Electronic book searches for sermon preparation

tsslogo.jpgToday’s post is for communicators who know the clarity a John Owen quote brings to a complex biblical topic or the punch a C.H. Spurgeon quote adds to application points. My goal today is to encourage evangelists, authors, bloggers, preachers in their work of reaching lost souls and edifying redeemed souls.

I will address various related questions: Are electronic books and printed books friends or enemies? How can I find the best electronic books? How do I search those works effectively? How do I find quotes on my topic? How do I best handle the quote in hand?

I regularly express my appreciation for paper books AND electronic books when it comes to sermon preparation. A useful library balances both. Electronic books provide a technological enhancement to printed books. Sometimes I want to search the Works of John Owen in a jiff (electronic), and sometimes I want to chain off several weeks to ice pick my way through an entire volume (printed). The electronic text enhances the printed copies by making them easier to navigate, but reading the full text of Communion with God on a computer screen would surely lead to a hyper-extended retina.


A warning before buying electronic books: The production of Puritan CD-Roms has exploded in the past five years. The good news is electronic books are more accessible. The bad news is the increasing number of poor editions. Most electronic books (especially of the Puritans) are book page images, not text-recognized which means you can read them but cannot search the works or copy-and-paste the text.

Stay away from these PDF image editions! They are less useful than printed works because they are awkward to read on a screen. They are less useful than text-recognized works because electronic text searches are impossible. Ask questions before you invest in electronic Puritan works. Make certain the text is a searchable PDF file.

Another note before we embark. This post is not intended to help you find Spurgeon’s sermons preached from a particular main text. Sermon indexes of primary texts are online (here is an excellent one). Track the text in the index, find sermons on your text and read ’em. Pretty easy. Also, this post is not about helping you use electronic commentaries (like Calvin’s). This too, is self-explanatory. This post is about digging deeper and finding great quotes in unlikely places. Ready?

My favorites

Here is what I consider an essential electronic library. Some of these works are free and, for what you get, all are dirt cheap. When used effectively they create an inexhaustible library of quotes and succinct biblical wisdom.

1. C.H. Spurgeon Collection on CD-Rom (Ages Software: 2006), $15 CD from RHB or $15 download from Ages. Unless it’s flowers for your wife, $15 cannot be better spent. This is a CD-Rom you must use to believe. All of Spurgeon’s works – 63 volumes of sermons, commentaries, four-volume autobiography, Lectures to My Students, the Sword and Trowel magazines — are all preserved in one text-searchable disc. Spurgeon was the Prince of Preachers, and no preacher has studied a text thoroughly who has not searched out Spurgeon’s priceless comments.

2. John Owen Collection on CD-Rom (Ages Software: 2004), $20 on CD or $15 download from Ages. Owen was the prince of English Puritans and a master at synthesizing Scripture. Like hidden grapes, an electronic search will reveal your sermon topic is part of a larger cluster of biblical truth. Owen will open your eyes to the fuller biblical expression of just about any biblical topic. All 23 volumes of the Works of John Owen are here in searchable electronic format. Includes his full commentary on Hebrews, a masterpiece of theology in itself.

3. The Works of Jonathan Edwards (same edition as Banner of Truth printed edition), free from CCEL (vol. 1 and vol. 2). This is a tiny slice of Edwards’s complete works, but an extremely helpful PDF, especially since the printed work has no topical index.

4. The Life and Works of Horatius Bonar CD-Rom (LUX publications: 2004), $37 from RHB. Bonar is the author of The Everlasting Righteousness and many hymns. This CD-Rom features all of Bonar’s works — over 13,000 pages of text! Quotes from Bonar could easily pass as Spurgeon’s. But Bonar did an even better job of cross-referencing, and this makes him especially fruitful in text searches. The five-volume, 1,260 page, Light and Truth: Bible Thoughts and Themes is incredibly valuable in itself.

5. The Whole Works of Thomas Boston on CD-Rom (Presbyterian Armoury: 2005), $33 from RHB. All 12 volumes of The Complete Works of Thomas Boston are fully searchable. One of the most quotable of the Puritans, Boston is helpful for just about any sermon on any topic. Tentmaker publishes a beautiful edition of these printed works for $325 (click link for table of contents).

