Sermon Application (Or Lack Thereof)

The Heart Is the Target: Preaching Practical Application from Every Text 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.

shane lems

8 thoughts on “Sermon Application (Or Lack Thereof)”

  1. I don’t think parishioners understand how hard it is to have good application. I probably sweat more over that section of my sermons than all of the other parts combined!


  2. Thanks for this. Three further issues to suggest…many are not familiar with the great masters of application of the past. The Puritans are a goldmine of application. Seecondly I fear that many men don’t know their congregations well enough to suit the application to their particular congregation (or they are afraid to do so). Thirdly some are not communing with the truth in their own hearts. Preachers are not different from the folk they minister to. How has the Word affected me? What sins have been exposed? What course of duty have I been convicted to follow?


    1. Good points, jdsavo. Perkins, for example, even talked about application in his homiletics book. And yes, it is very good and helpful to know your congregation if you’re a pastor (which can’t be done well in a huge church!). Thanks for the notes!


    2. Would like to agree with the statement that the Puritan preachers were excellent. Just read Thomas Watson’s books which in some cases are just a series of sermons.


  3. I am not a pastor or theologian but would like to try a remark or two.

    Due to recently hearing quite a number of sermons in which I found it really difficult to bring the text and the application together, I have started to think about this “problem”. I recently came across a paper by Robert L Thomas with the title “The principle of single meaning” in which he argues that a single passage has one meaning and one meaning only. Thomas states that “The single-meaning principle is of foundational importance in understanding God’s communication with mankind”. Personally I agree with him on this.

    The question then is on the application. First, I “feel” that application don’t always need to be something like “now go and do this”. Application of, for example, the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints is something one has to apply inwardly. There may also be an outward application, but the comfort that follows from it is first something inward.

    Second, with reference to Thomas’ paper, I find it difficult to see that while a single passage has one meaning only, that an “endless” number of applications can follow from it. What I see in practice in sermons is so confusing because it seems that every pastor tries to extract his own application from a specific passage. And each of them claims “Thus says the Lord”. And this is where I agree with Murray Capill’s first reason which basically is that the preacher does not struggle enough (the hard work!) with the Word to understand what the Lord really want’s to say.


    1. Thanks for the comments, Johan. You’re right; application isn’t always just “do this.” It also has to do with thinking, emotions, comfort, repentance, etc – a broad spectrum (Capill talks about this well in his book). Also, application has to do with the congregation; so a pastor might apply a text one way to a congregation who is grieving, and a different way to a congregation who isn’t very unified. Sometimes in my own sermon prep, I struggle to find application in the text. Other times, I find so many points of application I have to prayerfully decide which to use and which to skip!

      Thanks again for the notes. Merry Christmas!


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