Truth and Power: The Place of Scripture in the Christian Life by J.I. Packer
At the time of the Reformation, when vernacular Bibles were appearing all over Europe and literacy was being established in Western culture, it was insisted that the Bible is for reading and every Christian should get to know it from cover to cover. This was right, as it still is. Holy Scripture is, as we have seen, the source and channel for our knowledge of God and his salvation. It is from Bible stories and Bible teachings, Bible promises and Bible warnings, biblical examples of godliness and its opposite, biblical reflections on wisdom and folly, and supremely from the biblical portrayal of the person, words, works, place and grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that we learn the way of eternal life. Moreover, Bible knowledge has always been basic to Christian culture. Bible stories and standards were passed on by word of mouth in the darkest and most illiterate of the Dark and Middle Ages and for four centuries more after the Reformers added to this heritage a clear understanding
of the gospel. Thus it could truly be said that the Bible was the basis on which Western civilization was built. Fifty years of drift from these moorings since the Second World War has left the West immeasurably poorer in spiritual capital, and the impoverishing continues. That the need for Christians to be soaked in Scripture is now greater than ever is a judgment with which most church-related people, of whatever denominational stripe, would heartily agree.
Not so, however, with the even stronger Reformation insistence that the Bible is for preaching, and that every minister should be first and foremost a constant, competent Bible expositor. The Reformers urged that the preaching of the Word is by God’s appointment the prime means of grace to the church. The common objections to preaching nowadays are, first, that monologue is not the most efficient form of instruction and second, that preachers’ ideas, no matter how sincerely held and firmly stated, cannot carry God’s authority. The first objection assumes that the purpose of preaching is to pass on information, as one would do in a lecture; the second assumes that there is no specific message from God for the preacher to deliver, so that all the preacher can ever do is relay his own best thoughts. I challenge both assumptions, the latter for reasons that this book has already made clear, and the former because the proper aim of preaching is to mediate meetings with God.
Anyone acquainted with the preaching career and sermonic legacy of such as (for instance) John Chrysostom, Augustine, Martin Luther, Hugh Latimer, John Knox, Richard Baxter, John Bunyan, George Whitefield, John Wesley, Jonathan Edwards, Charles Simeon, Robert Murray M’Cheyne, Charles Spurgeon, John Charles Ryle, Martyn Lloyd-Jones and Billy Graham knows, first, that their goal in preaching was to become the means of God’s encounter with their hearers, and second, that it was by focusing God’s teaching in Scripture that they sought to achieve this purpose. Preaching, to them, was not so much searching out new truth (however new the truth they told might be to some listeners) as making vivid old truth in its relevance for living. Preaching, to them, was God-taught information set forth with God-given freedom and forthrightness
in a God-prompted application; and they were sure that, as in apostolic days, so in their own and every subsequent era, preaching the Bible is this way was, remained and ever would be basic for the health of the church. That is my belief too, and my task in this chapter is to give it substance and teeth.
I will therefore discuss in order the preparation, delivery and hearing of sermons, viewing them as what ideally they are — human communications through which God himself communicates. I will address throughout those who listen to sermons rather than those who preach them, and what I say about the preacher’s disciplines of preparation and delivery will be said primarily to tune listeners in to their own discipline of receiving what is presented. Rather than risk generalizations about preaching that might seem to censure others whose style differs from mine, I have chosen to risk particularizations that may make me appear egotistic, that is, I will lay myself on the line and explain in first-person terms how I seek to fulfill the preacher’s role. Perhaps I should apologize for doing this, for I do not claim to be a major preacher. C.S. Lewis tells how he asked leave to write The Problem of Pain anonymously, since he would have to “make statements of such apparent fortitude that they would become ridiculous if anyone knew who made them.” Anonymity was rejected, but he was informed that “I could write a preface explaining that I did not live up to my own principles! This exhilarating programme,” Lewis continued, “I am now carrying out.”1 And I am doing something similar with regard to my preaching, sustained by the belief that you can sometimes do a useful job as a coach even when you are not one of the best players. But I venture upon this bit of ministerial striptease mainly because it will enable me to establish a frame of reference within which it will become very clear how sermons should be listened to and learned from.
