A Sermon Without Application is like someone shouting to a drowning man “swim” “swim” but not throwing him a life preserver. Spurgeon believed so strongly in sermon application that he said, “Where application begins, there the sermon begins.”
John R. W. Stott, in his book Between Two Worlds, believed this is the part of the sermon where we preach ethics. The first is individual Christian ethics. The next ethic is church ethics. There is also domestic ethics. The fourth area of ethics is social ethics. Finally there is the political ethics. In my review of chapter 4 of Stott’s book, “Preaching as Bridge Building”, I give more specifics in each area of ethics.
Haddon Robinson added another angle to the importance of sermon application, “More heresy is preached in application than in Bible exegesis” (For the entire article click Leadership, Fall 1997, page 21). An example of misapplying truth is found in Job 4:8 when Eliphaz misapplied his belief about suffering to innocent Job. Both Proverbs and Job are Wisdom Literature. Proverbs gives practical wisdom for godly living. Live right and God will bless you as in Proverbs 3. Job, however, is philosophical wisdom. Job asks the troubling question, “Why are godly people not blessed by God.” Eliphaz was in essence quoting Proverbs (at least the principles to be later contained in Proverbs) to Job and misapplying it.
The third rhetorical process, Application, answers the crucial question, “What do these verses have to do with my life?” We do not preach just to inform, but to transform as seen in these verses: 1 Corinthians 8:1; 2 Timothy 3:16-17; James 2:22-25.
1. The Danger of Misapplication: Making the application as authoritative as the interpretation.
Haddon Robinson gave this example using the commandment: “Thou shalt not commit adultery”
A. Necessary Implication: Do not have sex with a person who is not your spouse because it is sin.
B. Probable Implication: Be careful about building strong friendships with a person of the opposite sex who is not your spouse.
C. Possible Implication: You ought not travel regularly with a person who is not your spouse.
D. Improbable Implication: You should not have lunch any time with someone who is not your spouse.
E. Impossible Implication: You ought not have dinner with another couple because you will be at a table with another person who is not your spouse.
“Too often preachers give to a possible implication all the authority of a necessary implication, which is at the level of obedience. Only with necessary implications can you preach, ‘Thus saith the Lord’” (Robinson).
The danger of misapplication is legalism in application as with the text, “Honor thy father and thy mother.”
1) Legalistic application would insist on the aging parent living in the home of the children as the only way to obey this commandment.
2) If the aging parent loses touch with reality and begins to disrupt the family or the family could no longer meet the physical needs of the aging parent then it will become necessary to put the parent in a nursing home so other Bible principles are not violated.
2. Methods for Proper Applications
A. Proper exegesis of the text: What did the author say to his ancient audience?
B. What does the text say about God and man who do not change in their natures?
Sometimes the preacher can “take the biblical text straight over to the modern situation….Jesus says, ‘Love your enemies.’” The preacher can say to his audience, “If you have enemies, you must love them.”
When you cannot go from the first century into the 21st century you can find the theology of the passage and apply that to your audience as with Theology proper and Harmartology: God’s holy nature never changes and the sinner’s unholy depraved nature never changes. Study Robinson’s Abstraction Ladder on page 25 of the Leadership article for a visual on making this application.
1st Corinthians 8 is an example. In this passage Christ is the redeemer who gave His life for believers in 8:11. Therefore Paul argues, I will not eat meat, because if I wound my brother’s weak conscience, I sin against Christ, who redeemed him. In this passage man is depraved: People want their rights, so they don’t care that Christ died for their brother.
C. Apply the text to your life
Ezra is our model preacher in this regard: “For Ezra had prepared his heart to seek the law of the Lord, and to do it, and to teach in Israel statutes and judgments” (Ezra 7:10).
D. Study the culture in which your audience lives.
In his chapter, “What is a Missional Church?” Mark Driscoll states that “a missional church must be not only a missionary but also a missiologist. A missionary is someone who can bring the gospel to people in an effective cultural way. A missiologist is someone who studies the various cultures and subcultures in a community to help train all the missionaries to be effective.” What applies to the missional church applies to the pastor of the missional church. Driscoll lists some ways to observe the culture in order to better minister to your church in that culture:
1. Watch Television (minus pornographic material). In the Advance 09 Conference there was a questioned asked John Piper and Driscoll about their different views on watching TV. http://www.desiringgod.org/ResourceLibrary/MediaPlayer/3970/Video/You can read Piper’s later response to that question.
