Preaching and Application – Part 2

 |  December 28, 2017

Every preacher has strengths and fears, inclinations and antipathies. One knows he is effective when he sticks close to his manuscript, another has excels at extemporaneous speech because he easily memorizes his main points and quotations. One focuses on the character of God and the work of Christ, another finds it natural to speak of doctrine, discipleship and cultural engagement. The first suspects that he neglects application, the second wonders if he speaks too little of Christ. This blog is for pastors who struggle with application and for those who are inclined to it, but gladly consider fresh perspectives on application.

When preachers have a hard time with application, text after text elicits the same few applications: be holy, be faithful, be committed. Week after week, their church hears that they must serve more, witness more, support the church more. At worst, a preacher is repetitive and shallow, making the same few subjects in the same way. If a preacher’s ultimate crime is to propound heresy, the penultimate crime is to make biblical truth sound boring and irrelevant. No preacher wants to forget the gospel and none want to weary their people with predictable, repetitious messages. For those who struggle to state fresh applications week by week, let me offer “the four questions people ask.” The assumption here is that the basic model for application is fairly simple.

The text (the source) –> The preacher –> The audience and its questions

The big idea is that preachers are mediators, responsible both to bring the Bible to the people and to bring the people to the Bible. “Bringing the people to the Bible” means showing them that the Bible answers their questions. Theologians and ethicists have long organized the moral questions people have in four categories. People ask, and the Bible answers, these four:[1]This blog is adapted from my book, Putting the Truth to Work . I owe a debt to Bruce Birch and Larry Rasmussen, Bible and Ethics in the Christian Life, 35-65, Thomas W. Ogletree, The Uses of the Bible in Christian Ethics, 15-45, and John Frame, The Doctrine of the Christian Life, 4, 96.

  1. First, what should I do? That is, what is my duty? What does God’s law require?
  2. Second, who am I and who should I be? Who am I in Christ? How can I gain or claim the character that lets me do what is right?
  3. Third, to what causes should we devote our life energy? What goals should we pursue? How should we use our gifts and energy to glorify God and serve our neighbors?
  4. Fourth, how can we distinguish truth from error? That is, how can we gain wisdom and discernment?

Expository preachers will find that most passages address at least two of these questions. Most preachers are drawn toward one or two of these question and they neglect the others, even though all are biblical.[2]For the first three categories, I owe something to John Frame, The Doctrine of the Christian Life, 4; 96. If your application has become repetitive, it may be that you are spending most of your time on one of these questions.

Let me offer a guide or diagnostic that may help you understand your patterns of thought and expand them. If you focus on duty, you think, “When someone encounters a moral situation…”

  1. They need me to tell them what to do.
  2. Key questions are, “What is my duty? What does the Bible teach us to do in this situation?”
  3. What they will do is unknown. They may do what is right or what is wrong. Anything may happen, depending on what people decide.

If you focus on character, you think, “When someone encounters a moral situation…”

  1. What they do is probably set in advance, governed by predispositions formed over the years.
  2. Key questions are, “How must I change if I am to be holy? Whom am I in Christ? How can I become more like him?”
  3. What they do is predictable. Little seems new; they rely on honed habits and skills.

If you focus on goals, you think, “When someone encounters a moral situation…”

  1. What they do depends on what they want to accomplish.
  2. Key questions are, “Where will I get a sense of direction? What are the best means for achieving godly ends? How can I change the world so it conforms to God’s plans?”

If you focus on discernment, you think, “When someone encounters a moral situation…”

  1. What they do depends on how they see the situation.
  2. Key questions are, “How can I resist what is false in the mindset and customs of this world? How can I gain wisdom from God and the church?”
  3. What they do depends on the options they see. That depends on their knowledge of Scripture and their community’s ability to think alike Christians.

Creative application of sermons depends on many things: empathy, an ability to listen to everyone and hear cultural themes, and an eye for the telling illustration. The ability to answer the questions people ask can be one tool to help preachers apply the riches of Scripture.


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