Step 7: Apply Your Message
How to give clear, grace-filled applications that lead to real life transformation.
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In a landmark article in the July 1928 issue of Harpers Magazine, Harry Emerson Fosdick described expository preachers in these words: "They take a passage from Scripture, and proceeding on the assumption that people attending church that morning are deeply concerned about what the passage means, they spend their half hour or more on historical exposition of the verse or chapter, ending with some appended practical application to the auditors." This was not a compliment. "Could any procedure be more surely predestined to dullness and futility?" Fosdick wondered. "Who seriously supposes that as a matter of fact, one in a hundred of the congregation cares, to start with, what Moses, Isaiah, Paul, or John meant in those special verses or came to church deeply concerned about it?"
Whether or not his caricature of expository preaching is accurate, Fosdick's observation about the congregation still rings true today. In this post-biblical culture, it is truer than ever before. Nobody comes to church "desperately anxious to hear what happened to the Jebusites." They want to know what the Bible has to say about their own lives. But to answer that question responsibly, the preacher must pay attention to the Jebusites as well. Sermon application involves more than adding a few practical suggestions to the sermon. The trajectory of the text is both toward the audience and forward in time. Even the Bible's ancient narratives were "written down as warnings for us" (1 Cor. 10:11; cf. Rom. 15:4). Application is at the heart of biblical preaching.
Step 1: Identify the application of the text
Preaching is more than problem solving or inspirational speaking. The goal of the preacher is to facilitate an encounter with God through his Word. For this reason, the preacher's first concern is with the biblical text. Before we can say what implication the text might have for our audience, we need to determine what it meant for the original audience. Good applications are the fruit of good exegesis and sound hermeneutics. This does not mean that the sermon applications we make will always be identical with those in the text. Often the cultural and theological context of our audience is too different to take the biblical application as it stands.
Leviticus 19:9-10 is a good example of this. The specific application of the text is simple and concrete. During harvest God's people were not to reap the corners of the field, gather the fallen ears, glean the vineyard bare or pick up the grapes that fell to the ground. These were to be left "for the poor and the alien." However, since most of my audience is probably not made up of farmers, the original application would be meaningless to them. Even if my audience consisted primarily of farmers, the biblical practice would still not have the intended effect because those who need an economic safety net lack the means to harvest what would be left behind. They would be unable to convert what they harvest into food or finances. What is more, since we are not under the Law of Moses, it would not even be legitimate to issue such a command. But the work of exegesis and hermeneutics does enable me to discern a broader theological principle behind the original command. Those who revere God provide for the poor according to the measure of God's supply (cf. 1 Cor. 16:2). This principle can be the basis for drawing implications for today's audience. We too need to provide for the poor. Our giving should be intentional. It should reflect God's generosity to us. Those who have more, should give more. Those who have less can also give in accordance with what they have.
Step 2: Exegete the audience
The aim of sermon application is to build a bridge from the Bible to today's listeners. This requires that we analyze the audience as carefully as the text. This analysis involves more than identifying some felt need or problem which the sermon can solve. When we exegete the audience we identify a need which correlates with the text. The biblical text is not merely a springboard. In expository preaching the preacher assumes that the text itself is aimed at the audience. Consequently, audience need is part of the DNA that shapes the sermon. If the first step in sermon application is to identify the need which the original audience had for the truth of the text, the second step is to ask where this need shows up in contemporary life.
Most of the sermon applications we make rarely come as a surprise to our listeners. They are not shocked to hear us say that they need to love God or their neighbor. They are not surprised to learn that their prayer life is not all that it should be or that they need to read the Bible more frequently. Many times our listeners already know where they fall short. What they don't understand is why. They want to know how they can close the gap between what they are and who they would like to be. In this regard, the task of the preacher is similar to that of a medical doctor. Sermon application is more than merely pointing at problems. The preacher's aim is to help the audience understand the nature of their problem in light of Scripture and respond in a way that is consistent with the truth of the text. Application involves both diagnosis and remedy. Since our initial applications are often superficial, four diagnostic questions can help us to probe more deeply:
• Who? Who will be listening to the sermon? What does the problem or need reflected in the text look like in their lives? The "who" question should be answered specifically and situationally. As much as possible, think in terms of particular names and faces. This is not so that you can target a particular individual in the congregation with the sermon, but so that you will look at the need of the text from multiple angles. The issues the passage raises for the elderly widow are probably not the same as those it would bring to mind for the parent of small children or teens.
