February 25, 2011 by Tony Reinke
If you are familiar with the television show American Idol you know Simon Cowell, the judge famous for his bluntness, biting criticisms, and blatant insults. In the presence of Simon, grown men and women sing with passion, reaching out to grasp pop-recording stardom. But if they fail to meet his standards, many of those same men and women walk off the stage in tears or anger. They walk back into the real world carrying the shards of a shattered dream. Simon has that effect on people, and he is the man who comes to mind when I read Newton’s letter about how some Christians listen to sermons.
Last week we looked at a portion of this letter as we considered how to respond when our pastor preaches a “sermon dud.” A little later in that same letter, Newton explains how Christians should listen to sermons, and how they should not listen to sermons.
First, Newton explains how we should listen to sermons. We should at all times listen with active biblical discernment:
As a hearer, you have a right to try all doctrines by the word of God; and it is your duty so to do. Faithful ministers will remind you of this: they will not wish to hold you in an implicit and blind obedience to what they say, upon their own authority, nor desire that you should follow them farther than they have the Scripture for their warrant. They would not be lords over your conscience, but helpers of your joy. Prize this Gospel liberty, which sets you free from the doctrines and commandments of men; but do not abuse it to the purposes of pride and self.
Then Newton explains how we should not listen to sermons:
There are hearers who make themselves, and not the Scripture, the standard of their judgment. They attend not so much to be instructed, as to pass their sentence. To them, the pulpit is the bar at which the minister stands to take his trial before them; a bar at which few escape censure, from judges at once so severe and inconsistent.
In these few words Newton offers counsel that is biblically wise, balanced, and ready for us to practice on Sunday. At all times we should pray for our pastor and encourage him. At all times we should listen to sermons with discernment. And at some times it may even be appropriate to give our pastor feedback to help him grow.
But we should never listen to sermons with our proverbial arms crossed, as if our pastor were preaching on the American Idol stage, seeking to win the approval of autonomous judges.
Yet this is exactly what happens when hearers base their conclusions about a sermon on personal preference rather than biblical authenticity, writes Newton. To appraise a sermon as a self-appointed judge is simply an inappropriate posture for the listener. However, to eagerly anticipate a sermon and to listen with biblical discernment is a posture of noble worth (Acts 17:11).
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), 1:224-225.