Defining the Sermon
Within the established patterns of Christian worship the Bible and its gospel get cast into bite-size discourses, usually between fifteen and fifty minutes long, with about half an hour as the median length. (A book of
these discourses many years ago was titled Thirty Minutes to Raise the Dead.) We call them sermons, from the Latin sermo, which means a speech or spoken utterance. What sort of speech, now is a sermon? Below I provide my definition, fully knowing that not all will endorse it. A theological liberal couldn’t endorse it, and my guess is that many evangelicals, who could endorse it, don’t and won’t. (If my guess is wrong, no one will be happier than I am — nor, I think, more surprised!) I will state the definition, however, as plainly as I can, and my readers may judge for themselves what acceptance it merits.
First, let me focus my definition. Sermons can be looked at from various angles and defined in a number of ways. An institutional definition of a sermon would describe it as a hortatory monologue delivered from a pulpit to people in pews as part of a liturgical program. A sociological definition would highlight the expectations that sermons seek to fulfill and the responsibilities that they are thought to impose. A homiletical definition would view the sermon as didactic communication, put over by means of a special rhetorical technique. Such definitions certainly have their place, but at this moment I am on a different track. The definition I offer — the definition with which I live, which commands my conscience and guides me in preparing specific messages — is theological (that is, trinitarian and theocentric) and functional (that is, centering on intention and effect).
This definition, or concept, was given me in embryo during the winter of 1948-1949, when I was privileged on Sunday evenings to sit under the preaching of the late D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones at Westminster Chapel in London, England. Yehudi Menuhin has written of how overwhelmed he was the first time he played Beethoven’s Violin Concerto under Wilhelm Furtwaengler, by reason of the power with which the great conductor recreated Beethoven’s music all around him. Well, that was how I felt that winter as I heard Dr. Lloyd-Jones preach the gospel of Christ from the Gospel of Matthew, opening up Matthew 11 with magisterial weight and passion in some twenty discourses.2
Since then I have lived, worshiped and preached under an ineffaceable
sense of the authority of what Dr. Lloyd-Jones was doing. It is only in recent years, however, that I have been able to verbalize it to myself and others in a way that seems to me anything like adequate to the reality. Even so, my definition may not communicate all that from my standpoint it expresses, for preaching is ordinarily caught by contact rather than taught by rote. If my readers, preachers though they themselves may be, have never experienced such preaching as I encountered nearly fifty years ago, they may well miss much of the meaning of my words. Nonetheless, I hope that my definition will in fact strike some sparks.
A sermon, then, is an applicatory declaration, spoken in God’s name and for his praise, in which some part of the written Word of God delivers through the preacher some part of its message about God and godliness in relation to those whom the preacher addresses. This definition, so far as I am concerned, is universally applicable. All sermons are topical in the sense of being about something specific, which can be indicated in a title. But no discourse is a sermon unless it is textual in the sense of being a Bible passage, text or phrase delivering through the speaker some part of its own message as a word from God. Discourses that are not expository in this sense (I am talking about substance, not style or format) are simply not sermons: addresses may be a proper label for them, but sermons is a misnomer.
From this you can see that my definition grounds a particular view of the preacher’s task on a particular view of the nature of Scripture. Fuller explanation is needed on both these matters, and it is convenient to take them in reverse.
The Nature of Scripture
Holy Scripture, the inspired Word (message) of the living God, may truly be described as God preaching — preaching, that is, in the sense of instructing, rebuking, correcting and directing every reader and hearer for the furthering of faith, praise, holiness and spiritual growth. God preaches thus in and through all the various stories, soliloquies, schedules, statistics, songs and supplications that make up the individual books of
the canon. All that Bible writers tell us about God and humanity, God himself tells us, for the sacred text is not just human witness to God but is also, and indeed primarily, God’s own witness to himself, given to us in this human form. Everything in Scripture teaches something of the Father’s plan, something of the ministry and majesty of the Son as fulfiller of it, and something too about the gift and glory of eternal life and the way to set forth God’s praise. Furthermore, it teaches this as from God himself. The approach to Scripture followed by preachers in the older Reformational-Puritan-Pietist-evangelical tradition, from Luther to Lloyd-Jones, was determined by the clarity with which they grasped this truth, and it is our own urgent need to get back on this wavelength. Only as God himself is perceived to be preaching in our sermons can they have genuine spiritual significance, and God will be perceived to speak through us preachers only as we are enabled to make plain the fact that it is really the Bible that is doing the talking.
