1) My first inkling toward this thinking was, admittedly, knee-jerk. Sometimes (most of the time?) preachers would spend over half of their sermon on application; leaving very little time for exposition (digging in to the Word; using people, culture, context, etc. [not word studies!]) and thus the passing on of knowledge (head and heart) is limited. At the worst, I think it is plain laziness in study on the part of the preacher/teacher that brings this about. Soft on exposition usually signals very little study.
2) Secondly, and this is the more important of the two so far: Preaching application allows the listener to be lazy by discouraging self-reflection. Or, it can make a Pharisee in a room of tax collectors. If I preach a sermon, and at the end give 7 applications; someone in the audience can say to themselves toward the former, “Well, none of those 7 apply to me, this has nothing to do with me.” Or, for the latter, “Phew! I’m off the hook. But I sure do know Sam and Diane needed this one! Hope they were listening!”
Don’t think this doesn’t happen. It does. And again, it encourages laziness and Pharisaic tendencies on the part of the listener. Additionally, heavy application can re-enforce an image that the preacher/pastor is the one with all the answers. And well, if he doesn’t preach it, then it must not be so. Again, this is listener-laziness and an encourager of the much maligned leader/laity distinction.
3) Thirdly, the example of Jesus. While Jesus would use illustration heavily, He almost never used application (I’ll get to the Sermon on the Mount below). How many times did Jesus teach and leave the lesson open ended or with a hanging question? How often would He, by vague and even mysterious ways, tell His lessons? Ever heard of a parable? (It’s actually quite frustrating sometimes isn’t it?)
But it is clear that He would normally allow the listener to apply it to their own lives and situations without Him having to do it. And it is this approach that I have found most impactful. Hammer the exposition; use Aristotle’s modes of persuasion effectively and appropriately; and allow the Holy Spirit to do His work. God’s Word will not return to Him void. Sow the seed and allow God to do the work on the hearts and minds.
This is why I love discipleship groups; especially when unbelievers enter. Because I know an objection to my objection on preaching application will be “well how will people see the Bible as relevant to their lives if we don’t tell them how it’s relevant to their lives!?” – But in preaching and in small discipleship groups while I am teaching a text, I always ask open-ended questions (leaving things hanging like Jesus did). And it is from these open-ended questions that I see most fruitful discussion and growth taking place. I don’t have to tell them how it applies to their lives. The wheels of the mind of each individual are in motion, and any true seeker will hear the question and apply the lessons of the Word to their day-to-day lives. I don’t have to always tell them how it applies. It just does. I don’t have to make the Bible relevant. It already is. And when unbelievers, especially, begin to see that; their hunger for more increases!
4) Lastly; and these are two hidden dangers. Too much application has the hazard of begetting legalism and can take people away from focus on Christ. To the latter point: I am currently preaching a 4-part series on Matthew 4:1-11 (the temptations of Jesus). Near the beginning of part 3, I said the following:
And so, in this series, we continue to look to Christ; and we are continuing to explore what it is He faced and how He overcame. That is the point. Christ overcame. This series we are going through is not just a pep talk and a step-by-step guide on how to overcome temptation and defeat sin in your life (ex: well if I do this, this, and this, I’ll be successful). Nor is this a “pull you up by your boot straps” sermon series (ex: if I try hard enough like Jesus did, I’ll be successful). No. Ultimately, this series is so that we will look to Christ and His victory; to see how He overcame for us in our place. Because though we believe, we will continue to sin in these bodies. Though we are being made more into His image and though we seek to please our God, our sanctification will never be fulfilled until that coming day. And so we look to Christ. We look to Christ alone because He is our victory now. He has overcome and by faith, we have overcome. It is His righteousness that we now possess by faith. It is not our own. It is His victory we have been given, not our own. And so through the battle of faith, which we have undertaken by claiming Christ as our King, we look to Christ alone and we give Him all the glory for His victory, which we now possess in Him alone.
To the former point you may ask: “How can application turn me into a legalist?” And I admit this is subtle, but it can happen.
With a very cursory search online on the topic of application in sermons, I ran into an article by none other than Rick Warren. In it, he defends (seemingly with an ax to grind) heavy application. To do so, he points to the Sermon on the Mount (SoM). While I understand what he writes, I believe he overlooks the danger of legalism. For example: In using the SoM, Warren points to Jesus speaking to such things like “sharing eight secrets of genuine happiness” along with “living an exemplary lifestyle, controlling anger, restoring relationships” and that Jesus taught “how to give with the right attitude, how to pray, how to store up treasure in heaven, and how to overcome worry.” These things, to Warren, are all about application. As he wrote, Jesus “concludes with a simple story that emphasizes the importance of acting on what he’s taught: Put into practice what you’ve just learned!”
I agree. But not totally. Because there is no gospel there. It’s all about behavior modification. Therapuetic-Moralistic-Deism. It trends toward legalism. So while the SoM does teach these things and Jesus does use application (like “if you are made to walk one mile, walk two” and “pray for your enemies” etc.) – is that the point of the SoM? Is Jesus teaching some good advice for, as Warren says, “genuine happiness”? Warren, here, misses a central point of the SoM: We need a Savior! Not a way to live our best life now.
So while I would agree with Warren that the hearer needs to see the application and practicality of the Bible to their lives, and also agree that Jesus is pretty clear on the fact of putting into practice what He teaches; I would disagree with Warren by saying that specific application needs to come from the preacher/teacher to make it relevant. As I stated earlier: I don’t always have to tell them how it applies. It just does. I don’t have to make the Bible relevant. It already is. And in my experience, once engaged in such a discussion with believers and unbelievers, those whom the Lord our God has called (Acts 2:39) will see it; and they will want more. As Paul told Timothy: Preach the Word!
So yes, Warren, the Bible is the most exciting book in the entire world; and I also bemoan the boring approach many teachers/preachers take. But I believe the Bible is exciting on its own terms and by its own power. It doesn’t need me spoon-feeding the audience to make it so. Preach it with power and let God do His work.
Note that I am not saying an absolute “no” to application. What I’m saying is that little or no application is preferable. It’s not bad in and of itself, and I do use it (as did Jesus, some); and ministries that I respect have good tools for helpful application (example: 9Marks). However, when I do, I try and do so only to re-enforce major points or to address issues I know are present within the congregation that need to be specifically addressed. But I always try and leave plenty of open doors for the individual listener to apply it to their own lives.
Let that conviction happen. Let that rebuking happen. Let that edification happen. Let that encouragement happen. Let it happen from the Word. And when the hearer recognizes it themselves, the relevance of the Bible is made even more clear and impactful; and their faith and knowledge and application becomes more their own.
That’s what I see Jesus did. That’s what I want to do.
Extra Resource: John MacArthur on why he doesn't use much application.