A winsome Oldlifer reminded me yesterday of how troubling the First
Great Pretty Good Awakening was and is. He was referring specifically to George Whitefield’s sermon on Romans 14:17, “The Kingdom of God.” There Whitefield does exactly what John Williamson Nevin detected when he experienced a revival, namely, the outlook of revivalists that the church and her ordinances “are more a bar than a help to the process” of becoming a Christian.
Here are three points that Whitefield makes:
The kingdom of God, or true and undefiled religion, does not consist in being of this or that particular sect or communion.
. . . neither does [the kingdom of God] consist in being baptized when you were young. . .
. . . neither does it consist in being orthodox in our notions, or being able to talk fluently of the doctrines of the Gospel.
These are sentiments that explain why Whitefield can express the sort of disregard for denominational differences that would become common among Protestants in the so-called ecumenical movement and continue to afflict The Gospel Coalition (and which by the way would make mid-twentieth-century mainline historians and ecumenistsfans of the First
Great Pretty Good Awakening):
. . . there are Christians among other sects that may differe from us in the outward worship of God. Therefore, my dear friends, learn to be more catholic, more unconfined in your notions; for if you place the kingdom of God merely in a sect, you place it in that in which it does not consist.
Whitefield is arguably one of the biggest problems facing confessional Protestants because his effort to do justice to the Spirit winds up doing an injustice to the Word and the ordinances the Bible prescribes. Consequently, when confessional Protestants become sticklers about worship or church government or even doctrine (as we tend to do with Gospel Coalition types), then followers of Whitefield construe us as as being liberal Protestants (only protecting the order of the church) or even Roman Catholic (having too high a view of the church).
Seeing support for Whitefield among conservative Presbyterians (Iain Murray, for instance, but the vast majority of Presbyterians in the U.S.A. after the Plan of Union, 1758) who subscribe the Westminster Standards, is equally frustrating since the evangelist took dead aim at the confession’s teaching (whether he knew it or not):
2. The visible church, which is also catholic or universal under the gospel (not confined to one nation, as before under the law), consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children: and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.
3. Unto this catholic visible church Christ hath given the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God, for the gathering and perfecting of the saints, in this life, to the end of the world: and doth, by his own presence and Spirit, according to his promise, make them effectual thereunto. (ch. 25)
So the line confessional Protestants walk is the real via media, between the enthusiasts who justify what they do by appealing to the Spirit (without the Word) and the Romanists (who rarely let the Spirit get in the way of the magisterium). The Reformation was about Word and Spirit, about ordinances and godliness, about a churchly pattern of piety. It is too formal for Whitefield and too loose for Rome. But that’s where we are — in the moderate middle, plain, vanilla, simple, buttoned-down (but never perfect).