Expositional Listening





Thabiti Anyabwile|3:13 pm CT

Get Ready for Your Pastor’s Next Sermon Dud!

I appreciate anyone who can help my people prepare for the next sermon dud I preach!  You gotta know it’s coming–and sooner than anyone wants! :-)

So, here’s help to members of FBC and the rest of the sermon listening public.  Reinke summarizes counsel from John Newton:

  1. Our pastor is weak and sinful, and it’s quite likely that he is already aware of this without our help.
  2. Our pastor carries a heavy burden for the flock, and there is nothing he wants more than to serve the souls in his church (including you).
  3. Our pastor benefits from our realistic expectations. We should neither puff him up as a celebrity and expect too much, nor diminish him and his gifts and expect too little.
  4. Our pastor needs our earnest attention and eager hearts on Sunday. How can we be surprised that we gain so little, when our hearts arrive at church so dull and easily distracted?
  5. Our pastor must have our prayers. We should appear at church having already prayed that God will bless the sermon and affect hearts with the gospel.

Excellent stuff.  Read the entire post for the whole story.





Thabiti Anyabwile|8:31 am CT

Filtered Listening, 5: Conviction and Condemnation

In this series of posts, we’ve been attempting to think about how to listen to sermons to derive the most benefit and to understand the preached word as best we can.  We’ve been using a filter analogy to picture what sometimes happens with our listening.  Imagine something like an air conditioning filter lying across your ears.  The preached word is the clean air we need to breathe and enjoy in order to live well.  But our filters may have varying amounts of dirt and dust collected in them, making the word’s passage into our hearing and understanding quite difficult.

To hear and understand we need clean filters.  But a number of things may clog the filter, like our preferences, our feelings, sources that rival the Bible, or our misunderstanding of Christian freedom.  There’s one final issue I want to consider in this series of posts: what to do when we’re convicted by the word and the Spirit during a sermon.

Conviction: It Hurts So Good

Christians often talk about a sense of conviction that grows when God’s word does its work.  But what does it mean to be “convicted” of something?

Well, a range of things may be in view.  We may mean we’ve been found guilty of an offense or a sin.  The word enters our lives and exposes our wrong.  We have our eyes opened to something that previously went unnoticed.  We see and feel the guilt that we should have felt all along.  David’s famous words written after Nathan the prophet exposed his sin with Bathsheba are an example of awakening conviction: “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment” (Ps. 51:4).

But conviction also includes growing more settled in the truth.  We are “convinced” of an argument or a position and subsequently become more fixed in the truth.  It’s not that a sin has been exposed; rather, something we have already believed and cherished becomes more dear to us.  The truth is pushed more deeply into our hearts with the additional argumentation or evidence.  This is perhaps what the apostle feels when he writes in the face of his suffering for the gospel, “But I am not ashamed, for I know whom i have believed, and I am convinced that he is able to guard until that Day what has been entrusted to me” (2 Tim. 1:12b).

Whether it’s the conviction that exposes sin, or the conviction that roots us more deeply in the truth, the believer experiences such Spirit-given convincing as a blessing.  In fact, it’s not too much to say that believers love to be convinced of their sin and of the truth.  The pleasure comes from knowing that God is either pruning and purging, or He is molding and shaping.  The Lord is either removing contaminants or He is growing us “to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:13).  What a happy prospect that is!  God is treating us as sons and daughters so that we may participate in his holiness and enjoy the peaceable fruits of righteousness (Heb. 12:5-11).  Surely the Master correctly taught us:

Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled (Matt. 5:3-6)

We are blessed when we are convicted by the word and the Spirit of God.  We should, then, eager anticipate and seek the word’s conviction in our lives–both the correcting power and the confirming influence of the word.

But why do some people not enjoy conviction?

Condemnation: The Enemy of True Conviction

One reason some professing Christians do not like the feeling of conviction is that they don’t distinguish those feelings from condemnation.  While conviction opens our guilt before us, it does so in a way that leads us back to Christ and His atoning work.  The apostle Paul summarizes the difference thus: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1).  Because of Christ’s work, work we could do in the weakness of our flesh (Rom. 8:2-4), we sho are in Christ are free from the condemning power of the Law and sin.

“Condemnation” is a condemnatory judgment, a verdict rendered against the offender.  For the Christian to feel condemned before God, there must be the woeful forgetting that Christ satisfies God’s justice on our behalf.  One forgets that Christ bore the wrath, He suffered our condemnation, and He freed us from the separating negative judgment of God.  Our sin and guilt were nailed to the cross.

