“Inflaming Your Souls by the Word of God” - page 3

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Third, we must approach our reading of Scripture with sincerity. Whitefield declares the importance of motivation; unless we “desire to do the will of God” (382), our reading is likely to be skewed and of limited lasting value. Reading that is motivated merely to attack others or justify a specific position, without any desire to know God more personally by applying the passage to one’s own life, is unlikely to yield the proper fruit regardless of how intense a person reads. Philip Jacob Spener (1635–1705), a leader of early Lutheran pietism who also emphasized the importance of laypeople searching the Scriptures, similarly commends sincerity: “The mind of the person who wishes to read in a fruitful manner must stand in true repentance, have in particular a heartfelt desire to truly know the divine will, and out of such a desire direct its reading.”7

Fourth, Whitefield stresses that to read Scripture effectively one must “make an application of every thing you read to your own hearts” (382). He reminds us that everything recorded in the Bible “was written for our learning” (382). By its very nature Scripture is formative and transformative if we take the message seriously and apply it to our lives. At this point Whitefield notes the importance of experience. This was a characteristic of the early evangelicals, which they had inherited from the Puritans of the previous century. Then referred to as experimental divinity, heart religion, or experimental piety, today we would call it experiential learning. Regardless of the terminology, the point is that we are reading something not merely for information, but to be formed and transformed by it. In other words, we recognize the reality that Scripture is the living Word of God and will accomplish all that God intends for it (Isa. 55:11). Here Whitefield stresses the role of the Holy Spirit, who was foundational in a person’s experience of God. While not specifically referenced in this sermon, there is a clear allusion to John 16:13, that “when the Spirit of truth comes , he will guide you into all truth.” With the emphasis on experience, this application is specific, particular, and deeply personal.

Fifth, and directly expanding upon his last principle, Whitefield urges us to “[l]labour to attain that Spirit by which they [i.e. the Scriptures] were written” (383). He illustrates this principle by reminding us that Nicodemus’ ignorance of Jesus (John 3:1–21) was due to his lack of awareness of the Holy Spirit. The role of the Spirit and Word has had a long association in the church, but this teaching was emphasized in the Protestant Reformation with John Calvin and then the Puritans. Whitefield was often accused of enthusiasm, which was not a healthy label in the eighteenth century. It was frequently associated with the more unbalanced extremes of ecstatic religious experience. In light of that criticism, he articulates the dynamic interaction between the Word and Spirit:
Though it is the quintessence of Enthusiasm to pretend to be guided by the Spirit without the written Word, yet it is every Christian’s bounden duty to be guided by the Spirit in conjunction with the written Word of God. Watch, therefore, I pray you, O believers, the motions of God’s blessed Spirit in your souls, and always try the suggestions or impressions that you may at any time feel, by the unerring rule of God’s most Holy Word.8

The interaction of the Word and Spirit creates the possibility for healthy experiences of God. Our contemporary culture seems overly consumed by experience, with little sensitivity to an important factor: discerning an experience’s validity. But the objective Word of God guided by the subjective presence and power of the Holy Spirit can produce significant experiences that deepen and guide us as disciples following Jesus.

Whitefield also recognizes that there are multiple levels of meaning in Scripture. This is again an ancient principle extending back to the Old Testament. Whitefield acknowledges there can be literal and spiritual meanings of a passage. The contemporary church, perhaps especially some evangelicals, is reticent to acknowledge this approach. Devout evangelical Christians of the eighteenth century would first read the Bible in a literal and historical sense. They typically followed this with a typological or spiritual reading, reflective of the christological emphasis previously mentioned. This spiritual reading of Scripture was still strongly present in the preaching and teaching of Charles Spurgeon in the nineteenth century. It is interesting to note the parallels between these early evangelicals and the growing popularity of the Theological Interpretation of Scripture among some evangelical theologians today.9 Whitefield was not naïve to the potential for misuse or possibility of overemphasizing spiritual reading; Scripture should always be used as a guide for accurate interpretation of reading and preaching the Bible.

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