John Owen on the Greatest Benefit of Preaching

This pastor has often been humbled during Sunday evening messages when I’ve made reference to the morning sermon, only to be met with blank stares from the congregation. These moments have provided me an excellent opportunity to laugh at myself, embrace humility, and remember that apart from Christ, I can do nothing. Yet they can also raise some more troubling thoughts: if my people can’t remember the basic points of my sermon, did it do them any good? Was the whole message wasted? Has Satan stolen the good seed of the Word from their hearts?

In this context, I was recently intrigued to read the great Puritan John Owen encouraging preachers to look beyond the retention of information as a mark of effective preaching. In his Discourse on the Holy Spirit, Owen insisted that, in the preaching event, the Spirit is doing more than storing facts in our minds. He is “keeping the graces of faith and love alive,” as we hear the Word. He is using the proclamation of the Scriptures to keep us preserving in the faith. The following quote is worth meditating on:

And we are greatly mistaken if we suppose we have no benefit by the word beyond what we retain in our memories, though we should labor for that also. Our chief advantage lies in the excitation which is thereby given unto our faith and love to their proper exercise; and hereby are these graces kept alive, which without this would decay and wither.

Herein doth the Holy Spirit ‘take the things of Christ and show them unto us’ (John 16:14–15). He represents them unto us in the preaching of the word as the proper objects of faith and love and so brings to remembrance the things spoken by Christ, proposing them to our faith and love.

And herein lies the secret profiting and thriving of believers under the preaching of the gospel; which, it may be, they are not sensible of themselves. By this means are many thousands of acts of faith and love drawn forth, whereby these graces are exercised and strengthened ; and consequently holiness is increased: and the word, by the actings of faith being mixed with it (as Heb 4:2), increaseth it by its incorporation.”

If my congregation can never remember anything I preach, I might need to review my homiletical strategy. But if otherwise attentive hearers cannot recite every point they heard, this isn’t necessarily cause for alarm. There is likely a “secret profiting and thriving” taking place, through the work of the Spirit. It can’t be measured by memorization, but it will be revealed in Heaven. 

John Owen, Discourse on the Holy Spirit, in Works (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2009), 3:389.

Eric Smith is the pastor of Sharon Baptist Church in Savannah, Tennessee. He and his wife, Candace, have three children: Coleman, Crockett, and Clarabelle. Eric is currently a Ph.D. candidate at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.