Sermons may be preached without application but not good sermons. I did not always think that to be the case. Recognizing the power and authority of God’s Word, I went through a time when I thought that just rightly preaching the Word and letting the Holy Spirit make application would be enough. And certainly the Holy Spirit makes applications that the messenger cannot begin to recognize. Yet that position betrays the examples of Jesus, Peter, and Paul in their preaching. Who can read the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5–7) without recognizing the searing application of Jesus Christ? Or who can study the Upper Room Discourse (John 14–16) without seeing strong applications in both indicative and imperative moods? Jesus certainly demonstrates in that sermon how good doctrine parallels with effective applications.
Peter’s doctrinal explications at Pentecost encompassed a biblical cosmology that connected prophetic passages to the events of the cross, resurrection, ascension, exaltation, and coming of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:14–42). His doctrinal implications called for response. The same was true of Paul’s weighty doctrinal preaching at Mars Hill in which he ended with the application of repentance in light of judgment (Acts 17:22–31). The biblical examples of faithful preaching included pointed application to the hearers.
During my application-less sermons, one kind church member passed along to me a cassette tape (I’m dating myself!) of an older pastor talking about application. I was cut to the heart by realizing that my good intentions to depend upon the power of the Word to deal with my hearers neglected the very example of application found in the Word!
For many years I have been trying to learn how to pastorally apply the Word to the very present needs of my congregation. Here are a few things that I have found helpful in this process.
First, application does not mean that the preacher hammers the listeners into the ground for not obeying some portion of the Word. Our hearers struggle with obedience—just as we often do—so they generally do not need a hammer (there may be rare occasions for that) but someone to come alongside them to lead them into obedience by depending upon the provisions in the gospel of Jesus Christ and the enabling of the Holy Spirit.
Second, if points of application lack a foundation in the gospel then it leads to a reversion of works-righteousness. We do not want our congregations to apply the Word in an effort to gain standing with God but rather to apply the Word as one counted righteous in Jesus Christ. When applications press the theme of “do, do, do in order to be,” then we fail at gospel-application. In such cases, application leads to condemnation.
Third, pray for the congregation while preparing the sermon; think about their needs; and plead with the Spirit to enable the gospel to come alive in their minds. Knowing your congregation, loving them, walking with them in their trials and difficulties, and regularly praying for them gives the preacher and teacher keener insight in rightly applying the truth to their lives.
Fourth, apply the Word that you are studying to your own soul. If you find the message helpful, most likely your hearers will too. If you do not, then neither will they.
Fifth, make application throughout the sermon rather than saving it to the end. I remember Dr. Stephen Olford pointedly emphasizing that as we unpack the doctrines in the text they need immediate application. Otherwise, applications may become detached from their doctrinal moorings, thus unintentionally promoting legalism instead of humble obedience in light of the gospel of Christ.
Finally, realize that even with your best preparation in Word and prayer, you need the Holy Spirit’s help and power to apply the Word to your hearers. Depend upon Him to give you insight in both preparation and delivery. Hold forth the dazzling facets of the gospel as the main points of application to your congregation.
In these ways, pastors and teachers will more effectively apply the biblical texts to their congregations so that they might faithfully live out the implications of the gospel.