Rev. Kleyn is pastor of First Protestant Reformed Church in Holland, Michigan. Previous article in this series: August 2007, p. 324.
As Reformed believers, we view the preaching as being, without question, the most important element in worship. It is indispensable as the chief means of grace that produces and strengthens our faith. It is the precious word of the gospel that saves and comforts our souls. It is the blessed word of Christ Himself that powerfully directs us in thankful obedience to our God.
For this reason, we come to the house of God each Lord’s day with a vital interest in hearing what is preached. Our desire and purpose is to listen well. We realize that we do not receive nourishment from the preaching simply by being in church. God uses means, and the means He is pleased to use is that we listen well to and receive properly the word that is preached.
One way in which we are instructed concerning proper listening is through the example of the Bereans. The Scriptures tell us that when Paul preached the gospel to them, “they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so” (Acts 17:11).
That the Bereans “received the word with all readiness of mind” indicates, first of all, that they were eager to hear the preached word. You can be sure they were in church whenever the apostle Paul preached. They did not try to find a reason or excuse to stay home. They were there every time. They did not want to miss even one sermon. They were eager to hear Christ speak to them.
This is true of all true believers. Nothing easily keeps God’s people from being in the Lord’s house twice each Sunday. We come with an eagerness to hear what Christ has to say to us. We are excited at the prospect of the word being preached. We are so hungry spiritually that we can hardly wait for the sermon to begin.
This precludes going to church simply because it is expected of us. Nor may we go to see if we can find errors in the preaching. Nor may we watch the clock in eager anticipation of the “Amen” at the end. Such thoughts and actions betray an attitude of disinterest and disdain for the word.
Another aspect of receiving the word as the Bereans did is to accept what is preached. That the Bereans received the word means that as Paul proclaimed the gospel to them, they embraced it with believing hearts. This does not mean (as we will see shortly) that they blindly accepted it, but the point is they did indeed embrace it with “readiness of mind.”
And so do the children of God today. We come to the house of God with a heart that is open to receiving the word of Christ. We need that word, for we have again faced spiritual battles, and have experienced falls. Knowing this, Christ has provided us the opportunity to hear His voice and to be comforted by His word of truth. Realizing our need, we come with an earnest desire and hunger for the spiritual nourishment Christ provides.
All of this bears on the matter of listening to what we might consider to be a bad sermon.
Sometimes we view some sermons, or a certain minister’s preaching, that way. We might feel the preaching is too deep; in our opinion it is dry and abstract, having too much doctrine and not enough application. Or else we might consider the sermons to be too shallow. Or too long. Or too difficult to follow. It may happen that a personal dislike of the minister, or of some of his preaching habits, may get in the way of hearing the sermon. It may also happen that we become so accustomed to a preacher that we can just about predict what he is going to say. For some or all of these (and/or other) reasons, we find it very difficult to listen to the word, and feel we are not being edified and fed.
We must not let this happen. We should always listen to the preaching with readiness of mind. We have to forget about our prejudices. We have to put away our negative opinions about a minister or his preaching. Instead of listening in order to find fault, we must listen in order to find food. If a minister would preach heresy, then there is of course reason to reject what is preached. But if the truth is proclaimed, we must eagerly receive it. We must not allow anything to get in the way of receiving spiritual food for our souls.
Listening properly to the preaching also involves listening with discernment.
The Bereans did this, for we are told that they “searched the scriptures daily, whether those things (that Paul preached) were so.” They did not simply accept what was preached just because the apostle Paul said it. They compared what he said with what God’s word said. They searched through the Scriptures to make sure that the preaching agreed with what is taught throughout the whole Bible. In this way they made sure that the preaching was faithful and true. The Bible itself was the standard. The Scriptures determined whether or not the preached word was received.
We too must listen in this way. Something may not be blindly accepted just because the minister said it. We must evaluate the preaching before believing and heeding it.
There are wrong ways of evaluating.
Some judge a sermon on how well it touches on the sins of others in the congregation. If it is sharp in condemning this or that person, then it is a good sermon.
Others judge a sermon either on how doctrinal or on how practical it is. If it meets certain criteria in either regard, then a good word has been spoken.
Others judge a sermon with a very critical ear. They listen in the hope of finding something out of line. If they find it, they will be sure to talk publicly about it, sometimes even criticizing the minister in the presence of their children. They may do this because the word is sharp and steps on their toes. Or else they do it because they do not like the preacher and are hoping to find things that might justify their dislike.
The proper way to listen, however, is to examine the sermon in light of the word of God. We may not judge by our own standards and preconceptions or opinions, but must put the sermon to the test of Scripture.
This may result in the need to speak to the minister concerning something he said. This is necessary first of all to make sure that we did not misunderstand what was said. And if we are convinced that what was said is contrary to the Scriptures, then we seek, humbly and lovingly, to correct. But we must remember in all this to go to the minister, not with our own opinions, but with the word of God.
In testing the sermon with Scripture, our aim must still always be that we might receive the word and thus be spiritually fed. We compare it to the Bible so that we can be sure that it is a word that we can believe and live. If the preached word is not in harmony with the written word, then it must be rejected. But if it is in harmony, we are duty bound to receive it and submit to it as the very words of Christ Himself.
This is something every child of God is qualified to do. We each occupy the office of believer. This means we have been equipped by the Spirit to be students of the Bible. The Spirit enlightens us to His word. The Spirit qualifies us to interpret and understand the Scriptures for ourselves.
If we receive the word with ready minds, convinced that it is the very word of God, then we will also obey and live it. This, too, is an important aspect of receiving the preached word. We must be not only hearers, but also doers of the word.
The word preached is something we must take to ourselves. It is not enough simply to hear it and say, “That’s true!” One has to apply it to his or her own life. To that end, one must pray (as the minister usually does at the end of the sermon) for the Spirit to apply the word. Diligent and eager hearing of a sermon does absolutely no good if it is not also lived.
This takes work.
It does so first of all because the application is not always specifically stated by the minister. Sometimes it is, so that it is obvious what should follow in one’s life. Other times, however, serious thought needs to be given to this by the hearers themselves. One may have to spend a considerable amount of time meditating on the word, and/or discussing it with others, in order to determine how specifically it can and ought to be applied. It also takes hard work because we all have a difficult time applying the word to ourselves. We are very quick and adept at making application to others. It is easy for us to think of someone else who needs to listen and “shape up.” But we are not so willing to admit that we ourselves need to submit to whatever is said.
It is especially in this regard that we are inclined to be poor listeners. Proudly and stubbornly we resist the word. Although the truth is preached, we are inclined to say such things as, “That’s just his opinion! That’s easy for him to say! I suppose he has to say that, but he can’t really expect us to do it!” Or we excuse ourselves from the application by saying: “That’s all true, but my circumstances in life mean it’s different for me and doesn’t really apply!” Because the word of Christ is harsh and sharp, we ignore it. It applies, but we merrily continue on in our sinful ways and make no change in our lives.
We may not pick and choose what we listen to and obey. Let us be not only good hearers, but also good doers of the word.
The Bereans were highly commended; God said they were spiritually noble. May that be His evaluation of us as well, because we are vitally interested in the preaching of His word, receive it enthusiastically, and submit ourselves and our lives to it.
We have the freedom to have the word of God in our homes and hands. May we therefore seek to grow in our knowledge of it in order that we may rightly evaluate and thus properly receive the preaching of the gospel. May the Lord be pleased to use that to nourish our souls unto life eternal.