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 with you today. Thank you for your lecture earlier. I am a product of the New Calvinism, but I wanted to ask you more of a Pastor John type of question.
“As an MDiv student with the exceptional training that 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’s like I’m asking, ‘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. How do I control that? I am naturally a Berean, but I think sometimes I am like a Berean on steroids. 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.”
Listening for Truth
That is such a good question. I am 68, and I tend that way. I mean, I listen that way to sermons. So, I have to preach to myself. 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.
“It is a good thing to be discerning and to test all things and to hold fast to what is good.”
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, that it is a good thing to be discerning and to test all things and to hold fast to what is good. You cannot not assess preaching. 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, I am just affirming that. 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, can we benefit from imperfect sermons? Not if you are proud, not if you are so consumed with needing to show him that he is wrong, or even needing to whisper to the person next to you, “Did you hear what he . . .” There is this impulse in you to identify the error and to talk about the error and to make sure everybody knows you saw the error. All that is pride. That is pride.
What can replace it is admitting, “I am a broken, imperfect, corrupt, proud, marriage-embattled 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.” I think, in other words, that my sense of need and imperfection can override his imperfection.
Find the Needle
I asked J.I. Packer one time, “How can you be so gracious to so many Arminian types?” He said, “I am always looking for the needle of truth in the haystack of error.” In fact, he says in his book Keep in Step with the Spirit that 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.
“My sense of need and imperfection can override his imperfection.”
It comes down to whether I am a brokenhearted, 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.
Just ask the Lord to give you the grace to look right through the strains, the tics, the incomplete grammar, and the inadequate exegesis. The man probably has ten true things to say this morning. Get them, and then ask the Lord to apply them like crazy in your daily life.