“Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”
Thousands had gathered to hang onto every word of the great 18th-century open-air preacher, whose ability to make the ancient words of the Bible come alive gave ample evidence of his boyhood theatrical aspirations. As George Whitefield thundered John the Baptist’s denunciation of the Pharisees, his words flew like flaming darts straight into the hearts of his hearers. Sixteen-year-old Robert Robinson skulked at the rear, his thoughts more on ridicule than repentance.
Robinson’s early years had been difficult ones. His mother was disinherited when she married without the blessing of her father and when his father died when he was five years old, continuing his education was only possible because his uncle was willing to pay for it. University attendance was far out of reach of the family’s limited finances. Robinson had left school at fourteen and was now apprenticed to a London hairdresser.
His new master quickly realised that his pupil’s skills did not lie in the creative arts of hairdressing, shaving and wig making. Instead, Robinson had an insatiable thirst for knowledge, rising early in the morning to have time for book-learning before starting his working day. All his spare money was spent on buying books. All his spare time was spent reading them.
There appeared to be a world of difference between Robinson and the eloquent preacher in front of him. In fact, Whitefield’s early life had been similar to Robinson’s. His father died when he was two years old, and he had eventually left school at fifteen because there was little point in further improving his Latin without the financial means to attend Oxford. He spent eighteen months working in the family tavern before discovering that university attendance without money was possible if he went as a servitor.
Acting as a servant in exchange for free tuition gave him the longed-for opportunity for learning. However, he was also treated as a second-class citizen, banned from mixing socially with the fee-paying students. This changed one day when Charles Wesley invited him to breakfast, hearing of Whitefield’s love of the Scriptures.
Whitefield enthusiastically met with the Wesley brothers in what was derisively called “The Holy Club” by their less spiritually minded acquaintances. Reading and discussing the Bible and Christian literature, the attendees sought favour with God by prayer, fasting and regular self-examination with twenty-two questions. These started with “Am I a hypocrite?” and ended with “Is Christ real to me?”
Whitefield initially reacted as did Martin Luther, attempting to earn salvation by acts of physical penance, torturing his mind and body in a fruitless effort to obtain the longed-for forgiveness. Ultimately physical collapse resulted in him leaving his studies and returning home to recover his health. As he searched the Bible, he realised that God’s grace saved him, not the desperate efforts he was making to save himself.
Like the apostles of old, Whitefield “turned the world upside-down”. He had experienced what it was to be born again, and he now had to share the good news with everyone he could. When he began preaching at 22, he was feted everywhere as a “boy” preacher and eagerly sought by numerous Church of England ministers to attract worshipers to their churches.
It was a message that sorely needed preaching. Two hundred years after the reformation, the affluent were self-sufficient and self-satisfied. Like the Pharisees of old, they saw no need for repentance. The impoverished masses were perpetually exhausted from excess work and lack of food. They had no time or energy to take an interest in matters that seemed to have little practical use in their everyday lives. The clergy themselves tended to “natural” theology – that the knowledge of God is arrived at using only the natural faculties of sense and reason. They thought the Bible itself had only a limited part to play in the knowledge of God and His will.
A year later, after a trip to the American colonies, Whitefield’s enthusiasm was seen as a threat to the status quo, and he was banned from preaching in the majority of brick and mortar churches. He now took to the fields, preaching to the common people. They may have been little educated, but they flocked by the thousands to hear the words of the gospel preached with power. Conviction of the truth caused tears to streak down their grimy cheeks as they realised that despite their destitute and desperate circumstances, Christ also died for them.
Startled out of his complacency, Whitfield’s words forced Robert Robinson to contemplate the consequences of his current life direction. Converted at twenty, by twenty-two Robert Robinson was the next “boy” preacher…the next new sensation sought to preach everywhere. That same year Robinson wrote a hymn:
Come, thou Fount of every blessing,
Tune my heart to sing thy grace;
Streams of mercy, never ceasing,
Call for songs of loudest praise.
Teach me ever to adore Thee,
May I still Thy goodness prove,
While the hope of endless glory
Fills my heart with joy and love.
The wrath of God may awaken us to our sinfulness, but that realisation alone does not result in a change of heart. Instead, as Paul says, it is the “goodness of God that leads you to repentance.” (Romans 2:4 NKJV) We have to know God before we can love Him. A W Tozer wrote, “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.” (A. W. Tozer – The Knowledge of the Holy, page 4)
We all act out the view we have of God. If we see a god that requires appeasement, we become fixated on following the myriad of rules and regulations we deem necessary to keep that god from anger and destruction. This focus on keeping the law will often result in our becoming like the Pharisees, where we lower the standard of God’s law to the place where we feel that we can actually keep it. Or it can result in us rejecting God and His law altogether because we become morally exhausted by the impossible task of trying to keep it.
