For the last few years I have been teaching the Bible Handling modules on the PfS course. One of the lectures I most enjoyed giving was on the theme of application in sermons, Bible Studies and so on. I think there are various ways in which application can go wrong for preachers. There can be no application: you end up with an interesting lecture on a Bible passage but with no real sense as to what difference it should make to people’s lives. Or you end up with “tag on” applications- you explain the passage and then feel the need to find a practical application, which frankly may have a somewhat strained link to what you’ve taught. Or perhaps most likely, you have application that doesn’t get below the surface level: it encourages change of behaviour (normally do something like praying, witnessing or reading the Bible more) but without addressing the underlying questions of motivation. That’s a problem because most Christians already know what they should be doing- it is the heart change that will motivate us to obey that we really need. So I came up with a lecture entitled “Ten Hopefully Helpful Hints on Application.” There is no great authority behind this- it is basically a list of what I try to do when writing my sermons. It is a fairly random list as well- merely what struck me as I wrote down my thoughts on the subject. I hope it will be helpful, though, for those who preach and for those of us who aren’t preachers (the vast majority!) but are seeking to apply the Bible to our lives when we read it for ourselves. And, if nothing else, it may give Woody Road regulars the opportunity to spot one of the helpful hints mid-sermon (“Ah, he’s just done number seven…”) Here are the first five with the remainder to follow next week:
1. Get your application- and the tone of your application- from the passage
It is a real temptation to explain a passage and then import an application from elsewhere. I mentioned a couple of weeks back the way in which I was rebuked for adding a “Do evangelism” application at the end of an early sermon that I preached on Mark 2. I think it happens most frequently by us turning something we should do into something that we should pray that God does. So, for instance a biblical call to love another gets turned into an application that we should pray that God will enable us to love. At one level, who can complain about a call for us to pray? But, in a subtle way, the Bible’s purpose has been perverted. I’m sure the Biblical author could have commanded us to pray that we would love- more likely, he knew that God has already given us the resources to love by the Spirit and so we need to get on and do it. The point is simply this- trust that the Bible has given us the right application. Don’t seek to import it from outside the passage.
One of the reasons this matters is that it saves us from making the application of everything something linked to our personal hobby horses. The same can be said about getting the tone of our application from the passage- it prevents us succumbing to the weakness of our personalities. Some of us are naturally drawn to challenging people. I remember having to give feedback on a talk on Psalm 23 (not at Woody Road!) where it turned into a stinging rebuke- Are you treating the Lord as your Shepherd? Are you looking to Him? Why aren’t you looking to Him? I gently suggested that the tone of the application had been wrong. But those who hate confrontation need to hear the opposite challenge- the lion’s roar of Amos 1 can’t be turned into the suggestions of a pussy cat. Application involves both warm encouragement and firm challenge- we are to imitate the tone of the passage.
2. Belief and Behaviour
Application is not simply about putting things into practice. It is also about believing certain truths. Let me give a simple example. Take Peter’s instruction to “Cast all your burdens on Him for He cares for us.” I want to suggest that the application of that is twofold. Firstly, we need to believe that God cares for us. Secondly, we need to cast all our anxiety on Him.
Most practical application doesn’t touch people because of underlying problems with belief. Why do Christians feel guilty? Because we don’t completely believe that Christ has paid for all our sins. Why do Christians worry? Because we don’t fully grasp that God is sovereign and good. If I were preaching 1 Peter 5, I would want to spend a fair amount of time assuring people that God does care about all their difficulties and problems despite the fact that they feel insignificant. To be honest, that will have to be pretty direct. I wouldn’t put it like this- “God cares about all our problems.” I would say something like this- “That problem you have at the moment that is causing you worry- God cares about it because He cares about you.” It is absolutely vital that we see encouraging people to believe the truth about God at the level of their hearts as the first and most important application. Only then, as in the pattern of the the Gospel, do we make application to behaviour.
Truth be told, this is a different way of making the above point. God wants us to think rightly, feel rightly and act rightly. Again, this is where we need to be aware of our own personalities. All of us will be drawn to one of these more instinctively- we may be intellectuals, activists or those who love to emote! So we will need consciously to think about how the passage should be applied in all three of those areas. Some passages will naturally focus on one of these more than the others but often you will find a flow. I think the Bible tends to address the mind first, with the aim that this will impact how we feel with the ultimate goal of changed conduct. Good application will follow this pattern- neither jumping straight to conduct nor stopping with the mind.
4. Good Introductions set up Application
My favourite metaphor for preaching comes from John Stott- he uses the picture of a bridge, The sermon links two worlds- the voice of God in the Bible is conveyed across into our life and world. My own preference is for the introduction to start in our world- to set up some question or issue that the passage will answer (and, incidentally, the preacher’s prep must start in the passage so we know what issue the passage is handling). I do this partly because I think it creates interest but more because I am wanting to say right from the start that my goal is not simply that you understand a passage but that some aspect of your life and thinking is changed. To take a very basic example, a sermon on Peter’s phrase alluded to above wouldn’t start with an overview of 1 Peter 5 but with a discussion on what causes us anxiety. Right from the outset, I am saying that this sermon should impact that issue. Sometimes it may be a question on how we should think about something. I recently preached on John 2. My work on the text led me to the conclusion that John was drawing together two stories that saw Jesus fulfil the rituals of Old Testament Judaism. So my introduction picked up the theme of religion and what our society and, perhaps us, thinks about it. Again, I was flagging up that the goal of the sermon was not simply a better understanding of John 2 but that we would Jesus as the fulfilment of a major issue in society.
5. Apply it to yourself
The best way of coming up with application that gets below the surface is by thinking about the heart we know best- our own. In truth, that is necessary to avoid being hypocritical. However, it has the additional benefit that in all likelihood other people will struggle with similar things to us. As we think about the impact a passage should have on us, it probably won’t be very different for other people. Many of the applications I make in a sermon are things that I’ve realised need to be said to my own heart.
As I say, these are just things that I find helpful. Others may or may not do! But I will write up the second five next week.