Helping the Congregation Receive the Word Preached

Ligon Duncan
John E. Richards Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology
Reformed Theological Seminary, Jackson

This is the second of a five-part series of presentations on The Pastoral Ministry of Public Worship:

Leading the Congregation in Reading, Hearing, Praying, Singing and Seeing the Word, delivered by Dr. Duncan at the John Reed Miller Preaching Lectures at RTS Jackson in November 2020.


In this second lecture our focus is helping the congregation to receive the word preached. We might title this, “My Sheep, Hear My Voice: Teaching Our People How to Listen to Preaching.”

I attend many preaching conferences. I am very thankful for them, and I am encouraged by them. Many focus on how we can preach better, and that’s a good thing. Expository preaching is much more prevalent in parts of the Reformed evangelical world now than it was fifty years ago, and that is a cause for thanksgiving.

We ought never to stop improving what we do in preaching. I had been a pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Jackson, Mississippi for thirteen years when I received my first sabbatical. I had my designs on that sabbatical, but God’s main plan was to humble me. I spent a lot of time thinking about my preaching. And at that time, Derek Thomas was my minister of teaching at First Presbyterian, and our preaching styles were very different. Derek would focus on a single idea and circle around it, driving it deeper and deeper into people’s hearts. As I look back at my sermon manuscripts from those years, I often think: in the three points of my sermon, I probably had three different sermons. The content was biblical, and it was good didactically, but it often seemed that I came across more like a teacher than a preacher in the messages.

The man who recommended me to be the minister at First Presbyterian Church, the late Dr. Paul Long, RTS Jackson missions professor, had written me a letter about three years into my ministry, asserting that “you still haven’t washed seminary out of your system.” He pointed out some areas that I needed to grow in as a preacher. At the time that criticism discouraged me. But when I re-read that letter after my sabbatical, it struck me that every single word that Paul said was right. He didn’t mean it to tear me down. He was a father to me, and he helped me by telling me this forthrightly.

After my sabbatical, many people noticed that my preaching had changed. Part of that was reflecting on how Derek was reaching the congregation in his preaching and realizing that I was offering good teaching but often times was not preaching. So I am eager to reiterate this point: it is always a good thing for us to work on improving our preaching.

But this lecture is not on how you can become a better preacher. What I want to concentrate on is how you can help your people listen to preaching better. In our tradition, we focus more on how we ought to preach better than on how we help our people benefit from preaching. No matter how good a preacher you are, you are never going to be everyone’s favorite preacher. Striving to improve your preaching, therefore, without helping your people listen to preaching, will still leave some people for whom your pulpit ministry is ineffective. It is not enough to improve our preaching. Helping your people listen to your preaching and to other’s preaching, will produce better hearers of the word of God.

The Puritans spent a lot of time trying to help their people know and learn how to listen to preaching. If you read Richard Baxter’s Christian Directory (I am going to refer to his teaching on this topic later in this lecture), you will find an entire section on helping your people listen to preaching. I would urge you not to neglect this.

Listening to preaching is a strange thing to do in our day and time; stranger than ever before. When I studied at Furman University, I enrolled in a wonderful course with Jim Smart on the Renaissance and the Reformation. I remember how he described that the Reformation came out of a period when standard medieval culture, below the upper classes, was oral culture. One of the things that changed that, of course, was the invention of moveable type. Moveable type propagated the Reformation. It allowed enterprising printers to take Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses, make copies and spread it throughout a region and eventually all over the continent, turning an obscure local event into a European-wide event. But at the same time as the printing press was being used to influence the reading masses, much of the population remained an oral culture. Professor Smart described that in Luther’s time, a German miner could come home from working all day in the mines and on his way, might pause to hear a street preacher for a half-hour or 45 minutes. He could then go home, sit down with his wife and family at the meal, and repeat verbatim the sermon that he had heard, because it was a dominantly oral culture.

The experience of hearing preaching in that culture was so different from ours, which is a culture that has been inundated by screens. Almost all of us have ADHD when it comes to concentrating on long verbal discourse. We can be listening intently to something for five minutes and then our minds wander, because we are used to two hundred and eighty characters on Twitter, and interruptions disturb our attention all day long.

We are preaching in a very different day than the Reformers were. For that reason, listening to sermons can be a strange thing for our congregations. It may be the only thing they do like this in any given week. Even in the business culture, addresses have gone the way of TED talks: twelve-minute discourses with high video content. So our challenge is not only to be good at what we do; we must encourage our people to appreciate better what they are hearing.

