What to Do When You’re Learning Nothing from the Sermon

Unlike you, my dear reader, I am not perfect.  And in my imperfection, I struggle greatly to have humility.  As one excellent example of my lack of humility, I sometimes subconsciously assume that I know everything, which is a gross extrapolation of the fact that I know a lot of things.  Having grown up in the church, I tend to be particularly familiar with the Bible and theology.  I’ve heard countless sermons over the years.  And some passages get preached a lot–the book of Philippians, various passages in Romans, Hebrews 11 and 12, 1 Thessalonians 4, anything in Ephesians, accounts of the crucifixion of Christ, etc.  Just as necessity is the mother of invention, so too is abundance the progenitor of complacency, and familiarity the father of contempt.  Having heard these passages before, I could probably give a fifteen minute sermon myself on many of these passages with no preparation.  I am familiar with the doctrines contained therein.  I struggle, therefore, when I hear yet another sermon with theology that I already know and passages I just heard preached last month.  I struggle to humbly submit to God’s teaching through the preacher.  I’d rather let my mind think about food or politics or gaming or girl(s) or literally anything but the sermon.  You, my dear reader, are of course perfect and do not struggle as I do.  I do not expect you to sympathize with what follows below, but I do hope you’ll at least be amused by my attempt to address my personal weaknesses.

The first thing that must be established is that preaching is important, both as an ordinance of God and in its effects on your life.  Only by understanding and believing the importance that a sermon has for your benefit can you be persuaded to pay attention to it and learn from it.  Without this persuasion, the rational reaction to sermons that you don’t perceive potential benefit in is falling asleep.  Sleep, after all, is beneficial, especially in the morning.  We thus begin our quest to show that the sermon is more important than a marginal quantity of morning sleep.

One of the most famous passages regarding preaching is also famous as it regards missions: Romans 10:11-17.  Paul expresses as a primary reason for the importance of preaching that God appointed the preaching of the gospel as the means of the salvation of the elect.  A saving religion requires intellectual assent to objective truth; salvation comes to those who believe.  In order to believe, in order to assent to doctrine, one must be taught, one must hear preaching.  Despite Paul’s emphasis here on preaching’s role in evangelism and salvation, the same concept of teaching being necessary to spiritual life extends to the experience of believers.  Just as justification requires belief in the objective truths of the gospel so too does sanctification require conviction on certain theological principles.  We are reminded, persuaded, convinced of these things through preaching and through God’s Word.

Consider the book of 2 Peter.  Peter wrote this epistle, in his own words, as a reminder to stir up the mind and bring to remembrance the teaching and commandments of Jesus, the prophets, and the apostles (2 Peter 3:1-2).  The book fixes on the mind of the reader the reality and imminence of the second coming of Christ and eschatological fulfillment of prophecies, applying it to the lives of the readers by exhorting to holy and heavenly minded living.  As humanly speaking we tend to forget the importance of eternity, and thus tend toward more worldly and temporal living, this reminder is critical to the motivation of the pursuit of our sanctification.  Sermons fulfill this very role.

Ultimately the importance of preaching flows from the importance of the Word of God.  Since the Word of God is useful to the Christian life (2 Timothy 3:16-17), since the Word is so sweet to the believer (Psalm 1:2; 19:7-14; 119), we reverence it in certain ways and dwell on it continually.  Therefore this same attention should be given to a sermon.  As Scripture is profitable and lovely so is a sermon (assuming of course it is well enough done to contain Scriptural truth).  It therefore demands our attention more than sleep on a Sunday morning (or Friday night or whatever other time you may be attending one).

Well then, what if one has indeed heard the objective truth in a sermon before?  What if one has literally heard the same sermon before?  What if one just heard a sermon on the same passage?  Why should I continue to work to pay attention in this case?  I offer three main reasons:

  1. To combat forgetfulness
  2. To compare one’s life to his beliefs
  3. To cultivate an affection for the truth

As already mentioned, the human mind is exceedingly forgetful, especially of spiritual things.  Consider the Israelites during the Exodus: any time things went south, they’d turn on the God, who had saved them from slavery in Egypt and drowned Pharaoh and his armies in the Red Sea, by complaining against Him.  They forgot His love and promises to them, of which they had had firsthand experience, instead relying on their own senses in their outwardly non-ideal situations.  They didn’t trust God, because they forgot the character of their God.  Preventing this sin requires continual remembrance of the truth.  Traversing familiar doctrinal territory in a sermon does just that.

More importantly however, our lives often don’t match what we say we believe.  It is very easy, of course, for the slave who was forgiven 10,000 talents to say that he believes he owes his life to the king and was saved only by a ludicrously selfless mercy, but it was much harder for him to forgive the fellow slave who owed him 100 denarii (Matthew 18:21-35).  This unforgiving heart was indicative of the slave’s lack of understanding of the scope and magnanimity of his salvation.  The slave’s actions indicate a heart that did not believe it had just been unforeseeably released from the prospect of permanent slavery for both himself and his family, with no hope of release.   Just as this slave’s life didn’t match the objective realities of his circumstances, so too do our lives often fail to match the standard we profess to adhere to.  Sometimes we lie.  Sometimes we waste our time.  Sometimes we don’t evangelize.  Sometimes we don’t pray.  Sometimes we don’t value God’s Word.  Sometimes we don’t desire God.  Sometimes our singing isn’t worship.  Sometimes our service is self-centered.  Our goal, then, should be to identify these times and rectify the situation.  We do this by comparing ourselves to Scripture (James 1:23-25).  Going over the same passages and the same truths continually is critical, as it is these truths that we are most culpable for failing to practice.

Finally, continual reminder of familiar truths in the Bible helps us, when taken appropriately, to develop a deeper affection for these truths and for our God.  As repetition brings deeper and more thorough understanding, as familiarity allows us to broaden our network of understood truths, so returning to the same doctrines and passages will help us understand the character of our God better.  And as that character is indescribably good and lovely, so then must our affections be inflamed, our gratitude raised, and our lives centered around the one Being we come to actually care about.  But this can only occur if the truths in a familiar sermon are grappled with, not ignored.  Working to understand the truths of Scripture strengthens our love for God.

Therefore, when one is learning nothing from the sermon, one should pay attention and try to learn something from the sermon.  One may not learn a new fact of objective truth or some theory of theology, but one may instead improve his affections for God and His Word, compare his life to his beliefs, and remember the fundamental truths he is so prone to forget.

What to Do When You’re Learning Nothing from the Sermon

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