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Gospel Application in Preaching

Resident Faculty, Dennis E. Johnson   |   January 14, 2016   |  Type: Articles, UPDATE Magazine

These days, it seems, one sure-fire way to instigate a vigorous discussion in Reformed circles—whether around the Sunday dinner table or in the blogosphere—is to bring up the topic of “application” in sermons. Where families still gather at noon on Lord’s Days to partake of “roast preacher,” husbands may wish that sermons were more explicit about wifely submission, while wives may feel that the pastor should have confronted husbands pointedly and concretely with the summons to self-sacrificial love. Employers want the preacher to spell out workers’ duties to work hard “as to the Lord,” even when supervisors’ backs are turned. People who feel marginalized, politically or socially, lament a sermon’s lack of action steps to cultural transformation. Others, on the other hand, worn out by helpful “to do” lists for repairing relationships, may have cringed when the preacher turned to “practical” application. 

Meanwhile, in cyberspace, debate rages over how “gospel” relates to “law,” how grace relates to duty, and how justification through faith alone connects to the arduous, life-long process of sanctification. Charges of antinomianism and legalism/moralism fly every which way. Will preaching Jesus’ grace, the source of our assurance, automatically produce in us a life of holy love? Or should trembling fear, as well as joyful gratitude, drive us to pursue holiness? Are preachers trespassing on the Holy Spirit’s “turf” when they urgently press the Bible’s commands, suggesting examples of what obedience looks like in practice? The field of application is infested with land mines, ready to be detonated by one unwary footstep! 

Whole books have been written on application in preaching, so the thorny issues cannot be resolved in one brief article. Yet four observations may help both preachers and their hearers.    

1. Application is bigger than “now do this.” 

Rarely do we come across the word apply in our Bibles. Proverbs and Ecclesiastes speak of “applying” one’s heart to puzzling situations, thereby gaining wisdom. Paul sums up his discussion of the role of ministers as servants and stewards, “I have applied all these things to myself and Apollos,” using their collaboration to illustrate humility to the competitive Corinthian Christians (1 Cor. 4:6). Neither of these uses of apply fit what we mean when we talk about applying the message of a biblical passage. Though the term apply is rare in Scripture, the concept is not. The Bible is all about God’s covenant with his people (“Old Testament” and “New Testament” hearken back to “old” and “new” covenant, Jer. 31:31-34; 2 Cor. 3:6, 14). When God initiates the covenant of grace in sovereign mercy and saving power, he expects his people to respond in grateful trust and glad obedience. God’s initiative always expects and precipitates our response. “Application” is short-hand for showing our response as covenant servants. 

The Westminster Larger Catechism is describing “application” (covenant servants’ response) when it teaches that hearers of the preached Word must “receive the truth with faith, love, meekness, and readiness of mind, as the Word of God; meditate, and confer on it; hide it in their hearts; and bring forth the fruit of it in their lives” (Answer 160). Likewise, the Westminster Confession says that through saving faith we believe whatever is revealed in the Word, and we act “differently upon that which each particular passage therefore containeth: yielding obedience to the commands, trembling at the threatening, and embracing the promises of God”—but principally “accepting, receiving, and resting upon Christ alone for justification, sanctification,and eternal life” (14.2, emphasis mine).  

So application concerns no less than obeying in our thought, behavior, and relationships; but it includes so much more than this! Preachers are “applying” Scripture faithfully when, expounding a passage that contrasts our flawed performance to Jesus’ perfect righteousness, they press home God’s call to cease my own self-reliant striving and, as Luther once said, simply to “surrender myself completely to sheer grace.” Other passages show that such living faith is never fruitless, but is expressed in what I think, cherish, say, and do. That, too, is fitting application in preaching. 

2. Christ is a comprehensive savior.  

The fad has mostly passed, mercifully, in which cars sported the bumper sticker that read, “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven.” Maybe its point was to challenge the (sometimes true) caricature that born-again Bible believers see themselves as morally superior to others. But its semi-subliminal message was that we are content with “just” forgiveness and complacent in behaviors that are far from “perfect.” Do we prefer Christ to be a piecemeal rescuer, dealing with our legal problem and eternal destiny but leaving undisturbed the defiling, destructive affections of our hearts and actions of our hands? 

The real Christ of the Bible is a comprehensive Savior. He saves not only from sin’s condemnation and eternal damnation but also from sin’s tyrannical grip on our hearts and infection of our words, deeds, and interactions. The Westminster Shorter Catechism says that we “are made partakers of the redemption purchased by Christ, by the effectual application of it to us by the Holy Spirit” (Answer 29, emphasis mine), and that application starts with the gift of faith to hear and heed God’s “effectual calling,” through which we receive justification, adoption, sanctification, and ultimately glorification (Answers 30-38). Though multifaceted as a remedy to sin’s diverse effects, the rescue that Jesus provides is one indivisible package.  

