No Application? Then You Haven’t Preached
Did you ever sit in a classroom wondering what the point was? I distinctly remember that feeling as I struggled through calculus in college. The course was taught as if the application of the principles was self-evident. And perhaps to the math geeks in the class it was. But to this English lit major, it was a constant, and losing, exercise in purely abstract thinking. Without understanding the real world application, I had a hard time grasping why I needed to know the value of anything as it approached, but never quite reached, infinity.
And if you were a math whiz, just recall how you felt being asked to discuss the meaning of one of Shakespeare’s sonnets.
EXPLANATION ≠ APPLICATION
I’m not trying to dredge up bad memories. But I wonder if some of us preachers aren’t guilty of putting our church members in the spiritual equivalent of freshman calculus or composition every Sunday? Like many teachers in many fields, we’re passionate about our subject and extremely well prepared. We can answer questions about Greek and Hebrew verb tense and the historical and cultural backgrounds of the ancient Near East. We can point out a chiasm before our people can figure out how to say the word. And we’re prepared to explain why the learned translators got it wrong and they should go with our reading instead.
And yet for all this wealth of knowledge and understanding, passionately delivered as of the greatest import, our congregation is left with little understanding of what they should do with it. They know it’s important—because it’s God’s word. More than that, they know it’s supposed to be God’s word for them. But having explained it, we essentially say to them, “Over to you. You’ll have to figure out how to apply this on your own.” Or worse, we leave people feeling a little embarrassed and unspiritual for not knowing how to apply it, since it clearly seems so obvious to us.
It’s simply not enough for us as preachers to explain the text to our congregation. If we’re going to be good shepherds, we have to apply the text to their lives today.
So why don’t we? I can think of several reasons.
First, application is hard work. Compared to thinking through the complexity of the human heart and condition, analyzing grammar and context is child’s play.
Second, application is subjective. I know when I’ve outlined a sentence correctly, or parsed a verb. But how can I know that I’ve got the application right?
Third, application is complex. The text has a main point. But there are scores of applications, maybe as many as there are listeners. Sorting through the myriad options is daunting.
Fourth, application is personal. As soon as I start thinking about how a text applies to my congregation, I can’t help but be faced with how that text applies to me. And sometimes, I’d rather just explain it than deal with it.
All of these reasons have to do with our own flesh, and our desire to either avoid hard work we’re not good at, or avoid personal conviction altogether. And so our response to these excuses is simply to repent.
APPLICATION ≠ CONVICTION
But there’s a fifth, more theological reason some of us neglect application in our sermons. We’re convinced application is someone else’s job and ultimately beyond our pay grade. Isn’t it the Holy Spirit who must finally apply the text to a person’s heart? If I apply it, and it doesn’t apply, haven’t I let people off the hook? But if I put the truth out there, and then get out of the way, then the Holy Spirit has a clear field to do his work. And he’ll do it far better than I could anyway.
I’ve heard more than one highly esteemed modern preacher make this point. But with all due respect, I think the objection is both unbiblical and theologically confused. The confusion is to mistake conviction for application. Conviction of sin, righteousness, and judgment is the Holy Spirit’s job (John 16:8). No one but the Holy Spirit can bring true conviction, and when we try to do his job for him, we inevitably stoop to legalism. Why? Because conviction is a matter of the heart, in which a person is convinced not only that something is true, but also that they are accountable to God for that truth and must act on it.
Application is different from conviction. Though its goal is the heart, it’s aimed at the understanding. If exegesis requires us to understand the original context of the text, application is all about exploring the contemporary context in which that text is heard. It’s about identifying categories of life, ethics, and understanding in which this particular word of Christ needs to dwell richly (Col 3:16). We all tend to listen through our own filters and out of our own experience. So when a pastor labors to apply the Word, there’s an opportunity for us to consider the significance of a passage in ways that we might not have before, or might not naturally consider.
So, for example, whenever I hear John 3:16, I immediately think about my calling to evangelism. That’s my natural, almost reflexive personal application of the verse. But careful homiletic application might cause me to think more deeply about the nature of God’s love for me, or what it means that in Christ I have eternal life. By expanding my understanding of the possible applications from that single verse, John 3:16 begins to dwell much more richly in my life. Far from trespassing on the Holy Spirit’s work, good application multiplies the opportunities for conviction.
AVOIDING APPLICATION IS UNBIBLICAL
Avoiding application is also quite simply unbiblical. Application is precisely what we see the preachers and teachers of God’s word doing on the pages of Scripture. From Deuteronomy 6:7—where parents are told to “impress [these commandments] on your children”—to Nehemiah 8:8—where Ezra and the Levites not only read the Book of the Law to the people but labored “making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people could understand what was being read”—the Old Testament is concerned that God’s people not only knew his Word, but understood its significance for their lives.
And this concern was continued in the teaching of Jesus and the apostles. In Luke 8:21, Jesus affirms his relationship with those who “hear God’s word and put it into practice” and his teaching is replete with what it looked like to put that word into practice, beginning with the Sermon on the Mount. The apostles’ letters are filled with practical application, and they passed that concern on to elders, who were to teach practical godliness (1 Timothy 4) and entrust that same teaching “to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others” (1 Timothy 2:2).
Nowhere do we see this more clearly than in Ephesians 4:12-13. The purpose of Christ’s gift of pastors and teachers to the church is “to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the entire body of Christ may be built up.” How can we equip church members for their various ministries inside the church and out, if we never speak specifically and practically to that end? Paul seems to assume that far from avoiding application, it’s where we’re constantly aiming.
A FEW EXAMPLES
So what might this look like practically? Let me offer two examples. First, consider 2 Samuel 11, the narrative of David’s adultery with Bathsheba and then abuse of power to conspire to commit murder and cover up his sin. Obviously, the applications about sexual purity and murder sit right on the surface of the text. But what about all the people in your congregation for whom adultery and murder aren’t current temptations? I’m sure there are a few. Is there nothing else to say to them? Of course there is.
Looking at David’s specific sin, you can help them see the pattern of sin in general, its deceptive, opportunistic, and progressive nature. Then you can help them think through the “sins of opportunity” that they face, not as King of Israel, but as moms and grandmoms, college students and office workers, managers and retirees. In your application, you’re not trying to be exhaustive. You’re trying to give them the sense of the passage and get the wheels turning in their minds about their own lives.
Or consider Ephesians 6:1-4. This is a passage all about the mutual obligations of parents and children to one another. And there’s plenty of application right there. But what about all the people in your church who don’t have children, or no longer have children at home? Do they just have to listen in, and hope to learn something so they can encourage the parents around them? That’s a start. But this is God’s Word for them, too. The principle of authority rightly exercised and submitted to is applicable to all of us. Teachers and students, employers and employees, elders and congregation all have something to learn about what it means to prosper through and under godly authority. As the Westminster Larger Catechism observes, “in the fifth commandment are meant, not only natural parents, but all superiors in age and gifts; and especially such as, by God’s ordinance, are over us in place of authority” (Answer 124). All of us are under authority somewhere, and most of us exercise authority somewhere. Thoughtful application will help make that clear.
WHAT THIS MEANS FOR YOU
What all of this means, I think, is that a sermon unapplied is no sermon at all, but merely a Bible lecture. We don’t want people walking out of our lectures wondering what the point was. Instead, let’s give ourselves to applying the text, that “the body of Christ might be built up . . . attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.”