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.
Part 2: What Is A Sermon?