Sermon XIII. Reading the Scriptures, a Mean of Grace. [A Sermon for Lent.] St. John v. 39. Search the Scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life.
HAVING, in a previous discourse, asserted, and endeavoured to establish, the doctrine that God has given to every man a sufficient measure of grace to enable him to be saved; but that this is not so irresistible in power or degree, as inevitably to produce that result independently of the co-operation of the individual; I proceed now to ask your attention to the reading of the Holy Scriptures as a prominent mean of grace. And here I shall speak, first, of the importance of the topics of which the Scriptures treat; secondly, of the influence which the reading of them is calculated to exert upon the character; thirdly, of the manner of reading which may best promote that influence.
 First. Of the topics of which the Scriptures treat.
Setting aside, for a moment, the spiritual advantage which accompanies the perusal of the Holy Word, there is that in its disclosures which might well invite the attention of the human mind, which, insatiable in its curiosity, extends its researches on every hand, and seeks knowledge from every accessible source. In those sacred pages, not only are our duties to God, our neighbour, and ourselves, declared and enforced; but all things necessary for us to know in relation to our present and future condition, are largely unfolded. From the vast and darkling ocean of uncertainty which surrounds us, revelation dispels the mists and clouds; and like the sun, rising in effulgence upon the world, spreads far and wide the boundless prospect; and opens to the eye of faith, scenes which, to the eye of reason, lay enveloped in the profoundest gloom. A reference to a few of the prominent points in which the deficiency and the ignorance of man are conspicuous, will teach us something of the high claims, in this respect, which the Scriptures possess to our reverence and attention.
The first point which I shall mention, in which our deficiency and ignorance are apparent, is in relation to our own character and destiny. Beings endowed with reason, and capable of high and almost boundless conceptions, whose thoughts [180/181] run back to take in all the past, and forward to grasp the circling ages of the future, we find ourselves possessed of an existence of which, a few years since, we were not conscious; the object and the end of which of ourselves we are unable to discover.
Whether we regard this outward frame, the body, which, increasing in stature, advances to maturity, and then, falling to decay, sinks into the grave, and crumbles into dust, or the spirit within, which, unseen, directs the movements of this corporeal frame for a time, and then unseen departs, the whole course and object of our being is dark and full of mystery. While man is permitted to exist, we ask in vain, "For what purpose does he live?" And when he giveth up the ghost, we ask in vain, "Where is he?" Is the spirit which animates him immortal? And if it be, what is its abode when shapeless dust is all that has survived of the manly or of the graceful form? Does it watch over the elemental particles in the hope of a new creation? Does it, in spiritual form, retain the body's image, and lingering around its wonted scenes, revisit and haunt the places where it was known? Does it soar away to other regions, and shining out in disembodied coldness, look down from the spheres of heaven? Does it exchange its tenement for nobler or more ignoble nature, and rove in endless transmigration through al} the varied forms [181/182] and shapes of being? or, when the body dies, and returns to nothingness, does the spirit, like some fleecy cloud, rise to the bright beam of heaven, like it to be dissipated and exhaled by its pure ray?
