Does a sermon have to have an application to rightfully be called a sermon?
A pastor of a church in Portland, OR attempts to establish that every sermon ought to have application. He concludes that “a sermon unapplied is no sermon at all, but merely a Bible lecture.”
Are We Listening to the Same Sermon?
My first reaction is that he and I have a much different experience listening to sermons. I can’t remember ever hearing one that was not built around the points of application.
Most sermons I hear flow from the application points rather than the text.
I hardly think the lack of application the writer has witnessed is much of a problem in the world of Christendom, including the Restoration Movement.
In fact, as I will argue later on, the opposite is the case.
What Does the Bible Say a Sermon Looks Like?
Second, the assertion that all sermons should contain application is difficult to argue with biblically because there is nothing in scripture that defines what a sermon is supposed to look like.
Sermons are an ecclesiastical tradition. I’m wondering whether the writer understands this.
He writes with such urgent conviction that it seems that he is speaking with the authority of scripture, or at least he seems to think he is.
And because his application agenda is rooted in his homiletic tradition, he himself commits several application errors.
When is a Sermon Unbiblical?
So I cannot really dispute his main proposition, but I can critique the arguments he advances in its best interest.
The core of his argument is that a sermon without application is “unbliblical.” And he means MORE unbiblical than a sermon WITH application.
His basic argument is this. God wants his word obeyed and not simply heard, therefore every sermon should encourage the hearers to obey whatever text that is explained (assuming that there is a text and the preacher makes the effort to explain it.) He writes,
“Application is precisely what we see the preachers and teachers of God’s word doing on the pages of Scripture.”
Bible Preachers Didn’t Have a Bible to Preach From
First of all, the preachers and teachers of God’s word on the pages of scripture are not delivering sermons from the Bible.
They are playing roles IN the Bible. Yes, they are applying the word of God to life, and pastors should do that, but that has nothing to do with the homiletic structure of a sermon.
The writer cites Deuteronomy 6:7 “where parents are told to impress these commandments on your children.”
Yes, the word of God is to be obeyed, but that does not establish a rule for an application element in sermons.
Preoccupation with Application Leads to Disaster
All of this preoccupation with application has a disastrous impact on how we treat the text of scripture, and therefore, how we treat the word of God.
I propose that it is THE TEXT ITSELF that should determine whether there is an opportunity for application.
Our preoccupation with application has disposed us to make the text all about us – the preacher and his audience – instead of what God is doing in the story of scripture and how the text fits into that story.
Our Reasoning vs The Word of God
Far too often we read our application concerns into the text and pretend that our reasoning is the word of God while ignoring what the author of scripture (and Author of scripture) has to say in that text.
The article writer offers a good example of this very thing in the story of David and Bathsheba.
So what might this look like practically?
Let me offer two examples. First, consider 2 Samuel 11, the narrative of David’s adultery with Bathsheba and then abuse of power to conspire to commit murder and cover up his sin.
Obviously, the applications about sexual purity and murder sit right on the surface of the text.
But what about all the people in your congregation for whom adultery and murder aren’t current temptations?
I’m sure there are a few. Is there nothing else to say to them? Of course there is.
Does the Bible Focus on Teaching Morality?
It is our inclination to approach this text as a moral lesson.
- Why did the writer include this story in his account of Israel’s kings?
- Does he intend to teach a moral lesson about sexual purity and murder?
- Or does he simply USE David’s failure’s in these areas to say something about the kings of Israel?
One clue is that the reader already knows that what David did was wrong long before Nathan steps in with God’s condemnation of David.
This text is not written to TEACH anything about those issues.
Sure enough it is an example of those, but to make it into a sermon text to apply teaching on those issues, one will have to go elsewhere in scripture to find that teaching, and then read it back into the text.
What Do We Learn from David and Bathsheba?
It is not written to teach God’s forgiveness of those sins either. Psalm 51 is not part of this text.
If we want to preach a sermon on forgiveness, why not select Psalm 51 for our text?
If we want to preach a sermon on adultery, why not scour the Bible to see if we can find a text on that prohibition and apply it to the lives of our hearers?
In other words, let the text itself and the writer’s intention for writing it determine whether there is any application to be drawn. The writer goes on with his own creative ideas about application.
Looking at David’s specific sin, you can help them see the pattern of sin in general, its deceptive, opportunistic, and progressive nature.
Yes, you can do that. You can read a lot of your own wisdom into the text.
Why Are There Stories of Moral Failure in the Bible?
But is that text intended to teach lessons about “the pattern of sin, its deceptive , opportunistic, and progressive nature,” or is it simply a good example of that which the preacher can take advantage of?
Does the preacher learn about the deceptive, opportunistic and progressive nature of sin from that story or does he merely see it in that story?
The bottom line is – or at some point should be – what does the writer of scripture intend to say by including that story?
When does the teacher or preacher of scripture intend to get around to that minor detail of handling accurately the word of truth?
Application is NOT the Center of Sermon Exegesis
CONCLUSION – My point is that application should not be the hermeneutic center of sermon exegesis.
The story of scripture as the revelation of God should be at that center.
What that may mean is that not every sermon will have application in the sense the writer envisions.
If one has decided that every sermon has to have some application in that sense, then he is going to have to limit his preaching to those texts that are intended to teach whatever the preacher wants his readers to take home from his sermon.
Most of the Bible is NOT Sermon Material?
This of course will eliminate most of the Bible from sermon consideration.
Perhaps that is necessary given the limited scope of what the sermon tradition has been maintained to accomplish.
But that is another discussion.
The fact is the Bible is mostly narrative.
We should treat it as narrative, which means we don’t treat it as law or pastoral instruction like we find in the epistles.
Yes, all scripture is inspired and profitable for instruction.
I doubt that Paul meant that it is profitable as proof texts for that purpose.
I suspect that he intended for Timothy to read scripture for what it was saying and find that lesson in that rather than reading his lesson into the text.
To take the word of God seriously, to handle accurately the word of truth means to allow the text of scripture say what it has to say in its own context and in its own right.
What that means for sermons and application must be handled in some place other than in the text of scripture.