If I were preaching a sermon based on Leviticus 19:9-10 in the chapel of the college where I teach, I would need to recognize that my audience is made up primarily of people who are in there twenties and living on limited means. They feel compassion for the poor but tend to see themselves as having little to offer. They also live in an urban environment marked by economic extremes. Homeless people panhandle on the street in front of million dollar condominiums. As a result, they may be tempted to think that the admonition of the text is not directed toward them. The sermon application should emphasize that concern for the poor is a responsibility of the entire community of faith and not just the wealthy. The response called for in the text also reflects an approach to giving in which the amount is based upon God's supply. Even those who have little can contribute something.
• What? What kind of response is required by the truth of the text? What may be keeping your listeners from responding this way? Begin by trying to determine the response that the biblical writer expected of the original audience. In some passages this expectation is explicit. The text states the expected response. In other passages it is implied. Like the previous question, the answer to this diagnostic question should be framed contextually. However, since the life situation of those in your audience differs from one another, it should also be stated as a principle. The more specific the answer, the more likely you are to exclude some of your listeners. Emphasize the principle and illustrate it with specific examples.
The principle reflected in the specific directives of Leviticus 19:9-10 required God's Old Testament people to be intentional about providing for the needs of the poor and the alien. My sermon application might contrast this with the spontaneous strategy many Christians use when it comes to giving to the poor. They feel guilty when approached by the homeless on the street but are uncertain about how to respond. How much should they give? How can they be sure that what is given will really help those who receive it? Intentional giving will enable my audience to think about their own ability to give and consider alternative methods for distributing the resources God has entrusted to them. Answering this question will force us to consider the difference between the culture of the text and our own culture. But it can also point to creative methods for addressing the problem. One pastor I know was inspired by Leviticus 19:9-10 to suggest that his congregation plant a community garden. Church members tended the garden but anyone in the community who had financial need was free to take the produce.
• How? Answering this diagnostic question will enable you to "put a face" on the application for your audience. This is a question of concrete response. Are there steps that your listeners need to take? What is the next thing they should do in order to respond to the truth of the text? There is a danger with this question. Every sermon does not need to be reduced to a specific behavioral objective. Such an approach reduces sermon application to a "do list" and lends itself to moralistic rather than gospel centered preaching. We should look at the application through the lens of grace, answering the "how" question by pointing to the power of the cross and the enablement of the Holy Spirit. An application based on Leviticus 19:9-10 might suggest steps for developing an intentional strategy for giving. It could also describe non-monetary methods of caring for the poor. I might highlight one or two local or national organizations that rely on volunteers to deliver their services.
• Why? Why should our listeners respond this way? What motivation is stated or implied in the text? Motivation is the missing element in many contemporary sermons. We often tell people what God wants them to do but fail to give them a good reason for doing it. Addressing the question of motivation is not pandering. The Bible often appeals to self-interest in its commands (Ezek. 18:31; Matt. 5:12; 16:26; Rom. 6:20-21). Motive is the spark that ignites human response and moves our listeners from mere acknowledgement of truth to obedience.
The only explicit motivation mentioned in Leviticus 19:9-10 is expressed in the phrase: "I am the Lord your God." This is the language of command. It indicates that concern for the poor is not optional for the church. But it also emphasizes God's abiding interest. Why should our listeners be intentional in making provision for the poor and marginal in their community? Because this is an area of great concern for God (James 2:5). It is a concern that is reflected in both Old and New Testaments. Elsewhere the Scriptures provide additional motives. Often the Bible urges us to see ourselves in the plight of the poor (Exod. 22:1; 23:9).
All four diagnostic questions do not have to be answered in every sermon. But by considering each question in turn, we know how to frame the sermon's applications for our particular audience.
