Sadly, some biblically sound preaching lacks application. One question that arises from this statement is, Why? Why do preachers sometimes lack application in their sermons? I appreciate Murray Capill’s reasons (listed and edited below) – and I’m convicted by this list myself! Again, the question is, why do preachers struggle to apply biblical truth in a sermon?
1) Good application is exceptionally hard work. It’s hard enough to draw correct lines from the past to the present. Once they are drawn, it’s hard to be fresh and varied, incisive and perceptive, specific and direct. It’s hard, in the language of earlier generations of preachers, to both wound and heal, sing and sting, disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed. It’s hard to speak to the many different people represented in a church on any given Sunday.
2) Most preachers are given few, if any, methods for developing effective application. In most seminaries, students for the ministry will be given many tools and resources for thorough exegesis. They will even learn entire languages to aid their study of the biblical text, and they will be drilled in the skills of examining the grammar, syntax, history, and context of the text, with a view to correct interpretation. …But most will receive few tools or resources for developing rich, varied, penetrating application of the central meaning of the text. …Ministry students, therefore, find that in their training, exegesis and application are often in two separate boxes, one with lots of tools included, and the other with few.
3) Some preachers are wary of putting too much emphasis on application. They know that application is easily abused. In an understandable reaction against preaching that is largely anthropocentric in the focus it gives to people’s felt needs, many expository preachers are fearful that an emphasis on application makes us pander to what people want to hear. [Expository preachers rightly trust God’s Word and Spirit, and some preachers say application] is the work of the Word and of the Spirit alone. Explain the Word and it will apply itself. This is a noble but flawed view. Settling for explanation of the Word but not application of it to life fails to do justice to the fact that the Spirit uses means.
4) Others may avoid application simply because it seems too culturally or politically inappropriate. Our relativistic, pluralistic culture of tolerance makes directive application from the pulpit seem not only anachronistic but offensive. How dare we tell others what to do? In sensitivity to this, preachers may opt for being suggestive rather than overt in their applications.
5) Finally, some expository preachers are weak in application because they have over-intellectualized the faith. It is not that they object to application. They may well prize it. But their entire experience of the Christian faith is predominately intellectual. The main thing for them is knowing the truth. When they apply, they apply abstractly. They are more naturally theorists than practitioners. They love the truth…but their teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training is not that well earthed in real life. Their illustrations often feel remote, often being drawn from church history and the lives of preachers. Their sermons address theological controversies that live in the academy but are distant from the lives of many of their hearers.
For the full explanation of these five points, see the introduction of Murray Capill’s excellent book, The Heart is the Target.