Is Sermon Application Legalism?

By Matt Cohen    |    October 10, 2022


Editor’s Note: This post is part of a series on sermon application. (Previous Post)

Some pastors think that to become great at sermon application, you need to develop a certain skill. Whereas there is skill involved in crafting sermon application, excellent sermon application doesn’t begin with skill acquisition; it begins with shaping what you believe about sermon application.

Application Is the Crown of Exegesis

Application is the crown of exegesis (2 Tim. 3:16–4:2). The ultimate goal of exegesis is not simply to “get it right.” Exegesis also aids the pastor in his calling to reprove, rebuke, and exhort real people to live for God’s glory.

In his book, Toward and Exegetical Theology, Walter Kaiser makes the point powerfully, “Exegesis is never an end in itself. Its purposes are never fully realized until it begins to take into account the problem of transferring what has been learned from the text over to the waiting Church. . . . The exegetical process and the hermeneutical circle have not been closed or completed until the exegete comes to terms with his own and his intended audience’s response to the text.”

Paul Tripp often says that serving up exegetical insights without carefully crafted sermon structure and thoroughly prepared sermon application is like serving individual ingredients rather than a thoroughly prepared dish. To grow in sermon application, you must believe that exegesis is a means to spiritual growth in the life of God’s people—a necessary ingredient that must be baked in.

Application is the crown of exegesis.

Application Is a Friend of the Gospel

The preacher must also believe that indicative and imperative verbs belong together. An indicative statement indicates something. An imperative statement calls us to action—feel this, believe this, act this way. In the Bible, indicatives and imperatives go together like close friends. Indicatives are the unwavering truths of God’s person and work that are the basis, foundation, and grounding for the imperative commands of God, calling us to obedience and service in the world. For example, consider Ephesians 4:32: “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another (imperative), as God in Christ forgave you (indicative).” This text highlights the gospel—what God has indicatively done—and the application of the gospel in an imperative call to kindness, tenderheartedness, and forgiveness.

Application is a crucial step in biblical exegesis and preaching.”

—Matt Cohen

Why is it so important to believe that application is a friend of the gospel? In the name of gospel centrality, preachers may be tempted to downplay or neglect preaching imperatives. Additionally, some listeners may come to believe that preachers who include imperative statements in their sermons are legalists. It’s important to be clear on this point. Declaring and obeying God’s commands is not legalism. Legalism is seeking to obey God’s commands in order to be right with God. Biblical obedience is seeking to obey God’s commands because a Christian is already right with God through the finished work of Jesus Christ. Confusion on this point can lead to a significant distortion of the Christian life.

Allow me to illustrate the potential error that I am referring to. Consider a pastor preaching from Ephesians 5:25, which reads, “Husbands, love your wives (imperative), as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her (indicative).” The preacher elaborates,

Husbands, God’s word calls you to love and lay down your life for your wife. Our failure to obey this command reveals our desperate need for our Savior, Jesus Christ. The Lord Jesus is the true and ultimate husband who laid down his life to save, protect, and provide for us, his bride, the church. All honor and glory to Jesus our Lord. Husbands, praise Him, the great husband of the church!

What is wrong with the pastor’s exegesis of Ephesians 5:25? The preacher seems to have forgotten that indicatives and imperatives go together like best friends. By stopping short of exhorting husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the church, the preacher has completely skipped half the passage. Both parts matter. Since indicatives and imperatives in the Bible go together like best friends, they should go together like best friends in our sermons.

Application is a crucial step in biblical exegesis and preaching.

Matt Cohen

Matt Cohen is pastor of Citylight Church in Philadelphia, Penn.

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