I was speaking on 2 Corinthians 3 earlier this week about the glory of the new covenant. I was struck again by the importance of application. Without application I would simply have given a lecture on the difference between the old and the new covenants in Paul’s thinking. But it is application that makes a talk get beneath the skin- seeking to assure those who are feeling condemned that we really have been made righteous, encouraging people to see the privilege of beholding the glory of Christ and so on. So with that in mind, here is the second half of the lecture that I gave a year or so back on application. (First half is here.) Again, apologies that this really is simply a list of what I do- for good or ill…
6. Think about different groups
Of course people are different and so the application of a sermon will vary depending on the life situations and characters of the individuals in front of us. If I am struggling to work out the application of a sermon I will often pick four people from the congregation (I am not going to tell you who!) from different age groups and positions in life and work out the application for them. Obviously I then make that more general (I don’t address the people by name!) come the sermon itself.
There are a variety of differences to have in mind. Some people are having an easy time, others are suffering. Some have been Christians for a while, some are young Christians and others are not Christians yet. Family situations are different. Some are in danger of overworking, others are lazy. Some are encouraged as Christians whilst others are feeling weary. In order to avoid sermons becoming bland we need to apply into the different situations that people are facing. Most sermons that I preach will include something along these lines: “It may be that you are still young/facing old age/going through a tough time (naming a specific situation)- what does this say to you?”
I’ve left the biggest one until last. Almost certainly, any group we address will be a mixture of policemen and robbers. That’s to say- those who love keeping laws and those who enjoy breaking them. In more biblical language, there will be younger brothers and older brothers from Jesus’ story in Luke 15. It is absolutely vital to bear that in mind. Telling a legalist to do more and work harder simply increases either their burden of guilt or potential self-righteousness. Often when I work through a passage I will ask the question- what’s the message to those different groups? Sometimes passages naturally head in one direction and that’s fine- you will probably end up balancing it up the week after. For instance, it was great to apply 2 Corinthians 3 principally to policemen who were trying to keep an external law and feeling condemned. Praise God- we have the Spirit and righteousness!
7. What does it look like?
In my early years preaching at Woody Road I got mocked for the fact that all my application started with this question. “Now what does this look like?” I’m fairly unrepentant though (on this at least!)- even if I try to change the language more these days!
So you have talked about casting all your anxiety on the Lord. What does that actually look like? We need to be told! It means when we wake up and fears about what might happen today flood our mind, we consciously talk to the Lord, praise Him that He cares for us and speak about the things that are concerning us.
Or in 2 Corinthians 3, I painted the picture of a Christian with an old covenant mentality. You’re trying to keep the regulations and you can’t do it and you live with a constant sense of guilt and condemnation. What does 2 Corinthians 3 look like for you? It means realising that you have the Spirit in you- it is not just trying to keep the law on your own. It means consciously receiving again from God the gift of righteousness.
Often I will try to think through the circumstances that somebody in the congregation might face in the coming week- both in terms of events and emotions. What does this passage say into those things? If you manage to touch on something like this in a sermon it is more likely that people will remember it when the circumstance comes up later in the week.
8. The stiletto question
Part of application should be helping people to reflect on their own position in the light of the passage. Rhetorical questions can be useful here. However, I have learnt over the years to try to limit the number of rhetorical questions. If too many are used then people are simply overwhelmed, can’t process them all and generally just feel guilty. So these days I try to find the “stiletto question”- the one sharply pointed question that is in line with the aim of the passage and gets inside us. It could be aimed at the mind, heart or actions. Here might be some examples:
“Does your Jesus say/do/feel that?” Because so often our mental view of Jesus is different from the biblical picture (not as compassionate as the real Jesus or not as holy or powerful- often depending on the preferences of our temperaments) it can be useful to flag that up with a question that calls people to think about Jesus more accurately.
When preaching against judging others from Matthew 7 I used the question- “What bothers you more? Your own sin or other people’s?” It was a useful stiletto question for it reveals whether or not we are judgemental and need to feel Jesus’ rebuke.
Or with 1 Peter 5 that I’ve come back to in these posts, I might ask two questions- “Do you believe that the Lord cares for you?” and “What are you doing with your burdens at the moment?”
Asking questions like this is more powerful than simply telling people, for instance, that Jesus is great and so is more likely to produce change in hearts and minds.
9. Remember the culture in which people live
None of us lives in a vacuum. All of us- often without being aware of it- are influenced by the values of our culture, perhaps particularly as seen in the media. At times in application then it is useful to flag where a certain biblical truth or command clashes with the prevailing attitude in our culture. The aim of this is not so that we rant about the awful, wicked world but rather to help people spot where they have absorbed cultural norms without thinking about it.
Being honest, I am useless at this- I am not good at analysing culture. But one example of how to do it might be something like this. Reading David Cameron’s speech yesterday flagged up a cultural expectation that one of the main goals of your life is to own your home. There may be wisdom in doing that and it is not wrong to own your own home but it would be too easy for Christians to assume that it should be one of the chief goals of our lives. Frankly it shouldn’t be- not if we are following the Son of Man who had nowhere to lay his head.
One of the aims of application should be to challenge cultural norms that Christians have absorbed without thinking- and in doing so we may be able to speak to those who aren’t Christians as well.
10. Anticipate objections and struggles
Although preaching sounds like a monologue it will often be a dialogue between the preacher and the heart of the hearers. You find something similar to this in many of Paul’s letters- especially Romans 6-7. Paul has stated various truths but then in these chapters he anticipates the questions that his readers will have and so sets off to seek to answer them.
When the Bible is applied to us often our hearts will respond with a question. For instance- how do I cast my burdens on the Lord? Or- you’ve told me to put sin to death but that sounds impossible. Useful application won’t just stay at the surface level but will begin to probe beneath the surface and ask what there is in the passage that deals with these sorts of questions or objections.
These are simply ten things that I have found helpful when trying to apply Scripture in sermons. I won’t try to do every one in every sermon- they are just tools that I think can be helpful at different points in driving Scripture home. And we want that to happen so that the Bible not only informs but also changes us.