Preaching and Hearing
An extract from Chapter 6 of Paul D. Wolfe’s book, My God Is True: Lessons Learned Along Cancer’s Dark Road,1 pp. 96-101.
One . . . aspect of the church’s life that we ought to consider in connection to suffering [is that] the Lord uses faithful preaching to shape the hearts and minds of his people as they sit under that preaching Sunday after Sunday.
Christ, the Head of the church, has provided for our ongoing instruction in the truths of the gospel:
And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes (Eph. 4:11-14).
From the days of the apostles Christ has entrusted some with the official responsibility to proclaim God’s Word to God’s people. This is another way in which he has ensured that no Christian should have to go it alone. We need to be reminded regularly of God’s grace and glory, and faithful pastors do just that as they preach from the pulpit and teach us in other settings. How valuable are those reminders in a world of suffering. In trying circumstances we need to cling to the goodness, wisdom and power of God, and ministers hold those very truths before our hearts when they declare the whole counsel of God.
This is yet another lesson I learned in my personal experience. I mean, my personal experience as a sermon hearer.
When I found out in April of 1999 that I had cancer, I had been a member of New Hope Presbyterian Church for over five years. If you count from the very first Sunday I visited, it was nearly six years. Week in and week out for those six years, the pastor of the congregation, Dave Coffin, steadily and faithfully proclaimed God’s Word from the pulpit. Over and over again he taught us from the Scriptures concerning the comprehensive sovereignty and precious promises of God. In different ways and in different words he trained us concerning trials, reminding us that everything that comes to pass God brings to pass for his own glory and for the good of his people, encouraging us with the thought that no trial finally overthrows the gospel, for even death itself – the last trial – becomes the Christian’s entrance into glory. Week after week he taught us.
And it was not just the sermons. It was also the congregational sermon discussions that he would lead after worship. It was also the after-dinner conversations in his living room in which I would pester him with too many questions about the Bible and theology, and he would patiently seek to answer each one. Plus the discussions over the phone. Plus the conversations in the car. Nearly six years of sermons and discussions, questions and answers, correction and encouragement. Week after week.
What neither of us realized was that during that whole time Dave was preparing me for the day when I would find out that I had cancer.
Of course, no one knew what my days would bring. No one knew in 1993 what I would learn on April 23, 1999. Dave did not know. I did not know. But looking back I can see now that the Lord was using Dave’s steady, faithful, truth-full ministry all that time to fill my heart and mind with the very gospel realities that would hold me up when the MRI pictures went up on the screen.
There is an important lesson here for every Christian, since we are all sermon hearers. In short, we ought to see our relationship to preaching as a lifelong relationship. To be sure, it is good to consider each Sunday how the truth we have heard that day should shape our lives right away, but there is more to it than that. Each of us also ought to be storing up a deep reservoir of biblical convictions over the course of his life. Those convictions may pay off down the road in ways that you never anticipated.
Let us all be reminded of the good counsel that the Westminster Larger Catechism provides about hearing sermons:
Question 160: What is required of those that hear the word preached?
Answer: It is required of those that hear the word preached, that they attend upon it with diligence, preparation, and prayer; examine what they hear by the scriptures; receive the truth with faith, love, meekness, and readiness of mind, as the word of God; meditate, and confer of it; hide it in their hearts, and bring forth the fruit of it in their lives.
Notice that language, ‘hide it in their hearts’. The Christian life is, among other things, from start to finish, a life of hearing sermons, and it is vital that we hold on to the truth we have heard. Who knows what the circumstances will be in which you will have to bring forth the fruit of the things you have stored away?
This is one of the reasons – and there are so many others – why the young people of the congregation, beginning at a reasonable age, ought to be present and attentive during the sermon. They ought to be there, listening and learning as best they can, even if the subject of the sermon might appear, at first glance, to have nothing to do with them at their age. First, that appearance is misleading. After all, there are principles in every faithful exposition of the Word that have to do with every disciple, young or old. Second, children ought to listen and learn because they are never too young to be storing up God’s truth. No disciple is too young to start hiding the truth in his heart. Maybe when he is twenty-eight – or younger – he will find out that he has cancer. That is not the time to start thinking about the goodness, wisdom and power of God. Far better for him to have those truths already deeply rooted in his soul, thanks to years of faithful preaching and listening.
Notice that there is an important lesson here for preachers, too. Do not get caught in the trap of thinking that your fruitfulness in ministry is limited to the impact your sermon has on the day you preach it. Of course, it is a wonderful thing when a sermon hits a person ‘in the moment’, clearly and powerfully shaping his thinking and thus changing his living from that moment on. Certainly there were Sundays when the Lord used Dave’s preaching to get my attention like that.
Sometimes the Lord is pleased to grant that kind of power to the preacher’s words. In fact, sometimes the preacher himself is hit like that by his own words! But the lesson is this: there is more to the fruitfulness of preaching than those occasional instances of immediate impact.
The notion that a sermon is only as effective as the impression it makes in the moment can lead a man to try to preach sermons that are too clever, too tricky, too impressive. He succumbs to the temptation to try – and he tries this, wearily, each and every week – to pull a rabbit out of the hat as he expounds the text of Scripture. And then, as if he had just performed on some sort of reality TV show (‘American Preacher Idol’, perhaps?), he waits for members of the congregation to approach him after the worship service and give him his marks. Praise thrills him, which leads him to conclude, ‘I’ve been fruitful in ministry.’ Criticism devastates him, which leads him to resolve, ‘I’ve failed. I’ll just have to work that much harder to be impressive next week.’ Idol,indeed!
Ministers face such pressure today to make their sermons relevant. Of course, relevance is a fine thing. The truths of the Bible are meant to shape our lives, and any ministry that treats those truths as mere abstractions, never touching down and addressing us as those who live on earth, is no true biblical ministry at all. So, yes, let us be relevant. But the danger we face is a too-narrow understanding of what relevant preaching looks like. You see, it is most relevant for a preaching ministry, over the long haul, to pour a steady stream of biblical truth into people’s hearts and minds. With the blessing of the Lord, such preaching prepares Christians for the future as well as arming them for the present. It is sometimes said that the minister must seek in his sermon to meet the people where they are. That is a noble aspiration, of course, but the minister’s job is also to get the people ready for where they will be. No, he cannot know precisely where their roads will take them, but he does know that the truths of Scripture are crucial to prepare them for every circumstance. So let him serve up a steady diet of those truths. Just think of it: the faithful preacher helps to foster spiritual emergency preparedness! Years ago I learned that lesson as a cancer patient, and I pray that I will never forget it now that I have become a preacher.
My fellow ministers, have you forgotten this lesson? Does your vision for ministry extend no further than next Sunday morning? Is your sense of fruitfulness in ministry determined solely by the comments you get about your sermon right after the worship service? Has it become your aim, perhaps without even realizing it, to wow the people who hear you preach? If so, it is time to change your aim: instead of wowing them in the moment, aim to feed them for a lifetime. Yes, that is hard work, requiring humility and patience year after year, but the Chief Shepherd grants grace to his servants for just this purpose. Look to him. Remember, he is the one who has provided preaching so that we will all ‘attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ’ (Eph. 4:13). Since he himself has ordained preaching to that end, you can count on him to sustain you as you seek to be faithful.
Christ has said to his people, ‘You’ll never walk alone’, promising above all his own abiding presence, and he has placed pastors in the church both to proclaim and to exemplify that fidelity. May we who preach labour in a manner worthy of that high calling, and may all who hear believe the Saviour’s word. And may we do so throughout all the days that the Lord has appointed for us. Week after week.
My God Is True!
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