This first excerpt comes from the 9marks interview, Church and Culture with Ligon Duncan and Thomas Ascol. One would hope that some segments, before forsaking application completely, would think through it a bit more. Even Bob Bixby thinks that specific application is important (listen to the sermon, “Word-centered”).
Duncan: “Preaching is explaining God’s own revelation to the people of God, not only so that they can read it and understand it for themselves, but so that it impinges upon their consciences, so the minister is required not simply to explain what it means and what it says, but he needs to press on them what that means for them, what the implications are for them.”
Dever: “I have heard some preachers seriously maintain that they shouldn’t do much work in application because that gets in the way of the Holy Spirit’s work. Comment on that?”
Duncan: “I just think that’s a problem with the whole confusion of means and ends.
Dever: “So you mean, of course you’re going to do it?”
Duncan: “Of course. I think that there is a correct critique of some stuff that goes by the name of application that often times overwhelms the text itself. But I do believe that the minister has a responsibility to work hard in application even though God in his sovereignty may well use something that is not necessary part of the application of his sermon that may impact that sermon. . . .”
Dever: “Tom, do ever run into that anti-application thing?”
Ascol: “In the circles that I’m most familiar with, it tends to be an attempt to apply what hasn’t been expounded. . . . It winds up being a bunch of moralisms: do this, do this, do this.”
Dever: “It’s interesting when you read Puritan sermons, that I would say usually 25 to 60 percent of the sermon is application: use no. 1, use no. 2, use 3. And honestly, as a preacher, . . . that is some of the hardest work. I can do the work in the text, understand what it says–that is fun for me and it feeds my soul. But taking the time to sit and meditate and come up with the good applications, that is just difficult, difficult work.”
Ascol: “John Stott’s book Between Two Worlds labors over that and some of us are more comfortable in the world of the text than in the world of our people, and we have to live in both.”
Dever: “Yeah, that’s a good book.”
Duncan: “. . . There’s nothing that reveals a man’s heart publically like his application, because application is begotten of God’s dealings with your own heart. And that’s a scary place. There’s no place where the minister feels more naked, [than] when he’s applying God’s word.”
Perhaps this is not convincing enough. Well, then, we pray the reader to consider the words of John Broadus concerning application,
“Application, in the strict sense, is that part, or those parts, of the discourse in which we show how the subject applies to the persons addressed, what practical instructions it offers them, what practical demands it makes upon them.
“Such application may draw the meaning down only to certain areas of life, leaving more particular application to the individual. . . . That, however, is not for the ordinary people of this world. The finger must often be put on the very spot where ailment is. If truth is not focalized sharply enough to ‘spot light’ some particular principle, or habit, or practice, or motive, or sentiment, or prejudice, or disposition, or need, it will not be very effective. And sometimes it must be made sharp enough to burn.”1
Although one should certainly appreciate the dangers involved with application, we do not believe that this is the gulf into which many are tempted to fall today. No. It seems much more common that many are tempted to ask questions like, “If the Scripture silent is silent in application, should not we also be silent in application when preaching to God’s people?” Consider Col 3:16, which says that one of the ways “the word of Christ” dwells richly in the church is through the church’s admonishing one another, which is supposed to be done “in all wisdom.” The astonishing thing here is that specific “application” is not only essential for pastors to be exercising, but for all the church.
Again, the admonishing must be done “with all wisdom.” The wisdom mentioned here may very well be similar to that “spiritual wisdom” spoken of in chapter 1:9-10, which is connected to knowing the will of God. This “knowing the will of God,” I believe, refers to none other than knowing how God wants us to live in certain situations of life; as the passage explains, “so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God.” Therefore we see that we can only determine the will of God for practical life through spiritual wisdom, and, if the two “wisdoms” are connected (and they seem to fit together very nicely), it is essential for us to have this spiritual wisdom when we admonish one another in our local assemblies when we see others (and, of course, when they see us) living in ways that do not conform to the will of God.
Finally, we want to add that this admonishing must be done in a way that magnifies the grace of God, encouraging people to believe the promises of God and to persevere over the areas of sin by Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit. We never say, “do this and you’ll please God.” Instead we are edifying them or building them up in their faith. We want them to live for the glory of Christ and find their ultimate delight in him. We want them to be so transfixed with the goodness found in God through Christ Jesus that they freely forsake the things of this world, tear down their idols, and follow hard after Him.
1John Broadus, On the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons (rev. ed.; ed. Jesse Burton Weatherspoon; New York: Harper & Row, 1944), 211-21.