Preaching And Application

Application in preaching is a thorny issue. There is no real question among Reformed folk whether preachers should apply the text of Scripture to the congregation. Most Reformed preachers agree in substance with William Perkins on application.

The basic principle in application is to know whether the passage is a statement of the law or of the gospel. For when the Word is preached, the law and the gospel operate differently. The law exposes the disease of sin, and as a side-effect stimulates and stirs it up. But it provides no remedy for it. However the gospel not only teaches us what is to be done, it also has the power of the Holy Spirit joined to it. When we are regenerated by him we receive the strength we need both to believe the gospel and to do what it commands. The law is, therefore, first in the order of teaching; then comes the gospel.

He continues in the next chapter:

Application is of two kinds, mental and practical…. Mental application is concerned with the mind and involves either doctrine or reproof (2 Tim. 3:16, 17). When it involves doctrine, biblical teaching is used to inform the mind to enable it to come to a right judgment about what is to be believed. Reproof is using biblical teaching in order to recover the mind from error.

…Practical application has to do with life-style and behaviour and involves instruction and correction.

He continues by using Paul’s categories (instruction, reproof, correction etc). I commend to you the reading of Master Perkins.

It is sometimes suggested that there is a species of Reformed preaching known as redemptive-historical or biblical-theological preaching that does not practice application. I’ve heard many redemptive-historical or biblical-theological sermons in 32 years and I doubt that there’s ever been a time when the text of Scripture was not applied in some way. Now, to be sure, that application might have been limited to a small range of possibilities but there is almost always some application, even if that application is only “find yourself in this text.” One might not like that application, one might think it unduly limited in its scope, but it is a kind of application.

This is one part of the problem in this discussion. Often folk operate with an a priori definition of “application” whereby they set up a test to determine what counts as application and then convict other approaches of denying application because the preacher is operating with a different definition of application. Some assume that application must be some appeal to the moral law (the third use of the law as the norm for the Christian life). Certainly that is one species of application but there are other species as we saw above. Perkins began with a hermeneutical question: how do the categories of law and gospel operate in this text? Only after answering that question was he prepared to move on to the following questions about whether the text requires a mental or practical application. As Mike Horton has observed out the Westminster Confession of Faith (1.6) helps us here with the phrase, “good and necessary consequence.” An application is an implication regarding how we ought to think or behave that is drawn from the text, that flows out of the text itself, that is not imposed on the text or brought to it (something the preacher wanted to say and found an excuse to say it). When the divines said “necessary” they meant logically necessary, something that follows from the text at hand. This way of thinking assumes the basic Reformation view of the essential perspicuity or clarity of Scripture. What must be known about the Christian faith and life can be known from the text. We understand Scripture to be intentionally and sufficiently clear that with the use of a proper way of reading Scripture (hermeneutics), by comparing Scripture with Scripture (analogy of Scripture), and by testing our interpretation with the  rule of faith (analogy of the faith), i.e., answering the question: does it contradict the faith as confessed by the church? The application must flow from intent of the text in its original or its broader canonical context.

As Perkins suggested, there are different types of texts in Scripture. To his basic distinction between law and gospel we might add (as he was well aware) differences in literary style (didactic, narrative, poetry/song, wisdom). Different sorts of texts require different types of application. If every text produces the same “application” then we may rightly ask whether the preacher is really following the text. The application of John 3;16 is not the same as the application of Matthew 5:17 or Genesis 1 or Proverbs 1 or Psalm 23. These are different sorts of texts requiring different sorts of applications. The application must be determined by the text. Sometimes the proper application is simply “repent and believe,” but often the application is more extensive and ethically oriented than that. It’s almost always appropriate to ask of a passage (and to find the answer to the questions from the text), “What does this text teach me about Christian virtue?” (e.g., faith, hope, and love) or “What does this text teach me about the third use of the law?” Our catechism is in three parts (guilt, grace, and gratitude) for a reason: it follows the pattern of the book of Romans and many passages in Paul where he frequently preaches the gospel and then makes a moral application. For example, he preaches the gospel in Ephesians 1:1-2:9 and then makes what might be considered a moral application, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (ESV).

There is a sense, however, in which he’s still preaching the gospel. He doesn’t really begin to explicitly and extensively preach the law in its third use, to speak about the morally and logically necessary virtues which the gospel should foster in Christ’s people by virtue of their mystical union with Christ, until chapter 4:

I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (ESV).

The Apostle Peter, on the other hand, sometimes does things in a different order. He sometimes give the moral application and then the gospel rationale. For example, 1 Peter 2:13 is followed by vs. 21 where he gives the gospel warrant for the moral exhortation. The apostolic pattern, whether in Hebrews or in the Johannine epistles or the gospels is to connect the gospel to faith and that to the third use of the law. The latter does not appear nakedly in Scripture but always in a broader context.

What Is A Sermon?
Above we began looking at application in preaching. Another difficult aspect of this discussion is the lack of consensus as to just what a sermon is. In broad terms, this post assumes that a sermon is a close exposition of God’s Word that contains both declaration and application (as defined in part 1 and as elaborated below). Declaration is the announcement or proclamation of the law and the gospel. A sermon may be “redemptive-historical,” i.e., one that focuses on locating a passage in the progress of redemption and revelation or it may be topical (e.g. the second service or the catechism sermon, which tends to focus on the doctrinal or moral sense of a text or series of texts as guided by the catechism). There is a place for both. It is clear that the apostles did not feel compelled to choose between redemptive-historical and topical sermons and the Reformed tradition has never felt the need to choose between these two.

