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Picture of George Whitefield preaching

Preparing to hear a sermon

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Posted 21 Nov 2019

In this excerpt from his recent Churchman article on George Whitefield's theology of preaching, Frankie Melton Jr describes Whitefield's instructions for hearing sermons.

The weight of God’s call on the preacher made attending sermons a grave and even frightening event. Whitefield’s call influenced his understanding of what it meant to attend a sermon. He came to the pulpit with a prophetic voice that placed hearers under a stricter judgment. Whitefield gave eight instructions for hearing sermons.

Those who Refuse to Hear
First, he addressed those who refuse to hear. Since God showed his love by sending and equipping preachers, to refuse to hear sermons was an act that had no excuse. The very presence of a man standing and preaching was a declaration of God’s mercy for the sinner. Whitefield said those who refused to hear sermons, crucify the Son of God afresh and put him to an open shame. He contended that such men will have a dreadful end.

The preaching of God’s word was not to be viewed as “light bread,” as Whitefield warned a London audience. He asserted that those who esteemed the preaching of the bread of life as light bread, will find that it will be more tolerable on the day of judgement for Tyre and Sidon, for Sodom and Gomorrah, than for them. He said, “We may, though at a distance, without a spirit of prophecy, so tell the deplorable condition of such men; and behold them cast into Hell, lifting up their eyes, being in torment, and crying out, How often would our ministers have gathered us, as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings? But we would not. Oh that we had known in that our day, the things that belonged to our everlasting peace! But now they are for ever hid from our eyes.”

Come with the Proper Motive
Secondly, he addressed those who came to hear sermons with an improper motive. Whitefield railed against those who came to hear preaching as a result of curiosity or entertainment, rather than a sincere desire for reformation and to know what God requires of them. He reminded his hearers that such false motivations for hearing sermons were highly displeasing to God.

Give Diligent Heed
Thirdly, Whitefield urged his hearers to pay careful attention to the things being preached at the moment of hearing them. He used the example of an earthly king who issued a proclamation in which rested the life or death of his subjects. Whitefield lamented that the same rapt attention was not paid to the word of God when preached.

Prepare Your Hearts Before You Hear
Fourthly, he encouraged preparation for hearing sermons. When Whitefield preached, he expected an emotional response. He fully anticipated that the word of God would work with such power, that
hearts would be broken. He urged his listeners to prepare their hearts before coming to hear the sermon.

Introspection
Fifthly, he implored his hearers to apply the sermons they heard to themselves and examine themselves by it. Whitefield urged his audience to introspection as a result of hearing the preaching of the Word. He warned not to think of others, but to consider your own heart in light of what has been preached. Our tendency is to consider the “mote” in our neighbour’s eye, rather than the beam in our own. As hearers of sermons our first thought should ever be, “Lord, is it I?” He accused one London congregation of being “more afraid of a pimple in your faces, than of the rottenness of your hearts.”

Prayer
Sixthly, he pleaded for prayer in conjunction with preaching. Whitefield exhorted the hearers of sermons to saturate the preacher and themselves in prayer before, during, and after the discourse. Hearers should pray for the minister to be endued with power from God and for their own ability to practice what is preached. He implored, “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.”He underscored the need for such prayer by adding, This would be a good proof that you sincerely desired to do as well as know the will of God; and it must highly profit both ministers and people; because God through our 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.

The Results of Preaching Conditional
Seventhly, he warned that the results of preaching were conditional. The power in the preaching of the word was clearly God’s power. However, Whitefield asserted that this power was conditioned on the actions of the hearers of sermons. In an inscrutable statement, Whitefield declared, “The reason we do not receive larger effusions of the blessed Spirit of God, is not because our all-powerful Redeemer’s hand is shortened, but because we are not prepared to receive them, and because we do not expect them, but confine them to the primitive times.” The keys to unlocking “larger effusions of the blessed Spirit of God” were the directions Whitefield gave for hearing sermons.

Whitefield asserted that if hearers came to hear sermons with the proper motive, gave diligent heed to what is being preaching, while it is being preached, eschewed any prejudice against the preacher, not thinking more highly of the preacher than they ought to think, with a will to obey what was preached, and with earnest prayer for the preacher and themselves, then they would see God work as in primitive times. He declared his hearers would experience (1) Satan fall like lightning from heaven; (2) the preached word sharper than a double-edged sword; (3) the pulling down of the devil’s strongholds; and so, (4) the Holy Ghost would fall on them and the word would have free course and thousands would be converted.

Judgment
Eighthly, Whitefield lambasted his hearers with a warning of judgment for the improper use of sermons. Whitefield reminded his hearers that they would give an account to God for every discourse they heard. He insisted that every hearer of sermons will one day stand before the judgement seat of Christ and be judged. Preachers will be judged for the doctrine they preached and their hearers will be judged for the use they made of it. Whitefield vividly described the judgment scene and passionately railed against those who have spurned the preaching of sermons. How will you stand, he lamented, “at the bar of an angry, sin-avenging Judge, and see so many discourses you have despised… brought out as so many swift witnesses against you?” Whitefield intimated that the very word the hearers heard preach would be evidence of their just condemnation.

You can read the whole article in the latest edition of Churchman, available to purchase here or subscribe to the journal here.

FRANKIE MELTON, JR., is Associate Professor of Christian Studies at North Greenville University, South Carolina

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