By David Cox
Summary: I examine the tendency that I see in some preachers to not apply Scripture, just talk about it, explain it, and leave it at that. An application of Scripture means making it very clear how the scriptural principles involved are applied to the believers’ lives.
We are familiar with cults and false religions which “misapply Scripture”, i.e. they take a passage of Scripture and misinterpret it, making an application that is not valid for that passage. But there are also other preachers, supposedly good preachers that refuse to apply Scriptures in the sense that they do not press a moral application from the passages that they preach from. Often these preachers avoid preaching sermons that would lend themselves to any kind of moral application.
- 1 We are to Reprove, Rebuke, and Exhort
- 2 Example, Peter’s Sermon on the Day of Pentecost
- 3 Moral Application or a Call to Action
- 4 A Quote from John MacArthur on why he doesn’t make applications
- 5 Exhortation as part of the sermon is essential in sealing a biblical teaching
- 6 Teaching Facts and Figures instead of Moral Change
- 7 Wisdom is the skillful use of key knowledge for personal benefit and advantage
- 8 Preachers are here to effect moral change
- 9 How to die the slow death as a preacher
We are to Reprove, Rebuke, and Exhort
2Tim 4:2 Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove (G1651), rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine.
G1651 ἐλέγχω elegcho (el-eng’-kho) v.1. to confute, admonish
KJV: convict, convince, tell a fault, rebuke, reprove
G2008 ἐπιτιμάω epitimao (ep-ee-tee-mah’-o) v.
1. to tax upon, i.e. censure or admonish
2. (by implication) forbid
[from G1909 and G5091]
KJV: (straitly) charge, rebuke
G3870 παρακαλέω parakaleo (par-ak-al-eh’-o) v.
1. (properly) to call near (as to receive or give help)
2. to implore, entreat (to urgently ask (for mercy or help))
3. to exhort (to urgently counsel, encourage or admonish)
4. to comfort
[from G3844 and G2564]
KJV: beseech, call for, (be of good) comfort, desire, (give) exhort(-ation), intreat, pray
(from Mickelson’s Enhanced Strong’s Greek and Hebrew Dictionaries)
These words mean passionately convince. There is both logical AND EMOTIONAL exhortation going on. This is the way we preach. It is the only biblical way to preach. The actual preaching, the epistles and books written by biblical authors as well as recorded sermons are passionate works of exhortation, both appealing to written Scripture and the great spiritual need for moral change within the people hearing these words.
Example, Peter’s Sermon on the Day of Pentecost
In Acts 2:14 and following we find this sermon.
Acts 2:22 Ye men of Israel, hear these words; Jesus of Nazareth, a man approved of God … 23 Him, being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, ye have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain:
You may read this and say “Peter, what are you doing? You are offending these people.” They DID kill Jesus. Peter is accusing them of murder! Moreover, Peter is identifying Jesus as God, the Christ, the Savior, and accusing the Jews of killing their King, their Christ! How more crushing can a preacher push offense into a congregation’s face!
Acts 2:36 Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly, that God hath made that same Jesus, whom ye have crucified, both Lord and Christ.
Peter ends his sermon identifying for all Jews present, Jesus, which you murdered, is both Lord and Christ.
Acts 2:37 Now when they heard this, they were pricked in their heart, and said unto Peter and to the rest of the apostles, Men and brethren, what shall we do?
You see, Peter’s desired intent by preaching what he did and how he did was to cause these people a stressful moral dilemma. They did wrong. They sinned, and not lightly. They are under the wrath of God for what they did. So what did Peter say at this point?
Acts 2:38 Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins…
Repentance! Belief! These are exhortations that are correctly and rightly in their places at the end of a sermon. Peter presented the teaching of Scripture, he then related it to the actual lives of those hearing him, and then he called for action. This “Call to Action” or application is what is lacking in so much preaching to make it dead and ineffective, and make people’s ear thick so that they do not ever respond because of the habit of never dealing with Scripture and their sin.
Moral Application or a Call to Action
The whole point of sermons, teachings, and THE MINISTRY is to help God’s people and the unsaved understand God’s will, and what we are doing wrong. There is no way we can understand what is morally wrong with our lives without going to the Bible. It is going to offend, it is going to hurt sometimes. It is a humbling experience because we chose to live in a certain way, and now God is sending us a message, a spiritual message, and exhortation, that what we chose is simply wrong in God’s eyes. The message always has an understood sub-message, “and CHANGE YOURSELF”.
