Thursday, June 15, 2006

Whitefield's Letter to Wesley: Confronting Error in Love and Truth

This is going to be a long post. It has been heavy on my heart recently, that in standing fast in the truth, words in the blogosphere have become very strident, and personal attacks more frequent. As a reformed believer, I know what a wretch I am without the grace of God. I was thinking of the letter that George Whitefield sent to John Wesley when he realized that Wesley was seriously straying into error. The gravity, honesty, and yet humble attitude that George Whitefield exhibited is exemplory. He spoke the truth boldly and was heavily burdened in his heart, but in his desire to glorify God in his life, was able to distinquish between taking a doctrinal stand and love and affection for his brother in Christ. I will insert some quotes by Iain Murray and include the letter from Phil Johnson's Spurgeon Archive here. Read the whole article and letter. It is excellent.

Initially Murray writes that Whitefield was very reluctant to dispute on the issues and that his heart was broken over the division. He approached the issue in humility and respect.

On Whitefield's departure from England in August 1739, Wesley immediately published this sermon. Entitled "Free Grace," it professed to be founded upon Romans 8:32, and was printed as a 12 mo. pamphlet in 24 pages. Annexed to it was a hymn by Charles Wesley on Universal Redemption. It was this sermon which occasioned Whitefield's reply here reprinted. But it is interesting to note that although Wesley's sermon was published in August 1739, Whitefield's reply is dated December 24, 1740, and was not published till early 1741. The reasons for this delay are probably as follows: (1) By the correspondence[7] which passed between Whitefield and Wesley in 1740 it is evident that Whitefield longed to avoid an open breach and still hoped that his friend might be brought to a clearer understanding of the truth. Such sentences as the following are typical of Whitefield's attitude: "How would the cause of our common Master suffer by our raising disputes about particular points of doctrines!" . . . "For Christ's sake, let us not be divided amongst ourselves" . . . "Avoid all disputation. Do not oblige me to preach against you; I had rather die . . ." (2) It is evident that while on his second visit to America, Whitefield developed stronger views on the issues which this controversy involved. Before he left England in August 1739, he had been satisfied to counsel "silence" on these doctrines and they were not at that time conspicuous in his preaching. As late as March 1740, he wrote to Wesley: "Provoke me to it as much as you please, I intend not to enter the lists of controversy with you on the points wherein we differ . . ." But before the year had ended Whitefield went back on this decision, the reason apparently being that he had come to see the seriousness of these questions in a new light. He could thus remain silent no longer.

Murray concludes his article with this distinction that Whitefield and Wesley were divided on doctrinal issues until Whitefield's death, but that they were able to separate their doctrinal differences with their affection for each other.

Some evangelical writers have sought to minimize the division between Whitefield and Wesley by referring to their "minor differences." An impression is given that Whitefield abandoned the strong conviction he had about Arminianism in 1741; in proof of this we are referred to the fact that in 1742 their personal friendship was in measure resumed and that ultimately Wesley even preached Whitefield's funeral sermon. But all this is misleading. The truth is that Whitefield rightly made a distinction between a difference in judgement and a difference in affection; it was in the former sense that he differed from the Wesleys, and that difference was such that, as Tyerman writes, it "led them to build separate chapels, form separate societies, and pursue, to the end of life, separate lines of action . . . the gulf between Wesley and Whitefield was immense."[9] But while their public cooperation was thus seriously disturbed, his personal affection for the Wesleys as Christians was preserved to the last.[10] In this respect Whitefield teaches us a needful lesson. Doctrinal differences between believers should never lead to personal antagonism. Error must be opposed even when held by fellow members of Christ, but if that opposition cannot co-exist with a true love for all saints and a longing for their spiritual prosperity then it does not glorify God nor promote the edification of the Church

I hope and pray that this is taken to heart, and we examine ourselves to find ourselves approved by God in all manner of speech and holding fast to the truth.


At 12:34 PM, Blogger ScottyB said...

Powerful and you encouraged me with your posts and I'll put in a good word about Reno. Do you know any reformed-charismatics in Reno?

At 10:50 PM, Blogger candyinsierras said...

I know a few reformed charismatics in Reno, and some heading that way hopefully due to numerous conversations :)

Thanks for visiting. As for powerful....I think this letter that Whitefield sent is one of the most amazing letters I have ever read. It is packed with good theology.

At 6:19 PM, Blogger Catez said...

Excellent post. Thankyou.

At 9:22 PM, Blogger candyinsierras said...

Why thanks Catez. Thanks for visiting.

At 9:24 PM, Blogger marc said...

Ahh Candy,
A word in season from you, Iain, and George. Thank you.

At 3:03 PM, Blogger Homemanager said...

Thanks, Candy. Great reminder that we have been given the ministry of "reconciliation" (2 corinthians 10) and that "blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called sons of God." (Matthew 5)

At 10:35 PM, Blogger candyinsierras said...

Karen, you strike me as a peacemaker type. :) Thanks for stopping by.

At 5:06 PM, Blogger Homemanager said...

Thank you, Candy...I hope so. By God's Grace! :o)

At 2:11 AM, Blogger David Cho said...

Good post, Candy.

I think there are some key phrases that call for attention.

Error must be opposed even when held by fellow members of Christ, but if that opposition cannot co-exist with a true love for all saints

In many cases, one side does not even recognize the other side as fellow members of Christ. It actually cuts both ways in many debates I have seen, so I am not calling out one particular faction here.

And obviously serious error amounts to heresy and I can see how it is easy to get worked up over that. You wouldn't treat Jehovah's Witnesses as "fellow members" of Christ, would you?

It is a difficult question that I don't have an answer for.


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