Chapter 73

Application Without Moralism

How to show the relevance of the text

The heart in which the Spirit lives desires to be challenged.

We're facing huge questions about why people are not applying what we tell them. Gallup did a survey that tells us when people claim to be born again, their good behavior actually degenerates. Those who claim to be born again have a higher incidence of drunken driving and divorce than the rest of culture. The incidence of abortion and drug use is not different from the rest of culture among those who claim to be evangelical. So people who say they believe the Scriptures have great difficulties, apparently, applying them.

We need to do application for the sake of our own credibility

One reason we need to be doing application in preaching is for our own personal ethos. You know these terms: ethos, logos, pathos. Ethos is the perceived character of the speaker. Logos is the logical content, the verbal content. And pathos is the emotive content. What would Aristotle say was the most powerful of these three? Ethos. If somebody speaks simply but you believe them to be a person of good character, you listen to them more than to somebody who is eloquent but whom you don't trust. Ethos is more powerful.

The two things that most make up ethos are credibility and compassion. People rate us in terms of our ethos based upon their perception of our credibility and compassion.

Credibility is determined by knowledge and realism. We expect pastors to know facts, but we also expect wisdom and realism. If I as a preacher say, " If you're going to be able to walk with God, you need to learn some Hebrew, " I might as well have thrown the sermon out the window, because the average person thinks that would be nice, but it's unrealistic. So we may be intelligent, but we need to base ethos upon knowledge as well as realism. Much of what happens in application is saying, " I'm not just knowledgeable about exegesis. I know the world you live in. I am able to be realistic. "

Ethos is not just based upon credibility but also compassion. The perceived character of the speaker is based upon a perception of altruism, that you care for people other than yourself. If the perception of the person preaching is, He wants to make an impression, rather than, He's caring for the people to whom he speaks, people will listen. Often they will listen in droves. But they will not trust him. They will find it entertaining, but they will not trust him until they perceive that he cares more about the listener than himself.

What communicates that? What says, " You care about me; you take it out of the ethereal world that makes you impressive, and you put it in my world, where I can do something with it " ? Ethos is tied to the ability to do application, first of all, that is realistic, and second, that is courageous.

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.

We can talk about duty with grace

Is it ungracious to talk about duty?

Number one, to redeem from an empty way of life is gracious. First Peter 1 Peter 1:18 says that God has redeemed us from an empty way of life. The apostle is saying there are pursuits — in that particular context, ceremonial and religious pursuits — that are wrong, vain, or empty, and to let people continue to go down that path is not a gracious thing. God has redeemed us from an empty way of life.

Number two, to teach people to say no to ungodliness is gracious. There are real consequences, harm, danger, and personal hurt in doing what God does not allow. Therefore Paul says in Titus 2:11-12 that it's the grace of God that teaches us to say no to ungodliness and worldly passion.

We also need to recognize that to lead to the blessings of obedience is gracious. Psalm 1 tells us, " Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked. " It would be ungracious to deny people God's blessings by not saying what God requires.

Number four, to teach that there is discipline for disobedience is gracious. It is a gracious thing to say, " God disciplines sin, and I want you to know that, because God disciplines those he loves. " In Hebrews 12:10 we are told that " God disciplines for our good, that we may share in his holiness. " So not to teach about God's discipline is actually to deny people the good he wants to share with them.

These are all reasons that we teach duty and consider it gracious to do so. Where do we cross the line? Where does teaching duty become ungracious?

Number one, to teach that there is merit in obedience is ungracious. To say that to walk in God's ways will make him love you more is an abomination to God. And yet we often, by implication if not by direct statement, imply as much. To imply there is merit in moral behavior is against the Scriptures. Luke 17:10 says that when we have done all we should do, we are still unworthy or unprofitable servants.

Number two, to teach that God rejects for disobedience is ungracious. After all, the father ran to the son while he was still a long way off and when it was apparent to all the state in which he had lived.

To teach that God does not require godliness is ungracious. There are consequences to ungodliness. Micah 6:8 asks the question, " What does God require of you? " There are requirements. They do not merit us to God, but they are still required.

And number four, to teach the law apart from grace is ungracious. Simply to teach the imperatives is ungracious because of the impression it leaves. You may say, " I know you have to have grace in the context of the imperatives of Scripture, but do you have to make sure the gospel is there in every sermon? " If you push me to absolute principles, I'll say you don't if the people in the context understand the gospel. But I don't think most people do get the context. Even when we preach grace, people hear law. It's the human reflex.

It is good exegesis to identify a text in its context. Therefore, in my regular preaching and not just occasionally, I make sure the gospel is present. Ultimately, the motive and exegesis determine proper application. We have to make sure the motive is in place at the same time that we're telling people to do or not do something.

So, how do we do this? We properly apply duty with a grace perspective by regular use of four standard questions of application: what, where, why, and how. You have to anchor all four questions to have done an adequate job of exegesis. It's not enough to say what to do if people don't know why. And if you don't say how, you lead them to despair. You have to say what to do, where to do it, why to do it, and how to do it.

Apply duty with grace by answering what

The what question is instructional specificity — the specific instructions derived from and proven by the exposition's concepts and terminology.

Use consistent terminology. One of the reasons people stop listening to us is that we have become essay writers rather than preachers. When I write an essay, I think of my seventh-grade English teacher saying, " Use a different word. Don't be redundant. " But we're not writing essays. We're talking to listeners. Therefore, if in my exposition I speak about what it means to be one who loves God, and then in application I use the terminology " we have to show affection for the divine, " it's a great essay. It's a terrible message, though, because I've abandoned the terminology I used in the exposition.