If we forget this, if we lose sight of the cross, conviction may be interpreted as condemnation.  If that happens, the gracious motions of the Spirit in the preaching of the word may be resisted and rejected.  The sting and pinch of the Spirit’s pruning work may be interpreted as malicious stabbings and attacks.

The more tender our conscience, the more careful we must be to distinguish conviction from condemnation.  The more eagerly we must run to the finished work of Christ.

But the more tempted we are toward coddling our sin, the more quickly we must embrace conviction as a good gift from God.  Sometimes our longing for sin’s false pleasures motivate us to count genuine conviction as condemnation.  In other words, because we want to enjoy sin for a season or we find ourselves in love with the world in some measure, we run from conviction when what we most need is to run to it.  We are tempted to avoid Spirit-filled preaching of the word because it makes us uncomfortable.  It challenges us.  It stirs conflict in us as our spirit’s yearn for the things of God and our flesh wars against the Spirit.  We’re torn and we feel the conflict–sometimes with great distress.  And the danger is that some persons would rather avoid the convicting influence of God’s Spirit to live “at peace” with the world and their sin.  We must be careful of this, for it may simply be a form of hardening our hearts.  Against which we must hear the multiple warnings of the writer of Hebrews: “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts” (Heb. 3:2-8, 15; 4:7).

Feelings of condemnation are never proper for the Christian.  Confusing condemnation with conviction may prevent us from receiving God’s gracious correction through the preaching of the word of God.  Condemnation requires we take our eyes of Christ, and that is the worst kind of “gunk” to clog our listening filters.

How to Respond to Conviction

So, we should conclude with a few thoughts about what to do when the truth of the Bible is heard in the preaching and by God’s grace we are convinced of what we hear.

1.  Give God glory and praise for speaking to you.  For that’s what’s happening in conviction.  God is speaking to us and working on us.  Rejoice!

2.  Give Christ praise for suffering and satisfying your condemnation.  In our conviction, God is treating us as legitimate children and not as the rebels we were.  He has poured out His holy wrath upon His only Son instead of on us.  Remember the work of Christ that turns condemnation into loving conviction and rejoice!

3.  Heed the Spirit’s voice.  If the Spirit identifies a particular sin, either in thought, word, or deed, take note of it.  Consider it.  Embrace the correction as grace from God.  Then repent of the sin.  Do not resist the Spirit’s promptings but embrace it.  Pray: “Thank you Lord for lovingly pointing this out.  I confess that it is indeed sin in your sight, and now mine.  Grant me grace to repent of it in these specific ways.  Holy Spirit, please continue your work of conviction, repentance, and sanctification in my life just as purpose to do.”  Similar thanksgiving, praise, and obedience should be given when the Lord further roots us in the truth.  Praise God for affirming the truth in our lives and establishing us more firmly on the foundation of His word.  Turn those moments of conviction into specific plans for progressing in the faith and holiness by God’s grace and in reliance on His Spirit.

4.  Share your conviction.  Tell somebody how the Lord addressed you and pointed out either error or truth in your life.  Telling others will have two effects.  First, it will encourage others as they reflect on God’s graciousness to them and see a model for responding well to conviction.  Second, it will be accountability for us as we confess the Lord’s gracious dealings with us.  “They have conquered him [the accuser] by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony…” (Rev. 12:11).

5.  Keep listening.  The Lord will continue to speak through His word.  The Spirit will continue to illumine and enlighten by the word.  All of the Spirit’s sanctifying work is not exhausted in one sermon or instance of conviction.  He has more for us!  Much more!  So, like young Samuel, our prayer at every sermon and every time we open God’s infallible word should be: “Speak, Lord, your servant listens.”  What a glorious thing it is, the sovereign God of all creation speaks to His creatures!  Live by every word that proceeds from His mouth!





Thabiti Anyabwile|12:45 pm CT

Filtered Listening, 4: Feeling or Thinking

Much of our sermon listening is intuitive.  We sorta “feel” our way through the sermon, registering reactions and thoughts along the way.  This sometimes means that we’re being led by our feelings as we listen.

Feelings are a gift from God.  Used properly, they are for our good and help us to commune with our wonderful God.  Fear, for example, may alert us to the danger of sin.  Or, empathy may help us to care for others in need.  When our feelings are rightly tuned to God’s word and Spirit, they are allies in the quest for godliness and joy.

But, like the rest of our nature, our feelings are also fallen.  Sin corrupts our emotions.  This means, then, that a godly monitoring of our feelings is necessary.  For not every emotional reaction is a godly reaction.  We may tend to over-react at times, and at other times to under-react.  Or, we may react with the wrong emotion given the situation.  Perhaps a situation calls for sadness, but in our sin we respond with anger.  And sometimes, we may become emotionally numb.  Our feelings may become impaired as a result of prolonged hurt, depression, or other causes.

