The Heresy of Application
It's when we're applying Scripture that error most likely creeps in.
More heresy is preached in application than in Bible exegesis. Preachers want to be faithful to the Scriptures, and going through seminary, they have learned exegesis. But they may not have learned how to make the journey from the biblical text to the modern world. They get out of seminary and realize the preacher's question is application: How do you take this text and determine what it means for this audience?
Sometimes we apply the text in ways that might make the biblical writer say, "Wait a minute, that's the wrong use of what I said." This is the heresy of a good truth applied in the wrong way.
For example, I heard someone preach a sermon from Ruth on how to deal with in-laws. Now, it's true that in Ruth you have in-laws. The problem is, Ruth was not given to solve in-law problems. The sermon had a lot of practical advice, but it didn't come from the Scriptures.
Someone might ask, "What's the problem with preaching something true and useful, even if it's not the central thrust of your text or not what the writer had in mind?" When we preach the Bible, we preach with biblical authority. We agree with Augustine: What the Bible says, God says. Therefore, we bring to bear on, say, this in-law problem, the full authority of God. The person hearing the sermon thinks, If I don't deal with my mother-in-law this way, I am disobedient to God. To me, that's a rape of the Bible. You're saying what God doesn't say.
One effect of this is you undermine the Scriptures you say you are preaching. Ultimately, people come to believe that anything with a biblical flavor is what God says.
The long-term effect is that we preach a mythology. Myth has an element of truth along with a great deal of puff, and people tend to live in the puff. They live with the implications of implications, and then they discover that what they thought God promised, he didn't promise.
A week ago I talked with a young woman whose husband had left her. She said, "I have tried to be submissive. Doesn't the Bible say if a wife submits, she'll have a happy and successful marriage?"
"No," I said, "the Bible doesn't say that."
She said, "I've gone to seminars and heard that."
"What the Bible says is you have a responsibility as a wife. A husband also has a responsibility. But the best you may have is a C marriage. There is no guarantee you will have an A marriage."
The difficult bridge from then to now
In application we attempt to take what we believe is the truth of the eternal God, which was given in a particular time and place and situation, and apply it to people in the modern world who live in another time, another place, and a very different situation. That is harder than it appears.
The Bible is specific—Paul writes letters to particular churches; the stories are specific—but my audience is general. For example, a man listening to a sermon can identify with David committing adultery with Bathsheba, but he's not a king, and he doesn't command armies. We have to take this text that is historically specific and determine how the living God speaks from it to people today.
Preachers make that journey in different ways. One is to take the biblical text straight over to the modern situation. In some cases, that works well. For example, Jesus says, "Love your enemies." I say to my listeners: "Do you have enemies? Love them."
But then I turn the page, and Jesus says, "Sell what you have, give to the poor, and follow me." I hesitate to bring this straight over because I think, If everybody does this, we'll have problems, big problems.
Some texts look as though they can come straight over to my contemporary audience, but not necessarily. I need to know something about the circumstances of both my text and of my audience. For example, let's say I ask the question, as many Christians did in the last century, "Is slavery wrong?" I go to Paul, who does talk about slavery. But I discover when I get into his world that he's not necessarily answering my questions about the nineteenth century in America, because the slavery Paul talks about isn't the slavery we knew in the United States in the nineteenth century.
In the first century, people sold themselves into slavery because they were economically better off as slaves, protected by their owners, than they were free. Most slaves were freed by age 30, because in that day maintaining slaves was economically difficult. Roman law said an owner could not handle slaves any way he wanted to. And if you walked down the streets of Rome, you could not tell the slaves from the free men by the color of their skin. If I don't realize that Paul's situation and mine are different, I may apply Paul's advice about slaves in a way it was never intended.
Another difficulty is that Paul talks to people I can't see or hear. It's like overhearing a telephone conversation. I listen to only half of the conversation, and I think I know what the other person is saying, but I can't be sure. I can only guess at what the full conversation is from what I hear one person saying. The questions the writer answers are not necessarily my questions.
There are signals that may indicate we are confusing the questions. For instance, a text cannot mean what it has not meant. That is, when Paul wrote to people in his day, he expected them to understand what he meant. For example, we have some thirty different explanations for what Paul meant when he wrote the Corinthians about the baptism for the dead. But the people who read that letter the first time didn't say, "I wonder what he meant by that." They may have had further questions, but the meaning of the subject was clear to them.
