Tale of Two Gospels

Thursday, January 2nd 1992
Jan/Feb 1992

George Whitefield

George Whitefield (1714-1770) was an English evangelist and founder of Calvinistic Methodists. He followed John Wesley on a missionary journey to Georgia, and toured through various parts of colonial America, eventually parting company with Wesley over predestination, becoming the leader of Calvinists.

It was of George Whitefield (1714-70) that John Wesley asked, “Has any man led more thousands of souls to the Saviour than this man?” A Church of England evangelist, Whitefield assisted Edwards and the Tennants in the Great Awakening in the American colonies. Though Wesley parted ways with his one-time associate over Whitefield’s reformed theology, he could not help but admire Whitefield’s zeal and the power of his preaching. Typical evangelistic sermons preached by Whitefield drew tens of thousands to city malls and parks, with such titles as, “Christ the Believer’s Wisdom, Righteousness, Sanctification, and Redemption,” “The Lord Our Righteousness,” “The Seed of the Woman and the Seed of the Serpent,” and other discourses on the history of redemption.

The following is an excerpt from “The Lord Our Righteousness.” Pay special attention to the doctrinal literacy Whitefield expected of his hearers:

Whoever is acquainted with the nature of mankind in general, or the propensity of his own heart in particular, must acknowledge that self-righteousness is the last idol that is rooted out of the heart: being once born under a covenant of works, it is natural for us all to have recourse to a covenant of works for our everlasting salvation…We cry out against popery, and that very justly; but we are all Papists; at least, I am sure, we are all Arminians by nature; and therefore, no wonder so many natural men embrace that scheme. It is true, we disclaim the doctrine of merit, are ashamed directly to say we deserve any good at the hands of God; therefore, as the apostle excellently well observes, ‘we go about,’ we fetch a circuit, ‘to establish a righteousness of our own,’ and, like the Pharisees of old, ‘will not wholly submit to that righteousness which is of God through Jesus Christ our Lord.’

This is the sorest, though, alas! the most common evil that was ever yet under the sun. An evil that in any age, especially in these dregs of time wherein we live, cannot be sufficiently inveighed against. For as it is with the people, so with the priests; and it is to be feared, even in those places, where once the truth, as it is in Jesus, was eminently preached, many ministers are so degenerated from their pious ancestors that the doctrines of grace, especially the personal, all-sufficient righteousness of Jesus, is all but too seldom, too slightly mentioned.

The great evangelist continued his call to Christ by explaining concepts like imputation and the active and passive obedience of Christ. It was neither ignored as “ivory tower” speculation, nor defended in that style. Whitefield was convinced that this was the gospel, not a theological implication which serious Bible students should understand, but the heart of the Christian message which one could not deny without forfeiting eternal life:

Suppose I told you that you must intercede with saints, for them to intercede with God for you; would you not say then that I was justly reputed a popish missionary?… Suppose I went a little more round about, and told you that the death of Christ was not sufficient, without our death being added to it; that you must die as well as Christ, join your death with his, and then it would be sufficient. Might you not then, with holy indignation, throw dust in the air and justly call me a “setter forth of strange doctrines?”

And now then, if it be not only absurd, but blasphemous to join the intercession of saints with the intercession of Christ, as though his intercession was not sufficient; or our death with the death of Christ, as though his death was not sufficient: judge ye, if it be not equally absurd, equally blasphemous, to join our obedience, either wholly or in part, with the obedience of Christ, as if that were not sufficient. And if so, what absurdities will follow the denying that the Lord, both as to his active and passive obedience, is our righteousness! If there be no such thing as the doctrine of an imputed righteousness, those who hold it and bring forth fruit unto holiness are safe: but if there be such a thing (as there certainly is) what will become of you who deny it? It is not difficult matter to determine. Your portion must be in the lake of fire and brimstone forever and ever. Since you will rely on your works, by your works you shall be judged. They shall be weighed in the sanctuary; and they will be found wanting. Therefore, by your works shall you be condemned! and you, being out of Christ, shall find God, to your poor wretched souls, a consuming fire.

Whitefield goes on to connect sanctification to justification. Christ does not impute his righteousness to those with whom he is not in union and those who are in union with Christ share in his resurrection life as well.

Today, this kind of preaching would be considered too theological. “We need to preach the simple gospel,” people say, so we reduce the great plan of salvation to the trivial and replace the power of the gospel with the power of manipulation. The simple gospel is “the Lord our righteousness” and genuine conversions cannot be secured apart from that message.