However our emotions are responding on a Sunday morning, we may be sure of this: as listeners, we feel.  And how we feel may hurt how we listen.

Leading or Following

One critical question to ask ourselves as we listen to a sermon is: What am I feeling about what I’m hearing?

Now, I’m not asking, “What do you think?”  That’s an important question, too.  But our thinking often follows our feeling, so that our feeling leads us in our thinking.  When that happens, our feelings may distort the truth or prevent us from giving careful attention to the word of God as it’s preached.

Perhaps an example would help.  Some time back, our Wednesday night Bible study devoted some time to thinking about the doctrine of election.  Now, if there is a word that elicits emotion, it’s “election.”  Just raising the topic makes some people red in the face.  I can understand why.  When I first began to see and understand the implications of God’s sovereign election, my first reaction was not a happy embrace.  I dug in my heels, clenched my jaws, and kicked against the idea that God had chosen me before I chose Him and without regard to anything in me.  In retrospect, I was offended.  Then I was angry with “that kind of God.”

So, when we came to this topic in Bible study, I’d had enough personal emotional experience with this topic to know any consideration wouldn’t be a simple matter of “cool, calm, and collected” analysis.  People would feel things.

At one point I asked the group, “What are you feeling as we talk about this?”  A couple people volunteered: Anger.  Resentment.  Confusion.  Doubt.  Emotions were as varied as the people in the room.  But nearly everyone was feeling something.

As we processed our feelings, we realized that our feelings were leading our thinking.  Some were prepared to reject or simply not bother with the Bible’s teaching because the emotions were too strong.  Seeing the influence of our emotions allowed us to step back from them, not assume our emotions were communicating truthfully, and look afresh at the Scripture.  Some people still wrestled with the implications of election, but gradually their thinking took the lead in their reaction.  As that happened, bit by bit they were able to say, “Yes, I see this is what the Bible teaches.  Yes, I know God has included this in the word for my good.  Yes, I know that embracing all God’s truth grows me spiritually.”

And over time, some people have seen their emotions change as they have come to first understand the Bible’s teaching about election, and then see the wonderful implications regarding God’s unconditional love for us, our assurance in Christ, and our confidence in evangelism and missions.  But all those things were missed as long as emotion reigned in Bible interpretation.

So it is with listening to preaching.  Our emotions may lead and mislead us.  We need to ask, “What am I feeling?”  And then ask, “Is what I’m feeling an appropriate response to God’s word and the God of the word?”  ”Is it helping me to understand and draw near to God, or is it preventing understanding and fellowship with the Lord?”

The Garbage That Ruins Our Listening Filter

We live in a hyper-sensual and hyper-emotional age.  There’s a lot of noise in our environment, noise that screams, “Listen to us!”  Sometimes the noise is self-talk.  We listen to ourselves feel, but we don’t process it.  We accept the feeling as final and authoritative.

“What feels right” may claim first place in our listening and decision-making process.  Even as Bible-believing Christians, we can be primarily drawn to an emotional experience of the faith.  When we have a good emotional experience, we “feel like” we’ve worshiped.  If the experience is “ho-hum” or even difficult, we don’t “feel like” we’ve served the Lord.

When emotion is king, we’re prone to enslave our listening and our thinking. In a hyper-emotional age, knowing what to feel when can be quite bewildering.  The saturation of emotional messaging creates human emotional pendulums that swing from manic to catatonic.  Balance becomes elusive.


When we come to church on Sunday morning, we’re a bundle of nerves, full of unprocessed emotion, and brimming over sensitivities.  Someone once described emotion as thought sped up really fast.  I think they’re wrong about that.  That’s why we often apologize for emotional responses by saying, “I wasn’t thinking.”  And that’s a clue that when our feelings–particularly sinful feelings and feelings incongruous with the text–take over, we should put everything in slow motion and think it through.  Sit still.  Get some company.  And imbibe the word of God with the mind of Christ.

Other Posts in this Series:

Filter 1: True or False

Filter 2: The Source

Filter 3: Applications





Thabiti Anyabwile|3:13 pm CT

Filtered Listening, 3: Applications

In the first two posts, we thought about two filters that should cover our ears as we listen to sermons: true/false and source.  Okay, we come to the issue that in many ways triggers this series of posts on listening: sermon applications.

Preaching really consists of three simple parts: read the text, explain the meaning of the text, and apply the text.  We could elaborate on any of those parts (for example, explaining the meaning will very often include illustrating the text), but at bottom, this is all preaching really is.  Now when I say three simple parts, I don’t mean that preaching is therefore easy.  Doing these three things well requires a lot of prayerful work and practice.  I, for one, am still learning.

