More heresy is preached in application than in Bible exegesis. Preachers want to be faithful to the Scriptures, and going through seminary, they have learned exegesis. But they may not have learned how to make the journey from the biblical text to the modern world. They get out of seminary and realize the preacher's question is application: How do you take this text and determine what it means for this audience?
Sometimes we apply the text in ways that might make the biblical writer say, "Wait a minute, that's the wrong use of what I said." This is the heresy of a good truth applied in the wrong way.
For example, I heard someone preach a sermon from Ruth on how to deal with in-laws. Now, it's true that in Ruth you have in-laws. The problem is, Ruth was not given to solve in-law problems. The sermon had a lot of practical advice, but it didn't come from the Scriptures.
Someone might ask, "What's the problem with preaching something true and useful, even if it's not the central thrust of your text or not what the writer had in mind?" When we preach the Bible, we preach with biblical authority. We agree with Augustine: What the Bible says, God says. Therefore, we bring to bear on, say, this in-law problem, the full authority of God. The person hearing the sermon thinks, If I don't deal with my mother-in-law this way, I am disobedient to God. To me, that's a rape of the Bible. You're saying what God doesn't say.
One effect of this is you undermine the Scriptures you say you are preaching. Ultimately, people come to believe that anything with a biblical flavor is what God says.
The long-term effect is that we preach a mythology. Myth has an element of truth along with a great deal of puff, and people tend to live in the puff. They live with the implications of implications, and then they discover that what they thought God promised, he didn't promise.
A week ago I talked with a young woman whose husband had left her. She said, "I have tried to be submissive. Doesn't the Bible say if a wife submits, she'll have a happy and successful marriage?"
"No," I said, "the Bible doesn't say that."
She said, "I've gone to seminars and heard that."
"What the Bible says is you have a responsibility as a wife. A husband also has a responsibility. But the best you may have is a C marriage. There is no guarantee you will have an A marriage."
The difficult bridge from then to now
In application we attempt to take what we believe is the truth of the eternal God, which was given in a particular time and place and situation, and apply it to people in the modern world who live in another time, another place, and a very different situation. That is harder than it appears.
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This article appears in The Art & Craft of Biblical Preaching, a comprehensive encyclopedia of preaching. Click here to purchase a copy of this book to have this invaluable resource on hand as you preach the Word!