Tuesday, February 28, 2012

"How to Listen to a Sermon" by Phil Ryken

I came across this wonderful post by Dr. Phil Ryken who is the president of Wheaton College.  Dr. Ryken counsels his readers on how to listen to a sermon.  You can find the full text here.  May this encourage and sharpen each one of us as we prepare for the great privilege to set under the preaching of God's Holy Word.  Dr. Ryken explains:

During the past thirty-five years I have heard more than three thousand sermons.  Since I have worshiped in Bible-teaching churches all my life, most of those sermons did me some spiritual good.  Yet I wonder how many of them helped me as much as they should have.  Frankly, I fear that far too many sermons passed through my eardrums without registering in my brain or reaching my heart.  

So what is the right way to listen to a sermon?  With a soul that is prepared, a mind that is alert, a Bible that is open, a heart that is receptive, and a life that is ready to spring into action.

The first thing is for the soul to be prepared.  Most churchgoers assume that the sermon starts when the pastor opens his mouth on Sunday.  However, listening to a sermon actually starts the week before.  It starts when we pray for the minister, asking God to bless the time he spends studying the Bible as he prepares to preach.  In addition to helping the preacher, our prayers help create in us a sense of expectancy for the ministry of God's Word.  This is one of the reasons that when it comes to preaching, congregations generally get what they pray for.

The soul needs special preparation the night before worship.  By Saturday evening our thoughts should begin turning towards the Lord's Day.  If possible, we should read through the Bible passage that is scheduled for preaching.  We should also be sure to get enough sleep.  Then in the morning our first prayers should be directed to public worship, and especially to the preaching of God's Word.  

If the body is well rested and the soul is well prepared, then the mind will be alert.  Good preaching appeals first to the mind.  After all, it is by the renewing of our minds that God does his transforming work in our lives (see Rom. 12:2).  So when we listen to a sermon, our minds need to be fully engaged.  Being attentive requires self-discipline.  Our minds tend to wander when we worship; sometimes we daydream.  But listening to sermons is part of the worship that we offer to God.  It is also a prime opportunity for us to hear his voice.  We should not insult his majesty by looking at the people around us, thinking about the coming week, or entertaining any of the thousands of other thoughts that crowd our minds.  God is speaking, and we should listen.

To that end, many Christians find it helpful to listen to sermons with a pencil in hand.  Although note taking is not required, it is an excellent way to stay focused during a sermon.  It is also a valuable aid to memory.  The physical act of writing something down helps to fix it in our minds.  Then there is the added advantage of having the notes for future reference.  We get extra benefit from a sermon when we read over, pray through, and talk about our sermon notes with someone else afterwards.

The most convenient place to take notes is in or on our Bibles, which should always be open during a sermon.  Churchgoers sometimes pretend that they know the Bible so well that they do not need to look at the passage being preached.  But this is folly.  Even if we have the passage memorized, there are always new things we can learn by seeing the biblical text on the page.  It only stands to reason that we profit most from sermons when our Bibles are open, not closed.  This is why it is so encouraging for an expository preacher to hear the rustling of pages as his congregation turns to a passage in unison.

There is another reason to keep our Bibles open: we need to make sure that what the minister says is in keeping with Scripture.  The Bible says, concerning the Bereans whom Paul met on his second missionary journey, "that they received the word with all readiness, and searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so" (Acts 17:11; NKJV).  One might have expected the Bereans to be criticized for daring to scrutinize the teaching of the apostle Paul.  On the contrary, they were commended for their commitment to testing every doctrine according to Scripture.  

Listening to a sermon--really listening--takes more than our minds.  It also requires hearts that are receptive to the influence of God's Spirit.  Something important happens when we hear a good sermon: God speaks to us.  Through the inward ministry of his Holy Spirit, he uses his Word to calm our fear, comfort our sorrow, disturb our conscience, expose our sin, proclaim God's grace, and reassure us in the faith.  But these are all affairs of the heart, not just matters of the mind, so listening to a sermon can never be merely an intellectual exercise.  We need to receive biblical truth in our hearts, allowing what God says to influence what we love, what we desire, and what we praise.

