It’s easy to become a passive sermon consumer. As a young Christian, I started to sense this tendency in my own listening, so one Sunday I brought a notebook to church and devised a simple little practice to get my discernment juices flowing before listening to sermons. It was as simple as asking three little questions, and it stuck with me. Over time, I began to use this same technique when listening to sermon podcasts, when reading Christian blogs and books, and eventually while listening to Christian music.
The process points to an important fact we all know: all of us need to be saved by someone or something. But, as an active listener will quickly see, the world is full of variant gospels, and every preacher, writer, and artist has a message of salvation. We must examine the veracity of the gospel they share, and these three questions have simplified the process for me.
So before I listen to a sermon, turn on a Christian album, or open a Christian book, I ask myself these three questions:
- How am I saved?
- What am I saved from?
- What am I saved for?
The questions are short, easy to remember, and could not be bigger. At first I wrote them on paper and filled in the answers by hand, and later it just became an intuitive mental exercise.
It also became apparent over time that these same questions are useful in many other contexts. They are gospel questions, helpful inside the church. But they also help shakedown any worldview to its core essence. They work on advertisements and the messaging of presidential hopefuls (yes, even Donald Trump — try it).
Four Common Answers
For the sake of this article, I will focus on sermons. Ask the three questions above, and the answers you hear will commonly fall into these four categories:
1. You will hear a therapeutic gospel:
- We are saved by becoming self-authenticated and affirmed.
- We are saved from self-destructive negativity.
- We are saved for self-confidence.
2. You will hear a prosperity gospel:
- We are saved by faith that produces health and wealth.
- We are saved from poverty and financial heartache.
- We are saved to enjoy financial abundance.
3. You will hear a brokenness gospel:
- We are saved by releasing ourselves from the memory of old sins.
- We are saved from feeling bad about ourselves.
- We are saved to live whole again.
4. You will hear an attention gospel:
- We are saved by remembering God more mindfully.
- We are saved from ignoring that God exists.
- We are saved to live more conscious of God.
Whether these messages contain hints of the gospel, or fragments of ultimate truth, or complete fabrications of a non-gospel, all of these messages will implicitly or explicitly find their way into Christian books, music, and sermons as ultimate messages and often pass as sufficient presentations of the gospel. They aren’t. In fact, they are far from it. And each of them, in their own way, render Christ secondary or optional.
The Biblical Answers
The true work of ministry is allowing Scripture to answer each of these three questions over and over again until the truth of the gospel works down into our bloodstream.
If we sketch out some of the contours of the biblical gospel, the answers to our questions become quite clear:
- We are saved by grace through faith in the wrath-absorbing death of Jesus Christ on the cross, and justified in his resurrection as a substitute for us, the rebel law-breakers.
- We are saved from a holy God, from his righteous wrath poured out eternally on every sinner who has disgraced his glory.
- We are saved to have peace with God, to be holy, to be gathered among God’s people who live and love, and who magnify God by treasuring Christ and enjoying him above everything in this world and the next.
The gospel is profoundly beautiful and worthy of eternal study and celebration — but it’s also not complicated. The challenge we always face is gospel drift, a gospel that imperceptibly glides into language that makes the answer to these three vital questions clouded and obscure. It requires attentiveness so that we do not float into a “hunch gospel” that uses a bunch of Christian jargon, all aiming at self-actualizing goals and satisfying felt needs, but at the same time failing to explain the core themes of God’s wrath or the essential purpose of Christ’s substitutionary blood. In other words, the natural drift of our thoughts is always being “led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ” (2 Corinthians 11:3).
Pick Up the Pattern
Any preacher, artist, or writer needs to return often to these three simple litmus tests for ministry in order to self-evaluate our message and the hope we are offering. But equally important, every Christian needs to return to these questions over and over, until we ask them instinctively.
- How am I saved?
- What am I saved from?
- What am I saved for?
I am not suggesting that every song, every sermon, and every book is going to answer each question in equal measure. But pay attention. As you listen and read, you will pick up what the apostle Paul called “the pattern of sound words” (2 Timothy 1:13). Every cohesive worldview has a pattern to it, a pattern you will see in the big picture and small details. For Christians, there’s a consistency and a pattern of sound gospel words that we should tune our ears to hear, and note when we find it absent.
Discern to Cherish
What I am advocating is discernment. The skill of discernment is learning to reject what is false or flimsy, but more importantly, to eagerly embrace what is precious (Acts 17:11; Romans 12:9; 1 Thessalonians 5:21). Gospel discernment helps us know the difference, in order to keep the truth pure so that we can earnestly embrace and celebrate it.
“The skill of discernment is learning to reject what is false or flimsy, but more importantly, to eagerly embrace what is precious.”
Which means, by implication, we treasure the men and women who make the answers clear on the primary questions, because they are likely to be the very best way to help us make sense of all the other questions.
If you ask these three questions long enough, a pattern will emerge. This discernment will serve you well when life forces you to whittle down your podcast sermon subscriptions, your blogs, your music library, or your reading list.
I am convinced that the church will be healthier and happier as she becomes more and more skilled in discernment, more tuned into the gospel, and more skilled in knowing what to cherish. Discernment is a calling for us all. By asking these three questions, we are reasserting the importance of the answers. But we are not just listening for the right answers; we want the right answers so that we can again find our affections fed on the beauty of Jesus Christ.
And this is how it happens. Three big questions, the three biggest questions that we can ever ask in this life, remind us of the precious truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Give them a try. The next time you listen to a sermon, ask these three simple questions, and listen — with eagerness — for the familiar precious answers that help sustain our daily joy in Christ.