Preachers with little application in their sermons may give the following justification: “It is the Spirit’s task to apply, not mine.” That is, it’s their task to explain “children obey your parents”, not apply by giving practical ways by which to do this. Preachers do the former, the Spirit the latter.
Here are four reasons I find this rationale unconvincing.
First, the greatest preachers in Scripture didn’t teach and then expect their hearers to sort out the application on their own. Jesus warned his disciples about anger without cause (Mt. 5:22). Then he told them what “anger without a cause” looks like practically (e.g. “You’re stupid!”, v. 22). John didn’t urge his hearers to “bear fruit worthy of repentance” and then leave it to the Spirit to apply it (Lk. 3:8). He chopped up this meaty doctrine into four bite-size applications, like “give one of your shirts to the poor” (v. 11), “share your lunch” (v. 11), and “don’t cheat on your tax returns” (v. 13).
Second, if we draw out doctrine from practical truth (God reigns from “Don’t worry”), then we’re allowed to draw out application from doctrine.
Third, application is so tightly associated with meaning, often they are mutually inclusive. For example, the meaning of 1 Timothy 5:23 (“use a little wine”) can only be understood when culturally applied. The meaning of Luke 8:22 (“sell all that you have”) is only understood when applied to its unique historical condition. The preacher must explain how a 21st century believer is to apply 1 Timothy 5:23, else the meaning is lost.
Fourth, bad application cannot be used as an excuse for no application. When applying 2 Timothy 2:15 (“Study to show thyself approved…”), it’s wrong to say pastors must use 30 hours for sermon prep each week. But preachers should say something like “pastors ought to give a large percentage of their weekly schedule toward studying God’s Word.”
For those reasons and more, preachers are to teach and apply. To teach faithfully is to apply. The preacher who proclaims, “Jesus is Lord…” must also say “…and thus he demands your allegiance.”
Well said, Paul. The best concise statement about this subject that I have read. This was helpful for me to read this morning.
Based on our similar background, I really appreciated your 4th point. So true!
James T. Walsh
Without using a truth, we cannot tell if we fully understand it.