The Task of the Preacher
Since the triune God — the Father and the Son, through the Spirit — already preaches to us in every part of the Bible, the human preacher’s task resolves into becoming a mouthpiece and sounding board for the diving message that meets him in the text. It is not for the preacher to stand, as it were, in front of and above the Bible, sitting himself between it and the people and speaking for it, as if it could not speak for itself. Rather his role is to stand behind and below it, letting it deliver its own message through him and putting himself explicitly and transparently under the authority of that message, so that his very style of relaying it models a response to it. From this standpoint preaching is, indeed, in Phillips Brooks’s phrase, “truth through personality” and the preacher is, indeed, half of his sermon. Only as he manifests both the mentality of a messenger and the disposition of a disciple will the preacher communicate any sense of God speaking in what he says. Insofar as he fulfills these two roles, his preaching will be genuinely prophetic: he will speak from God in his character as a servant of God. The Holy Spirit who enables him to do
this will lead God’s people to recognize God’s authority in what he is saying. The form of authority that is acknowledged in Scripture as authentically moral and spiritual is the authority of God himself speaking, not of his representatives except as they echo and embody his word. That is how it is here. The authentic authority of the pulpit is the authority not of the preacher’s eloquence, experience or expertise but of God speaking in Scripture through what is said as he or she explains and applies the text.
So the preacher, rather than the critical commentator or the academic theologian, is the true interpreter of Scripture, for the preacher is the person whose privilege it is to bridge the apparent gap between the Bible and the modern world by demonstrating the relevance of what Scripture says to the lives of those addressed.
Interpretation as such means, among other things, bringing literary and artistic legacies to life and showing their significance for those who stand at a distance, temporal or cultural or both, from the producers of these materials. Biblical interpretation is a particular example of this. It involves both grammatical-historical exposition of what the text meant as instruction for the writer’s envisaged readership and contemporary application of it at the level of principle to show what it means for us today and what response it (or, rather, God in it) is calling for. Commentaries and theologies are resources for this task, but only preachers can fully perform it, and they perform it fully only as they apply their text in a rational and realistic way. To pass on biblical content, unapplied, is only to teach, not to preach. A lecture, as such, is not a sermon; preaching is teaching plus. Plus what? Plus application of truth to life. One’s adequacy as a preacher, interpreting God’s Word to God’s people, is finally determined not by the erudition of one’s exegesis but by the depth and power of one’s application. This is the next matter that my definition of a sermon requires me to discuss.
The Theory of Application
A largely forgotten part of the evangelical heritage with regard to preaching is the procedure sometimes called “discriminating application,” which
Puritan writers were the first to formulate. I offer now a functional analysis of application, formally and schematically viewed, which is essentially a restatement in modern terms of what this procedure requires. Three guidelines are involved.
First, application should constantly focus on the unchanging realities of each person’s relationship to God. The most important question that anybody ever faces is the issue of one’s relationship with God. Both exposition and application in preaching must center here. Within the Bible story, cultures and circumstances changed and the externals of worship and devotion took different forms at different times. The New Testament era saw the coming of God incarnate, the establishing of Christ’s kingdom, the eschatological gift of the Spirit, the superseding of ethnic Jewishness by a global outlook and the new reality of life in Christ. But the basic elements in relating rightly to our holy, gracious Creator remained in essence the same from Genesis to Revelation and are so still. These elements include faith, love, hope, obedience; humility, repentance, forgiveness, fidelity; thankful praise and trustful prayer; stewarding gifts, sanctifying one’s activities, serving others and standing against evil both in one’s own heart and in the world outside. These are the unchanging realities that the preacher’s elucidations of Scripture, whatever else they deal with, must regularly highlight and illustrate, and that his applications, one way or another, must regularly cover. The Bible is given us to teach us godliness. All our preaching ought to further that purpose.
Second, application should constantly focus on the person, place and power of Jesus Christ. The Bible in its entirety is witness to Christ and to the Father’s plans involving him. By setting these before us, it makes us “wise unto salvation” through faith in him (2 Tim 3:15). Central to application in preaching, therefore, is the task of systematically relating God’s love in Christ to the whole range of needs and perplexities to which, as we way (with truth), “Christ is the answer.” This requires us both to dwell on his mediatorial office as our prophet, priest and king and also to present his person as set forth in the Gospels, so that he will be known and trusted as the individual that he was and is and will never be reduced to an
unknown x in theological equations.
