I like car games.
Nothing improves a long drive through a pleasant country more than an interesting conversation.
If you could go anywhere in the world on vacation on someone else’s dime, where would you go and who are the 5 people you would take with you?
That’s a good question and it almost always leads to a good conversation.
Another good question for your next long car ride would be this: What are the 5 sermons you remember most and why do you remember them?
Most of the sermons I have listened to over the years have completely dissolved into the leaf mold of my mind. Like the breakfast I had last Thursday, I can’t remember the details but I continue to be nourished by the content. Some sermons, however, stay with you for a lifetime. They are used by God to shift something or open something or break something.
Those sermons are worth talking about. They say something about you and about the grace of God in your life through other people.
In no particular order, here are the most impactful and least forgettable sermons I’ve ever heard. They are in large part the sermons that have made me the person and the pastor I am today.
1. Are Signs and Wonders for Today? – John Piper.
This was the first and title sermon in a series by John Piper preached originally in 1990 in response to the “charismatic awakening” that began in the 1980s.
I started as a part time youth pastor in September of 1994 just as the “Toronto Blessing” was getting under way and I was not theologically equipped to make sense of this new experience. There was so much confusion and so much over reaction that I really didn’t know where to turn. I had grown up in a Dispensational and cessationist church but I didn’t see warrant in the New Testament for the extreme positions held by my childhood mentors. And yet, I was saddened and concerned by all of the silliness and excess that I observed at the Toronto Airport church when I went there to investigate. What was I to think? I didn’t want my convictions to be based in fear or in experience – I needed help to rightly divide the Word of truth.
This message was like a blast of Divine insight!
It helped me move forward. It helped me find a reasonable centre and I have gone back to it multiple times in order to keep the issues straight in my mind. Even though it is now 25 years old it is still worth listening to because it is rooted in Scripture and it represents a reasonableness that is lacking in much of the contemporary dialogue on these matters.
You can listen to this sermon here.
2. How to Make the Devil Run – E.V. Hill
I heard this sermon in 1993. I was with my dad and 70,000 other men at the Promise Keepers conference in Boulder Colorado. I still recite lines from this sermon to my kids at family devotions.
Two things about this sermon stick out in my mind.
First of all, pastor Hill spoke about how Jesus defeated the devil by doing things that all of us could do. He did not draw upon his Divine Attributes to defeat the devil because we can’t do that. He quoted from Scripture because we CAN do that. He “HIT HIM WITH THE BIBLE”.
The second thing I remember about that sermon was the undeniable attraction of personal passion. I’d never heard anybody that excited about anything. I couldn’t look away and I never forgot. I learned that day that if you are ever going to stand in front of people and open the Bible you better look and sound as if you think this book is the greatest thing ever. If you don’t think that and if you can’t project that, then do us all a favour and sit down.
You can see a clip from that sermon here.
3. Divine Sovereignty: The Fuel of Death Defying Missions – David Platt
I heard this sermon in 2012 at the Together For The Gospel Conference in Louisville KY. I had never heard of David Platt and had never heard him preach. I was very much prepared not to like him. I had gone to the conference to hear from older men like John Piper and Ligon Duncan – David Platt looked like a kid from my youth group. He was too young, too good looking, and too emotional to be taken seriously – until he started to preach. I did not expect to be moved by his message; but I was.
Part of it I’m sure was the topic. I had come to Calvinistic convictions after a very long and difficult struggle. I’m not sure I had ever even publicly identified myself as a Calvinist before 2012 largely due to the fact that Calvinism was associated within Evangelicalism with disinterest towards evangelism. I knew that wasn’t true but I wasn’t sure how to explain it to other people. This message helped me do that. It helped me to understand how all the things I had come to discover and believe about the awesome, beautiful, faith stirring Sovereignty of God ALSO explained my deep passion and concern for the lost. His exegesis of Revelation 7 was spot on. It was the best I’d ever heard.
The fact that the sermon scratched where my mind and soul were itching was definitely a major reason why its impact on me has been so dramatic and enduring. However, there was more to it than that. About 15 minutes into the message I realized that David Platt was the real deal. What I had thought was “put on passion” was in fact the overflow of a captured soul. He really did care that much. He really was enthralled with the glory of God and he really was broken up over the lostness of human souls.
Either that, or he is the greatest actor in human history.
As with E.V. Hill I was reminded that in our age of apathy and indifference towards all things eternal and significant – PASSION IS ABSOLUTELY FASCINATING. It is compelling. Watching David Pratt was like watching a man on fire. It made me wonder whether I have become too much a man of the mind. It made me concerned to relight the fires of my soul.
I want to hurt like that for the lost.
I want to pray like that for my friends and family members who don’t know Christ.
That sermon instructed me – yes – but more than that it inspired me.
It was quite simply one of the best sermons I have ever heard. Listen to it here.
4. The Kingdom of God Is a Party – Tony Campolo
Don’t jump to any conclusions before reading this entire paragraph. I know that Tony Campolo has taken a huge leap left in the last couple of years and that he is now generally viewed as being outside the Evangelical camp. I get it – I’ve written about it! But that doesn’t mean that everything he ever said was wrong and it doesn’t mean that God couldn’t or didn’t use some of the things that he said to do good work in people’s hearts and lives.