Let me begin with a few brief passages from Scripture:

  1. “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. (John 10:27)
  2. “He who has ears to hear, let him hear” (Matthew 11:15). This is one of seven passages in the Gospels where these words are spoken.
  3. “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” Jesus says this seven times in his letters to the seven churches in Revelation 2-3.
  4. Finally, in 1 Thessalonians 2:13, Paul says to the congregation there, “For this reason, we also constantly thank God that when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of man, but for what it really is, the word of God, which also performs its work in you who believe.”

Preaching is God’s prime appointed instrument to build up his church. That is why it is so important that we preach the Scriptures in public worship. The apostle Paul says in Romans 10:14 and 17, that “faith comes by hearing … Faith comes by hearing the word of God.” It is important that we preach the word of God:

  • So that Jesus’ sheep hear his voice.
  • So that those who have ears hear.
  • So that those who have an ear hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches.
  • So that what they hear from us, they will receive not as the words of men, but what it really is, the word of God which performs in them who believe.

As God’s prime appointed instrument to build up his church, preaching is designed to explain and apply Scripture to the gathered company, believers and unbelievers alike. We should always remember, even if we are preaching in a godly Christian congregation, that not all under our ministry believe. We should always be preaching to believers and unbelievers alike when we preach the word of God.

The ministry of Tim Keller has been so helpful in this regard. He reminds us that we are preaching to unbelievers. That is not a new insight. James Durham, a contemporary of the Westminster Assembly, puts it this way: “This is the great design of all preaching, to bring them within the covenant who are without; and to make those who are within the covenant to walk suitably to it. And as these are never separated on the Lord’s side, so they should never be separated on our side.”[1] In other words, you should never ever separate evangelism and edification in preaching. You need always to be doing both evangelism and edification at the same time. I will confess that my temptation is skewed towards edification. I need the reminder of brothers that are faithful in evangelistic preaching, saying in my ears, don’t forget evangelism in your preaching. Not just edification, not just comfort, not just assurance, not just helping people in their Christian life, not just promoting sanctification, not just giving hope in a hopeless world; preaching is all of these things, but it is also evangelism.

I love the way that Sinclair Ferguson describes the ministry of John Owen. He has reflected extensively on Owen’s teaching on communion with God and what that means for pastoral ministry. Here is how he sums up Owen’s approach to preaching: in preaching Owen wanted those who are not in union with Christ to know that they are not in union with Christ, and for those who are in union with Christ to know that they are in union with Christ. Isn’t that striking? Owen wants to make sure that those who are not in union with Christ know that they are not in union with Christ, so that they know that they need to be in union with Christ. That is evangelism. Edification is then for those who are in union with Christ, to know that they are in union with Christ and all that entails.

This is a beautiful way of describing preaching. It needs to be both expository, edificational, and evangelistic, squarely based on the text of the word of God, always keeping in mind believers and unbelievers, expounding the Scriptures with a view to evangelism and edification.

People who appreciate the Bible’s teaching on worship will have a high view of preaching. They will have little time for the personality-driven, theologically void, superficially practical monologues that pass for preaching today. “From the very beginning the sermon was supposed to be an explanation of Scripture,” writes Hughes Old. It “is not just a lecture on some religious subject, it is rather an explanation of a passage of Scripture.”[2] Paul tells Timothy, “Preach the word,” (2 Tim 4:2). Terry Johnson says this: “Expository, sequential, verse by verse, book by book, preaching through the whole Bible, the ‘whole counsel of God’ (Acts 20:27), was the practice of many of the church fathers (Chrysostom, Augustine, and others), all of the magisterial Reformers, and the best of their heirs ever since. The preached word is the central feature of Reformed worship.”[3]

This perennial Protestant, biblical conviction needs to be recovered and redeployed today, especially in light of the current trend of dispensing with a sermon altogether (not merely just the expository ones!) in favor of skits, readings, dialogues, videos, or sharing. According to Paul, teaching and exhortation are essential, nonnegotiable components of the preaching of the church (1 Tim 4:13), which is itself a nonnegotiable part of biblical worship (2 Tim 4:1-2).

