J. I. Packer on Preaching and Listening to Sermons

By Leland Ryken, excerpted from J. I. Packer: An Evangelical Life.

Preachers are only half of the equation in preaching. The other half is the people who listen to preaching. Just as it is easy to think of education in terms of what administrators and teachers do, it is a permanent tendency to think of preaching in professional terms as what preachers do. But just as the heart of education is what happens to students, so, too, the “bottom line” in regard to preaching is what happens in the minds and hearts of the people in the pew.

I believe that Packer’s writing and speaking about preaching never lose sight of those who hear.

[J. I.] Packer’s involvement with preaching began as a listener to sermons rather than as a preacher. During his college years in Oxford, Packer’s choice of a local church to attend was determined mainly by the preachers and the preaching. During the first two years, Packer gravitated to the local Plymouth Brethren church because its preaching was better than what he found at the two Anglican churches in the city center. But during his third year, when St. Ebbe’s landed a superior preacher named Maurice Wood, Packer attended that church. During his year of teaching at Oak Hill Theological College in London, Packer made it a regular practice to attend the Sunday evening service at Westminster Chapel, where D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones preached his famous sermons.

From the beginning of his Christian life, Packer was a devotee of great preaching and could not conceive of life without it. Although he has preached hundreds of sermons, he has listened to more than he has preached. This is part of his lifelong (if undocumented) interest in preaching and sermons.

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One spillover effect of Packer’s experience of listening to sermons is that when he is asked to theorize about preaching and sermons, he never loses sight of the person in the pew. When preachers write about preaching or speak about it at conferences attended by preachers and seminarians, the content of the discussion tends in the direction of professional “shop talk.” That is not necessarily bad, but the discussion can become disconnected from ordinary laypeople. I believe that Packer’s writing and speaking about preaching never lose sight of those who hear.

The essay that covers more of Packer’s views of preaching than any other is entitled “Mouthpiece for God.” Two sections in this essay take up the subject of listening to sermons. One of the two takes up the subject of application. In a manner reminiscent of the Puritans, Packer provides an anatomy of likely categories of listeners in a typical congregation. Then he provides an anatomy of types of application. To explore application in this way requires an understanding of the person hearing the sermon. A well-known professor of homiletics has cast application in a negative light by saying that it is in application that preachers introduce error and heresy. Packer does not agree that application is suspect. He believes that “half the message should be in essence instruction in biblical truth about God and man and half should be in essence specific application of that truth.”

The second unit devoted to listening to sermons in the essay “Mouthpiece for God” is entitled “How to Hear Sermons.” The question that Packer addresses in this unit is, “How are we to hear sermons as the Sword of God and benefit from them in our ongoing relationship with God?” In answering the question, Packer goes right to his Puritan hero, Baxter, who wrote about “Directions for . . . Understanding the Word which you Hear” in his massive work A Christian Directory. After surveying what Baxter said, Packer adds three pages of his own suggestions for listening to sermons and making them a means of grace in our lives. He raises the bar high for the person in the pew, and we get the sense that he does so because listening to sermons has been a central part of his own life.

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This post is excerpted from J. I. Packer: An Evangelical Life by Leland Ryken, free this month from Faithlife Ebooks

The headings and title of this post are the additions of the editor. The author’s views do not necessarily represent those of Faithlife. 

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