Anyone who has ever preached has had their hand shaken and been told, “That was a good lesson.” After all, that’s what you’re supposed to do, right? It’s common courtesy. But what does that mean? What should it mean?
Unfortunately, “good lesson” often means: “that was well-spoken” or “you’re a good speaker.” While we certainly want to speak God’s word with clarity (Colossians 4:4)—and being well-spoken goes a long way toward this—being a “good speaker” is not the end goal of preaching. When Paul proclaimed the gospel message, he says that he did not do it with “lofty speech or wisdom” and that his speech and message “were not in plausible words of wisdom.” He simply spoke the message (1 Corinthians 2:1-5). Of course, this does not mean that Paul did not speak clearly (see Colossians 4:4 again) or even that he was not a good speaker (though some would perhaps say otherwise, cf. 2 Corinthians 11:6). It does mean that he did not use the techniques of men to sound good for the sake of sounding good in order to make his message acceptable. He simply spoke the truth as the truth that it might be accepted or rejected by those who heard.
Other times, “good lesson” means: “I already agree with those things” or “I’m living that way.” On the surface, this sounds like a good thing and is a good thing, in part. If the truth is being preached and someone believes and acts on that truth, it is unarguably a good thing (cf. Ephesians 1:13-14). However, what if the sermon is about when I am wrong? What if it tells me I have sinned and calls for my repentance? Is it still a “good lesson?” If having your hand shaken and being told “good lesson” by others is the indication of whether or not it is, the majority rules that these kinds of sermons are most certainly not “good lessons” because those words are rarely uttered after sermons like this. Few people say, “That was great! You really stepped on my toes there!”
The word or actions of the majority does not make this determination, though. The Scriptures reveal that these kinds of lessons are most certainly “good.” Paul charged Timothy to “preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort with complete patience in teaching” (2 Timothy 4:2). Rebuking—which means “to charge with fault” (G2008, Thayer)—is a part of preaching the word that is “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). Rebuking and correction are necessary!
This leads me, then, to what I hope “good lesson” means when I hear these words. If you agree with the things spoken and they don’t really apply to changes you need to make in your life, I hope “good lesson” means: “I followed along. I looked up the Scriptures as you were reading them and your message clearly came from the word of God.” This is exactly what the Bereans did: “they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so” (Acts 17:11). If it comes from God’s word, it is most certainly a “good lesson”; if it doesn’t, it most certainly is not (cf. Galatians 1:6-10), and you would be my friend to point it out (cf. Acts 18:26).
When the sermon does call for repentance, it should be considered a “good lesson” if it comes from God’s word; again, coming from God’s word is what makes it good (cf. 2 Timothy 3:16-17). These are “good lessons” when they cause us to change these things in our lives. This is the very thing that Paul wrote to the Corinthians: “As it is, I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting. For you felt a godly grief, so that you suffered no loss through us. For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death” (2 Corinthians 7:9-10). It isn’t “good” because it makes us feel good; it’s good because it does come from God’s word and shapes us into the kind of people that we are commanded to be before our God (cf. Colossians 3:1-17).
Rather than rejecting these sermons or letting them go in one ear and out the other, we must follow in the footsteps of the Corinthians. We must grieve over these things; we must change these things in our lives. This is the only thing “that leads to salvation without regret.”
Finally, let’s note one more thing about saying “good lesson.” Let me preface this thought by saying that I am not opposed to being told that the lesson I presented was good. As noted in the first two points, I do hope that it doesn’t just mean that you think I’m a good speaker or you only think its “good” when it doesn’t step on your toes, but I do appreciate the encouragement that comes from sincerely being told that the lesson was good. With that aside, I encourage you to remember what made the lesson good—and it isn’t me.
As we noted above, a “good lesson” is a lesson that comes from the word of God. All I am—all any preacher is supposed to be—is a messenger of the word of God. When a “good lesson” is preached, give the glory to whom it belongs, and that is God. Take the time to praise him for his word, and thank him for both giving it to us and keeping it through the ages. Thank him for making it understandable. Thank him for showing us how to look like his Son. And when having to change in order to look like Jesus is difficult (and it often is, cf. Matthew 7:13-14; 1 Peter 4:13), praise him for the grace he has given to us that we can endure (cf. 2 Corinthians 12:7-10). He is worthy of our praise and thanks for these things, and the glory belongs to him!