Reading the text and explaining the meaning of the text are the foundation and walls of preaching.  But the house isn’t finished until the roofing of application takes place.  In application, the preacher moves the text from the page to the life of his listeners.  He presses it into the heart and mind if the Spirit blesses it.  And that’s one major aim of preaching: to help the people listen to God’s word in such a way that they’re able then to live in the comfort, hope, correction, instruction, rebuke and instruction of God’s word (2 Tim. 3:16).

But for the benefits of application to be maximized, we need to listen with an application filter that protects us from two problems.

The Dirt That Clogs the Application Filter

There are two basic kinds of debris that clog our listening filters when it comes to sermon application.  First, there is legalism that clogs the filter.  Legalism is simply the idea that our justification, or righteous standing, with God depends on the things we do to earn that standing.  Legalism makes reconciliation and acceptance with God a product of our own attainments.

Without doubt, some preachers are legalists, or moralists.  And many more of us become legalists or moralists in our applications even if we never would subscribe to theological legalism properly.  How does that happen?  It happens when the preacher makes moral, ethical or behavioral applications of the text without first passing by Calvary, the Cross, and the Atonement–without putting the application in the context of what Christ has done for us in His grace.  When that happens, our applications pile up on the people like 613 new laws and commands from the preacher.  Our preaching descends into the Pharisees’ mistake of tying heavy burdens on the people’s backs without lifting a pinky finger to help.

However, the listener may also listen like a legalist.  Michael Horton says “the native language of the sinner is Law.”  We instinctively think in legalistic categories: How may I please God?  What good thing must I do to gain eternal life?  What does God want from me?  How can I be sure I’m in His will?  Have I missed His will?  If any of those are asked apart from first seeing the pleasure, call, and will of God in the Person and Work of His Son, then we’re in danger of skipping down the path of legalistic bondage.  If that’s our tendency, then we’ll hear sermon applications as so much law to either be obeyed in self-righteousness or to be despaired in defeat.  Applications are not meant to be a law or a list for gaining God’s approval.  Our listening filters may be clogged by self-reliant, self-righteous, legalistic assumptions.

Second, our listening filters may be clogged with a licentious or antinomian mindset.  Here, the listener isn’t bound by legalistic attitudes; rather, he or she rejects any imperatives in the Christian life at all.  They turn grace into license, forgetting that true saving grace teaches us to say “no” to ungodliness and worldly lusts (Titus 2:11-12).  They forget that enrolling in the school of Christ means learning to “obey everything He has commanded” (Matt. 28:20).  This listener is likely to dispute any application that doesn’t please him.  They write off sermon applications as so much legalism, merely the pastor’s opinion,  and they go on without seeing themselves in the mirror.  They listen but they will not do (James 1:22-25).

Listening well requires we be aware of either the legalist or the antinomian within.  It requires we undermine both tendencies with cross-centered freedom as our clean filter.

Sermon Applications and Christian Freedom

“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.  Stand firm, then, and do not let yourself be burdened again by a yoke of slavery” (Gal. 5:1).  Those are Paul’s words to a church struggling with a group of leaders binding them again to the Law as the method for pleasing God and receiving His promises (3:1-5).  Paul explains that their standing before God and their receipt of His promises is solely by faith in the work of Jesus Christ.  He writes, “Clearly no one is justified before God by the law, because, ‘The righteous will live by faith’.” (Gal. 3:11).  So, he wants them to stand in the freedom that Jesus has purchased.

But this freedom is not license.  For true faith expresses itself in love, and true freedom does not indulge in the sinful nature (5:6, 13).  The freedom that Christ brings works in us the fruit of the Spirit (5:22-23), not the fruit of the flesh (5:19-21).

So, the freedom that Jesus grants by fulfilling the righteous requirements of the Law and paying the penalty of the Law in the place of the sinner undermines both legalism and license.  This means, then, that as people who listen to sermons we must listen by applying and maintaining the freedom Jesus gives.   To do that, it’s helpful to think about sermon applications as lying on a point along two axis.


Only the word of God may bind the conscience.  So, the things we hear that are most binding are those commands clearly taught in Scripture and the necessary consequences.  For example, the Bible commands, “Thou shalt not kill.”  We are bound to observe that command and all the things that necessarily follow from it.  Murder is killing, so we shall not commit murder.  Abortion is killing, so we shall not commit abortion.  Suicide is killing, so we shall not commit suicide.  Where the scripture binds in this clear way, and where that is the application of the sermon, we are obligated as followers of Christ to obey the Scripture.  In those cases, we do not have freedom.  Or, to put it another way, we enjoy our freedom within the bounds of that command.