Yet just as it would not be enough to require faith in the office and work of Christ without delineating his personal profile in this way, so too it is not enough to exhibit Jesus the man as our example and ignore the work of his saving lordship — which is a continuing defect, unhappily, of the Protestant liberal tradition. In application the compassionate wisdom of the man from Galilee dealing with various kinds of sinners must be brought to bear together with the saving power of
Jesus! my Shepherd, Husband, Friend,
My Prophet, Priest, and King,
My Lord, my Life, my Way, my End.
Only so will application be fully Christian and fully effective.
Third, application should constantly search the hearts and consciences of the hearers. It is the preacher’s responsibility to plan the applicatory part of the sermon to this end, so that the message is “homecoming” (Alexander Whyte’s word) in a specific way to as many of his congregation as possible. In every congregation there are likely to be people in each of the following categories (which, as will be seen, are not entirely exclusive):
Unconverted and self-satisfied, needing to be awakened and humbled.
Concerned and inquiring, wanting to be told what being a Christian today involves.
Convicted and seeking, needing to be guided directly to Christ.
Believing but immature, needing to be built up and led on.
Believing and mature, aging both physically and spiritually, needing to be constantly encouraged, lest they flag.
Troubled, through moral lapses, circumstantial traumas, “losses and crosses” (a Puritan phrase), disappointment, depression and other such afflictions. It has been wisely observed that in every congregation there will be at least one broken heart.
Just as homemakers who prepare meals try to ensure that there will be enough kinds of food to satisfy all who are there, so too we who prepare sermons must try to see that, over a period of time if not in each single
message, applications are made that will be home-coming and health-giving, through God’s blessing, to each of these classes of people.
There are basically four types of application, each of which can be developed from any Bible truth about God and humankind, and each of which may and should be made from time to time to all six sorts of people. (Not that all twenty-four specific applications could actually be developed in one sermon! My point is that they are there to be developed, as wisdom directs.) There is, first, application to our mind, where the logical form is this: the truth presented shows us that we ought not to think thus-and-so (and if we have thought it up to now, we must stop thinking it); instead, we should think such-and-such. Second, there is application to our will, where the logical form is that the truth presented shows us we ought not to behave thus-and-so (and if we have started, we must stop at once); instead, we ought to do such-an-such. Third, there is application to our motivating drives, where the logical form is this: the truth presented shows us that if we are living as we should and want to, we have very good reason and every encouragement to carry on, and if we are not living so, we have very good reason and every encouragement to change our ways. Fourth, there is application to our condition, where the logical form is found in the question How do we stand in relation to the truth presented? Have we faced it, taken it to heart, measured and judged ourselves by it? How do we stand in relation to the God who speaks it to us? It is through these four types of application, whether made to us from the pulpit or by us to ourselves in private meditation, that Scripture fulfills to us its appointed function of correcting, rebuking and training in righteousness (2 Tim 3:16).
How the preacher will express and angle each type of application on each occasion is something that he must of necessity decide in light of what truth he is applying, what he knows about those he is addressing, what was said to them by himself or by others in previous sermons and a host of other factors. A good rule of thumb for pastoral sermons, however, is that half the message should be in essence instruction in biblical truth about God and humankind and half should be in essence specific application
of that truth. Observing these proportions, it seems to me, one cannot go far wrong.
Preparing the Sermon
How do I prepare my own sermons? The short answer is that I try to produce messages that conform to the specifications already set out. Being an academic without a stated pastoral charge, I often find myself preaching to congregations about which I know very little, but I sieve my material as best I can through my applicatory grid in hope of ensuring that I will say something relevant and timely to as many as possible of the six types of people who I expect will be there.
