Harrowing Your Heart to Hear God’s Word Preached

Jeremiah 4:3 – “For thus saith the LORD to the men of Judah and Jerusalem, Break up your fallow ground, and sow not among thorns.”

“Harrowing Your Heart to Hear” (Chap.3 in Expository Listening: A Handbook for Hearing and Doing God’s Word by Ken Ramey (Kress Biblical Resources, 2010), pp.35-49. We are currently taking time to read and draw on some of the author’s good thoughts concerning our calling to listen believingly to God’s Word proclaimed.

ExpositoryListeningIn this third chapter Ramey points to specific ways to ward off hardness of heart that leads to dullness in listening to and receiving God’s preached Word. Here are the points he mentions:

  • Read and meditate on God’s Word every day
  • Pray throughout the week
  • Confess your sin
  • Reduce your media intake
  • Plan ahead, and schedule your week around the ministry of the Word
  • Be consistent in church attendance
  • Go to church with a humble, teachable, expectant heart
  • Worship with all your heart
  • Fight off distractions
  • Listen with diligent discernment
  • Preparation of the heart and soul

Now, let’s consider a few quotations to help us for Sunday’s messages:

Reading the Word on a daily basis will develop in you a healthy appetite for God’s Word. You can’t expect to come to church on Sunday with a hunger for God’s Word if you haven’t been feeding on it throughout the week.

…You need to pray for the preacher. Pray that the preacher would preach with great liberty and boldness and clarity (Eph.6:19-20; Col.4:3-4); that God’s Word would run rapidly, transforming people’s lives for His glory (2 Thess.3:1); that God’s Spirit would empower the preacher and use him to help you grow in your understanding of God and His Word and accomplish His purpose in your life and the life of the church.

One of the simplest, most effective ways to prepare your heart for the preaching of God’s Word is to spend some time on Saturday night or Sunday morning to prayerfully examine your life and humble confess your sins to God. David’s example of confession in Psalm 51 serves as a practical path to follow in getting your heart right before God.

Listening demands a great deal of concentration and self-discipline. Augustine said, ‘To proclaim the Word of truth as well as to listen to it is hard work…. Thus, let us exert ourselves in listening.’ Jay Adams writes, ‘Many today drift into church with their minds turned off, slouch in the pew, and expect the preacher to do the rest. Examine yourself, brother or sister: have you been guilty of becoming a Sunday morning version of the couch potato?’

When you fail to plan ahead, Sunday morning ends up becoming a chaotic crisis, and by the time you get to church, you are frustrated and frazzled and your heart is in no condition to receive the Word. But when you plan well and are able to arrive in a relaxed, leisurely way, you will be in a much more receptive frame of mind.

Come to church with a spirit of anticipation, fully expecting God to speak to you through His Word in ways that will make a lasting difference in your life. …It should be that you can’t wait to see what you’re going to learn and how God is going to use His Word to convict you, correct you, comfort you, and change you.

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. (Westminster Confession Larger Catechism)

Reformed Worship: Word and Symbol

God’s communication to Israel was chiefly verbal, which, we understand, is of central importance in the history of faith and in the life of the church. We have a high view of the importance of God’s verbal communication with us. This is why, in Protestantism, we put such an emphasis on the role and place of the Bible. We call the Bible the verbum Dei, the “Word of God,” or the vox Dei, the “voice of God.” We consider the verbal communication of God so important to Christianity that throughout history in most Protestant churches the focal point of the sanctuary has been the pulpit, because it is from that position, from that piece of furniture, that the Word of God is proclaimed.