But the preacher may make applications that lie at varying distances from a clear biblical command and its necessary consequences.  For example, the Bible says, “Be hospitable.”  That’s a command or principle, but it does not necessitate that we show every possible form of hospitality at all times.  Freedom comes into play.  We may show hospitality by having someone over for dinner, by visiting the sick, or by taking a welcome package to a new neighbor.  We may do any or all of those things as acts of hospitality, but we are not commanded to do any one of them in particular.  So, prudence, opportunity, and freedom begin to influence our application of the “Be hospitable” command.

As a listener, I must make some decisions about how this applies to me or how I will apply it in life.  My application may differ  from another’s, and often it will.  But that’s a liberty Christ has purchased that I should enjoy, rather than being bound by another’s insistence on specific applications or restrictions the Scripture does not make.

Let’s use another example.  The Bible calls us to be generous.  It’s a clear command and it models the gracious, giving character of our God and Savior.  But how the listener applies that command may widely vary.  The preacher may list five forms of generosity: giving to the church, giving to a local charity, volunteering to mentor a child, donating an organ, and tipping.  If the preacher says, “You must tip your waiter 20% or you’re a bad Christian,” he’s guilty of robbing his listeners of their freedom and adding a legalistic burden.  If the hearer goes away thinking I must do all these things to please God, they’re guilty of thinking in legalistic and moralistic categories.

What Christ frees us to do, being sensitive to the grace that frees us and the circumstances of our lives, is to choose among these options or to develop our own list of five.  We are free, and we ought to use our freedom to love others.  The farther the application lives from a binding command in the text, the greater the freedom we have in Christ to accept, modify, or reject a sermon application.


When the preacher has read and explained the text and he begins to apply the text, we’ll derive the most benefit and joy in sanctification if we listen with an application filter that distinguishes between a gospel imperative/command and an exemplary/prudential recommendation from the preacher.  You’ll usually be able to know the difference by looking to see if the application is in the text itself or extrapolated in some degree from the text.  If it has no connection to any biblical text, consider yourself quite free indeed.





Thabiti Anyabwile|8:58 am CT

Filtered Listening, 2: Source

Yesterday we began a new series of posts on listening to the word of God as it’s preached.  With these posts, I pray the Lord would help us to listen well so that we might be sanctified in the truth and mature into Christ’s likeness.  I love the way the 9Marks slogan puts it: “We will look like Him as we listen to Him.”

If that’s so, then listening is a fundamental spiritual discipline and skill.  Our souls prosper as our ears prosper.  As we embrace Christ in His word, we find ourselves embraced by Him.  Spiritual life and communion come to us at the speed of sound.  So, we need proper listening filters to let the word through and to catch the spiritual dust and debris that so often hinders our hearing well.

Today, I want to suggest another filter for listening well.

“Where Did He Get That From?”

The preacher is to proclaim the truth, using all the tools of knowledge available to him.  A solid pastor will be well-rounded in education, experience, and interests.  He’ll be conversant with the themes of his day and a few of the thinkers contemporary and historical.

But a faithful pastor must be mastered by one book in particular: the Bible.  He is not called simply to preach.  He is called specifically to preach the word (2 Tim. 4:1-2).  His message is already determined by the Divine Author.  While he may benefit from all fields of learning, those fields serve the one source of eternal wisdom–the Scriptures.

So, one critical question for the listener to keep in mind is simply: “Where did he get that from?”  Or, “what source is this man using to make this claim?”  ”Is it rooted in the word of God, or some other source?”

Everything that comes to us from the word of God, properly explained and rightly handled, is to be eagerly and joyfully believed.  As Jesus prayed in John 17:17, “Your word is truth.”  Truth is for our good and comes from God, especially the truth of Scripture.  So, the Bible is that one infallible source for knowing the mind and will of God and knowing how to live before him.

Other Sources

But, again, a preacher may make claims based upon other sources.  He may quote philosophers, interact with scientists, or draw from research and personal experience.  As we said earlier, these things may be drawn into service to the word.

But here is where listening becomes critical.  For the authority we give to claims based in sources other than the Scripture is not the same kind or degree as the authority we give to God’s word.  We may know things from other sources, things that may change or be improved upon, or things that may later be refuted.  But the Bible tells us what God knows, things that can never be improved, changed or falsified.  His word is truth.  Not just true, but truth itself.

Where Truth/False and Source Meet

There is, then, an interaction between the first two filters we’ve discussed: True/False and Source.  The figure below organizes these two filters in a 2×2 grid.


