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What is 'applied' preaching?

State, Explain, Illustrate, Apply.  That's apparently the blueprint for the young preacher.  Find three points in the text (regardless of the genre of the passage, regardless of how many 'points' the Scripture might be making).  For each of the points (it's best if they all begin with 'P'): state it, explain it, illustrate it and - in a discrete section of the sermon - apply it. 

This almost inevitably means turning each point into a law to be enjoined on the congregation.  Thus: point one - Jesus is faithful.  Application - how will you be faithful this week?  For the preacher who is very keen on 'application' they will offer all manner of suggestions as to how the congregation can be faithful in the minutiae of their lives.

All this begs the question: what is preaching for?  If it is faith that comes by hearing why do our sermons aim at awakening works?   Why do both preachers and congregations love to cut to the 'application.'  You know the phrases that get a whole church wide eyed, edging to the front of their pews, pliant in the preacher's hand: "Now where does the rubber hit the road?" "What about on a Monday morning?" "How does this play out in the nitty gritty of life?"  And of course the answer given by the preacher (the answer that all our flesh longs to hear) is "You've heard this abstract, 'unearthed' stuff about Christ's righteousness, now, go, establish your own righteousness in your home, school or office.  You've heard of Christ, now you go and be the Faithful One." 

On this understanding, application looks like this:

preaching 1 

In my experience the more 'concrete' and 'earthed' an application the better.  Specific moral instructions are thought to really liven up the sermon.  Now of course this puts a huge onus on the preacher to be able to discern the thoughts and attitudes of the heart - something which surely only the Spirit by His Word is competent to do.  And the more specific these applications become the more easily they slide off the backs of a congregation safe in the knowledge they didn't commit that sin this week. 

But that's not the real issue with such an understanding of 'application'.  The real issue is - what are we aiming at in preaching?  Here's my question: what if we took seriously the fact that the gospel is to be believed?  Christ is to be received.  The Word is to be heard.  What would application look like then?  I suggest it should look much more like this:

preaching 2

Application ought to be the pointed driving home of the gospel.  It is the lively and repeated application of the Word to the heart of the congregation to the end that it might be believed.  It is not the derivation of principles which can then be turned into moral instruction.  Application is the Spirit's work of awakening faith in the Christ who we proclaim.  It is a work which we cannot perform ourselves but to which we are called nonetheless.  In prayerful dependence we follow the way of witness in the Scriptures as they point to Christ.  And we point too.  With excitement, with passion, with entreaty.  And we say like Moses did regarding the bronze serpent: Look and live!


9 thoughts on “What is 'applied' preaching?

  1. Rich Owen

    Glen, I *think* i agree with you here, but what makes me a little nervous is the fact that it isn't an exegetical argument. Can you say the above from eg the sermon on the mount?

  2. glenscriv

    Hi Rich,
    How'd you find this old thing?

    I think what I'm saying is trying to go behind exegesis of any particular passage and ask 'What are the Scriptures for?'

    One answer to that question is: They are God's instruction manual for life, addressed to the individual, aimed at their personal holiness - their message is "Be faithful". Now no-one admits that this is their view of the Scriptures. But many people preach like it is.

    What if we took seriously what we know about the Scriptures: They are the Spirit's testimony to the Son, addressed to the church corporately, aimed at equipping our witness to the world - their message is "Behold the Lamb."

    Put it another way - is the bible mainly about us, or is it mainly about Christ? If it's mainly about us then application is mainly about driving home the sort of people we should be. If it's mainly about Christ then application is mainly about driving home the sort of Saviour He actually is.

    John 5:39ff - Jesus tells the Pharisees that Moses wrote about Him and that they should have, through the Torah, simply come to *Him* to have life (rather than seek life in the law). That kind of thing.

    If I were preaching the sermon on the mount I'd want to draw attention to things like:

    * 4:23 - this is the *gospel* of the kingdom - good news about an already present reality, not a mission plan to establish it.

    * the beatitudes! - this kingdom belongs to the rubbish. And it really belongs to them 'theirs *is* the kingdom.'

    * 5:6 - we hunger and thirst for righteousness. And are filled. It was this righteousness for which the prophets suffered (v10) and this Righteousness for Whom the disciples will suffer (v11-12) - ie Christ!

    * 5:14-16 - you *are* salt and light and a city. ARE

    * Jesus introduces the law stuff telling us He's fulfilled it! (5:17) If we're in the pub and you hand me an empty pint glass I know it's my turn to buy a round - I'll pay to fill yours up. But if you give me a full pint glass I know that you've paid - this is a gift to me to enjoy and take into myself. Same with the law given to us as a filled-full reality from Christ.

    * 5:20 - the Pharisees and scribes were the best practitioners of natural righteousness possible. Jesus preaches a super-natural righteousness.

    * 5:21-48 - this righteousness is detailed by Jesus in such a way that practical exhortations could never achieve it. Chopping off hands won't even do the trick.