…Like the Reformers, we must never underestimate the importance of the verbal element of worship, the preaching of the Word of God. But we must not forget that God, when He outlined His pattern for worship in the Old Testament, also mandated visible signs, tangible acts of drama that are not isolated from the Word or contrary to the Word but are married to the Word. That is why, for example, in most Christian churches, you are not allowed to celebrate the sacrament without some preaching to indicate that Word and sacrament go together. The Word is expressed verbally, and then that verbal expression is supported, corroborated, and reinforced by the drama of the signs and of the symbols.

taste-of-heaven-sproulThis is another post following our Sunday discussion groups this year at our home church (Faith PRC), which we hosted last evening for the last time this season. We are continuing a study of R.C. Sproul’s book on worship. It was originally published under the title A Taste of Heaven: Worship in the Light of Eternity (Reformation Trust, 2006 – the copy I have), but has been newly published under the title How Then Shall We Worship? (David C. Cook, 2013, the Kindle version of which I also have). The above quotation is taken from chapter 5, “Symbolism in Worship” (pp.59-66).

Good Soil Hearers of the Word

Jean-François_Millet_-_The_Sower_-_Walters

The good soil represents those who hear and understand and accept the preaching of God’s Word (Matt.13:23; Mark 4:20). They have an open, receptive heart toward the Word of God. Furthermore, they seek not only to understand what it means, but also to strive to obey it, to put it into practice in their life. They are not just hearers of the Word but doers (James 1:22). As a result, the Word continually produces results in their life. They experience true, lasting change as a result of the sermons they listen to.

The presence of fruit is the only thing that sets the good soil apart from the other three soils in this parable. Every true Christian will consistently bear spiritual fruit in their lives (Matt.7:16; Gal.5:22-23). …There is no such thing as a fruitless Christian. Granted, not all Christians are as fruitful as others. The issue is not the amount of fruit in a person’s life, but the presence of it. Jesus said, ‘My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be My disciples’ (John 15:8 [NASB]). Does this describe your heart? Do you have a soft, receptive heart that produces the fruit of a true believer?

And then, after examining Jesus’ other teaching as recorded in Luke 8 – the entire context of the parable of the sower – the author ends with this:

In other words, the ultimate evidence that proves you are a Christian is that you hear and obey God’s Word. This entire portion of Luke was designed to emphasize the importance Jesus placed on listening to the Word (vv.8,18,21). Good soil yields the fruit of obedience from the Word of God. That fruitful life is a light that shines for all around to see, and it is the only real demonstration that you are spiritually identified with Jesus.

What kind of soil does the Word find when it falls on you? What kind of heart do you have for the Word of God?

Taken from Expository Listening: A Handbook for Hearing and Doing God’s Word by Ken Ramey (Kress Biblical Resources, 2010), Chapter 2 – “Hearing with Your Heart” (pp.31-33). We are currently taking time to read and draw on some of the author’s good thoughts concerning our calling to listen believingly to God’s Word proclaimed.

How Can I Hear the Word Preached? Only Through the Holy Spirit!

The moment we are born again, it’s as if we are given a new set of hearing aids or a new pair of glasses that enable us to hear and see in God’s Word what we couldn’t before. From then on, not only are we able to comprehend what God has said, but the Holy Spirit who now indwells us also convicts us about what God’s Word says and convinces us of it, as well as conforming our lives to it. That’s why whenever we are exposed to the Word of God, we need to remember to ask the Spirit to illumine our minds and hearts so that we understand what it means and how it applies. Who better to ask to help us accurately interpret and practically implement the Word than the one who inspired it in the first place?

So we can’t hear and obey the Word of God without the regenerating and illuminating of the Holy Spirit. Remarkably, we don’t receive the Holy Spirit unless we receive Jesus Christ, and we can’t receive Jesus Christ unless we receive the Word of God, and we won’t receive the Word of God unless the Holy Spirit opens up our ears to hear.

…So while it’s true that our ability to hear the word of Christ is the link between the revelation of God and the salvation of your soul, it’s equally true that we are completely dependent on God’s sovereignty for the outcome. Sometimes God sends forth His Word for the purpose of hardening and damning people rather than softening , saving, and sanctifying them (Isa.55:10-11; 2 Cor.2:15-17). That’s why we must urgently cry out to Him to open our ears so we can hear and heed His Word (Isa.50:4-5), particularly in light of the fact that our very life and eternal destiny hinge on it. [pp.20-21]

expository-listening-ramey-2010Taken from Expository Listening: A Handbook for Hearing and Doing God’s Word by Ken Ramey (Kress Biblical Resources, 2010), Chapter 1 – “Biblical Audiology: A Theology of Listening.”

