“Inflaming Your Souls by the Word of God” - page 1

From the Winter 2011 issue of Knowing & Doing

"Inflaming Your Souls by the Word of God":
George Whitefield's Guidance for Searching the ScripturesTimothy Keller

by Tom Schwanda, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Christian Formation & Ministry, Wheaton College

Jesus reveals the critical link between knowing Scripture and discipleship when he asserts, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples” (John 8:31).1 It is impossible for anyone to be a faithful follower of Jesus Christ without an awareness of and commitment to regular engagement with the Bible. Although there are many contemporary resources and guides for studying the Bible, much wisdom can be gained from the writings of earlier Christians.

George Whitefield (1714–1770)2 is certainly representative of this. He along with John and Charles Wesley, John Newton, and others provided significant leadership for the eighteenth–century English revival. His persuasive sermons and eloquent language helped to pioneer open–air preaching. This became a necessity when many of his fellow Church of England clergymen prevented him from preaching in their pulpits due to his strong emphasis on the new birth and conversion in Christ. He normally preached a sermon a day and often up to three sermons on Sundays, regularly attracting crowds of five thousand to ten thousand listeners. He also made seven preaching trips to North America and exerted a strong influence on the colonial Great Awakening. Whitefield nourished and prepared his soul for this strenuous ministry through his avid reading of Puritan devotional classics and his daily meditation on Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Bible.3

While many rich treasures in his sermons are still appropriate for today, one, preached on John 5:39—“The Duty of Searching the Scriptures”—is particularly germane.4 Whitefield recognized the absolute priority of grounding the Christian life on the inspired Word of God. His insights are still valuable today. The goal of this article is to examine Whitefield’s principles for searching the Scriptures so that we might recover them to guide our own study of and meditation on the Bible. For, in reality, the more inflamed our souls are by the Word of God, the more we will be able to continue in Christ’s word so that we might truly be his disciples.

Whitefield begins this sermon by recounting the conversation between Jesus and the Sadducees about the woman who had seven husbands (Matt. 22:23­–28). Clearly their intention was to trick Jesus by asking whose wife she will be at the resurrection. Jesus responded by declaring, “You are wrong, because you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God” (Matt. 22:29). Whitefield quickly affirms this truth by announcing that throughout the history of the church errors “flowed from the same fountain, ignorance of the word of God” (379). However, we know more accurately from the reading of church history that some errors result from an intentional mishandling or abuse of Scripture.

Even though Jesus was “the eternal God,” he too made Scripture his daily guide. Whitefield further asserts that Jesus depended upon the Holy Spirit to guide him in his use of Scripture. Throughout this sermon Whitefield emphasizes the importance of the Holy Spirit in reading and applying the Bible.

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