Application in Sermons

Wednesday, 15 Feb 2012

With the growing rediscovery of expository, Christ-centered preaching, many believers—and pastors—are falling in love with the Bible again. It’s not a handbook of “how-to” principles. Jesus is a Savior, not a life coach or personal therapist.

I’ll be the last person to take issue with these sentiments! Yet still, faithful believers will often ask, “So, um, ahem, does the Bible have anything to say also about raising my kids, having a good marriage, and being a good neighbor?”

At this point, it’s easy to take one of two ways out. The first is simply to say that the Bible isn’t about these things. Sure, there are a few verses here and there in Proverbs and the Epistles, but that’s not the point. The second easy way out—far more common in evangelical circles—is to say, “That’s what the application part of the sermon is for!”

I’d like to suggest another way of looking at the question.

1. Application as Law

First, it’s helpful to identify what sort of “animal” we’re talking about. Stated in technical categories, the question is, “What’s the third use of the law and how do we preach it?” “Gospel” is “good news”: specifically, the announcement of what God has done to save us from the guilt, tyranny, and eventually the very presence of sin through Christ’s life, death and resurrection. “Law” is anything that God commands. It reaveals God’s righteous and holy will. In its first use, the law exposes our guilt, leaves us without any hope in ourselves, and drives us to Christ. In its third use, the law is our guide. Having “quenched Mount Sinai’s flame,” as John Newton’s other famous hymn has it, the gospel frees us to cherish the law as the loving will of our Father rather than fear it as the basis for the Judge’s sentence.

Jewish exegesis distinguishes between hallakah and haggadah: that is, commands and story. The former arise out of the latter. As Jesus observed, the Pharisees had focused myopically on hallakah and missed the haggadah, with himself as the lead character. At the same time, Jesus hardly left commands out of the picture. The difference—and it’s a big one—is that his commands are grounded in his story, the kingdom that he is building by grace, made up of all the riff-raff whom the religious leaders preferred to exclude.

On one hand, the danger is that we take the gospel for granted, assuming that everyone knows it already and now we need only the “house rules.” On the other hand, we can swing to the other end and imagine that every imperative is simply the “first use” and that we’ve handled an imperative text faithfully if we have simply said, “Jesus did this for us and bore our judgment for not having done it.” Take Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, for example. Galatians 5 (on the fruit of the Spirit) has its roots deeply embedded in the first four chapters (centering on justification). It’s a letter and as such its original audiences would have heard it from beginning to end in one reading. So even when one is preaching on chapter 5, hearers should be reminded of the gospel indicative from which it arises. Nevertheless, chapter 5 is not just a repetition of the first 4 chapters.

There are many exhortations in Scripture. It is easiest to see the flow in argument from indicatives to imperatives in the epistles (especially the Pauline letters), but wherever we meet a command in Scripture it’s important to find the “why?” (i.e., the gospel grounding it) as well as the “what and how” (the “reasonable service” that responds to it). Having done so, we should never shy away from pressing the claims of the imperatives. Romans 6 is an obvious exampe. There, Paul applies the gospel to the question, “Should we then continue in sin so that grace may abound?” Yet what he applies there is the gospel: Being buried and raised with Christ in baptism, we are no longer under the dominion of sin. “Therefore, do not let sin reign in your mortal bodies, giving in to its every whim.” The imperative itself is an application—or, better yet, imiplication, signified by “therefore” ( oun).

So when people clamor for more application in preaching, they are usually asking for more “law.” That is not necessarily wrong. It may well be that the preaching they hear is ignoring biblical exhortations or restricting the use of the law to its first use. Yet in other cases, it may be a reflection of the fact that by nature we gravitate toward the law rather than the gospel. This can show up in lots of ways: in the self-help orientation of Boomers (how to have a better life/relationships/self-esteem/success, etc.) or in the other-regarding ethic of younger generations (“deeds, not creeds”; “living the gospel”; “making a difference in the world”). The antidote is neither to ignore the third use—that is, the application of exhortations to Christian discipleship—nor to try to find some arbitrary balance between the law and the gospel. Rather, it’s to go through the Bible book-by-book, always distinguishing but never separating what God has joined together. If we can’t preach Galatians without blinking an eye, we shouldn’t be in the ministry. But if we can only preach the first 4 chapters and rush hurriedly through chapter 5, we aren’t discharging our office faithfully either.

