“It is required of those that hear the word preached, that they attend upon it with diligence, preparation, and prayer,” the Westminster divines wrote (LC, Q. 160). This involves several, practical applications:
1. Before coming to God’s house to hear His Word, prepare yourself and your family with prayer.
The Puritans said we should dress our bodies for worship and our souls with prayer.
Pray for the conversion of sinners, the edification of saints, and the glorification of God’s triune name. Pray for children, teenagers, and the elderly. Pray for listening ears and understanding hearts. Pray for yourself, saying: “Lord, how real the danger is that I will not hear well! Of four kinds of hearers in the parable of the sower, only one kind heard properly. Help me, Lord, to concentrate fully on Thy Word as it comes to me, so that I may not hear the Word and yet perish. Let Thy Word have free course in my heart. Let it be accompanied with light, power, and grace.”
Pray that you will come to God’s house as a needy sinner, purging your heart of carnal lusts and clinging to Christ for the cleansing power of His blood. Pray for the sanctifying presence of God in Christ, for true communion with Him in mind and soul.
Pray that your minister will receive the unction of the Holy Spirit, so that he will open his mouth boldly to make known the mysteries of the gospel (cf. Eph. 6:19). Pray for an outpouring of the Spirit’s convicting, quickening, humbling, and comforting power to work through God’s ordinances in the fulfillment of His promises (Prov. 1:23).
2. Come with a hearty appetite for the Word. A good appetite promotes good digestion and growth.
Peter encouraged spiritual appetite, saying, “As newborn babes, desire the sincere milk of the word, that ye may grow thereby” (1 Pet. 2:2). Likewise, Solomon advised, “Keep thy foot when thou goest to the house of God, and be more ready to hear, than to offer the sacrifice of fools” (Eccles. 5:1).
A good appetite for the Word means having a tender, teachable heart (2 Chron. 13:7) that asks, “Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?” (Acts 9:6). It is foolish to expect a blessing if you come to worship with a hardened, unprepared, or worldly-minded heart.1Watson, Body of Divinity, 377.
The Puritans said preparation for worship should start on Saturday evening. Just as people baked bread on Saturday evening so it would be warm on Sunday morning, so people should study the Word on Saturday evenings so that their hearts would be warm for worship on Sunday.
If you know the passage that will be preached on the Sabbath, spend time studying it on Saturday night. Make sure that you and your children get enough sleep on Saturday night, then get up early on Sunday morning to prepare for worship without rushing.
3. Meditate on the importance of the preached Word as you enter God’s house.
The high and holy triune God of heaven and earth is meeting with you to speak directly to you. Thomas Boston wrote, “The voice is on earth, [but] the speaker is in heaven” (Acts 10:33).2Boston, Works, 2:28. What an awe-inspiring thought! Since the gospel is the Word of God, not the word of man, come to church looking for God. Though you should deeply appreciate your minister’s efforts to faithfully bring you the Word of God, pray that you see “no man, save Jesus only” (Matt. 17:8). Ministers are simply God’s ambassadors, bringing you the Word of God (2 Cor. 5:20; Heb. 13:7). Do not focus on them but on the Word of God they bring, always remembering that one day you will give an account before God of every sermon that He has brought to you.
Teach your children that every sermon counts for eternity. Salvation comes through faith, and faith comes through hearing God’s Word (Rom. 10:13–16). So every sermon is a matter of life and death (Deut. 32:47; 2 Cor. 2:15–16). The preached gospel will either lift us up to heaven or cast us down to hell. It will advance our salvation or aggravate our condemnation. It will draw us with the cords of love or leave us in the snares of unbelief. It will soften or harden us (Matt. 13:14–15), enlighten or darken our eyes (Rom. 11:10), open our heart to Christ or shut it against Him. “The nearer to heaven any are lifted up by gospel preaching, the lower will they sink into hell if they heed it not,” wrote David Clarkson.3Clarkson, Works, 1:430–31. “Take heed, therefore, how ye hear!”
Furthermore, remember that every Sabbath you are receiving spiritual food and supplies for the coming week. The Puritans called the Sabbath “the market day of the soul.”4See James T. Dennison, Jr., The Market Day of the Soul:The Puritan Doctrine of the Sabbath in England, 1532–1700 (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2008). As the Puritans went to market each week to stock up on supplies, so we stock up on our spiritual goods for the week by listening to sermons, then meditating on them throughout the week to come. All of that must be reinforced with daily devotions and Christian living.
4. Remember as you enter the house of God that you are entering a battleground.
Many enemies will oppose your listening. Internally, you may be distracted by worldly cares and employments, lusts of the flesh, cold hearts, and critical spirits. Externally, you may be distracted by the temperature or weather, behavior or dress of others, noises, or people moving about. Satan opposes your listening to God’s Word with might and main, knowing that if you truly hear it, he will lose you. So Satan tries to disturb you before the sermon begins, distracts you during the sermon, and dismisses the sermon from your mind as soon as it is finished. Like a bird plucking away newly sown seed, Satan attempts to snatch the Word from your mind and heart so that it cannot take root. When you are tempted during worship by Satan, Samuel Annesley advises that you rebuke him, saying, “Be gone, Satan! I will parley no longer. If others neglect salvation, therefore must I? Will their missing of salvation relieve me for the loss of mine? Through Christ, I defy you.”5Puritan Sermons, 4:187. Pray repeatedly for strength to overcome all your enemies by listening well.
5. Finally, come with a loving, expectant faith (Ps. 62:1, 5).
Be swift to hear, slow to speak, and determined, like Mary, to ponder God’s Word in your heart. Come pleading God’s promise that His Word will not return to Him void (Isa. 55:10–11). Come with the spirit of the Ninevites, saying, “Who can tell if God will turn and repent, and turn away from his fierce anger, that we perish not?” (Jonah 3:9).
Come with reverential fear of God and His majesty. Come with reverential delight in God and His Word (Ps. 119:97, 103). Say like David in Psalm 119:140, “Thy word is very pure; therefore thy servant loveth it.” Like David, love God’s testimonies “exceedingly” (v. 167), more than gold (v. 127), to the point where it nearly consumes you (v. 20). David’s love for God’s Word was so fervent that he would meditate upon it “all the day” (v. 97). In dependence on the Spirit, cultivate such love for the Word of God.
The Family at Church: Listening to Sermons and Attending Prayer Meetings
By Joel Beeke