So How Do You Apply A Sermon?

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.

In Christ,
Nick Peters
(And I affirm the virgin birth)

Pastors. Consider This For Your Sermons

What are some things I would like changed in sermons? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

As readers should know, I am in therapy here recovering from my divorce and learning social skills for dating. My therapist was asking me about how I’m doing spiritually and one thing we talked about were sermons I attend. I mentioned some concerns I have with them and I would like to write about them now.

The first point I want to make is that too many sermons seem to focus on the experience of the pastor. I get especially concerned when I hear them talk about things that God told them. Those are dangerous words. That is giving divine authority to whatever you say next. Are you willing to do that? While I realize we don’t live in Old Testament times, in those times, the penalty for saying “God said” when He did not say was death. We can say that that won’t happen anymore, but are we to think God doesn’t still take seriously people claiming to say what He didn’t say?

I often hear people who give announcements at church say the same thing. “Well, God brought in enough money for us to do XYZ” or “God laid it on our hearts to build the new building” or “God put this idea in us for the new Vacation Bible School.” How do you know? I always want to ask that question. It’s not just a Protestant thing. I have heard it in Catholic and Orthodox churches as well.

Pastors. If you spend too much time on your experience, you will be the focus. It will not be what the church is to do in Christ. It will be about what you think Christ is doing in you. I don’t come to church to hear about you. I come to church to hear about Jesus.

Second, is that too often we focus on application which boils down to advice. I am not saying application is not part of a sermon, but it should be the minimal part after the main message has been given. Lewis once said the world is full of good advice and if all Jesus came to do was give us good advice, it was a wasted effort. We have rejected much advice before. Why not the best of all?

If this is all we do, then we are not different from many other groups except we sprinkle a little bit of Jesus in there to sound spiritual. We’re pretty much a club at that point. Now I get that part of coming to church is community and we should have that, but the main draw should not be community. The main draw should be Jesus.

There’s a reason we have negative terminology for preaching and a sermon. If someone starts telling us what to do over and over we say “Don’t preach at me” or “I don’t need to hear a sermon.” Those are negative terms and really, they’ve been sadly earned. If you’re a pastor, do you want your sermon to sound like that?

Finally, present the grandeur of God in Christ in all your sermons somehow. For instance, when I was at church Sunday, the sermon I heard was on Mark 4. What’s it about? Jesus calming the storm. You know what we too often make the sermon about? Jesus can calm the storms in your life!

Well, yes, He can. But He won’t always. However, before saying that Jesus can calm the storms in our lives, let’s look at what this text is actually about.

Jesus calming an actual storm.

I’m going to wager a hunch that very few of you reading this have successfully gone outside to face a horrendous storm of some kind and calmed it down by your words alone. I’ll even say most of you have never attempted such a thing before. Who are we to calm storms, after all? Yet Jesus did it!

What does that tell me about Jesus? What does that show me about who He is? What does that tell me about the power that He has?

Another passage like this is David and Goliath. The passage becomes about facing your giants. What are the Goliaths in your life? Can you take them down? Let’s look at what the story is about.

It’s about the covenant God of Israel having a faithful servant in the next king, David, who trusts so much in YHWH to fulfill His covenant promises if one is faithful to Him that he is willing to face the giant on this God’s behalf.

The story of the three Hebrew boys thrown into the fire is about three Hebrew boys being faithful to YHWH in a pagan kingdom against a pagan king not even knowing if they would be spared. The miraculous preservation of them showed that yes, God can deliver, but it also showed something else. God is superior to the will of the pagan kings.

We could go on and on easily. In all of these stories, by jumping to application, you miss the message. Do you think Mark really wrote the story of Jesus calming the sea to show that God can calm the storms in your life? No. He wrote it to tell us about Jesus.  The writer of Samuel did not write to tell us God can overcome your Goliaths. He wrote to tell us about faithfulness to YHWH by David in a time when Israel was under oppression by an evil foreign adversary.

The story of the Hebrew boys was not written to show God can deliver you from your furnace. It was written to show that God was faithful even in a foreign land and greater than the gods of the most powerful empire on Earth at the time. It was written to show His covenant had not been abandoned.

Think back to a time when you fell in love with someone. Did you need to hear advice about how to love them? Not saying it wouldn’t have helped, but generally, when you were presented with the loved one and who they were, you wanted to do the good automatically. There’s a reason the saying was that the face of Helen of Troy could launch a thousand ships. Present a man with the beauty of the woman and he will tend to want to do great things. Beauty is very inspirational.