The last thing to say about listening to sermons is that we should be itching to put what we learn into practice.  Good preaching always applies the Bible to daily life.  It tells us what promises to believe, what sins to avoid, what divine attributes to praise, what virtues to cultivate, what goals to pursue, and what good works to perform.  There is always something God wants us to do in response to the preaching of his Word.  We are called to be "doers of the word, and not hearers only" (James 1:22; NKJV).  And if we are not doers, then we were not hearers, and the sermon was wasted on us. 

Do you know how to listen to a sermon?  Listening--really listening--takes a prepared soul, an alert mind, an open Bible, and a receptive heart.  But the best way to tell if we are listening is by the way that we live.  Our lives should repeat the sermons that we have heard.  As the apostle Paul wrote to some of the people who listened to his sermons, "You are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read by all men; clearly you are an epistle of Christ, ministered by us, written not with ink but by the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of flesh, that is, of the heart" (2 Cor. 3:2-3; NKJV).

Friday, February 3, 2012

The Life-giving Gospel of Jesus Christ

Our journey through the Gospel of John as a church has now brought us to the passion concerning the Christ.  John declares the significance of what he has written in the Gospel bearing his name; "Therefore many other signs Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name" (John 20:30-31).  The apostle Peter declares, "And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved" (Acts 4:12).

The passion account concerning the Christ  engages specific historic events summarizing the betrayal, arrest, death (by crucifixion), burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  These events comprise what is known as the gospel.  Andreas Kostenberger has written the following article, "What Is the Gospel-5 Observations", which offers a concise explanation concerning what God has done in sending "His only begotten Son into the world."

1. Divine, not human: The gospel is God’s saving message to a world living in darkness and a humanity lost in its sin. The gospel is not a human message, nor was its conception a function of human initiative, but its origin and its impetus derive solely from God. For this reason our role with regard to the gospel is not that of evaluation, criticism or reformulation, but that of grateful acceptance and obedience. Humans are not equal partners with God as far as the gospel message is concerned; they are rather his commissioned representatives, charged with proclaiming the gospel in the exact form in which they received it (e.g., John 17:20; 20:21; 1 Cor 15:3–4).

2. Required, not optional: Acceptance of the gospel is not optional for salvation but rather required, owing to pervasive human sinfulness. As the Book of Hebrews states, “people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment”; “Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many; and he will appear a second time . . . to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him” (Heb 9:27–28). Apart from believing in Jesus Christ, “God’s wrath remains” on people (Jn 3:36), and they are spiritually dead (Jn 5:24; Eph 2:1). People must be “born of God” (Jn 1:12; 3:3, 5; 1 Jn 3:9; 4:7; 5:1, 4, 18), that is, be spiritually regenerated (Tit 3:5; 1 Pet 1:3). As Paul writes in his epistle to the Ephesians, “[a]nd you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit . . .” (Eph 1:13). Inclusion in Christ comes only by hearing and believing the gospel.

3. Christological, not merely theological: The gospel is not vaguely theological, as if it were amenable to various ways of salvation depending on a person’s belief in a particular kind of god, or depending on the degree to which people were able to hear the gospel presented in a clear way; it is decidedly and concretely Christological, that is, centered on the salvation provided through the vicarious cross-death of the Lord Jesus Christ. Hence Paul is able to speak of “the gospel . . . regarding his [God’s] Son . . . Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom 1:2–4). Significantly, this gospel is not a New Testament novelty but was “promised beforehand through his [God’s] prophets [such as Habakkuk, Rom 1:17 citing Hab 2:4] in the Holy Scriptures” (Rom 1:2). Abraham already had resurrection faith (Romans 4; Galatians 3; Heb 11:8–12).

4. No other gospel: The messianic motif pervading all of Scripture and centering in the Lord Jesus Christ coupled with the risen Jesus’ “Great Commission” for his followers to go and disciple the nations inextricably link an understanding of the gospel as the exclusive message of salvation in Jesus Christ with the church’s mandate to engage in missionary outreach. This is clear especially from the Gospels of Matthew, Luke, John, the book of Acts, and several of Paul’s writings. Conversely, any messages proclaimed in the name of Christ that feature a “different gospel” or a different Christ (such as compromising his simultaneous full humanity and deity, e.g. 1 John 4:2–3) are rejected. The church must engage in missions, because “faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ” (Rom 10:17). If anyone confesses with his mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believes in his heart that God raised him from the dead, he will be saved (Rom 10:9; see also vv. 10–13).