We touched on the introduction in our first post and last time looked at another of the principles he sets forth in this first chapter. The quotation in this post comes from the section treating the third principle: “God grants us the ability to listen to and obey Him by His Holy Spirit, whom we receive through faith in Jesus Christ.” (p.19)

In the months ahead we will continue to draw on some of the author’s good thoughts concerning our calling to listen believingly to God’s Word proclaimed – an activity by which we receive God’s grace in Christ while also being entirely dependent on that grace to receive the Word and Christ found in it, as the above quotation makes plain.

Thoughts on Worship as Living Sacrifice – R. C. Sproul

…God’s feelings are not hurt by insincere praise, but neither is He honored by it. God is never honored by flattery. That is why true worship must be sincere.

…The central element of worship in the Bible involved honoring, blessings, esteeming, and reverencing God. A sacrifice was offered as an outward sign of a heart that was filled with awe, reverence, and respect toward God. When a sacrifice was not given in faith, it was nothing more than an external rite, a formal pattern of behavior that was not an expression of true faith that held God in the highest possible esteem and reverence. It lacked what the Wisdom Literature calls the fear of the Lord, that sense of awe by which the heart is inclined to adore and honor the Creator. The very heart of worship, as the Bible makes clear, is the business of expressing, from the depths of our spirits, the highest possible honor we can offer before God.

[In connection with Romans 12:1,2] …It is as if Paul said to the Romans: ‘Think of the gospel. What is your response to what Christ has done for you – Christ, who spared nothing, who gave His life for His people, who made the ultimate sacrifice for His sheep? How do we respond to that? What is the reasonable response?’ Paul said, ‘Here is your reasonable service or your spiritual worship.’

So we are to respond to the gospel with a sacrifice – not a sacrifice of money, of time, or of material goods, but a sacrifice of our lives. Paul said we are to present to God our bodies – that is, ourselves – as living sacrifices. …He is not asking for martyrdom or for us to give our blood. He wants something more. He wants our lives. The response of faith is a giving of oneself, body and soul, to Christ.

And then, finally, reflecting on the fact that none of us has ever given such a perfect sacrifice to God, he comments:

…He would tell me [on judgment day] that every sacrifice I have ever offered has been marred, sullied, and compromised by the sin I have brought with it. If He were to look at the sacrifice that I offered, even if I offered it in the name of Christ, He would reject it as radically as He rejected the offering of Cain. My only hope is the glorious truth that the offering I give to my Creator today is carried to His presence by the perfect Mediator, who takes our sacrifices of praise and presents them to the Father.

taste-of-heaven-sproulThis is another post following our Sunday discussion groups this year at our home church (Faith PRC), which met tonight. We are continuing a study of R.C. Sproul’s book on worship. It was originally published under the title A Taste of Heaven: Worship in the Light of Eternity (Reformation Trust, 2006 – the copy I have), but has been newly published under the title How Then Shall We Worship? (David C. Cook, 2013, the Kindle version of which I also have). The above quotation is taken from chapter 3, “Living Sacrifices” (pp.39-47).

A Prayer Before the Explanation of the [Heidelberg] Catechism

prayer-bible-1The 1934 edition of the Psalter Hymnal published by the Christian Reformed Church contains a section of “Christian Prayers” in the liturgical part in the back. Two of those prayers relate to the preaching of the Heidelberg Catechism.

Prof. B. Gritters referenced these in his first Interim course lecture last Friday (Jan.4). In this post we will quote the first one, posting the other at a later date during Interim 2019.