What will a man do when presented with the glory of Christ?

Now if you want to say God can calm the storms in your life and other things, make sure that is secondary. The primary thing is what God has done in Christ and in the lives of the saints of the past. Present them this God that they are to trust in and if God calms the storm, great! If not, He will be with them through it.

For those of us who are Protestants, we stand on a treasure trove of great theology. I am part of an Aquinas Zoom meeting on Thursday nights and I hear good theology as we discuss what Aquinas says about God. That’s our theology also. The Reformers and immediate predecessors would have no problem with much of medieval theology. It’s only in more recent times that we started having people seriously question simplicity, impassibility, omniscience, etc.

We have a great God. Let people see Him. We have a great savior in Christ. Let people see Him.

In Christ,
Nick Peters
(And I affirm the virgin birth)

Book Plunge: In God We Doubt Part 8

What is the impact of bad sermons? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

Most every speaker has had a bad presentation at times. They have had something happen where they didn’t know what to say or where they said something outright stupid. Unfortunately, when that happens in ministry, the results can be disastrous. Reviewing what I highlighted in chapter 11 where we start today, I saw one pop up immediately and as soon as I started it, I remembered how it ended because of how terrible it was.

Even worse, this took place at a funeral with the wife and kids right there. A funeral is worse not just because the people are grieving, but weddings and funerals are two of the times you are most likely going to have lost people in the church. Your average person who doesn’t want anything to do with a church can come to one of these out of deep respect, and personally, a funeral usually has the closest to a sermon.

So what does the vicar say here?

Terrible though it is to us, God grants the same freedom to cancer cells that he grants even to the most noble and virtuous of us.

Humphrys is right in pointing out that cancer cells are not intelligent agents that can move and make decisions. Of course, Christians need to be able to have a place in their worldview to explain cancer, but this is not a valid parallel at all. God does allow bad things to happen, including deaths from cancer, but are we going to put cancer cells on the same level as human beings?

Fortunately, Humphrys I don’t think sees all ministers like this, but too many will remember this. Sadly, we will have people easily remember the worst things we did to them. “Think of someone who hurt you.” Right now, most all of you have the image of someone in mind immediately.

Moving on from here, Humphrys asks about prayer. Isn’t it a pointless exercise? Isn’t the main emphasis asking for something? Well, no. The main emphasis should be worship and glorification, something I admit I need to work on as well. There is also thankfulness and the asking is not just health and material objects and items like that, but also forgiveness.

Humphrys also says in the Bible, God was performing miracles all the time. Hardly. You have an abundance of miracles in only three time periods, the Exodus and the conquest, the ministries of Elijah and Elisha, and the apostolic age starting with the ministry of Jesus. Miracles are recorded not because they are common, but because they are exceptional.

Getting back to prayer after all of this, Humphrys says God hears every prayer that is offered up, and yet doesn’t bother to intervene. I daresay Humphrys knows a lot of people who can speak of an answered prayer, yet will he say that is a coincidence? It seems that he has to.

What about something like Craig Keener’s works on miracles that show miracles specifically coming after prayer? Humphrys and others who do this have a unique method. If you pray for something and it doesn’t happen, that proves God doesn’t answer prayers. If you pray for something and it happens, that proves that coincidences take place.

Rabbi Sacks thankfully does deal with Humphrys well in an interview style saying that Humphrys seems to have this idea that the world ought to be just. This is ironically where C.S. Lewis began as well. Humphrys then says it needs to be like science where we test something again and again and it is proven and religion is asking the opposite.

Well, that’s just false. Having something happen again and again in science doesn’t mean “proof.” It means that it is incredibly likely, the same as in history. It can be so likely it would be nonsense to try to do some things again. If I stick my hand on a hot stove and I burn it, I’m not going to want to try it again. If I drop something and it falls repeatedly, I’m justified in thinking, contrary to Hume, that that is what will happen every time, all things being equal.

Sacks also rightly says that Humphrys buys into a sort of soft scientism where something should be scientifically established before it is acceptable. Much of our knowledge does not come about that way, such as our moral judgments and the rules of math and any number of other ideas we hold. Most of the claims we hold dearest are those that are NOT scientifically proven, such as that our loved ones love us, or that something is good to do, or that beauty is real.

