Any good driver will know the importance of staying in your lane. Bad things happen if you drift too far to one side of the road. The same thing can be said of any good bowler. He/she learns quickly that it’s not enough even to stay in your lane, but that the ball must begin traveling in the right direction from the start. Even if it has a lot of power behind it, all it takes is a minor technical flaw to make the ball enter the gutter before it even reaches its intended destination. The same can also be said of preaching. The start will determine the finish.
Preachers must work to apply Scripture in the lives of the listeners. Expository preaching should rightly interpret the text, letting the application flow naturally from the biblical text. If the biblical text is to be rightly interpreted and rightly applied, then how the preacher begins definitely matters. Here are a few ways that can help preachers “stay in their lane” when they seek to apply a text of Scripture.
It goes without saying that prayer must be the starting block of any sermon preparation, but let’s face it: prayer can be so easily forgotten. In order for preachers to stay on track in sermon application, the help of the Holy Spirit is vital. God knows your audience better than you do. Therefore, begin and end your preparation in prayer. The sermon without prayer has the potential to completely miss the intended target.
2. Read the Text in Context Multiple Times
In order to rightly apply any given text, the preacher must understand that context is always KING. So, while the sermon text may only be a few verses, it is always in the context of something much greater. Read the texts before and after the sermon text. Do this over and over again and, if possible, read the entire book from which you are preaching. Maintaining this aspect of preparation will help bring to light authorial intention, which is crucial to clear, expositional preaching. Also, know where your text fits in with the redemptive thread throughout the entire Bible. This practice will help give greater clarity and accuracy to the few verses that you are preaching from the pulpit. Remember, you are seeking to strike a target, so you can never be too diligent in your aim.
3. Highlight the Point of the Passage
With any passage of Scripture, you should be able to highlight the point of the text. It is an important aspect of “staying in your lane” and will guide the application found within the sermon. Highlighting the point of the text in just a few words will also keep the preacher from chasing rabbits. So, in 15 words, what is the point of your text?
4. Write Exactly What People Should “Behold and Believe” in the Text
Without proper information, there will be no potent application. In every sermon, when the Bible is opened and explained, there is truth to behold and believe (Isa 40:8–10). This should be the preacher’s first goal of sermon application—to call people to hear and believe the word of God. Personal transformation begins with the mind (Rom 12:1–2). In fact, any application without the proper response from the heart and mind will inevitably fall short. So, preacher, shovel deep in the text to dig up truth for your people to see, understand, and believe.
Mark Dever stated so eloquently, “Information is vital. We are called to teach the truth, to proclaim a great message about God. We want people who hear our messages to change from ignorance to knowledge of the truth. Such informing is application.”
5. Note the Imperatives in the Text
In searching for the easiest application to find, the imperative is the simplest, but it is at this point that we should pause and take a moment to examine what an imperative actually is. An imperative from Scripture is literally a command, but it is not merely a call to perform. Imperatives can simply be a call to start doing something, but it can also be a call to stop doing something. For instance, Paul not only tells Christians to put off their old selves but to then put on the new self (Eph 4:22–24). Whatever the text may be, look for these commands that arise naturally from Scripture.
6. Note Themes of God’s Judgement and God’s Grace in the Text
From the fall in Genesis 3 to the final glory revealed in Revelation, there are recurring themes of judgment and grace. So, the preacher will want to identify these themes in the sermon text. Ask questions of the text, such as, “What provokes God’s judgment in this text?” “Where is God’s grace in Christ shining through in this text?” Answering these questions will help the preacher identify specific sins to address in application, along with specific exhortations, rebukes, and reproofs. Also, these questions provide wonderful “on-ramps” to the Gospel of Jesus Christ—the primary application target.
7. Note Any Core Doctrines That Need to be Explained in the Text
Lastly, does the specific text have any doctrines that need to be explained? A major part of preaching is teaching, so the text may warrant an explanation of the Trinity, or the concept of general revelation, or a segue into soteriology. These topics themselves deliver inherent applications along with additional implications, and the preacher can begin to highlight a variety of helpful ways that the topic of the Trinity can be useful in the life of the church, the unbelievers, the single mothers, the widows, the poor, the needy, and more.
Generally, this list is not some sort of a step-by-step guide to follow, nor is it exhaustive, to say the least, but these are practical ways in which the preacher can dive back into the deep waters of the text to surface with more riches from God’s Word. My prayer is that they would be useful to tether the man of God to the word of God, keeping the preacher from wandering out of his lane.
Cheston Pickard is the Pastor of First Baptist Church Delassus in Farmington, Missouri.