When Scripture’s commands are preached to Christians, whether from Moses or from Paul, the point is not that we are moving from “what Christ did for you” to "what you must now do for Christ.” The lifelong struggle to kill our appetite for sin and cultivate the taste and pursuit of holiness involves us, and it is far from effortless. But just as justification (of which forgiveness is part) is a legal “act of God’s free grace” outside us, so sanctification is a transformative “work of God’s free grace” inside us (Shorter Catechism, answers 33, 35).

Some sermons leave listeners viewing themselves as fated to fail, enslaved to sin, until their dying day—but, “No worries, Jesus paid it all.” Such sermons sell Jesus short. Preaching Christ as a comprehensive Savior heralds the good news of freedom to captives! 

3. Only gospel-grounded, Spirit-fueled obedience glorifies God. 

The Protestant Reformers had heard the criticism that preaching justification by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone would make people complacent in sin and lethargic in pursuing love and holiness. They responded that it is only faith that rests its assurance in Christ that makes possible obedience that flows from love for God rather than self-interest. The Belgic Confession affirms, “...far from making people cold toward living in a pious and godly way, this justifying works within them that apart from it they will never do a thing out of love for God but only out of love for themselves and fear of being condemned” (Article 24). Obedience that is not grounded in the gospel and the assurance that it provides is just another way we love ourselves, not God. 

Grateful, gospel motivation and the Spirit’s power converge to produce God-glorifying living, according to Paul: 

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. Rom. 8:1-4

By sending his Son to bear our condemnation, God achieved something that his own law, as directives for living, was not designed to do. He gives us a fresh motive for obedience, spontaneous love, in response to his prior and costly love. And God’s justifying verdict over us is accompanied by his Spirit’s sanctifying presence and power in us. So we now “walk” (behave) in ways that begin to fulfill the law’s righteous requirement. And the law “comes into its own,” showing us what a life of love for God and neighbor looks like in “practical application” terms (see Rom. 13:8-10). 

4. Christians need help “connecting the dots” between God’s gracious gospel and our grateful response.

Shall we conclude from the previous point that the only application that any sermon needs is, “Trust Jesus, giving thanks that he obeyed where you could not and cannot, that his death covers your blemished record...again and again and again?” If gratitude for grace and the Spirit’s powerful presence converge to produce a new “walk” (a pattern of living that fits the Bible’s many commands), shouldn’t preachers simply call hearers to trust Jesus, the comprehensive Savior? Can’t pastors leave it to the Holy Spirit to “apply” his Word personally, showing each believer the shape of obedience in his or her life? 

No. The New Testament epistles show that believers need help “connecting the dots” between God’s gracious work in Christ (indicative) and the response that such mercy must evoke from us (imperative). Without shifting from their gospel foundation, the apostles make clear that behavior befitting God’s gracious call and initiative in Christ (Eph. 4:1) means: 

  • Tell the truth instead of lying (v. 25) 
  • Resolve conflict quickly and kindly (vv. 26-27, 30-32; 5:1-2)
  • Instead of stealing, work to give to others (v. 28) 
  • Choose graceful instead of corrosive words (v. 28) 
  • Break free from enslavement to sexual impurity, because you are heirs in Christ’s kingdom (5:3-5). 

If the Ephesian Christians could connect all these dots instinctively, Paul could have ended his epistle at 4:1. But they needed—and we need—his application of the good news that we have been reconciled to God and each other in the body of Christ (2:16) and created anew in Christ Jesus to “walk” in good works (2:10). Likewise, Christians at Corinth apparently reduced the gospel of grace to a bumper sticker slogan: “All things are lawful” (1 Cor. 6:12; 10:23). So they needed Pastor Paul to “connect the dots” between Christ’s cross and their sexuality: “You are not your own, for you were bought with a price” (What a price!). “So glorify God in your body” (6:19-20).   

That is gospel application in preaching, simultaneously saturated with thankful wonder for the complete rescue Jesus has achieved and is applying by his Spirit through his Word, and uncomfortably specific to the nitty-gritty temptations of everyday life. Preachers, is this the sort of application you are providing God’s people? Believers, is this the kind of application that you are hungry to hear from the pulpit, Sunday by Sunday?

Dr. Dennis E. Johnson is Professor of Practical Theology at Westminster Seminary California. He is Associate Pastor of New Life Presbyterian Church, a Presbyterian Church in America congregation in Escondido. Dr. Johnson and his wife, Jane, have four grown children and many grandchildren.

This article was previously published in the Fall 2015 UPDATE Magazine.

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