Chapter 74

Blending Bible Content and Life Application

How to talk to people about themselves

It was a disastrous sermon.

A church in Dallas invited me to preach on John 14. That's not an easy passage. It is filled with exegetical questions about death and the Second Coming. How do you explain, "If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself?" How is Jesus preparing that place? Does Jesus mean we won't go to be with him until he comes back? What about soul sleep? I spent most of my week studying the text and reading the commentaries to answer questions like these.

When I got up to preach, I knew I had done my homework. Though the issues were tough, I had worked through them and was confident I was ready to deliver solid biblical teaching on the assigned passage.

Five minutes into the sermon, though, I knew I was in trouble. The people weren't with me. At the ten-minute mark, people were falling asleep. One man sitting near the front began to snore. Worse, he didn't disturb anyone! No one was listening.

Even today, whenever I talk about that morning, I still get an awful feeling in the pit of my stomach. What went wrong? The problem was that I spent the whole sermon wrestling with the tough theological issues, issues that intrigued me. Everything I said was valid. It might have been strong stuff in a seminary classroom. But in that church, in that pulpit, it was a disaster.

What happened? I didn't speak to the life questions of my audience. I answered my questions, not theirs. Some of the men and women I spoke to that day were close to going home to be with the Lord. What they wanted to know was, "Will he toss me into some ditch of a grave, or will he take me safely home to the other side? When I get to heaven, what's there?"

They wanted to hear me say: "You know, Jesus said he was going to prepare a place for us. The Creator of the universe has been spending 2,000 years preparing a home for you. God only spent six days creating the world, and look at its beauty! Imagine, then, what the home he has been preparing for you must be like. When you come to the end of this life, that's what he'll have waiting for you."

That's what I should have preached. At least I should have started with their questions. But I didn't.

It's also possible to make the opposite error—to spend a whole sermon making practical applications without rooting them in Scripture. I don't want to minimize Scripture. It's possible to preach a skyscraper sermon—one story after another with nothing in between. Such sermons hold people's interest but give them no sense of the eternal. Talking about "mansions over the hilltop" comes from country-western music, not the Bible. A sermon full of nonbiblical speculations is ultimately unsatisfying.

Some of the work I did in my study, then, could have helped the people answer their questions. The job is to combine both biblical content and life application in an effective way.

How much content is enough?

How then can we strike the right balance in our preaching between biblical content and life application? The basic principle is to give as much biblical information as the people need to understand the passage, and no more. Then move on to your application.

The distinction between exegesis and exposition is helpful here. Exegesis is the process of getting meaning from the text, often through noting the verb tense or where the word emphasis falls in the original languages. That's what you do in your study as you prepare. But it's seldom appropriate in a sermon on Sunday morning. In fact, an overuse of Greek or Hebrew can make us snobs. Using the jargon of my profession can come across as a putdown, a way of saying, "I know something you don't know." There's an arrogance about that that can create distance between me and the audience.

I served for ten years as a general director of Christian Medical and Dental Society. Sometimes physicians would use technical medical terms when they talked with me, and I wouldn't know what they were talking about. Once I said to one of my friends, "I hope you don't talk to your patients as you do me, because I don't know the jargon. I'm an educated person. I just don't happen to be as educated in medicine as you are."

Do you know what he said to me? He replied, "Preachers do that in the pulpit all the time."

I did a lot of that when I first got out of seminary. I used my knowledge of Greek and Hebrew in the study and in the pulpit. One day a woman wounded me with a compliment: "I just love to hear you preach. In fact, when I see the insights you get from the original languages, I realize that my English Bible is hardly worth reading."

I went home asking myself, What have I done? I'm trying to get people into their Bibles, but I've taken this lady out of hers.

Spurgeon was right: the people in the marketplace cannot learn the language of the academy, so the people in the academy must learn the language of the marketplace. It's the pastor's job to translate.

While raw exegesis doesn't belong in a Sunday morning sermon, what does belong there is exposition. Exposition is drawing from your exegesis to give the people what they need to understand the passage. They don't need all you've done in exegesis, but they do need to see the framework, the flow of the passage. They should be able to come back to the passage a few weeks after you've preached on it, read it, and say, "Oh, I understand what it says."

Does this mean there is no place in the church for exegesis? Of course not. As you study, you may dig out all kinds of material that would help certain people who enjoy detailed Bible study. While including these tidbits in a sermon resembles distracting footnotes, this kind of technical teaching is appropriate for a classroom.

The "So what?" of preaching

All preaching involves a "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 good." But after the creation of man, God observes, "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 they 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?"

Real-life examples: necessary but dangerous

To make a principle come to life—to show how it can be applied—we need to give specific real-life examples, illustrations that say, "Here is how someone faced this problem, and this is what happened with her." But as necessary as real-life examples are, they carry a danger.

Suppose, for example, that someone preaches on the principle of modesty. Should a Christian dress with modesty? The answer is yes. But how do you apply that? One preacher may say, "Well, any skirt that's above the knee is immodest." So, he ends up with a church full of knee-length people. In that church, one application of a principle has assumed all the force of the principle itself. That is the essence of legalism: giving to a specific application the force of the principle.

I have a friend who keeps a journal, and it works for him. But when he preaches about it, he makes it sound as though Christians who are not journaling can't be growing. Whenever you say, "If you're not doing this particular act, then you're not following this principle," that's legalism.