First steps

Usually the specific book files are located in a ‘library’ subfolder on the CD-Rom. The first step in using any electronic works on my computer is to drag and drop the PDF book files into a specific folder I’ve created on my hard drive. Text searches are much faster if the files are housed on your hard drive. For me I prefer not to use the publisher’s search capabilities, but will rely on my Adobe Reader for all this work. On my hard drive I have folders for Spurgeon, Owen, Edwards, Bonar and Boston. From here I open the program Adobe Reader 6.0 (or the newest version). You can download this reader program for free here.

When searching multiple files (like the complete works of Spurgeon) make sure to open Adobe Reader first and then click on ‘search’ and browse your hard drive to locate the folder with the multiple files you intend to search.

Importance of text searches

All these guys — Spurgeon, Owen, Edwards, Bonar and Boston — were expositional preachers. They started from one specific text and developed its doctrine and applications accordingly. This means they did not preach through entire books of Scripture like many of us do today. Electronic search technology makes it possible to use the collected works as a near-comprehensive commentary on Scripture.

Within the sermons of these men are a multitude of cross-references where biblical themes are filled out beyond the scope of the text at hand. For example, John Owen’s massive and exhaustive commentary on Hebrews could be used for just about any sermon (see example later). The point is, if you efficiently navigate the complete works of these men you will discover priceless needles hidden in the heaping haystacks. Here’s how.

A. Biblical citation search

Very useful and efficient searches center on biblical citations. I can search Owen’s works for ‘Galatians 2:20’ and find many references. With each specific work you’ll become familiar with the indexing system variants like ‘Gal. 2:20’, ‘Gal. ii 20’ or ‘Galatians 2:20’.

One of the great uses of biblical citation searches is being broadened to parallel passages all over Scripture. For example, this Sunday I preach a sermon on John 15:9. When searching Owen’s works, I found a paragraph that references John 15:9 and cross-references Galatians 2:20, all in a commentary on a specific passage in Hebrews! The comments of Owen were very relevant to my sermon on John, plus I have a broader understanding of the biblical parallels in Galatians and Hebrews.

There are restrictions to this search. For example, a search for ‘John 15:9’ may not discover references to ‘John 15:8-10’. So there is a limiting factor. One way to avoid this is to broaden your searches to all references to ‘John 15.’ The broader your search, the more relevant results, and the more irrelevant results to sift through. More on this later.

B. Biblical phrase search

Great preachers bleed bibline. Often biblical references just spill without citations. In our Puritan Study Series I illustrated this in a sample search of Psalm 16:11 in the Works of Jonathan Edwards. What we found was that Edwards cites ‘Ps. xvi 11’ once in the entire 2-volume works. However, 17 times he uses the language of the passage (‘fulness of joy’ and ‘pleasures for evermore’). Biblical phrase searches are critical for this purpose.

Notice that I used the text of the KJV in my search. This is also very critical. For my next sermon on John 15:9 I am not searching the ESV language (‘abide in my love’) but the KJV language (‘continue ye in my love’). The phrases have the same meaning, but if you are not linguistically careful, some priceless needles will go undiscovered in the haystack.

As the Edwards example highlighted above, phrase searches discover biblical illusions unmarked by biblical reference citations. After two years of electronic searching, trials and errors, I believe biblical phrase searches are the most efficient way to search the works of these particular authors.

C. Keyword search

More useful for studies on specific doctrines, you can search for ‘limited atonement’ or ‘adoption’ or ‘trials’ or ‘mortification’ or ‘union with Christ’ or any other term or phrase. Sometimes in my devotional times I shoot from the hip and search Spurgeon’s works for the phrase ‘the beauty of the Cross’ or ‘precious Lamb of God’ or some other string that is sure to land me amidst devotional warmth. Play around and see what you come up with.

Problem solving

Sometimes – and more likely for rookies – a search will conclude with little fruit. Here are some suggestions. First, make certain your search terms are accurate for the source and ask two questions: Are the biblical references Roman numerals or abbreviated or in some other format? Am I carefully using the language of the KJV?