These are questions, the discussion and various decision of which, whether in refined or in barbarous states of society, show how imperfect are the discoveries which man is able to make in respect of his nature, of his origin, and of his destiny. This is a chief point, therefore, on which he requires to be enlightened from above: and here the Scriptures come declaring that he is a creature destined for eternity, originally formed by God to know, to glorify, and to enjoy him for ever. That fallen from his first estate, he is here an exile and a probationer; that life to the righteous shall be the vestibule of a better existence, death the gate of immortality; that the separation of the spirit from the body is only for a time, for that "the hour is coming, in the which all that are in their graves shall hear the voice of the Son of man, and shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation." But not only is man naturally ignorant of his character and of his destiny; he is also subject to unhappiness, and the slave of inquietude. His life is full of trouble, as well as of mystery. "Man, that is born of a woman [182/183] hath but a short time to live, and is full of misery." A desire for happiness seems inherent in his nature. It is the instinctive spur which urges him to action, and invites him to repose. His imagination runs out to explore for him blissful scenes. In youth the high wrought pictures of fancy are like the food on which he is daily sustained; and they are the subject of his evening dreams. He lives in expectation and exists in visions, and hope ever allures him with some promise of delight. This is the history of man's desires and of his capabilities. But alas! he is soon doomed to discover that he is to be the victim of disappointment and of sorrow. He pursues through life a phantom. He is the sport of vain anticipation, and of unfulfilled desire. He deludes himself, and the world is sure to deceive him. He reaches the grave, where he must repose without having realized the enjoyment for which he toiled. The circle of his cherished friends, and the sum of earthly good which he had been able to gather around him, and the fruits of his intellectual toil, must then be left. He is separated from all that he had acquired, and from all on which he had fixed his affections. He bids farewell to friends, and offspring, and domestic joys. He lays him down in his last sleep, and the morning sun, when it rises upon his grave, wakens him no more to renew his fallacious hopes, nor to pursue with weariness his [183/184] unavailing exertions. But while such is the character of his life, the question, Why he should be made subject to vanity and disappointment? is one which often presents itself, but which he cannot solve. This is the second point in which the imperfection of his knowledge appears. And here the Scripture informs him that these trials and disappointments are necessary, in order to turn his thoughts from present things, to those eternal realities of whose existence he has already been assured. It tells him that the good which he is permitted to enjoy, is intended to demonstrate his capacity for happiness, and to awaken him to its effectual pursuit; that it is interrupted to remind him not to seek it exclusively here; and that it is withdrawn in order to teach him to fix his affections upon that better world, where only true joys are to be found. It is thus that the Scripture causes him to understand, that God ever deals with him in kindness. And as well by that in which he is indulged, as by that of which he is deprived, would discipline his thoughts, his affections, his desires; and would lead him from this earthly atmosphere, so often overcast with sorrow, with disappointment, with pain, and with care, to that bright and unclouded heaven, where there shall be no more sorrow, nor sighing, nor imperfection, nor death; where the things with which we are conversant shall be neither fleeting nor deceptive; but sure, substantial, and eternal; where [184/185] all our occupation shall be joy, and our pleasures be elevated as they are lasting.
But besides our ignorance and our misery, for both of which the Scriptures bring a reason and a remedy so sufficient, man is a sinful being. He4 feels that he is alienated from God, and at enmity with him. This indeed is the original, the deep rooted source of all his ignorance, his imperfection, his misery; this the great cause of all the disorders of the world; and the reason why he who made if has withdrawn from it the manifestation of his countenance and his favour. Man is a sinful being; and for his transgression the whole creation groaneth and travaileth together in pain. And it is no wonder if, when we are told of the joys of heaven, of the rewards of immortality, and of the felicity of being admitted into the abiding place of God's glory, a conscious unfitness to enter there, a just sense of unworthiness and of guilt, which the Scriptures confirm, and an utter disrelish of pure and spiritual delights, should mar our satisfaction at all these disclosures, and make us shrink from even contemplating those perfect joys, of which we feel ourselves alike unqualified and unworthy to partake. This is the third point in which we need instruction and assistance from on high. And here the Scriptures come, bringing with them declarations of good will, promises of forgiveness, nod the offers of renovating grace; carrying [185/186] back our thoughts to the origin of our race, they show that the first promise of deliverance was vouchsafed at the very moment of the first transgression, which made it necessary; and through all subsequent time they represent the Most High by prophecy, declaring, and by rite prefiguring, the great and infinite atonement, through which we may be pardoned and restored; until, in the fulness of time, the Lamb of God was seen upon the cross, taking away the sin of the world. And then the ministry of reconciliation was sent forth to go into all the world, and to make known to every creature, that God is in Christ reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing to men their trespasses; and that being born anew of water and of the spirit, we may become heirs of the heavenly inheritance, and admitted into the kingdom of God; for "where sin abounded, grace did much more abound."
