“More heresy is preached in application than in Bible exegesis,” Haddon Robinson wrote.
Really? I always thought application was the easy part of preaching. As I’ve thought about it, I’ve come to realize that applying a text is much more challenging than it appears.
“In application we attempt to take what we believe is the truth of the eternal God, given in a particular time, place, and situation, and apply it to people in the modern world, who live in another time, another place, and a very different situation,” wrote Robinson. “That is harder than it appears.”
Here’s how I’m learning to do that.
Don’t Command What Scripture Doesn’t
It’s easy to lay down commands based on the text that just aren’t biblical. We can say good things as if they’re Scriptural things. We should communicate the message of the text, including its commands. We should also offer suggestions about what it might look like to to apply the message of Scripture, but we should make it clear that our suggestions are not the same as biblical commands.
“Don’t commit adultery” is clear. “Don’t meet with someone of the opposite sex alone” may be good advice, but it’s not a biblical command. Psalm 1 might lead me to help people meditate on God’s word, but it doesn’t mean that everyone should read the Bible in the morning before they go to work.
Robinson suggested that we say something like, “This is the principle, and the principle is clear. How this principle applies in our lives may differ with different people in different situations.” Suggest, but don’t command what Scripture doesn’t.
Don’t Neglect Thinking and Beholding
“Tell me what to do!” someone might say. “I need to know how to apply this to my life!”
Sometimes the best way to apply a text to your life is to think differently, I would respond, or simply to worship and encounter God.
One of the most profound paragraphs I’ve read on preaching is this one, written by Lee Eclov:
The Bible spends much more time on shaping the spiritual mind than commanding particular behavior. We need far more training in the ways of grace, of spiritual perceptions, and of what God is really like than we do in how to communicate with our spouse. Understanding the glory of Christ is far more practical than our listeners imagine. Properly preached, every sermon based on a passage of Scripture is fundamentally practical. Every author of Scripture wrote to effect change in God’s people. It is our job as preachers to find the persuasive logic of that author and put that clearly and persuasively before our people through biblical exposition.
In other words, we don’t just need to act differently. We need to think differently. One of the most effective forms of application is to call people to change how they think.
Often, the most practical thing we need is an encounter with God. As Jared Wilson writes based on 2 Corinthians 3:18, beholding is better than behaving. “The direct route to God-honoring behavior is born not of good behavior but of good beholding,” he writes.
Don’t just hand out to-do lists. Lead people to think differently about God and to gaze at his glory.
Apply the Implications of the Gospel
Obedience flows from the gospel. I’ve sometimes been guilty of offering application points that don’t flow from the good news of Jesus. They may even be good application points, but when we offer commands apart from enabling grace we’re in dangerous territory.
The New Testament pattern is to explain the gospel and then apply it. This is what God has done in Jesus; in light of this, live this way. When we explain the implications of the gospel and remind people of the enabling power of the Holy Spirit, we help our people live in light of what God has done for them.
In my younger days as a preacher, I had no idea that application could be so perilous. I still have lots to learn, but I’m working on helping people see the difference between biblical commands and my suggestions. I’m also working at helping people think differently, worship Jesus, and live in light of what God has done through him in saving us.