Billy Sunday

From the sublime to the ridiculous, we come now to the contrast in the form of the ex-baseball player-turned-evangelist, Billy Sunday (1863-1935). In the tradition of Wesley, Bellamy, and Finney rather than Edwards, Whitefield, and Spurgeon, Sunday defended his lavish lifestyle by claiming that he brought more souls to heaven than other evangelists, and with the justification that he was more efficient than any living evangelist, guaranteeing results at two dollars per soul.

Today’s revivalists, including the widely-respected and rightly admired Billy Graham, view themselves as successors to Finney and Sunday. But notice the shift from a God-centered, Christ-centered, gospel-centered message evident in Edwards and Whitefield to a moralistic crusade-mentality which is memorialized in Billy Sunday’s most famous “evangelistic” sermon, titled simply, “Mr. Sunday’s Famous ‘Booze’ Sermon.”

Here we have one of the strangest scenes in all the Gospels. Two men, possessed of devils, confront Jesus, and while the devils are crying out for Jesus to leave them, he commands the devils to come out, and the devils obey the command of Jesus. The devils ask permission to enter into a herd of swine feeding on the hillside. This is the only record we have of Jesus ever granting the petition of devils, and he did it for the salvation of men. Then the fellows that kept the hogs went back to town and told the peanut-brained, weasel-eyed, hog-jowled, beetle-browned, bull-necked lobsters that owned the hogs that ‘a long-haired fanatic from Nazareth named Jesus has driven the devils out of some men and the devils have gone into the hogs, and the hogs into the sea, and the sea into the hogs, and the whole bunch is dead.’

And then the fat, fussy old fellows came out to see Jesus and said that he was hurting their business. A fellow says to me, “I don’t think Jesus Christ did a nice thing.” You don’t know what you’re talking about. Down in Nashville, Tennessee, I saw four wagons going down the street and they were loaded with stills, and kettles, and pipes. “What’s this?” I said. “United States revenue officers, and they have been in the moonshine district and confiscated the illicit stills, and they are taking them down to the government scrap heap.” Jesus Christ was God’s revenue officer….I am a temperance Republican down to my toes.

Sunday then proceeds to answer the following questions in the following points: (1) Interest in Manhood (masculinity was part of Sunday’s gospel); (2) Does the Saloon Help Business? (3) The Parent of Crimes; (4) The Economic Side; (5) Tragedies Born of Drink; (6) More Economics; (7) The American Mongoose; (8) The Saloon a Coward; (9) God’s Worst Enemy; (10) The Gin Mill; (11) A Chance for Manhood, and so on.

This was an evangelistic sermon, but there is the conspicuous absence of the evangel. It is not even the case that the gospel is confused with moralistic appeals; there is nothing to confuse! There is no gospel to be found at all in this sermon, and yet it is Sunday’s most famous evangelistic sermon.

In the sermon, Sunday consigns to hell not only those who drink alcoholic beverages themselves, but even those abstainers who fail to support prohibition: “Did you vote for the saloon?” he asks, to which the reply is given, “Yes.” “Then you shall go to Hell,” Sunday concludes. “If you vote for the dirty business you ought to go to Hell as sure as you live, and I would like to fire the furnace.” But Sunday also preached a sermon explaining conversion:

What does converted mean? It means completely changed…Matthew stood in the presence of Christ; he realized what it would be to be without Christ, to be without hope, and it brought him to a quick decision. How long did that conversion take? And you tell me you can’t make an instant decision to please God? The decision of Matthew proves that you can. He ceased to do evil and commenced to do good. You can be converted just as quickly as Matthew was.

In this sermon, Sunday does refer to the cross and Christ’s substitutionary atonement (at least, he did not deny that doctrine, as Finney had done); nevertheless, conversion is the subject, not Christ, as it was with Whitefield. Following Finney, Sunday declared, “I believe there is no doctrine more dangerous than to convey the impression that a revival is something peculiar in itself and cannot be judged by the same rules of causes and effect as other things.”

Thus, revivalism since the Second Great Awakening consistently declared its independence from the concept of conversion as a supernatural gift of divine grace. Sinners converted themselves, as Martin Marty writes, “accenting what a person had to achieve all alone, almost by an act of will.”

Thursday, January 2nd 1992

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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