Jer 23:4 And I will set up shepherds over them which shall feed them: and they shall fear no more, nor be dismayed, neither shall they be lacking, saith the LORD.
Isa 30:20 And though the Lord give you the bread of adversity, and the water of affliction, yet shall not thy teachers be removed into a corner any more, but thine eyes shall see thy teachers: Isa 30:21 And thine ears shall hear a word behind thee, saying, This is the way, walk ye in it, when ye turn to the right hand, and when ye turn to the left.
Ezek 37:24 And David my servant shall be king over them; and they all shall have one shepherd: they shall also walk in my judgments, and observe my statutes, and do them.
There is a moral change in a person that is spiritually fed. It is based on information, but feeding does not end with information and explanation, but with a moral decision.
A Quote from John MacArthur on why he doesn’t make applications
Now when you deal with the text and the armor of God, like tonight, all I can do is explain it. That’s all it does. There aren’t any applications in that text…. It’s not for me to do that. Application belongs to the Spirit of God. All I’m interested in is explanation and its implications. And the power comes in the implication and the Spirit of God takes the implications of what I’ve said tonight, all these things I’ve said, I don’t need to say all kinds of little scenarios to you and paint all kinds of little individual circumstances. All I need you to know is this is what the Word of God says and the implications are powerfully brought to bear with authority on your life and I exhort you to respond to those implications, it is the Spirit’s work to drive those implications into direct and personal application. (https://www.gty.org/library/sermons-library/GTY117/john-macarthur-on-sermon-application)
I agree and mostly disagree with MacArthur. In the first place, I agree with him and I, as a preacher, cannot make all the applications that should be on a text. Paul says we are not to be unequally yoked with unbelievers. I am amazed at how many specific applications can be made with that principle.
But I disagree with MacArthur (if I am understanding him correctly) that a preacher doesn’t make an application of the moral truths that he is teaching. For example, although I cannot give all the applications out there for not being unequally yoked with unbelievers, I teach the facts of Scripture about this passage, explaining it. After I explain it, (at least to me) it is totally valid for a preach to give some examples. A single person should not be yoked to an unsaved person in marriage. A businessman should not have a business partner that is unsaved. I think these kinds of examples are the kinds of examples to give, and their points are valid. Even at that, there are complications. What of a married woman that gets saved, but she is married to an unsaved man. You cannot leave these points with just what was probably given. They have specific verses, other verses, that are directed at them, and they are best left for some other sermon another day.
But examples, concrete examples (without actually using real names of people and situations in the local church) are good and useful in our understanding.
Exhortation as part of the sermon is essential in sealing a biblical teaching
When you give teaching from Scripture or a sermon, there should always be a singular thought that overtakes the entire sermon process. How will this change my people into the image of Christ? Morally, how should they be different after the teaching is successfully done than they were beforehand?
I have heard many sermons in my life. In my 7 years of attending a Christian university, I heard a sermon almost every weekday. I have sat in church on Sundays from as far back as I can remember, and my parents were not people of just going Sunday morning. They went and took us to Sunday School, church, and the evening service and Wednesdays.
In all of my years of hearing preachers preach, I liked some preachers and disliked a lot. A few were excellent. But as I consider the ones I disliked, many of them simply were boring. They didn’t say anything I really disliked or that I was against, they just talked for a period of time, and by the time it was over and I got into the car, I did not remember anything from the sermon. In high school when I started being more interested in God and spiritual things, I started taking notes, even if I threw them away once home, I wanted to try to make the sermon impact my mind and spirit. With many preachers, it was impossible to take notes except note their verses, and when you get home and go back over the verses, there is no real connection nor thread that connects them, except that they are all in the Bible. Some preachers didn’t even use the Bible. Disgusting.
The best, most memorable sermons, the sermons that really changed my life are the ones that had a point. Whatever that point was, it was pressed into the sermon material from the beginning to the end. In the end, there was a conclusion that pressed that point that we should deal with it, change our life morally, and live differently. Even if the sermon was on something difficult to act on like we are saved, and we cannot lose our salvation, those good sermons would make me confident in my salvation experience, and that I was really saved, and that I will not lose my salvation because of sin. I am saved because of my faith in Christ. To me, I identify those kinds of sermons as confidence sermons, that confirm what I believe.