Where do sermon messages come from? For most preachers, I think, and certainly for me, there are two main sources: first, the known needs of congregations, which suggest particular themes and passages on which to preach, and maybe even series of sermons; second, our own experience of being taught and disciplined by God, which leaves us with insights and wisdom that we find ourselves wanted to pass on. Sometimes a lectionary or prior church decision prescribes on which passage one must preach. In that case, one will search it and meditate and pray over it, seeking in it an important truth with an application that one has the skill to handle. Sometimes the occasion (Christmas, Easter, Pentecost, a national crisis or some other event) dictates one’s theme; then one will seek a passage to expound and apply appropriately. I would add here that a rounded theological understanding of the will and ways of God and of the nature, demands, and resources of the Christian life is a great help in enabling one to see what truth one is looking at in particular Bible passages. Calvin’s Institutes, covering these themes in classical fashion, is one theological guide that has suggested to me many messages over the years, and the writings of the two greatest Puritans, John Owen and Richard Baxter, have done the same.
What routines and resources do I use in preparing sermons? My method (which I share because my strategy in this chapter requires it, without wishing to make rules for anyone else) is, so to speak, first to walk
around my text, or whatever I suspect will be my text (for at first, I am not always sure about that), looking at it in its larger context (that is, as part of the book from which it comes and of the Bible as a whole) and scribbling possible schemes of points to teach, angels of interaction with life and its problems to pursue, and personal applications to develop. I find that I need to start this process several days before the message has to be produced, for getting an outline that seems right — that is, one that expresses my heart and that I see how to use in searching the hearts of others — often takes me quite some time
The outline is crucially important. When we preach, our hearers need to feel that we know where we are going and what we are aiming at — that the text is talking, that the flow if thought is logical and natural, that each application comes directly from the exposition and that there is no change of thematic horses in midstream. Sermons that lack these modes of rationality will also lack persuasive power and authority. So my outline needs to be thought through both forward and backward: forward, from the opening sentence to each point of application, to make sure that the logical line is straight; backward, for the envisaged applications to the exposition of the truths being applied, to make sure they are aptly and sufficiently stated for my applicatory purpose. Getting a workable outline that passes these tests is usually, I find, the hardest part of sermon preparation.
Only when I think I see my way to a compelling outline do I turn to the church’s expository legacy of commentaries and homiletical materials, exploring it and drawing on these to fill out the scheme I already have. I find that reading others’ work before my own outline is clear makes it harder, rather than easier, to settle in my mind what my message from the text is supposed to be. Biblical texts differ: some are directly didactic, others indirectly so; some state, some narrate, some illustrate; some are already applicatory in their form and thrust; some are exemplary, showing the root or fruit of godly or ungodly behavior. But all have living before the face of God as their reference point, and the most helpful resources at this stage are those that are most God-centered. For the record (though
I do not suppose I am typical in this) modern expositions do not help me half as much as does Matthew Henry, the Puritan, and modern printed sermons do not suggest to me half as much as do those of C.H. Spurgeon and the sermonic writings of J.C. Ryle. As for illustrations, whenever I can, I use Bible stories to illustrate Bible doctrine. Beyond this, I find that there are usually illustrations enough in everyday events. For me, at least, exotic illustrations turn preaching into a performance remote from life, so that sermon time ceases to be an encounter with God and becomes an entertainment break, and accordingly, I expend no effort in hunting for them.
How much preparatory writing do I do? As much as is necessary to ensure that I know my message and have words at my command to make all my points, both expository and applicatory, in a clear, pointed, weighty way that gives no offense other than the inescapable offense of the gospel itself. How much writing is needed to get to this point varies, I find, from preacher to preacher.
How much written material do I take with me to the pulpit? As much as I need to be exact, as well as free and spontaneous, in the way that I speak. This, for me, means a half sheet of paper, with skeletal notes in abbreviations of my own devising, for each half hour of talk. Some preachers need less, some more. Some need to have a complete script with them, not to read word for word but to give them confidence as they speak, knowing that should words suddenly fail to come spontaneously, they can drop their eyes to the script and find there what they need to start the flow again.
The conductor Furtwaengler, whom I mentioned earlier, was always thorough in his orchestral rehearsals, describing them as his preparation for improvising at the performance. In the same way thorough preparation equips the preacher to be spontaneous in the pulpit. Fumbling spontaneity, which indicates insufficient preparation, is always a depressant, but controlled creativity, carrying the sense that the person knows what he is doing even though he is doing some of it on the spur of the moment, generates a sort of communicative electricity that keeps people on the
edge of their seats. So it was when Furtwaengler played Beethoven, Brahms and Bruckner. So it was when Dr. Lloyd-Jones preached, as I can testify. So I pray, over and over, that it will be each time I preach. I hope that any preachers who read this do the same.
