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Beware of sermon application

Beware of sermon application

The Bible is very much to be applied to our lives. I believe this with all my heart and mind.

Even if I had somehow missed this great theme in the rest of Scripture, James makes it unmistakably clear in just two succinct sentences:

For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. (James 1:23-24)

If you agree (and I hope you do), the two challenges I’m about to issue may sound just a little bit heretical.

Challenge #1, to preachers: Don’t listen to the clamouring voices that push for a higher percentage of application in your sermons—that criticize what you say for not being ‘practical’ enough. Don’t listen to the voices that urge you, “Just get to the nitty gritty of what God wants me to do!”

Challenge #2, to sermon listeners: Stop being that voice. Stop asking for more application in your pastor’s sermons. That’s not really the preacher’s job, and you need to stop and engage in some honest reflection about why you’re asking.

See? I told you it would sound heretical. Let me explain myself.

In a recent article on the parable of the Good Samaritan I pointed out that the lawyer to whom Jesus told the parable wanted to “justify himself”. He wanted confirmation that he was a good and righteous man, and that he was therefore a sure candidate for entry into the kingdom of God. And to this end he sought Jesus’ guidance on the application of the love-your-neighbour standard. (“Who is my neighbour? How do I apply this commandment?”)

What was the lawyer’s purpose in asking for this guidance? It was to make it easier to justify himself—to show that he was doing what was required. Enough, at least, to be accepted by God.

This is a natural instinct we all have. In the Gospels it’s particularly exemplified by the Pharisees, but it’s something that all of us are prone to. We want to narrowly interpret what God is saying to make it more manageable, more achievable (if you squint and don’t look too closely).

“Why should God let you into heaven?”
“Well, I haven’t murdered anyone. I’m faithful to my spouse.”

But Jesus says, no, you can’t reinterpret God’s law like that! Get angry or look lustfully, and that condemns you (Matthew 5).

Having the mindset of that lawyer is what creates the danger. When we ask a preacher to apply the Bible, we may be giving expression to our natural instinct to want to justify ourselves—hoping to keep the application to a manageable one, two or at the most three generic and achievable points. Just whatever can be squeezed into the final part of the sermon. It can be a means of minimizing the application and our need to change (along with the accompanying strategy of insisting that sermons should be shorter).

But Jesus wants us to look instead at how we can maximize the application—to look long and hard for the myriad of ways we can change to better love the Lord our God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength. This will also lead us to better recognize how far we fall short and so be thrown back on God’s all-sufficient grace.

Preachers are not really in a position to do this maximizing work for us. They don’t know the details of our lives. They don’t know the particular sins we cover up and keep secret. They don’t know where our money and time go. They don’t know where our inner thoughts and desires go. At best they can guess and generalize. In other words, they can’t possibly tell us the key ways each of us needs to apply God’s word to our lives.

In the end, this task of maximum application is best done for me by me—through listening attentively to God’s word and to the promptings of his Holy Spirit, the Spirit who knows all the details of my life even more deeply than I do.

I’m not saying that the preacher should never apply the Bible in any way. Of course he should! It’s part of the process of exhortation: giving us an example of what it might look like to respond faithfully and obediently to what God is saying. It also models for us the process of how we can—and should—properly move from the text to personal application.

No, there’s no doubt that the preacher has a role to play in applying the Scriptures to our lives (Acts 20:31; 1 Tim 5:20; 2 Tim 4:2; Titus 2:15). And there’s certainly also an important ‘one another’ aspect to all of this, as we admonish and encourage each other in after-church conversation, in our growth groups and in family life (Col 3:16; Rom 15:14; 1 Thess 5:14; Luke 17:3).

But if I were a pastor, I think I would make it a regular practice to exhort my people to think prayerfully and carefully for themselves about the application of the passage. I would urge them to meditate on what they have learned and to listen to God’s Spirit as he applies the word to their lives. At the very least, I would remind my congregation members again and again that the applications I am drawing are not the only applications, and that I will be praying for them as they work out the other important applications.

If I were a pastor, I wouldn’t want to personally take on the heavy responsibility of applying God’s word to people—of telling them which are the important ways they should repent and change. It’s a burden I wouldn’t really feel fit to carry, and I’m not convinced it would be for the spiritual benefit of God’s people for me to even try. Applying the Bible to life is therefore not something I feel particularly comfortable asking my pastor to do for me. In the end, it is my responsibility before God. And yours.

Shameless plug: If you feel the challenge of this responsibility, may I suggest that you try the Sermon Notebook? It’s designed to be very helpful in this process of taking personal responsibility.

Ian Carmichael

Ian has been with Matthias Media from its beginning (1988). In late 2020 he stepped down from the CEO role, and now works as an honourary consultant and editor for Matthias Media and Vinegrowers. Ian and his wife, Stephanie, have two adult children, two (gorgeous) grandchildren, and are part of Chatswood Presbyterian church in Sydney. Ian is one of the Vinegrowers team providing free consultations for church leaders who want to more effectively grow the disciple-making culture in their church.