Humphrys lists a lot of things he considers evils and said this would not happen in a just world. Well first off, who said the world is just right now? In a just world, the Son of God would not be crucified when He did no wrong. God promises justice, but He never promises a timeframe to it for us. Justice delayed is not justice denied.

Briefly, Humphrys talks about biblical interpretation with the idea that we are supposed to take the texts literally, though not stating what that means. I contend you should always take the text literally, but not literalistically. If something is written as a metaphor, taking it literally is reading it as a metaphor. If something is taken as a straight forward account, taking it literally is doing just that. Literalistic reading says there can be no inflection or change in language and no stylistic ideas of hyperbole, sarcasm, etc.

So ultimately as we conclude this part, it still looks like again all Humphrys really has is evil. This has just never really struck me as a strong objection to Christianity, especially since Christianity by necessity has an evil action right at the center, the crucifixion of Christ. Christianity is about dealing with the evil in part, so how is evil a defeater for it?

Beats me.

In Christ,
Nick Peters
(And I affirm the virgin birth)





Book Plunge: Good News For Anxious Christians

What do I think of Phillip Cary’s book published by Brazos Press? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

This is the kind of book that should be required reading, especially for young Christians. I would be absolutely thrilled if at churches they gave a copy of this book to new Christians after they confessed and were baptized. Unfortunately, I don’t see that happening. Not because ordering a lot of books could be expensive, but because most of the ideas Cary is arguing against are treated as traditional beliefs of Christianity from the beginning in the church.

For Cary, this results in Christians being anxious. “Why is my life not being like everyone else’s that I see? Why do I not hear the voice of God? Why do I not have joy? Why am I bored at the sermon? Why can’t I just let go and let God?” It is unspoken by Cary, though I suspect he would agree, that this I think is also a cause of apostasy in the church at times when the Christian life seems to fail to deliver on promises it never really made and certainly a critique atheists like to give.

So I won’t go in-depth on many of these, but they are important. First off is hearing the voice of God. We too often have our own feelings and emotions in us and the idea is we have to discern which one is the voice of God. This is not to rule out that God can speak, but it is to say it is not to be normative in the Christian life. This also ties in with the idea he has that you don’t have to know which of your intuitions are the Holy Spirit.

I remember getting ready to speak at a church one and hearing the person introducing me say “Let’s listen to what God has put on his heart.” I was inwardly thinking “Please don’t put me in that position.” You see, I don’t doubt I had a good message, but I would not say this comes directly from God through me to you. I am not a prophet nor the son of a prophet. If every pastor I have heard is the voice of God speaking, God must be really confused.

This goes along with the idea of doing as you feel led. I know of churches that say to give as you feel led. Never mind that we have 2 Corinthians 8 and 9 that tell us how we are to give. Let’s throw those out for personal experiences.

The next one I want to emphasize is that you don’t have to find God’s will for your life. Somehow people got this idea that God wants you to have a specific career and marry a specific person and you have to find out what and who. (It’s usually assumed it’s God’s will for you to marry.) However, Greg Koukl as well pointed out that if you married the wrong person, then the people you were meant for have to marry someone else and the people they were went for and on and on and so by your one mistake you have screwed up God’s plan for humanity. Well done!

No. You don’t have to do this. Just find a job that is moral that you are good at and can provide and for marriage, find someone who is good for you and you are good for.

What about motivations? Now back when I was married, I remember one day a friend picked up my ex-wife for a women’s conference and I thought I would surprise her and do a deep clean of the house while she was gone. After awhile, I thought of how happy she would be to see things so clean which was great and then thought “I bet she’ll really want to show me how happy she is.” Then anxiety set in immediately. What if that’s really why I’m doing this? What if I just want the reward.

Nowadays, I think that was a ridiculous worry to have. Was it something good to do? Yes. Then do it. Now if I knew I was doing something just for the reward, I think that would be hypocrisy, but if I at least want to do good, that is all that matters, and I just pray for God to purify my motives. Odds are none of us will ever have 100% pure motives for anything. We do the best with what we have.

I’m going to skip a couple now to talk about how you don’t always have to have joy, at least the feeling of joy. One of the best gifts you can give someone at times is letting them suffer. I know in the early days of my divorce, if you had tried to downplay what I was feeling such as telling it wasn’t that bad or told me I shouldn’t be sad over it as a Christian, I would have wanted nothing to do with you. The best advice I had came from fellow sufferers who had been divorced and came alongside me. I remember especially someone saying “Today sucks, but tomorrow will suck a little bit less.”

