George Whitefield Sermon 37

The Duty of searching the Scriptures.

John 5:39, "Search the Scriptures."

When the Sadducees came to our blessed Lord, and put to him the

question, "whose wife that woman should be in the next life, who had seven

husbands in this," he told them "they erred, not knowing the scriptures."

And if we would know whence all the errors, that have over-spread the

church of Christ, first arose, we should find that, in a great measure,

they flowed from the same fountain, ignorance of the word of God.

Our blessed Lord, though he was the eternal God, yet as man, he made

the scriptures his constant rule and guide. And therefore, when he was

asked by the lawyer, which was the great commandment of the law, he

referred him to his Bible for an answer, "What readest thou?" And thus,

when led by the Spirit to be tempted by the devil, he repelled all his

assaults, with "it is written."

A sufficient confutation this, of their opinion, who say, "the Spirit

only, and not the Spirit by the Word, is to be our rule of action." If so,

our Savior, who had the Spirit without measure, needed not always have

referred to the written word.

But how few copy after the example of Christ? How many are there who

do not regard the word of God at all, but throw the sacred oracles aside,

as an antiquated book, fit only for illiterate men?

Such do greatly err, not knowing what the scriptures are, I shall,


FIRST, Show, that it is every one's duty to search them.

And SECONDLY, Lay down some directions for you to search them with


I. I am to show, that it is every person's duty to search the


By the Scriptures, I understand the law and the prophets, and those

books which have in all ages been accounted canonical, and which make up

that volume commonly called the Bible.

These are emphatically stiled the Scriptures, and, in one place, the

"Scriptures of Truth," as though no other books deserved the name of true

writings or scripture in comparison of them.

They are not of any private interpretation, authority, or invention,

but holy men of old wrote them, as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.

The fountain of God's revealing himself thus to man-kind, was our fall

in Adam, and the necessity of our new birth in Christ Jesus. And if we

search the scriptures as we ought, we shall find the sum and substance, the

Alpha and Omega, the beginning and end of them, is to lead us to a

knowledge of these two great truths.

All the threats, promises and precepts, all the exhortations and

doctrines contained therein, all the rites, ceremonies and sacrifices

appointed under the Jewish law; nay, almost all the historical parts of

holy scripture, suppose our being fallen in Adam, and either point out to

us a Mediator to come, or speak of him as already come in the flesh.

Had man continued in a state of innocence, he would not have needed an

outward revelation, because the law of God was so deeply written in the

tables of his heart. But having eaten the forbidden fruit, he incurred the

displeasure of God, and lost the divine image, and, therefore, without an

external revelation, could never tell how God would be reconciled unto him,

or how he should be saved from the misery and darkness of his fallen


That these truths are so, I need not refer you to any other book, than

your own hearts.

For unless we are fallen creatures, whence those abominable

corruptions which daily arise in our hearts? We could not come thus corrupt

out of the hands of our Maker, because he being goodness itself could make

nothing but what is like himself, holy, just, and good. And that we want to

be delivered from these disorders of our nature, is evident, because we

find an unwillingness within ourselves to own we are thus depraved, and are

always striving to appear to others of a quite different frame and temper

of mind than what we are.

I appeal to the experience of the most learned disputer against divine

revelation, whether he does not find in himself, that he is naturally

proud, angry, revengeful, and full of other passions contrary to the

purity, holiness, and long suffering of God. And is not this a

demonstration that some way or other he is fallen from God? And I appeal

also, whether at the same time that he finds these hurtful lusts in his

heart, he does not strive to seem amiable, courteous, kind and affable

[friendly, good-natured, easy-going]; and is not this a manifest proof,

that he is sensible he is miserable, and wants, he knows not how, to be

redeemed or delivered from it?

Here then, God by his word steps in, and opens to his view such a

scene of divine love, and infinite goodness in the holy scriptures, that

none but men, of such corrupt and reprobate minds as our modern deists,

would shut their eyes against it.

What does God in his written word do more or less, than show thee, O

man, how thou art fallen into that blindness, darkness, and misery, of

which thou feelest and complainest? And, at the same time, he points out

the way to what thou desirest, even how thou mayest be redeemed out of it

by believing in, and copying after the Son of his love.