Where we hear truth from the Bible, we might borrow from Francis Schaeffer and call that “True Truth.”  We are hearing things that are incontestably true and we’re hearing them from the divine source, the Bible.  This is what we most covet and need.  Whenever we have a faithful shepherd who declares to us the word of God, we must realize that we have been singularly blessed by God.  We have been given an extraordinary gift, a herald from heaven opening the divine mysteries of God.  What a privilege and a blessing!  As we listen, we should rejoice at hearing the truth from the source.  As we listen to Him, we will look like Him.

Second, we may hear true things in the preaching that come from a different source.  Because all truth comes from God, truth that comes from secondary sources ought to be received for the common grace that it is.  If the preacher shares an experience or some research that explains reality and doesn’t mislead, we should embrace it.  We should bring it under the light of scripture, testing it; but if it stands, we should embrace it even though it comes from an uninspired source with less authority than Scripture.

But, third, we may also hear false things even as the Bible is being cited as a source. This may be error, or it may be more pernicious, heresy.   I never cease to be amazed at the number of television shows that feature a popular preacher before vast crowds teaching–with the Bible open–things that simply are not in the Bible.  False things may spring forth from different soils.  Sometimes, preachers make honest mistakes.  We are not omniscient or infallible.  We, too, must grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord like all other Christians.  So, honest mistakes and misstatements are possible and even likely from the best of preachers.  On the other end of the spectrum, however, are men who deliberately twist the Scripture to make it “say” what they like (2 Peter 2; Jude).  When that happens with cardinal points of doctrine (the Trinity, the Atonement, Person and Work of Christ), they prove themselves to be heretics.  In the case of honest mistakes and limitations, we pray, encourage, and wait patiently for the Lord’s growth so that the minister’s progress is seen by all (1 Tim. 4:15).  In the case of heretics, we warn once, twice, then we have nothing to do with divisive persons (Titus 3:10).  We protect the Scriptures by listening for accurate handling as the Bereans are famed for doing (Acts 17:10-11).

Finally, there is the worst category of all: false things from other sources.  Here, not only is falsehood reigning but the plumb line for discerning error, the Bible, is set aside for other sources.  This is that viewpoint that comes from the world, is hostile toward God, and proves always to be false (James 4:4; 1 John 4:4-6).  I once visited a church where the pastor preached on some things he was learning from the creative writings of a popular Christian writer.  I remember the horror of sitting up in anticipation of the word being preached only to hear the pastor explain that he would be expounding these creative writings.  I can’t tell you how much of the sermon was true or false, because I quietly assembled my family and drove across town to another church where we would be certain to hear “thus saith the Lord.”

Where we find “True Truth,” we want to root ourselves there and feed upon the word for the long haul.  Where we find common grace and truth being taught with understandable human limitations, we want to “eat the fish and spit out the bones.”  We want to lovingly encourage the pastors and pray for more reliance upon the word and purity in the preaching.  Where we find heresy or an abandonment of the word, we want to run for our spiritual lives!  For with other situations, we may hear the word and be nourished, even with the imperfections of the preacher and the listener.  But where the word is distorted and twisted, or where it’s abandoned, we may never hear the word of God at all.  We perish for lack of knowledge.

Dust in the Filter

It’s easy to see how our hearing filter may be clogged by the dust of other opinions and sources.  That may happen either because the preacher relies on other sources too much or in the wrong ways, or because we the listener make other sources to rival the scripture.  How often have we bristled at something clearly in the Bible because it contradicted something we heard from another pastor, as though that pastor were our authority?  Or, how often have we missed the truth of the word because our own opinions sit enthroned in our thinking?  Do we not sometimes think that this or that scientific theory or discovery certainly proves to be more reliable than the Bible?  And are there not times where a certain “reading” of history or a philosophical presupposition affects our ability to hear the Scripture clearly?

Again, all these other sources have their place.  The place simply is not above or on par with the Lord’s holy word.  The Scriptures are that divine light that casts out the shadows of ignorance and darkness.  We are enlightened by the Spirit of God as He applies the word of God to our lives.  That’s the true Enlightenment we all need.  So, we want to be sure that we learn to listen for and to listen to the source of all wisdom, the treasury of divine revelation, the Bible.


We are meant to live on every word that comes from the mouth of God.  We may only do that where the word is preached and the preacher is dedicated to opening its meaning from first to last.  So, when we listen, we should listen for the accent of Zion, the language of glory, the word of God.  When we preach, we should preach with all the authority that comes not from our experience or other things, but from the word of God itself.  For God has invested the word with His divine seal.