2. Application Shouldn’t Only Be “Law”

Granted that we typically think of “application” as moral exhortation (and therefore, law), Scripture itself requires us to widen our view of the matter. In fact, doctrine generally can be seen as an application of the unfolding story of God’s redemptive work in Christ. Jesus was crucified and raised, but he was “delivered up for our transgressions and raised for our justification” (Ro 4:25). What does it mean for me—for us—that Jesus was crucified and raised? Paul gives us the application here. Or in chapter 6, he applies the gospel and then applies that by stating the necessary implication for our practice.

I think that most of us preachers assume that “application” means the “to do” part of the sermon. Thinking rather woodenly about having an “application” section at the end of each sermon, we can easily miss the point that in Scripture itself there are applications all along. Sometimes they are applications of the gospel; in other cases, of the law. If we simply preach the passage in view, connecting it to its surrounding context, we should be applying God’s Word as we go along.

The formulaic “application” section at the end has the danger of ending God’s speech to his people on a note of uncertainty. The pastor’s “application” question, “Does this describe you?”, cannot be the last word. By all means, use the first use of the law to draw hypocrisy and unfaithfulness out of the shadows, but then remind even believers that they cannot find peace with God by redoubling their efforts. In assuring their trembling conscience, they have to throw their whole confidence on the gospel, without any appeal to the law. By all means, press home the exhortations of the text (i.e., the third use). In any case, though, the gospel must have the last word. The problem is not application coming at the end, but application of the law coming at the end, especially in such a way as to revert back to the first use without then actually holding up Christ as the believer’s only hope.

3. “Good and Necessary Consequences”

Another temptation in having an explicit section of each sermon called “application” is that it’s the opportunity to go off-script. The first chapter of the Westminster Confession lays down a wise rule of interpretation—and application. Scripture teaches whatever we need for salvation and life, whether stated explicitly or “by good and necessary consequences can be deduced therefrom.” Some applications are clear The qualification is key: Not only must the conclusion one draws from Scripture be good; it must be nececssary.

Application takes into account not only the context of the biblical passage but of our hearers. An application that we might make in a given instance may not have occurred naturally to the biblical author. That’s understandable: How would Peter have known anything about global climate change? But we have to be exceedingly careful not to make possibly good but not necessary applications. We can call people to creation stewardship with many rich and varied passages underneath us. However, we have neither the authority nor the expertise to interpret publicly in God’s name the scientific data, adjudicate questions that vex experts, and impose a specific agenda for reducing carbon emissions.

It’s easy for preachers to trott out their own hobby-horses in this application section. (I know this lure from my own experience.) It’s frequently the preacher’s opportunity to go off the reservation, spouting off on something in the news, a political cause, recent movies, or something that has been bugging him about the last three counseling sessions he has had. Of course, the pastor’s work outside the pulpit in shepherding the flock should help make him sensitive to their pastoral needs in the pulpit. However, there is after all this text standing in front of him—indeed, above him. It’s not the pastor’s space for attaching a personal appendix to the sermon.

The specific application must be found either “expressly set forth” in the passage or “by good and necessary consequence may be deduced therefrom.” This is the so-called “regulative principle” in action. Not only can’t we preach anything contrary to Scripture; we cannot preach anything that Scripture does not sanction. Our applications not only have to be good (i.e., consistent with Scripture); they have to be necessary (i.e., required by Scripture). Admittedly, this would eliminate a fair amount of applications in many sermons. However, it would also restore greater integrity to the pulpit.

The term “Trinity” doesn’t appear anywhere in Scripture, but the doctrine is clearly drawn from a host of passages. It is not only a good but a necessary inference from Scripture. The hypostatic union of Christ’s two natures in one person is a necessary application of the broad and specific teaching of Scripture. Abortion-on-demand is a personal sin and social evil. No verse says that in explicit terms, but it can be supported by from many passages. Murder, the taking of innocent life, is clearly and explicitly condemned; abortion is the taking of an innocent life. This is a “good and necessary consequence.” However, the further inference that Christians must endorse a particular policy, person, or party for ending this evil is an abuse of ministerial authority. We are on solid ground to apply God’s Word to the problem of drunkenness, but prohibition is not a “good and necessary consequence”; in fact, it flies in the face of express passages. So whether we are applying the law or the gospel, teaching doctrine or exhorting believers to godly living, we must pledge to preach “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.”

4. Genre

It’s easier to imagine how to apply Proverbs or ethical texts in the New Testament than it is to apply the historical books, for example. Looking for an application in every sermon on the Pentateuch or the Gospels, it is easy to miss the point of the events—many of which have little or nothing to offer by way of a moral to the story but are instead pieces of a story that leads inexorably to Christ. Often, demanding a formulaic application turns these stories into something like Aesop’s Fables. That doesn’t mean that there can’t or shouldn’t be application, but in these cases it will most likely come by pressing home the specific place that this passage or event has in the history of redemption. We don’t draw a straight line from David to us, but from David to Christ—and then, “in Christ,” to us as his beneficiaries.

