What responsibilities do Christians have to expository preaching? In an age when shallow preaching is common, both shallow hearing and personal application are also common. Jay Adams has observed,
Too many laymen speak about the preaching event as if it were a one-way street, as if the responsibility for what transpires when the Bible is proclaimed rests solely on the shoulders of the preacher. But that’s not so! Effective communication demands competence from all parties.
Understanding expository preaching would not be complete without a word about the listener’s responsibilities in the expository process. Everything culminates in the hearers. The science and art of producing an expository sermon are empty efforts if no one hears and assimilates the message. Three vital principles will aid the listener who wishes to gain the most from an expository message. They are at the same time his responsibilities as well as his privileges.
The listener must be prepared to receive the preacher’s message. Some components of anticipation to enhance the listening experience are basic and obvious, though often overlooked.
1. Be Personally Ready
The basic outlook of the listener must be to identify himself as the target of the message. The whole purpose of sitting in the listener’s seat is exposure to the message for the purpose of personal confrontation, information, conviction, motivation, and transformation. The hearer’s thoughts should not be concerns about how well the preacher is doing, how clever or interesting he is, or how well structured his sermon is. The listener is not there to admire or criticize a piece of oratorical art, but to be spoken to personally by God’s representative. The object of the preaching event is a change in thinking, attitude, and behavior. The hearer must prepare himself with this anticipation.
2. Be Physically Ready
A basic key to good listening is being in good physical condition. This depends on adequate rest, well-balanced meals, and proper exercise. Each of these varies with different individuals, but all are essential to being alert and ready to comprehend what is spoken.
People do not listen well when they are tired or hungry. Their minds drift to other things because of improper care of their bodies. On the other hand, being awake and attentive is essential for one to hear God’s message in a refreshing and dynamic way. The way one spends Saturday evening and Sunday morning, for example, will directly affect the expository exchange between expositor and listener.
Just before Jesus was betrayed, He asked His disciples to stand watch while He prayed in anticipation of the cross. Apparently they were not physically ready to comply, because Jesus “came to the disciples and found them sleeping, and said to Peter, ‘So, you men could not keep watch with Me for one hour? Keep watching and praying, that you may not enter into temptation; the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak’” (Matt. 26:40-41). After leaving them to pray two more times, Jesus again “found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy” (Matt. 26:43). He commented, “Are you still sleeping and taking your rest?” (Matt. 26:45). In a somewhat different situation, a listener does well to be alert and to watch also as he prepares to hear God’s Word.
3. Be Prayerfully Ready
Expository preaching can be defined as a spiritual event through which Almighty God Himself speaks His Word to the hearts of men and women so that they might know and understand His will and obey it. So prayer is an essential element in readying one’s heart to hear what God wants to communicate through His appointed messenger.
Two distinct, yet inseparable, objects summarize the format for preparatory prayer: Pray for the preacher as he communicates God’s message, and pray for the ability to comprehend what God communicates, as the psalmist prayed: “Deal bountifully with Thy servant, / That I may live and keep Thy Word. Open my eyes, that I may behold / Wonderful things from Thy law” (Ps. 119:17-18).
Scripture implores Christians to pray for their preachers. For Paul, faithful prayer by believers for those who proclaim God’s Word boldly was foundational (cf. Rom. 15:30-32; 1 Thess. 5:25; 2 Thess. 3:1; Eph. 6:19; Col. 4:2-4). The puritan Gardiner Spring concurs with this in his work A Plea to Pray for Pastors:
If a people are looking for rich sermons from their minister, their prayers must supply him with the needed material; if they seek for faithful sermons, their prayers must urge him, by a full and uncompromising manifestation of the truth, to commend himself to every man’s conscience in the sight of God (see 2 Corinthians 4:2). If God’s people are going to expect powerful and successful sermons, their prayers must make him a blessing to the souls of men!
The Puritan John Angell James declared,
Prayer is a means of assisting the minister which is within the reach of all. They who can do nothing more, can pray. The sick, who cannot encourage their minister by their presence in the sanctuary, can bear him upon their hearts in their lonely chamber; the poor who cannot add to his temporal comfort by monetary donations, can supplicate their God “to supply all his needs according to His riches in glory by Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:19): the timid, who cannot approach to offer him the tribute of their gratitude, can pour their praises into the ear of Jehovah, and entreat him still to encourage the soul of His servant: the ignorant, who cannot hope to add one idea to the stock of his knowledge, can place him before the fountain of celestial radiance: even the dying, who can no longer busy themselves as in former times for his interests, can gather up their remaining strength, and employ it in the way of prayer for their pastor.
To receive the message from God’s messenger with greatest benefit, believers must pray for their pastor’s ability to impart it.