So how do you help your people listen better to the preached word? The Westminster Larger Catechism offers some help. Chad Van Dixhoorn has underscored the emphasis of the Westminster Assembly on the preached word. In fact, he argues that the Assembly brought about the greatest reformation of preaching in Britain. I encourage you to read Van Dixhoorn on that subject.[4]

Listen to Larger Catechism 159:

Q. How is the Word of God to be preached by those that are called thereunto?

A. They that are called to labor in the ministry of the Word, are to preach sound doctrine, diligently, in season and out of season; plainly, not in the enticing words of man’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit, and of power; faithfully, making known the whole counsel of God; wisely, applying themselves to the necessities and capacities of the hearers; zealously, with fervent love to God and the souls of his people; sincerely, aiming at his glory, and their conversion, edification, and salvation.

This is a wonderful description of how we ought to aspire to preach. This is worthwhile for preachers to meditate upon. One of the things I do from time to time is to meditate on my ordination vows. And there is this wonderful vow where you are asked, insofar as you know your own heart, have you pursued this ministry for the glory of God and the good of his people?  Here you have to ask yourself, why am I doing this? Am I doing this because of what it does for me or am I doing this for the glory of God and the good of his people? What is my motivation and my goal in preaching?  The question also provides you the occasion to explain these things to your flock: “This is what I am trying to do when I preach.”

The Larger Catechism continues with question 160:

Q. What is required of those that hear the Word preached?

A. It is required of those that hear the Word preached, that they attend upon it with diligence, preparation, and prayer; examine what they hear by the Scriptures; receive the truth with faith, love, meekness, and readiness of mind, as the Word of God; meditate, and confer of it; hide it in their hearts, and bring forth the fruit of it in their lives.

Now we are more closely connected to the subject of this lecture. The first thing that hearers need to do is to attend on it with diligence, preparation, and prayer. In other words, benefiting from preaching requires active listening. You need to attend to it, prepare for it and pray for it.

Secondly, “examine what they hear by the Scriptures.” The Bereans, you remember in the Book of Acts, tested what they heard, according to the Scriptures (Acts 17:11). We ought to also hear what is preached and examine it according to the Scriptures: is this faithful to what the Bible teaches? This, of course, requires you to know what the Bible teaches, which requires you to read and study the Bible.

Thirdly, “receive the truth with faith, love, meekness, readiness of mind as the word of God.” Let’s park here for a moment. There is a certain posture in which we should receive faithful preaching. We are to receive the truth with faith. We are to believe what God says is true. We are to trust what God tells us to trust. We are to do what he tells us to do. We are to think how he tells us to think. We are to receive it with faith.

We are also to receive it with love. Now, isn’t that an interesting thing? Certainly that at least means love to God. If you have enjoyed a good relationship with your earthly father, the reason the things he tells you goes to your heart is because you know that he loves you and you love him. My father has been dead for 28 years now. I still remember the things he told me because I remember that he loved me. So too, you are to receive the word of God with love, because your heavenly Father loves you; it is his word of love to you, and you are to receive it with love to him. This also may indicate that we are to receive it with love for the brethren as well, but we will come to that in a moment.

We are to receive it with meekness or humility. In my previous lecture I mentioned, David Powlison’s phrase, the “but what abouts.” This is when you start arguing with God about things that you don’t like in the Bible. By the way, there’s a sense in which that’s a good sign. People that worry me are the people that make the Bible conform to their preconceived ideas and notions. I’m a little more encouraged when people start arguing with things that the Bible says, because at least they recognize that the Bible doesn’t say what they think it says. When you find yourself arguing with the Bible, at least you’re at the point where you realize the Bible doesn’t think like you. Or to put it another way, God doesn’t think like you.

But it is arrogant and prideful to place your opinion over God’s. To listen to the word of God, you must realize that God knows best. When I find myself disagreeing with the Bible, I know who’s wrong, and it is not the Bible. I am the one that’s wrong.

It is also to be read with readiness of mind. You are desirous of receiving what it is that the word of God is saying to you. Receiving it with faith, love, meekness, and readiness of mind as the word of God: that’s the third thing that the Larger Catechism says that we are to do in receiving the word preached.

