The Pulpit Direction
Preaching Christ is part of the definition of preaching, but it is not the only task of preachers. Warning every man and teaching every man in order to present every man perfect in Christ (Col. 1:28) requires wise and specific application. What should sermon application look like? If I tell my children to do some cleaning in the house, then their version of cleaning and mine may not coincide. If, by contrast, I tell that I want them to clean their rooms and I show them how to put clothes on hangers, how to make their beds, and how to dust their shelves, then they understand better what I want them to do and how to do it. Sermon application likewise requires specific directions in order to meet its aims.
Application in preaching should direct people to respond in specific ways to the work of the Triune God in redemption. Application must be direct, pointed, specific, searching, and it should address many kinds of hearers.
1. Application in preaching should be direct. Occasionally, Paul was very direct. He cited "Chloe's household" as the source of his knowledge of the divisions in Corinth (1 Cor. 1:11). He he implored Euodia and Syntyche "to be of the same mind in the Lord" (Phil. 4:2). Such examples are sparing and we should be sparing in following them. We often lack the skill to do so wisely (though I have had to call my children by name twice from the pulpit while mom was out caring for a baby). Preaching can be more general than this and still be direct. Peter accused his hearers of crucifying Christ and called them to repent (Acts 2:36, 38). He used "you" repeatedly in calling people to repentance (Acts 3:12-26). Paul did the same thing in Acts 13:16-41, 28:17-29 and in virtually all of his recorded sermons. The epistles in the New Testament bear the same character. Sermon application must address people directly in order to qualify as application.
2. Application in preaching should be pointed, aiming at specific responses. It must aim at the heart. According the author of Hebrews, people must receive the Word of God in faith and obedience because it will judge them like a sharp two-edged sword (Heb. 4:11-13). Paul gave lists of appropriate responses to the gospel in passages like Romans 12, 1 Thess. 5:12-19, and others like them. Many people are afraid of such lists because they think that they lead to "legalism." Lists of duties can be abused if we are looking for exhaustive rules for Christian living or if we detach them from their grounding in Christ. Yet Paul assumed that believers needed such lists to make application concrete. Believers need to know what God wants them to do.
3. Application in preaching should include specific directions. Preachers must show people how to respond to pointed application. The New Testament provides many examples of clear directions telling people how to do what God requires them to do. 1 Corinthians 8-10, noted in a previous post, illustrates what this looks like. Paul taught believers the principles that they needed to address the question of eating food offered to idols. However, he also told them how to apply these principles in a variety of circumstances, giving them examples. His teaching on marriage in chapter seven follows the same pattern. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus introduced examples related to some of the Ten Commandments, telling his hearers what they did not mean and showing them how to apply them. "Though shalt not kill" applies to our hearts, to our speech, and to the need to be reconciled to others (Matt. 5:21-26). His application was not exhaustive, but it was pointed and specific. He added applications to principles. Applying the commandments to our hearts, speech, and outward behavior applies to all Ten Commandments by implication (see WLC 99, which derives rules for interpreting the law from Jesus' example). Without explicit examples of how to apply God's Word believers often desire to obey God without knowing how to do so. When we tell people that they need to meditate on God's law day and night (Ps. 1:1-2) we need to teach them how to do such things. Preachers should not try to exhaust specific directions in a sermon. Like Christ and Paul, they should provide sufficient examples to give practical shape to biblical teaching, teaching Christians how to think critically about life. Believers need specific directions in preaching.
4. Application in preaching should be searching. This feature of preaching often comes via questions leading to personal reflection. Paul reduced the legalism of the Galatian church to absurdity through a series of questions directing them to reflect on their actions in light of the gospel (Gal. 3:1-9). The author of Hebrews used questions repeatedly to drive his readers to consider the seriousness of apostasy and to flee from it (e.g, Heb. 2:3, 3:16-19, 9:11-15, 10:26-31, 12:9). Searching questions were his ordinary means of moving his readers to take action. Searching questions can also lead believers to comfort in Christ, as Paul used them in Romans 8:31-38. Such questions mark preaching throughout the book of Acts and the epistles of the New Testament. Questions in preaching should drive people to respond to specific applications and directions.
5. Application in preaching should address all kinds of hearers. Hearers possess different levels of Christian maturity. Some are children in Christ while some are young men and others are fathers (1 Jn. 2:12-14). Some application is relevant to all believers (Eph. 4:17- 5:20). Other application singles out specific groups of hearers, such as husbands and wives (5:22-33), children (6:1-3), fathers (6:4), servants and masters (6:5-9), widows (1 Tim. 5:3-16), wealthy people (6:17-19; Jas. 5:1-6), poor people (Jas. 1:9), women (1 Pet. 3:1-6), and others. The Bible addresses officers in their particular responsibilities (1 Pet. 5:1-4) and members in relation to their officers (Heb. 13:78, 17; 1 Thess. 5:12-13). Ministers should also speak directly to converted and to unconverted people as well as to hypocrites and to faithful and doubting Christians. Examples of addressing hearers in different stations of life, levels of maturity, ages, differences of sex, and many others appear consistently in the preaching of the Old Testament prophets as well. Almost all of these examples use "you" to people. This makes preaching personal. Addressing specific kinds of hearers in sermons brings direct, pointed, specific, and searching application to bear on everyone hearing the sermon more powerfully.
Sermon application must bear such characteristics because those hearing sermons need to hear Christ directly. Some may object that such application usurps the role of the Holy Spirit, who applies the Word of God to our hearts. While preachers should not embarrass individuals from the pulpit, is this criticism fair? If I tell a child to clean his room but I never teach him what cleaning a room looks like, then will I not frustrate the child and myself rather than help him or her? The Spirit works through Scripture and through preaching Scripture. The Spirit gives us many biblical examples of very specific application. While not all biblical examples of application are equally direct, pointed, or searching, sermon application should reflect the general pattern of Scripture. This underscores the fact that preaching requires exercising mature spiritual wisdom coupled with prayerful exegetical labor.
This is Dr. McGraw's eleventh post in a series of posts on "Preaching Christ."