Most people assume they know how to listen to a sermon from God's Word. They assume you listen to a sermon by just listening. Most people are wrong.
Churches are facing a crisis in America today because there are so many pastors of churches who will not preach to the hearts of the sinners who are sitting in the pews in front of them. In those few churches with converted preachers who declare the whole counsel of God’s Word, folks are simply not responding to the preaching of the Bible. The result is an entire country that is rushing headlong toward catastrophe while we are already experiencing the judgment of God. In addition, what do we see while all this happens? Many who profess to be, and who may actually think they are, God’s people just sit in their pews and do nothing, for the most part. It was a tragedy for Nero to fiddle while Rome burned, but it is a far greater tragedy for so-called Christians to fiddle around while the United States of America prepares to burn under the wrathful judgment of a holy and righteous God.
For a long time I agonized about this problem of unresponsiveness. I would ask God, “Why doesn’t he respond to the preaching of your Word, Father? Why are their lives not changed by the power of the Holy Spirit, as your truth is proclaimed? That sermon should have hit her right between the eyes. Why did she not even flinch?” I began to realize as I prayed such prayers that oftentimes God works in a person’s life in ways that cannot immediately be seen by others. I have concluded that there are three possibilities to explain, on a human level, why the preaching of the Word of God seems to have little effect in the lives of some of those who are thought to be God’s people, in the lives of some of those who claim to be saved. One problem might be sin in the life of the preacher. Certainly, God cannot use filthy vessels, and will not bless the ministry of a preacher who is not right with God or, more likely, who is not even saved. That so many preachers are lost is why so few pulpits in America proclaim the whole counsel of God’s Word, but instead work at tickling and petting their audiences with mild expository teaching or irrelevant topical sermons. Another problem might be sin among those who hear the preaching of God’s Word. Certainly, Isaiah and Jeremiah had no gross sin in their lives, yet the response to their preaching was nil. Why? Sin. Simple sin in people’s lives and an unwillingness to repent and turn to God. When the crowd is unresponsive to the preaching of God’s Word it could be sin. What kind of sin? Perhaps secret sins in the lives of Christians. However, more likely, unregenerate hearts in the lives of those who claim to be saved but who have never really trusted Christ. There is a third problem, not directly related to sin, which makes for unresponsive hearers of God’s Word. This problem is one that has not plagued the human race until the last sixty years or so. This problem is not seen in some of the more backward countries, but is an increasingly prevalent factor in the technologically advanced countries of the world. This problem is the inability of people, in general, to listen properly to a sermon. Maybe a better term than inability is lack of training, or lack of self-discipline, or a short attention span. Many people nowadays do not know how to listen to a sermon because they have not been trained and have not found it necessary to listen actively to another person talking.
Do you call it attention deficit disorder? Having a short attention span is usually caused by a lack of self-discipline, whatever the cause. Could this be why the problem is found in Western Europe and the United States, but is virtually unknown in Latin America, Asia, Africa, and Eastern Europe? To be sure. This inability to listen to sermons has been illustrated repeatedly to me as I have taken to the old Puritan and Baptist way of interviewing folks after preaching to them. “What did I preach on this morning?” “Uhhhhh, sin?” “Uhhhhh, I don’t know.” I know the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God, but it does not require spiritual discernment to comprehend the subject matter of my sermons. It only requires spiritual discernment to understand it fully. By this, I mean a person may not understand what I meant when I preached about the lake of fire. That would take spiritual discernment to a degree, some level of illumination. To sit through a sermon and not know that I preached a sermon on the lake of fire has nothing to do with spiritual discernment. It has to do with paying attention. Some people listen to nothing that is said during preaching, though you hear it all. How, in God’s name, can some people sit there and have not the foggiest clue of the subject I preached on at the end of the sermon? It is simple. Many do not know how to listen to preaching. It is important to know how to listen to preaching, because if you do not know how to listen to preaching, and thereby do not effectively listen to preaching, resulting in having no understanding of what is preached, you will not understand the gospel to be saved, or will not have grace ministered to you, Ephesians 4.29. Can you imagine whom the culprits are who train millions of children and adults to slip their brains into neutral and passively listen to the words of another? What devices require no effort to listen? Right. Your television set and computer, wonderful devices that were supposed to be such powerful educational tools. Television alone is responsible for more than 250 millions of Americans who are trained to sit down and turn their brains off while listening to just about anything, whether it be an ungodly soap opera, a sitcom, or a “man of God” preaching what he claims is the Word of God from behind a Plexiglas pulpit.