Fourth, “to meditate and confer of it.” If you study the Bible, you need to reflect deeply about what it says and what it means for you, for others, for the church, and for the world. And then you need to confer of it. It was a common spiritual practice among Scottish Presbyterian Bible-believing ministers in the 19th and 20th centuries to talk with one another about biblical truth that they were meditating upon. When I was in Scotland, the phrase that I heard that often started those kinds of conversations I heard from Eric Alexander, and Eric would say something like this, “Ligon, where have you been grazing?” What he meant was this: “Where in the Bible have you been lately reading and meditating and reflecting? Let’s talk about what you have been learning.”

When RTS Provost Bob Cara and I were examining Sinclair Ferguson to become a chancellor’s professor at Reformed Theological Seminary, we had a three-hour interview that  we conduct with every professor who is called to be on the faculty of RTS. That theological examination was more like a worship service. During the examination, at one point, Sinclair Ferguson said, “John 10:27 has been controlling for my ministry.” Then he began to reflect on his meditation out loud, on what “my sheep hear my voice and I know them, and they follow me” had meant for his whole approach to pastoral ministry. It was a rich meditation and reflection as we conferred on that together. The Scottish ministers that I encountered did that regularly with one another: “Where have you been grazing?” That’s one way that we hear the word of God better.

The fifth exhortation is this: “hide it in their hearts and bring forth the fruit of it in their lives.” At the very least, that means there is some memorization going on. You’re going to hide the word in your heart. There are certain words of Scripture that you store up in your heart. “Mary treasured up all these things” that the angel had spoken, “pondering them in her heart” (Luke 11:19) All of the people of God ought to treasure God’s Word to them. It is no less God’s Word to them than the angel’s words were God’s words to Mary.

And then what? “Bring forth the fruit of it in their lives.” We never want to be satisfied with simply being hearers of the word. How does Jesus finish the Sermon on the Mount? Be hearers and doers of the word (Matt 7:24–27). How does he put it in the Great Commission? “Go make disciples . . . teaching them to obey all that I have commanded” (Matt 28:19-20). We don’t want to be people with big fat heads and tiny little hands and feet. We want to know, so that we bring forth fruit in life. We want our knowing and our desiring and our acting to go together in the Christian life.

Those are five things that WLC 160 suggests to you as ways that you can help your congregation benefit from the preaching of the word. Let me add a few more thoughts. The first is simply this: teach your congregation what a sermon is. There are different definitions that you can give for a sermon. I’ve always loved J. I. Packer’s description of what a sermon is in his book, Truth and Power: “A sermon is an applicatory declaration, spoken in God’s name and for his praise, in which some part of the written word of God delivers, through the preacher, some part of its message about God and godliness, in relation to those whom the preacher addresses.”[5]

Wow! There’s a homiletics class in that one definition right there. Let us break it down, because your people need to understand this. First of all, a sermon is an “applicatory declaration.” In preaching, we are not simply informing people. Often preaching is accused of being a mere act of information transfer. But the minister is always concerned that there will be a spiritual effect of what he is doing in that declaration. It’s an applicatory declaration, a declaration of truth that is meant to be applied to the life of believers, bringing about spiritual renovation and transformation. Preaching is to have an effect on the character and the life of the hearers.

Second, it is spoken in God’s name and for his praise. This is something for us to be clear on. When we preach, we must explicitly preach for the glory of God. We want God to be made much of in the hearts and lives of our hearers. Just as the chief end of man is to glorify God, so also the chief end of preaching is to glorify God. We want God to be made much of, and we preach in God’s name. Just as the Old Testament prophets had the word of God put in their mouths so that they would, from their mouths, speak the word of the Lord, so also we are to speak in God’s name, not our own.

Third, Packer says a sermon is an applicatory declaration spoken in God’s name, and for his praise in which some part of the written word of God – I love this next phrase – delivers through the preacher – and let’s pause here. Very often we think of the preacher using the word of God for the spiritual benefit of the flock. But Packer says the word of God uses the preaching of the word of God for the spiritual benefit of the flock. In other words, the written word of God is not your tool. You are the tool of the written word of God.

You will often hear many preachers use the written word of God as a tool. It is the excuse for them to talk about what they want to talk about. Packer’s definition reminds you every time you preach: “All I am is the tool of the written Word of God. My agenda is God’s agenda, the content I am delivering is God’s content, my objective is God’s aims and goals. This is not the place for my opinions or my ideas. I am a tool of the written Word of God, and the written Word of God is going to use me to deliver the message that God wants to deliver to his people. I am simply the mouthpiece of the Lord.”

