Receiving the Preached Word
King James II of England, battling the Puritans, sent a proclamation to all the ministers in the Church of England, demanding that it be read to every congregation the following Sunday. Knowing that the bill opposed New Testament Christianity as well as the Puritan style of preaching, the Puritans detested reading it. One Puritan preacher responded by saying to his congregation, “I must read this bill from King James II in this church building, but it does not say that you have to listen to it.” The congregation left the church, and the minister read the bill to an empty church.
The point of the story is this: many people listen halfheartedly to sermons, as if they were not compelled to hear the Word of God; likewise, many preachers preach as if they were addressing empty pews instead of people with eternal souls. The Word of God must engage both the minister and the listener. Growth cannot take place if the listener does not profit from the Word. That reception involves, as the Westminster divines put it, that “those that hear the word preached (should) examine what they hear by the Scriptures, (and) receive the truth with faith, love, meekness, and readiness of mind, as the word of God” (LC, Q. 160). Here are some guidelines for proper listening to God’s Word.
- Listen with an understanding, tender conscience. Jesus’ parable of the sower (Matt. 13:3-23; Mark 4:1-20; Luke 8:4-15) presents us with four types of listeners, all of whom hear the same word:
- The stony-hearted, superficial listener. This listener is like a hard path. The sower’s seed, or the Word of God, makes little impression on this hard heart. The gospel does not penetrate, and the law does not frighten him. A minister could preach through all the Ten Commandments, addressing the needs and sins of the people, but the stony listener shrugs it off. If a minister addresses this person’s conscience, his hardened heart shifts the blame to others. He seldom changes his life even with conviction from the Word of God. He does not take preaching to heart.
- The easily impressed but resistant listener. Some seed falls on rocky ground. A plant begins to spring up from this seed, but it soon withers and dies because it lacks sufficient nutrients. The plant cannot survive because it cannot grow roots among the rocks. Jesus presents here a listener that initially seems to listen well to the Word. He would like to add religion to his life, but he does not want to hear about the kind of radical discipleship that involves self-denial, taking up his cross, and following Christ. Thus, when persecution comes, this listener fails to live out the gospel in practical ways. He wants to be friends with the world, the church, and God. Like Israel, this listener does not respond to God’s Word when challenged to choose: “How long halt ye between two opinions? If the LORD be God, follow him: but if Baal, then follow him. And the people answered him not a word” (1 Kings 18:21). As listeners, we cannot have God and the world; friendship with the world is enmity against God. We must make a choice.
- The half-hearted, distracted listener. Some of the seed of God’s Word falls in thorn-ridden soil. As Luke 8:14 says, “And that which fell among thorns are they, which, when they have heard, go forth, and are choked with cares and riches and pleasures of this life, and bring no fruit to perfection.” This kind of listener tries to absorb the Word of God with one ear while turning the other to business, interest rates, pension funds, and inflation. He only serves God partially. The Word of God is quickly choked by the thorns.
- The understanding, fruitful listener. Some of God’s seed falls on rich, fertile soil. Jesus says this listener hears and understands God’s Word (Matt. 13:23). Just as a seed quickly takes root in fertile soil, so the truth of God implants itself into this listener’s eager heart. As a plant springs up, growing deep roots and showing healthy leaves, the Word of God is deeply integrated into this listener’s life, family, business, relationships, and conduct. With the help of the Holy Spirit, this listener applies Sunday’s gospel teaching to his life throughout the week. He believes with his heart that if Jesus Christ has sacrificed everything for him, he is attached to nothing that cannot be surrendered in grateful obedience to Christ. Before all else, he seeks the kingdom of God (Matt. 6:33). Grace reigns in his heart. He brings forth fruit, “some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty” (Matt. 13:23).
- Listen attentively to the preached Word. Luke 19:48 describes people who were very attentive to Christ. Literally translated, the text says that “they hung upon him, hearing.” Lydia showed such an open heart when she “attended” or “turned her mind” to the things spoken by Paul (Acts 16:14). Such attentiveness involves banishing wandering thoughts, dullness of mind, and drowsiness (Matt. 13:25). It regards a sermon as a matter of life and death (Deut. 32:47).
We must not listen to sermons as spectators but as participants. The minister should not be the only one working. Good listening is hard work; it involves worshiping God continuously. An attentive listener responds quickly – whether with repentance, resolution, determination, or praise – and God is honored in this. As Proverbs 18:15 says, “The heart of the prudent getter knowledge; and the ear of the wise seeketh knowledge.” The verbs used here refer to energetic, mental action.