Secondly, your search may be too narrow. Instead of searching for ‘Every branch in me that beareth not fruit he taketh away: and every branch that beareth fruit, he purgeth it,’ search for, ‘he purgeth it.’ The shorter the phrase searched, the broader your searches, the more likely you will catch irrelevant references — but also more likely you will find great material. Identify the key phrases in your sermon text and search them individually.

Similarly, if a search for ‘John 15:2’ bears little fruit, shorten it to ‘John 15’. As a general rule, start with lengthy searches first, and then shorten them for broader results.


tsselectronicowen-search.jpgHere is one screenshot example (click for larger). I am searching for references to John 15:5 by searching the Works of John Owen on ‘john 15’. I am searching from my hard drive > ‘John Owen’ folder > ‘Ages 16 + Hebrews’ (the subfolder I created). I hit ‘search’. As you can see there are many references to John 15 in Owen. This specific highlighted reference caught my attention and is from Owen’s commentary on Hebrews, the third chapter. Notice how well the resource encapsulates John 15:5 and cross-references to other excellent passages above! This is one good example of a fruitful biblical reference search.

Now what?

So now you have located a possible needle. It may be a biblical reference, biblical phrase or keyword and it sits as a highlighted island in an ocean of text. What to do with it? First, take a quick glimpse to see if this relates to your research. Train yourself to browse through the search results especially if flooded with results. If the quote looks interesting, follow the resource up until you find the subheading it fits under and then continue up to identify the chapter or book the quote originates (often you can tell this from the left column). Is it a sermon? What is the main theme of the sermon? Is it a book? Which book? What chapter? Don’t just find a sentence and copy and paste it, your reference sits in a valuable context that may unlock expositional doors you have not considered.

Warning: Choose needles carefully

Here’s the beginner mistake I made: I dragged and dropped quotes directly into my sermon notes. The quote looks great, sounds great, it’s from Spurgeon, drag, drop, done. This results in a patchwork quilt of quotes and is the fast road to producing a horribly disjointed sermon. First, finish your sermon exegesis and establish your broad outline before hitting these electronic works and then limit your search to those that very specifically relate to your developing outline. Be patient. If your sermon is biblically faithful, you will discover buried treasure every time.

If you break the rules and search Owen, Spurgeon, Edwards, Boston or Bonar before the exegesis is done you must use a buffer. Copy and paste interesting quotes to a secondary file first, never directly into your sermon document until your exegesis and outline is firmly established. This buffer will help you narrow the excellent quotes from the excellent quotes that fit your sermon!

Use quotes carefully

Preachers have the freedom to do a number of things with the quotes they find. Paraphrase the quote if it’s too long or too difficult for a contemporary reader to grasp. Consider rewriting the quote if the language is outdated. Consider taking the point of the quote, state it in your own words and not mention the source verbally (though make a note in the footnotes of your sermon manuscript). Always be suspicious of the natural inclination to directly read each quote and cite each author and source. Our calling is to convert sinners and edify the redeemed, not to impress people that we found our unbearable 200-word John Owen quote from the last page footnote in his book Vindiciae Evangelicae. Each quote should be handled carefully, uniquely and suited to best minister a specific audience.

Paper or plastic?

Like I said at the start, electronic searches do not replace printed works, but complement and enhance them. What makes all these men quotable is the same character that makes their books worthy of extended study. If your research of John Owen is limited to dropping into contexts to find a quote, you will miss the great benefit of hiking through a full book of Owen’s.

That contemporary publishers are releasing electronic PDFs of contemporary books is a very encouraging trend. I have a folder strictly for contemporary PDFs where I can use the same searching philosophy on new books. Sadly, I think many publishers hesitate and view electronic books as an enemy of paper rather than an enhancement. So please don’t use electronic books as a replacement. They are not. Only you can prevent forest overgrowth.


I hope these notes have been helpful. All of the previous information has been discovered through personal research trials. You will probably find better ways to do things and when you do, please come back to this post and tell me about your discoveries (I’ll put a permalink in the right column of TSS for future reference). Bible programs like BibleWorks and Logos are incorporating similar resources, making biblical citation searches even easier and more accurate. Keep in mind that even with fancy-shmancy Bible software, the basic principles laid out here are applicable.

At The Shepherd’s Scrapbook we recommend a lot of books and we also stress biblical discernment in all of your studies. Spurgeon was not infallible. So please search responsibly.

