SGBC Modesto

The Theology of Listening

March 13, 2024 by

William Heinrich

Hundreds of books have been written on how to preach God’s word.  Seminaries emphasize knowing Gods word and preaching it.  Good preachers don’t just happen.  Nevertheless, in spite of solid evangelical preaching, church drop outs continue to rise.

George Barna interviewed 22,000 adults and 2,000 teens in 25 separate surveys and found that 61% of those in their 20’s & 30’s were regular church attendees but now no longer go to church.  He also had an evangelica-only survey of those in their 20’s who no longer go to church.  95% of those surveyed attended church and Sunday School during their grade school years.  55% of those surveyed continued to attend in their high school years. Only 11% of those surveyed continued to attend church during college.  We must conclude they were taught well coming out of evangelical churches, so teaching is not likely the problem. 

Is it possible some of the problem is in listening?  The ability to present an expository sermon is an empty effort if the listener does not assimilate the message. The Puritans had a major emphasis on how to properly listen to the preaching of God’s word.

Let me say first the word of God must be front and center.  Years ago the preacher climbed a flight of stairs to enter his pulpit.  This was symbolic of God’s word ruling over His people.  The pulpit is in the center of a raised podium today for a similar reason.  The preacher proclaims the word he does not share it or dialogue about it.  It is to be given in all its authority.  It is to be received as not the word of a preacher but as the word for God (“They welcomed the preached word not as the word of man, but as it is in truth the word of God.” 1 Thes 2:13).  Augustine urged his people to attend preaching with a burning thirst and fervent heart.  God’s word must be front and center.

Let me say second, the listener’s heart must be open and tender.  The soil of Luke 8:5-8 is the heart and the seed planted is the word of God.  Unless the soil (heart) is open and tender it will not produce fruit.  Four descriptions of the hearts of those in our pews are given.  There is the hard-packed heart.  This is the stubborn unrepentful heart that has been trampled by an army of sinful thoughts and deeds.  There is also the inch deep heart.  This heart responds impulsively to the word preached but brings no deep commitments to hold it firm in the storms of life.  There is also the worldly strangled heart.  This heart has both the word of God and the words of the world (weeds and thistles).  Weeds will grow bigger and faster than wheat and choke out the good plants.  This person starts with the word but still has the weeds.  Lastly we have the open and tender heart.  It is soft and tender, deep and free of weeds and so is a perfect environment for the seed of the word to germinate.  This heart hears and obeys (James 1:22).  This heart produces fruit (Matt 7:16, Gal 5:22-23).  Jesus concluded the lesson with the words “Take care how you listen.”

Let me say thirdly that a heart hardened by sin will not receive the preached word.  The psalmist says “If you will hear His voice do not harden your heart” (Psa 95:7-8).  The context is clearly that of the children of Israel in their wilderness wonderings.  They hardened their hearts by a lack of faith in the words of God spoken by Moses.  It was manifested by murmuring and complaining.  Yet they had seen the miracles of Egypt, they had passed through the Red Sea and drank water from the rock.  They heard the truth over and over but failed to obey causing their heart to grow harder and harder.

Let me say fourthly that listening is not passive it is active.  Bleeke says, “True listening means applying the word of God.  If you do not practice the word of God after you have heard it you have not truly listened to God’s message.” There are non-listening listeners who have trained themselves to be apathetic to the command of God (CF Ez 33:30-32).  D.L. Moody said, “The bible was not given to increase our knowledge, but to change our lives.  Some are convicted but lazy, others make listening an end in itself and believe they have obeyed by being in church and under the word.  Having sin remain by not obeying what was preached is like having wax in your ears.  There is an inseparatable relationship between listening and obeying (CF Ex 15:26, Deut 6:3-5, Luke 6:47, 8:21, 11:28).  The New Testament word for hear is akou and obey is hupa akou or to hear under.  In the Old Testament hear and obey is the same word.

Jesus says the Biblical listener will live and the unbiblical listener will die in Matt 7:21-27.  He was concluding His message of the Sermon on the Mount when he said this, “Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father…. Therefore whoever hears these sayings of mine and does them, I will liken him to a wise man who built his home on the rock.”  Puritan David Clarkson wrote, “Hearing is the provision made for the souls eternal wellbeing, it’s everlasting welfare depends on it, if you fail here, your souls perish without remedy.  For salvation comes by faith and faith comes by hearing.  It is an act of eternal consequence.  According to our hearing, so shall the state of our souls be to eternity.”