How Biblical Application Really Works
How Biblical Application Really Works
Faithful biblical application involves finding our lives in Jesus and his church.
The goal of learning any biblical truth is, through faith in Christ, to walk in line with the gospel and render the obedience of faith (Romans 1:5; 16:26; Galatians 2:14). No obedience apart from faith is true obedience; "For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin" (Rom. 14:23). Thus, we are declared righteous by faith alone (justification), and we grow in likeness to Christ by faith alone (sanctification). What every person needs from Scripture is the gospel.
We cannot claim any of the promises of God apart from Christ and his gospel because there are no promises of God apart from Christ and his gospel. Paul tells us, "all the promises of God find their 'Yes' in him" (2 Corinthians 1:20). Conducting one's life in line with the gospel is not merely a matter of pulling isolated truths out of the Bible to apply to our lives; rather, it is determining to apply our lives to the biblical gospel story. When someone abstracts a biblical truth from the Bible, attempting to apply that truth to their life by fitting it into their existing story (personal metanarrative), the biblical truth is always misapplied.
I would suggest a simple change to the way we think and speak about biblical application. Think about applying our lives to biblical truth, as it is understood within the biblical story, rather than applying an isolated biblical truth to our lives. Biblical application is evoked by a confrontation with the truth of a particular portion of biblical revelation. To understand and apply that particular truth, we must understand that portion of revelation in its immediate and epochal context but also in the context of Christ-centered redemptive history. We must learn to think within the biblical storyline. Without this structural gospel unity, biblical history becomes a chaotic jumble of people and places with little transformative power for our lives.
The Bible is our story
According to the biblical witness, believers are to think of the Bible as their story. Paul makes clear that the words of Old Testament Scriptures were written for those to whom he addressed and future believers as well. He writes:
But the words "it was counted to him" [Gen. 15:6] were not written for his sake alone, but for ours also (Rom. 4:23-24a).
For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction (Rom. 15:4).
For it is written in the Law of Moses, "You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain [Deut. 25:4]." Is it for oxen that God is concerned? Does he not certainly speak for our sake? It was written for our sake (1 Cor. 9:9-10).
Now these things [in Moses life] took place as examples for us (1 Cor. 10:6).
Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come. (1 Cor. 10:11).
God was teaching future believers their story when he taught the Old Testament saints. He does not refer to biblical texts as isolated abstractions but rather as part of a transformative story. He argues that the Old Testament was written to provide us instruction that produces "endurance" and "encouragement," that "we might have hope" (Rom. 15:4).
Adopted children learn their family story
Think about how adopted children adjust and apply the truth of being in a new family. How does familial transformation happen? It does not happen by bullet points of new information but by embracing a new identity as beloved children who are no longer orphans. The children start learning, thinking, and living a new story. This transformative process involves facts, but not isolated facts. Adopted children begin living and envisioning the world within the boundaries of their new familial story. Their new story gives them a new identity. Adopted children are not simply being helped by a family—they are family. As they learn their new family story, they place all facts and information within that story. They apply their lives to that story.
There is a world of difference between reading Scripture while rummaging for facts to fix self-defined problems and reading Scripture as adopted children of God who desperately want to know their history and family identity as a child of God. We must not simply attempt to learn information from the Bible but to live within the story of the Bible—the gospel story. Paul asserts the story of "our adoption as sons through Jesus Christ" (Ephesians 1:5) began before the foundation of the world and extends into eternity (Eph. 1). In Christ, all of the stories in biblical redemptive history are our stories. We must long to develop a familial gospel identity and accent in order to walk in line with our new family story, finding our identity in Jesus who is not ashamed to call us brothers and sisters (Hebrews 2:11).
The Bible as self-help encyclopedia or a family adoption story
When we think in terms of abstracting a truth from the Bible and applying it to our lives, we are mirroring the American cultural triumph of the therapeutic. This individualistic focus understands the individual at the center of everything. We must attack the hermeneutical presupposition of the primacy of self-defined personal need. The individual believer is a citizen of "the kingdom of his beloved Son" and is a part of a community of believers who are called to fight the spiritual battle together, not as isolated individuals (Colossians 1:13, Eph. 6:10-18).
I know a family who adopted an older child from an unspeakably horrific orphanage in another country. When they brought her home one of the things they told her was that she was expected to clean her room every day. When she heard about that responsibility, she fixated on it and saw it as a way she would earn her family's love. In other words, she isolated the responsibility and applied it to her existing frame of thinking that was shaped by life in the orphanage. Thus, every morning when her parents came in her room, it was immaculate and she would sit on the bed and would say, "My room is clean. Can I stay? Do you still love me?" Her words broke her new parents' hearts.
Eventually, the girl learned to hear her parents' words as their unconditionally beloved child who would never be forsaken, not as a visitor trying to earn her place in the family. After she knew that she was an inseparable part of the family story, even correction and discipline did not cause her to question her family's love for her; she understood correction and discipline to be part of what it meant to be in the family.
