Nicky Gumbel on the impact of Wesley and Whitefield, Bible in One Year, Day 164

In the Bible in One Year Nicky Gumbel points out that the gospel Wesley and Whitefield preached had a transformative power for society… he describes how the church had declined sharply, the UK had descended into ‘decadence and immorality’ and ‘parts of the church had virtually descended into paganism’.

Yet through the preaching of Wesley and Whitefield the ‘nation was changed’. So what was their message? Did they have a common goal? And do we still preach the same message today?

What did Wesley and Whitefield teach that had such an impact on England, America and beyond…?

As will be shown there has been a slight shift in recent scholarship towards showing what Wesley and Whitefield had in common. Many studies of Wesley and Whitefield (rightly) point to the differences that existed between the two men.[1] Maddock is foundational to this study in also showing the continuity that has often been overlooked by more polarised accounts of Wesley and Whitefield – the men of one book. Maddock notes the ‘surprising but regrettable’ lacuna that they are ‘not paired or compared often enough in print…given the way their lives illuminated one another’.[2] When their theological scheme is contrasted with the espoused theology in parts of the contemporary charismatic church the similarities between the two seem even clearer.

At a headline level the core doctrines of Wesley have been helpfully summarised as follows:[3]i) Scripture as ‘the only standard of truth’ [4]ii) Salvation by faith as ‘the standing topic’ [5]; iii) sin as ‘loathsome leprosy’ [6]; iv) the regeneration through the Spirit by which we may be ‘properly said to live’ [7]; v) assurance as ‘an inward impression on the soul’ [8]; vi) holiness‘the grand depositum’ [9]; vii) a desire to flee from the wrath to come’ as the ‘one condition’ required of those wanting admission to the societies.[10]In an alternative scheme Outler picks just three: i) original sin, ii) justification by faith alone and iii) holiness of heart in those who have been born again.[11] Whitefield’s focus was similar: ‘the big truths of the Book of Truth,’[12] summarised by Maddock as ‘original sin, justification by faith and the new birth’ (although he notes the ‘subtle but highly significant theological differences’ and hence pastoral applications, that flow from Wesley and Whitefield’s varying usage of identical terms).[13]

As can be seen a shared theological anthropology drove their missional focus. Emphasising his common ground with Whitefield in his funeral sermon Wesley asserted ‘it is not enough to say all men are sick of sin. No, we are all dead in sin and trespasses[14]. Similarly, they shared an eschatology that produced a compelling imperative for discipleship: ‘every sinner is under the sentence of hell-fire’ until he turned to Christ’[15]. This led both preachers to argue that the ‘pursuit of inward and outward holiness ought to categorise the regenerate life’[16]. They called ‘dead’ sinners, into a regenerate life pursuing holiness – albeit with varied views on the extent that holiness could be outworked in this life.

Maddock notes that both preachers: 

“Agreed that experiencing spiritual regeneration was necessary, that justification must precede sanctification, that regeneration marks the threshold of sanctification, that the new birth entails victory over the dominion and power of sin, and the pursuit of inward and outward holiness ought to categorise the regenerate life”[17]

Maddock – on Wesley and Whitefield’s shared beliefs…

They differed as to how to define sin, how far sin can be eradicated, and dramatically over their perception of Wesley’s doctrine of Christian perfection.

Wesley’s arminianism revisited…

For Wesley this was a dynamic, relational possibility, drawing from a combination of his experiences of the Moravians, his ‘conversion’ and High Church readings. [18] But for Wesley the experience of ‘Perfect’ Love was something he thought every Anglican prayed for in the Collect for Purity[19] and, contending that what we might be perfected from was simply a ‘voluntary transgression of a known law’, his experiences and readings led him to believe that this was possible and indeed that obtaining holiness was the key thing that needed to be preached to people. 

McGonigle has made an important contribution to doctrinal studies of Wesley. He argues carefully that Wesley’s arminianism was a new kind of evangelicalism: ‘his rejection of Calvinistic predestination went along with an undiluted emphasis on original sin, atonement in the death of Christ, salvation by faith alone and regeneration by the Holy Spirit. It was undeniable that Wesley was an Arminian, but he was a new-style Arminian; his Arminianism was unashamedly orthodox and, beyond even Arminius himself, it had caught the fire of the Holy Spirit and burned with evangelistic fervour.[20]

Antinomianism was a consistent concern for Wesley and it begs many questions of what he would think of today’s consumer churches. Following on from his 1762 publication Thoughts on the Imputed Righteousness of Christ, later that year he penned A Blow at the Root, or Christ Stabbed in the House of his Friends.[21]

