Application Begins With Theology
This is a continuation of the previous post.
When the context of the discussion is our flock wanting ‘more practical’ sermons or teaching, it’s easy to allow pragmatics to drive why and how we do application. However, a much better way is to allow God’s revelation itself teach us about application: what it is, why it’s important and how we ought to do it better. This is what I mean by letting our application begin with theology (and in case there’s misunderstanding of the heading, I don’t mean that we must “teach theology as our application”).
a. The Word of God is a Word for Today
The first plank in our theology, if it’s to be Biblical and evangelical, is that we believe that Scripture is by its very nature relevant and applicable to all people at all time. In other words, great application in our teaching needs to happen not because our people demand it, but because God the Author of Scripture demands it! This is particularly clear from passages such as Romans 15:4, 1 Corinthians 10:11, and Hebrews 3-4. The Word of God is a living and active Word; it is not locked in time to be only relevant to its original hearers. God’s ‘authorial intent’ is that it is relevant to us now.
This has some very important implications:
(i) I don’t need to make the Bible relevant
It’s easy to think of application of what I must do as a teacher/preacher in order to make the Bible relevant. This is a fallacy. The Bible is relevant; I don’t need to make it so. The question therefore isn’t ‘have I made the Bible applicable or relevant?’. It becomes a question of, ‘have I exposed the text in a faithful way as to point out its relevance to my hearers?’ and, ‘have I prayed for my hearers that God’s Spirit would speak directly to their hearts and drive home the Bible’s relevance to them?’.
(ii) Application is best thought of as ‘impact’ and ‘relevance’ rather than just ‘what must I do in response?’.
Many Christians have a narrow view of application, that unless I leave a sermon with three things I must do this week (e.g. do my quiet times, evangelise, stop looking at porn), then I haven’t heard any application. I reckon this is unhelpful, not the least because it creates a false presupposition that unless I am called specific action then it is not relevant and impacting.
Rather we ought to think of application as broader than just ‘what must I do?’ but ‘how does this passage impact me, challenge me, rebuke me, speak to me here and now?’. This being the case, then my job as a teacher/preacher is not to ‘save application right to the end’, but throughout the teaching to be showing people ‘how it lands’, how it is relevant, how it speaks to us now and impacts us now. In my view, this is application, and perhaps (as an answer to ‘how much application should be in a sermon?’) ought to be a good half to one-third of what we say in a sermon.
(iii) Application must be part of exposition
For me, this is a big Copernican revolution in thinking. I used to think that application is something I do after I do my work on the text. However it’s obvious that if that’s what I think then it’s very easy for application to be that little ‘tack on’ at the end of a sermon or Bible study.
But here’s the thing: if relevance, impact and God addressing us in the here and now is part-and-parcel of his authorial intent, then for me to neglect asking the questions of relevance and impact in the process of my exegesis and exposition of the text would be an act of unfaithfulness. Now this is not to say that we don’t need to do responsible exegesis – i.e. find out ‘what did this text mean?’ before we ask ‘what does this text mean?’. But what I’m saying is that if we don’t spend the time ‘mining deep’ in the text for how it impacts me, changes me and challenges me, then I haven’t completed my exposition of the Biblical text.