Teaching Facts and Figures instead of Moral Change
My observation is that the spiritual feeding that preachers are supposed to do should work to morally change their hearers into the image of Christ. Just throwing out Scriptures and talking about them is not sufficient. You need to exhort towards a moral change. This means that people are spiritually different afterward than they were before.
Spiritual growth is also essentially a moral change. It is built on information, but so many Christians know so much, and their spiritual lives are still as children. They have not been challenged to grow, to change morally into the image of Christ.
Heb 5:11 Of whom we have many things to say, and hard to be uttered, seeing ye are dull of hearing. Heb 5:12 For when for the time ye ought to be teachers, ye have need that one teach you again which be the first principles of the oracles of God; and are become such as have need of milk, and not of strong meat. Heb 5:13 For every one that useth milk is unskilful in the word of righteousness: for he is a babe. Heb 5:14 But strong meat belongeth to them that are of full age, even those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil.
The writer of Hebrews understood this issue and the people he was writing. Paul says…
2Tim 4:3 For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears;
Is it not right to have an interest in hearing more and more of the Bible? Yes! But that is not what was going on nor what Paul was addressing. These “hearers” wanted to hear more, but they were curious and wanted novelty. They wanted new things, things to tickle their ears. Facts and information without application are pretty much useless from a moral standpoint.
Wisdom is the skillful use of key knowledge for personal benefit and advantage
Knowledge means knowing things. A person may know how a car works, how the engine works, and how the transmission works. But that is not wisdom. Wisdom, in biblical concepts like in Proverbs, is the skillful use of knowledge for personal advantage or benefit. So a guy that knows how a car works is not useful if the car breaks down. A mechanic uses his knowledge to fix the car or do maintenance so that it doesn’t break down.
Knowing the Bible is not even going to assure that you are saved. False prophets know the Bible backward and forwards, but they probably none of them are saved. But knowing the Bible, and then using that knowledge, for example, to accept Jesus Christ as your Saviour, is going to spiritually benefit you. So we need to separate knowledge from wisdom.
Knowledge is not bad. Without knowledge of the Bible, we are all totally lost and in the wrath of God. But using what we learn about God, the Bible, our salvation, etc. is where we start in order to be “wise” or saved. Spiritually we grow by changing the course of our life in accordance with Scripture, God’s will. This is applying God’s principles in our lives.
Preachers are here to effect moral change
The point is that preachers are supposed to use Scripture to deliver God’s message, and this action should cause moral in the people hearing the preacher. Facts, outlines, background material, Greek grammar, Hebrew grammar, even English grammar, do not make a moral change. Only when the spiritual principle is precisely stated and driven home by passionate exhortation will people easily be confronted with their sin, their lack of doing something they should be doing and morally deal with the issue.
On their own, few Christians will seek moral change. It is not normal. Normal is maintain the status quo, or simply do what you have always done. Even when people decide to pray more, read Scripture more, or witness more, they will slowly go back into what they always did without noticing it. That is just how people are. Sermons should be to call us to action, to moral change in our daily lives. That is their purpose.
How to die the slow death as a preacher
In conclusion, let me note something about preachers I have known. Some preachers who avoid applying strongly the Scriptures in their sermons are spiritually dying a moral death. Since they don’t do this in their sermons, they probably rarely do it in their own personal, spiritual lives. This is tragic. The best sermons ever preached are the ones that present a spiritual principle that the preacher himself wrestled with, and he himself has imposed in his own life, changing himself morally. When he preaches that spiritual principle to others, he is accurate, informed, understanding, and compassionate, as well as passionate.
Preachers study all the time. But when do they morally learn from their Bibles? That is the question. If they are learning morally to be like Jesus, why would they do that and not share those same experiences with their people? Probably they don’t share because they don’t have points that they have morally learned. Everything goes to support a higher spirituality that they believe that they have over their people. More knowledge means all the more that they can badger their people into submission. It is not always true, but it seems at times that it exactly what is happening. Sad.