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How to Hear Sermons (Matthew Barrett)

Each year countless books hit the shelves on how to preach a sermon. Everyone wants to know what it takes to preach a great message or how to become a spectacular speaker. But let’s face it, when was the last time you saw a book on how to hear a sermon? My guess…never! We tend to view the sermon as something the preacher does. But actually, there is much to preaching that has to do with what the listener does as well. Unfortunately, the average churchgoer never receives instruction on his role in the reception of Sunday’s message.

George Whitefield, however, has much to say about how to listen to sermons profitably. In a sermon called, “Directions How to Hear Sermons [Luke 8:18],” Whitefield lays down six ways the man in the pew should tune his ears. First, the Christian is to listen “not out of curiosity but from a sincere desire to know and do your duty.” Whitefield warns against the religious hypocrisy of entering into God’s house “merely to have our ears entertained and not our hearts reformed.” Such people “only hear the preacher’s voice with their outward ears but do not experience the power of it inwardly in their hearts.” Needless to say, such people are still around today. They come to church looking to be entertained, rather than to learn, worship, and obey God. We are to flee such a mindset and instead prepare our hearts by a “humble disposition,” ready to “receive with meekness the engrafted word.” Only then will God’s Word be “a means, under God, to quicken, build up, purify and save your souls.”

New Fixed Credo July 2014 CoverSecond, not only should the Christian prepare his heart before he hears, but also “give diligent heed to the things that are spoken from the word of God.” Should an earthly king issue a royal proclamation with conditions that determine the life or death of his subjects, “how solicitous would they be to hear what those conditions were?” How much more attentive and eager should we be to listen to the King of kings and Lord of lords, and “lend an attentive ear to his ministers, when they are declaring, in his name, how our pardon, peace, and happiness may be secured?”

Third, as important as preparing our hearts and being attentive with a “teachable disposition” might be, they mean nothing if one holds even “the least prejudice against the minister.” “For could a preacher speak with the tongue of men and angels, if his audience was prejudiced against him, he would be but as sounding brass, or tinkling cymbal.” Whitefield notes how Jesus himself “could not do many mighty works, nor preach to any great effect among those of his own country” for this very reason. It did not matter that he was God incarnate (!), for their ears were shut up from the start due to the hardness of their hearts.

Fourth, Whitefield warns against forming party lines and creating a celebrity out of any preacher. Whitefield cautions against depending too much on a preacher, thinking “more highly of him than you ought to think.” Surely this was a problem in the early church, as one followed Paul and another Apollos, failing to recognize that these preachers were “but instruments in God’s hands by whom you believed,” and should not be placed on a pedestal. Yes, we are to pay them double honor. “But then to prefer one minister at the expense of another . . . is earthly, sensual, devilish.” When we elevate one preacher we award him with popularity and applause, which are “exceedingly dangerous, even to a rightly informed mind.” Any preacher elevated in this way is no doubt tempted to take such honor for himself, which is “due only to God, who alone qualifies him for his ministerial labours.”

Fifth, Christians are to apply “everything that is delivered to your own hearts.” Whitefield wishes that when the preacher warns those in his congregation of sin, their first response would not be to look around the room to find out who might be guilty, but instead to “turn their thoughts inwardly and say, ‘Lord, is it I?’”

Sixth, when you hear God’s Word preached “pray to him, both before, in, and after every sermon, to endue the minister with power to speak and to grant you a will and ability to put in practice what he shall show from the book of God to be your duty.” Could there be anything more important than prayer, both for the minister and for the hearer? And is this not what Paul instructed the Ephesians, namely, to “intercede with God for him” (Eph. 6:18-19)? If “so great an Apostle as St. Paul needed the prayers of his people, much more do those ministers who have only the ordinary gifts of the Holy Spirit.” And if you do find yourself praying, is this not a “good proof that you sincerely desired to do, as well as to know, the will of God”? Such prayer not only blesses the minister, but the hearer as well, as God gives him a “double portion of his Holy Spirit, whereby they will be enabled to instruct you more fully in the things which pertain to the kingdom of God.”

If the Christian would apply these six instructions when listening to sermons, would not God’s people profit from them all the more? Will you not be “your minister’s joy and their crown of rejoicing in the day of our Lord Jesus”? And will not the Word of God dwell in you richly, as you move from “one degree of grace unto another”? Therefore, may every Christian listen sincerely to Whitefield when he says, “take heed how you hear.”

Matthew Barrett (PhD, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is Assistant Professor of Christian Studies at California Baptist University, as well as the founder and executive editor of Credo Magazine. Barrett is also Senior Pastor of Fellowship Baptist Church. He is the author and editor of several books, including Salvation by Grace: The Case for Effectual Calling and Regeneration. You can read about Barrett’s other publications at

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We live in a day when those in the church want to have their ears tickled. We do not want a sermon, but a “talk.” “Don’t get preachy, preacher!” is the mantra of many church goers today. What is preferred is a casual, comfortable, and laid back chat with a cup of coffee and a couple of Bible verses to throw into the mix to make sure things get spiritual. One wonders whether Timothy would have been fired as a pastor today for heeding Paul’s advice: “preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (2 Tim. 4:2). Paul gives such a command to Timothy because he knew what was to come. “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths” (2 Tim. 4:3-4). Has that day come? Are churches filled with “itching ears,” demanding “teachers to suit their own passions”? Have we turned “away from listening to the truth”?

In a day when ears itch and truth is shown the back door, what could be more needed than men who actually preach the Word? George Whitefield (1714-1770) was one of those men. He was a preacher who preached in plain language, so that even the most common man could understand God’s Word. Yet, his sermons were incredibly powerful, often leading men and women to tears as the Holy Spirit convicted their souls. Whitefield not only preached the truth, but he pleaded with his listeners to submit themselves body and soul to the truth. He preached God’s Word with passion because he understood that his listener stood between Heaven and Hell. His robust Calvinism, in other words, led to a zealous evangelism.

This year, 2014, marks the 300th anniversary of Whitefield’s birth. These articles are meant to drive us back to Whitefield’s day, that we might eat up his theology, and drink deeply his passion for the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Contributors include: Thomas Kidd, Lee Gatiss, Michael A.G. Haykin, Thomas Nettles, Ian Hugh Clary, Mike McKinley, Mark Noll, Doug Sweeney, and many others.

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