This first one has the heading “Prayer Before the Explanation of the Catechism.” And this is the prayer (slightly edited with paragraphs):

O heavenly Father, Thy Word is perfect, restoring the soul, making wise the simple, and enlightening the eyes of the blind, and a power of God unto salvation for everyone that believes. We, however, are by nature blind and incapable of doing anything good, and Thou wilt succor only those who have a broken and contrite heart and who revere Thy Word.
We beseech Thee, therefore, that Thou wilt illumine our darkened minds with Thy Holy Spirit and give is a humble heart, free from all haughtiness and carnal wisdom, in order that we, hearing Thy Word, may rightly understand it and may regulate our lives accordingly. Wilt Thou also graciously convert those who are straying from that truth, that we all in unity may serve Thee in true holiness and righteousness all the days of our life.
These things we crave of Thee only for the sake of Christ, who promised to hear us and also taught us to pray in His Name, saying:
‘Our Father who art in heaven, etc. AMEN

Posted earlier tonight on the PRC Seminary’s new website blog.

December “Tabletalk”: Jesus is the Promised Messiah (and Paying Attention in Worship)

We are midway through this last month of 2018 and I have not yet referenced the December issue of Tabletalk, so tonight I will. I was able to get a lot of reading in it done today, and this new issue is once again packed with beneficial articles.

As you will see from the cover, the appropriate theme is “The Promised Messiah,” and there twelve articles based on OT passages showing how Jesus is the true Christ of God (Messiah). Editor Burk Parsons introduces the theme with his editorial “The True Israel of God,” part of which includes these important comments:

Jesus repeated, advanced, and fulfilled the history of Israel in the climax of His work. He suffered the exile of His death on the cross (Matt. 27:32–50), where He also fulfilled His role as the greater High Priest and the sacrificed Passover Lamb (26:1–13; 27:51). There, the temple of His body was destroyed (26:61; 27:40), but on the third day He was restored from the exile of death in His resurrection, raising up the temple of His body (28:1–10) and becoming the cornerstone of the new temple, His church, which is the fulfillment of God’s plan for His true people Israel (1 Peter 2:4–8). God’s sovereign plan and promise could not be thwarted, for now Jesus Christ has all authority in heaven and earth, and is with us to the end of the age, and He will return as our King and take us to the heavenly Promised Land.

The article I focus on tonight, however, is one written by John R. Muether for one of the regular rubrics – “For the Church.” His title forms part of the title of this blog – “Paying Attention in Worship” – and follows nicely on my blog post of last night. The author has some helpful thoughts about avoiding distractions in worship and being focused on our main purpose for being present – fellowship with and adoration of our God. Here are some of his closing words – good for the end of this sabbath day (read the rest at the link below):

Single-minded attention is strange to us, even in worship, because we take pride in our ability to navigate our busyness with speed and nimbleness. In a multitasking world, Marva Dawn rightly concedes that worship is a “royal waste of time” because we are focused on something that our frenetic culture dismisses as inefficient. And yet, neuroscientists have come to the consensus that multitasking is a myth. We accomplish far less when we juggle several tasks than when we focus on one thing at a time. What is worse, our digitally enhanced distractions are becoming addictive: our brains crave constant stimulation and instant gratification. How ironic, then, that we program our phones with “alerts” and “notifications” for so-called breaking news when they have the effect of diminishing our alertness, prompting thoughtlessness and negligence to the task at hand. In sum, the spirit of our age is inimical to the careful and sustained attention that public worship demands.

Is it possible anymore to resist the persistent distractions of our digital age that obscure the message of the gospel? We need not abandon such a hope. Traditional church practices refocus our attention on the gospel and enable our worship of the transcendent God. Public worship and Sabbath keeping are the most culturally disruptive witnesses for Christians to practice. On a day designed for the soul to feast, we must resist habits that distract us and others. I am trying to go completely offline during the day. It is proving to be a great struggle, but I trust that it will awaken me from the stupor that can come from living in a culture that prizes distraction.

The stakes may be higher than we think. As distraction dulls our senses, it can lead even believers to indifference about heavenly matters. The book of Hebrews (which many commentators believe was originally a sermon) speaks powerfully to our digital age when it warns, “We must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it” (Heb. 2:1).

Source: Paying Attention in Worship

” You never come to God’s church, come to the Lord’s Table, thinking that God owes you something. …Arrogant worship is an oxymoron….” – R. C. Sproul

It was presumptuous of Cain to be angry when God did not respect his offering. Perhaps nothing proves more vividly the state of Cain’s heart than his reaction to God’s judgment.

