Why I Gave Up Sermon Application
Much of Scripture is meant to be enjoyed, not applied.
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It is likely a miracle that I can remember a few sermons from the required chapel services I attended two to three times a week during my year in Bible College. Among the chapel services, youth group services I led on Wednesday nights, and church services on Sundays, I heard anywhere from four to eight sermons a week. Of those sermons, one particularly sticks out. The preacher himself does not stick out in my memory. It's a shame I don't remember who he was, because I wish I could give him credit for the sermon.
The sermon was about Psalm 103, the famous passage beginning and ending with the cry, "Bless the LORD!" The speaker's exegesis of the Psalm was perfect. About two-thirds of the way through the sermon, Christ became clear to me as the preacher set everything in its context and place. As any preacher would want, the preacher made Christ look as Christ does in Scripture: Beautiful. The preacher spoke with authority and let the text breathe all while remaining a captivating orator.
As he arrived towards his conclusion, I waited for the application. How does this apply to my life? As I waited for the answer to that question, I can remember the speaker asking, "Now what is the application for this Psalm?" "Well," he said, "I believe it is simply to enjoy it—to enjoy this truth. And then, once you understand this and enjoy it, you will do the right thing." I left a little confused. Was he right? Was the application to the text so vague that I was simply to enjoy the God revealed in it without further application?
Our cultural need for application
In America, we tend to be very utilitarian readers of Scripture. We ask questions such as, "How is this text useful to me? What can I do with this passage in my life?" Those are not bad questions; however, we have made them a bit too central in our preaching and teaching.
The simple, often-taught model of SOAP is a good example. Many teach this quick format of Biblical interpretation to young people. In SOAP, S stands for Scripture, O is for Observation, A is for application, and P is for prayer. We must, we tell people, walk through the steps of SOAP to grasp what the text means.
We desperately desire someone to tell us what to do to please God. We know if we do what God wants, God will be happy, and if we don't do what he wants, he will not be happy. This simplistic approach makes us feel better, but it rules out faith entirely. We can hear a great sermon and know what to do about it. Instead of taking the truth preached and applying it back into a life of faith, we can just apply it the way preachers tell us.
But that brings up an important question: Are there applications for all passages of Scripture? How does one apply Psalm 103 or many other Psalms? How do you apply the story of Jonah to your life? Is there an application for Paul's lengthy discourse on Israel in Romans 9? How do these texts and many others apply to our lives? Does the story of the crucifixion have an application within it? Most of these stories I've mentioned are not about us, do not involve us, and have little of concern for us.
This may be difficult for us to consider, but what if these stories do not revolve around us?
Application vs. news
We are called to preach the good news. As it's been said before by people such as Tim Keller and Martin Lloyd-Jones, news is a very particular genre. News does not include application. When you read news about refugees entering Croatia, you do not expect the article to end with a section about how it applies lives in America. The story is not about our lives in America. News simply reshapes your perspective and leads you into an introspective state. News causes reflection, among other things.
Advice, on the other hand, always includes application. When you tell someone how to tie a tie or a way to handle a difficult conversation in a relationship, you are leading into application for the individual's situation.
The gospel is not advice, as Keller has said, but news. That means there is less application and more reflection and introspection. The good news—like any news—reshapes our perspective on life, providing for us a new way to think about how we might live. This is what Paul called, "the renewing of your mind."
When the gospel was spreading in its first days, the eyewitnesses of the resurrection were not concerned with how the resurrection applied to our lives. Instead, the news transformed how they saw themselves and the world around them. Don't get me wrong, the news led them to repentance or, in the words of that preacher in my Bible College, the news led them to "do the right thing." The news of the gospel transformed their mind and their actions.
It's not always about you
Application turns the focus to us. It tends to make every passage about us. When we ask for the application in a sermon, we're asking, "What does this have to do with me?" Unfortunately, the answer to this question when approaching Scripture is most often, "very little." Most of Scripture is better approached with the question, "What does this say about God?" This is the Biblical theologians' best question.
To read Scripture and then ask of it any question about ourselves is to assume the documents held within it exist primarily for our benefit. Certainly Scripture benefits the church and is "profitable" for men and women of God (2 Tim. 3:16). But Scripture is very rarely going to be about you; it's more likely going to be about Jesus (Luke 24:27, John 5:39). In the unfolding revelation of Jesus Christ in Scripture, our lives will be transformed. As C.S. Lewis says, "we are mirrors whose brightness, if we are bright, is wholly derived from the sun that shines upon us." So long as you look at yourself, you'll never find yourself, but if we stare at Christ, who we are will become painfully and beautifully clear.
What is a pastor to do?
I started to learn this when my application sections of Scripture came less readily to my mind. I moved from a suburban church in Oregon to an inner city church in San Francisco. Our church is diverse in every way—socially, economically, ethnically—and trying to shoehorn a one-size-fits all application did not strike me as being faithful to the text or helpful for my complex congregation.
That's when I remembered the sermon from Bible College. What if most passages are not meant to be applied, but heard? What if instead of being concerned so much about how a passage "applies to our lives," we began concerning ourselves with how a text shows us God in Christ? What if that was enough? What if seeing the beauty of Jesus in the Bible led us to do the right thing?
As the pastor of a diverse body, I found myself trying to make a passage "work" for the homeless guy in the congregation and the wealthy woman working in the technology industry. I would try to show how the text applied to all ethnic experiences. It rarely worked.
I started reading sermons by the great Episcopalian preacher, Fleming Rutledge. In an interview, she mentioned her passion to close sermons with a promise from God—something with which the entire congregation could be encouraged, something they could cling to. She said many bad sermons end with things we "ought" to do. Another tendency is for us to talk about how God is "calling us" to do something. That language, Rutledge would argue, leaves congregations weary and discouraged as they foresee all of the ways they'll fail those commands in the week.
Rutledge argues for leaning on the promise of God found in Scripture. We know each command in Scripture is rooted in a promise, but isn't it strange that we tend to preach the command more than the promise? Perhaps the promise was given to us for the command to be fueled?
I've decided to forget about "application" in my sermons. It's making them better. That doesn't mean I never mention something practical or that I never give my people specific instructions. That's not what I'm saying. I am saying that I have changed the arc of my sermons. I desire to show what the text is saying and how the writing is pointing us towards a revelation of Christ. Perhaps throughout the message I will sprinkle bits of advice and application, but I don't want to build there—and I definitely don't want to end there anymore. Many of my sermons used to include some of Jesus and end big on the application. Now I want to include some application while ending big on the promise of Jesus for everyone who confesses his name.
I suppose I have learned what was taught to me many years ago in Bible College: Much of Scripture is meant to be enjoyed, not applied.
Chris Nye is a pastor, professor, and writer living in the Silicon Valley with his wife, Ali. Connect on Twitter: @chrisnye