1 Contributor’s Note: I recognize that for some people it is difficult to read about George Whitefield due to his ambiguity regarding slavery. For us as contemporary believers we are shocked and appalled by the reality that he owned slaves. However, it is important to realize that slavery was a contested moral issue during Whitefield’s time. Whitefield’s ministry contributed to the conversions or direct support in ministry for many early black evangelicals such as Phillis Wheatley, Jupiter Hammon, Olaudah Equiano, John Marrant, Lemuel Haynes, and James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw. Significantly they in turn began efforts to seek the abolition of slavery. This does not excuse Whitefield but should serve as a reminder that every age has blind spots and gross inconsistencies that are only noticed by the next generation. For further context on this see, Thomas Kidd’s article, “George Whitefield’s Troubled Relationship with Race and Slavery” in the Christian Century and his book George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father.
“Then he said to them all, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.’”
Great confusion exists in the contemporary North American church. Many people typically differentiate between the terms “Christian” and “disciple.” The word Christian is a casual term often used to speak of anyone who attends church or says they believe in Jesus. The term disciple is typically reserved for only those esteemed saints like foreign missionaries, dedicated ministers, and super faithful lay people. However, that is not what Jesus intended when he said “Come, follow me” (Mark 1:17). Jesus expected that anyone who believed in him would take up their cross and follow him faithfully. He reminded the crowds that they needed to first count the cost of being a disciple since it required a complete surrender of the person’s life. Mere external displays of religious behavior or pious talk didn’t qualify (Luke 14:25–33). Instead Jesus demanded an inner heart–felt commitment to his teaching so that what a person believed in their heart would bear fruit in their daily outward behavior to others (Matt. 15:18–20).
George Whitefield also understood that Christians needed to see themselves as Jesus’ disciples. Yet the eighteenth century was not unlike our world today. Many people struggled with addictions, immorality was common, and society provided numerous temptations to worldliness and other distractions to the gospel. For that reason, Whitefield spoke of “true disciples,” those who actually followed Jesus and took up their cross and followed him daily. However, he recognized the challenge of living a consistent Christian life and addressed these concerns in his sermon “The Almost Christian.” This inconsistency was prevalent and he frequently warned of this danger in his letters and other writings. Whitefield taught that there were specific reasons why a person was an “almost Christian.” The most common was the distorted perception of the Pharisees that morality and outward signs of religious performance were sufficient. Others included the fear of what other people might think if you actually followed Jesus, loving the praise of others more than honoring Christ, and a reigning love of money and pleasures.
Fortunately for himself and his listeners, Whitefield possessed a realistic awareness of his own heart and knew the difficulty of being a consistent disciple of Jesus. Given the reality of sin, he was quick to remind his auditors of God’s grace and that discipleship was a life-long process of growing in Christ. This hopeful message is evident in the word “become” in Luke 9:23. Whitefield never tired of extending this invitation to others to follow Jesus. Discipleship has long been associated with the season of Lent. The word Lent means spring and reminds us that the days are growing longer. This is significant. Just as the days are lengthening Lent is a time to lengthen or enlarge our souls. Whitefield preached a sermon entitled “The Nature and Necessity of Self–Denial.” Here he declared that Jesus’ disciples were called “to a constant state of voluntary … self–denial.” Self–denial was understood as renouncing one’s own will and seeking to please God rather than one’s self. This expectation was not just for Jesus’ original disciples but for anyone who would take up their cross and follow Christ in all times and places. Self–examination is a helpful spiritual practice that can guide a person in discovering where they get stuck in following Jesus. Whitefield repeatedly describes his own practice of searching his heart and mind and from his own experience challenges his listeners to the same practice. As we listen to Whitefield today we recognize the universal nature of his message. The conditions for being Jesus’ disciples have not changed: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23).
Gracious triune God, we thank you for this season of Lent. Amid the busy demands of our teaching and studies and the ever–present challenges of COVID may we not neglect Jesus’ invitation to deny ourselves, take up our crosses daily, and follow him. May you Holy Spirit guide us through the practice of self–examination that we might recognize and remove the barriers that weaken our discipleship. We pray this Jesus in your strong and tender name. Amen.
Tom Schwanda (Ph.D., Durham University), associate professor, emeritus, Christian Formation and Ministry, at Wheaton College (Illinois). Among his publications is The Emergence of Evangelical Spirituality: The Age of Edwards, Newton, and Whitefield (Classics of Western Spirituality, Paulist Press, 2016).