Thabiti Anyabwile|10:45 am CT

Filtered Listening: True or False

It was November 15, 2006.  That was the day my friend Paul Martin, the Richard Baxter of Toronto, left a comment on a post about tipping.  His comment wasn’t about tipping, it was about something I’d written in the post:

But on the whole, the comments in the blogosphere remind me of a lot of evangelical preaching I hear (and perhaps my own, I need to go back and listen to some of my sermons). The preacher starts with a text (hopefully), offers an application, then insists on the binding authority of the application rather than the text.

Paul simply said, “What a danger! And how easily we slip into it!  You should write more about this, brother.”  For over three years now (you can see how quickly I get things done!), I’ve been thinking off and on about this passing statement and Paul’s encouragement. I’ve been thinking about preaching, slips in preaching, but also listening, and slips in listening.

In that time, I’ve even had the privilege of writing a little book that assigns first place to listening well to sermons. Others have written book length treatments of the topic.  See here for a couple.

And in that time, I’ve had tons of conversations that come back to these kinds of issues.  The thoughts also come up when I’m reading someone else’s material during my own sermon preparation.  The comments can be positive or critical, and both are helpful. The more I preach, the more convinced I am of two things.  First, preaching is really, really difficult.  Second, listening to preaching is really, really difficult.  Even the best of listeners struggle with poor preaching.  And the best preaching can’t cure the worst listening.  You want both.  Great preaching and great listening.  That combination best edifies preacher and people, strengthening the church in the most profound way.   But even good preaching and good listening should result in good growth by the grace of God.  So, the effort is well rewarded.

Beginning today, I want to take up one half of that equation.  That is, listening well.  I’m convinced that how we listen to a sermon makes tremendous and profound difference in our encounter with the word of God and the God of the word.  And that’s no revelation I just sat here and thought up.  It’s what the Bible itself teaches.  Ever wonder why the Bible so frequently exhorts us to listen, to pay attention, to heed?  Ever wonder why Jesus so often begins His teaching with, “Have you not heard?”  Or, take Solomon.  Breeze through the opening chapters of Proverbs and count the number of times he writes, “Listen, my son.”  And then there are all the biblical rebukes for not listening, for being stiff-necked, slow to hear, and the like.

God is a speaking God.  We must, then, be a listening people.  In fact, the difference between an eternity of enjoying God and an eternity of wrath comes down to whether we listen to the message preached.  “Faith comes by hearing, hearing by the word of God.”  So, this is an issue of extremely vital importance.  Our spiritual health depends upon hearing God clearly, which depends upon knowing how to listen.


The other day, I had the privilege of serving my family by cleaning the air conditioning filters in our home.  It’s alarming to see how much dust those things collect!  My oldest daughter, who has mild asthma, helped with the cleaning.  She wasn’t pleased that we were breathing in such particles.  But she and I both were thankful for the filters.  Good filters catch the debris and filth floating around in the air so our lungs aren’t taxed by it.  But good filters also need to be cleaned or replaced to do the job effectively.  Breathing clean air requires a clean filter to let the air through and catch the gunk.

Likewise, listening to and benefiting from sermons requires good filters. 

True/False Filter

The first and most important filter for the listener is a “True or False” filter.  The listener must ask themselves: “Is what I’m hearing true or false?” A true/false filter is a clean listening filter for those wanting to grow by the word of God.

If it’s true, it should be embraced, believed, enjoyed.  All truth belongs to God.  He is the God of truth (Ps. 31:5; Is. 65:16).  He does not lie or deceive; in fact, it is impossible for God to lie (Titus 1:2; Heb. 6:18).  He is trustworthy because He is true (John 3:33).

Those who worship God must worship Him in spirit and in truth (John 4:24).  The worst thing in the world we can do is “exchange the truth of God for a lie” (Rom. 1:25).  That leads to idolatry.  Lies always come from the “father of lies,” Satan himself (John 8:44).

The preacher must “set forth the truth plainly” (2 Cor. 4:2), and preach “in truthful speech and in the power of God” (2 Cor. 6:7).  The preacher must “Do [his] best to present [himself] to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15).  Moreover, the “church of the living God” is “the pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15).  By the truth of God’s grace and the gospel we are saved and sanctified in Christ (Col. 1:6; 2 Thess. 2:13; 1 Tim. 2:3-4).

The truth–the whole counsel of God–is good for us.  Falsehood misleads and destroys us.  So, we must first come to the word thinking and listening with the categories or filter of true and false.  Is the preacher giving me the truth here? Reject everything that is false.  But thankfully embrace the truth with both arms.  Hold it close to your bosom and love it.  Christians are truth people, and faithful servants of the word declare the truth.

