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
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
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
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.