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Sermon-listening in the Bible: Listening with Discernment

We’ve all experienced it—when a preacher reads a passage of Scripture and then proceeds to teach any number of correct or erroneous things which have nothing to do with the passage he just read. Unfortunately, this happens more often than we think. Sadly, some of the largest churches in world are populated by listeners who don’t seem to notice this happening. They have not learned to practice discernment. The problem exists in smaller churches too. Sometimes the Bible is not even opened. But even if it is, man-centered preaching is too often supplied to gatherings of church-goers who aren’t asking the right questions. For instance, they should be asking: Is that really the mind of God? Is that really what the Bible teaches? Is that what the passage actually says? Has that verse been understood in its surrounding context? Has the preacher’s interpretation and message been proven by the Bible?

pulpitLet’s be honest. If you visit a new church in order to determine whether it might be a good place for you and your family to attend, and you walk in and ask the question: “Does this church teach the Bible?” what church member or leader is going to reply: “Oh no, we don’t teach the Bible here!”? My point is that every evangelical church believes it teaches—and listens to—the truths of Scripture. No church would claim otherwise. So it’s not enough to simply trust the testimony of those who are in the church. You must do your own evaluation. You must be discerning.

The Apostle John gave the following command: “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God” (1 John 4:1). Jay Adams explains:

In 1 John 4:1 there is an exhortation to ‘test [the word for proving something to be genuine by means of testing] the spirits.’ As the passage continues, the test is applied to heretics in the early church who denied that Jesus Christ came in the flesh (verse 2,3). The test is doctrinal. There is no direction to consult your feelings about these persons or to expect any subjective prompts or checks. It is their teaching that must be examined. . . . The general test . . . is found in verse 6; ‘Whoever knows God listens to us, but whoever isn’t of God doesn’t listen to us. From this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error.’ There is no other test. Either someone’s teaching matches the teaching of the apostles and the prophets (now found only in Scriptures) or else it is false.[1]

One example of this kind of discernment is found in Acts 17, where those Berean Jews who listened to Paul’s and Silas’s sermons are described as being “more noble-minded than those in Thessalonica, for they received the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily, to see whether these things were so” (Acts 17:11). The discernment the Berean Jews displayed tells us they wanted to hear from God alone. They knew God’s Word was the measure by which sermons should be judged. Simply stated, if the preacher claims to be God’s spokesman, but teaches something not supported by Scripture, then he should be questioned—and sometimes silenced (Titus 1:10–11).

This means our sermon-listening cannot be passive. Listening to a sermon is not like watching a movie or a game of rugby. It requires active involvement, participation, and discernment. In his very helpful booklet on sermon-listening, Christopher Ash warns: “Listening ought to be an activity rather than a ‘passivity.’ Unless we want to be brainwashed, we ought never to hear or watch anything without engaging our critical faculties.”[2] He continues: “We need to check that the preacher is actually using the only available authority, which is a borrowed authority that only comes from teaching what the Bible passage teaches. So, we need to listen carefully to the passage and ask whether what the preacher says is what the passage says.”[3]

The question to ask is: “Where did he get that from?” If the preacher can show he got it from the Bible, then we must humbly submit to the authority of the Word of God. But if not, then it’s just the opinion of one human being against another.[4]

This is what makes preaching a community affair. Everyone is involved. There’s a mutual accountability that comes in listening to a sermon in the context of a church. We’re all responsible to maintain the integrity of the pulpit. We help the preacher in that regard—we must be modern-day Bereans.

2 Timothy 2:15 says, “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, handling accurately the word of truth.” Don’t treat this instruction as if it only applies to preachers. All believers are responsible to handle God’s Word correctly. Thabiti Anyabwile writes:

If churches are to be healthy, then pastors and teachers must be committed to discovering the meaning of Scripture and allowing that meaning to drive the agenda with their congregations. There is an important corollary for every member of a local church. Just as the pastor’s preaching agenda should be determined by the meaning of Scripture, so too should the Christian’s listening agenda be driven by the meaning of Scripture.[5]

Now don’t get me wrong—I am not advocating that an immature or unregenerate congregation should dictate what happens in the pulpit. Martyn Lloyd Jones saw this sad practice in his day and lamented that sermons were being dumbed down to make listeners more comfortable.[6] This is a big problem in the church today, but I am not advocating that. I am simply showing that genuinely converted Christians in mature congregations ought to expect (and demand) that the preacher preaches the Bible accurately.

We need to check to see the preacher says what the passage says. We must listen with discernment. If we find that the preacher has indeed proclaimed God’s will and has proven the source of his message is God’s Word, then we are obliged to respond with action.

[1] Jay E. Adams, A Call for Discernment: Distinguishing Truth from Error in Today’s Church (Woodruff, SC: Timeless Texts, 1998), 65.

[2] Christopher Ash, Listen Up!: A Practical Guide to Listening to Sermons (New Maiden, Surrey, England: The Good Book Company, 2009), 9.

[3] Ibid., 9–10.

[4] Ibid., 10.

[5] Thabiti M. Anyabwile, What Is a Healthy Church Member? (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2008), 19.

[6] Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers, 122.

Author: Nigel Shailer

A pastor and elder at Faith Bible Church and head of the counseling ministry.

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