2. Surf Talk Radio
3. Walk the Mall
4. Pay Attention at the Grocery Store
5. Hang out at the Magazine Rack
6. Pay Attention to Kids
7. Talk to the People
8. Go Online
9. Break Your Routine
E. Know your audience.
Example: Robinson, “When I prepare, I imagine about eight people standing around my desk. One is my wife’s mother, who is a true believer. In my mind, I also picture a friend who is cynic, and sometimes I can hear him saying, “Oh, yeah, sure.” I picture a business executive who thinks bottom line. I have in my mind a teenager, whom I can occasionally hear saying, “This is boring.” I look at these folks in my mind and think, What does this have to say to them?
F. Courageously and specifically apply the text. When a preacher says, “May the Spirit of God apply this blessed truth to your life,” what he really means is, “I do not have a clue how this applies to your life.” Donald R. Sunukjian provides some helpful examples.
1. Ask yourself, where would this truth apply to my life
a. “When you head to the ‘fifteen items or less,’ checkout line at the grocery store, only to find yourself behind a cart that has forty-five items in it. And then to further the aggravation, the offending shopper waits until all the items have been scanned and sacked before beginning a lengthy fumbling for coupons and a hunt for dimes and pennies with which to pay.”
b. “When you come home after work and find bicycles in front of the garage door, despite the many times you’ve told you children to put them away. You’re hungry, your blood sugar is down, and you’ve had a hard day. You honk loudly and repeatedly, hoping to get someone to come out of the house and move the bikes. But the house is sealed up tight against the weather, and the kids are in front of a noisy TV. Nobody hears you, nobody comes out.
Your first impulse is to teach them a lesson by running over the bikes, but you realize you’d then have to buy them new bikes. So you get out of your car, throw the bikes into a corner where it will be difficult for the kids to untangle them, pull the car into the garage, storm into the house, loom over the unsuspecting kids on the floor, and loudly vent, ‘How many times have I told you to . . .’”
2. Make the application specific and extended.
“Suppose I’m teaching a fifth grade boys Sunday School class, and I come to the end of the lesson. To press home the lesson, I say, ‘Guys, what does this mean to your everyday lives? It means, ‘Be a good Christian.’
“Uh, Mr. Sunukjian, that’s a bit vague. Could you be more specific?” “Yeah, I see that’s kind of broad. OK, it means, ‘Respond to those over you.’” But respond is not a picture word. And when you’re in the fifth grade, everybody is “over you.” So I try again. “It means, ‘Obey your parents.’” Parents is a picture word, but obey is not. But they’re willing to let it go at that: “Thanks, Mr. Sunukjian. That’s good. We’ve never heard that before.”
But I must not be content with such vagueness and brevity. I must visualize in extended detail some situations in their lives, so that they can see what the godliness would actually look like in various concrete moments.
For example: “Guys, it means when your mom gives you sixty-five cents and tells you, ‘Use this at school to buy milk to go with your sack lunch,” and you work your way up to the front of the canteen line, and the lady behind the counter asks what you want—it means you use the sixty-five cents to buy milk and not junk food” (Donald R. Sunukjian, Invitation to Biblical Preaching,Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2007, 112-125).
Mark Dever also provides what he calls a sermon application grid. Here is what 9Marks says about the grid:
In his sermon preparation, Mark Dever uses what he calls an “application grid” as a tool to help him think how each point of the sermon relates to the rest of redemptive history, the person and work of Christ, and how it applies to different categories of hearers. Download an application grid: Blank | Completed Sample
The goal is not to use every application point one might devise while filling out the grid; it’s simply a device to force the preacher to think through different kinds of application every time he prepares a sermon.
Whether a preacher uses a grid like this or not, we would encourage pastors to think through different categories of application and people for every sermon. Doing so will help one’s congregation learn how to apply the Bible to different areas of their lives.
In my next post, I want to deal with the rhetorical process of argumentation.