These, my brethren, are the high and holy themes of the book of God; themes infinitely surpassing in interest all that can be found in the books of men; for the statutes of the Lord are right, and rejoice the heart; pure, and they give light to the eyes; more to be desired are they than gold, yea, than much fine gold. No wonder that of the good man it is said, "that his delight is in the law of the Lord, and in his law will he exercise himself day and night." No wonder that David seemed never weary of setting forth [186/187] its purifying, ennobling, consoling, enlightening, and quickening influence. More is it to be wondered at, that with such universal negligence or indifference, men turn away habitually from its sacred truths; and content to know that the soul is immortal, that there is an hereafter of happiness and of glory revealed, and attainable through the merits of a Saviour, make no endeavour to ascertain the nature of that happiness, or the terms to be fulfilled in order to secure their participation in it.
Search the Scriptures, said the Saviour, for in them ye think ye have eternal life. And if this injunction was wise and useful in reference to the Scriptures of the Old Testament, which contained the promise of a Redeemer, how much more in reference to that Gospel which announces that the promise is fulfilled! The law, abounding in shadows, made nothing perfect; but in the Gospel is made manifest "the appearing of our Saviour Jesus Christ, who hath abolished death, and brought life and immortality to light."
That we may be induced to search the Scriptures, let us consider now, in the second place, the influence which the diligent reading of them is calculated to exert.
It is easy to be seen, my brethren, that he who makes it his business to be conversant with the Scripture and its lofty themes, who attentively weighs all that it declares of our duty and of our [187/188] danger, of our high destiny, and of our glorious hopes, must find his mind gradually imbued with their influence, and must become assured of their truth; and while he makes it his endeavour to avoid the fatal wreck of happiness against which they caution him, must be influenced by a sincere desire to secure the advantages which they promise. He who habitually and attentively searches the Scripture, therefore, surrounds himself almost imperceptibly with the realities of another life. The sanctions which are revealed in relation to a future existence, press upon him almost with the certainty of present things. His mind becomes familiarized to the being and attributes of God. In a manner he holds converse with him, and being made to see, to feel, to acknowledge, and believe his existence, he realizes the words of the poet,
"A Deity believed, is joy begun."
Beholding, in the representations of the Scriptures, the true character of God, having his perfections constantly in view, he becomes in a degree conformed to his image; his better thoughts and desires are cherished; his heart purified and elevated; his life and all his actions controlled. He learns "to love the things which God commandeth, and to desire that which he doth promise." In the Scriptures of the Old Testament he sees God more particularly revealed as the moral governor of the universe; jealous of his [188/189] honour, strict in his judgments, rewarding those who love him and keep his commandments, and though long-suffering and slow to anger, yet at the last, visiting with punishment the disobedient and rebellious; for he will by no means clear the guilty. In the New Testament, in which the benefits of Christ's atonement are proclaimed, he is represented as the pardoning, the merciful, the reconciled God; offering forgiveness to the chief of sinners, inviting all men to come to him, and declaring that whosoever cometh to him, he will in ho wise cast out.
The effect of these different but consistent views of the character of God, must be to inspire self-distrust, and Watchfulness of our own conduct, hatred of sin, fear of offending, trust in his mercy, and willing obedience to all his commandments. These are such natural results of reading the Scriptures, that they might make it to be considered as a means of grace, independently of all supernatural influence. And that such results actually followed the public reading of the Old Testament Scriptures among the Jews, their history sufficiently proves; for before the Babylonish captivity, when copies of their Scriptures were rare, and they not publicly read, the proneness of the nation to run into idolatry was great and proverbial; but after the captivity, when synagogues were built in all their towns, and when, on the two solemn synagogue days of every [189/190] week, besides the Sabbath, there were constantly read two lessons, the first out of the law, and the (second out of the prophets, the influence of this practice was such, that they were "as scrupulous of avoiding all appearance of idolatry thereafter, as they were prone to run into it before." [See Prideaux, vol. ii. 158; vol. iii. 251.] But we are not to limit our view of the advantage of reading the Scriptures to the mere natural and necessary result arising from the knowledge they impart. There is annexed to the right performance of this duty, a higher power of God's Spirit accompanying the reading of his word, causing us not merely to know, but also to love and obey it.