Too many people come to church expecting to be spoon-fed. They have no desire to think or learn or grow; they simply want to hear familiar preaching. They are not anxious to grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ. Such passivity seems abnormal, since in other areas of life, humans resist being spoon-fed. A child would be embarrassed if his mother fed him in front of friends. In school and at work, people expect intellectual challenges. Yet at church, some people do not want to be challenged emotionally, intellectually, or spiritually. They would rather be patted on the back or left alone than be convicted and challenged by God’s Word. Instead of hearing clear instruction on Christian living from Paul’s epistles, such people would rather hear little more than a Bible story every Sunday.
Jesus did not spoon-feed His hearers. In one parable, Jesus talked about an unjust judge. Jesus compared God to this judge, but He did not waste time with a lengthy explanation of how God is not unjust. Rather, Jesus challenged His hearers to use their minds to work through the difficulty teaching of this parable. Because He expected His listeners to be discerning and assertive, Jesus could make strong statements without apology. For example, in Luke 14:26, Jesus said, “If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.” Jesus often let the truth He proclaimed stand alone, without explanation. He spoke about cutting off hands, plucking out eyes, and cutting off feet. He said some of the children of darkness are smarter than the children of light. He used metaphors, hyperbole, and other figures of speech. Running the risk of being misunderstood, He refused to spoon-feed His followers.
Jesus told His listeners, “Take heed therefore how you hear.” He also commanded us to understand what we hear. He challenges us to think, and that takes work. The word attend is derived from two Latin words – the first means ‘to’ and the second, ‘tendo,’ which means ‘to stretch or bend.’ From this we get the word tendon, or a sinew that stretches. Thus, the word attend literally means we must stretch our minds by listening. This implies reaching out with all our mental and spiritual powers to grasp the meaning of a message. Are you stretching your spiritual muscles as you listen to the Word? Are you attentive to the preached Word?
As you listen to the Word of God, ask yourself, how does God want me to be different on account of this sermon? Ask what God wants you to know that you did not know before. Ask what truths you are learning that He wants you to believe. And ask how He wants you to put those truths into practice. In every sermon you hear – even those on the most basic gospel themes – God offers you truths to believe and put into practice. Pray for grace to work at listening.
- Listen with submissive faith. As James 1:21 says, “Receive with meekness the engrafted word.” This kind of meekness involves a submissive frame of heart, “a willingness to hear the counsels and reproofs of the word.” 1Through this kind of faith, the Word is engrafted into the soul and produces “the sweet fruit of righteousness.” 2
Faith is the key to profitably receiving the Word. Luther wrote, “Faith is not an achievement, it is a gift. Yet it comes only through the hearing and study of the Word.” If the chief ingredient of a medicine is missing, the medicine will not be effective. So be sure not to leave out the chief ingredient, faith, as you listen to a sermon. Seek grace to believe and apply the whole Word (Rom. 13:14), along with the promises, the invitations, and the admonitions as they are spoken.3
The whole Word is the object of faith,” wrote Thomas Manton. Therefore we need “faith in the histories, for our warning and caution; faith in the doctrines, to increase our reverence and admiration; faith in the threatening, for our humiliation; faith in the precepts, for our subjection; and faith in the promises, for our consolation. They all have their use: the histories to make us wary and cautious; the doctrines to enlighten us with a true sense of God’s nature and will; the precepts to direct us, and to try and regulate our obedience; the promises to cheer and comfort us; the threatening to terrify us, to run anew to Christ, to bless God for our escape, and to add spurs to our duty. 4
- Listen with humility and serious self-examination. Do I humbly examine myself under the preaching of God’s Word, trembling at its impact (Isa. 66:2)? Do I cultivate a meek and submissive spirit, receiving God’s truth as a student while being intimately aware of my own depravity? Do I seriously examine myself under preaching rather than applying it to others? We must not respond like Peter, who said to Jesus, “Lord, and what shall this man do?” We must listen to Jesus’ admonition: “What is that to thee? follow thou me” (John 21:21–22). When the marks of grace are set before us, we must ask: Do I have these marks? Do I listen for the truths of God, wanting to be admonished or corrected where I have gone astray? Do I relish having the Word of God applied to my life? Do I pray that the Spirit may apply His Word, as Robert Burns put it, to my “business and bosom”? 5
When a doctor tells you how to maintain your health or that of your children, you listen carefully so that you can follow his directions. When the heavenly Physician gives you divine directions for your soul, should you not listen every bit as carefully so that you can follow God’s instructions for your life?