    * 5:48 - taken as law this is impossible "You must be perfect!" But taken as promise, it is pure gospel (it's future indicative) "You will be perfect."

    * In 6 we see the natural-righteous vs super-natural-righteous way of approaching giving, prayer and fasting. In 7 we finish with the stories about two gates, two trees, two foundations. These two ways are not the righteous vs the immoral ways. These two ways are the supernatural-righteous vs the natural righteous. Being on the straight and narrow is not about moral effort! It's about *being* already the supernaturally righteous who lives out that life - a life that began when you hungered and thirsted for that righteousness you did not have.

    I'd also draw attention to the predominance of indicatives here. Jesus doesn't say "Try and become a light to the world." He says "You are!" In preaching I'd just spend my time pressing that home - you *are* - therefore hiding that light is not just unethical - it's impossible!

    Or similarly Jesus doesn't say 'You shouldn't serve God and money.' He says 'You can't' I think driving home the *impossibility* of Christian worldliness would do so much more good than pressing on people their moral responsibility not to be worldly. Preach those indicatives - drive them home and the kingdom life will follow.

    There's a way of preaching the kingdom life that brings out this indicative reality. It's just like the ten commandments. None of the ten commandments are in the imperative! They are all future indicatives. It's all the sense of "You are the redeemed people of God- you won't lie, you won't steal, you won't kill.'

    And to be honest "You won't" is so much more binding than "you mustn't"

    And all in all, the sermon on the mount should never distract us from Jesus Himself. As the King of the Kingdom, He ought to be front and centre in our minds as the One who fulfills this supernatural righteousness Himself and hands it to us as a gift.

    So anyway, those are the sorts of things we should be aiming at when preaching law.

  3. Rich Owen

    Just fishing about for stuff - you know :-)

    It isn't a post hijack i promise. Some explanation:

    Was looking for stuff on preaching cause I'm hearing more and more these days about how there is no paradigm for preaching to the "church as we know it" - ie, a monologue to a large group, and that preaching and teaching is normally dialogical and in small groups, and that this is the NT norm. I don't disagree with the latter - it is great, necessary and useful, though I wouldn't say it is the norm but I do take issue with the former. I'm pretty sure the sermon on the mount is a monologue to a large group of jesus followers!

    So I'm told that preaching has been elevated cause we love preachers, and preachers defend it cause they are defending what they do for a living, status etc, and so we have one way preaching to a large group in church because of this tradition. I think there is a lot of truth in that but...

    The arguments often seem to stem more from a particular brand of eccelsiology than from exegesis - ie from a new sort of tradition! How can I have exhortational, indicative, authoritative preaching in a house church movement? Unless each small group has a sermon, you can't, so you elevate the group study. Urgh, that doesn't sound great - hope you see what i mean.

    I guess the reading has made me think - where is my defence for 'traditional preaching' coming from - am I defending it cause I'm a preacher, and this is what I've always known, or is my argumentation rooted in the scriptures, which is why I asked (and i notice i phrased it really badly!) about deriving your points more clearly from scripture - which you now have done.

    It is a challenge to say what we say, and do what we do, and say why we do what we say and do based on scripture alone. I'm glad to have been challenged, and the above has helped me put things together more clearly - thanks.

    Must sleep now.


  4. glenscriv

    Moses preached. He preached long. Ezra preached. He preached long. The prophets preached and preached long. (Often with some pretty funky visual aids though!)

    The head of the household was meant to teach, at home and along the road etc, but also at things like Passover. This was to a degree dialogical but it was no less authoritative for that.

    Synagogue involved a lot of monologue preaching. Jesus spent a lot of time doing this.

    Peter and Paul preached. Even as people were falling asleep (and dying!) in a house church setting they preached and kept on preaching.

    Timothy was to preach the word in season and out of season. This would have obviously involved much 'back and forth' in his teaching, correcting, rebuking, training ministry - but it was no less 'preaching' for all that.

    I think you can (and must!) be declarative, exhortational, emphatic, indicative and all those sorts of things in informal settings. It's not very English but I think it's precisely what is commanded in places like Col 3:16; Eph 4:29; 5:19 - and even perhaps 2 Tim 4:2.

    I talk about that kind of thing here:

    We think dialogical has to mean some lilly-livered pooling-of-ignorance CU-style bible study. Now *that's* something that doesn't have exegetical warrant in the Scriptures. We all need to be far more declarative and exhortational in all our speaking.

    I say bring pulpit-speak into everyday conversation (rather than the other way around).

  5. Rich Owen

    It is a bit of a non-argument isn't it. I'm glad it's not just me :)

    It is hard though - in a way we are destined for hypocrisy, because we are as prone to failure as anyone one else and the more direct exhortaional stuff makes that more visible in our lives to others and to us. It may be hard, but it is good for that reason and it forces us to be more involved in the sermon. If the Word of God has been preached to us as we prepare etc, then I guess our responses will be that we speak them with a gentle loving kindness and with the humility of a servant and not as a booming rant.

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