Friday, January 17, 2014

Benefiting from a Sermon, Part 2

Here's an interesting fact from Ken Ramey's book, Expository Listening:
“the Bible says more about the listener's responsibility to hear and obey the Word of God than it does about the preacher's responsibility to explain and apply the Word of God.”
We don't naturally know how to receive preaching. That's why in the previous post I pointed out four important things we need to know about listening to sermons.This present article is meant as a supplement. Here, I try to anticipate complaints from people who sit under an expository pulpit ministry but feel dissatisfied. In response, I present helpful insights from various pastors & authors.

1. “I'm not learning anything new. The applications are always the same and I usually know what the pastor's going to say next.”

Will we ever become so experienced in applying God's commands that they can't surprise and shame us anymore? No. The difficulties of applying God's word in a fallen world will constantly expose 'new' areas of sin, challenge our beliefs, and provoke questions. We will realize that what seemed to us like simple applications before are actually very complicated. In other words, obedience doesn't lead to complacency, but greater humility.

Jay Adams: “They expect the preacher to do all the work for them. They expect him to apply the passage specifically to exact situations, answering all possible questions and suggesting various applications and implementations that pertain precisely to them.... Selfishly, they forget that there are other people in the congregation and that the preacher cannot think solely of their particular circumstances.... To expect them [the listeners] to apply general principles to the particulars of their lives, however, is too much to ask. That's work!”

Boredom in church means that someone's hit a roadblock. And how conceited it would be of you to assume that it's the preacher and not yourself, right? The answer to boredom is engagement with the sermon.

Ramey: “Meditation [over God's word] serves as the bridge between interpretation and application, between knowing what a passage means and putting it into practice. To meditate means simply to think long and hard about the text – to mull it over and over again in your mind like a com chewing its cud.”

Richard Baxter: “Chew the cud, and call up all when you come home in secret, and by the meditation preach it over to yourselves.”

George Whitfield: “Come to hear them... from a sincere desire to know and do your duty. To enter His house merely to have our ears entertained, and not our hearts reformed, must certainly be highly displeasing to the Most High God, as well as unprofitable to ourselves.”

2. “I think my pastor's teaching is very good, but his style bothers me.”

Presentation skills are helpful, but secondary. We have to realize that the worship service is such a weighty thing that to bother about style is (dare I say it) shamefully trifling! It's like rejecting a great job offer because the office doesn't have free coffee.

Baxter: “If it were coldly delivered by the preacher, do you consider of the great weight of the matter, and preach it more earnestly over to your own hearts.”

D.M. Lloyd-Jones on “the great pulpiteers” of the 19th century: These men were pulpiteers rather than preachers. I mean that they were men who could occupy a pulpit and dominate it, and dominate the people. They were professionals. There was a good deal of the element of showmanship in them, and they were experts at handling congregations and playing on their emotions. In the end they could do almost what they liked with them.”

A.W. Tozer: “[The church] appears to have decided that if she cannot conquer the great god Entertainment she may as well join forces with him and make what use she can of his powers. … Religious entertainment is in many places rapidly crowding out the serious things of God.”

John MacArthur: “Acceptability in the culture and increased church attendance have subtly but steadily usurped holiness and true worship as the primary objective of our church gatherings. Preaching the Word and boldly confronting sin are seen as archaic, ineffectual means of winning the world. … [But] The Great Commission is not a marketing manifesto. True evangelism does not require salesmen but prophets.”

3. “Does he really have to preach so long?”

I think this kind of objection stems from a poor understanding of the significance of the Lord's Day and the worship service. Sunday is the time to retreat from our daily, mundane concerns and to gather as a spiritual family to soak in divine grace. If we treat the worship service as a gift from God and not merely an obligation, a long sermon will cease to be an issue.

Leland Ryken on the Puritans' appreciation for preaching: "... I invite you to accompany me to England near the turn of the sixteenth century. Laurence Chaderton... is preaching in his native Lancashire. This northern shire is Catholic territory. People do not often hear good sermons. Chaderton has preached for two hours. He is about to conclude and says something to the effect 'that he would no longer trespass upon their patience.' But the audience will not allow the preacher to stop. 'For God's sake, sir, go on, go on,' they urge. ... This incident is noteworthy, not because it was rare during the Puritan movement, but because it was common."

4. “I like to keep things simple. Why does my pastor dig into 'history' and 'context' and 'doctrine'? I'd prefer more practical tips for life.”

True, a sermon isn't meant to be a classroom-type lecture, and it's supposed to be intensely practical. But build godliness, sin must be dealt with. And to get at the root of sin, one must delve deep into God's word. The following analogy is helpful.

Lloyd-Jones: Take a man who is lying on a bed and writhing in agony with abdominal pain. Now a doctor may come along who... feels that the one thing to do is to relieve this man of his pain. … [But] if you just remove the symptoms before you have discovered the cause of the symptoms you are actually doing your patient real harm because you are giving him this temporary ease which makes him think that all is well. But all is not well, it is only a temporary relief, and the disease is there, is still continuing.”

History and context ground our interpretation of God's word in fact. Otherwise, the preacher would be free to spin the Bible any way that suited him. Doctrine – deep, robust, heart-searching, Christ-exalting doctrine – is our foundation, our spiritual food, and the fuel that drives our worship. This last excerpt describes what any wise pastor wants for God's flock.

Ramey: “Mature believers are able to eat and digest the prime rib principles of God's Word because they have sat under consistent expository preaching. As they feed on the meat of the Word, they grow spiritually mature, and with that comes growth in discernment. They want nothing to do with shallow, topical teaching, and they see right through the schemes of false teachers and their claims.”


To have God's word expounded to us by a faithful pastor is one of the greatest blessings one can have in this life. Brothers, sisters, friends, instead of dwelling on the imperfections of the preacher, we should seek to be caught up in the perfections of our Savior.

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