What is application? It is an appeal to the congregation to reckon with the implicit or explicit doctrinal, moral, or practical implications in a given passage of Scripture. Any particular application will be determined by the text. It might be a simple call to faith or it might be a detailed exhortation to godly living or a doctrinal truth. The teaching, nature, and immediate (and broader) context of the preaching text must determine the application.

Perhaps it’s helpful to say what application isn’t.

1. It is not bare lists of “dos and don’ts.” For many, application seems to entail lists of things to do or 10 steps to a happy marriage. A sermon may certainly have implications for Christian marriage and texts certainly should be applied appropriately to marriage and other relationships but the preacher, in the act of preaching, is not a marriage therapist. This is not to say that the preacher should not apply a text to how husbands and wives should love one another, but, as R. B. Kuiper used to say, any sermon that could be preached by a rabbi (or we might add, an imam) isn’t a Christian sermon. The one thing that that Christian preacher knows, that neither rabbi nor the imam knows, is the gospel of Christ’s holy incarnation, obedience, death, resurrection, and ascension for his people. This must be the basis for any exhortation to obedience and sanctity. Exhortation to obedience and sanctity is absolutely necessary but no more so than the gospel itself. To separate the two is moralism or rationalism or both.

2. It is not ten steps to a happy/fulfilled life. See #1. In general if you see Joel Osteen doing it on TV, it’s probably not something you want to do.

3. It is not a partisan political lecture or learned disquisition on the latest novel. That’s why we have political analysts on TV and public radio or Ken Myers’ Mars Hill Audio.

4. It is not an angry rant about whatever last irritated the minister. I’ve heard too many sermons in Reformed/Presbyterian congregations that were little more than a rant by angry, a disillusioned minister. One of the first sermons I ever heard in a Reformed congregation was by a visiting pastor who is now with the Lord. The visiting minister began laying into us about our idolatry of the state football team. I can still see his face contorted by anger. He had a point. We are all idolators by inclination and many of us probably were guilty of idolizing the local football team. It’s always appropriate to preach the law in its first use (see HC Q. 2) and usually in its third use (see HC Q 2 and questions 86–129) Many of us probably were (and remain) too deeply invested in the team and its success. There’s no question that God hates idolatry and that he will not share his glory with another (see the first and second commandments). So, in a sense, the preacher succeeded. I remember the sermon. He did make some of us feel guilty for our sins, but I don’t recall hearing the gospel. I don’t recall that he ever told us what Jesus did for us idolaters and that, by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, there is hope for us idolaters. I do recall being impressed, however, by his anger and evident disappointment with us and his bitterness. Venting is not application; it’s just self-indulgence.

5. It’s not an expression of the minister’s private views. It is the announcement of God’s truth, by his ordained servant, as revealed in his inerrant Word.

The Spiritual Senses
So far I have tried to add a layer to the preliminary thoughts on application in part 1. I characterized application as an appeal to the congregation in which necessary theological, moral, and practical implications of the text are drawn out and explained to the congregation.

How, however, does the preacher find those “good and necessary” inferences? The answer begins with good exegesis. By that I don’t simply mean translating the text properly (of course the preacher is working from the original languages), good word studies and the like. I mean paying attention to the original intent of the text in its immediate context and in its broader canonical context.

It is often assumed that application means bringing the text to the people. This isn’t entirely false but it must be defined carefully. William Wilimon has warned us about doing theology “in translation mode” (and here) By this he means that rather than the text being sovereign over us, we make ourselves sovereign over the text. Instead of using Scriptural metaphors, we change the metaphors and thus the nature of the message just that much. In translation we’re in charge now.

Rather than preaching in translation mode we do better to draw the congregation into the text. That’s a form of application, leading them out of their experience, their thought world, their autonomy and into the thought world, the conceptual world, the historical world in which the Word of God was given. By this I don’t mean just historical data but preaching in such a way as to draw them in, to make them want to identify themselves with the immediate passage and the broader story of Scripture. More on this below.

Having drawn people into the world of the text, the preacher may then ask questions of the text to build bridges between the people and the text. Traditionally, the church asked three questions: what does this text teach about doctrine, eschatology, and morals? These questions come from 1 Corinthians 13, faith, hope, and love. These are good questions. Not every text will yield an answer to each question but we should ask the questions.

There is much more that could be said. Of course these questions must be grounded in a historical reading of the text. The great error of the later patristic and medieval uses of these questions is that they frequently turned into an opportunity to talk about me, my soul, or the church. This was a sort of pious, subjectivist, Narcissism. Luke 24 does not say that the Lord Jesus explained how all the Scriptures were about the disciples and their hearts burned within them. No, he taught them that all the Scriptures pointed to him. He is the center of the story of Scripture. We come second or even third.

Subjectivism in application isn’t spiritual. The goal of the preacher is the be faithful to the text, not to do the work of the Holy Spirit. The preacher must trust that, as the he faithfully announces the Word and applies it carefully (as defined and described in these posts) the Spirit will do his sovereign, mysterious work on his own time-table. If our application is not grounded in the original intent of the perspicuous text, if it isn’t grounded in the history of redemption, then it may tend to become silly putty in the hands of the preacher.

This essay first appeared as a series on the Heidelblog in 2013.