I sometimes put myself through the extremely painful experience of sitting down and listening to the sermons of pastors outside of my own ecclesiastical circle in order to hear what is being taught in growing churches–both in surrounding areas and abroad. More often than not, what I hear is not Christian preaching. Rather, what I hear is moral advice, life management coaching, emotionally driven schmarmy and a variety of works-righteousness pep-rallies cloaked in a veneerer of biblical truth. It’s, what I like to call, “particle board preaching.” Particle board preaching, like particle board furniture, looks attractive from the outside to many, seems affordable and convinces us that it will get the job done; however, we can be absolutely sure of one thing–nothing about it will last (1 Cor. 3:11-15). If the pastor ever even gets around to mentioning Christ in the message, it is almost always a passing reference to Him as the example of one who was devoted to God so that we can be too; or, it is in a closing moment when the guitarist or keyboardist starts to set the mood as the pastor tells the congregation, “Above everything else, it needs to be about Jesus; it needs to be about Jesus.” That’s it. No cross. No atonement. No propitiation. No resurrection. No ascension. No intercession. No justification. No forgiveness. No reconciliation. No sanctification. No adoption. No glory. In short, no Jesus.
When I hear these sermons, I have two emotions raging inside of me–the first is anger, the second is sadness. I’m angry because I know that this sort of preaching will not get those who are listening to it to heaven. I’m angry because the man who is preaching these things is preaching for the wrong reasons–whether it be money, numbers, publicity, etc. I’m sad because most of those listening have never heard a faithful exposition on a text of Scripture, in which God’s word is rightly divided and the redeeming glory of Christ is proclaimed. Many of the people listening to these messages have never heard the true Gospel (If you don’t believe me, start asking those who attend churches around you if they know what the Gospel is). I’m sad because I know that some have heard solid preaching and, at least, basic tenets of the Gospel and have rejected it for what they are currently being fed–a milquetoast, quasi-Christian message that will do them no eternal good. So much what passes for Christian preaching is really nothing less than false teaching.
None of this should surprise us. The Apostle Paul warned Timothy that “the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth” (2 Tim. 4:3-4). The Apostle Peter warned those to whom he wrote that “there were also false prophets among the people, even as there will be false teachers among you” (2 Peter 2:1). In fact, the entire New Testament was written, in part, to combat the plethora of theological and moral error by which believers were constantly in danger of being led astray.
Many years ago, I happened across a post by Jay Adams in which he went through the New Testament, book by book, to show the pervasiveness of false teaching and how important it is for believers to be on guard. He explained:
“In the Gospels Jesus warns against false teachers, speaks of wolves in sheep’s clothing and the “leaven of the Pharisees.” The record of His ministry is one of conflict with those who refused to accept the teaching He set forth.
Acts contains the record of the church’s first major controversy over whether or not a person must become a Jew before he could qualify as a Christian. A church council was called to settle the matter. Paul goes to lengths to warn the Ephesian elders about wolves who would devour the flock and schismatically draw away disciples to themselves.
Romans is an entire doctrinal treatise about justification by faith alone in contrast to salvation by works, and how sanctification follows thereafter. In it, Paul also takes up the rejection of the Jewish church.
I Corinthians is loaded with problems; schism, misuse of gifts, church discipline, marriage and divorce, and on, and on, on.
II Corinthians takes on false apostles who had invaded the church and charged him with pretending to be an apostle. The place of apostolic authority is set forth, along with the qualifications of an apostle.
Galatians is a sterling defense of Justification by faith alone over against those who taught otherwise, and were upsetting the church by Judaistic legalism.
Ephesians is less controversial, being a universal epistle rather than directed to the adverse circumstances of an individual or a congregation
Philippians deals with a split in an otherwise good church. But it has to do with self-centeredness and sets forth a key Christological passage.
Colossians is consumed with fighting Judaistic Gnosticism.
I & II Thessalonians take up false teaching about the Lord’s coming and eschatology.
I & II Timothy & Titus teach “healthy” doctrine over against many false ideas. And, in them, Paul doesn’t hesitate to name specific heretical individuals.
Philemon is a welcome exception
Hebrews, in its entirety, combats all influences that would cause Jewish Christians to revert to Judaism.
James utterly destroys the idea that one can have genuine faith that does not result in good works.
I Peter explains how the New Testament church is no longer a physical political entity, but that the church is now the spiritual people of God, the new Israel.
II Peter warns against scoffers and libertines unsettling the church and reveals the true picture of final things.
I John argues quite effectively throughout the book against Gnosticism of a Cerenthian sort.
II John warns against hospitality for heretics
III John deals with church discipline gone so far astray as to virtually destroy a church.
Jude throughout its entirety is and exhortation to contend against the libertines who invaded the church that failed to listen to the warnings in II Peter.
Revelation speaks of the warfare of God against apostate Judaism, the first persecutor of the church, and Rome, the second persecutor, and predicts the fall. It also mentions cults like the Nicolatians.”
If this is not enough to convince us of the pervasiveness of false teaching in the church, and the dire need we have to be testing all that we hear with the word, then nothing will. So how can we discern whether or not we are sitting under biblically faithful preaching and teaching? What tools can we give others to help them know whether or not they are listening to solid preaching? Here are a few suggestions:
1. Read the Scriptures Prayerfully and Perseveringly. Discernment will only ever come from personal, prayerful and persevering time in God’s word. The Holy Spirit commended the Bereans for being “more fair-minded” than those in Thessanonica because, “they received the word [from the Apostle Paul] with all readiness, and searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so” (Acts 17:11). The more we know the Scriptures, the more we will desire to sit under the faithful proclamation of the Christian message of Christ crucified and risen.
2. Listen to the Sermons of Trusted Preachers. One of the great privileges that we have today is that of being able to listen to some of the greatest preachers of the last 75 years such as Martyn Lloyd-Jones, James Boice, Sinclair Ferguson, Eric Alexander, Derek Thomas, William Still, John Piper, Edward Donnelly, Ligon Duncan, H.B. Charles Jr., Thabiti Anyabwile, Ian Hamilton, Phil Ryken, Rick Phillips, Joseph Pipa, Tim Keller, Joel Beeke, Kent Hughes, D. A. Carson, Mark Dever, John MacArthur, R.C. Sproul, Alistair Begg and many, many more. Sites like Monergism, Sermon Audio and The Gospel Coalition make finding solid preachers much easier. The more we are trained in listening to good preaching, the more discerning we will be when it comes to what sort of preaching we ought to be sitting under in a local church.
There is, however, one downside to listening to the best expositors in the world is that we can sometimes have too high a standard for local church pastors. We must also be on guard against this opposite error.
3. Make Use of Trusted Church Search Sites. A number of years ago 9 Marks and Gospel Coalition both added “church search” lists to their sites. While there is no sure guarantee that the churches listed on these sites are going to have faithful biblical and Christ-centered preaching, the chances of finding those that do on these sites is much higher than it is with anything else online. My assistant pastor, when he first came to visit our church, found us online through Gospel Coalition because he knew that he wanted to find a church that faithfully proclaimed the word of God, the Gospel and the doctrines of grace.