I cannot make that passage mean something today that it did not mean in principle in the ancient world. That's why I have to do exegesis. I have to be honest with the text before I can come over to the contemporary world.
Ladder of abstraction
I picture a "ladder of abstraction" that comes up from the biblical world and crosses over and down to the modern setting. I have to be conscious how I cross this "abstraction ladder." I want to make sure the biblical situation and the current situation are analogous at the points I am making them connect. I must be sure the center of the analogy connects, not the extremes.
Sometimes, as I work with a text, I have to climb the abstraction ladder until I reach the text's intent. For instance, Leviticus says, "Don't boil a kid in its mother's milk." First, you have to ask, "What is this all about?" At face value, you might think, If I have a young goat, and I want to cook it in its mother's milk for dinner tonight, I should think twice. But we now know the pagans did that when they worshiped their idolatrous gods. Therefore, what you have here is not a prohibition against boiling a kid in its mother's milk, but against being involved in the idolatry that surrounded God's people or bringing its practices into their religion.
If that's the case, it does no good for the preacher to bring this text straight over. You must climb the ladder of abstraction a couple of levels until you reach the principle: You should not associate yourself with idolatrous worship, even in ways that do not seem to have direct association with physically going to the idol.
Let's say you know that a passage can't come straight across.
Abstract up to God. One thing I always do when climbing the abstraction ladder is abstract up to God. Every passage has a vision of God, such as God as Creator or Sustainer.
Find the depravity factor. Second I ask, "What is the depravity factor? What in humanity rebels against that vision of God?"
These two questions are a helpful clue in application because God remains the same, and human depravity remains the same. Our depravity may look different, but it's the same pride, obstinacy, disobedience.
Take 1 Corinthians 8, in which Paul addresses the subject of eating meat offered to idols. The vision of God: He is our redeemer. Therefore, Paul argues, I will not eat meat, because if I wound my brother's weak conscience, I sin against Christ, who redeemed him. The depravity factor: People want their rights, so they don't care that Christ died for their brother.
Thus saith the Lord?
Today's preachers approach the task of application different than that of previous generations. Today, what's prevalent is specific application. In the past, the application would have been more general—to trust God and give him glory. Today, preaching deals with how to have a happy marriage, how to bring up your children, how to deal with stress.
Of course, there are always times I find myself saying, "I wish I hadn't applied it quite like that." In my twenties I preached some things I believed deeply then, but now I wonder, How in the world did I come up with that? I remember believing that headship meant the husband ought to take care of the finances. Worse, my wife insists that in a sermon on marriage, one of my main points was that a wife ought not serve her husband instant coffee!
Obviously that application came out of the culture of that day more than anything else. It preached well. In those days I used anything that popped into my head that looked like it applied. The awful thing was I said in the name of God what God was not saying. Is it disobedience against God for the wife to keep the checkbook? Of course not. Asking the question, "Does this rank at the level of obedience?" is a good test of sermon application.
Of course, occasionally, you can't say, "This is a matter of obedience to God." We want to have a "Thus saith the Lord" about specific things in people's lives, but we can't always have that. So we need to distinguish between various types of implications from the text. Implications may be necessary, probable, possible, improbable, or impossible.
For example, a necessary implication of "You shall not commit adultery" is you cannot have a sexual relationship with a person who is not your spouse. A probable implication is you ought to be very careful of strong bonding friendships with a person who is not your spouse. A possible implication is you ought not travel regularly to conventions or other places with a person who is not your spouse. An improbable conclusion is you should not at any time have lunch with someone who is not your spouse. An impossible implication is you ought not have dinner with another couple because you are at the same table with a person who is not your spouse.
Too often preachers give to a possible implication all the authority of a necessary implication, which is at the level of obedience. Only with necessary implications can you preach, "Thus saith the Lord."
There are different ways to phrase such distinctions in the pulpit. One way is to say, "This is the principle, and the principle is clear. How this principle applies in our lives may differ with different people in different situations."