Expository preaching is and always has been God’s chief tool for producing growth in grace. Therefore, it deserves the closest attention. Though every Christian should read, study, and meditate on Scripture, God uses Bible exposition for the optimal enhancement of his spiritual growth. It is not overstating the case that preaching should be the chief means of dispensing strengthening grace in a believer’s life. Spiritual advancement, then, will hinge on how determined one is to assemble with other Christians when God’s Word is faithfully proclaimed (cf. Heb. 10:25). Adams says,
Preaching is one of God’s chief means of sowing seed and helping fruit grow: it is a way of watering and fertilizing the crop. But you must break up the hard clods that have formed in your soul over the week, turn under the weeds, and prepare the good soil to receive the good seed.
The Puritan Jeremiah Burroughs has written,
In the hearing of God’s Word we profess our dependence upon God, for the knowing of His mind, and the way to eternal life . . . . Remember that you come to tender up your homage to God, to sit at God’s feet, and there to profess your submission to Him. That is one end of your coming to hear sermons.
God has called, equipped, and gifted godly pastors and teachers to preach His Word faithfully. Because He has done this, we need to fulfill our responsibility in gathering to hear what He says through his servants.
Confessing all known sin removes hindrances and opens one’s heart to hearing the truth (cf. 1 Peter 2:1-2). Exposure to the inspired “sword” of the Word (cf. Heb. 4:12) allows the Spirit of God to bring conviction of sin and to demand true repentance. Repentance will inevitably bring an increased desire to hear more of God’s truth and will promote more spiritual growth. Growth, then, is contingent on how much a believer allows God to teach him through His herald.
Adams writes, “Like disobedient children, people do not want to listen. Even believers, habituated in ways of disobedience, have great difficulty listening to God. . . . It has been easier for sinners to blame preachers than to admit their own reluctance to listen.”
Moses told the children of Israel in his day about the required readiness: “God says to us today, ‘Take to heart all the words with which I am warning you today, which you shall command your sons to observe carefully, even all the words of this law. For it is not an idle word for you; indeed it is your life’” (Deut. 32:46-47). Failure to measure up to this requirement as a hearer leads inevitably to shallow listening.
It is not enough to talk about wanting to hear the preached Word; we must implement these desires regularly. Nothing substitutes for regular attendance in the weekly services of a local church. Though the writer of Hebrews was emphasizing the mutual encouragement of believers among themselves, he also warned them not to forsake their corporate gathering for worship and preaching: “Let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more, as you see the day drawing near” (Heb. 10:24-25).
Many contemporary critics decry expository preaching as lacking relevance and clear personal application. This kind of criticism reflects a misunderstanding of or disbelief in the inherent power of the Word of God. Since the expositor’s first concern is to clarify the meaning of the text, it may be granted that expository preaching is not driven by the same kind of obsession with illustrations and applicational formulas that characterize most topical and textual preaching. The expositor depends on the power of the text itself when rightly explained, and is assured that application of the truth in a personal and individual way is ultimately the responsibility of the listener, in concert with the Holy Spirit, of course.
Leith comments, “Calvin sought to make the biblical message clear so that under the power of the Holy Spirit it could make hearers alive to God’s presence.” How much better it is to allow God the Holy Spirit to shape and mold us into Christ’s image, rather than limiting the application of Scripture to human ingenuity! Adams suggests that the listener “constantly seek to discover God’s message in the verse or verses from which it was preached, going so far as to summarize it in one sentence. . . . Unless you can do this, it is doubtful whether you got the message.” If a listener cannot grasp the principles taught by the text of the sermon, he will fail to understand their application to his own life. If he does understand them, he will be unable to escape their specific application made by the Spirit to his own life.
When Jesus declared to His disciples, “He who has ears, let him hear” (cf. also Revelation 2-3), He was setting forth a general principle. Leith has written, “For Calvin as for Luther (‘Lectures on Hebrews’) ‘The ears alone are the organ of the Christian man.’ Hearing the Word of God makes one worthy of the name Christian.” Those who have their ears trained to hear the Word of God must take the responsibility of understanding the truth taught and applying it to their lives.
What is the listener’s responsibility to expository preaching? He must prepare with the right anticipation, give undivided attention, and under the leadership of the Holy Spirit, apply what he learns from Scripture to his own life. Only by these means can he maximize the spiritual benefits to himself and others with whom he will share the truth.
* This material first appeared as the Epilogue in Rediscovering Expository Preaching edited by John MacArthur, Jr. (©1992, Word, Inc.), and is used by permission. An updated, revised edition of this book is entitled, Preaching: How to Preach Biblically (Thomas Nelson Publishing, 2005).
Jay E. Adams, A Consumer’s Guide to Preaching (Wheaton, Ill.: Victor, 1991), 7.
Gardiner Spring, A Plea to Pray for Pastors (reprint, Amityville, N.Y.: Calvary, 1991), 3.
John Angell James, Church Member’s Guide (reprint, Amityville, N.Y.: Calvary, 1991), 69-70.
Adams, Consumer’s Guide, 24-25.
Jeremiah Burroughs, Gospel Worship (reprint, Ligonier, PA.: Soli Deo Gloria, 1990), 195, 197.
John Leith, “Calvin’s Doctrine of the Proclamation of the Word and Its Significance for Today in the Light of Recent Research,” Review and Expositor 86 (1989): 38.