Don’t be put off by the 17th century language:
As we learn all to practice, so we learn much by practice. There is no practical science which we can make any great improvement of without an assiduous practice of its theorems; much less is wisdom, such as is the understanding of the mysteries of the Scripture, to be increased, unless a man be practically conversant about the things which it directs unto…. And hereby will they be led continually into farther degrees of knowledge; for the mind of man is capable of receiving continual supplies in the increase of light and knowledge whilst it is in this world, if so be they are improved unto their proper end in obedience unto God. But without this the mind will be quickly stuffed with notions, so that no streams can descend into it from the fountain of truth. (John Owen, The Causes, Ways, and Means of Understanding the Mind of God as Revealed in His Word, with Assurance Therein, Complete Works, Book VI, Part II, p.111)
John Owen saw a danger in good teaching. Listening to great sermons every week can saturate (“stuff”, to use Owen’s term) our minds. We become almost immune to more good teaching when we don’t integrate what we know into how we live. The problem is not that our mind cannot contain more information. Rather, as our mind contains more and more information that has not been translated into specific, practical changes in our life, we don’t see the true value of the new teaching. We tend not to retain irrelevant information.
The Bible contains a pretty limited and simple message: how to be reconciled to God and how our attitudes and behavior should reflect that reconciliation. Sermons, almost by definition, are variations on that simple theme. A sermon directed at several hundred people can be a powerful presentation of particular aspects of that theme. But the specific and practical application of that message will be unique to every one of the hundreds of hearers.
That uniqueness is the point of Owen’s warning. The sermon message needs to be translated into the application that God has for my life at this particular time and in my particular circumstances, dealing with my particular needs (and my particular sins). Without that translation, good sermons, week after week, tend to cover the same ground, the same Biblical themes. My head becomes “stuffed.” I’ve heard it before. It may be encouraging and challenging, but it doesn’t affect me like a “stream descending from the fountain of truth.”
But when the familiar Biblical themes become changes in my attitudes and my behaviors, the “continual supplies in the increase of light and knowledge” can continue from sermons week after week. As God shows us the application for our life, every sermon becomes a descending stream. The Biblical theme may be one we have heard before, but the application God has for us today may be something brand new. As we learn “by practice” we see the nuances, the “multifaceted grace of God” (1 Peter 4:10). Those nuances protect us from getting “stuffed” because we haven’t heard it all before. We are not just listening for the Biblical principles and themes, but for the change that God desires to see in us as a result.
Meeting together in a small group to discuss the weekly sermon is a great way to see this kind of practical application. Sharing our lives and how the sermon applies to each of us will (as a byproduct) build us closer to each other. That growing fellowship will also become a part of the process of helping each other to apply each sermon. By meeting weekly and using the sermon from Sunday as a starting point, we can focus on application and on becoming a community that changes lives.
Copyright 2005 by Michael Wiebe