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3 Questions to Ask Before Listening to Any Sermon

The gospel is profoundly beautiful and worthy of eternal study and celebration—but it’s also not complicated. The challenge we always face is gospel drift, a gospel that imperceptibly glides into language that makes the answer to these three vital questions clouded and obscure. It requires attentiveness so that we do not float into a “hunch gospel” that uses a bunch of Christian jargon, all aiming at self-actualizing goals and satisfying felt needs, but at the same time failing to explain the core themes of God’s wrath or the essential purpose of Christ’s substitutionary blood. In other words, the natural drift of our thoughts is always being “led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ” (2 Corinthians 11:3).

Pick Up the Pattern

Any preacher, artist or writer needs to return often to these three simple litmus tests for ministry in order to self-evaluate our message and the hope we are offering. But equally important, every Christian needs to return to these questions over and over, until we ask them instinctively.

• How am I saved?

• What am I saved from?

• What am I saved for?

I am not suggesting that every song, every sermon and every book is going to answer each question in equal measure. But pay attention. As you listen and read, you will pick up what the apostle Paul called “the pattern of sound words” (2 Timothy 1:13). Every cohesive worldview has a pattern to it, a pattern you will see in the big picture and small details. For Christians, there’s a consistency and a pattern of sound gospel words that we should tune our ears to hear.

Discern to Cherish

What I am advocating is discernment. The skill of discernment is learning to reject what is false or flimsy, but more importantly, to eagerly embrace what is precious (Acts 17:11). Gospel discernment helps us know the difference, in order to keep the truth pure so that we can earnestly embrace and celebrate it.

Which means, by implication, we treasure the men and women who make the answers clear on the primary questions, because they are likely to be the very best way to help us make sense of all the other questions.

If you ask these three questions long enough, a pattern will emerge. This discernment will serve you well when life forces you to whittle down your podcast sermon subscriptions, your blogs, your music library or your reading list.

I am convinced that the church will be healthier and happier as she becomes more and more skilled in discernment, more tuned into the gospel and more skilled in knowing what to cherish. Discernment is a calling for us all. By asking these three questions, we are reasserting the importance of the answers. But we are not just listening for the right answers; we want the right answers so that we can again find our affections fed on the beauty of Jesus Christ.

And this is how it happens. Three big questions, the three biggest questions that we can ever ask in this life, remind us of the precious truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Give them a try. The next time you listen to a sermon, ask these three simple questions and listen—with eagerness—for the familiar precious answers we need.  

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Tony Reinke serves as the editorial and research assistant to C.J. Mahaney. He wrote a book called Lit! A Christian Guide to Reading Books (Crossway). It will be published in September 2011. In the book he addresses four main topics: (1) why Christians prioritize book reading in the first place, (2) how to personally select the best books to read, (3) tips and tricks on how to go about reading them, and (4) how to overcome common challenges to book reading.