The Act of Preaching
Two generations ago, W.H. Griffith Thomas offered young preachers the following formula: “Think yourself empty; read yourself full; write yourself clear; pray yourself keen; then into the pulpit, and let yourself go!”3 His sprightly words should not be understood as sanctioning the frivolity of exhibitionist exuberance but simply as pinpointing the course that the serious preacher will follow. That preaching is indeed serious business should be clear by now; the glory of God and the issues of eternity are so directly bound up with the preaching of the Word that a casual or offhand attitude by its practitioners would be scandalous. But a serious approach to the preacher’s work is spiritually demanding. Said Charles Simeon nearly two centuries ago:
It is easy for a minister to prate in the pulpit, and even to speak much good matter; but to preach is not easy — to carry his congregation on his shoulders as it were to heaven; to weep over them, pray for them, deliver the truth with a weeping, praying heart; and if a minister has grace to do so now and then, he ought to be very thankful.4
To take one’s preaching seriously is nervously demanding, too, if my experience is any guide: I lecture on a regular basis as well as preach, and find preaching to be far and away the more draining of the two activities. And no wonder! For whereas one lectures to clear heads and ripen minds, one preaches to change lives and save souls. No doubt there are frivolous and irresponsible pulpiteers who do not feel the weight of their work, but I write at this moment as one of those who do, and so I now raise in blunt form this question: Given verbal efficiency in saying what you mean (we have already dealt with that), what further demands does the delivering of sermons make on the preacher? We have looked at the discipline of
preparing them; what more, now, is involved in the further discipline of actually preaching them?
And answer of classic depth and strength was given to this question by Richard Baxter in The Reformed Pastor, dated 1656.
Be …. careful that your graces are kept in vigorous and lively exercise, and that you preach to yourselves the sermons which you study, before you preach them to others . . . When your minds are in a holy, heavenly frame, your people are likely to partake of the fruits of it . . . They will likely feel when you have been much with God: that which is most on your hearts, is likely to be most in their ears. I confess I must speak it by lamentable experience, that I publish to my flock the distempers of my own soul. When I let my heart grow cold, my preaching is cold; and when it is confused, my preaching is confused; and so I can oft observe also in the best of my hearers, that when I have grown cold in preaching, they have grown cold too; and the next prayers which I have heard from them have been too like my preaching. We are the nurses of Christ’s little ones. If we forbear taking food ourselves, we shall famish them; it will soon be visible in their leanness. . . . If we let our love decline, we are not likely to raise up theirs . . . Whereas, if we abound in faith, and love, and zeal, how would it overflow to the refreshing of our congregations, and how would it appear in the increase of the same graces in them! O brethren, watch therefore over your own hearts: keep out lusts and passions, and worldly inclinations; keep up the life of faith, and love and zeal; be much at home, and much with God. If it be not your daily business to study your own hearts, and to subdue corruption, and to walk with God — if you make not this a work to which you constantly attend, all will go wrong, and you will starve your hearers; or, if you have an affected fervency, you cannot expect a blessing to attend it from on high. Above all, be much in secret prayer and meditation. Thence you must fetch the heavenly fire that must kindle your sacrifices: remember, you cannot decline and neglect your duty to your own hurt alone; many will be losers by it as well as you. For your people’s sake, therefore, look to your hearts . . . .
