“Come, let us worship and bow down,
Let us kneel before the LORD our Maker.“
“Judas heard all Christ’s sermons.”
The words are absolutely chilling.
We ought here to find our breath halted. These words, properly apprehended, should drain from us the persistent presence of pride. All semblance of self-righteousness ought be stripped from us. The consequence and implications of these words ought drive us to repent of the frivolous accouterments of pop religion that we tend to so easily amass in our Christian lives. They should drive us to self-examination. They should drive us to humility.
When we consider, though, the weighty words of this esteemed English Puritan, we must maintain a proper context. There are far weightier, far greater, far more consequential words with which followers of Christ must deal. We have the Word of God. There are no words of greater import. God has spoken. God continues to speak.
In chapter eight of Luke’s Gospel, following His parable of the soils and the parable of the lamp, our Lord warns, “Take care how you listen” (Luke 8:18). On numerous occasions, the Lord concluded teaching with words of equal caution, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear” (Matt. 11:15, 13:9, 13:43; Mark 4:9, Luke 8:8, Luke 14:35).
From the parable of the soils, we glean an understanding of what is meant by “hearing” and the proof that “hearing” has rightly been obtained by the listener. In Mark’s recounting of the parable of the soils, he quotes the Lord, “And those are the ones on whom seed was sown on the good soil; and they hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirty, sixty, and a hundredfold” (Mark 4:20).
The key words “hear … accept … and bear fruit” refer to those who “have ears to hear.” As noted in the MacArthur Study Bible, “Believers, in contrast to unbelievers, hear God’s word because God allows them to hear it. They ‘accept’ it – they understand and obey it because God opens their mind and heart and transforms their lives. The result is that they produce spiritual fruit.”
“Tremble At My Word”
Those, then, who have “ears to hear” – those who “take care” how they listen – are those upon whom God has shown His regenerative and sanctifying grace. The Lord’s prophet Isaiah, some seven hundred years prior to Christ’s incarnation, wrote these “Thus saith the Lord” words: “But to this one I will look, to him who is humble and contrite of spirit, and who trembles at My word” (Isaiah 66:2).
In the centuries since God has graced His church through the Word-driven Reformation, perhaps no Reformer more absolutely exemplifies one “who trembles at My word” as does John Calvin. Of Calvin, his friend and colleague Theodore Beza wrote, “I can now declare, that in him all men may see a most beautiful example of the Christian character, an example which it is as easy to slander as it is difficult to imitate.” The Christian character of Calvin was produced by God’s work of transforming him, and that as He does with all believers, by His Word (John 17:17).
We need to consider but a few words from Calvin in which we see the importance of “hearing” the Word, “trembling” at the Word, and “obeying” the Word that was manifest in his own life and to which he exhorted others.
“Christ is known rightly nowhere but in Scripture.”
“We bear such reverence to God’s Word as we acknowledge it to be the most precious treasure we have.”
“All Scripture must be received as if God, appearing in person, visibly and full of majesty, were Himself speaking.”
“Without the Word, there is nothing left for us but darkness.”
“Unless God’s Word illumines the way, the whole life of men is wrapped in darkness and mist, so that they cannot but miserably stray. The Lord does not shine upon us, except when we take His Word as our light.”
“God does not bestow His Spirit on His people in order to set aside the use of His Word, but to render it useful.”
“And let us not take it into our heads either to seek out God anywhere else but in His Sacred Word, or to think anything about Him that is not prompted by His Word, or to speak anything that is not taken from that Word.”
“Nothing is more abominable in the sight of God than the contempt of divine truth; for His majesty which shines forth in His Word, is thereby trampled under foot.”
As grace-bestowed believers, we have accepted, believed, understood, the Word of God. It is the Word which has saved us. It is the Word which sanctifies us. It is by and through the Word that we worship the true and living God who has given us eyes to see and ears to hear. His Word, by His Spirit, is rendered useful to us.
Yet Calvin gives a word of warning that woefully lacks heeding in our day: “So today those who scorn to go to the school of Christ and to train themselves in listening to the Word, really mock God Himself and judge both the law and the prophets – and even the gospel itself – as without value.” The “school of Christ” is nothing less than the Word of God.
Though, as Goodwin noted, “Judas heard all Christ’s sermons,” God had not bestowed hearing grace, saving grace, and sanctifying grace upon him. But unlike Judas, sinners saved by grace must, as Calvin declares, be trained in “listening to the Word,” lest we, like the son of perdition “mock God,” thus deeming His Word “without value.” There is, says Calvin, simply nothing “more abominable” than such contempt for His Word.
How Do We Listen?
So how are we to be trained to listen to the Word when it is preached? The Lord has blessed His church with a helpful guidance from the ministry of 18th-century evangelist George Whitefield. Martyn Lloyd-Jones wrote of Whitefield that “he was the greatest English preacher of all time … His influence in England, his influence in Wales, his influence in Scotland, and his influence in America, in particular, is beyond calculation.” As an instrument of the Lord in the First Great Awakening in the American colonies, Whitefield, according to J.C. Ryle, “seemed to live only for two objects – the glory of God and the salvation of souls.”
