State, Explain, Illustrate, Apply. That’s apparently the blueprint for the young preacher. Find three points in the text (regardless of the genre of the passage, regardless of how many ‘points’ the Scripture might be making). For each of the points (it’s best if they all begin with ‘P’): state it, explain it, illustrate it and – in a discrete section of the sermon – apply it.
This almost inevitably means turning each point into a law to be enjoined on the congregation. Thus: point one – Jesus is faithful. Application – how will you be faithful this week? For the preacher who is very keen on ‘application’ they will offer all manner of suggestions as to how the congregation can be faithful in the minutiae of their lives.
All this begs the question: what is preaching for? If it is faith that comes by hearing why do our sermons aim at awakening works? Why do both preachers and congregations love to cut to the ‘application.’ You know the phrases that get a whole church wide eyed, edging to the front of their pews, pliant in the preacher’s hand: “Now where does the rubber hit the road?” “What about on a Monday morning?” “How does this play out in the nitty gritty of life?” And of course the answer given by the preacher (the answer that all our flesh longs to hear) is “You’ve heard this abstract, ‘unearthed’ stuff about Christ’s righteousness, now, go, establish your own righteousness in your home, school or office. You’ve heard of Christ, now you go and be the Faithful One.”
On this understanding, application looks like this:
In my experience the more ‘concrete’ and ‘earthed’ an application the better. Specific moral instructions are thought to really liven up the sermon. Now of course this puts a huge onus on the preacher to be able to discern the thoughts and attitudes of the heart – something which surely only the Spirit by His Word is competent to do. And the more specific these applications become the more easily they slide off the backs of a congregation safe in the knowledge they didn’t commit that sin this week.
But that’s not the real issue with such an understanding of ‘application’. The real issue is – what are we aiming at in preaching? Here’s my question: what if we took seriously the fact that the gospel is to be believed? Christ is to be received. The Word is to be heard. What would application look like then? I suggest it should look much more like this:
Application ought to be the pointed driving home of the gospel. It is the lively and repeated application of the Word to the heart of the congregation to the end that it might be believed. It is not the derivation of principles which can then be turned into moral instruction. Application is the Spirit’s work of awakening faith in the Christ who we proclaim. It is a work which we cannot perform ourselves but to which we are called nonetheless. In prayerful dependence we follow the way of witness in the Scriptures as they point to Christ. And we point too. With excitement, with passion, with entreaty. And we say like Moses did regarding the bronze serpent: Look and live!