February 18, 2011 by Tony Reinke
Each week thousands of sermons are preached in churches. Some of those sermons will be excellent, many of them will be good, and a few of them will stretch the definition of the word “sermon.” But predictably, there will be a number of good and godly pastors who on a given week stand at the pulpit and deliver—well, how shall we say this?—a sermon dud.
John Newton may or may not have preached many duds, but he did put some thought into how we should respond after we hear one.
After addressing the danger of false teaching in one letter (“Error is like poison; the subtlety, quickness, and force of its operation is often amazing”), Newton changes gears to address how we respond to faithful preachers who deliver the occasional dud.
So how should we respond?
When you hear a Gospel sermon, and it is not in all respects to your satisfaction, be not too hasty to lay the whole blame upon the preacher.
Wait. Huh? Blame sharing?
The Lord’s ministers have not much to say in their own behalf. They feel (it is to be hoped) their own weakness and defects, and the greatness and difficulty of their work. They are conscious that their warmest endeavors to proclaim the Savior’s glory are too cold, and their most importunate addresses to the consciences of men are too faint: and sometimes they are burdened with such discouragements, that even their enemies would pity them if they knew their case.
Do you pity your pastor? Think about the struggles and the sacrifices and the challenges your pastor faces on a regular basis. The demands of pastoral ministry and preaching are great. And on top of the demands, in many cases the pastor carries within himself a greater desire to serve you than he has the gifts to make it happen. This chronic disappointment is a terrible weight upon the soul of a faithful pastor. Perhaps here Newton is writing out of personal experience.
At this point in the letter Newton characteristically turns the table on his reader.
Indeed, they have much to be ashamed of; but it will be more useful for you, who are a hearer, to consider whether the fault may not possibly be in yourself.
Perhaps you thought too highly of the man, and expected too much from him.
Perhaps you thought too meanly of him, and expected too little.
In the former case, the Lord justly disappointed you; in the latter, you received according to your faith.
Perhaps you neglected to pray for him; and then, though he might be useful to others, it is not at all strange that he was not so to you.
Or possibly you have indulged a trifling spirit, and brought a dearth [lack] and deadness upon your own soul; for which you had not been duly humbled, and the Lord chose that time to rebuke you.
Strong and helpful words from Newton.
When we hear a sermon dud, what should we remember?
- Our pastor is weak and sinful, and it’s quite likely that he is already aware of this without our help.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
Sermons duds are inevitable, but they are not the sole responsibility of the pastor.
Tony Reinke serves as the editorial and research assistant to C.J. Mahaney. Reading Newton’s Mail is a series of blog posts reflecting on various published letters written by John Newton (1725–1807), the onetime captain of a slave trading ship—a self-described apostate, blasphemer, and infidel, who was eventually converted by grace. Newton is most famous for authoring the hymn “Amazing Grace,” or maybe for helping William Wilberforce put an end to the African slave trade in Britain. Less legendarily, Newton faithfully pastored two churches for 43 years, a fruitful period of his life when a majority of his letters were written. Reading Newton’s Mail is published on Fridays here on the Cheap Seats blog.
Source letter: John Newton, Works of John Newton (London: 1820), 1:224.