In his book, The Evangelistic Zeal of George Whitefield, Steven Lawson attributes the evangelist’s zeal to “his immovable commitment to the Bible. Once he was converted, the Scripture immediately became his necessary food and fueled the fire in his soul for God. The more he immersed himself in the Bible, the deeper he grew in his dedication to know God and advance His kingdom.”
It is from this Word-humbled giant of faith that we glean great wisdom in being trained to listen to the preached Word. In a sermon rather blandly titled “Directions How To Hear Sermons,” Whitefield outlines six points for the worshiper of God hearing the proclaimed Word of God. The church today would do well, not only to demand more Word-faithful and Word-proclaiming men in its pulpits, but listeners to the Word exhibiting the disciplines set forth by Whitefield.
Whitefield rightly declared that “preaching is an ordinance of God, a means appointed by Jesus Christ Himself for promoting His kingdom amongst men.” The Lord intends for us to “hear sermons with profit and advantage.”
First, then, Whitefield writes to believers, “I direct or entreat you to come to hear them, not out of curiosity, but from a sincere desire to know and do your duty.”
“Formality and hypocrisy in any religious exercise, is an abomination unto the Lord. And to enter His house merely to have our ears entertained, and not our hearts reformed, must certainly be highly displeasing to the Most High God, as well as unprofitable to ourselves.”
Second, “not only prepare your hearts before you hear, but also … give diligent heed to the things that are spoken from the Word of God.”
“The sacred truths that gospel ministers deliver, are not dry insipid lectures on moral philosophy, intended only to amuse us for a while; but the great mysteries of godliness, which, therefore, we are bound to studiously liken to.” Whitefield admonishes hearers to have “a teachable disposition, and be attentive whilst discourses are delivering.”
Third, we are “not to entertain any the least prejudice against the minister.”
“Take heed … and beware of entertaining any dislike against those whom the Holy Ghost has made overseers of you. Consider that the clergy are men of like passions with yourselves: and though we should even hear a person teaching others to do what he has not learned himself; yet, that is no sufficient reason for rejecting his doctrine: for ministers speak not in their own, but Christ’s name. And we know Who commanded the people to do whatsoever the Scribes and Pharisees should say unto them, though they said, but did not.”
“Fourthly, as you ought not be prejudiced against, so you should be careful not to depend too much on a preacher, or think more highly of him than you ought to think.”
Writes Whitefield, this “was a fault which the great Apostle of the Gentiles condemned in the Corinthians. For whereas one said, “I am of Paul; another, I am of Apollos: are ye not carnal,’ says he? ‘For who is Paul and who is Apollos, but instruments in God’s hands by whom you believed?’ And are not all ministers,” continues Whitefield, “sent forth to be ministering ambassadors to those who shall be heirs of salvation.”
On eschewing celebrity, Whitefield adds the caution that, in preferring one minister at the expense of another, which is “earthly, sensual, and devilish,” “popularity and applause cannot but be exceedingly dangerous, even to a rightly informed mind; and must necessarily fill any thinking man with a holy jealousy, lest he should take that honor to himself which is due only to God, who alone qualifies him for his ministerial labors, and from whom every good and perfect gift cometh.”
“A fifth direction I would recommend is, to make a particular application of every thing that is delivered to your own hearts.”
“When our Savior was discoursing at the last supper with his beloved disciples, and foretold that one of them should betray him, each of them immediately applied it to his own heart, and said, ‘Lord, is it I?’ And would persons, in like manner, when preachers are dissuading from sin, or persuading to any duty … turn their thoughts inwardly, and say, Lord, is it I? How far more beneficial should we find discourses to be, than now they generally are?”
Whitefield’s “sixth and last direction: If you would receive a blessing from the Lord, when you hear his word preached, pray to him, both before, in, and after every sermon, to endue the minister with power to speak, and to grant you a will and ability to put in practice, what he shall show forth from the book of God to be your duty.”
“This would be an excellent means to render the word preached effectual to the enlightening and enflaming our hearts; and, without this, all the other means before prescribed will be in vain.”
During His earthly ministry, our Lord regularly pointed His hearers to the revealed Word of God. “Have you not read?” (Matt. 12:3, 12:5, 19:4, 21:16, 21:42, Mk. 12:10, 12:26, Lk. 6:3) was often an indictment on their ignorance and misunderstanding of what God had revealed in His holy Scripture, as well as an encouragement from Him to rely on the Word for truth. In it, as Peter notes, we are “given everything for life and godliness” (2 Pet.1:3).
“Have you not read?” reflects Jesus’ expectation for us to read His Word, know His Word, and obey His Word. It is to be the Word consistently read, the Word dutifully studied, the Word hidden in our hearts, and the Word preached to which we are to joyfully, thankfully submit. Those who in Christ alone know that “Have you not read?” has always – and shall always – result in “ … and it came to pass.”
Let us heed the Word-centric warnings of Calvin and let us imbibe the wisdom of Whitefield when we come to the Word preached. And let us so please God by being humbly submitted to the Word that we may be sanctifyingly transformed by that Word. In Psalm 81, Asaph wrote, “Oh that My people would listen to Me” (Ps. 81:13). In our daily worship, and on the Lord’s Day worship with the saints, may it be said of us that we are indeed His people … who “listen to Me.”