As I told you before, so I tell you again, upon these two truths rest

all divine revelation. It being given us for no other end, but to show our

misery, and our happiness; our fall and recovery; or, in one word, after

what manner we died in Adam, and how in Christ we may again be made alive.

Hence, then arises the necessity of searching the scriptures: for

since they are nothing else but the grand charter of our salvation, the

revelation of a covenant made by God with men in Christ, and a light to

guide us into the way of peace; it follows, that all are obliged to read

and search them, because all are equally fallen from God, all equally stand

in need of being informed how they must be restored to, and again united

with him.

How foolishly then do the disputing infidels of this generation act,

who are continually either calling for signs from heaven, or seeking for

outward evidence to prove the truth of divine revelation? Whereas, what

they so earnestly seek for is nigh unto, nay, within them. For let them but

consult their own hearts, they cannot but feel what they want. Let them but

consult the lively oracles of God, and they cannot but see a remedy

revealed for all their wants, and that the written word does as exactly

answer the wants and desires of their hearts, as face answers to face in

the water. Where then is the scribe, where is the wise, where is the

solidity of the reasoning of the disputers of this world? Has not God

revealed himself unto them, as plain as their own hearts could wish? And

yet they require a sign: but there shall no other sign be given them. For

if they believe not a revelation which is every way so suited to their

wants, neither will they be persuaded though on should rise from the dead.

But this discourse is not designed so much for them that believe not,

as for them, who both know and believe that the scriptures contain a

revelation which came from God, and that it is their duty, as being chief

parties concerned, not only to read but search them also.

I pass on, therefore, in the

SECOND place, to lay down some directions, how you may search them

with advantage.

FIRST, Have always in view, the end for which the scriptures were

written, even to show us the way of salvation, by Jesus Christ.

"Search the scriptures," says our blessed Lord, "for they are they

that testify of me." Look, therefore, always for Christ in the scripture.

He is the treasure hid in the field, both of the Old and New Testament. In

the Old, you will find him under prophesies, types, sacrifices, and

shadows; in the New, manifested in the flesh, to become a propitiation for

our sins as a Priest, and as a Prophet to reveal the whole will of his

heavenly Father.

Have Christ, then, always in view when you are reading the word of

God, and this, like the star in the east, will guide you to the Messiah,

will serve as a key to every thing that is obscure, and unlock to you the

wisdom and riches of all the mysteries of the kingdom of God.

SECONDLY, Search the scriptures with an humble child-like disposition.

For whosoever does not read them with this temper, shall in no wise

enter into the knowledge of the things contained in them. For God hides the

sense of them, from those that are wise and prudent in their own eyes, and

reveals them only to babes in Christ: who think they know nothing yet as

they ought to know; who hunger and thirst after righteousness, and humbly

desire to be fed with the sincere milk of the word, that they may grow


Fancy yourselves, therefore, when you are searching the scriptures,

especially when you are reading the New Testament, to be with Mary sitting

at the feet of the holy Jesus; and be as willing to learn what God shall

teach you, as Samuel was, when he said, "Speak, Lord, for thy servant


Oh that the unbelievers would pull down every high thought and

imagination that exalts itself against the revealed will of God! O that

they would, like new-born babes, desire to be fed with the pure milk of the

word! Then we should have them no longer scoffing at Divine revelation, nor

would they read the Bible any more with the same intend the Philistines

brought our Samson, to make sport at it; but they would see the divine

image and superscription written upon every line. They would hear God

speaking unto their souls by it, and, consequently, be built up in the

knowledge and fear of him, who is the Author thereof.

THIRDLY, Search the scriptures, with a sincere intention to put in

practice what you read.

A desire to do the will of God is the only way to know it; if any man

will do my will, says Jesus Christ, "He shall know of my doctrine, whether

it be of God, or whether I speak of myself." As he also speaks in another

place to his disciples, "To you, (who are willing to practice your duty) it

is given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God, but to those that are

without (who only want to raise cavils against my doctrine) all these

things are spoken in parables, that seeing they may see and not understand,

and hearing they may hear and not perceive."

