George Whitefield gives helpful directions on how to benefit from sermons…
“1. …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.
Hence it is, that so many remain unconverted, yea, unaffected with the most evangelical preaching; so that like St. Paul’s companions, before his conversion, they only hear the preacher’s voice with their outward ears, but do not experience the power of it inwardly in their hearts. Or, like the ground near Gideon’s fleece, they remain untouched; whilst others, who came to be fed with the sincere milk of the word, like the fleece itself, are watered by the dew of God’s heavenly blessing, and grow thereby.
Flee therefore, my brethren, flee curiosity, and prepare your hearts by a humble disposition, to receive with meekness the engrafted word, and then it will be a means, under God, to quicken, build up, purify, and save your souls.
2. A second direction I shall lay down for the same purpose, is, not only to prepare your hearts before you hear, but also to give diligent heed to the things that are spoken from the word of God.
If an earthly king was to issue out a royal proclamation, on performing or not performing the conditions therein contained, the life or death of his subjects entirely depended, how solicitous would they be to hear what those conditions were? And shall not we pay the same respect to the King of kings, and Lord of lords, and lend an attentive ear to his ministers, when they are declaring, in his name, how our pardon, peace, and happiness may be secured?
When God descended on mount Sinai in terrible majesty, to give unto his people the law, how attentive were they to his servant Moses? And if they were so earnest to hear the thunderings or threatenings of the law, shall not we be as solicitous to hear from the ministers of Christ, the glad tidings of the gospel?
Whilst Christ was himself on earth, it is said, that the people hung upon him to hear the gracious words that proceeded out of his mouth. And if we looked on ministers as we ought, as the sent of Jesus Christ, we should hang upon them to hear their words also.
Besides, 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 studiously to liken to, left through our negligence we should either not understand them, or by any other means let them slip.
But how regardless are those of this direction, who, instead of hanging on the preacher to hear him, doze or sleep whilst he is speaking to them from God? Unhappy men! Can they not watch with our blessed Lord one hour? What! Have they never read how Eutychus fell down as he was sleeping, when St. Paul continued like discourse till midnight, and was taken up dead?
But to return. Though you may prepare your hearts, as you may think, by a teachable disposition, and be attentive whilst discourses are delivering, yet this will profit you little, unless you observe a
3. A third direction, Not to entertain any the least prejudice against the minister.
For could a preacher speak with the tongue of men and angels, if his audience was prejudiced against him, he would be but as sounding brass, or tinkling cymbal.
That was the reason why Jesus Christ himself, the Eternal Word, could not do many mighty works, nor preach to any great effect among those of his own country; for they were offended at him: And was this same Jesus, this God incarnate, again to bow the heavens, and to come down speaking as never man spake, yet, if we were prejudiced against him, as the Jews were, we should harden our hearts as the Jews did theirs.
Take heed therefore, my brethren, and beware of entertaining any dislike against those whom the Holy Ghost has made overseers over you. Consider that the clergy are men of lie 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. But
4 Fourthly, As you ought not to 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.
For though this be an extreme that people seldom run into, yet preferring one teacher in apposition to another, has often been of ill consequence to the church of God. It 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 sent forth to be ministering ambassadors to those who shall be heirs of salvation? And are they not all therefore greatly to be esteemed for their work’s sake.
The Apostle, it is true, commands us to pay double honor to those who labor in the word and doctrine: but then to prefer one minister at the expense of another, (perhaps, to such a degree, as when you have actually entered a church, to come out again because he does not preach) is earthly, sensual, devilish.
Not to mention that 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 alone every good and perfect gift cometh.
5. 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 any sin, or persuading to any duty, instead of crying, this was designed against such and such a one, 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?
But we are apt to wander too much abroad; always looking at the mote with is in our neighbor’s eye, rather than at the beam which is in our own. Haste we now to the
6. 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 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 your hearts; and without this, all the other means before prescribed will be in vain.
No doubt it was this consideration that made St. Paul so earnestly entreat his beloved Ephesians to intercede with God for him: “Praying always, with all manner of prayer and supplication in the spirit, and for me also, that I may open my mouth with boldness, to make known the mysteries of the gospel.” And if so great an Apostle as St. Paul, needed the prayers of his people, much more do those ministers, who have only the ordinary gifts of the Holy Spirit.
Besides, this would be a good proof that you sincerely desired to do, as well as to know the will of God. And it must highly profit both ministers and people; because God, through your prayers, will give them a double portion of his Holy Spirit, whereby they will be enabled to instruct you more fully in the things which pertain to the kingdom of God.”