Step 3: Inflect your applications
Haddon Robinson once observed, "More heresy is preached in application than in Bible exegesis." One reason for this is our tendency to preach every application with the same force. When we preach we inflect our voice to make the significance of the words plain to our hearers. We should also inflect our applications by stating them with varying force. The distance the audience has from the cultural and theological context of the biblical passage, combined with their own differences in age, gender, or background, call for thoughtful framing of the sermon's applications. Because we believe in the authority of the Bible and are convinced that we have derived our applications from the biblical text, we are tempted to state every application with the force of law. Some applications do have the force of a command. The text requires the same response by all. But this is not always the case.
Robinson identifies three levels of legitimate application. The first level is a "necessary" application. This is an application whose relevance for everyone is clear in the text. It is expressed as a command and failure to comply is disobedience. To ignore such an application is a sin.
Robinson calls the second level a "probable" application. Probable applications are almost as strong as necessary applications. Yet they cannot be stated with the same force. There is a strong degree of likelihood with this type of application but not absolute certainty. Compliance in this case is more a matter of wisdom and reason than it is one of explicit biblical statement. A probable application can be preached with force but should be modulated. "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" Robinson explains. "A probable implication is you ought to be very careful of strong bonding friendships with a person who is not your spouse." We cannot say that no married person should ever have a close friend of the opposite sex. But we can question the wisdom of such a relationship.
The third level of application is even further removed from the force of a command. This is a possible application. The implications of the text at this level have relative force, due to differences in the life situation of our listeners. An appropriate application for one person may not be the best for another. The apostle Paul provides an example of this kind of distinction when he deals with the question of whether Christians in his day should eat meat that has been sacrificed to idols. The apostle begins by establishing a theological principle: "an idol is nothing at all" (1 Cor. 8:4). Not only was this assertion true to the explicit testimony of Scripture, it was especially suited to the application Paul planned to make for the Corinthians. This assertion was the rationale used by those who felt free to eat food that had been sacrificed to idols. The apostle follows with a carefully nuanced observation: "But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do" (1 Cor. 8:8). While some Corinthians felt free to eat meat that has been sacrificed to idols, refraining from such liberty would not hurt anyone. Those who ate freely were no better off than those who did not. On the other hand, the one whose conscience was weak and ate anyway was "destroyed" (1 Cor. 8:11). The first step in his application was to emphasize the priority of sensitivity to others: "Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause him to fall" (1 Cor. 8:13).
Later in his letter the apostle makes the application even more concrete by describing a situation which his readers might face daily. According to the scenario Paul describes, his readers were permitted to eat anything sold in the meat market without worrying about conscience. Likewise, if they were invited to eat in the home of an unbeliever, they could eat whatever was put before them. But once informed that the meat placed before them had been sacrificed to idols, they were urged not to eat out of concern for "the other man's conscience" (1 Cor. 10:29). What is especially significant is that the specific response changed with the individual and the context. Some could eat meat and others could not, depending on the state of their conscience. For those who felt free to eat, their behavior was further constrained by context. In some cases it was permissible to eat and in others it is not. The overarching principle was one of sensitivity to others. As a general rule it was better to refrain out of concern for those whose conscience might be harmed.
Like Paul, we need to contextualize level three applications for our listeners by describing what they look like in real life. Story illustrations can be a good way of doing this. We also need to frame some applications as suggestions. Using phrases like, "some may need to … " that will signal to our audience that the application is a suggestion rather than a command.
The bottom line
Harry Emerson Fosdick was right. Nobody comes to church especially anxious to hear what happened to the Jebusites. We want to hear what God has to say to us. Yet the God who speaks today is the same God who "spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways" (Heb. 1:1). His words and acts have been recorded in Scripture for our benefit. We understand what God is saying to us by giving attention to what was written in ancient times. The key to application is to understand both the biblical text and the audience. In the end the sermon must answer these three fundamental questions about the text for our listeners: So what? Now what? Why? Any sermon which does this will do more than hold the attention of our listeners. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, it will transform their lives.
John Koessler is professor and chair of the Pastoral Studies Department at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, Illinois.