A minister should take some special pains with his heart, before he is to go to the congregation: if it be then cold, how is he likely to warm the hearts of his hearers? Therefore, go then specially to God for life: read some
rousing, awakening book, or meditate on the weight of the subject of which you are to speak, and on the great necessity of your people’s souls, that you may go in the zeal of the Lord into his house.5
Powerful stuff, you will agree, and as challenging today as it was when first written. What Baxter calls for is not pulpit dramatics or simulated passion (that is what he means by “affected fervency”); it is, rather consecrated concentration on the task of persuading the congregation to receive and respond to the truth from God that one is presenting. The preacher must be clear that he is in the pulpit not to give his own opinions on things but to relay a God-given message and to do so in a way that shows that he himself is as much under its authority as anyone. So his goal must be to speak from his heart in a way that expresses his sincerity, his faithfulness to God’s Word and his seriousness about the glory of God and the good of souls, and to do this in the way that is natural to him and therefore makes him transparent to his hearers. Baxter was a man of passionate intellect and torrential rhetoric; another preacher will be slower-moving and more low-key in style, more or less didactic, humorous, analytical and anecdotal, according to how God made him. The point is not that all preachers should speak in the same way but that every preacher should speak in a way that makes plain, first, that his message is from God who speaks it in Scripture, second, that he himself comes from the presence of God to deliver it, and third, that it matters to him that his hearers follow the path of life by receiving it rather than miss that path by rejecting it. This is my aim when I preach, and if what has been said up to this point is right, it is surely clear that it ought to be every other preacher’s aim too. It is for the achieving of this aim, rather than for any sort of personal experience as such, that the anointing of the Holy Spirit upon us should be sought when we are to preach, and in terms of the achieving of this aim that God’s anointing should actually be defined.6
How to Hear Sermons
“We also thank God continually,” wrote Paul, “because, when you received
the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is at work in you who believe” (1 Thess 2:13). If true Christian preaching is as described in the foregoing pages, then it too, like Paul’s preaching, is the Word of God for substance, as indeed the Reformers insisted it was, and the question for us is thus: how are we to hear sermons as the Word of God land benefit from them in our ongoing relationship with God? In his Christian Directory (1673) Richard Baxter addresses this question in a way that is worth quoting at some length.
Directions for . . . Understanding the Word which you Hear.
I. Read and meditate on the holy Scriptures much in private, and then you will be the better able to understand what is preached on it in public, and to try that doctrine, whether it be of God . . .
II. Live under the clearest, [most]distinct, convincing teaching that you possibly can procure . . . . Ignorant teachers . . . are unlike[ly] to make you men of understanding; as erroneous teachers are unlike[ly] to make you orthodox and sound.
III. Come not to hear with a careless heart, . . . but come with a sense of the unspeakable weight, necessity, and consequence of the holy word which you are to hear: and when you understand how much you are concerned in it, and truly love it, as the word of life, it will greatly help your understanding of every particular truth . . . .
IV. Suffer not vain thoughts or drowsy negligence to hinder your attention . . . be as earnest and diligent in attending and learning, as you would have the preacher be in teaching . . .
VIII. Meditate on what you hear when you come home . . .
VI. Inquire, where you doubt, of those that can resolve and teach you. It showeth a careless mind, and a contempt of the word of God, in most people . . . that never come to ask the resolution of one doubt . . . though they have pastors . . . that have ability, and leisure, and willingness to help them.
Directions for Remembering what you Hear.
I. It greatly helpeth memory to have a full understanding of the matter spoken which you would remember . . . . Therefore labour most for a clear understanding according to the last directions . . . .
III. Method is a very great help to memory . . . . Ministers must not only be methodical . . . but . . . choose that method which is most easy to the hearers to understand and remember . . .
IV. Numbers are a great help to memory . . .
V. Names also and signal words are a great help to memory . . . Therefore preachers should contrive the force of every reason, use, direction, [etc.] as much as may be, into some one emphatical word. (And some do very profitably contrive each of these words to begin with the same letter, which is good for memory . . .) As if I were to direct you to the chiefest helps to your salvation, and should name, 1. Powerful preaching. 2. Prayer. 3. Prudence. 4. Piety. 5. Painfulness. 6. Patience. 7. Perseverance . . . the very names would help the hearers’ memory . . .
VII. Grasp not at more than you are able to hold, lest thereby you lose all. If there be more particulars than you can possibly remember, lay hold on some which most concern you, and let go the rest . . . .
VIII. Writing is an easy help for memory . . . .
IX. Peruse what you remember, or write it down, when you come home; and fix it speedily before it is lost . . . Pray over it, and confer on it with others.
X. If you forget the very words, yet remember the main drift . . . And then you have not lost the sermon, though you have lost the words; as he hath not lost his food, that hath digested it, and turned it into flesh and blood.
Directions for Holy Resolutions and Affections in Hearing . . .
II. Remember that ministers are the messengers of Christ, and come to you on his business and in his name . . .
III. Remember that God is instructing you, and warning you, and treating
with you, about no less than the saving of your souls . . . .
