Preach the Word! — Chapter 4

The Preacher and His Hearers

This article is part of a series of articles on how to preach written by Jess Hall, Jr. and originally published in The Firm Foundation.

Mary awakened early Sunday morning. The Lord’s Day had been a day of happy memories for her. For over forty years she and John had sat at Sunday breakfast, sometimes talking, sometimes silently, but always together, and then gone to worship. Now it was different. John had been buried last Wednesday. This morning she would open her own car door, but worse than that -- it would be on the driver’s side. It would be John’s place in which she sat. She slowly dressed for worship, as if somehow she could postpone the inevitable. Truth was, she didn’t want to go. She didn’t want to sit alone. She didn’t want to miss John’s bass voice, even if it hadn’t always hit the right notes. She didn’t want to miss the gentle squeeze of his hand during prayer. As she drove into the parking lot she wondered, “Will God have a word for me today?”

It was Monday morning. The preacher slept late. Sunday had been exhausting. He had taught Sunday school, preached two sermons, and, after evening service, had attended a visitation fellowship at the Jones’. It had not gone well. John had had a heart attack. “He must have been dead before he hit the floor,” the medics had said in their best clinical fashion. The funeral was to be Wednesday. “It will be an ‘easy’ funeral,” the preacher thought, “John was a model husband, father, and Christian, but it will create havoc with my schedule. When will I ever prepare for Sunday?” Wednesday came and went. The funeral was over. Somehow the preacher managed to get through Wednesday night. “Better start thinking about Sunday,” he thought as he drifted off to sleep.

It was Thursday morning. The preacher sat alone in his study seeking inspiration by staring blankly at the wall as if waiting for Belshazzar’s hand to appear and emblazon a sermon outline on it. When nothing appeared, he reached for his sermon outline book and began thumbing through it. His eye caught a catchy title, “The Bleating of the Sheep.” It was a lesson on obedience. His mind turned to attendance, giving, prayer, visitation. “Members always need that,” he mumbled. As he reached for a commentary to get a little filler, he heaped fiery indignation on outline books that provide only the barest of points. He really had wanted more than a recipe -- he wanted a bakery cake.

It was Sunday morning. The Lord’s Supper had been observed; the songs had been sung; the prayers had been prayed; the plate had been passed. The preacher stepped into the pulpit with his borrowed outline on attendance, giving, prayer, and visitation tucked securely between the pages of his Bible. And there sat Mary; faithful Mary, who had not missed worship in 25 years; praying Mary, who had spent more time in prayer the past week than the preacher had spent in sermon preparation; generous Mary, who would have had more to live on in her widowhood had she and John not given so sacrificially; working Mary, whose husband had died while they were hosting a visitation fellowship; broken-hearted Mary, who so badly needed and deserved a word from God. And Mary was not alone. Jane and Jim had marital problems. Bill and Betty’s teenager was flirting with drugs. Douglas’s job had been down-sized; he and Dorothy worried about losing their car, their home, and their self-respect. The preacher faced hurting people needing help who were crying, “Is there any word from God? Is there Balm in Gilead?

The preacher stood in the pulpit. All eyes turned in anticipation. The preacher read Samuel’s challenge to Saul with the warmth of a bowl of cold Cream of Wheat (really bearing down on “ obey is better than sacrifice”), looked up for the first time, and said, “Point one, attend more.” A captive audience, his hearers did not leave; a polite audience, they appeared to listen; an humble audience, they thought maybe they were responsible for not connecting with the preacher; a human audience, their hurting hearts sighed in disappointment and the remote controls in their minds began to click. Though the preacher’s lips continued to move, some had switched channels. Others simply put him on mute. Mary sought solace in her own thoughts; Jane and Jim grew farther apart; Bill and Betty worried about the next midnight call from the police; Douglas and Dorothy wondered where God was in their crisis.

What was wrong? The preacher had missed the bleating and bleeding of his own flock. He had no waters still for their thirst, no pastures green for their hunger, no ointment for their heads. He was more interested in his agenda, his concerns, his understanding, his insights and his exegesis. He was more interested in teaching a subject than in teaching people. But isn’t it the subject that is important? Shouldn’t the exegesis of the scripture be sufficient? Why should the preacher have to entertain? Good questions for one more interested in his subject than in his people. Poor questions for one who realizes that mending souls is not entertainment.

A wise husband not only tells his wife, “I love you” (addressed to her head), he takes her in his arms and hugs her (addressed to her heart). Without the hugs the message is lifeless. A wise preacher speaks not only to his hearers’ heads, but by using language addressed to their hearts, he also gives them hugs. Without it, his message is lifeless. The hearers, not knowing what the problem is, may voice the common complaint, “He doesn’t use enough illustrations.” But the problem goes much more deeply than that.

Take heart. There is a cure.

God's Plan of Salvation

You must hear the gospel and then understand and recognize that you are lost without Jesus Christ no matter who you are and no matter what your background is. The Bible tells us that “all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23) Before you can be saved, you must understand that you are lost and that the only way to be saved is by obedience to the gospel of Jesus Christ. (2 Thessalonians 1:8) Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.” (John 14:6) “Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12)

You must believe and have faith in God because “without faith it is impossible to please him: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.” (Hebrews 11:6) But neither belief alone nor faith alone is sufficient to save. (James 2:19; James 2:24; Matthew 7:21)

You must repent of your sins. (Acts 3:19) But repentance alone is not enough. The so-called “Sinner’s Prayer” that you hear so much about today from denominational preachers does not appear anywhere in the Bible. Indeed, nowhere in the Bible was anyone ever told to pray the “Sinner’s Prayer” to be saved. By contrast, there are numerous examples showing that prayer alone does not save. Saul, for example, prayed following his meeting with Jesus on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:11), but Saul was still in his sins when Ananias met him three days later (Acts 22:16). Cornelius prayed to God always, and yet there was something else he needed to do to be saved (Acts 10:2, 6, 33, 48). If prayer alone did not save Saul or Cornelius, prayer alone will not save you. You must obey the gospel. (2 Thess. 1:8)

You must confess that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. (Romans 10:9-10) Note that you do NOT need to make Jesus “Lord of your life.” Why? Because Jesus is already Lord of your life whether or not you have obeyed his gospel. Indeed, we obey him, not to make him Lord, but because he already is Lord. (Acts 2:36) Also, no one in the Bible was ever told to just “accept Jesus as your personal savior.” We must confess that Jesus is the Son of God, but, as with faith and repentance, confession alone does not save. (Matthew 7:21)

Having believed, repented, and confessed that Jesus is the Son of God, you must be baptized for the remission of your sins. (Acts 2:38) It is at this point (and not before) that your sins are forgiven. (Acts 22:16) It is impossible to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ without teaching the absolute necessity of baptism for salvation. (Acts 8:35-36; Romans 6:3-4; 1 Peter 3:21) Anyone who responds to the question in Acts 2:37 with an answer that contradicts Acts 2:38 is NOT proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ!

Once you are saved, God adds you to his church and writes your name in the Book of Life. (Acts 2:47; Philippians 4:3) To continue in God’s grace, you must continue to serve God faithfully until death. Unless they remain faithful, those who are in God’s grace will fall from grace, and those whose names are in the Book of Life will have their names blotted out of that book. (Revelation 2:10; Revelation 3:5; Galatians 5:4)