Apply or die
There are lots of ways to kill a sermon.
One sure method is to not include any practical application of the Bible passage. But how do you give down-to-earth application from a passage that reads like a systematic theology textbook?
BRYSON SMITH offers four helpful steps to applying the Bible.
Source: Perspective Vol2 No2 ©Perspective 1999
BETWEEN MOUTHFULS of spaghetti David told me about his previous church experiences. “For a while 1 went to an Anglican Church in Sydney. But six months was as long as 1 could take. The people were nice but the sermons were really boring. They were like listening to a Bible commentary. They never really spoke to where I was at ”
It’s a familiar conversation, isn’t it? Sermons that don’t include practical advice die an ugly death at the hands of frustrated listeners. However, the problem for us preachers is that there are some parts of the Bible which are very difficult to make applications for. This point was particularly driven home to me as I recently preached through Romans 1-11.
It had taken me four years to work up the courage to preach from Romans. The epistle scares me. It is so theologically intense and Paul’s logic seems so difficult to follow at times that I wasn’t sure if I could understand it well enough to preach it confidently. I soon discovered, however, that understanding these doctrinally packed passages was only one of my problems. I also had to apply them! But how do you apply Paul’s discussion on the elect remnant of Israel to a housewife who’s main daily agenda is how to cope with four young children?
Let me offer four steps which have helped me.
What does the writer say?
The first step in any sermon must be to understand what the text is saying.. In some parts of Romans this is no mean feat in itself! However, when we preach we must do more. We must be able to summarise it to a single key idea which we-can verbalise in a simple straightforward way.
For example Romans 6:1-7:6 contains a very elaborate discussion of the interplay between grace, sin and the law. There are many intricate twists and turns to Paul’s logic but good preaching requires that these complicated ideas be stated simply. My one sentence summary for this section was “It’s inconsistent for a Christian to be casual about sin.” This clarification of the issues made the task of applying them much easier.
Why does the writer say it?
Once we know what the text means we must now consider why the author wrote it. This is perhaps the key step in determining how to legitimately apply a passage. Unfortunately a lot of preaching is very poor at this point.
Recently I heard a sermon in which it was stated that Simon’s mother-in-law waiting on Jesus (Mk 1:31) shows us the need to make casseroles for each other! This sort of undisciplined, subjective application springs from not coming to terms with the author’s original intentions. Even the most obscure Old Testament incident and even the most abstract New Testament passage has some pastoral issue behind it. We need to discover what the issue is in order to apply it appropriately.
To consider an example from Romans; why are chapters 9 and 10 full of statements about God’s election of a remnant of Israel? Are these verses simply to give Calvinists proof texts for predestination? Within Paul’s logic Romans 9-10 come as a defence of God’s faithfulness. Having affirmed God’s trustworthiness in chapter 8 Paul immediately defends it by explaining why national Israel axe now separated from the love of God. Paul argues that it has always been God’s pattern to reject the majority of national Israel and use a faithful elect remnant.
Paul’s pastoral concern in Romans 9-10 is therefore to affirm in his readers that God is consistent in his actions and can be relied upon Seeing this reason behind Paul’s writing immediately helps us in making applications of this complex passage. The fact that God is dependable has application for everyone in any walk of life.
What should we do?
Some people would suggest that by now most of the hard work is done. We now understand both the text’s meaning and the writer’s pastoral agenda. Surely all that remains is to “brain storm” for applications. This is not as easy as it sounds.
For most of us specific, practical applications don’t rapidly come to mind so it is important that we invest time in this step. The sermon which is finished off late Saturday night may well be strong on steps 1 & 2 but more often than not it is weak at this point. When this step is rushed our applications (if we give any at all) tend to be superficial and repetitive.
My preparation schedule is structured so that 1 write my first draft of a sermon four to six weeks before I finally preach it. I find this invaluable in allowing me time to think over the specific and varied applications. For example, when preaching on the role of the Holy Spirit in helping us grow in holiness (Romans 8:1-17) 1 had time to reread sections of the very practical book The Pursuit of Holiness by Jerry Bridges. This was helpful in strengthening my application.
How should we do it.
In many of our sermons application stops at step 3. But there is still more to do. As well as tell people what to do we need to offer suggestions about how they should go about doing it. Failure to do this will mean that our sermons only ever tell people what to think. We need to help them translate that correct thinking into specific action.
Let me return to Romans 6:1-7:6. I suggested earlier that this passage was about sin being inconsistent the life of the Christian. Applying that passage means not only urging Christians to get serious about removing sin from their lives but also telling them something tangible to do so as to help them. The advice I offered was that we should pick a Christian we trust and respect and tell them about the sins we are struggling with and how we are going to try to overcome them. Such accountability is helpful because it not only keeps us honest to the task but it reflects a genuine seriousness in becoming holy. This sort of application didn’t just tell people what to think. The application was fleshed out so they had something very concrete to go away and do.
So there you have them four steps which help me prepare sermon application from the Bible. Each step is important. More than that each step is necessary. Ignore step 1 and you have rubbish which doesn’t faithfully explain the text. Ignore step 2 and you have a very dangerous and uncontrolled means of reading the Bible. Ignore step 3 and you may as well read a theology text book to the church. Ignore step 4 and someone like David will tell his next minister that your sermons, ”...never really spoke to where I was at.”
Bryson Smith is the Pastor of Dubbo Presbyterian Church in country NSW, Australia