For it is but just in God to send those strong delusions, that they

may believe a lie, and to conceal the knowledge of himself from all such as

do not seek him with a single intention.

Jesus Christ is the same now, as formerly, to those who desire to know

from his word, who he is that they may believe on, and live by; and to him

he will reveal himself as clearly as he did to the woman of Samaria, when

he said, "I that speak to thee am he," or as he did to the man that was

born blind, whom the Jews had cast out for his name's sake,

"He that talketh with thee, is he." But to those who consult his word with

a desire neither to know him, nor keep his commandments, but either merely

for their entertainment, or to scoff at the simplicity of the manner in

which he is revealed, to those, I say, he never will reveal himself, though

they should search the scriptures to all eternity. As he never would tell

those whether he was the Messiah or not, who put that question to him

either out of curiosity, or that they might have whereof to accuse him.

FOURTHLY, In order to search the scriptures still more effectually,

make an application of every thing you read to your own hearts.

For whatever was written in the book of God, was written for our

learning. And what Christ said unto those aforetime, we must look upon as

spoken to us also: for since the holy scriptures are nothing but a

revelation from God, how fallen man is to be restored by Jesus Christ: all

the precepts, threats, and promises, belong to us and to our children, as

well as to those, to whom they were immediately made known.

Thus the Apostle, when he tells us that he lived by the faith of the

Son of God, adds, "who died and gave himself for me." It is this

application of Jesus Christ to our hearts, that makes his redemption

effectual to each of us.

And it is this application of all the doctrinal and historical parts

of scripture, when we are reading them over, that must render them

profitable to us, as they were designed for reproof, for correction, for

instruction in righteousness, and to make every child of God perfect,

thoroughly furnished to every good work.

I dare appeal to the experience of every spiritual reader of holy

writ, whether or not, if he consulted the word of God in this manner, he

was not at all times and at all seasons, as plainly directed how to act, as

though he had consulted the Urim and Thummim, which was upon the high-

priest's breast. For this is the way God now reveals himself to man: not by

making new revelations, but by applying general things that are revealed

already to every sincere reader's heart.

And this, by the way, answers an objection made by those who say, "The

word of God is not a perfect rule of action, because it cannot direct us

how to act or how to determine in particular cases, or what place to go to,

when we are in doubt, and therefore, the Spirit, and not the word, is to be

our rule of action."

But this I deny, and affirm on the contrary, that God at all times,

circumstances, and places, though never so minute, never so particular,

will, if we diligently seek the assistance of his Holy Spirit, apply

general things to our hearts, and thereby, to use the words of the holy

Jesus, will lead us into all truth, and give us the particular assistance

we want. But this leads me to a

FIFTH direction how to search the scriptures with profit: Labor to

attain that Spirit by which they were written.

For the natural man discerneth not the words of the Spirit of God,

because they are spiritually discerned; the words that Christ hath spoken,

they are spirit, and they are life, and can be no more understood as to the

true sense and meaning of them, by the mere natural man, than a person who

never had learned a language can understand another speaking in it. The

scriptures, therefore, have not unfitly been compared, by some, to the

cloud which went before the Israelites, they are dark and hard to be

understood by the natural man, as the cloud appeared dark to the Egyptians;

but they are light, they are life to Christians indeed, as that same cloud

which seemed dark to Pharaoh and his house, appeared bright and altogether

glorious to the Israel of God.

It was the want of the assistance of this Spirit, that made Nicodemus,

a teacher of Israel, and a ruler of the Jews, so utterly ignorant in the

doctrine of regeneration: for being only a natural man, he could not tell

how that thing could be; it was the want of this Spirit that made our

Savior's disciples, though he so frequently conversed with them, daily

mistake the nature of the doctrines he delivered; and it is because the

natural veil is not taken off from their hearts, that so many who now

pretend to search the scriptures, yet see no farther than into the bare

letter of them, and continue entire strangers to the spiritual meaning

couched under every parable, and contained in almost all the precepts of

the book of God.

