My twitter pal, Chris Thomas, wrote a post recently where he called us preachers to less application. Summarising his argument (I think fairly), Chris wants to suggest that there has been too much emphasis on the Bible as my rule book for life. As such, sermons have become all about making sure the rule book for life is made clear for my context. He perceives that our emphasis on application is feeding that belief. Instead, he suggests that the goal of preaching is to magnify Christ and, through the prism of the gospel, reveals our true selves. So, he argues, the main aim of our preaching is less to apply it to the lives of those in front of us and more to display the grandeur of God.
There is a lot to like about the article. Seeking to emphasise the importance of Christ and his gospel in our preaching is vital. It is certainly true that if our sermons are effectively moralism, we have missed the point. Likewise, if our preaching jumps straight to application without properly exegeting the passage, connecting it to Christ and his gospel and then applies it, we have effectively tried to serve a meal without any ingredients. We’ve basically just laid out the cutlery and told people to go ahead and eat, though we’ve not laid any food before them! It is also absolutely right that any attempt to apply scripture that doesn’t stem from a prior appreciation of the glory of God, the beauty of Christ and his gospel, is again like a house without foundation. It will lead to mere moralism or legalism. All of those points should be heard and understood.
But I do disagree with his *ahem* application. I really think our preaching needs more emphasis on application, not less. Frankly, at least in the circles I grew up in, it is application that is sorely lacking. There is usually 30-40 minutes of exegesis – sometimes in a funny archaic voice at points for a bit of emphasis – and very little in the way of application. It is not at all uncommon to come away with a credible understanding of what a passage essentially says – it is usually elucidated in lots and lots of different words so the essential message is apparent (which is, frankly, exceptionally tedious when we’ve all read a particularly clear and obvious passage and been treated to 40 minutes of trying to make the clear just as clear) – whilst still reaching the end of the service and we all shrug and go, ‘so what?’
The fact is, most people are in church because they already love Jesus and believe the gospel. That doesn’t mean they grow beyond the gospel nor that they don’t need to be reminded of the glory of Jesus and the beauty of his gospel. But essentially, most people are on board with that. What they lack is knowing how the gospel, through the prism of whatever passage we are preaching, applies to them on a Monday morning as they go into work or the job centre, how it applies to them as church members, parents, children, friends, brethren.
More to the point, preaching by its very nature is to people. We are trying to communicate something to them. And, whatever passage we are preaching, we are surely of the view that what we are saying is relevant to them. The question is, how is it relevant? Application is that relevance. We are showing them how this passage speaks to Christ and his gospel, that it speaks to particular aspects of the gospel and those things have specific implications for us. We then spell out what those particular implications are. Preaching that stops at saying Jesus and his gospel are wonderful (which is absolutely true) will fail to land with people who need to know why and how that truth is relevant to them.
Let me put it this way. Adverts extol the virtues of an endless number of products on TV. They tell me they are awesome, amazing, the best thing you’ll ever own. Sometimes, they might even be right. But unless they can connect the amazing product to why I need it, or should want it, what difference will that make to me? I’ll just tune out, ignore it and believe I can live without it. Or, imagine someone shows me around a brand new Bentley. They show me all the gadgets on it and extol its virtues. It is beautiful. But then I shrug my shoulder, get out and go home in my old car. What has happened? They didn’t tell me that the car was bought for me. They didn’t explain that is was mine to drive away because they had bought it for me. As far as I was concerned, it was irrelevant to me. The person failed to communicate some vital information; what it had to do with me and my life.
Our preaching is a bit like that. We can communicate the beauty of Christ and his gospel and that is vital. If we don’t do that, people won’t see any point in trusting in him. If there is no Christ in our sermon, we have missed the very point. At the same time, if we just tell people that Jesus is great, they may even come to believe it, if we don’t show them what that has to do with them then they will miss the point.
Some passages of scripture are clear instructions to us. Fathers do not exasperate your children, for example. What people need to understand from there is why and how. Why does the gospel lead to that instruction? How does this apply in my particular circumstances with my particular children? But other passages are less direct instruction. The opening of Ephesians 1, in which the spiritual blessings that are ours in Christ are extolled. The wonder and beauty of Christ and his gospel are essentially there already, plain to see. But it does lead inexorably to the question, so what? What does that mean for me in practice? That is a question that needs answering.
So, yes, Christ should be seen as glorious in our sermons. And yes, the gospel should be made clear too. But ultimately, people need to see its relevance to them. How does this aspect of the gospel apply to their lives? What are they supposed to do in light of what this passage says? Without this, our sermons will lack relevance and bore our listeners. They will wonder, week on week, why they should bother listening to us because we never say anything that is relevant to them and their lives.
So, in my view, we need more, not less application. Yes, we want to avoid mining the Bible for moral stories. And yes, we want to see the glory of God and the greatness of his gospel. But we also want to see clear application too. Without it, our sermon is minimally incomplete and, frankly, a lot worse.