Expositional Preaching and Application
From Gospel Translations
The other day I was asked a question that I realize has often been asked of me when you preach expositionally, how do you apply the text in the sermon?
First, we should note that behind this question, there may be many questionable assumptions. The questioner may be remembering "expositional" sermons he has heard (or maybe even preached) which were no different from Bible lectures at college or seminary. They may have been well-structured and accurate, but there seemed to be little godly urgency, or pastoral wisdom in them. These expositional sermons may have had little if any application. On the other hand, the questioner may be simply misunderstanding application. There could have been a great deal of application in the sermons in question, but he may simply not have recognized it.
William Perkins, the great sixteenth-century puritan theologian in Cambridge, instructed preachers to imagine the various kinds of hearers who would be listening to their sermons, and to think through applications of the truth preached to several different kinds of hearts¯hardened sinners, questioning doubters, weary saints, young enthusiasts¯the list goes on and on. I want to approach the question slightly differently, though. Many of us who are called to preach God's Word will surely know this already, but it will be helpful to remind ourselves again of this fact: Not only are there different kinds of hearers, but there are also different kinds of application which are themselves all legitimately considered application.
When I preach the Word, I am called to expound the Scriptures, to take a passage of God's Word and explain it clearly, compellingly, even urgently. In this process, there are at least three different kinds of application which reflect three different kinds of problems we find in our own Christian pilgrimage. First, we struggle under the blight of ignorance. Second, we wrestle with doubt, often more than we at first realize. Finally, we sin¯whether through direct disobedient acts, or through sinful negligence. All three of these we long to see changed in us and our hearers every time we preach God's Word. And each gives rise to a different kind of legitimate application.
Ignorance is a fundamental problem in a fallen world. We have alienated God from us. We have cut ourselves off from direct fellowship with our Creator. It is not surprising then that informing people of the truth about God is itself a powerful type of application¯and one which we desperately need. This is not an excuse for cold or passionless sermons. I can be every bit as excited (and more) by indicative statements as I can be by imperative commands. The commands of the gospel to repent and believe mean nothing apart from the indicative statements about God, ourselves and Christ. Information is vital. We are called to teach the truth, to proclaim a great message about God. We want people who hear our messages to change from ignorance to knowledge of the truth. Such heartfelt informing is application.
Doubt is different than simple ignorance. In doubt, we take ideas or truths familiar to us, and we question them. This kind of questioning is not rare among Christians. In fact, doubt may well be one of the most important issues to be thoughtfully explored and thoroughly challenged in our preaching. We may sometimes imagine that a little pre-conversion apologetics is the only time we preachers need to directly address doubt, but this is not the case. Some people who sat and listened to your sermon last Sunday, and who knew all the facts that you mentioned about Christ, or God, or Onesimus, may well have been struggling with whether or not they really believed those very facts to be true. Sometimes such doubt is not even articulated. We may not even be aware of it ourselves. But when we begin searchingly to consider Scripture, we find lingering in the shadows questions and uncertainties and hesitancies, all of which make us sadly aware of that gravitational pull of doubt, off there in the distance, drawing us away from the faithful pilgrim's path. To such people perhaps to such parts of our own hearts¯we want to argue for and to urge the truthfulness of God's Word and the urgency of believing it. We are called to urge on hearers the truthfulness of God's Word. We want people who hear our messages to change from doubt to full-hearted belief of the truth. Such urgent, searching preaching of the truth is application.
Sin, too, is a problem in this fallen world. Ignorance and doubt may be either themselves specific sins, or the result of specific sins, or neither. But sin is certainly more than neglect or doubt. Be assured that people listening to your sermons will have struggled with disobeying God in the week just passed, and they will almost certainly struggle with disobeying him in the week that they are just beginning. The sins will be various. Some will be a disobedience of action; others will be a disobedience of inaction. But whether of commission or omission, sins are disobedience to God. Part of what we are to do when we preach is to challenge God's people to a holiness of life that will reflect the holiness of God Himself. So part of our applying the passage of Scripture we're preaching is to draw out what the implications of that passage for our actions this week. We as preachers are called to exhort God's people to obedience to His Word. We want people who hear our message to change from sinful disobedience, to joyful, glad obedience to God, according to His will revealed in His word. Such exhortation to obedience is certainly application.
The main message that we need to apply every time we preach is the gospel. Some people do not yet know the Good News of Jesus Christ. Some people even who have been sitting under your preaching may have been distracted, or asleep, or day-dreaming, or otherwise not paying attention. They need to be informed of the Gospel. They need to be told.
Others may have heard, understood, and perhaps even genuinely have accepted the truth, but now find themselves struggling with doubt about the very matters you were addressing (or assuming) in your message. Such people need to be urged to believe the truth of the Good News of Christ.
And, too, people may have heard and understood, but may be slow to repent of their sins. They may not even doubt the truth of what you're saying; they may simply be slow to repent of their sins and to turn to Christ. For such hearers, the most powerful application you can make is to exhort them to hate their sins and flee to Christ. In all our sermons, we should seek to apply the Gospel by informing, urging and exhorting.
One common challenge we preachers face in applying God's Word in our sermons is that sometimes those who have their problems mainly in one area or another will think that you are NOT applying Scripture in your preaching, if you are not addressing their particular problem. Are they right? Not necessarily. While your preaching might improve if you do start addressing doubt more often, or more thoroughly, it is not wrong for you to preach to those who need to be informed, or who need to be exhorted to forsake sin, even if the person talking to you isn't so aware of that need.
One final note. Proverbs 23:12 says "Apply your heart to instruction and your ears to words of knowledge." In English translations, it seems that the words translated "apply" in the Bible almost always (maybe always?) have reference not to the preacher's work (as homiletics teaches us) nor even to the Holy Spirit's (as systematics rightly teaches us) but to the work of the one who hears the Word. We are called to apply the word to our own hearts, and to apply ourselves to that work.
That, perhaps, is the single most important application we could make next Sunday for the benefit of all of God's people.