A conversation about application with Bryan Chapell, Haddon Robinson, and Joseph Stowell
Editor’s Note: You've studied the text. Your notes have theology and principles. Now comes the really tough part. How exactly do you connect these profound truths with the gritty stuff of daily life? This is where the sermon needs to shine—or it will fade like a sweet dream.
A number of years ago we say down with three seasoned preachers/preaching professors—Bryan Chapell, Haddon Robinson, and Joseph Stowell—and asked them to talk candidly about their hopes for and struggles with sermon application. Here are some of the highlights from that conversation.
Bryan Chapell: Students come into seminary thinking explanation will be the hardest part of preaching. They discover after a few years that's the falling-off-a-log portion. Eventually the outline jumps off the page. The hard part is "How do I make this real in people's lives? How do I make sure my application is right?" Application is what we never stop sweating.
Joe Stowell: There are several traps in application. Triteness is one. In the college chapel where I preach, I could talk about cheating on exams in the second week of the semester. But I can't do it the third, fourth, fifth — eighth. Our application is often from familiar things or from our own struggles, but we can't get stuck there. Our audience will say, "That's old stuff."
Another challenge is how sensitive to be. I may start driving home a hard lesson on abortion only to realize there are women in my congregation who have had abortions. Somehow I need to wrap that application with some measure of grace and mercy.
Haddon Robinson: That's important. Too often our preaching is "You ought, you must, you should."
Chapell: A seminary professor confronted me on that issue in my senior year. "I don't hear the gospel in your preaching," he said. I was devastated. I didn't understand until five years later what he was talking about. I was full of moralism and "do these things" without really understanding the grace of God.
Stowell: The challenge is to remain rooted in the text. My wife gets irritated when preachers apply what's not in the text. If I do that, she'll tell me. The only power in my application is when people can see, That is in the text. That is true, isn't it? I must do something about that in my life.
Chapell: You also need some life experiences — like raising teenagers or sitting by a few beds and watching people die — to do application well. But some steps will help preachers of any level of experience apply well. We need to know the basic questions of application.
After I have explained what is true from a text, I must ask, "Now what do I do about that?" Then I ask the situational questions. "Where do I do it? And why will that make a difference?" There are questions of motivation and enablement: "How will I do it?"
I have to ask all four of those questions to equip people adequately for what needs to be done.
Robinson: We have to be careful that some of our applications are simply suggestions and not directions. That is, if we give an application that is not directly based on the text but is an implication of the text, it cannot have the same power as the text itself.
Paul in 1 Corinthians 8 says there is only one God; therefore idols are nothing. If you have one God, a necessary implication is you can't have four Gods. But then there are probable implications that fall short of certainty. Then there are possible implications that have to be preached in a suggestive mode. Then there are improbable implications.
All applications do not have the same level of certainty. If we preach as if they do, we lead people into legalism.
Chapell: People best remember the applications they strongly disagree with. The more I push people beyond their level of comfort or agreement, the more I have to base my reasoning in Scripture.
It is important to distinguish between a scriptural mandate and a good idea. For example, a scriptural mandate is we should feast upon the Word of God. It is a good idea that we have a devotional quiet time twenty-minutes long in the morning. If I preach that morning devotional as the scriptural mandate, then hearers won't buy it.
I could use this kind of language to make that distinction: "I'm obligated to say you must feast upon the Word of God. It is your bread. Now, a good way of doing that...."
Robinson: Sometimes I take a principle and, instead of applying it for one person, I show how three different people have applied it to their lives. I'm trying to help people think Christianly about life by seeing that one principle can be applied in many areas of life.
Stowell: A difficulty with applications is they get "listy." "Here are the three applications." Somebody in our audience who doesn't fit into those three things may think they're off the hook. Didn't mention my problem; I'm out of here. So I've tried to discipline myself to point out the principle, as Haddon said. To this we're accountable.
Robinson: Sometimes I'll say, "I know folks who have applied this truth this way. It is not where I'm at in life, but I can understand how they would do this." That's especially helpful when dealing with tough issues.
There are problems we face today that the Bible does not speak to directly. If we want to address those problems, we have to ask what the basic questions are in the situation. Then we have to think theologically, and the theology, hopefully, is based in the text.
For instance, if you're dealing with sexual looseness, you can go to a passage in Scripture that speaks to it. But if somebody raises the possibility of, say, genetic manipulation and of the treatment of their unborn child, Paul doesn't address that in the Galatian letter. So you have to back up and say, "What are the basic questions we have here? Where does the Bible address this theologically?" And then based on that, "What are the passages behind it?"
Stowell: We need an effective way to speak to those who have been victimized or involved in the moral issues I'm teaching about. When talking about divorce, I may say, "Some of us in our past have struggled with these things. Some of us here are divorced. But all of us, I believe, want to cling to the truth of God's Word. As we hear these things, all of us must respond with mercy and grace. Here is what God says."
Chapell: One thing that helped me with the compassionate boldness you're talking about was an older pastor who years ago told me, "The mistake young preachers often make is they believe Christians don't want to be challenged. But people in whom the Spirit of God is alive do want to be challenged with the truth of God's Word. They do want to grow. They do want to know what God says even if they say 'ouch' at the end."
Stowell: A board of trustees once asked me to preach on giving. I had always been hesitant to preach on money out of fear that was the visitors' characterization of the church and the preacher. At the end of the message I did this quasi-apology for preaching on money. A friend said to me afterward, "Don't ever apologize for preaching the Word of God."
Chapell: When people sense we love them so much we fear not to say what God says to them, they're willing to listen to the hard things. They know when you're taking a risk out of concern for them.
Stowell: The most powerful message we preach is not what we do in a pulpit, but it's in our lives consistently lived before the people. If we have proved we love them, they will listen when we come to those portions of the text because they'll know we're not using the Bible as a bazooka. Outside of the supernatural power of the Word of God, that's what brings credibility and effectiveness to our preaching.