January 15, 1981

Dear Timothy, 

In connection with our whole discussion about the importance of our proper attitude towards the preaching of the Word, we were discussing, in our last letter, what is involved in listening to a sermon. You will recall that I concluded that last letter with the remark that listening had to be, above all, spiritual. It is to this matter which I want to turn in this letter. 

It is not easy to listen to a sermon spiritually. One listens to a sermon differently from the way one listens to a symphony program, a choral program, or even a lecture on “Luther’s View of Scripture.” One listens to a symphony play Beethoven’s “Fifth Symphony” to enjoy fine music. He can appreciate the skill of the composer and the ability of the orchestra playing the piece; he can even be moved by the music and capture some of the “ideas” in the mind of the composer when the piece was being written. If he listens intently and knowledgeably, he can be thrilled by the intricacies of the music. But that is not yet the same as listening to a sermon. The same is true of a stirring rendition of Handel’s “Messiah,” and of well worked-out and excellently-delivered discourse on “Luther’s View of Scripture.” But it is not the same as listening to a sermon. 

The difference lies in the fact that a sermon is authoritative proclamation, by an ambassador of Christ, of the truth of the gospel. Things happen during the preaching of a sermon which do not happen under other circumstances. Christ is speaking—though it be through the preacher. The Spirit is working—though always in connection with the preaching itself. Sinners are being brought to repentance. The cross of Christ is applying its healing balm to wounded spirits and broken hearts. The Church of Jesus Christ is being gathered, defended, and preserved—to use the expression of our Heidelberg Catechism in Q. & A. 54. Mysterious things, wonderful things, heavenly things are happening, which take place only when the gospel is being preached in Church on the Lord’s Day. The minister stands in awe of this as he engages in his task. 

But it is because of all this that listening to a sermon is a spiritual exercise. 

What does this mean? I mean, what does this mean from the viewpoint of our responsibility as hearers? How does one listen to a sermon in a way that is pleasing to God, in a way that makes his listening an act of worship, in a way which is for his edification and salvation? 

There are a number of things which can and must be said about this. 

Listening is always, first of all, concentrated effort tounderstand what is being said. The Word of God, if it is to have its power over us and in our lives, must pass through our minds and understanding. This seems axiomatic, but it is often forgotten in our day. Preaching is often considered successful when it is an emotional experience. Revivalists and Pentecostals are experts at making worship services emotional experiences. But that is about all they are too. This is not the viewpoint of Scripture. Scripture, when preached, has its power when it is given to us through the preaching as a certain body of intellectual data which conveys truth. Our Heidelberg Catechism speaks of faith as being a certain knowledge. It says that faith is not only a certain knowledge; but it is at least that. And, as a matter of fact, it cannot be anything else, such as confidence, unless it is first of all a certain knowledge. Nor must it be forgotten that the meaning of the word “certain” here is not: “a certain kind of” knowledge; the meaning is: “a definite and sure” knowledge. 

This is probably partly the trouble nowadays. A generation brought up on the pablum and pap of TV has never learned to exercise its God-given intellect. To learn and know and understand the truth is beyond the intellectual capacity of this generation; or, at least, if not beyond the intellectual capacity, it requires a mental effort which is too much for the average listener. To think is too hard when one has been spoon-fed all one’s life.

But, however that may be, exercise of the intellect is essential to spiritual listening. And without it there will never be any true listening to the Word. We might just as well face it. It is either a putting forth of the necessary intellectual effort to understand what the Scriptures are saying, to understand what the minister is preaching about, to understand what God is saying; or it is not really listening to the preaching at all because of mere intellectual and mental laziness. 

But, of course, listening must be more than intellectual understanding of what is being said. It must always be a listening which is an act of submission to the Word of God. The child of God, while sitting in Church, must listen in the awareness that God through Christ is speaking to him and that he must submit to the Word which is being spoken. This “must” is never the “must” of unwilling coercion or necessity; it is rather the “must” of willing and joyful obedience. The child of God wants to hear God speak to him because God’s voice is filled with the “good news” of salvation. But that conscious submission must be there. It is so easy to try to impose our word upon Scripture, to try to make Scripture say what we would like to have it say, to listen to what interests us and tune out when we are no longer interested. 