How, then, can you preach for practical application if every time you say, "This is how to apply this truth," you run the risk of promoting legalism? Let me answer with a couple of examples.

When my father was in his eighties, he came to live with us. After a while he grew senile, and his behavior became such that we could no longer keep him in our home. Because his erratic behavior endangered himself and our children, we had to put him in a nursing home. It cost me half my salary each month to keep him there. For eight years, until he died, I visited my dad almost every day. In eight years I never left that rest home without feeling somewhat guilty about his being there. I would have preferred to have had him in our home, but we could not care for him properly.

A few years later, my mother-in-law, who was dying of cancer, came to live with us in our home in Denver. It was a tough period in our marriage. I was trying to get settled as president of Denver Seminary. My wife, Bonnie, was up with her mother day and night. She somehow changed her mother's soiled bed six or seven times a day. For eighteen months, Bonnie took care of her in our home. When Mrs. Vick died, we had no regrets. We knew Bonnie had done everything she could to make her last months comfortable.

How should Christians care for their aging parents? Do you keep them in your home or do you place them in a nursing facility? There is no single Christian answer. It depends on your situation, your children, your resources, and your parents.

There is, though, a single guiding principle: we must honor our parents and act in love toward them. To make a Christian decision, you can't start with a selfish premise; you start by asking what is best for everyone involved. How you apply that principle in a given situation depends on a complex set of variables.

The way to avoid the trap of legalism, then, is to distinguish clearly between the biblical principle and its specific applications. One way to do this in preaching is to illustrate a principle with two or three varying examples, not just one, so you don't equate the principle with one particular way of applying it.

When our children were young, I lived under the idea that if we didn't have daily devotions with our children—a family altar—somehow we were failing God. The problem was, family devotions worked for other people, but although we tried all kinds of approaches, they never worked for us. Our children sat still for them on the outside but ran away from them on the inside. Yet we kept at them because I felt that a family altar was at the heart of a Christian family.

Then I realized that family devotions wasn't the principle but the application of a principle. The principle was that I needed to bring up my children to know and love God. I had mistakenly been giving to our family devotions the same imperative that belonged to the principle behind it.

We then came up with a different approach, one that worked for us. Our two children left for school at different times. Each morning before Vicki left, I would pray with her about the day, about what was coming up. A little later, Torrey and one of his friends came into my study, and we'd sit and pray for five minutes about what their day held.

That may not sound as satisfying in a sermon as saying we had devotions as a family at the breakfast table every morning, but for us it was an effective way to honor the principle. A preacher must make a clear distinction between the principle and its applications.

This is not to say, however, that a biblical principle must sound abstract and vague. Sometimes a preacher merely translates the principle into terms that a congregation understands.

In our American frontier days, there was a settlement in the west whose citizens were engaged in the lumber business. The town felt they wanted a church. They built a building and called a minister. The preacher moved into the settlement and initially was well-received. Then one afternoon he happened to see some of his parishioners dragging some logs, which had been floated down the river from another village upstream, onto the bank. Each log was marked with the owner's stamp on one end. To his great distress, the minister saw his members pulling in the logs and sawing off the end where the telltale stamp appeared. The following Sunday he preached a strong sermon on the commandment "Thou shalt not steal."

At the close of the service, his people lined up and offered enthusiastic congratulations. "Wonderful message, Pastor." "Mighty fine preaching." The response bothered him a great deal. So he went home to prepare his sermon for the following Sunday. He preached the same sermon but gave it a different ending: "And thou shalt not cut off the end of thy neighbor's logs." When he got through, the congregation ran him out of town.

It's possible to state the principle in terms the audience clearly understands.

"We" preaching and "you" preaching

Another way to view the relationship between explanation and application is to look at the pronouns each calls for. Good preachers identify with their hearers when they preach. All of us stand before God to hear what God's Word says to us. The Letter to the Hebrews says that the high priest was taken from among men to minister in the things pertaining to man. The high priest knew what it was to sin and to need forgiveness. With the people, he stood before God in need of cleansing. In identifying with the people, he represented the people to God.

But that same priest, by offering a sacrifice, could minister God's cleansing to the people. Not only did he represent the people to God, he also represented God to the people. Somehow, that's also what preaching does.

When I'm listening to a good sermon, there comes a point when I lose track of all the people around me. As the preacher speaks, I experience God talking to me about me. The time for explanation has passed; the time for application has come.

At that point, it's appropriate for the preacher to leave behind "we" in favor of "you." No longer is the preacher representing the people to God; he is representing God to the people. "We've seen the biblical principle; we've seen two or three ways others have applied it. Now, what does this say to you?"

"You've got to decide how you're going to spend your money."

"You've got to decide whether you're going to take your marriage vows seriously."

It's you—not you plural, but you singular—you personally who must decide what you will do with the truth you've heard.

For the preacher to say "you" at that point isn't arrogant; he's not standing apart from the congregation. He's simply challenging each listener to make personal application.

In the final analysis, effective application does not rely on techniques. It is more a stance than a method. Life-changing preaching does not talk to the people about the Bible. Instead, it talks to the people about themselves—their questions, hurts, fears and struggles—from the Bible. When we approach the sermon with that philosophy, flint strikes steel. The flint of someone's problem strikes the steel of the Word of God, and a spark emerges that can set that person on fire for God.