What role does application play? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.
Yesterday, I wrote on problems with sermons. I do want to respond to some objections and concerns that I saw expressed online about this. So let’s begin.
First off, I hope we can all agree on something. Sermons should present God in Christ to the people. If a passage is about what Jesus did, such as calming the storm, we should emphasize that first. If we jump straight to “Jesus can calm the storms in your life” we miss the revelation of God in Christ and we miss more importantly how we can know Jesus can do that.
Our great danger today often is we seek to apply the text to us immediately. The question often pops up of “What does this text mean to you?” The first question is simply “What does this text mean?” We don’t spend enough time with the text trying to understand it and the situation it was written in.
It is a mistake to make the sermon be entirely application. Do that, and all you’re giving is advice and Jesus is secondary to that. It is also just as much a mistake to say that there is no mention of personal application. However, as one reader simply put it in a forum I’m on, you give the message of Jesus and then say “Therefore….”
Consider Romans. When do you get in to a lot of matter dealing with how one should live life? It starts largely around chapter 12. What were the first 11 chapters doing? Explaining Paul’s theology and doctrine. What about 1 Cor. 15? We have a glorious chapter on the resurrection and how death has no hold on us. Then what follows? Paul says “Now there’s an offering we need to gather for the people in Jerusalem.” There’s a reason he waited until after talking about the resurrection.
I am also not saying stories can never be used. What I am against though is pastors that seem to talk more about themselves and their experiences than they do about Jesus. This is a danger since so many of us love to talk about ourselves. There is a time and place for that. When talking about Jesus, put Him primary though. He must become greater. We must become less.
Stories can be a great way to draw people in if done right. If you can tell a story that relates to something many people have experienced, that will reach more people. I will have more luck talking to the average crowd about say, The Princess Bride, than I will about Final Fantasy IV. Now if I was at a gaming event, Final Fantasy IV could be a much better usage then.
Let’s consider a favorite misused passage. Jeremiah 29:11. No. This is not about you. Stop putting it on graduation cards and everything else. However, can this passage have a personal application? Yes. Let’s suppose I was preaching a message on this text. I might say something like this.
“Judah had been called to be the people of God. They had seen Samaria go into exile judged by God, and yet they persisted. Now Jeremiah was telling them they were next. They would go into Babylon. The people of Judah could think that was it. Their story was done. What about the covenant promises? Had God abandoned His people?
No. God tells them to work and live and have families in the city of Babylon and pray for its success. They would continue to be a people there. Their story was not done. God had not forsaken the covenant, but He was enforcing the punishment of it, but when the time was ready, the people would come back.
God assures them He has plans for them. He will give them hope and a future. He is in charge of the story still. It is not Babylon. It is God.
Friends. We don’t know the plans of God either, but we do know as Christians, His goal is to conform us to the likeness of Christ. What God does as Romans 8 tells us will work for our good if we love Him. We too can go through times in our lives when it seems like we are abandoned by God, but we must be faithful and live our lives for Christ wherever we have been placed. The story is never out of God’s control. All will be made right in the end.”
In doing this, I have presented the historical context of what has happened. I have also presented a theology. God is the God of covenants. He is also the one in charge who knows the future. We also know from the text that God does love us still and wants to conform us to the likeness of Christ. When we are in trying circumstances, we need to hold on in trust too because God is a God who keeps His covenant. If He keeps it even when the people are unfaithful, how much more will He when we strive to live in faith?
Note also that none of this was highly in-depth. I doubt it would really go over your heads if you heard it in a sermon, but odds are you don’t. You need to.
The danger is that if all we have is application without a basis, that won’t be enough to act faithfully. Lauren Winner in her book Real Sex: The Naked Truth About Chastity said that when a boy and a girl dating are on a couch together and the hormones start screaming, a few verses from Paul won’t work. You need a whole theology that tells you why you save sex for marriage.
There are a number of churches that are wanting to bless same-sex unions and say homosexual practice is fine. Why have so many Christians bought into this? A lot of them don’t have a theological backing. They don’t understand the Bible, how we got it, how to read it, or theology and ethics. These are things that we should not be teaching just the academics in our churches. We should be teaching this to everyone. Sure, some people will excel at this, but everyone needs at LEAST the basics.
Pastors. There is plenty of meat in the Scripture for your congregation. Share it with them.
(And I affirm the virgin birth)