“It is Satan’s constant effort to misrepresent the character of God…He causes them to cherish false conceptions of God so that they regard Him with fear and hate, rather than with love. The cruelty inherent in his own character is attributed to the Creator.” (Ellen White – The Great Controversy, page 569)
Our view of God changes if, instead, we hear Him saying to us, “Yes, I have loved you with an everlasting love; Therefore, with lovingkindness I have drawn you.” (Jeremiah 31:3 NKVJ) We now see a God of mercy, forgiveness and grace. We are no longer trying to please God to try to earn our salvation. Instead, we fall in love with Him who “first loved us.” (1 John 4:19 NKJV)
As we get to know God as he really is, we are born again. We become “a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.” (2 Corinthians 5:17 NKJV). Jesus died for us. He has forgiven us. No longer are we bound by cords of sin. We are now tied to Him by cords of love. This love now awakens faith in us, a faith that results in action. Instead of focusing on our own wants and needs, we start to see other people through God’s eyes. We are unable to change ourselves, but God can change us.
The whole spiritual life is moulded by our conceptions of God, and if we cherish erroneous views of His character, our souls will sustain injury. We should see God as one who yearns toward the children of men, longing to do them good.” (Ellen White- Review and Herald, 1890)
It is not enough to know intellectually that Christ is God and that He came to earth to save sinners. I have to believe that He came to earth to save me. God is a personal God. Salvation is personal. When we are saved by God’s grace, we are freed from the bondage of sin and death. Our only response to such a God is to sing songs praising Him for His great love and abundant mercy.
Here I raise my Ebenezer;
Hither by Thy help I’m come;
And I hope, by Thy good pleasure,
Safely to arrive at home.
Jesus sought me when a stranger,
Wandering from the fold of God;
He, to rescue me from danger,
Interposed His precious blood
Israel had wandered far from God, but now “All the house of Israel lamented after the Lord.” (1 Samuel 7:2 NKJV) They had seen how far from God they had strayed. But how were they to return? Samuel encouraged them and said, “If you return to the Lord with all your hearts, then put away the foreign gods and the Ashtoreths from among you, and prepare your hearts for the Lord, and serve Him only; and He will deliver you from the hand of the Philistines.” (1 Samuel 7:3 NKJV)
Israel had assembled together at Mizpah to fast and pray and confess their sins. Hearing about the gathering, the Philistines presumed they were there to plan an act of war and set out to attack first before they were attacked. The Israelites had no weapons with them. They couldn’t rely on their own strength. Their only choice was to have confidence that God could save them.
God wrought a great victory on their behalf, loud peals of thunder, causing the ground to shake beneath the feet of the Philistines, causing them to flee in fright for their lives. This was not something natural. It was supernatural, and they had no defence against it. All the Israelites had to do was chase the invaders from their land. To help them remember God’s deliverance from such an impossible situation, Samuel set up a stone and called it Ebenezer – “Thus far the Lord has helped us”. (1 Samuel 7:12 NKJV)
As Ellen White wrote, “We have nothing to fear for the future, except as we shall forget the way the Lord has led us, and His teaching in our past history.” (Ellen White – Testimonies Volume 9 page 10) We need to keep every gift of God fresh in our memories and raise our own Ebenezer stones to help us remember the incredible things God has done for us.
Continuing with God
O to grace how great a debtor
Daily I’m constrained to be!
Let that grace now like a fetter,
Bind my wandering heart to Thee.
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
Prone to leave the God I love;
Here’s my heart, O take and seal it,
Seal it for Thy courts above.
In the wise words of David Asscherick, “You are making your choices, and your choices are making you.” (Arise On-line)Every choice will either draw us closer to God or cause us to start drifting away from God. Every choice changes us for either the better or the worse. This isn’t just another way of saying, “You’ve made your bed, and now you have to lie in it.” It instead points out the awareness we must have of where our daily “little” choices are leading us.
Satan does his best to distract us because, just like the manna in the wilderness, one day’s Bible study and prayer are only good for that day. We can’t fill up our bowl one day and then think we have enough of God to sustain us through the whole week.
It is God’s work and not our works. His power and not our power. We now depend on Him and not on ourselves. This is not something that happens just once. It is something that needs to happen every day. Every morning, we must choose to put God first in our lives. We need God’s direction throughout the day in every choice we make.
What does conversion mean? Some think when I say that they must be converted, “Why, don’t you think that I must know something about religion?” As if, if they knew something about religion once, they did not need to be converted daily; but we ought every day, every one of us, to be converted. (Ellen White – Manuscript Releases Volume 4 page 46)
Committing to God
Almost three hundred years after the first great awakening, we remain self-satisfied and self-sufficient. Like Robert Robinson, we need to be woken up to our actual condition. The biggest sins of all are selfishness and pride, sins that are buried so deep in our subconsciousness that only the supreme goodness of God can make us aware of them.
Thankfully God doesn’t leave us to wallow in the painful situation of seeing who we really are and how far we are from His supreme perfection. He offers us unlimited mercy and forgiveness. All He requires in return is our love, so His love can work through us. The more we drink in the matchless beauty of God, the more our faith grows and the more we desire to live for Him. We now long to share His love with others so that they too can have the peace we do. Every day we must be born again.
Here’s my heart, O take and seal it,
Seal it for Thy courts above.
Lord, take my heart; for I cannot give it. It is Thy property. Keep it pure, for I cannot keep it for Thee. Save me in spite of myself, my weak, unchristlike self. Mold me, fashion me, raise me into a pure and holy atmosphere, where the rich current of Thy love can flow through my soul. (Ellen White – Christ’s Object Lessons, page 159)