When someone thinks in terms of pulling a truth out of the Bible and applying it to a self-defined problem, what if their frame of thinking is isolated and wrong? When they read, "And all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, if you obey the voice of the Lord your God" (Deuteronomy 28:2), they will likely conclude that if they obey God more stringently they can earn a blessing. They may define a blessing as a marriage saved, a promotion or raise at work, more recognition, better health, happiness, or an easier life, after all, read Deuteronomy 28:3-14. Of course, interpreting it that way corrupts the meaning by isolating it from its biblical context and treats the Scripture as if it is all about the individual—it is not. Such an approach would be an attempt to use God, not trust him.
What if the same verse is approached from the perspective of applying my life to biblical truth? How did I become a part of the biblical story? Because I was redeemed through gospel adoption. Why is this passage here? Not to teach me how to earn my family privilege but because I am in the family by grace and this is my story. What does this passage teach me about my Father and his love for me? One thing the passage teaches is that I am not able to define my problems and determine what it means to be blessed apart from God. What I think of as a curse often turns out to be a blessing. I need to trust God and not try to use him.
Our 'But what about me?' problem
In 1 Corinthians, the apostle Paul confronted the problem of division in the church (1 Cor. 1:10). Apparently, the Corinthian Christians were divided into factions that were based on congregational personalities and ministry leaders. Paul writes, "What I mean is that each one of you says, 'I follow Paul,' or 'I follow Apollos,' or 'I follow Cephas,' or 'I follow Christ'" (1 Cor. 1:12). He goes on to rebuke their divisive party spirit as "the wisdom of the world" (1 Cor. 1:20). Paul contends that the answer to their factiousness is for everyone in the church community to remember that no one is anything (1 Cor. 1:26-29) apart from Christ and him crucified (1 Cor. 2:2). The word of the cross is the wisdom of God that makes foolish the wisdom of the world, which is defining life outside of the lens of the gospel (1 Cor. 1:20). Because of the gospel, Paul refers to the church in Corinth as "brothers and sisters" who are "one body" (1 Cor. 12).
I fear our problem today is worse than the one Paul faced in the church at Corinth. At least the divisive factions in the church at Corinth were focused on following particular teachers. The divisiveness in many churches today is completely self-referential. Many read their Bibles as if the Scripture was written only for them and hear sermons as if the sermon is only a word to them as an individual. The consequence of that thinking is an individualized, self-protective touchiness among Christians. To borrow the phraseology of Paul, "What I mean is that each one of you says, I am of single, I am of married, I am of children, I am of without children, I am of young, or I am of old." Everyone feels the obligation to defend their individual party identity by demanding attention. Many pastors are hesitant to celebrate truths the Scripture calls us to celebrate because they fear those in the congregation who will say, "But what about me?"
Consider a pastor who celebrates the blessing of children in worship service and a sermon. The pastor might receive a letter from a married couple without children who say, "Please make sure that we remind members that marriage is still valuable if you don't have children!" The pastor wants to be sensitive to the members of the congregation, so the pastor preaches on God's gift of marriage and receives from a single man or woman a letter from worded similarly to the previous letter save for one word. The letter says, "Please make sure that we remind members that singleness is still valuable for those who do not have a spouse yet!" The compassionate pastor, beleaguered but determined to meet the needs of the flock, responds by preaching a sermon on the inherent value of being able to have a single-minded focus on Jesus as a single person but then receives a letter from a married couple with children that says, "Please make sure that we remind members that marriage is a blessing and so are children!" I could go on, but I think you get the point.
Some pastors and churches handle this factious problem of hyper-individualism by superficial and sentimental Jesus talk. They do not focus directly on specifics like age, gender, marriage, or children. In other words, they take a lowest common denominator approach to preaching and only talk about things everyone can affirm. Sermons like that treat the congregation as generic individuals, not a diverse adopted family of faith, and reinforce a faulty view of applying the Bible. This approach feeds interpretive narcissism rather than confronting it. The result is a misshapen understanding of the Scripture and of Jesus. He is viewed as an itinerant self-help therapist. When everyone thinks in terms of applying themselves to the biblical story as the adopted children of God, hearing about the needs of others in the family does not diminish the individual family member because everyone cares about the family as a whole.
Finding our lives in Jesus
We must approach the Bible looking for what a passage teaches us about God in Christ, his kingdom, and the community of faith. Only then should we think about ourselves by asking, "How I can glorify God in Christ, serving his kingdom and the family of faith, by applying my life to this biblical truth?"
When we approach the Bible thinking first of ourselves and our self-defined problems, we will not abandon the competing story we are telling ourselves. We often attempt to add an abstracted biblical truth to our competing narrative. This self-referential interpretive approach is unfaithful to the Scripture and often leads us to wrongly conclude biblical truth has failed us, but God never promised to help us live the story we are telling ourselves. He calls us, by adopting gospel grace, to live for the kingdom of Christ.
The differing ways of approaching biblical application have profound consequences. Isolated moral facts and life principles wrenched out of the totality of the biblical storyline can easily be assimilated into one's own personal metanarrative. When this abstracting happens, the truth claim presents little challenge to the "wisdom of the world." Faithful biblical application involves finding our lives in Jesus and his church. We must apply our lives to his kingdom story so that we are transformed by our gospel identity. Thus, obedience is never a matter of mere performance but is "the obedience of faith" (Rom. 1:5; 16:26)—adopted children who have their identities formed by their familial gospel story. As Peter writes, "Once you were not a people, but now you are God's people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy" (1 Peter 2:10).