It is declared of the Scriptures, not merely that they are given by inspiration of God, profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness; not only that they are able to make us wise unto salvation; but further, there is ascribed to them a high and supernatural efficacy. "For the word of God is quick and powerful;" "and sharper than a two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow; and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart." In other words, these sacred writings are endued by the Holy Spirit with such living energy, that they pierce the soul and lay [190/191] open the whole man to the inspection of himself and of God. They detect his hidden purposes, and make him know himself. They strip of their disguise his vicious actions and intentions, and his unholy desires. They disarm him of all false refuges, and show him to himself, exposed to condemnation and the anger of God. Agreeably to this view, the word of God is elsewhere called "the sword of the Spirit," and therefore the Gospel is called "the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth." Driving the sinner from himself to his Saviour, the engrafted word, "if received" in meekness, "is able to save his soul." Such is the power of the Scriptures to deter men from their sins, and to lead them to God; to make them despair of all other means of safety, in order that they may lay hold of the hope set before them in the Gospel; to convince them that they are under a just sentence of death, that they may embrace the offer of salvation and of life. And to this agrees the declaration of our Saviour, "The words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life." How this power of the Holy Spirit, accompanying the word, is made to influence and convert the mind, we cannot tell. The ability of God to effect his own good purposes, is as far beyond our power to trace as to comprehend. He has all things at his control; and he has promised that his Holy Spirit shall be given to lead men into all truth. [191/192] And though, in perusing his word, their perception of its meaning may be dark and indistinct, so that, like the Eunuch of Ethiopia, they understand not what they read, except some man should guide them; yet if they are sincere and diligent in their inquiry, God will not want means and instruments to make them both perceive and know what things they ought to do, to direct them in their duty, and to make them go on their way rejoicing.
With such encouragements to search the Scriptures, there can be no excuse for neglecting their perusal on account of not understanding their meaning. A more usual excuse for this neglect, is the belief that we are already apprised of their contents, and therefore, that to read them constantly, is unnecessary. But besides the fact, that the best, and wisest, and most learned men, have considered the Scriptures an inexhaustible mine, in which they are always perceiving new beauties, new analogies, new disclosures, and profounder truths, the oftener they are read, and the more closely they are examined; there remains the reason before given, for our constantly perusing them, namely, the great influence and control which the reading of them exerts on the understanding and on the heart, on the faith and on the life.
