In Your Preaching, Aim for Holistic Application
Crafting thoughtful, targeted, and transformative sermon application can be challenging. But after you work hard to exegete the text and do theological analysis, it’s easy to feel like little time or energy is left to think through applying the text to the various people in the congregation.
But God intends preaching to transform, not merely to inform. The Bible tells us that “faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17). Not only is our initial conversion and reception of the Spirit the result of hearing with faith, but so too is our ongoing growth in godliness (Gal. 3:1–5). As our congregation hears the Word preached, we want them to encounter the living God and be transformed by his Spirit (2 Cor. 3:17–18). Jesus taught us that “it is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life” (John 6:63). The Spirit uses our preaching of his Word as the means of transferring sinners from the domain of darkness into Christ’s kingdom (Col. 1:13–14) and transforming God’s people to more clearly reflect Christ (Eph. 4:17–24).
In short, putting in the hard work of identifying specific ways a specific biblical text applies to our hearers is an essential part of preaching.
Yet even if we’re committed to the hard work of crafting good application in our sermons, we can subtly fall into a rut. Perhaps feeling the pressure of making the sermon “practical,” our application can quickly default to focusing on what we should do in response to the biblical text. The danger with this approach is that it subtly communicates to our hearers that the Christian life is first and foremost centered on what we do rather than what Christ has done for us. For some of our hearers this produces a form of legalistic self-righteousness as they diligently perform; for others it produces desperation and discouragement at never being able to measure up to everything a good Christian is supposed to do. Either way, we miss the true goal of applying the biblical text: life transformation that affects our entire being.
So how can we approach application in a way that pursues this kind of Spirit-empowered life transformation?
FOUR QUESTIONS FOR HOLISTIC APPLICATION
Since the two greatest commandments are to love God with our whole being and love our neighbors as ourselves (Matt. 22:34–40), our sermon application should equip our hearers to pursue these commandments in the power of the Spirit. Asking these four questions can help us approach application in a more holistic way that facilitates this goal.
1. What does God want me to think/understand?
As believers, God has given us “the mind of Christ” (1 Cor. 2:16), yet we’re still tempted to think like we did before we knew Christ (Eph. 4:17–19). That’s why God calls us to be transformed by the renewing of our minds (Rom. 12:1–2). Faithful preaching exposes wrong ways of thinking about God, people, and the world around us. It also helps our people construct a biblical worldview.
2. What does God want me to believe?
We can understand a truth at an intellectual level without believing it to such a degree that it shapes the way we live. In the parable of the sower, Jesus refers to people who initially receive God’s Word with joy but have no root and subsequently fall away (Luke 8:5–15). Their problem isn’t a lack of understanding; it’s a failure to “hold it fast in an honest and good heart” (Luke 8:15). Faithful preaching exposes the false beliefs that motivate us to pursue sin. It builds faith inside of God’s people and helps us close the gap between what we understand and what we functionally believe. It also calls unbelievers to abandon their unbelief and trust in Christ.
3. What does God want me to desire?
This question pursues what Jonathan Edwards called the affections, by which he meant the combination of desires, inclinations, feelings, and will that are the spring of our actions. God calls us to desire him above all else (Ps. 42:1–2), but apart from the work of the gospel we will desire what is evil (Prov. 24:1–2). Faithful preaching exposes sinful desires, inclinations, and feelings that lead us away from the Lord. It also provokes godly desires and reorients our affections to those that are pleasing to God.
4. What does God want me to do?
Finally, when the truth of God’s Word changes how we think, what we functionally believe, and what we desire, it will produce tangible change in what we do and don’t do. Sometimes, a passage gives us direct commands (Rom. 12:9–17). But a number of passages are far less straightforward, requiring us to think carefully about specific actions in light of our current place in redemptive history. Faithful preaching exposes sinful actions and patterns of behavior that are out of step with God’s ways. It also calls believers to put the truth of God’s Word into tangible action as an expression of their love for God and others.
MODELING IT FOR OUR PEOPLE
Every time we open God’s Word with someone, we’re modeling how to interpret and apply it, whether it’s from the pulpit or in a personal conversation. Here are three ways we can intentionally model this holistic approach to application.
1. Ask the questions explicitly in our sermons.
When it comes time to move from the text to application, sometimes we may simply want to ask one or more of these questions and then actually show our hearers how God wants us to respond. I’m not recommending we explicitly ask all four every time we preach—that would become pedantic. But occasionally and strategically sprinkling them into a sermon can be helpful.
2. Make connections between the four aspects.
Often a text will focus on one or two of the four aspects of application. So if your text is heavy on specific actions to do or not do (e.g., James 1:19–27), expose the lies, false beliefs, and sinful motivations that lead us to engage in those sinful behaviors. If the text focuses more on beliefs and desires, tease out how those often lead to specific sinful behaviors.
3. Craft application that progressively builds on all four aspects of application.
Even if a text does not explicitly touch on all four aspects of application, we can walk our hearers through the progression. Take something that the text teaches we need to understand, expose how we fail to functionally believe it, explain what that reveals about our desires, and describe what tangible actions flow from believing God’s Word and obeying it.
Although the Spirit is the one who produces transformation in a person’s life, one of the primary tools he uses is the faithful preaching and application. As we model a holistic approach to application, we can expect our hearers to begin to do the same in their own reading of the Bible.