One of the most powerful rhetorical tools a preacher has is repetition. When I spend time developing a term and then exchange it for another term, people don't necessarily know I'm talking about the same thing. I'm thinking it's conceptually the same thing, but by changing the term, the listener doesn't hear it as the same thing. So make sure the terms used in explanation are the same terms used in application. This establishes your scriptural rationale and maintains your scriptural authority.

Establish a concept before writing your sermon. I usually encourage students to make application the beginning of sermon writing. Once you've researched the passage, but before you start writing your sermon, you need to know what you're going to tell people to do, so you have a target and you know how to form the message of your sermon.

Apply duty with grace by answering where

In application we also need to provide situational specificity. The what question was instructional. The where question is situational. That is, identify where in real life this concept applies.

When I started preaching, I thought I had to come up with new lists of things people should do every week: you need to go to the bookstore and buy this book; you need to treat your neighbor this way. Even before that sermon I hadn't thought of those things to do. But I thought I had to come up with things for people to do, so I'd come up with these lists.

Situational specificity will make you take the principle of application — we have to be hospitable, we have to be sexually pure, whatever it is — and go to the areas of life in which people are struggling. Instead of saying, " Here's a list of things to do, " say, " How does that principle deal with your life? "

That makes people think, You know where I live.You know what I'm going through.You're actually dealing with the areas of struggle in my life. I see how the Bible applies to my life, not how the Bible gives me a new laundry list of things to do this week that I'm not going to remember 30 seconds after you're done.

When you think of application, think of it in terms of personal struggle. Think of people you know who are struggling, and take the truth to that area. Be concrete. Deal with these real situations in life.

You can be concrete by going in through the who door.

If your principle is, be confident because God knows tomorrow, think about who in your congregation needs to hear that. The students deciding where they're going to go to college next year? The guy who has been laid off from work? The couple who got the bad medical report? They need to know that God knows tomorrow.

When you go in through the who door, you get to the where. You think of the people, and you get to their situation.

There's a danger of fencing in the application by mentioning one situation. We need to spotlight one situation and then quickly unroll to others. Identify other situations people face where the exposition applies, because you don't want to fence it in.

With the first example, you're establishing the reality of this instruction coming into real life. It's like those flashlights that you tighten the lid to focus the beam. You're saying, " Here's the light of truth. To focus that truth I want to show its application to one situation (the person who's struggling with job insecurity). " Now that you've focused the beam so they see what that looks like in real life, you say, " But it's not just job security. There are those of you who have medical issues. There are some of you wondering where you're going to go to school next year. " You're trying to keep from fencing in the application.

When you started going to seminary, you thought the hard work was going to be the exegesis, right? In my mind, the exposition is provided to us; the application comes from us, because we have to exegete not the Word but our people. We have to be involved in their lives. We have to know what they're doing. I can't sit in my study 20 or 40 hours a week and think I'm going to be a great preacher in the pulpit. I can't do application that way. I have to be involved with people, or I can't bring the truth to bear upon their lives.

Apply duty with grace by answering why

The next question is the why question — providing biblical motive. We want to give love over fear as motive; that is, taking away self-protection as the primary reason people are doing something. Also, gratitude over gain as motive. Since we are saved by grace without any merit of our own, why should we do good works? So with our whole lives we may show ourselves grateful to God and give him praise. Not for our gain, but out of love for God.

To answer, Why should I do what God requires? the mode of hierarchy is this: The first reason is love for God, because of the mercy of his Son. Secondly, love for others. We tell people to do things because God loves other people, and if you love God, you'll love those he loves. The last reason is love of self. We're children of the king. We've been redeemed by the blood of the Lamb. We're valuable. Recognize the beauty of a proper love of self, and teach people that beating on themselves is not holiness. There is a motivation that comes from the joy of proper self-love, and that joy should be part of our lives.

Christ-centered, grace-oriented preaching teaches the reason for doing what you're doing is because you are loved. You will not be loved more, but you'll never be loved less. You're responding to the God who gave his Son for you. Your life is not your own. You were purchased with a price, the precious blood of the Lord Jesus Christ. We're responding to the great love he has given.

Apply duty with grace by answering how

Finally, provide biblical enablement. This is answering the how question. The Bible provides means. Some of those means are knowing the do's and the don'ts. We teach people what God says to do, and we teach what God says don't do. The disciplines, the means of grace, are also part of the way we teach what God requires. Prayer, reading of Scripture, fellowship among God's people, and the sacraments are ways God gives us for running the race of holiness.

The chief means to do what God requires is consistent adulation of the mercy of God in Christ. People say, " How do I do that? " They're looking for me to say, " First you put something on your refrigerator door so you can see it. Then you put it on your mirror so when you're shaving you can read it. " Those are good aspects of suggestion, but the most powerful means is to have our hearts penetrated with the amazing mercy of God. That is the most transforming thing, and nothing is more powerful than that. Our greatest way of enabling the people God puts in our lives is to adore the mercy of God before them, so they're constantly getting the message of how wondrous and beautiful his love is. Their primary power is the faith God has put in them.

Faith is confidence that I am a new creature in Christ Jesus. My identity is that of a child of God. I have that privilege now. I am a fundamentally different creature. By faith I apprehend that knowledge that I don't have to listen to the lie of Satan that says I can't change.

The message of Scripture, by faith received, is that you can change. God has provided the means. It's teaching people that they are new creatures in Christ Jesus; by virtue of their union with him they have power to do what God requires.

This article is a transcript of the Preaching Today audio #225 workshop. To order this Preaching Today audio tape, e-mail your request to