Gunk in the Filter

Just as my daughter and I cleaned off a lot of dust bunnies and gunk from the air conditioning filter that day, we often need to clean gunk from our listening filters.  We may have wax in our ears that make it difficult to listen well to the word of God preached or read.

Most of us have a layer of gunk on our true/false filter that sometimes prevents the clean air of truth from coming through to us.  Specifically, we almost instinctively think in terms of Like/Dislike.  We listen to a sermon or read the word and our first reaction is often “I like this” or “I don’t like this.” A statement or a person either pleases us or it displeases us.

You can see the problem.  If a thing is true and we think about it instinctively in terms of “I like it” or “I don’t like it,” we run the risk of rejecting the truth because it displeases us.  In our sinful nature, we will no doubt come across good and true and right things that disagree with us, and we will be tempted to reject the truth because we don’t like it.  Often we fall under conviction from the word.  The word exposes us and makes us to feel our guilt.  But because of indwelling sin, we don’t really like to feel guilty.  We don’t like to think about our guilt and the truth that exposes us.  Sanctification hurts.  When Jesus takes out the pruning shears, it cuts and stings and burns–deeply sometimes.  That can be quite uncomfortable.

Now the thing to do is not to run from the pruning shears.  That’s what I used to do when I was a little boy and my father would announce it was time to go get a haircut.  He’d say, “Boy, you’re looking mighty woolly by the head.”  I hated those words!  I’d slide out the back door, run down the street to a friend’s house, or make my way home from school very slowly on scheduled haircut days.  I’d even get up early on a Saturday morning, trying to escape the house before my father remembered it was haircut time.  Running from conviction is a little like that.  We don’t want the trim and the cut, so we look for a way of escape.

The problem with doing that is that it cuts us off from the grace God intends us to receive from a full embrace of the truth.  For our growth and joy in the Lord, we really need to humble ourselves under the word (James 1:21) and let it grow us and sanctify us.  It’s what Jesus prays for us: “Sanctify them by the truth; they word is truth” (John 17:17).  We want to remove the gunk so that God’s sanctifying agenda in our lives is advanced by means of the truth.

Think About It

Perhaps we’ve caught ourselves thinking primarily in terms of Like/Dislike when it comes to preaching in general or an individual sermon in particular, or even of a preacher?  Has the Like/Dislike gunk clogged the True/False filter?  If so, I think the Lord would have us clean enough of the gunk off the filter so that the truth can pass through to our hearts?  That will be for our joy and progress in the faith.





Thabiti Anyabwile|12:00 pm CT

The Primacy of Preaching

The good folks over at Expository Thoughts offer a short post with three great quotes on preaching:

In his opening chapter The Primacy of Preaching from the book Feed My Sheep: A Passionate Plea For Preaching Dr. Al Mohler wrote, “Evangelical pastors commonly state that biblical preaching is the hallmark of their calling. Nevertheless, a careful observer might come to a very different conclusion. The priority of preaching is simply not evident in far too many churches.

We must affirm with Luther that the preaching of the Word is the first essential mark of the church. Luther believed so strongly in the centrality of preaching that he stated, ‘Now, wherever you hear or see this Word preached, believed, professed, and lived, do no doubt that the true ecclesia sancta catholica (Christian, holy people) must be there….And even were no other sign than this alone, it would still suffice to prove that a Christian, holy people must exist there, for God’s Word cannot be without God’s people and, conversely, God’s people cannot be without God’s Word.’”

Before he died the great Bible expositor James Montgomery Boice wrote, “I do not think it is too much to say that preaching really is an essential means perhaps even the most important means, of grace. If that is the case, then we should be very careful in our Christian lives to expose ourselves to the best teaching and attend the best churches available.”

2 Timothy 3:13-4:5; John 21:15-17; Col. 1:25-29; Romans 10:17; 1 Peter 1:23, 2:2; 1 Timothy 4:13-18; Ezra 7:10; Neh. 8.

Good stuff.





Thabiti Anyabwile|1:51 pm CT

Hearing Is Believing

In a culture over-saturated with images and the clanging of many sounds, hearing is undervalued. Extended attention to words and sentences and paragraphs and arguments unpacking a lofty idea is a lost discipline. Gone (forever?) are the days of 2-3 hour sermons or public lectures where the ideas of the day are carefully articulated, debated, and finally evaluated by hearers hearing with discernment.

A short memory might make it easy to pass over this or that trivial detail and passing fad with no lasting consequence. But are a short attention span, dull listening, and a fleeting memory very beneficial when it comes to the truth about God and His word?

Because the weighty and sublime truths about God are not easily grasped with slothful listening, “expositional listening” becomes a critical discipline for God’s people. Piper encourages us to think about how critical listening is using Jesus’ own words here. Let us heed the word!