In the first two posts, we thought about two filters that should cover our ears as we listen to sermons: true/false and source. Okay, we come to the issue that in many ways triggers this series of posts on listening: sermon applications.
Preaching really consists of three simple parts: read the text, explain the meaning of the text, and apply the text. We could elaborate on any of those parts (for example, explaining the meaning will very often include illustrating the text), but at bottom, this is all preaching really is. Now when I say three simple parts, I don’t mean that preaching is therefore easy. Doing these three things well requires a lot of prayerful work and practice. I, for one, am still learning.
Reading the text and explaining the meaning of the text are the foundation and walls of preaching. But the house isn’t finished until the roofing of application takes place. In application, the preacher moves the text from the page to the life of his listeners. He presses it into the heart and mind if the Spirit blesses it. And that’s one major aim of preaching: to help the people listen to God’s word in such a way that they’re able then to live in the comfort, hope, correction, instruction, rebuke and instruction of God’s word (2 Tim. 3:16).
But for the benefits of application to be maximized, we need to listen with an application filter that protects us from two problems.
The Dirt That Clogs the Application Filter
There are two basic kinds of debris that clog our listening filters when it comes to sermon application. First, there is legalism that clogs the filter. Legalism is simply the idea that our justification, or righteous standing, with God depends on the things we do to earn that standing. Legalism makes reconciliation and acceptance with God a product of our own attainments.
Without doubt, some preachers are legalists, or moralists. And many more of us become legalists or moralists in our applications even if we never would subscribe to theological legalism properly. How does that happen? It happens when the preacher makes moral, ethical or behavioral applications of the text without first passing by Calvary, the Cross, and the Atonement–without putting the application in the context of what Christ has done for us in His grace. When that happens, our applications pile up on the people like 613 new laws and commands from the preacher. Our preaching descends into the Pharisees’ mistake of tying heavy burdens on the people’s backs without lifting a pinky finger to help.
However, the listener may also listen like a legalist. Michael Horton says “the native language of the sinner is Law.” We instinctively think in legalistic categories: How may I please God? What good thing must I do to gain eternal life? What does God want from me? How can I be sure I’m in His will? Have I missed His will? If any of those are asked apart from first seeing the pleasure, call, and will of God in the Person and Work of His Son, then we’re in danger of skipping down the path of legalistic bondage. If that’s our tendency, then we’ll hear sermon applications as so much law to either be obeyed in self-righteousness or to be despaired in defeat. Applications are not meant to be a law or a list for gaining God’s approval. Our listening filters may be clogged by self-reliant, self-righteous, legalistic assumptions.
Second, our listening filters may be clogged with a licentious or antinomian mindset. Here, the listener isn’t bound by legalistic attitudes; rather, he or she rejects any imperatives in the Christian life at all. They turn grace into license, forgetting that true saving grace teaches us to say “no” to ungodliness and worldly lusts (Titus 2:11-12). They forget that enrolling in the school of Christ means learning to “obey everything He has commanded” (Matt. 28:20). This listener is likely to dispute any application that doesn’t please him. They write off sermon applications as so much legalism, merely the pastor’s opinion, and they go on without seeing themselves in the mirror. They listen but they will not do (James 1:22-25).
Listening well requires we be aware of either the legalist or the antinomian within. It requires we undermine both tendencies with cross-centered freedom as our clean filter.
Sermon Applications and Christian Freedom
“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourself be burdened again by a yoke of slavery” (Gal. 5:1). Those are Paul’s words to a church struggling with a group of leaders binding them again to the Law as the method for pleasing God and receiving His promises (3:1-5). Paul explains that their standing before God and their receipt of His promises is solely by faith in the work of Jesus Christ. He writes, “Clearly no one is justified before God by the law, because, ‘The righteous will live by faith’.” (Gal. 3:11). So, he wants them to stand in the freedom that Jesus has purchased.
But this freedom is not license. For true faith expresses itself in love, and true freedom does not indulge in the sinful nature (5:6, 13). The freedom that Christ brings works in us the fruit of the Spirit (5:22-23), not the fruit of the flesh (5:19-21).
So, the freedom that Jesus grants by fulfilling the righteous requirements of the Law and paying the penalty of the Law in the place of the sinner undermines both legalism and license. This means, then, that as people who listen to sermons we must listen by applying and maintaining the freedom Jesus gives. To do that, it’s helpful to think about sermon applications as lying on a point along two axis.
Only the word of God may bind the conscience. So, the things we hear that are most binding are those commands clearly taught in Scripture and the necessary consequences. For example, the Bible commands, “Thou shalt not kill.” We are bound to observe that command and all the things that necessarily follow from it. Murder is killing, so we shall not commit murder. Abortion is killing, so we shall not commit abortion. Suicide is killing, so we shall not commit suicide. Where the scripture binds in this clear way, and where that is the application of the sermon, we are obligated as followers of Christ to obey the Scripture. In those cases, we do not have freedom. Or, to put it another way, we enjoy our freedom within the bounds of that command.
But the preacher may make applications that lie at varying distances from a clear biblical command and its necessary consequences. For example, the Bible says, “Be hospitable.” That’s a command or principle, but it does not necessitate that we show every possible form of hospitality at all times. Freedom comes into play. We may show hospitality by having someone over for dinner, by visiting the sick, or by taking a welcome package to a new neighbor. We may do any or all of those things as acts of hospitality, but we are not commanded to do any one of them in particular. So, prudence, opportunity, and freedom begin to influence our application of the “Be hospitable” command.
As a listener, I must make some decisions about how this applies to me or how I will apply it in life. My application may differ from another’s, and often it will. But that’s a liberty Christ has purchased that I should enjoy, rather than being bound by another’s insistence on specific applications or restrictions the Scripture does not make.
Let’s use another example. The Bible calls us to be generous. It’s a clear command and it models the gracious, giving character of our God and Savior. But how the listener applies that command may widely vary. The preacher may list five forms of generosity: giving to the church, giving to a local charity, volunteering to mentor a child, donating an organ, and tipping. If the preacher says, “You must tip your waiter 20% or you’re a bad Christian,” he’s guilty of robbing his listeners of their freedom and adding a legalistic burden. If the hearer goes away thinking I must do all these things to please God, they’re guilty of thinking in legalistic and moralistic categories.
What Christ frees us to do, being sensitive to the grace that frees us and the circumstances of our lives, is to choose among these options or to develop our own list of five. We are free, and we ought to use our freedom to love others. The farther the application lives from a binding command in the text, the greater the freedom we have in Christ to accept, modify, or reject a sermon application.
When the preacher has read and explained the text and he begins to apply the text, we’ll derive the most benefit and joy in sanctification if we listen with an application filter that distinguishes between a gospel imperative/command and an exemplary/prudential recommendation from the preacher. You’ll usually be able to know the difference by looking to see if the application is in the text itself or extrapolated in some degree from the text. If it has no connection to any biblical text, consider yourself quite free indeed.