In my previous articles (article 1, article 2, article 3), we’ve explored what the expositor should know (cognitive) and love (affective) to provide his congregation with edifying sermon application. In this final article in the sermon application series, we will focus on four critical practices (conative) that the expositor can develop and hone to improve their sermon application.
Start Application Early
Edifying sermon application begins early in the sermon preparation process. And there are a few ways to practice application-oriented sermon preparation. First, start writing down application ideas as they occur in your sermon preparation process, even if they occur early on. Once you’ve prayed through the text, read the passage devotionally, and understood its structure, I recommend going section by section through the passage to write down your observations, interpretations, and potential points of application. Writing down application ideas early will give you plenty of application ideas to work with when you write your sermon manuscript. Using Dr. Merida’s application grid from The Christ-Centered Expositor will help.
Second, outline your sermon before you write your manuscript. For each point, leave space for explanation, illustration, and application. I recommend writing a one-sentence point of application for each point in your outline. Once you have the main application for each point in mind, you will be in an excellent position to know what to explain and illustrate in each point. Remember, you cannot explain everything in the text. Therefore, you must choose to focus your explanations. Writing your application idea first will help you do that.
Third, when possible, name your outline points with names that align with your points of application. Our listeners do not remember everything we say, but they usually do remember our points if we state them clearly. If your sermon’s main points are summaries of your main points of application, then your listeners will remember the key points of application more readily.
“Vague application leads to vague obedience.”—Matt Cohen
Finally, send your sermon manuscript (or whatever form your preaching notes take) to a few trusted church members each week (and not the same members each week). Ask these members to provide you with thorough feedback, especially on your points of application, before making final edits before preaching.
Application Must Come from the Text
In his article “The Heresy of Application,” Haddon Robinson wrote, “More heresy is preached in application than in the Bible exegesis.” In his book, The Christ-centered Expositor, Dr. Merida elaborates on this Robinson quote when he writes,
For example, how would you specifically apply Exodus 20:14: “Do not commit adultery.” Robinson encourages these categories: necessary, probable, possible, improbable, and impossible. He explains: For example, a necessary implication of “You shall not commit adultery” is you cannot have a sexual relationship with a person who is not your spouse. A probable implication is you ought to be very careful of strong bonding friendships with a person who is not your spouse. A possible implication is you ought not travel regularly to conventions or other places with a person who is not your spouse. An improbable conclusion is you should not at any time have lunch with someone who is not your spouse. An impossible implication is you ought not have dinner with another couple because you are at the same table with a person who is not your spouse. Too often preachers give to a possible implication all the authority of a necessary implication, which is at the level of obedience. Only with necessary implications can you preach, “Thus saith the Lord.”
The best way to ensure that sermon application is specific, authoritative, and powerful is to tether it to the text. Apply the specific text that you’re preaching to the lives of your specific people. This will guard against every application being: pray more, give more, or evangelize more. Most importantly, when your people see your applications and implications arising from the text, they will receive them as from the Lord.
Applications Should Be Specific and Multi-Faceted
Vague application leads to vague obedience or no obedience at all. Let’s take Galatians 5:13 as an example, which says, “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.” A vague application might say something like, “In Christ, you are free and true freedom is fuel for pouring out your life in selfless service for your family, your church, and your world. Use your freedom as a means of serving others selflessly.” In contrast, Dan Doriani provides an excellent example of this type of specific application when he writes,
Men, if you want to serve at home, get up and help clear the table after the next meal instead of looking for a way out. If coats sprawl on the floor, if the milk is sunning itself, if towels molder in heaps, put them away, instead of yelling at your wife and children to do something about it. Clean the car before someone’s dress is ruined. When the chore is done, let it be your secret. At church, don’t avoid unpleasant tasks by claiming, “It’s not my gift.” As a diagnostic test, when was the last time you took a turn in the nursery? More broadly, ask yourself, “Am I doing something for someone for which I can gain nothing – no pay, no favors, no praise?”
In addition to aiming for specific applications, aim for multifaceted applications. Speak to the head (beliefs), heart (affections), and hands (actions). Speak to Christians and non-Christians. Speak to young and old. Make applications toward individuals and the entire church as a corporate body. Make applications toward different areas of life, such as family, vocation, leisure, and others. Make application to people in diverse life stages (single, married, empty-nesters). Paul Tripp recommends always having an application to the heart, an application to close relationships, and an application to messengers of the message. Finally, make applications toward people or populations that you hope will start attending your church’s gatherings.
When you work to provide this kind of application and root all your application in the finished work of Jesus Christ, you’ll serve your listeners as you preach the text. But this kind of application can’t simply be a whimsical add-on at the end of the sermon. Preacher, apply yourself to sermon application with the same diligence as you apply yourself to sermon explanation.