…maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. –Ephesians 4:3
I recently completed another outstanding biography of a Christian from the past that has not only been an enjoyable read, but a source of conviction for me as well. I have read much about the life of George Whitefield over the years, but the best in-depth biography of his life comes from author Arnold Dallimore: George Whitefield: The Life and Times of the Great Evangelist of the Eighteenth Century.
Whitefield lived and ministered in the turbulent 18th century. He preached his first outdoor sermon (preaching outside a church building was considered crude and ungodly in that time) in 1739 at the age of twenty-four. For the next thirty years of his life, until his death in 1770 in Newburyport, Massachusetts, it is estimated that he preached approximately 1,000 sermons a year. He traversed the Atlantic Ocean from England to the American colonies a total of nineteen times, spending literally years at sea in an age when one trans-Atlantic crossing was considered dangerous and harrowing. He lived to preach, and preached to live. He was beloved by those who heard him, and he wasn’t just a highbrow preacher spouting off gospel messages, but a man of great passion for Christ who lived out his faith daily. In his “spare” time, Whitefield opened an orphanage in Georgia and raised funds for the children’s care during his preaching tours. He is credited (along with Jonathan Edwards) as a primary tool used by God to ignite the First Great Awakening in America. It is said that during his lifetime eighty percent of the people living in the English colonies in America heard him preach, including Benjamin Franklin, who considered Whitefield one of his best friends, although he did not commit his life to Christ (Franklin, as far as we know, remained a Deist his entire life).
So, what of it? He was a godly man who lived and died a long time ago. How does knowing about him, let alone spending hours reading about him, profit us in any way? Here is how it profits me. First, I see what it looks like in real life when God gets a hold on a person. Whitefield spent entire years of his life sharing the gospel more than he slept. As it was for the prophet Jeremiah, the word of God was a “burning fire shut up in [his] bones” (Jer. 20:9). He had to preach. God had saved him and, as long as it was in his power, others would know this same message of salvation that had “plucked him from the flames.” Knowing his story shows me what God can and will do with a man or woman willing to surrender themselves to him completely. Our goal should not be so much to mimic his life as to desire his zeal, his commitment, and his Bible preparation.
Second, I learned a great deal about Christian unity from Whitefield and his very dear friend John Wesley (another man of great passion and zeal). These men grew up in the faith together, served together, and were called to ministry together. Over time they developed different theological convictions, but both remained steadfast in their faith and in their friendship. On the essentials of the faith they were in lock-step. On the non-essentials, they disagreed strongly, and sometimes vocally, with each other. The story is too long to tell here, but when it was all said and done and Whitefield knew his last days of preaching were approaching, he called on Wesley to deliver his funeral oration. Wesley did so gladly, and in so doing, teaches all who will learn what it means to live out Ephesians 4:3 in everyday life.
This is my personal prayer. This is my prayer for LifePoint. I want to see men and women raised and equipped to pursue their relationship with God passionately, with an unquenchable zeal. I want us to hold fast to our faith staunchly, with a vice-like grip on the essentials, and a light, grace-filled hold on the non-essentials. I want us to love the family of believers, even when we disagree on peripheral matters of the faith. I want us to know the difference between false doctrine and different opinions, because there certainly is a difference. I want us to grow in both grace and truth, because that is what our Savior brought to us (John 1:14, 17). I want this for me, and I want it for you, and by God’s grace, we will have it.
Grace and peace,