John Newton on Hearing Sermons

I have heard a few sermons in my day, logging at least 2 per week most Sundays for the past 40 some years and more than 1300 during my days as a Student Lifer. That’s a lot of time in the pew. Its also a lot of opportunities to become critical, jaded, and under-impressed.

I was recently challenged by the sage advice given by John Newton to a young correspondent: “You have frequent opportunities of hearing the Gospel. This is a great privilege; but like all other outward privileges, it requires grace and wisdom to make a due improvement of it. . .” I can’t get this out of my head. Newton reminds the young man that hearing sermons is a blessing, but contains snares.

One snare Newton mentions is having unrealistic expectations for preachers. Newton reminds his reader that ministers of the Gospel have a diversity of gifts from the Spirit. Check this:

Some are more happy in alarming the careless, other in administering consolation to the wounded conscience. Some are set more especially for the establishment and confirmation of the Gospel doctrines; others are skillful in solving casuistical points; others are more excellent in enforcing practical godliness; and others again, having been led through depths of temptation and spiritual distress, are best acquainted with the various workings of the heart, and know best how to speak a word in season to weary and exercised souls.

Works of John Newton, Vl 1, p. 149

What a beautiful picture of how God works through His ministers. And what a heavy burden we place on one man when we expect him to exhibit all of these gifts. Newton continues:

“In this variety of gifts, the Lord has a gracious regard to the different tastes and dispositions, as well as to the wants of His people; and by their combined effects the completed system of His truth is illustrated, and the good of His church promoted with the highest advantage; while His ministers, like officers assigned to different stations in an army, have not only the good of the whole in view, but each one his particular post to maintain…Do not limit the Almighty by confining your expectations to a single instrument.”

p. 149

Newton describes that Satan makes much advantage of dividing ministers, of using envy or dislike to set them against each other. What would he have said if he had seen today’s Twitter wars. blasting blogs, and tense conference platforms?

Another one of the snares of listening to sermons that Newton discusses is with regard to irregularity in attending one church: “Such unsettled hearers seldom thrive: they usually grow wise in their own conceits, have their heads filled with notions, acquire a dry, critical, and censorious spirit; and are more intent upon disputing who is the best preacher, than upon obtaining benefit to themselves from what they hear.” Whoo. Right? Does that smack anybody else in the face?

And how does Newton recommend that hearers bless the preachers?

  • Attend church regularly.
  • Be present for the ordinances.
  • Recognize the preacher in front of you as the one who is sent by the Lord.
  • Understand that the Lord is the one who blesses you with understanding and ask Him for it.
  • Don’t neglect praying for the preacher.

Good words, good challenge. Be careful out there, OK?

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