I love how Packer sums it up: it is about “God and godliness.” You can divide the whole Bible into those two parts: God and godliness. Packer goes on to say, “in relation to those whom the preacher addresses.” You are bringing to bear on them the message of the written word of God to them, so it is important to know your congregation, what they are facing, what they are up against or up to. But you are bringing God’s message to them, not yours. And you are the tool of the Scripture; the Scripture is not your tool.

If you understand that definition, you are content to be a faithful preacher. You are not the mediator; Jesus is the mediator. He mediates the presence of God, and their encounter with God, by the word. The word is that which mediates, not you. You are merely the facilitator: you are facilitating a word-mediated encounter with the living God.

Be sure to explain to your people: “When I am up here, brothers and sisters on Sunday morning or on Sunday evening, I want your souls to hear God himself speak to you. In order to do that, I must study to make sure I know what God says in his Word. I need to know how that Word applies to me and how I am to live out that Word so that I bring to bear that Word on your lives. The goal is for you to commune with God, for you to hear God speak, for your souls to do business with God. That’s what’s supposed to happen here in this message. All I’m doing is facilitating a word-mediated encounter with the living God.” This is instructing them what a sermon is.

Second, you need to teach them why the sermon is important. Simply put, it is a matter of life and death. They need to understand that man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. They need to listen because their lives depend upon it.

You have heard these familiar sentences on board an airplane from the flight attendant: “Please make certain your seat belts are securely fastened, your seat backs are in their full upright position, and your tray-table stowed. Your carry-on luggage should be placed beneath the seat in front of you and the overhead bins.” And by that time you are snoring. But if four minutes later, that plane plunged thousands of feet, you would be trying with every bit of the wit that you could gather to remember what it was that that flight attendant told you to do.

That’s like a sermon, my friends. But it is very easy to go to sleep spiritually in that sermon and not hear the word that you need the most. Presbyterian pastor Glenn Knecht used to say, “The sermon you miss is the sermon you need.” But we operate sometimes in our lives in what Jim Stewart used to call “church sleep.” Church sleep, he said, is when you think you’re awake, but you’re not. And a lot of people church-sleep through sermons. And you need to explain to people why it’s so important that they listen to God’s word: because their lives depend upon it.

Third, teach people who it is that is talking to them. It is not their pastor, not even their beloved pastor, and not even the pastor whose preaching they love. It is God speaking to them. It is all about the message, not about the messenger. When the postman brings you mail from your loved ones, you are not excited about the postman. You’re excited about the letter from your loved ones. The preacher is only the postman delivering the mail. The important thing is the message from God. You need to teach your people that it is not the pastor they are listening to. It is the God who loves you, who has commissioned the pastor that you love to talk to you about him, with words from him to you. Listen to God talking to you.

Fourth, remember what the Bible is all about: God and godliness. It’s about glorifying and enjoying him forever, and thus look for everything the Bible is teaching you about God and your purpose in life; to pursue his glory and your joy in him. The Bible is about that. You know, there are so many people in our day and age that are experiencing identity crisis. They don’t know who they are. And there are so many people in our day that are experiencing purpose crises. They don’t know why they’re here. And guess what the Bible tells you about those things? It tells you who God is, it tells you who you are, it tells you what you’re here for. Teach your people what the Bible is all about, and what life is all about, and why the Bible speaks to what life is all about.

And then finally, teach people to remember who they are. If they’re believers, they are both sinners and children of God. If they’re unbelievers, they’re just sinners created in the image of God. Teach people to remember who they are, they’re either sinners and a child of God or they’re sinners created in the image of God, and they deeply need God’s remedy for sin, to know his grace, and to hear his assurance. And the message of the preaching of the word of God is meant to address those things every time we open our mouths.

[1] James Durham, The Unsearchable Riches of Christ (Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria, 2002), 283.

Durham, Unsearchable Riches, 273-74.

[2] Old, Worship, 61.

[3] Terry L. Johnson, Reformed Worship: Worship That Is According to Scripture (Greenville, SC: Reformed Academic Press, 2000), 35.

[4] Chad Van Dixhoorn, God’s Ambassadors: The Westminster Assembly and the Reformation of the English Pulpit, 1643-1653 (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2017).

[5] J. I. Packer, Truth & Power: The Place of Scripture in the Christian Life (Wheaton, IL: Harold Shaw Publishers, 1996), p. 162.