That a mere superficial, occasional reading of the Scriptures, as a task, will not have the effect [192/193] of which I have spoken, it is almost superfluous to assert; and, therefore it is necessary, in the last place, to call your attention to the manner in which they should be read, in order to produce their proper influence. The direction of our Saviour is, "Search the Scriptures," that is, examine, study, investigate, scrutinize them. And the reason which is given, may show something of the zeal and earnestness with which we should apply ourselves to this duty--"for in them ye think ye have eternal life;" not that this is a doubtful position, for ye know, ye believe, ye are assured, that they are the charter of your salvation. They contain the promise of eternal life. Let your diligence in ascertaining and securing your interest in that promise, bear some proportion to its unspeakable value. Not only must we examine the sacred writings with the same care and attention that we employ in other compositions, whose object and contents we wish to ascertain; but we must more anxiously, more perseveringly, and with greater care, study, examine, and search them. To this end, as the Scriptures have one author, and one meaning, and one great design, a comparison of one part with another, especially with the aid of the marginal notes in our larger Bibles, will be found of very great advantage. The practical parts of the Scripture chiefly concern us, and these are plain and easy to be understood. And if we make the [193/194] other portions which we read to embrace distinct subjects, and complete periods of time; such, for 'instance, as the circumstances of a whole reign, the development of a whole transaction, the substance of a particular prophecy, compared with its fulfilment; or if we single out for one consideration, the history, the character, and the fate of an individual, we shall not want for materials on which to dwell with interest, and from which to derive caution, instruction, and improvement. In reading the Gospels especially, a comparison of what has been written by each of the Evangelists, in reference to the same circumstance or event, is often highly useful. And in perusing the Epistles, where the greatest obscurity is to be found, we are to read them as we would any other letters; "not in detached portions, but at one sitting; and with a perfect disregard of the unnatural division into chapters and verses." This is the mode recommended by Mr. Locke, who declares that he never understood them, especially those of St. Paul, until he pursued that course. And any one who first ascertains the peculiar circumstances and character of the Church or individual to whom the Epistle is addressed, and the occasion which produced it, and then reads through the whole Epistle, keeping those circumstances in view, will observe such a clearness, force, and beauty, in each, and such an exposition of doctrine to be believed, resulting [194/195] always in a necessary inference of duties to be performed, as would not before have been imagined. "This," to use the language of Mr. Locke, "is not to be obtained by one or two hasty readings. It must be repeated again and again, with a close attention to the tenor of the discourse; and it is the safest way to suppose that the Epistle has but one business, and one aim, until, by a frequent perusal of it, the independent matters which are treated of, come clearly to be distinguished."
But, my brethren, all helps are weak, in comparison of the help of God's grace; and to him, therefore, who hath caused all Holy Scriptures to be written for our learning, we are bound to lift our prayers, "that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of his holy word, we may embrace, and ever hold fast, the blessed hope of everlasting life, which he has given in our Saviour Jesus Christ."
I have now completed what I proposed in setting before you the reading of the Scriptures as a mean of grace. Here, then, is a plain duty, accessible to all, and easy of performance; one which has the promise and assurance of God's blessing, and which is, in itself, calculated to promote holy thoughts, good dispositions, heavenly desires. If we neglect this mean of grace, we do so at our great peril, and to our great [195/196] disadvantage; and we shall have reason to complain only of ourselves, if we feel no inclination to God's service, no delight in his commandments. But "if we diligently incline our ear unto wisdom, and apply our heart to understanding; if we seek her as silver, and search for her as for hid treasures, then shall we understand the fear of the Lord, and find the knowledge of God." Then will our thoughts, instead of resting upon earth and its vanities, be raised to heaven, and its abiding joys; a clear knowledge of our duty will lead us to its performance; and a sense of the advantage of obeying God, will give us a delight in his service; instead of listlessness and indifference, ardent feelings of piety and of love, will be excited in our bosom; the dominion of sin will be weakened, tranquillity and peace imparted, to the conscience, and in the place of those apprehensions of the future, and those fears of the grave, which oppress the irreligious mind, there will be spread in our hearts a joyful confidence in God, and a hope full of immortality through the merits of his Son.
If such are the benefits which flow from rightly reading the Scriptures, let us bring to this duty the penetration with which we pursue the study of the sciences; the readiness with which we hail the welcome letters of a friend. Let us examine the inspired volume, the title and condition of our salvation, with at least as much solicitude as the [196/197] prudent buyer employs in investigating his title to an earthly estate, or the heir, the document which Secures to him a temporal inheritance. Let us peruse the word of God in its threatenings, as we would the law whose penalties we had incurred. Let us reperuse it in its promises, as we would the pardon which declares us free.
Thus, my brethren, with diligence let us search the Scriptures, for in them, and in them only, we think we have eternal life.