“None shall live with God, but he that now lives to God; none shall enjoy the glory of God in heaven, but he that bears the image of God on earth; none that is not saved from sin here can be saved from hell hereafter; none can see the Kingdom of God above, unless the kingdom of God live in him below. Whosoever will reign with Christ in heaven, must have Christ reigning in him on earth

Wesley – on the eternal consequences of belief now

None of honest heathen efforts, Roman Catholic penance, petition, and priests, nor public participation in Protestantism can achieve this. Instead, using a favoured image from Phil 2.5 ‘the mind that was in Christ’ (which McGonigle argues was increasingly Wesley’s definition of scriptural holiness[22]), and cross-referencing it with the definition of the Kingdom of God as ‘righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Ghost’ in Romans 14:17, Wesley argues that true holiness is the Kingdom of God in the heart and the mind of Christ in the believer. All this is possible after justification by faith. But those who preach ‘inherent holiness’ imputed to sinners, and thereby excusing them from ‘hungering and thirsting after righteousness’ he compares to Simon Magus of Acts 8, the psuedo-Christian who does more harm than good.[23]

McGonigle summarises the remains of Wesley’s argument that washed, sanctified and justified, as they are, true believers are made righteous. They are really changed not merely accounted righteous. They are free from the law and works of sin, not the law and works of God! Christ is a ‘Saviour from sin’ not a ‘saviour in sin’. This should lead Methodists to love soul-searching sermons and not rest in any false confidence arising from imputed holiness while their hearts remain impure. They must cleave to Christ till his blood has cleansed them of all sin. They must love God, keep his commands, exalt Christ, imitate Christ and walk in his ways until he creates in them a new heart and renews a right spirit within them.[24]

Maddock is very helpful here in noting the significance of the new birth for both Wesley and Whitefield. Like Smith he contends that neither man ‘altered his basic stance on the primacy of the experience of the new birth.’[25]  

Both Wesley and Whitefield ‘stressed the work of the Holy Spirit in bringing sinners to repentance and faith in Christ, assuring them of forgiveness, and, by his presence thereafter in their hearts, nurturing them in the love and holiness that pleases God.’[26] 


James Schwenk agrees, stating that “common devotion to the doctrine of regeneration bound them together.[27] Bebbington also helps narrow the Calvinist/Arminian gap by noting that (contrary to Wesley’s many critiques) Evangelical Calvinists were moderate in their views of God’s control of destiny, following Edwards Freedom of the Will (1754) and the notion of ‘duty faith’, as William Goode put it: “it is the duty of all men to believe.’[28]

The importance of holiness to Wesley was summed up near the end of his ministry in his 1783 sermon, The General Spread of the Gospel. Wesley recounted the whole purpose of his life’s work thus: 

‘Between fifty and sixty years ago, God raised up a few young men, in the University of Oxford, to testify those grand truths: That without holiness no man shall see the Lord; that this holiness is the work of God… that this holiness was the mind that is in Christ.’[29]

John Wesley – on holinees

He believed that Charles and he had been called to propogate Christian holiness: ‘holiness was our point – inward and outward holiness’[30]. Again with great clarity he wrote to one of his preachers: ‘Full sanctification is the grand depositum which God has lodged with the people called Methodists; and for the sake of propogating this chiefly he appears to have raised us up.’[31]

Whitefield is well known for taking issue with Wesley’s doctrine of Perfect Love.[32] Yet despite the significant differences in early Methodism a clear discipleship goal of holiness was at the fore for both in their teaching and personal motivation. Whitefield and Wesley were preparing holy people for a holy God to live in a holy eternity. Whitefield argued fervently that to be a Christian is “to be holy as Christ is holy”[33] and that “Jesus Christ came down to save us, not only from the guilt, but also from the power of sin.[34] He, himself, confessed sin had no dominion over him, although he felt “the struggles of indwelling sin day by day.”[35] He even proclaimed that a mark of receiving the Holy Ghost is:

The mark of being born again is… “Not committing sin . . . This expression does not imply the impossibility of a Christian’s sinning … It only means thus much; that a man who is really born again of God doth not willfully commit sin, much less believe in the habitual practice of it.[36] 

George Whitefield on the mark of being a Christian

Holiness, including overcoming personal sin, was clearly an active discipleship goal for Whitefield as it was for Wesley. As this chapter reviews the espoused, operant and normative theologies of holiness evident in these preachers and the movements they helped birth, there will be some clear divergences as well as syncretism. However, it is significant to note that despite theological systems that can be presented as at times mutually exclusive, both these Evangelical Revival heavyweights have a clear stated discipleship goal of holiness. 