The response is always the same on the unconscious level. You sit down, you get comfortable, the talking starts, and the hearing of the talking triggers your mind to fade out just enough to doze off for a while, or just enough to miss the message from God you absolutely needed to hear. Computer games have a different mechanism, but with the same outcome. This is okay when you are listening to television, because the amount of attention or intelligence required to listen to the tube is almost zero. Computer games are mostly reacting without much thinking involved. Such is not the case whenever the Word of God is preached. When God’s Word is being declared you have to pay attention with everything you have. Preaching is the means of grace leading to salvation, according to First Corinthians 1.18 and 21. Have you ever noticed how difficult it is to read the Bible when you are tired or sleepy? The reason it is so hard is that you must actively attend to the matter of reading the Bible for it to benefit you. The same is true with scriptural Bible preaching.
For you, for me, or for anyone, to benefit from the preaching of God’s Word, especially a gospel sermon, you must be an active listener. The key word here is active. Only when someone actively listens to preaching, only when someone consciously puts forth the effort required to listen properly to the sermon, will he ever get anything out of it. An additional problem is that sometimes someone will hear something in a sermon that jars him so much that he stops listening to the sermon entirely and focuses all his attention on the one jarring comment he heard. For another it will be a word he does not understand. He stops listening because he does not understand one word, not realizing that one word's meaning is not crucial to grasping a sermon's meaning. Therefore, it is not helpful to stop listening for whatever reason. Do not fixate on a single word or one comment that jars you. Consciously decide to take in the whole sermon. Only when someone realizes that he must participate in a sermon, both mentally and vocally, will God’s Word really begin to grab hold of his life, will the Spirit of God really begin to use the truth in his life. If that point in time ever comes, you will no longer fall asleep in church, you will no longer hit or miss in your church attendance, and you will no longer skip Bible study. Why? Because you must hear God’s message for you from God’s Word. If you do not, all is lost.
As well, something happens with people’s parenting when moms and dads actually listen to sermons. There comes a time that parents become so concerned for the conversion of their own children that they begin to quiz them after church, either on the way home in the car or at the dinner table. “Tommy, what was the title of preacher’s message today?” “Jenny, what were the main ideas of the pastor’s sermon this morning?” “Sally, what did preacher tell folks to do today? Have you ever done that? Would you like to do that?” “Sam, how could you sit there and not know the one thing preacher said was the most common mistake folks make in that area?”
Let me reiterate that if a lost person does not understand sermons, he will not be saved. There is no way he will ever understand sermons unless he puts forth the necessary effort to pay attention. Daydream during sermons and you will go to Hell. Pay attention and you just might be saved. “Well, I think I can be saved on my own.” Do you? What do you do with Acts 8.30-31, where Philip said to the eunuch, “Understandest thou what thou readest?” The eunuch responded, “How can I, except some man should guide me?” No, God most usually uses men to reach men. The men who are usually used by God to reach men are men who preach. So you think, “Okay, if active listening is what is required to get the most out of an entire sermon, when I am in church and do not want to waste the time I am investing in my attendance, how do I become an active listener?” In Acts 10.33, we see a beautiful example of an active listener in the person of a Roman centurion named Cornelius: “Immediately therefore I sent to thee; and thou hast well done that thou art come. Now therefore are we all here present before God, to hear all things that are commanded thee of God.”
This verse does not provide the mechanics of proper listening, but it does suggest the proper attitudes that lead to proper listening. We see nothing here about taking notes, about the proper posture when sitting, about the proper amount of sleep, and the right kind of food that will help you to stay awake and attentive. There is nothing said here about not sitting next to distracting people who want to talk or make cute comments at inopportune times. I routinely see parents distracting their unsaved children during gospel sermons I preach. These things certainly need attending to, but they are not mentioned here. Such things are far more likely to take care of themselves, you see, when the listener’s attitude is right. If you will imitate Cornelius’ attitude, and it is God’s will that you do just that, you will hurdle the greatest of obstacles that stand in your way of properly listening to gospel sermons. Moreover, those gospel sermons may be used by God to save your wretched soul.
Remember, James wrote, “Of his own will begat he us with the word of truth,” James 1.18. Therefore, God uses the Bible to bring Christ to sinners and to bring sinners to Christ. However, do not forget First Corinthians 1.21: “. . . it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe.” Thus, we see that God uses the Bible, specifically the Bible preached to sinners, to bring those sinners to Christ. Do you want to serve God? Do you want to learn the Word of God? Do you want to become a more faithful servant of Christ? Do you want to be saved? Then pay close attention to three attitudes that will enable you to become a good listener when God’s Word is preached.
