In seminary, in one form or another, you were taught “Be sure to apply the truth that you are teaching.” That is good advice; it follows biblical precedent and precept and points to an important fact that continually needs to be reemphasized. But how does one apply truth to life? On that question advice differs and/or often thins out. It is easy to gain assent to various truisms and noble goals, but it is when you turn to the discussion of ways and means that differences begin to appear. Everyone wants peace. So far, agreement is easy, but people will battle fiercely over how to obtain it. So too, all homileticians insist on the necessity for application but argue for widely differing methods of applying truth. Therefore, I shall focus my comments not so much on the commonplace areas of agreement but on the points of difference in an attempt to provide some sort of guidelines for proceeding through this homiletic maze.
To begin with, briefly let us consider the meaning of the word application so that we may understand from the outset what it is that we are discussing. The verb “apply” etymologically means “to fold or lay upon.” The idea of “attachment” is also connected with it, but, as one word book puts it, “to apply” means “to attach firmly so it will not come off.” That idea is clearly seen in the use of the word in the following sentence: “He applied a coat of paint to the door.” The paint is firmly bonded to the door. So in sermonic application, something is laid upon or attached to the truth that is being taught. That means that application
- is a step beyond mere teaching (thought of as the communication of factual knowledge), and
- requires something more of the preacher than an understanding or proper interpretation of a preaching portion.
What application does, then, is to “attach” to the simple interpretation of the passage the meaning for the congregation today in the context of their modem life situations. Folded into or hid upon the passage as originally understood by those who first read it is another layer of interpreted information about the congregation growing out the present circumstances in which they find themselves.
But what this means is that the preacher must study the passage not only for its historical/grammatical meanings, but he also must
- study the present situation (or situations) that the congregation faces,
- study the various members of the congregation who are facing it,
- abstract the truth or principle that the Holy Spirit intended to teach from the passage,
- discover how the writer applied this principle to his readers, and
- do the same today for his own congregation in their modem setting.
So, application requires something other than using (or, perhaps more appropriately we should say misusing) a preaching portion for one’s own purposes. Rather, it involves
- discovering the Holy Spirit’s telos (or purpose; see earlier JPP articles on this subject) and
- how the Spirit directed the biblical writers to apply truth in their day.
Sometimes, the situations in O.T. Israel as in Corinth (or in both) will be exactly the same as they are today-death, for instance, is death, no matter where or when one faces it. It is not conditioned by time or culture. The application of 1 Corinthians 15: 54–58, then, will be found, and may be used substantially as it is found, in the passage itself.
But veils, as a sign of the husband’s authority over his wife, are another matter altogether; they simply do not have that meaning in modem Western culture. Consequently, while the principle of order and decorum in worship that pertains to a woman’s submission to her husband must still be applied, it will only be possible to do so if we attach or fold in a layer of new material that fits the present situation.
But now we come to the how to. What is involved in attaching or unfolding the biblically attached applicatory layer of a sermon? As I said, this is where differences appear and the arguments begin.
Calvin and the early Reformers show by their sermons and commentaries that they held to a view of the matter that is at great variance with the approach followed by so many preachers and homileticians today. Perhaps that is why (in part, at least) modern preaching has so much less impact than theirs did. What happened to change the course of Protestant preaching?
The scholastic views of the Middle Ages that Luther and Calvin abandoned were later reintroduced into preaching in Protestant circles by a number of the Puritans who had never shaken loose of them. As a result, their commentaries and the examples that their sermons set turned back the clock on effective preaching for several generations. Because their approach to application (which they believed in with a vengeance) still constitutes the prevailing model (in a greatly revised form), we are yet strongly under their influence. These two approaches to application-what I may roughly call the Reformation approach and the Puritan approach-readily set forth for us the choice that one must make in preaching. And, as you have already gathered from the tenor of the discussion so far, I take my stand with the Reformers against the corrupting influence of the Puritans. How did the two differ?
