To talk about the connection between preaching and application is almost superfluous. Study for study’s sake alone flirts with absurdity. The progression from “study” to “sermon” is virtually axiomatic. In fact, any sermon is an attempt to bring Scripture to bear on human beings and their lives.
However, this attempt may not be done proficiently; this alone makes the subject worth our discussion. Applying the timeless word of God to life requires a competency that flows out of a conviction that God not only speaks but He speaks to us. The inaccurate application of a text of Scripture occurs more frequently than we might realize.
The purpose of study is a sermon. The purpose of a sermon is a response from those who hear it. Thus, an expositor is a preacher and a preacher is a persuader. But how does this call to action occur? How is the word of God to be brought to bear on human experience? This is worthy of our consideration.
Expositors are frequently reminded that “now what?” must follow “what?” and this has almost become a cliché within the discipline of exposition. But God willing, it will remain a helpful truism. This defined sequence represents a necessary anchor in effective preaching. In light of the need to maintain a strong bond between exposition and application, here are some actions leading to this end:
- Keep application and exposition close to one another.
As alluded to, the temptation is to isolate application from exposition. Some discuss it almost in terms of a right brain/left brain dichotomy. This must be avoided. One way to do this is to look for application in the text itself. If the text makes an application, let that be your application as well.
Haddon Robinson speaks helpfully about the ladder of abstraction.Haddon Robinson and Craig Brian Larson, The Art and Craft of Biblical Preaching (Zondervan, 2005). We may need to give a very specific application of a text, such as 1 Corinthians 6:18 and the admonition to “Flee from sexual immorality.” Surely a treatment of the passage in which that verse appears would include a call to sexual purity. However, other texts such as 1 Corinthians 11:6 and the command for a woman to keep her head covered seems to communicate culturally-bound information. A woodenly literal application at this point might not be helpful as much as an application less specific and more principle-based. Obviously expositors would want to stay as close to the bottom rung of the ladder as possible (i.e., specific) but may be forced by the nature of the material to move upward in a more general fashion.
Robinson offers two helpful considerations when he defines two questions for application. We can always ask, “What does this text tell us about the nature of God and the depravity of man?” These two areas are always relevant to any text and any life situation.
- Application includes the making of an argument.
A missing element in some preaching is the identification and articulation of the argument being made by the preacher. For what are you contending in this message? What case are you making? In what way are you seeking to persuade your hearers? Defining an argument forges a path toward application.
Some application points may not meet with resistance in the minds of the hearers but a larger portion, if grounded in the text, will not find as ready of a reception. Preaching does not have to be dialogical in nature to meet the criteria of Augustine’s preaching ministry in Hippo as “dialogues with the crowd”.Peter Brown, Through the Eye of a Needle (Princeton University Press, 2012). One can be so thoroughly familiar with the audience so as to anticipate objections and thus address them with a biblical but kind argument. Making an argument does not assume an argumentative spirit.
- Include both action and attitude in application.
While people are the point of the sermon, their hearts are its object. Not every point of application need consist of a specific action. Frequently the application of a passage of Scripture will address a specific attitude as commendable. We should strive for a balance between both types.
Another way of contemplating this dynamic is through familiar grammatical categories. In their application, expositors must balance the imperative with the indicative. At times, the text says, “Do this”. On other occasions it enjoins us to “Be this.” Both are suitable objectives of any encounter with the word of Christ.
Referencing Haddon Robinson once again, it is good to be reminded that the greatest danger of heresy lies in more in application than exposition. Rightly handling the word of truth includes both the “what?” and the “now what?” Keeping both together in view in sermon preparation provides for the greatest possibility of accomplishing the Pauline objective of “teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ.” (Colossians 1:28).