George Whitefield is well-known as an evangelist who was part of the Evangelical Revival in England in the 18th century along with John and Charles Wesley. Whitefield’s theology of persecution is explained in his famous sermon, “Persecution Every Christian’s Lot.”
Whitefield was not persecuted or martyred although there were some who ardently opposed Whitefield’s message. He was very active in preaching in England and America.
His theology is straightforward and biblical. He begins with the Lord’s warning to his disciples that they would suffer persecution in His name. This teaching and theme is picked up by the Apostle Paul who not only taught about persecution but also experienced it. He is able to point to his own experience with suffering and persecution to validate his teaching. The most prominent point Paul makes is that those who seek to live a godly life in Christ will be persecuted. Paul explains why this is so and this becomes a major part of Whitefield’s sermon.
So, the foundational truth upon which Whitefield builds his sermon and theology is that persecution is a common experience for every godly person. Based on this truth, he asks three questions, beginning with what it means to live a godly life in Jesus Christ. Then he discusses the various kinds of persecution, and finally, “why it is that godly men must expect to suffer persecution?”
What does it mean to live a godly life in Christ Jesus? His answer is quite simple yet true and profound. To live a godly life is to “make the divine will…the sole principle of all our thoughts, works, and actions. With the affections on things above, their citizenship is in heaven, the world reacts against this theology, perhaps because of the misinformed belief that Christians are not concerned with this world so Christians are a liability rather than an asset to the advancement of the world’s agenda.
Regarding the types of persecution, Whitefield does not list various tortures or injustices as one might expect, but he begins much deeper than that. The first kind of persecution, he says, is from the heart. He says that the root of all persecutions is “heart-enmity.” These persons who harbor a secret evil-will against God and His kingdom.
The second type or degree of persecution is that of the tongue, which spews out all kinds of evil against God’s people. Whitefield regards evil-speaking as a high form or type of persecution. To speak evil of or slander God’s people is “highly provoking in the sight of God.” Jesus Christ will call them to account for their speaking. The third kind of persecution is when Christians are specifically targeted by religious authorities and treat genuine Christians cruelly “under the cloak of religion.”
The third major question Whitefield addresses is why godly men must expect persecution. Essentially the answer is two-fold. First, because it is taught by Christ and second, because it has been the experience of genuine Christians of every age, including the present one. Whitefield returns to the theme of heart enmity. Wicked men, he says, hate God and hate those who are like him. It is the pride of the heart that leads men, he says, to persecute Christ’s servants. Pride and envy cause them to turn to persecution.
Persecution of the same degree does not happen to all godly people. There are times when it is more peaceful and the persecution is less intense. All Christians must experience some degree of persecution.
Finally, if all Christians are to suffer persecution, are they presently suffering from persecution? No, they are not. Why not? Does our cowardice cause us to remain silent when we should speak? Are we ashamed of Christ?
To those who are contemplating becoming a Christian, are you ready to give up everything to God? Are you ready for the opposition that may come from your own household? Are you willing to endure hardness? When you put your hand to the plough, do you intend on not looking back? These are not easy questions, nor are they superficial.
The last section is directed toward those who are persecutors. Christ is allowing them to be able to persecute people but they will be held accountable at the judgment. The ominous question will be asked by Christ, “Why are you persecuting me?” The punishment for being a persecutor is vividly described.
In summary, we have one well-structured sermon from Whitefield to work with. Obviously it is not a full-fledged, thoroughly definitive theology of persecution. But it has value nonetheless.
The focal point of his theology is that godly people will suffer, following the words of the Apostle Paul. Stated succinctly, the godly life is centered on doing God’s will. That puts godly people in conflict with the world for many reasons.
Those contemplating becoming a Christian must answer a series of serious questions about their commitment. Are they willing to be persecuted and perhaps even die for Christ?
Roy Stults, PhD, is the Online Workshop Coordinator and Educational Services Coordinator for The Voice of the Martyrs. He graduated from Olivet Nazarene University (BA and MA), Nazarene Theological Seminary (M.Div.), Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (Doctor of Missiology), and The University of Manchester (England) with a PhD (theology). A Vietnam veteran, Dr. Stults served as a missionary for 19 years and pastored U.S. churches for eight years. Prior to joining VOM, he was a Professor of Religion at Oklahoma Wesleyan University.