For the Reformers, the whole sermon was application; what was added, attached or folded in was done naturally, organically, as an integral part of the whole. From start to finish, as they interpreted the Scriptures for the congregation, at the same time, they preached what the text had to say about the people sitting before them. Application was made all along.
In contrast, the Puritans exposited the text (often that is not the right way to put it either-many of them had a penchant for doing anything but exposition. Instead, they taught a systematic theology lesson on words that triggered their interest, at times quite heedless of the Holy Spirit’s intentions in the particular passage at hand); then they tacked on at the end of the sermon various and sundry “uses” or “improvements on the text” by way of application. Again, most of their applications had little to do with the point made by the Spirit in the passage which, by this time, had become a springboard for whatever they wished to say. While in modern times the number of applicatory “uses” has been greatly reduced, so that we rarely hear of “thirteenthlies” or “fourteenthlies” any more, unfortunately the idea of tacking on the application at the end has persisted.
Instead, we must learn to proclaim the entire preaching portion throughout-even in the exposition-as the Reformers did, namely, as God’s Word to the congregation. Instead of saying throughout the sermon, “This is what God said to the Israelites” and then, at the very end asking, “Now what does all this mean to us today?” the preacher from the outset ought to tell his people, “This is what God says to you. How do we know this? Well, listen to what he told the Israelites who were facing circumstances not altogether unlike your own.…” There is just as much exposition in the one as in the other approach; the great difference lies in the fact that the Reformation approach is relevant, up-to-date, and treats the Word of God as a message to people today, while the other does not.
The Puritan approach lets the congregation dangle throughout the greater part of the sermon. They wonder what he is up to, what is the point of all of this exposition. And if at length they become interested in facts for facts’ sake alone, it is understandable. Only at the end does one discover what the preacher has in mind when the application is finally made (if it is; some have eliminated it altogether). And it is so easy to make applications that have little to do with the passage since by then it has been left behind for application. It is harder to depart from the Holy Spirit’s applicatory purpose when you are making application as a part of the exposition itself. How much better, then, if the preacher orients the congregation to look for personal applications as he investigates the meaning of the passage with them. This orientation may take several forms. I shall note two:
1. The solution to a problem (or answer to a question)
“Have you wondered what God has to say about the discipline of children in your home (N.B., not what He had to say to the Israelites)? Well, let’s turn to Proverbs 29:15 and to Ephesians 6:4 and see.” Notice how the listener is personally involved from the start. When the text is considered it is considered as God’s Word to him; not merely to someone else long ago and far away. All that is discovered in the passage is easily related immediately-when the listener still remembers it-to him: “So, it is clear that God wants you to use not only the rod but also reproof; not only discipline but also counsel. If you fail to emphasize both in balance, God says that you will run the risk of provoking your children to anger.” That is the way to apply biblical truth; that is the way to preach!
2. Exhortation to obey a command
“God commands you to love your wife. In Ephesians 5 He says.…” Here, once again, the listener becomes involved directly in the teaching of the Scriptures from the beginning. The passage is treated for what it is in truth-the Word of God for them.
What I have said previously in articles about outlines is appropriate here. In order to impress on the preacher as well as on the congregation the present relevance of the passage, it is well to “translate” long-ago-and-far-away outlines into here-and-now ones. Consider the following with its “translations”:
Basic modern Puritan-type outline
- Paul told the Ephesian husbands to love their wives
- They were to love their wives as Christ loved the Church
- They were to be willing to give up their lives for them
- Husbands today must also love their wives.
The above “translated”
Basic modern Reformer-type outline
- God commands you to love your wife
- You must love her as Christ loved the church
- You must be willing to give your life for her.
Note, there is no point 4 in the Reformer-type outline because the structure of the sermon framed around the meaning and application of the text to the congregation precludes it; the sermon throughout is application.
If what you have read here applies to you, then apply it. Learn to preach the entire sermon to the congregation, dealing from start to finish with their relationship to God and to their neighbors. You will soon begin to see the good effects of this change.