First, YOU MUST HAVE THE ATTITUDE OF EAGERNESS
The attitude that makes for better listeners is seen in Cornelius’ own words. Notice his reaction to God’s command to fetch Peter, recorded earlier in the chapter, so that he might be taught the things of God. He described his response to Peter in these words: “Immediately therefore I sent to thee.” Does that tell you anything? It should. It tells you that Cornelius wanted to know what God had for him through the ministry of Peter, and he wanted to know right now. If you ever expect to get anything out of the preaching of God’s Word then you need to discard the notion that listening to sermons is a chore, or that you are doing God a favor by being in the church house. What lack of judgment and absence of wisdom is displayed by that individual who shuns those occasions when the Word of God is preached, or who does not magnify the importance of the preaching of the gospel to his own family. I like good music to lead into my preaching, as a means of stimulating interest and to focus attention upon the preaching. However, the absence of soul-stirring music in no way mitigates responsibility to prepare for the preaching of God’s Word. People need to understand that it is a privilege to hear sermons from the Bible. The important aspect of this whole thing is God’s Word. Oh, that the Spirit of God would apply God’s Word to the hearts of sinners through preaching.
Here are some good reasons why we should be eager to hear sermons. The most noticeable thing that happens when the Bible is preached is that men and women can be saved. If you want to be around when souls are being saved, go and hear preaching. A man would have to be as spiritually cold as ice not to want to participate in something God uses to bring sinners to Christ. Is that not right? Next, Bible preaching is God’s preeminent way for Christians to be taught the Word of God. Some may think that it is really the Sunday School where Christians are taught the Bible, but in the year 2010, the Sunday School method of ministry celebrated its 230th birthday. Do you realize what that means? It means that for more than 1780 years the preaching of God’s Word was the primary instrument of teaching men the Word of God. I am not demeaning the Sunday School by any means. I am simply seeking to exalt the preaching of God’s Word. I am simply seeking to shed a scriptural light on the place of preaching. In Ephesians 4.11, Paul names the ministries of four kinds of gifted men given to church members for the purpose of maturing them in the faith and teaching them the Word of God. Those men are apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastor-teachers. They are all, or should be, preachers. Are you eager to learn God’s Word and then to live it? Then you ought to be eager to hear God’s Word preached. My final reason for being eager to hear a sermon is that in a sermon you can hear Christ glorified in a way not usually found anywhere else. Some examples: When painting a verbal picture of the salvation that can be found only in Christ, can words be found to express the uniqueness of Jesus Christ any better way than these words preached? “Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved,” Acts 4.12. I do not think so. Alternatively, when lifting up our glorious Savior in the eyes of men with these words, and crying out for men to humble themselves before Him? “And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name: That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father,” Philippians 2.8-11. Again, I do not think so. On the other hand, when convincing folks from liturgical religions of Christ’s exclusive role as mediator between God and men with these words? “For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus; Who gave himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time,” First Timothy 2.5-6. I do not think so. I do not know about you, but I am eager to hear God’s Word properly preached, because when it is properly preached through the power of the Holy Ghost men are saved, Christians are taught, and Christ is glorified in a way unparalleled by other means. That is not done with half-wit homilies, doctrineless devotions, or timid teaching. Only through strong Bible preaching does God wonderfully bless in this way. To listen properly to a sermon from God’s Word you must have an eagerness, a hungering if you will, for Bible preaching. That is what Cornelius had. That is what you need to have. If you do not have that attitude, you should set yourself to the task of cultivating it.
Second, YOU MUST HAVE THE TOOL OF APPRECIATION
Cornelius appreciated Peter coming to deliver God’s Word to him. This is seen in his own words again: “and thou hast well done that thou art come.” “I’m glad you came, preacher.” Cornelius understood that Peter was a man sent from God with divine truth to declare to him. At first, Cornelius attempted to show Peter extreme reverence, but Peter would have none of it. Peter was not self-deluded. He knew he was, after all, only a man, and not someone who would sit on some throne, wearing white silk, and expect you to kiss his ring or anything. Cornelius still appreciated Peter’s ministry, even after it was clearly communicated that the preacher was only a sinner saved by grace, just as he was. He was a sinner called by God and consecrated to His glorious gospel ministry.
