No Application Necessary
Should sermons always spell out the practical uses of a text?
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All preaching involves "so what?" A lecture on the archaeology of Egypt, as interesting as it might be, isn't a sermon. A sermon touches life. It demands practical application.
That practical application, though, need not always be spelled out. Imagine, for example, that you borrow my car and it has a flat. You call me up and say, "I've never changed a tire on a car like this. What do I do?"
I tell you how to find the spare, how to use the jack, where to find the key that unlocks the wire rim. Once I give you all the instructions, then do I say, "Now, I exhort you: change the tire"? No, you already want to get the car going. Because you already sense the need, you don't need exhortation. You simply need a clear explanation.
Some sermons are like that. Your people are wrestling with a certain passage of Scripture. They want to know what it means. Unless they understand the text, it's useless to apply it. They don't need exhortation; they need explanation. Their questions about the text must be answered.
You may not need to spell out practical application when you are dealing with basic theological issues — how we see God and ourselves and each other. For example, you might preach on Genesis 1, showing that it's not addressing issues of science so much as questions of theology: What is God like? You might spend time looking at the three groups of days — the first day is light, the fourth day is lights; the second day is sea and sky, the fifth day is fish and birds. Each day is followed by God's evaluation: "It was very good."
Then you ask, "What do we learn about God?" We learn that God is good, that God has a purpose in creation. We learn that while every other living thing is made "after its own kind," man and woman are created in God's image. What does that say about people — the people we pray with and play with, the people we work with or who sleep on the streets?
The whole sermon may be an explanation with little direct application built into it. Of course, that doesn't mean there's no application. If at the close of this sermon someone realizes, That's a significant statement about who we are. There are no ordinary people. Every man and woman has special worth — when that really sinks in — it can make tremendous practical differences as it shapes how a person sees himself and other people.
Or take Romans 3. You might begin by raising in some practical way the question "How does a person stand right before God?" Then you could lead your listeners through Paul's rather complex discussion of what it means to be justified by faith. If you do it well, when you are finished, people should say, "So that's how God remains righteous when he declares us righteous."
Obviously, this passage has great application. But it's so complex you probably couldn't go through Paul's argument and spell out in any detail many practical applications, too, in the same sermon. And that's okay. If hearers really understood the problem of lostness, the solution of salvation serves as a strong application.
We need to trust people to make some of their own practical applications. Some of the best growing I've done has taken place when a concept gripped me and I found myself constantly thinking: How could this apply in my life?
Of course, you do have knowledge your people don't possess, knowledge they expect you to have and share with them. But you can share that knowledge in a manner that doesn't talk down to a congregation, in a way that says, "If you were in my situation, you'd have access to the same information." If you feel you must make all the practical applications for your hearers, do their thinking for them, you underestimate their intelligence. You can dishonor your congregation if you tell them in effect, "You folks couldn't have figured out for yourselves how this applies."
For me, though, the greater danger lies in the opposite direction — in spending too much time on explanation and not going far enough into application. After preaching I've often come away feeling, I should have shown them in a more specific way how to do this. It is difficult for our listeners to live by what they believe unless we answer the question "How?"
Haddon Robinson was a preacher and teacher of preachers all over the world. His last teaching position was as the Harold John Ockenga Distinguished Professor of Preaching at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.