Indeed, how should it be otherwise, for God being a spirit, he cannot

communicate himself any otherwise than in a spiritual manner to the hearts

of men; and consequently if we are strangers to his Spirit, we must

continue strangers to his word, because it is altogether like himself,

spiritual. Labor, therefore, earnestly for to attain this blessed Spirit;

otherwise, your understandings will never be opened to understand the

scriptures aright: and remember, prayer is one of the most immediate means

to get this Holy Spirit. Therefore,

SIXTHLY, Let me advise you, before you read the scriptures, to pray,

that Christ, according to his promise, would send his Spirit to guide you

into all truth; intersperse short ejaculations whilst you are engaged in

reading; pray over every word and verse, if possible; and when you close up

the book, most earnestly beseech God, that the words which you have read,

may be inwardly engrafted into your hearts, and bring forth in you the

fruits of a good life.

Do this, and you will, with a holy violence, draw down God's Holy

Spirit into your hearts; you will experience his gracious influence, and

feel him enlightening, quickening, and inflaming your souls by the word of

God; you will then not only read, but mark, learn, and inwardly digest what

you read: and the word of God will be meat indeed, and drink indeed unto

your souls; you then will be as Apollos was, powerful in the scriptures; be

scribes ready instructed to the kingdom of God, and bring out of the good

treasures of your heart, things both from the Old and New Testament, to

entertain all you converse with. One

Direction more, which shall be the last, SEVENTHLY, Read the scripture

constantly, or, to use our Savior's expression in the text, "search the

scriptures;" dig in them as for hid treasure; for here is a manifest

allusion to those who dig in mines; and our Savior would thereby teach us,

that we must take as much pains in constantly reading his word, if we would

grow wise thereby, as those who dig for gold and silver. The scriptures

contain the deep things of God, and therefore, can never be sufficiently

searched into by a careless, superficial, cursory way of reading them, but

by an industrious, close, and humble application.

The Psalmist makes it the characteristic of a good man, that he

"meditates on God's law day and night." And "this book of the law, (says

God to Joshua) shall not go out of thy mouth, but thou shalt meditate

therein day and night;" for then thou shalt make thy way prosperous, and

thou shalt have good success. Search, therefore, the scriptures, not only

devoutly but daily, for in them are the words of eternal life; wait

constantly at wisdom's gate, and she will then, and not till then, display

and lay open to you her heavenly treasures. You that are rich, are without

excuse if you do not; and you that are poor, ought to take heed and improve

that little time you have: for by the scriptures you are to be acquitted,

and by the scriptures you are to be condemned at the last day.

But perhaps you have no taste for this despised book; perhaps plays,

romances, and books of polite entertainment, suit your taste better: if

this be your case, give me leave to tell you, your taste is vitiated

[corrupted, depraved], and unless corrected by the Spirit and word of God,

you shall never enter into his heavenly kingdom: for unless you delight in

God here, how will you be made meet to dwell with him hereafter. Is it a

sin then, you will say, to read useless impertinent books; I answer, Yes.

And that for the same reason, as it is a sin to indulge useless

conversation, because both immediately tend to grieve and quench that

Spirit, by which alone we can be sealed to the day of redemption. You may

reply, How shall we know this? Why, put in practice the precept in the

text; search the scripture in the manner that has been recommended, and

then you will be convinced of the danger, sinfulness, and

unsatisfacteriness of reading any others than the book of God, or such as

are wrote in the same spirit. You will then say, when I was a child, and

ignorant of the excellency of the word of God, I read what the world calls

harmless books, as other children in knowledge, though old in years, have

done, and still do; but now I have tasted the good word of life, and am

come to a more perfect knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, I put away these

childish, trifling things, and am determined to read no other books but

what lead me to a knowledge of myself and of Christ Jesus.

Search, therefore, the scriptures, my dear brethren; taste and see how

good the word of God is, and then you will never leave that heavenly manna,

that angel's food, to feed on dry husks, that light bread, those trifling,

sinful compositions, in which men of false taste delight themselves: no,

you will then disdain such poor entertainment, and blush that yourselves

once were fond of it. The word of God will then be sweeter to you than

honey, and the honey-comb, and dearer than gold and silver; your souls by

reading it, will be filled as it were, with marrow and fatness, and your

hearts insensibly molded into the spirit of its blessed Author. In short,

you will be guided by God's wisdom here, and conducted by the light of his

divine word into glory hereafter.