Cornelius had definite reasons for appreciating Peter’s ministry of preaching divine truth. We have those same reasons, and more. Faithful preachers ought to be appreciated because they are Christ’s gift to the church, Ephesians 4.8 and 11. When the Lord gives a gift, you should appreciate it. There is nothing more disconcerting to me than ingratitude. Too many churchgoers are ingrates with regard to their preacher. Too many do not appreciate what God is trying to do in their lives through the ministry of their preacher, and in the lives of their children. Second, preachers should be appreciated for protecting the flock. Here is what Paul told the preachers from Ephesus: “Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood,” Acts 20.28. Examine the Old Testament and the New Testament. Take note of God’s means of protection for His people then and now. There is a difference. Then, God used the angelic host to protect His people. Now, God has seen fit to use God-called men to protect His people from supernatural attack and from divisive elements who would rip churches asunder. You ought to appreciate the preacher for the protection he provides for your life, much of it coming through his sermonizing. Third, preachers ought to be appreciated because appreciation of the preacher helps to prepare you to receive his message from the Book. People are simply be more receptive, barriers and resistance to truth are reduced, if one genuinely appreciates the preacher’s role in God’s plan for his life. Cornelius had reason to appreciate this preacher God had sent to him. I know it can seem self-serving to assert this, but your appreciation for a preacher's personal commitment is good for anyone who listen to a sermon. Occasionally, as one young man once told me, parents completely undermine a preacher’s effectiveness when they express to their children the opinion that pastor’s preaching is ineffective in bringing their children to Christ. The children will not listen attentively after hearing a mom or a dad say that. Have the tool of eagerness. Have, also, the tool of appreciation.
Finally, YOU MUST HAVE THE TOOL OF UNDERSTANDING
Read his words again: “Now therefore are we all here present before God, to hear all things that are commanded thee of God.” Cornelius understood that somehow God had chosen to communicate certain truths through the life of another man to him, and that for that truth he would be held responsible by God.
I am not trying to imply that any mediatorial role was occupied by Peter, as the Roman Catholic Church erroneously teaches. We who read our Bibles and study them with discernment realize that no man or woman stands between you and Christ in that respect. No mere human mediator is needed, or is competent. For one thing, the Lord Jesus, Himself, is the sole mediator between you and God, First Timothy 2.5: “For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.” He is unique in this respect. There is no one else like Him. Secondly, all believers are now priests, according to First Peter 2.9: “But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light.” Since I am a priest, why do I need a priest?
What Cornelius understood, instead, was that God had chosen to use men with the gospel to reach men, to use men with the Bible to teach men. Though these men are instruments in God’s hands, you will stand before God someday, responsible to Him for the truth that has been given to you by such men as me. It is important to understand that.
Cornelius had three tools which helped him to be a good listener. Eagerness, which naturally reflected his emotional, intellectual and spiritual hunger to know God’s will for his life. Appreciation of God’s servant as the channel by which much of God’s will for his life would be made known to him. Understanding of his responsibility before God to be obedient to that portion of God’s will that was declared through the preacher’s ministry.
Do you know how to listen to a sermon? Does your family? Do you prepare yourself for church and do you prepare your family by cultivating eagerness, appreciation, and understanding? Are you an unconverted person? Then you had better be eager, you had better be appreciative, and you had better understand that God has chosen me to guide you to Christ.
Prepare yourself in this way before you next come to church. If you have children, prepare them as best you can before you next come to church. As well, pray that God will bless the man who preaches. Then cultivate an eagerness to see these prayers answered. Get excited about gospel preaching. Parents? If you are excited about gospel preaching your kids will get excited about it, as well. Next, cultivate appreciation for those who minister to you. How can an appreciated preacher not be especially concerned for the spiritual welfare of someone who he knows appreciates his ministry? How can he not be particularly careful to remember that person in prayer? As well, do you not think the Savior is pleased when you appreciate the gifted man He has given to you? Finally, ask yourself what you are responsible to do at the conclusion of a Bible sermon. Understand that you are responsible to God for the message from His Word to you. People who have all three of these tools (eagerness, appreciation, and understanding) and use them, are the people who end up being saved, who grow in grace, and who are seen to grow in spiritual stature. It is such people as these that God places His hand on to bless.
I have never in my life seen a sinner come to Christ who was not eager during the preaching of the gospel, who was not appreciative to me or whoever was preaching the message from God’s Word, and who did not understand that he had better get it, better get it right, and better get it soon, or he was lost forever.