Christian Proclamation? Anyone? #4

This series of posts reflects on evangelism and preaching the gospel, comparing the days of George Whitefield (mid 1700’s) to today.

February 2 we looked at a passage in George Whitefield’s life where he saw God at work beyond the denominational boundaries. Are people really so different today? Is the power and the potential of the gospel sufficient for evangelism today?

 

In a previous post I had referred to Thom Rainer’s “10 Areas Where Pastors Need Training For The 21st Century.”  Is there a place where the two “Tom’s” meet? Is there common ground between Kidd’s take on George Whitefield and Rainer’s take on modern pastoral training?

I think there is. I think they do not disagree. Finding disagreement was never the point of these posts. What struck me as I went between the two worlds is the enduring power of the gospel. The gospel was as counter-cultural in Whitefield’s day as it is today in mine. After all, the gospel is only 275 years older today than Whitefield preached it.

(Please bear with my following foolishness.)

I did the “math.”  275 years separate Whitefield’s gospel proclamation and my gospel proclamation today. 275 years set against the history of the gospel proclamation from its very first day. I’m 54. Compared to a percentage of my own life, 275 years of gospel proclamation would be about seven and a half years. I’m 54. Am I all that different at 54 than I was at 47? No, not really. Most adults and a whole lot of adolescents can easily remember seven and half years. In the last 275 years … spiritually … have people radically changed? I don’t think so.

The fundamental assumption of my “math” was that the gospel message was first proclaimed in the year 33 A.D.. I believe my assumption is fundamentally wrong. The gospel was not invented on the first Pentecost Day after Jesus’ resurrection. Jesus came proclaiming the gospel. The gospel was the product of God’s sovereign purpose at work all the way from Adam’s Fall. The gospel was in the heart of God before the earth’s foundation was laid. By that kind of eternal reckoning the 275 years between Whitefield’s day and mine is not even the skip of a heart (if that!). Are sin and salvation different in the time it takes for the heart to beat once? I don’t think so. No, not really.

We do live a world vastly different from Whitefield’s. No doubt about it. But God has not changed. Sinners now are neither no more nor less ‘sinner‘ than sinners from a million previous yesterdays. The gospel is the same. The need is ever-urgent. The promise burns just as bright.

 

In the last post of this series – February 6 – I will suggest that something has changed. No, not the human heart. Certainly not the gospel. But something.

Christian Proclamation? Anyone? #3

This series of posts reflects on evangelism and preaching the gospel, comparing the days of George Whitefield (mid 1700’s) to today.

On January 31 we compared cultural settings and mused, a little, on the question of whether or not people are really different, say, from century to century.

 

I was  struck by one passage in Thomas Kidd’s biography. Certainly a product of his times, Whitefield assumed the need for agreement with – even blessing from – his denomination. In other words, he knew God wanted him to preach the gospel but he also wanted to preach it in a way that kept peace with his church. But things changed. Whitefield began to see God at work beyond the boundaries of his denomination. He began to see the power of the gospel AND a whole-hearted, full-orbed devotion to gospel in unexpected lives.

This did not trouble Whitefield so much as elevate his own sights to see a larger God at work in a larger world. As he joined labors with like-minded evangelists Whitefield began to pay more attention to the gospel message itself. Agreement was met on God’s sovereign will to save, Christ’s perfect and complete atoning sacrifice for sin, the utter necessity of the Holy Spirit to apply salvation to the heart and the resulting fruitful, holy life. Agree here. Agree on the gospel.

Kidd writes of Whitefield’s reaction to opposition from a pastor named Cutler: (bold italics are mine – T. A.)

 Cutler already had well-formed opinions of revivalists when Whitefield appeared in Boston. Their exchange, which Whitefield recorded at length, again revealed the fundamental theological rift between the new evangelicals and Anglican leaders. The key differences lay in their views of denominations and regeneration. Because Cutler saw the Church of England as having unique apostolic authority, he did not regard the Dissenting pastors’ ordinations as valid. Indeed, he regarded his own Congregationalist ordination as illegitimate.

Whitefield, in spite of his Anglican ordination, was not concerned about the particular authority of any one church. Why did Whitefield cooperate with Dissenters, Cutler asked? Whitefield answered that he “saw regenerate souls among the Baptists, among the Presbyterians, among the Independents, and among the Church folks [Anglicans], all children of God, and yet all born again in a different way of worship, and who can tell which is most evangelical?”

I find this passage fascinating. Whitefield seems to grow in his awareness that the current of God’s work in Christ and the proclamation of the gospel surges over any denominational banks. Our own day can rightly be called ‘post-denominational.’ Oh, the denominations have not vanished. They roll on and on, propelled forward by the weight of their own histories, interior culture and bureaucratic heft. But they are elephants without tusks, old lions lacking sharp claws, drought horses with sagging spines.

Whitefield in his day saw people less through the lens of denominational affiliation or assumptions about what they might need to know given their background. Rather he saw people needing saving, pleading Christ and being changed.

On February 4 we’ll pursue a little further the question of whether people have changed so much. Do we need, today, to change our assumptions regarding evangelism and preaching the gospel?

Christian Proclamation? Anyone? #2

This series of posts reflects on evangelism and preaching the gospel, comparing the days of George Whitefield (mid 1700’s) to today.

Two days ago – January 29 – we introduced the idea of how a cultural setting might impact evangelism and preaching.

 

I don’t know which cultural setting is “more difficult” for evangelism:

  • a nominal Christian culture inoculated against the gospel, having just enough knowledge of Christ to ‘know’ the gospel against which they are hardened
  • a thoroughly pluralistic and secular culture, tolerant of all truth-claims except the claim there could be … might be … any single, defining truth.

You tell me. Would you rather deal with an addict who knows his addiction could be answered but steadfastly refuses to do anything about it? OR with an addict who benignly (sometimes, not so benignly!) dismisses any talk of addiction as one person’s opinion. To use the language of Ephesians 2 and Romans 1, which is worse: the hardened heart or the darkened mind?

Reckon they’re both a challenge. Further, they’re never found one without the other. A heart open to God without a mind submissive to Him? A mind yielding to God but a heart unconquerable against Him? I don’t think so.

Which brings me back to Whitefield. What preacher hasn’t, at least secretly, coveted the power of Whitefield’s enormous public ministry? I’ve never met a pastor who would say, “Though the Lord sovereignly grant me the opportunity to proclaim the gospel to thousands, I would reject it.” That’s crazy talk! Load up such an opportunity with air-tight caveats, liberally apply layers of sealant against assorted corruptions, even throw in an entire bush of “thorns-in-the-flesh”. To be given by God to call thousands to Christ is not something from which any pastor would walk away. Or should!

 

On February 2 we’ll look at one passage from Thomas Kidd’s biography of George Whitefield and reflect on where we see God at work.