If we’re children of Christ and we stand before the judgment seat of God on the last day and God says to us, ‘You’re covered by the blood of my Son, and it’s a good thing, because you did this, this, this, this, and this,’ we won’t say, ‘But, Lord, I did this in Your name, I did that in Your name. You really aren’t being fair.’ However, there will be many who will respond in just that manner.  Jesus is going to say to those people, ‘Please leave, I don’t know who you are.’

A person who trusts God trusts not only His promises but His judgment. Even in a prayer of contrition, such a person acknowledges that God would be absolutely justified to destroy him for his sin. You never come to God’s church, come to the Lord’s Table, thinking that God owes you something. If you do, you’re better off not to pray, not to commune, because you are blaspheming and slandering the Giver of every good and perfect gift, Who has treated you only with mercy.

Unlike Cain, Abel was humble in his worship, which is the only possible posture for a fallen human being to have in the context of worship. Arrogant worship is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms

…The single most important thing to understand about worship is that the only worship that is acceptable to God is worship that proceeds from a heart that is trusting in God, and in God alone.

taste-of-heaven-sproulThis is another follow-up post to our Sunday discussion groups this year at our home church (Faith PRC), which met last night. We are beginning a study of R.C. Sproul’s book on worship. It was originally published under the title A Taste of Heaven: Worship in the Light of Eternity (Reformation Trust, 2006 – the copy I have), but has been newly published under the title How Then Shall We Worship? (David C. Cook, 2013). The above quotation is taken from chapter 2, “Sacrifices in Faith,” (pp.34-38) where the author draws out his main point from the history of the offerings of Cain and Abel (Gen.4, in the light of Heb.11:4).

Children in the Worship Service: Parental Chore and Blessed Calling

ordinary-MHorton-2014Once more I am going to pull a quotation from the ninth chapter  of Michael Horton’s Or-di-nar-y: Sustainable Faith in a Radical, Restless World (Zondervan, 2014). That chapter, from which I have quoted twice already, is titled, you may remember, “God’s ecosystem.”

In that chapter Horton is stressing the organic idea of the church – the saints’ spiritual life together in Christ – which is ever being sustained and growing in God’s garden, through the “ordinary” means of grace, especially the preaching of the gospel and the sacraments.

Toward the end of this chapter, the author focuses on the important calling the church has to make sure her children are growing up in Christ too. Critical of what the modern church through her “youth ministries” has done, Horton calls for a return to the “ordinary” in this area too – instructing the youth through catechism and bringing them into the regular worship of the church.

Tonight I give you some of his thoughts on this, and I truly hope it is an encouragement to our younger couples with little children whom they may dread to take into the worship service or despair of taking to church. Listen carefully to these words:

Having four of my own, I understand the difficulty of having children in church. Our church has a cry room, where parents can still participate in the service to some extent, but it is a chore. Yet isn’t it a chore of parenthood? Eventually the parents decide when they will move out of the cry room. It is remarkable how early children learn habits of sitting and listening. Even if they doodle and daydream for a couple of years, these habits of participation in the communion of saints are like a trellis. These habits do not guarantee that everyone will eventually respond in faith, but they do make for better hearing of that gospel through which faith takes root and grows in our hearts.

Besides the concern for parents, many Christians wonder if it is good for children to have them in the regular service. After all, they cannot understand what is going on. But imagine saying that you’re not going to have toddlers at the table for meals with the family because they do not understand the rituals or manners. Or keeping infants isolated in a nursery with nothing but mobiles and squeaky toys because they cannot understand the dialogue of the rest of the family around them. We know, instinctively, that it’s important for our children to acquire language and the ordinary rituals of their family environment in order to become mature. Or imagine keeping our teens from their grandparents’ funerals because they don’t understand it. We take them precisely so they will, knowing that our patience (and theirs) will be rewarded in later years and that the event will itself be an opportunity for maturity. Jesus grew in wisdom and knowledge. He learned the Psalter and the rhythms of the synagogue liturgy. When, as a young adult, he took up the Isaiah scroll to read about himself, he knew exactly where to roll it.

