Preaching And Application (Pt 2)

In Part 1 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.

Next time: What about the spiritual senses?

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  1. Thank you for part 2 too!

    Putting aside my earlier comments about application and implication, I would now here be interested in your comments about preaching presumably not being the same as teaching.

    I agree that many passages when preached will rightly produce ‘calls to faith’ or ‘exhortations’ – but of a different nature than when taught in a catechismal class.

    I also totally agree about the ‘mosque’ (or synagogue) test. But the difference goes deeper than the cognate theology that underpins our sermons – ie the incarnation, atonement, pneumatoloy etc. Even when an iman speaks (as they do now) of Allah the Merciful ‘inspiring’ his followers through his holy word etc, there is still (I hope!) something different.

    The difference is how the exhorted behaviour comes about, and also whether we realise that or not. In Islam, the muslim (‘surrendered one’) still has, or believes he has, the autonomy whether to obey or not. Catholics also believe this autonomy is restored at baptism. And for many Protestants, justification not only means freedom from the power of sin to condemn us, but also freedom from the power of sin to influence us (unless of course we chose to allow it to do so, but for which specific repentance and additional forgiveness are available).

    But all of these lose sight of the fact that God works His will in us, or one might say ‘the winner takes it all’. He is the author of our faith and of our Christlikeness (but do we believe it?). It is this we should rejoice in.

    However this will affect, and indeed should affect, how we hear the exhortation passages. Imbued with Enlightenment notions, we tend to think that because they are commands, God must have enabled us to fulfil those commands (notwithstanding Jesus’ clear comments to the contrary after the rich young rules departs the scene).

    So we need to regain more of the OT idea of performative speech; when God issues commands, either rebellion and sin come forth, or obedience through faith comes forth. In either case His word does not return to him empty, and He chooses which response (stopping up ears).

    The exhortations are therefore, in and by faith, exciting promises of what God will achieve in us; John’s epistles are descriptive not prescriptive. The exhortations are performative, just as biographies of heroes of bravery, self-sacrifice, perseverance ‘perform’ and bring out in us at least a temporary mimicry. A sermon solely about exhortations is indeed moralism, but I do not at all mind a sermon solely about the gospel.

    Nevertheless many will hear antinomian alarm bells at the idea of ‘God will’. Surely there is something they must do to concrete things in place, but such is their distrust of God finishing His work in them. I am sure we will get to heaven saying ‘I should have trusted you more’ rather than ‘I trusted you too much’.

    A sermon will therefore carry the exciting idea of God at work; call it the redemptive-historical if you like – a bible analysis/study will hold the same theology but will lack this element – that God is present now (coram deo), and that He acts and that He acts for me!

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