5. No other name but Jesus: In light of the clear biblical passages mentioned above and in view of the strong and pervasive trajectory of scriptural references to the gospel there is no proper foundation for arguing for salvation apart from explicit faith in Jesus Christ. Scripture makes clear that humanity is universally sinful, and that God’s wrath remains on every individual who has not placed his or her trust in Jesus Christ on the basis of his substitutionary death on the cross and his subsequent resurrection. While there may be philosophical or larger theological objections to such a notion (such as the difficulty experienced by some of reconciling this notion with the love of God), while there may be commonsense concerns on the basis of human conceptions or “fairness” or other similar considerations, there can be little doubt that Scripture nowhere teaches, or easily allows the implication, that there is a way to salvation other than through explicit faith in Jesus Christ during a person’s lifetime (e.g., Heb 9:27–28). In fact, this is not an obscure topic; it is the central contention of the biblical message concerning the gospel, that “[s]alvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to people by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Impacting our Children for the Kingdom of God

In his recent post, Reading Biographies of Good Fathers to Become Good Fathers, Justin Taylor highlights a portion of John Piper's biographical message on Rev. Dr. John G. Paton's life as a missionary and the impact of his father as a man of God.

Rev. Dr. John G. Paton was a pastoral missionary to the New Hebrides in the Islands of the South Pacific during the 1800's.  His work was most difficult as he would serve with little noticeable fruit throughout decades of missionary service.  His legacy would reveal the sovereignty of God in the faithfulness of one's commitment to God's call, even amidst difficult circumstances and what appeared to be sparse outcomes.  But Paton understood the great principle of fruitfulness belongs to God as the apostle Paul would set forth, "I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth." (1 Corinthians 3:6) Paton's legacy and influence upon his homeland of Scotland would serve the Great Commission of Christ, not only raising support for furthering missions around the world, but inspiring hundreds of missionaries to serve on the field. 

Here is a powerful quote from Paton's own Autobiography that Piper shares concerning Paton's father and the impact he had upon his life as a son and missionary.  He was walking with his father to board a train in Kilmarnock, where he would leave as a young man to study at a divinity school and begin his missionary service:

My dear father walked with me the first six miles of the way. His counsels and tears and heavenly conversation on that parting journey are fresh in my heart as if it had been but yesterday; and tears are on my cheeks as freely now as then, whenever memory steals me away to the scene.

For the last half mile or so we walked on together in almost unbroken silence—my father, as was often his custom, carrying hat in hand, while his long flowing yellow hair (then yellow, but in later years white as snow) streamed like a girl’s down his shoulders. His lips kept moving in silent prayers for me; and his tears fell fast when our eyes met each other in looks for which all speech was vain!

We halted on reaching the appointed parting place; he grasped my hand firmly for a minute in silence, and then solemnly and affectionately said: “God bless you, my son! Your father’s God prosper you, and keep you from all evil!”

Unable to say more, his lips kept moving in silent prayer; in tears we embraced, and parted.

I ran off as fast as I could; and, when about to turn a corner in the road where he would lose sight of me, I looked back and saw him still standing with head uncovered where I had left him—gazing after me. Waving my hat in adieu, I rounded the corner and out of sight in instant.

But my heart was too full and sore to carry me further, so I darted into the side of the road and wept for time.

Then, rising up cautiously, I climbed the dike to see if he yet stood where I had left him; and just at that moment I caught a glimpse of him climbing the dike and looking out for me! He did not see me, and after he gazed eagerly in my direction for a while he got down, set his face toward home, and began to return—his head still uncovered, and his heart, I felt sure, still rising in prayers for me.

I watched through blinding tears, till his form faded from my gaze; and then, hastening on my way, vowed deeply and oft, by the help of God, to live and act so as never to grieve or dishonor such a father and mother as he had given me. (Autobiography, pp. 25-26)

Oh that we would faithfully pray for and love our children, with our minds ever in tune with God's great kingdom!