At the grammar stage, children are simply absorbing the language of Zion: the terms and ‘the pattern of the sound words’ (2 Tim 1:13) that we share with the wider body of Christ through the ages. I think that we are sometimes too worried about ‘imposing’ our faith on our children. After all, it’s a personal relationship with Jesus, and we do not want to interfere with their free will. [I hope you sense the author’s rightful use of sarcasm here.] We don’t think this way about the other things that they are learning by rote at this stage. We do not upbraid teachers for ‘imposing’ the alphabet or multiplication table. Our moral sentiments are not offended when parents correct poor grammar.

So, do not hesitate to take your young children to church tomorrow. And if necessary, to take them out when they are noisy or misbehave. Just remember to take them back in. They are learning to live in the presence of God and worship Him just as you did when you were taken by your parents. They are soaking up the words of the church and of Jesus their Savior. They are growing roots and growing up as tender shoots in God’s garden. What better place could they possibly be? Never minimize what God is at working doing in them through His “ordinary” means of grace.

Besides, those cries of distress (or for mercy!) as you take them out are music to the hearts of their fellow, older saints. We support you, parents, in this “chore” that is also a marvelous duty.

How does God’s garden grow? “By ordinary, daily, habitual practices.” – M. Horton

Even the ordinary disciplines of family devotions seem to be vanishing. For centuries, believers were raised with prayer, singing, instruction, and Bible reading with the family each morning and evening. The Reformers and their spiritual heirs not only wrote catechisms for this purpose, but books with each day’s readings, prayers, and songs. They knew that, as central as it was, the public ministry was weekly, and it needed to be supplemented and supported by daily habits.

As church and family disciplines were subordinated to private disciplines, the burden of growing in the faith was placed almost exclusively on the individual. If do-it-yourself discipleship was the order of the day not that long ago, what is striking today is the extent to which even personal disciplines seem to be receding. It seems to me that there is increasingly less interest in personal prayer and meditation on God’s Word than in any time since the Middle Ages. It suggests that when public disciplines (especially the weekly service) lose their hold on us, family and private disciplines are sure to follow.

We need to rethink our priorities here, and recovering an appreciation for the ordinary is at least one step in that direction. We grow by ordinary, daily, habitual practices. The weekly service of the Word and sacrament, along with its public confession of sin and faith, the prayers, and praise, are the fountain that flows into our homes and private rooms throughout the week. It is all of these disciplines – public, family, and private – that we need to recover. They seem so ordinary. In fact, they are! But that is precisely how God’s garden grows each day.

ordinary-MHorton-2014Taken from chapter 9,  “God’s ecosystem,” (p.181) of Michael Horton’s Or-di-nar-y: Sustainable Faith in a Radical, Restless World (Zondervan, 2014), which I continue to read with great profit and deep appreciation.

In this chapter, Horton teaches and applies the beautiful organic idea of the church (especially as God’s living, growing garden) found throughout the Word of God. In the section from which I quote above, Horton is treating “Personal Disciplines.” But, as you will see, he ties together the vital public means of grace (in our public services) with the vital private means of grace (what we practice in our homes).

And we should be able to see how they feed off one another. Stop worshiping at home and in private, and soon your desire for the house of God on the Lord’s Day will dry up. If we don’t have time for God and His Word at home, we won’t take time for them on Sunday either. But conversely, if we stop attending the public worship of God with His people on the Lord’s Day, we will soon stop our times of family and private worship too. If we don’t value time with God on His special day, we won’t value time with Him each day either.

I trust we are committed to God’s ordinary public means of grace in His church each week. But how committed are we to those ordinary private and personal disciplines each day? Are you and am I seeking to grow by God’s “ordinary, daily, habitual practices” of reading His Word, singing His praises, and praying?

Perhaps, we too need to “rethink our priorities here.” Good food for thought once again. It’s only Monday. Not too late to reset those priorities. You do remember how vibrant you felt yesterday in God’s house, right? Let that feed our souls at home the rest of this week.