In the spring of 1741 Jonathan Edwards visited and ministered to a small congregation in Suffield, Connecticut. This little church was without a pastor for a short time but was blessed with a few excellent servants, including Edwards and the great evangelist George Whitefield.
A few months after Edwards visited the church, Elizabeth Hatheway, a member of the congregation, asked Edwards for some spiritual guidance. In response, Edwards wrote this young lady a lengthy letter with 19 points of advice on Christian living. Several years later, the letter was published under the title, Advice to Young Converts. It is currently published along with Edwards resolutions by P & R Publishing.
On point #3, Edwards gives some timely advice on how to listen to sermons.
When you hear sermons, hear them for yourself, even though what is spoken in them may be especially directed to the unconverted or to those that in other respects are in different circumstances from yourself. Let the chief intent of your mind be to consider what ways you can apply the things that you are hearing in the sermon. You should ask, What improvement should I make, based on these things, for my own soul’s good?
We would probably all admit that it is tempting, at times, when sitting under sermons directed at unbelievers or people in situations different than our own, to let God’s Word to bypass our hearts because it is not readily obvious how these sermons apply to our lives. Yet, it is my conviction that we must heed Edwards’ counsel in order to guard ourselves from pride and from developing the spiritually destructive practice of ignoring God’s Word. By constantly and proactively searching for ways to apply sermons to our lives, we will keep our hearts soft to the truth. Ultimately, by making an effort to apply what we hear—even when the sermon is directed at those in a spiritual condition unlike our own—we will be kept from hypocrisy and from the habit of teaching others while not teaching ourselves (Matthew 23:1-4; Romans 2:21-23).
What About Discernment?
But are we simply to absorb everything a preacher says without giving thought if what he says is true? The answer, I believe, is found in the two-fold description of the Bereans in Acts 17:10-11. In this well-worn passage, oft used to encourage Christians to exercise discernment and test everything by Scripture, we find helpful instruction for how to listen to sermons.
The brothers immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea, and when they arrived they went into the Jewish synagogue. Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.
Notice that these noble Bereans neither skeptically sifted through Paul’s teaching merely to prove him wrong, nor did they gulp down his words without giving thought to whether this gospel they were hearing aligned with previous revelation. They were eager to hear the Word of God and be edified, but they did not want to embrace something false, for that would be unhelpful and unfruitful. As a result of their humble discernment, God’s Spirit worked a miracle within their hearts and “Many of them . . . believed” (Acts 17:12).
Two Phases of Listening: Eagerness and Examination
Practically, this means that we should listen to sermons in a two phases. In the first phase, we should listen expectantly, looking to be edified, corrected, rebuked, encouraged, and instructed from God’s Word. The preacher may not be exceptionally eloquent or captivating, and he may not say everything correctly or clearly, but if he is teaching the Bible, you can get something from what it says. This is the “eagerness” phase.
In the second phase, usually after the sermon is over (but not necessarily), we should carefully and critically think over the content of the message. Having already been instructed and edified by God’s Word in the eagerness phase, our hearts will be soft and ready to discern if there were problems with what the pastor said. This is the “examination” phase.
The examination phase must come after the eagerness phase or else we will turn into cranky discernment junkies who stall our spiritual growth because we are unable to find anything useful for our souls in what the preacher says. But we must eventually implement the second phase or else we will blunt our ability to distinguish between truth and error, thus increasing our chances of believing something unbiblical.
So the call is to listen eagerly and expectantly to the preaching and teaching of God’s Word, looking for instruction and edification at every opportunity. But our eagerness must be joined with careful reflection. Both phases are needed for spiritual maturity and growth in Christlikeness.