Their overall schemes of salvation

Although sharp points of disagreement can be found between Wesley and Whitefield’s soteriology it is helpful, for comparison with the contemporary charismatic church, to stand back and see the similarities. Maddock’s comparison of their sermons finds that three non-negotiable doctrines are at the heart of the gospel for both men.[37]

  1. They both proclaimed the doctrine of original sin and the Bible’s depiction of the fallen human condition. They insisted that according to the Scriptures, apart from divine intervention, every person, without exception, is deserving of God’s just condemnation. 
  2. God’s response to this dire diagnosis, is the good news of God’s unmerited kingdom towards undeserving sinners. They insisted that by God’s grace, individuals can have their sins forgiven and stand justified in God’s sight, only through faith in the merits of Jesus’s substitutionary sacrifice.
  3. The necessity of spiritual regeneration, and that this experience of the “new birth” marked the entry point to a life of expectant progressive sanctification.[38]

We have already noted Skevington Wood’s[39] seven point and Outler’s three point[40] summaries of Wesley’s core doctrines. Maddock’s summary[41] of Whitefield’s is repeated in the above. Drawing these together beyond Maddock’s initial points of similarity we can elaborate: 

Both men are clear that scripture is the book of truth, [42] the only standard of truth. 

Their doctrine of sin and theological anthropology that ‘we are all dead in sin and trespasses’[43], has eternal consequences. For both, humanity needs rescuing from original sin. Sin is a loathsome leprosy, not easy to shake off, and not simply a sickness to recover from. As we have seen both share an eschatology that compels their discipleship goals. They are clear that there is a judgment to come, and a desire to flee the wrath to come is necessary for those who seek new birth. Wesley puts the doctrine of hell bluntly when he asserts to William Law: ‘Can you conceive of the Most High dressing up as a scarecrow, as we do to fright children’, if there is no hell, then Scripture, he argues, is not trustworthy, and ‘there is also no heaven, no revelation.’[44] ‘every sinner is under the sentence of hell-fire’ until he turned to Christ’.[45]


As will be seen later in this survey their shared conviction regarding humanity’s plight aside from the new birth – due to original sin and eternal judgement – stands in significant contrast to many operant and espoused theologies in the contemporary charismatic church. It also gives context to the significance of “new birth” or justification by faith. It carries the sense of being saved from something disastrous into something brand new. This conviction drives their discipleship goals and pursuit of holiness. 

Where differences remain between Wesley and Whitefield

Maddock makes an equally concise summary of Wesley and Whitefield’s doctrinal differences. These broadly relate to their Calvinism / Arminianism which are varyingly overplayed and underestimated. Perhaps the most well attested of these as to whether there can be ‘non-meritous and divinely-enabled human liberty in the divine-human relationship,’ with each man possibly wilfully misunderstanding the other’s anthropology. Whitefield saw Wesley as semi-Pelagian, and Wesley caricatured Whitefield’s Calvinism as a system ‘that promoted mechanical fatalism and hindered the pursuit of holy living.’[46]

There are differences also regarding justification. Agreed on the essence, that no-one can contribute anything to their salvation, which is all on the merit of Christ alone, received through faith, they differ on the particulars of scope and nature. For Wesley the scope was limited to past sins forgiven, for Whitefield it covered the past, present and future. For Whitefield, Christ’s righteousness is imputed to repentant sinners, for Wesley this righteousness has to be worked out through sanctification.

Maddocks’ final point refers to whether indwelling sin can be eradicated in this lifetime. We will return to later, simply noting that, firstly Wesley’s definition of sin ‘a voluntary transgression of a known law’ was far more limited than Whitefield’s (which encompassed known and unknown, voluntary and involuntary transgressions), and secondly Wesley’s understanding of Christian perfection (‘a dynamic, relational reality’) was likewise different from Whitefield’s perception of that understanding (‘a static state of being unable to sin’).[47]


Despite the differences Maddock concludes each believed that the ‘pursuit of inward and outward holiness ought to categorise the regenerate life’[48]. This was driven by a shared understanding that the gospel was a fundamental necessity for humanity. Our shared plight and sin precluded us from saving ourselves. Our eternal destiny

[1] Maddock 2011, 2 describes Wesley and Whitefield studies as ‘polarised and partisan’ with biographers asserting the moral acumen as well as theological superiority of their man against the other.

[2] Maddock, I, Wesley and Whitefield? Wesley Versus Whitefield? United Kingdom: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2018, 3

[3] Skevington Wood, 1969, 209-279. 

[4] Works II: 367

[5] Works 8:349

[6] Sermons 1:323

[7] Sermons 2:234; Skevington Wood, 240: ‘Wesleyanism is sometimes classed with Arminianism, but it essentially differs from it in the central place it gives to the work of the Spirit in regeneration.’ (Orr, J 1897, 300) cf McGonigle 2001, 8 who elaborates on this theme.