It is so easy to be haughty and arrogant over against the Word and forget that the greatest and least of all God’s people stand on a common level before the great and mighty Word of our God. 

This submission to the Word must express itself in personal listening—where the determinative word is “personal.” 

This is how the Spirit works, you see. The Word, after all, comes objectively. The Word speaks of Christ’s atoning sacrifice, by which He paid for all the sins of the elect and earned for them salvation. But the objective Word preached does not mention the personal and family names of the people of God. The objective Word preached does not say: Christ earned salvation for John Van Donkerhuis. Yet that Word is made personal—by the subjective operation of the Holy Spirit. That objective Word preached is so applied by the Holy Spirit to the hearts of the elect that John Van Donkerhuis hears that Word and, because the truth is impressed upon his consciousness, says: “Christ died for me! Wonder of wonders! Thanks be to God.” 

That is why spiritual listening is always personal listening. This too is very hard to do. We like to sit in Church and speculate about who the minister has in mind with this reprimand. We like to think to ourselves: “I wonder how so-and-so is reacting to all this.” We like to take a quick look around the auditorium to see whether Mr. __________ is in Church because he really ought to hear what the minister is saying. We don’t hear the Word that way. The only question which each child of God faces in Church on the Lord’s Day is: What does God’s Word have to say to me? There is no other question of importance. Only !hen will we heal Christ speak to us, objectively through the Word and subjectively through the Spirit’s efficacious work in our hearts. 

This spiritual listening must always de present no matter what the minister is talking about. Perhaps the minister is explaining the truth of the incarnation. Now it is usually true that the minister will spend some time in his sermon explaining to the congregation what benefit there is in this truth for the people of God. Especially if he is preaching on the Heidelberg Catechism, this will be the case. But it really need not be always the case. It is quite possible that he never gets around to this question of personal benefit. Does that mean that there is no blessing in such a sermon? Far from the truth is such an idea. The reaction of the child of God to such a sermon is: What a beautiful truth of God’s Word is the truth of the incarnation. How great God is in all His works and ways. What glorious things God does for His people. Or, in other words, the believer is moved to praise and adoration because of the greatness and beauty of God’s truth. 

This is usually the case when preaching takes on the form of instruction. It need not always be such a purely personal matter as: what benefit is there in this for me? In a way, that is purely selfish. Have we no other concern in the preaching than: What’s in it for me? Have we become so selfish that we cannot appreciate anything but what has some immediate and tangible value? 

Nevertheless, instruction, as instruction, for its own sake, has benefit, for to know God in Jesus Christ is to have life eternal (John 17:3). 

We listen personally to be instructed in the truth. 

We also must listen personally and spiritually when the Word of God admonishes and corrects us. This is also very difficult to do. It is difficult to do because we all have our pet sins which we do not want to forsake; and, worse yet, we all have sin which is dear to us and which we do not want exposed. And so when Scripture comes with its admonitions it sometimes hits raw nerves and opens wounds. It hits us where it hurts. It chastises, corrects, prods, and hurts. Then to submit is most difficult because we want to remain comfortably in our sins and not be reminded of our wickedness or of our calling to forsake these sins. 

We have a thousand skillful ways to dodge the sharp sword of the Word. Sometimes the minister can even see some of these reactions from the pulpit. He is preaching against a current evil in the congregation and he can see many in the congregation shift their position and get a look on their face which clearly means to say: “Oh, brother. Here we go again. I wonder how long he’s going to be on this hobby horse of his this time.”

Spiritual listening submits to the Word no matter what. It is a listening which lets the Word do its work. No matter how much it hurts, one submits. 

And then spiritual listening is doing. James warns sharply against hearers of the Word who are not doers. And doing is always first of all repentance: sorrow for sin and turning to God for forgiveness. Then it is the earnest resolve by grace to do what is right in God’s sight. 

But I must bring this letter to a close. 

Let me conclude therefore by urging upon you the need for being a good listener to the Word. We do not have many good listeners in Church these days. They are hard to find. But our soul’s salvation is at stake. 

May God bless our Churches with good preachers; but may He also bless us with godly listeners. 

Fraternally in Christ,

H. Hanko