordley believed made him nothing more than a “ranting enthusiast.” Bordley concluded that Whitefield had “the best delivery with the worst divinity that I ever met with.”[13]

Whitefield was fully aware of the opposition to his preaching on the Holy Spirit. No sooner did he and his associates mention the need to receive the Holy Spirit and they were called “enthusiasts and madmen” who were “wilfully deceiving the people and undermining the established constitution of the church.”[14] Others accepted the idea that believers needed to receive the Spirit, but they talked “professedly against inward feelings,” saying “we may have God’s Spirit without feeling it.”[15] He knew that some in his audience were wont to “ridicule inward-religion, or think there is no such thing as our feeling or receiving the Holy Ghost.”[16]

Whitefield rejected such thinking and even emphasized that one could “feel” the Spirit. This claim highlights how much the eighteenth-century turn toward empirical evidence—even one’s feelings—informed the thinking of evangelical leaders like Whitefield. Whitefield would ask his listeners if they had ever felt the Spirit’s work in their heart: did you ever, “upon a feeling experimental sense of your own unworthiness and sinfulness every way, smite upon your breasts and say, ‘God be merciful to us sinners’? If you never were thus minded, the Comforter [Holy Spirit] never yet effectually came into your souls, you are out of Christ.”[17] Such language may sound harsh, but it reflects the emphasis on the subjective work of the Spirit that increasingly marked the evangelical movement, which increasingly emphasized the person of the Holy Spirit.

Thomas Kidd, who published an incisive biography of Whitefield last year (see my review), observes that the “emphasis on the Holy Spirit would be a consistent theme in Whitefield’s career,” as it was for most of the evangelicals in the Great Awakening.[18] This was so much the case that Kidd thinks we need to add a fifth defining characteristic to David Bebbington’s famous description of evangelicalism using four defining characteristics—conversionism, activism, biblicism, and crucicentrism. Bebbington’s quadrilateral, Kidd says, “does not account for the enormous weight that evangelicals such as Whitefield put on the Holy Spirit’s ministry. Along with conversion, the experience of the Holy Spirit’s presence and power was what struck Whitefield and other evangelicals as the most novel aspect of their newborn lives.”[19]

In many ways, Whitefield stands in the trajectory of someone like John Owen, who wrote a massive tome on the Holy Spirit. Whitefield was not an erudite theologian like Owen, and Owen was no golden-mouthed preacher. Despite their differences, both valued a robust theology of the Holy Spirit, and both emphasized that the Spirit’s work is essential to salvation and Christian living.

For his part, Whitefield was a powerful and effective preacher, but it sometimes goes unnoticed just how much he emphasized the Spirit. We ignore this reality to the detriment of our historical understanding, for his emphasis on the Spirit not only marked his ministry but also became a key—perhaps fundamental—characteristic in the burgeoning movement that became known as evangelicalism.

 

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[1] Whitefield, “What Think Ye of Christ?” (Matthew 22:42), 1:417. All of Whitefield’s sermons in this essay come from The Sermons of George Whitefield, ed. Lee Gatiss, 2 vols. (Wheaton: IL: Crossway, 2012).

[2] Whitefield, “What Think Ye of Christ?,” 1:416.

[3] Whitefield, “The Indwelling of the Spirit, the Common Privilege of All Believers” (John 7:37–39), 2:116. See also Whitefield, “Marks of Having Received the Holy Ghost” (Acts 19:2), 2:187–199.

[4] Whitefield, “Indwelling of the Spirit,” 2:119.

[5] Whitefield, “Indwelling of the Spirit,” 2:124.

[6] Whitefield, “Christ the Best Husband” (Psalm 45:10–11), 1:114.

[7] Whitefield, “Christ the Best Husband,” 1:114.

[8] Whitefield, “Walking with God” (Genesis 5:24), 1:66.

[9] Whitefield, “Indwelling of the Spirit,” 2:117.

[10] Whitefield, “Indwelling of the Spirit,” 2:117.

[11] Whitefield, “Indwelling of the Spirit,” 2:117–118.

[12] Whitefield, “Indwelling of the Spirit,” 2:117.

[13] Quoted in Thomas S. Kidd, George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2014), 95.

[14] Whitefield, “Indwelling of the Spirit,” 2:115; see also 2:121.

[15] Whitefield, “Indwelling of the Spirit,” 2:119.

[16] Whitefield, “The Holy Spirit Convincing the World of Sin, Righteousness and Judgment” (John 16:8), 2:155.

[17] Whitefield, “Holy Spirit Convincing,” 2:158.

[18] Kidd, George Whitefield, 36.

[19] Kidd, George Whitefield, 36.

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