Be Cross-centered in your research. Spurgeon was a master at connecting topics to the Cross. Go search for these Cross-centered treasures, dig them up and treasure them for the choice gold they are. As always, meditate on the quotes and let them make an impact in your own heart before sharing.

And finally, be humble. Be humble with your research and be humble with your use of quotes. When someone asks you where you found such a great quote, be honest about your electronic shortcuts and (where appropriate) spread to others what you have learned here.

13 thoughts on “Electronic book searches for sermon preparation

  1. Thanks for this wisdom concerning Puritan e-resources, Tony. One other useful resource to keep in mind is the Encyclopedia Puritannica Project, with its helpful Scripture hyper-links, available at RHB and elsewhere: http://www.puritannica.com/

  2. Yes, I like the way EP 3.0 is indexed. It’s a growing resource and I look forward to seeing it fill out in the coming years. I love the usefulness of the Systematic Theology of John Brown of Haddington. T

  3. “First, finish your sermon exegesis and establish your broad outline before hitting these electronic works and then limit your search to those that very specifically relate to your developing outline. ”

    This is fantastic and essential advice. One trouble with drag and drop quoting and going to these great expositors too early is that it has the real possibility of robbing the expositor of the great joy of prayer and discovery.

    Prayer: because who needs prayer when John Owen has already prayed and found this great stuff. I mean, I’m sure that he was a better Christian and certainly a better preacher than me so I will rest on his wit and wisdom (a bit tongue in cheek except about him being a better preacher).

    Discovery: There is NO BETTER PLACE to find the truth of the Word of God than in the Word of God. Don’t rob yourself of the great joy of discovering the light of the gospel in the words of the gospel themselves. When the radiance of Christ in the Word begins to shine then go to the great preachers and you can rejoice with them in what you have found. Certainly these great preachers are great teachers of pastors today and myself. I will allow them to teach me, but when I am preparing specifically for a sermon I want to allow the Word to speak a good long time before I let Calvin or Edwards start to say anything at all.

  4. Amen, Jeremiah. And one more thing: If we don’t understand the text first we will be handcuffed in discerning the value and accuracy of the expositor’s comments. Thank you for your comment. Excellent advice! Tony

  5. Thanks for the post. A year or so ago my wife bought me Logos software as a gift. I have found it useful. Are any of these products compatible with Logos software so everything can be found in one place?

  6. Hello Matthew. Yes, great news: Logos software has many FREE resources like the Works of Thomas Boston and Octavius Winslow! Check it out here. Blessings! Tony

  7. Thanks for this Tony.

    Quick question. For those of us who’ve already loaded these works via Ages program, how would you recommend creating searchable folders? If that’s still an option.

    Thanks again for your insight and servant’s spirit!

  8. Hello Ben! Go into the Ages files on your hard drive. The book files should be in a “library” folder. They will be located somewhere amidst the Ages subfolders. Copy and paste them into the new folder and the Ages software will continue to work as always. T

  9. Hi Tony

    As requested, I am trying this again in the hope that this time the moderators will not remove it as spam!

    I should like to add a further very helpful resource for brain food viz. our newly launched, not for profit, website. Our site reproduces Spurgeon’s Commenting and Commentaries and then provides FREE download links to digital versions of the works mentioned/recommended by Spurgeon.

    There are download links to literally hundreds of works mentioned/recommended by Spurgeon. Many of the original works are of course very difficult to obtain on the secondhand and antiquarian books market because of their rarity and even if one did come accross them often the price is prohibitive.

    We are really excited to be able to bring such wonderful Bible study resources mentioned/recommended by the prince of preachers to the Christian public at large and hope that you and your readers will find it a real blessing and feel able to recommend the site to others!

    The website address is:


    Blessing to you and all

    Satch Chikhlia

    P.S. As just one example of the wonderful commentaries may I make a special mention of “Lights and Shadows in the Life of King David” by Charles Vince. You will find this as number 16 on http://www.book-academy.co.uk/commentaries/samuelsauldavid.html.

    Download this and have a read. If you have never read this, you are in for a real treat!

    Spurgeon’s comment was “Sermons of the highest order upon a few incidents in David’s life. They are models of chaste, subdued, but powerful preaching.”

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