For example, the principle of honoring one's parents is not negotiable. But do you keep an elderly parent at home, or do you put the parent in a nursing home? You may want to say, "To honor your parent you ought to keep him at home." But someone may say, "I have three children, and my parent wanders the house in the middle of the night, waking the kids and disrupting the household, and it's hurting the kids." Now we have principles in tension. That application may disappoint many congregations because they like to be told exactly what to do.
It might feel like we are eviscerating our authority to say, "Think about it"? But, at times that may be the most effective thing I can do for a congregation because the world that people live in often has conflicting principles. By generalizing, we often miss the contradictions and tensions in the Bible.
For example, the Book of Job balances the theology of the Book of Proverbs. Proverbs teaches cause and effect. Job's friends basically recite Proverbs to Job, but there is an ingredient they don't know about—what's going on in heaven.
The Wisdom Literature says, "In general, this is the way God's world works." But we cannot say if a person is hurting and seemingly punished he must have been disobedient. Disobedience brings punishment; not all apparent punishment is for disobedience.
The Bible does that kind of thing all the time. Call it "the balance of harmonious opposites." We all live with that sort of tension. Therefore, when applying the text, it's more important to get people to think Christianly than to act religiously.
How genre affects application
Bible genres have a direct effect on application as well. The most extensive Bible genre is story, people doing things. We have to ask, Why does the Bible give us so much narrative? Why didn't God just come right out and say what he meant and not beat around the bush with stories? If I were God and were going to give something that would last until the end of time, I would have said, "Here are five principles about my will." But he doesn't do that.
Therefore it's dangerous to go into a narrative and say, "Here are three things we learn about the providence of God." That's not the way the biblical writers chose to handle it. If we believe the Bible to be the inspired Word of God, we have to consider the methods used to proclaim God's message.
What is the harm in using a three-point structure or five-principles structure? It may have been foreign to the writer, but it may be helpful to today's listener. It is not a deadly sin. But what I need to bring out when I preach from stories are the tensions. Here are real people being directed by God and responding to God. The purpose of these stories is not to say at the end, "You must, you should." The purpose is to give insight into how men and women relate to the eternal God and how God relates to them.
In a sermon on Joseph's life, for example, I might say, "A lot of life doesn't seem to make sense. You make plans, but they don't come about. You're true to God, but you aren't rewarded for it. If that's where you are, here's a man who experienced that."
I'm not going to tell people that Joseph's experience will be like their experience. Rather I will say, "The great tension in the life of Joseph is a tension we all feel." I will apply what is a universal experience.
You can deal abstractly with a great principle—God is sovereign—in a way that gets boring. Such a sermon reminds me of a hovercraft that floats eight feet above the ground but never lands into life. Without the human element, you lose the specific, the historical narrative, the emotional interaction.
The Holy Spirit and the Word
The Holy Spirit has a direct role in the process of applying the text to the listener's life. The Spirit answers to the Word. If I am faithful to the Scriptures, I give the Spirit of God something to work on that he doesn't have if I'm preaching Reader's Digest.
I have a formula: Pain + time + insight = change. Sometimes people go through pain over a period of time, but that doesn't change them. But pain and time plus insight will, and that's where the preacher comes in.
This explains why on a given Sunday the sermon is a wide yawn for many. Even with the greatest preachers, not every sermon stirs everybody. But then people will say to you, "You can't imagine how that spoke to me." They didn't come to church neutral; they came with pain suffered over a period of time. They received insight from the sermon, it clicked, and change occurred in their life.
Several years ago I was out of sorts with God. I came to church one Sunday, and the preacher was not particularly good, but he dealt with the biblical text. I did not want to read that biblical text, but I couldn't get away from it. The preacher did not apply the text to my situation, but the Word itself got through to me in such a way that after the service I had to go for a long drive. It was one of those moments when you say, "God has confronted me, and it's going to be dangerous business if I don't listen." It was as though that passage and that preacher and the Spirit had picked me out of the crowd. The sermon was not eloquent, but that passage and his sticking with it drove home the truth to my life.
That's the greatness of preaching. Something can always happen when a preacher takes God's Word seriously.
Haddon Robinson was a preacher and teacher of preachers all over the world. His last teaching position was as the Harold John Ockenga Distinguished Professor of Preaching at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.
This article appears in The Art & Craft of Biblical Preaching, a comprehensive encyclopedia of preaching. Click here to purchase a copy of this book to have this invaluable resource on hand as you preach the Word!