I first heard this sermon in 1992. I was in Germany participating in missions training with Operation Mobilization as part of their “Love Europe” campaign. Along with 4,000 other young adults I had come to Europe partly to see the world and partly to share the Gospel with people who had already decided that they didn’t want to hear it. My motives were mixed, my missiology was terrible – there are a lot of things wrong with this story, I grant you. I was 18 years old. I was stupid and selfish and very, very young. I wanted to love and serve Jesus but I didn’t have a clue what that would look like.
Tony did what Tony would do back in those days. He told incredible stories about his ministry among the poor. He told stories about taking children off the streets in poor Asian cities and taking them up to his hotel room to watch Disney movies and eat ice cream.
I realize now how massively dangerous and borderline creepy that sounds but at the time it seemed like the most brilliant thing EVER.
He also told a story about throwing a birthday party for a prostitute in Honolulu. His point in all these stories was that God has a heart for the poor and the lost in this world. He has a passion to regather all those that have been sidelined and marginalized and overlooked.
It didn’t occur to me that this was an odd talk to be giving to a bunch of young adults about to evangelize the richest people in Christendom – thankfully God blinded my eyes to that contradiction. It did occur to me that up until this point I had been very isolated, very sheltered and very spoiled. A resolve was born in my heart to share more, to complain less, and to reach wider with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I went up to Tony after the message and gave him a good chunk of the spending money my parents had given me for my semi-mission trip to Europe. I told him to use it for something good. He said that he would, and whatever else is wrong with Tony Campolo, I’m sure that he did.
I’ve subsequently heard that message from Tony and from several others many other times. Its become something of an urban legend within Evangelicalism. Some say Tony’s stories aren’t 100% true. His son Bart said that his dad remembers things bigger than they were but more or less as they should have been.
All I know is that I learned something that night about the happiness of God in the salvation of sinners and about the power of stories to capture the imagination of God’s people. For both of those reasons, that sermon was one of the most memorable messages I’ve ever heard. You can find a version of it here.
Like the Platt sermon listed above (#3) this sermon was also preached at the 2012 T4G Conference in Louisville. Also like the Platt sermon this message addressed an issue with which I had been wrestling for some time. Preaching on the Book of Jude Piper explained how God’s Sovereignty works through our human agency in order to effect persevering faith in the life of the believer. To some that may sound like so much theological gobbledygook, but to me it came like a breath of fresh air. This was an issue I had struggled to understand for years. I had seen so much damage done in the Evangelical church by the “once saved always saved” “easy believism” of the 80’s and 90’s. I saw passages in the Bible that talked about apostasy and I wanted to preach that as a warning against nominal Christianity and gross cultural accommodation. I wanted the 60 and 70 year old people in my church to WAKE UP to the true spiritual state of their children. So many of them would say: “Bobby hasn’t been to church since 1997, Bobby is on his third marriage, Bobby is a pretty heavy drinker but I’m sure Bobby is saved because he said the sinner’s prayer as an 8 year old in 1971”.
God have mercy on us all!
People are going to hell because their parents will not evangelize them or pray for their conversion on the basis of a prayer said 40 plus years ago that has born NO FRUIT for going on three decades! At what point do we agree together that BOBBY ISN’T SAVED! And yet in making that argument I feel like I may have lost my hold on God’s Sovereignty and the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints.
How does this all hold together?
There was one line in that sermon that seemed to break the logjam in my brain; I remember it to this day:
“God keeps us in the faith by enabling us to do keeping things”.
That’s it. It doesn’t even really roll off the tongue but it broke the logjam in my soul. Underneath all of my theological wonderings was a pressing pastoral and personal question: Why do some people persevere and some not? Why was my little prayer in 1980 so entirely transformative and the little prayer prayed by some others obviously ineffective? Was it how hard I prayed? Was it how others followed up? Or was it the grace of God? Or both?
Pastor John’s sermon seemed to bring all of my questions together into one marvelously simple answer: God kept me in the faith by empowering and inspiring me to do keeping things. He gave me a hunger for the Bible. He made me love the church. He made me hate sin. He made me respect my teachers. He made me eager to understand. He made me believe in prayer.
That isn’t everything I would eventually figure out about the doctrine of perseverance or the balance between Sovereignty and human responsibility but in many ways, it seemed like the sermon that broke the camel’s back – in a good way. It was a break through moment and I remember it still. You can listen to that sermon here.
Patterns And Reflections:
As I look back over that list I notice a few things. First of all I notice that timing is everything. A lot of those sermons were clustered around two great events in my life. There was the “seeking a call” stage in the mid-90’s and there was the “figuring out my theology” stage in the early years after I started preaching full time.
I also notice that I tend to remember sermons that either solved a problem or lit a fire.
Finally, in reviewing that list I realize that I aspire to be the sort of preacher that has most helped me. I want to inform and I want to inspire.
And of course, I want to give thanks! Looking back I am reminded of how many people God has used to call and equip me for Christian life and service. The largest share of gratitude goes to my parents, my Sunday School teachers, my youth leaders and my local church pastors.
But there is also a debt of gratitude to be paid to the far off preachers whose sermons helped to make me the man I am today.
And thanks be to God!
Pastor Paul Carter
P.S. I’d love to hear about your 5 sermons. Please use the comment section below to tell me about the 5 sermons that have most shaped, corrected and inspired you. If possible please provide links to the audio or video.
N.B. This blog is based upon a similar blog I wrote in 2015.