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Core Christianity: Tough Questions Answered

How to Hear a Sermon

by William Boekestein posted December 1, 2020

It is possible to hear over 4,000 hours of preaching in a lifetime. Reading the Bible even five minutes a day could add an additional 2,000 hours of Scripture intake. And every encounter with God’s word is life-changing (Is. 55:11). Charles Simeon said that every sermon “increases either our salvation or our condemnation.” How we hear affects how we are changed.

The question is practical: “How is the Word to be read and heard, that it may become effectual to salvation?” (Westminster Shorter Catechism, 89).

God uses “especially the preaching” of the Word to renovate sinners (WSC, 89). Scripture was written to be heard (Rom. 10:17), explained, and applied (Acts 8:31). Learning to profit from preaching, then, can equip us to benefit from other encounters with Scripture, all of which demand both divine and human energy to be fruitful. True hearing requires God’s recreating work. Apart from God’s blessing people hear the words of the sermon but miss the God of the sermon. They hear about Christ but do not receive Christ. But proper hearing also demands our diligence. Preachers must rightly handle the text (James 3:1). Listeners must rightly handle the sermon (Mark 4:24—25). Jesus said, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (Rev. 3:22). “Take heed how you hear” (Luke 8:18).

If we hope for the preached word to “become effectual to salvation we must attend thereunto with diligence, preparation, and prayer; receive it with faith and love, lay it up in our hearts, and practice it in our lives” (WSC, 90). We can simplify that instruction into the three vital actions of preparing for, receiving, and applying the sermon.

Prepare for the Sermon

Prepare mentally. Don’t come to church to hear a polished speech or to fulfill others’ expectations. Come to meet with God and hear how Jesus is food and drink for your hungry and thirsty soul. We should be like Cornelius who told Peter, “We are all here in the presence of God to hear all that you have been commanded by the Lord” (Acts 10:33). David’s attitude was right: “My soul longs, yes, even faints for the courts of the Lord” (Ps. 84:2).

Prepare habitually. We will probably struggle to love preaching if the Bible is a country we only infrequently visit. To use biblical language, those who appreciate the solid food of the word “by reason of use have their senses exercised” (Heb. 5:14). Regular personal and family worship can enculturate us to the world of the sermon.

Prepare physically. As much as circumstances allow serious listeners should bring rested and well-cared-for bodies to hear the preached word. How can truth impact our lives if it cannot penetrate our drowsy minds or compete for attention with our grumbling stomachs?

Prepare socially. In prepping for worship, we should show others our best grace. It doesn’t help others prepare to hear God’s word on the Lord’s Day when we monopolize the bathroom or leave breakfast messes (or when we holler at others for such infractions).

Prepare prayerfully. Pray for the minister to preach well. Pray for God to change you and the rest of the congregation. Pray for the knowledge of the glory of the Lord to fill the whole earth through the preached word (Hab. 2:14).

Receive the Sermon

Take responsibility for your own spiritual well-being. Those to whom the letter of Hebrews was written could only handle the most basic teaching because they insisted on being spoon-fed (Heb. 5:11—14). The spiritually responsible “diligently attend the assembly of God’s people to learn what God’s Word teaches” (Heidelberg Catechism, 103). They know that the preacher’s responsibility to preach well doesn’t cancel their duty to hear well.

Refuse to be a critic. As a trained preacher I fight critical thoughts every time I hear others preach. That’s a vital fight. When you come to the sermon asking, “How will the preacher fail today?” you’ll be looking for shortcomings (Luke 11:54) rather than panning for gold. We should examine what we hear (Acts 17:11) but not with a fault-finding ear. Calvin taught that we need to receive the preached word with “humility and the readiness of a mind disposed to learn.”

Practice full engagement. Kent Hughes urges believers to “break holy sweat” in hearing God’s word. We may need to fight off distractions. Much is made of preachers needing to keep eye contact. But how much might be missed by the listless eyes of listeners? Some listeners find it helpful to mark-up their Bibles during the sermon or to take notes. The best note-takers don’t simply record the sermon; they rewrite the sermon for themselves.

Hear God’s voice. The believers at Thessalonica received the apostles’ preaching not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God?(1 Thess. 2:13). “Wherever the gospel is preached,” Calvin wrote, “it is as if God himself came into the midst of us.” If the only thing one heard from an unremarkable preacher week after week is God’s pledge of mercy to penitent sinners it would be enough.

Apply the Sermon

Do not merely listen to the sermon (James 1:22). Unbelievers hear the gospel but do believe and obey it so it doesn’t profit them (Heb. 4:2). A true doer of the word, says James, “continues in it” (1:25), keeping the message alive even after the sermon is finished. Joel Beeke warns, “Tragically, those who hear the word of God but do not obey it often become self-righteous and judgmental,” knowing how to judge others but refusing to judge themselves.  

Begin immediately. Application is not simply the process of recalling and implementing the sermon throughout the week. It is responding immediately to what you hear. Christopher Ash reminds us that “every time we listen to a sermon, the devil will whisper this in our ear: ‘That was good stuff. Why not do something about it tomorrow?'” The Bible calls us to do something about it “today” (Heb. 4:7).

Ask the right questions. As we process the sermon we should ask, “What was the main point? What is one thing I learned about God? How can this sermon make me more like Jesus? What is God calling me to do as a result?”

Talk about the sermon. Talking about what we hear adds a witness to our recall ability. If possible, begin discussing the sermon immediately following the service or in family discussion times later in the day.

Receive God’s love and commit your way to him. God’s word is an invitation to trust the kindness and love of the holy and just God. Hold on to every affirmation of God’s love revealed in his word. And pledge loyalty to the God who is able to make your life brand new. The Psalmist hid God’s word in his heart not to become smarter, or wittier, but holier (Ps. 119:11).

God’s word is living and active (Heb. 4:12). The Spirit will make it effective for the salvation of his children. But those serious about profiting from preaching will make every effort to prepare, receive, and apply the sermon.

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