Application Without Moralism
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It surprises me how much the people of God truly want to be challenged in their Christian walk. We get scared as speakers. We think, I can't talk about that, because there are people I know who are struggling with that. Yet the heart in which the Spirit lives desires to walk with God, desires to be challenged. I don't mean people want to be beaten over the head or dealt with tactlessly or angrily, but they desire to be challenged. And when the preacher is willing to say things everyone knows are difficult for him to say, they trust him more, because they know he put himself at risk for them.
Think how we joke about pastors who always play it safe: " He's always going to word it politically. He's never going to say anything that upsets anyone. " And think how little respect we have for them. So the willingness to say things that put us at risk by doing application that comes into people's real existence, though it is scary, is necessary in terms of being able to have a hearing long term.
One reason we're troubled about application is what I just mentioned — the courage required to be specific. If you look at traditional messages, they move from explanation to illustration to application: here's the truth; here's the truth demonstrated; now here's the truth applied. But how do people listen to a message? Typically, if it doesn't go on too long and isn't too dense, people listen to explanation. Then they wake up again when you do illustration.
Then, when you go to application, this is the breaking point. This is where people often cut it off, because the preacher has now stopped preaching and has gone to meddling. Again, in the hearts of the redeemed there is often a desire for this. But it is also the place that is most risky, because you may say things that are foolish; you may say things that are wise but highly disagreed with; you may simply say things people aren't ready to hear.
Another thing that troubles us about application is the hermeneutics required to be specific: How do I move from that biblical principle to a present imperative? We say things like, " Paul was a missionary, and therefore you should reach out to your neighbors. " And " Jesus wore sandals, so you should " What do we say? Where are the exemplars truly instructive and where are they culturally bound? The people in the Acts 2 and 4 passages held all things in common. Are we supposed to do that in our churches? And where does the Bible talk about cloning? We struggle with the hermeneutics required to be specific, even though we talk about the importance of it.
A final thing that troubles us about application is the grace denied, or at least presumed to be denied, by requiring specific duties. I have a number of people who have come out of " grace circles " — the " gracers, " as they are sometimes identified today, who don't even let you use the word duty. They say it's not biblical to talk about grace and obligation in the same sentence.