Questions to Ask Yourself Before You Apply a Passage to Others

By Mark Becton    |    September 12, 2022


Some expositors and exegetes are gifted at applying Scripture. It’s as though these communicators have read our minds. They seem to effortlessly connect a text to our experiences and emotions. I envy them. Application doesn’t come easily for me. I have to work at it.

For me, the work begins with prayer. Reminding myself that the Holy Spirit guides us in all truth, I ask him to lead me in observing, interpreting, and especially in applying a passage (John 16:13). I also listen to and read those gifted at application. I’ve found the following questions helpful when applying a text.

Does the Passage Contain a Command, Promise, or Encouragement?

I look for any doctrine, correction, instruction, or promise. Some passages come with application built in. These points of application often appear as commands, instructions, or encouragements. All that remains after I’ve found them is applying them. Sometimes the text makes it easy.

In Matthew 6, Jesus teaches his model prayer before encouraging disciples not to worry (Matt. 6:9–34). This sets up his command in Matthew 7:7, where he says, “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.” The words “ask,” “seek,” and “knock” are written as present active imperatives. Jesus commands us to “keep on asking, seeking, and knocking” in prayer. Applying this to what Jesus teaches in Matthew 6:10–7:11, we are encouraged to practice persistent prayer (asking, seeking, knocking) in some of the following situations.

As in other passages, commands become both promises to hold and encouragements to receive and give. Therefore, look for them and explain them. Help your hearers apply them.

Where Does this Passage Reveal My Sin?

It’s important to apply a text personally before you apply it corporately—“Woe is me” should come before “Woe to you.” Isaiah models this. He confesses to God, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips” (Isa. 6:5). Even though it’s a common sin, Isaiah doesn’t blame others first. He takes responsibility. He confesses specifically, “God, I’ve sinned with my lips.”

In his kindness, God often confronts his messenger first. And though I may avoid it initially, there are benefits to confessing sin in prayer as a part of sermon preparation. Afterward, I’m left in awe over God’s loving kindness in forgiving me. I’m now better prepared to help others with their sin and show them how I’ve received grace.

How Does this Passage Encourage Me to Praise God?

All Scripture should motivate God’s people to praise him. But you can make your praise more specific if you ask questions like:

Consider God’s patience to Israel throughout 2 Kings. King after king ignored him. Weary with their stubbornness, God judges and disciplines them by sending them into exile in Babylon for seventy years. Seeing this, I consider how patient God is with me and my fickle attempts at obedience. God is so kind to cover me with his grace despite my relapses into sin.

‘Woe is me’ should come before ‘Woe to you.’”

—Mark Becton

Paul confesses the same in Romans 7. He wants to do good but doesn’t. He doesn’t want to sin but does. Wanting to be saved from this internal war, in Romans 8, Paul praises Jesus by reflecting on the doctrine of adoption. What a loving reset. How assuring to be reminded of our adoption, new identity, and rich inheritance in Jesus.

When Paul worships God, I join him. We all join him. We do so knowing that God intended us to see all this about his nature and ours before he ever said, “Let there be light!” (Eph. 1:3–10). Therefore, we worship him through our study and sermon preparation. When we prepare our application that way, it is a joy to help others see the beauty of these truths and worship him.

Does this Passage Speak to My Church, Marriage, Parenting, Work, or Culture?

Just as the Bible reveals truth about our own personal lives, it also extends out from there, addressing other spheres of life. God’s truth addresses our families. God addresses how his nature is reflected in our marriages (Eph. 5:22–30). He also instructs us regarding finances, parenting, and caring for aging parents (Eph. 6:1–4; Proverbs).

Furthermore, God reminds us that he ordained work and that work is valuable (Gen. 2:15). God also teaches us how to be good employers and employees (Eph. 6:5–9). He even explains how he established government as his servant and how we are to live under its authority while pray for our leaders (Rom. 13:1–7; 1 Tim. 2:1–4). He reveals all this in his Word, as well as how to live in a culture that strives against God.

Therefore, as a part of preparing the application of a sermon, we need to stop and consider how God’s message applies to these and other realities in our lives. When a passage speaks to one area of life, looking at other passages that address the same area will help you develop the application. Similar passages add depth, breadth, and details to the application, which benefits your hearers.

What Will I Do Differently Today Because of this Text?

A friend once said to me, “Be serious about applying God’s Word. Ask yourself, ‘What will I do differently this week because of this text?’” The immediacy of this question removes delays. Saying, “I need to do that,” or, “I’ll get to that,” gives me an escape. Since I don’t have to do it right now, I don’t have to think about it.

As a Christian and pastor, what’s helped me most is writing out my answer to my friend’s question. Writing forces clarity. I know my fears over what I know God is asking me to do in response to his Word. I know the steps needed to obey them. When I write these things down they become more tangible.

Furthermore, writing what I intend to do in response to God’s Word strengthens my prayers and praise. I can remember what the text asks of me. Being obedient to a text will not be easy. It’s part of God conforming me. This has not only been true for me in my forty years of preaching but it’s also been true of those who have come before me and will be true for you long after I am gone. May you enjoy your years of meeting with God as he helps you and those before you apply his Word.

Mark Becton

Dr. Mark Becton is professor of spiritual formation at Grimké Seminary and is a pastor at Remnant Church in Richmond, Va.

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