The fifth in a series on revival
Revival’s odd couple
By Ken Horn
John Wesley and George Whitefield (pronounced wit•field)
couldn’t have been more different in some very significant ways. Yet they both
had the same life goal — to see as many souls come into the kingdom of
God as possible. And in this they worked together.
In 1728, young John Wesley read the book A Serious Call to a
Devout and Holy Life by William Law. Profoundly influenced by it, John and his
brother Charles founded what came to be known as the “Holy Club” in 1729 at
Oxford University in England. Wesley’s holiness doctrine has come down to a
large group of “Holiness” churches out of which our own Fellowship, the
Assemblies of God, has sprung.
The term holiness brings to mind the biblical concepts of
purity and separation — from the world, to God. To some it also conjures
images of endless lists of “do’s and don’ts.” Sometimes those attempting to
pursue holiness have drifted into legalism — a Christianity dependent on the
letter of the law.
Legalism is clearly illustrated in the life of Wesley. He
pursued his “methodical” religion while at Oxford and, later, while a
missionary — all before his actual conversion to Christ. Wesley’s
salvation experience came nine years after the establishment of the Holy Club.
He had pursued his rules, his devotions, even his evangelism from a legalistic
perspective. True holiness followed his encounter with Christ.
In a church I once served, an alcoholic attended
occasionally. After one service I intercepted him in the foyer and asked him if
he would give his life to Christ.
He replied, “Pastor, I’m not good enough. As soon as I can
give up my drinking, then I’ll get saved.”
No amount of coaxing or theological elucidation could move
What this man had right was that God does demand holiness
— a godly lifestyle; what he had wrong was that he could achieve it by
himself. When God saves, He is the One who does the changing (see 2 Corinthians
5:17). Till then, God sees all our attempts at good works as “filthy rags”
(Isaiah 64:6). Works don’t get you saved; they are evidence of your salvation
(Ephesians 2:10). This man’s problem was not the sin of alcoholism; his problem
was he was a sinner.
John Wesley led an exemplary life, but it was not a truly
holy life until his heart was changed by a personal relationship with Jesus
The line between holiness and legalism is often blurred.
Legalism is a set of rules; holiness is a way of life. Legalism says, “What can
I get away with that does not violate the code?” Holiness says, “How close to
Jesus can I get?” Legalism begrudges sacrifice; holiness gladly gives more than
is required. Obedience is more likely when you love the One you must obey and
live your life to please Him. Those who obey out of fear are constantly
searching for loopholes.
Where lives are touched, behavior is changed. The touch of
God comes first. When revival hits, people are not bound by legalism. They have
a passion for holiness. A person touched by the hand of God does not need a
list of television programs he shouldn’t watch; instead his spirit is stricken
with grief at the sound of a profane word or sexual innuendo. He does not
grudgingly turn the channel as his eyes linger; his spirit compels him to rid
his home of filth. Holiness grows out of nearness to God — not out of any
attempt to keep a set of rules.
Revival and holiness are inseparable. “Holiness” without
revival breeds legalism. A revival that does not produce holy lives is no
revival at all.
The worldly lifestyles of many Christians are a sign of
certain need. But the need is not a rigid Christianity driven by rules; it is a
revived Christianity ennobled by Jesus.
One member of John Wesley’s Holy Club was George Whitefield,
an outgoing young man who would precede Wesley by three years in his confidence
in salvation, and would eventually stand alongside him as the driving force of
the First Great Awakening (as it was called in America) and the Evangelical
Awakening (in Great Britain) of the 18th century.
Whitefield would become the first “superstar” revivalist. He
was called “the marvel of the age” and the “Grand Itinerant.” He preached with
a theatric flair, appealing to emotions and tugging at heartstrings …
techniques shunned by most preachers of the day. But his message that one could
have a personal salvation, an intimate experience with Jesus Christ, seemed to
fit his delivery.
And wherever he preached, crowds gathered.
Whitefield found a popular acceptance that escaped John
Wesley because of Wesley’s early austere legalism. Whitefield noted, “As my
popularity increased, opposition increased also.” One common complaint was that
the churches were too crowded. It was no longer easy and comfortable to attend.
Indeed, this complaint seems to attend every revival, and in itself shows the
need of revival.
And the more Whitefield was attacked by clergy, the more
people wanted to hear him. When churches were closed to him, he did the
unthinkable, preaching in the outdoors. Even Wesley decried this until he came
around to Whitefield’s way of thinking. Whitefield first did this because he
was blacklisted by ministers, but he continued to do it because there was
usually no building large enough to hold the crowds. Sometimes he would speak
to crowds larger than the entire population of the town he was preaching in.
Whitefield preached extemporaneously and loudly enough that
he could be heard by as many as 30,000 people.
He took his salvation message to places preachers had never
before considered … like the horse races and other public events.
John and Charles Wesley followed suit.
Wesley and Whitefield were partners in revival. After he
heard Whitefield preach, a man named John Thorpe went to a tavern to drink with
friends. The men ridiculed the preacher, and Thorpe leaped atop a table to
mimic him … when he suddenly fell under conviction. Thorpe gave his life to
Christ. He then became one of John Wesley’s traveling preachers.
But significant differences arose between the two partners.
Their theology was, in some of the most crucial points, in
adamant opposition. Whitefield became a Calvinist, believing in predestination
and eternal security. Wesley became the foremost proponent of Arminian
doctrine, focusing on free will and denying eternal security. Yet both
ministered fervently to bring lost souls to Christ.
Their disagreements became public, and sometimes bitter,
until the two reconciled and agreed to disagree.
Whitefield was the supreme evangelist but had no effective
system of discipleship for his converts. Wesley supplied that, effectively
preserving much of Whitefield’s harvest. Though far different in theology,
method of delivery, and many other areas of ministry, revival’s odd couple
eventually worked together with eternal impact.
Though Whitefield was younger than Wesley, he died earlier.
And John Wesley preached his funeral sermon … at Whitefield’s request.
KEN HORN is the editor of Today’s Pentecostal Evangel and
blogs at Snapshots (khorn.agblogger.org).
This is the fifth in a series on revival. Part 1, “Stirred
Up,” appeared in the Jan. 11, 2009, issue. Part 2, “Uncomfortable,” appeared
Feb. 8. Part 3, “How to Stop a Revival,” appeared March 29. Part 4, "Jonathan Edwards -- Unlikely Revivalist" appeared April 12.
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