Job is used as an example. The best gift Job’s friends gave him was silent presence. Everything was going right until they decided to speak. Then they ruined everything. The Bible says to mourn with those who mourn. Yes. It is Biblical sometimes to mourn.

One chapter that really left an impression on me is why application is the most boring part of many a sermon and too many sermons are ALL application. Consider this scenario. In the future, I meet a great girl and we go out and I want to get married and knowing my past divorce history, I tell you I’m scared I could be making the wrong decision. You want to talk to me about why you think this is a great relationship.

And your idea is to tell me about all the things that I do and all the traits I have to do that.

That just shows about me regardless of the woman. What makes sense? You tell me all about her and who she is and what she does.

In our sermons, we tell people to do things for Jesus, but we don’t usually tell them who Jesus is. Sermons are largely telling people what to do and not much about who they do it for. Instead, present Jesus as best you can as He is and count on people to have the proper response.

Finally, there’s a chapter on experiences. We live in a consumer age and too many people base what they have on their experiences. In the end, we end up needing more and more and the focus of our lives becomes not what God has revealed in Scripture, but what is going on with us and assuming all of it is the direct work of God.

This book is such a relief and it can be to so many more people.

I hope someday the church starts reading this. Sadly, they need to first to get rid of the bad ideas they’ve taken in.

In Christ,
Nick Peters
(And I affirm the virgin birth)

Book Plunge: Messages With A Meaning

What do I think about this book published by Bookstand Publishing? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

I was given a copy of this book on Kindle by the author wanting me to give an honest review. The book is supposed to consist of several condensed sermons so that a person can have a regular reading. I opened it the first night hoping to find some good exposition on Biblical doctrine that would lead to holy living.

Well the first night was a disappointment. I see a typo here and there and I don’t really see any exposition or wrestling with doctrinal issues. Maybe the next night will be better.

Or it won’t….

I started coming each night with the hopes that this night would be different, but no. Reading seemed more like a task I had to pull myself through than a joyous event and I would happily finish and skip over to my C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton devotionals. I did not find things that would make me think or drive me to holiness more. I instead more often found just simple platitudes that may or may not be helpful but could have been found on a fortune cookie.

Many times in fact, the messages seemed self-serving. You would have a message given about what the congregation should do for a pastor such as taking him out for a meal regularly. It gave me the impression that the writer wanted to make sure the congregation knew what a hard life he was living and wanted everyone to donate to him. I would hope he’s not like that, but it’s an impression one can easily get.

Many sermons would say nothing about Jesus and would not have the Bible in them and would not have any doctrine. In fact, I can’t think of doctrine in any of the sermons as I look back really. It was a lot of the spiritual pablum that I think has been guilty for killing the church and making us be looking at what Christianity does for us on the level of application instead of drawing us into the wonder of God.

In fact, a problematic aspect is a few times I read the passage about “Touch not my anointed” as applied to the pastor. Well sorry pastor, but unless God specifically called you out for a specific purpose and this by more than just a feeling and experience you or someone else had, you’re not as anointed as you think you are. Now sure, in 2 John 2, we all have an anointing, but too many pastors think they have a “call to preach” and should be exempt from criticism. (Sadly, they also think they should be exempt from study and doing hard things like going to Seminary) This produces shoddy pastors who don’t know how to preach and unfortunately the innocents out in the pews are victims of these people who really just have a big ego for the most part.

The whole idea of “Touch Not My Anointed” comes from the Old Testament and the first one mentioned as anointed in that way is King Saul. Wait. You mean the King Saul that was jealous of David and spent his country’s resources trying to kill him? That very one. David once told Saul he would not touch him because he was the Lord’s anointed and if you see the passage, that is when David had the chance each time to kill Saul and refused. After saying that, he would roundly criticize Saul.

So friends, if you’re not trying to kill your pastor (Or physically harm him in any way) you’re good. You are allowed to criticize your pastor. If your pastor can’t take any criticism whatsoever, then he needs to step down and give the office to someone who is more worthy.

I have to say then I was tremendously disappointed by what I read here. I saw pablum filled with typos all throughout. I did not see anything that challenged me or made me want to grow in my faith all the more. These are the kinds of sermons that would leave me wondering more what I was going to have for lunch after church or what I might watch on TV when I got home instead of thinking about the things of God.

Save your money and go for the Lewis or Chesterton devotionals. They work far better.

In Christ,
Nick Peters