VI. Make it your work with diligence to apply the word as you are hearing it . . . You have work to do as well as the preacher, and should all the while be as busy as he: as helpless as the infant is, he must suck when the mother offereth him the breast; if you must be fed, yet you must open your mouths, and digest it, for another cannot digest it for you . . . . Therefore be all the while at work, and abhor an idle heart in hearing, as well as an idle minister.
VII. Chew the cud, and call up all when you come home in secret, and by meditation preach it over to yourselves . . .
IX. Go to Christ by faith, for the quickening of his Spirit . . . Entreat him to . . . open your hearts, and speak to you by his Spirit, that you may be taught of God, and your hearts may be his epistles, and the tables where the everlasting law is written . . .
Directions to bring what we Hear into Practice.
I. Be acquainted with the failings of your hearts and lives, and come on purpose to get directions and helps against those particular failings . . . say when you go out of doors, I go to Christ for physic for my own disease . . .
IV. When you come home, let conscience in secret . . . repeat the sermon to you. Between God and yourselves, consider what there was delivered to you in the Lord’s message, that your souls were most concerned in.
V. Hear the most practical preachers you can well get . . . that are still [constantly] urging you to holiness of heart and life, and driving home every truth to practice . . .
VII. Associate yourselves with the most holy, serious, practical Christians.
VIII. Keep a just account of your practice; examine yourselves in the end of every day and week . . . Call yourselves to account every hour, what you are doing and how you do it . . . and your hearts must be watched and followed like unfaithful servants, and like loitering scholars [schoolchildren], and driven on to every duty, like a dull or tired horse.
IX. Above all set your hearts to the deepest contemplations of the wonderful
love of God in Christ, and the sweetness and excellency of a holy life, and the . . . glory which it tendeth to, that your souls may be in love with your dear Redeemer, and all that is holy, and love and obedience may be as natural to you. And then the practice of holy doctrine will be easy to you, when it is your delight.7
It seems to me that Baxter covers the entire waterfront here, and I do not see how a single sentence that I have quoted from him can be challenged by anyone who knows that the Bible is the Word of God.
But the contrast between the hard-working, hard-thinking, purposeful way in which Baxter tells us to listen to the Word preached and the aimless, detached, passive frame of mind in which most of us today do listen to sermons could hardly be greater. Baxter’s discipline of expecting, focusing, memorizing (writing notes if need be), discussing, praying and applying is at the opposite extreme from our modern habit of relaxing at sermon time, settling back in our seats to see if the preacher’s performance will interest and entertain us, and if anything he says will particularly strike us — and if not, then to forget the sermon and to say if asked that we got nothing out of it. But even if the preacher is not operating in full accord with the principles that the present chapter lays down, this casual, unexpectant, prayerless, half-bored way of listening to his messages cannot be right. I remember one or two very elderly Christians in my youth who listened to sermons essentially in Baxter’s way, expecting them to yield fodder for a week’s meditation and soul nourishment, including applicatory reflections going beyond what the preacher actually said. But this devotional style seems nowadays to have completely died out, so that it needs to be learned all over again, starting very much from scratch. The combined efforts of homiletics professors in seminaries training tomorrow’s clergy, senior ministers guiding junior members of their team and preaching pastors leveling with their congregations about what it means for them to preach and for people to hear the Word of God would seem to be needed to get the church back on track at this point. A great deal of work will have to be done if sermons are to be restored to their proper place as a means of grace in our Christian lives.
What should you and I be doing meanwhile? We should start taking seriously the sermons that we actually hear. We should pray beforehand for the preacher and for ourselves that God will prepare us for each other in such a way that through the sermon he may draw near to meet us himself. We should labor to be alert, expectant and attentive as the sermon is preached, making notes if need be to ensure that we remember what we are hearing and asking ourselves all the time what the message is showing us of God’s glory, of our own needs and shortcomings, and of God’s help for us in and through Christ. We should discuss the sermon afterward with other Christians to make sure we saw the full point of it. We should meditate on it, pray that God will bless to us the truth we found in it, and start acting on any words of correction or direction in it that we know apply to us. A month of this and if the preaching we have heard is thin gruel by biblical standards, we will have earned the right to ask our preachers to thicken the biblical substance of their messages so that we will not anymore have to go hungry through the week. This is a contribution to the upgrading of preaching that any lay person can make, and it will be a happy thing when layfolk begin to make it.
When should we start this routine of serious listening? Why, next Lord’s day, of course. When else?