Going to Proverbs looking for history is as ill-fated as reading the Song of Solomon as an allegory of Christ and the church. Reading apocalyptic literature as if it were the morning newspaper generates intriguing end-times novels, but misses the point. Reading through the Bible for family devotions, we spent a lot of time in Proverbs. My wife and I marveled at the practical wisdom of our Lord in guiding our lives. To be sure, God has made Jesus Christ our “wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption” (1 Cor 1:30). Nevertheless, you don’t go first to Proverbs for the gospel story, but for advice about how to live with the grain of the reality that God has created. (There’s a reason we give inquirers or new believers one of the Gospels rather than Proverbs to read first.)

Think about how you read non-inspired literature. I read the newspaper mainly to get the latest news (no surprise there!), rather than primarily to discern how I should live. Things are heating up in Syria regardless of how I respond to it. My reaction doesn’t affect the news in any way. Nevertheless, the news does provoke me to respond in a certain way. Similarly, the gospel is news, an announcement. Whether I believe that Jesus was crucified and raised on the third day or not, the news is an objective report. It provokes—even calls for—a response, but the gospel itself is distinct from my reaction.

Not everything in Scripture is “gospel.” And not everything that is “law” is meant simply to drive me to Christ. In many cases, it is there to guide me now that I am in Christ by grace alone.

5. The Forest and the Trees

Herman Bavinck well states that the prophets, psalmists, Jesus and the apostles “all teach us unanimously and clearly that the content of the divine revelation does not consist primarily in the unity of God, in the moral law, in circumcision, in the Sabbath, in short, in the law, but appears primarily and principally in the promise, in the covenant of grace, and in the gospel.” The law was never confused with the promise nor did it replace it. God’s covenant with Abraham was a gracious promise, so that even the moral law that attended it “was not a law of the covenant of works, but a law of the covenant of grace, a law of gratitude.”1

Eager to shoe-horn Jesus into every passage is like the youngster who answered the Sunday school teacher’s question, “What has a bushy tail and gathers nuts?” by saying, “It sounds like a squirrel, but I’ll say Jesus.” It’s the sort of thing that drives exaggerated exercises in typology, where we go beyond the legitimate types and their fulfillment identified in the New Testament to imaginative speculations. You shouldn’t be able to preach basically the same sermon from any text. Preaching Christ from all the scriptures means exegeting a specific passage in the light of its wider context. The distinctiveness of each passage has to be unpacked, but always with respect to the fact that it’s part of this unfolding mystery with Jesus Christ as its fulfillment. To say that the unfolding drama has Christ as its central character is not to say that he shows up in every scene. It’s to say that all roads lead to Christ, that he is not only the means but the end.

With this in mind, we might think of the “application” section as the opportunity to show more fully where this passage fits in the history of redemption and what it means for us that “all of God’s promises are ‘yes’ and ‘amen’ in Christ” (2 Cor 1:20). This even comprehends our ethical response: As those who are swept into the history of this passage, in the era of fulfillment in Christ, we are free now to walk no longer according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.

6. Christian Liberty

Where Scripture has not clearly spoken, believers are left to godly wisdom. Legalism and antinomianism conspire to drive out this godly wisdom. “Make-a-rule” and “break-a-rule” are cut from the same mold. Wisdom, however, requires the hard work of discernment, looking around at specific situations in which a specific application might be right here but wrong there.

A sound ministry of the Word will bring maturity to everyone. Steeped in the explicit and implicit applications of Scripture, they will be able to apply God’s Word to their own decisions in the posts to which God has called them in their daily vocations. Seminaries train ministers to be specialists in God’s Word; in most cases, they will have parishioners who know more than they do about economics, the arts and sciences, politics, and business. God’s Word applies to all of life, but that does not mean that pastors are called or equipped to do all of the application. C. S. Lewis wrote, “I believe…not only because I see the Light but it’s the Light in which I see everything else.” As believers are immersed in God’s Word, participate in the sacraments, submit to the instruction and discipline, and share in the mission of the church, they will be able to apply God’s revealed truth in ways that we as ministers would never have imagined.

1. Herman Bavinck, The Philosophy of Revelation (New York: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1909; repr., Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979), 192-93. [Back]


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