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How To Listen To An (Expository?) Sermon

Last Sunday I posted a review of Famine in the Land by Steven Lawson, a great little book that discussed the importance of expository (or expositional) preaching. It is his thesis that “a return to preaching – true preaching, biblical preaching, expository preaching – is the greatest need in this critical hour” and through the book he discusses the priority, power, pattern and passion of expository preaching.

Following the review, a reader asked about the responsibility of the listener to prepare for a sermon. Despite being terribly wounded that she did not remember it, I directed her to an article I wrote several months ago entitled The Listener’s Responsibility. In that article I listed several facets of being prepared for Sunday worship under the headings of Weekly Preparation, Physical Preparation, Personal Preparation, Spiritual Preparation, Pay Attention, After the Service, Pray For Application and Be Bereans. This article was drawn predominantly from my reflections following the reading of Rediscovering Expository Preaching edited by John MacArthur.

Are you with me still?

Just recently I read a list of directives written by George Whitefield, one of history’s greatest preachers. You can find the list at Gleanings of Grace. Whitefield highlights several important areas, which I will list in an abbreviated format. I was gratified to see that they did not significantly vary from the ones I had listed.

  1. Come to hear them, not out of curiosity, but from a sincere desire to know and do your duty.
  2. Give diligent heed to the things that are spoken from the Word of God.
  3. Do not entertain even the least prejudice against the minister.
  4. Be careful not to depend too much on a preacher, or think more highly of him than you ought to think.
  5. Make particular application to your own hearts of everything that is delivered.
  6. Pray to the Lord, before, during, and after every sermon.

Whitefield concluded by saying, “If only all who hear me this day would seriously apply their hearts to practice what has now been told them! How ministers would see Satan, like lightning, fall from heaven, and people find the Word preached sharper than a two-edged sword and mighty, through God, to the pulling down of the devil’s strongholds!”

Allow me now to throw a spanner into the works. The advice I gave, and that of George Whitefield, is premised on the listener preparing to listen to a sermon that is firmly grounded in Scripture. In other words, the preacher is speaking directly from the Word of God, doing his utmost to remove himself from being an impediment to the listener and to ensure that he is not providing his own opinion, but is only teaching what is found in the Bible. Expository preaching at its finest is the pastor being a mouthpiece for God, where he speaks the words of God, as revealed in Scripture, with confidence, power and authority. We can probably all think of times where we have seen a pastor be almost overtaken by the Spirit as he preaches, and sadly can also think of times where the pulpit has been little more than a soapbox for the latest human philosophy or program. Many of the great preachers of old would not even recognize as preaching what comes forth from many pulpits in our day.

So let me ask: do we prepare in the same way to hear Joel Osteen as we would if we were to hear George Whitefield or Charles Spurgeon? I suspect that people who went to listen to Charles Spurgeon, the Prince of Preachers himself, went with the expectation of hearing from God and duly prepared themselves for that privilege. But when we go to hear a man like Osteen, who avoids the Gospel and offers little insight into Scripture, do we prepare in the same way? Perhaps Osteen is too radical an example. But consider another preacher who is clearly a believer, who loves the Lord and who strives to do His will, yet who is swept up in all of the latest rages and programs. He is a preacher who seems to have little sense of the importance of biblical exposition and too often turns to wordly philosophies. Perhaps he shows clips of popular movies during his messages (since this person may shy away from using a “churchy” term like sermon) or encourages drama or dance during the message. Can we and should we prepare ourselves in the same way to hear such a sermon?

I suppose the crux of the matter is this: Can we expect to reap from a non-expository sermon the benefits we know we should receive from one that is expositional? Is it vain to pray that we will hear from God during a sermon that is not primarily based on Scripture, and is it worth our while to seek to apply to our hearts the lessons learned from such a sermon?

I apologize in advance for the weighty subject matter on a Friday, but do hope that you will take the time to discuss this with me. I am not seeking to criticize one method of preaching, but merely to understand if the directives of Whitefield and even the ones I wrote months ago really apply to much of what passes as preaching in our day.

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