Pride and Humility in Criticizing Sermons

The following is a transcript of the audio.

Pastor John recently led a Q&A session with the students of Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia. Here’s a question from one of the students.

Pastor John, I just want to say that it is an honor to speak to you today and thank you for your lecture earlier on the product of the new Calvinism movement. I was just telling a friend of mine that what C. S. Lewis is to you is what you are to me. So you have been influential in my life. But I wanted to ask you more of a Pastor John type of question. As an MDiv student and with the training, the exceptional training I am getting here at WTS I struggle when I listen to sermons. I take out that MDiv red pen. And it is not that I am looking for any sort of error, but it is like I don’t know, did you faithfully preach that text? I find that that is a temptation for me. And I don’t think I am the only one, but how do I control that? I am naturally a Berean, but I think sometimes I am like a Berean on steroids. So I just wanted to know, how can I control this? I don’t want to be overly critical, but I think it is important to discern what I am hearing, too.

That is such a good question. I mean, I am 68 and I tend that way. I mean, I listen that way to sermons. So I have to preach to myself. I mean, here is my answer for me and it is only an answer by grace at any given moment. That is, the answer works at any given moment because of grace arriving at that moment. So a theoretical answer to your question right now may have no effect on you whatsoever, because grace is applying it at that moment. Do you get that difference? Having answers here and having it work in the moment of being excessively critical aren’t the same thing, but it helps to have answers, because the Holy Spirit then uses right theological thinking. And so my answer is, number one, it is a good thing to be discerning and to test all thing and to hold fast what is good. You cannot not assess preaching. All right? To be indifferent to error in preaching is to be a bad listener. To be indifferent to sloppiness in preaching is to be a bad listener. To be indifferent to lousy exegesis with true points is to be a bad listener. So all of that I am just affirming that. So I am affirming that you have that bent. And seminary gives you that bent, or if you have it already, it makes it worse or better.

However, now that we have said that, can we benefit from imperfect sermons? Not if you are proud, not if you are so consumed with needing to show him he is wrong or even needing to whisper it to the person did you hear what he... there is this impulse in you to identify the error and talk about the error and make sure everybody knows you saw the error. All that is pride. That is pride. What can replace it is I am a broken, imperfect, corrupt, proud, marriage-embattled, imperfect dad who needs God to talk to me through any ass he wants. That is a biblical allusion. Balaam’s ass. I need this animal to talk to me. And if an animal can talk to me, so can this God preacher. So I think, in other words, my sense of need and imperfection can override his imperfection.

So J. I. Packer said, I asked him one time: How can you be so gracious to so many Arminian types? And he said: I am always looking for the needle in the haystack of error. In fact, it says in his book Keep in Step with the Spirit: God loves to honor the needle of truth in a haystack of error. Now if that is true and I think it probably is, then we can do that listening to a sermon.

So it comes down to whether I am a broken hearted, humble person aware of my need, aware of my sin, aware of my imperfections so that I lay down the brazen, proud need to be known as a good listener who is so critical and can just listen for the truth. Let the fact that he always does this or always does this or you just to just ask the Lord to give you the grace to look right through the strains, ticks and the incomplete grammar and the inadequate exegesis. The man probably has 10 true things to say this morning. Get them. And then ask the Lord to apply them like crazy in your daily life.

That was Pastor John, leading a Q&A session recently at Westminster Seminary. Related to this topic is the essential point of understanding what’s actually happening during the live experience as your pastor preaches the word. Pastor John describes this as “a supernatural encounter with the living God as the preacher worships over the Word and draws the people into an experience of God almighty through his proclamation.” He said that in episode #118 in this podcast series, in an episode titled: “Is the 40-Minute Sermon Passé?” That episode can be found in the Ask Pastor John podcast archive, most easily in the free iPhone and iPad app. Again, that’s episode #118. Tomorrow we return to talk about one bold way churches can intentionally pursue ethic diversity. I’m your host Tony Reinke, see you tomorrow.

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