[8] Sermons I: 208

[9] Letters 8: 238

[10] Works 8: 270. Skevington Ward notes Strawson on the dangers of isolating or exaggerating this doctrine, before (rightly) attacking Rattenbury, Lyles and Wilson for under-representing Wesley’s appeal to ‘the terrors of the Lord’. Skevington Ward points to numerous Journal articles and the unpublished PhD research of Cyril Downes (1960) Eschatological Doctrines in the Writings of John and Charles Wesley. Edinburgh. As Wesley wrote to William Law “Can you conceive of the Most High dressing up as a scarecrow, as we do to fright children.” Letters Vol III, 370. He argues that if there is no hell then the Scripture is not trustworthy so there is also ‘no heaven, no revelation.’

[11] Outler, 1975, 69. cf Maddock, 2011, 178

[12] Conrad, 66

[13] Maddock 2011, 176 cf especially debate about ‘prevenient grace’ vs ‘total depravity’ and the impact each has on the doctrine of election. 

[14] Outler Works 2:342 cf Sermon: Original Sin in Outler Works 2:173. Although it is possible his desire to emphasise their common ground may have led him to overstate his point.

[15] Sermons, Vol I, 157; Sermon VII

[16] Maddock 2011, 241

[17] Maddock 2011, 241

[18] see Rack, 1989, 103-04. Contra this Witherington who sees Rack’s understanding of Christian Perfection as one of his weaknesses, arguing that a careful use of the works of L. Keefer and T. Campbell on Wesley and Christian antiquity would have enhanced this study considerably. This is discussed further below.

[19] Wesley culminates his Plain Account of Christian Perfection with a rhetorical reference to this prayer, stating simply that he expected God could/would answer it. Shepherd 2016, 131 cites an occasion Wesley used this prayer to defend himself of the charge of theological novelty by his Anglican superiors; cf Sanders 2013, 217; Rupp 1987, 27 argues that Wesley is calling his interlocutors’ bluff by finishing with this prayer – effectively asking what do you think it means ‘to perfectly love him’ if by it you do not mean perfect love?

[20] McGonigle, 2001, 8 

[21] Wesley, J, Works, Vol. 10, 364-369

[22] McGonigle, 2001, 227 

[23] Wesley, J, Works, Vol. 10, 366-367

[24] McGonigle, 2001

[25] Maddock, 211, cf. Smith, 7

[26] Smith, 13; Maddock, 212

[27] Schwenk, 2008, 35.

[28] Bebbington, 1989, 64

[29] Wesley, J, Works, Vol 2, pp.490-491

[30] to preachers at Conference, cited in McGingal p.241

[31] Wesley, J, Letters, Vol 8, p.238.

[32] ‘The more I examine the writings of the most experienced men . . . the more I differ from your notion about not committing sin and your decrying the doctrines of election and the perseverance of the saints. I dread coming to England, unless you are resolved to oppose these truths with less warmth . . . I dread your coming to America because the work of God is carried on here … by doctrines quite opposite to those you hold … I write not this … from heat of Spirit, but out of love . . . Perhaps I may never see you again, ’til we meet in judgement; then if not before, you will know that sovereign, distinguishing, irresistible grace brought you to heaven.’ “Letter CXCII. To the Rev. Mr. J.W.” GW, Works, I, pp. 181-182.

[33] “Sermon CCLXVIII, To T… K…, at London” GW, Works, I, 252.

[34] “Sermon XXXVIII, The Indwelling of the Spirit, the Common Privilege of All Believers.: GW, Works, VI, 99.

[35] “Letter CLXIX. To the Revd. Mr. JW” GW, Works, I, 156

[36] “Sermon XLII. Marks of Having Received the Holy Ghost.” GW, Works, I, 331

[37] Maddock, 2011, 237-8

[38] He argues that Whitfield takes the terms “original sin”, “justification” and the “new birth” to describe his major themes of Scripture, but that Wesley comes at the same doctrines from the vocabulary of human response. That is, ‘Wesley typically identified repentance as the response God demands of those born in a state of original sin, faith is the response God requires of individuals in order to be justified, and the life-long pursuit of holiness is the habitual response God requires those who have experienced spiritual regeneration.’ Ibid.

[39] Skevington Wood, 1969, 209-279. 

[40] Outler, 1975, 69. cf Maddock, 2011, 178

[41] Maddock 2011, 176

[42] Works II: 367, see also Conrad, 66. 

[43] Wesley in Whitefield’s funeral sermon. Outler Works 2:342 cf Sermon: Original Sin in Outler Works 2:173. A significant sermon for our study as Wesley was keen to emphasise their common ground. 

[44] Letters Vol III, 370.

[45] Sermons, Vol I, 157; Sermon VII

[46] Maddock, 2011, 241

[47] Ibid. 241

[48] Maddock 2011, 241