The Application of Scripture
Your teen-age daughter wants to start dating a young man who is quite nice, very likeable, professes faith in Jesus for salvation, but his dad is an adulterer, even while remaining married, and is verbally abusive toward women. What do you say to her, and why? Someone on pastoral staff at your church, who is not the senior minister, has a spouse who routinely uses profane language. To whom do you go about the matter and why? One of your colleagues at work regular drinks alcohol while on the job in violation of company policy, and you are the only one who knows about it. Do you say anything? If so, to whom? What do you say, and why? The last I checked, none of these scenarios are explicitly addressed by Scripture.
In fact, what we discover when we read God’s word is that it does not explicitly address the vast majority of the scenarios in which we find ourselves. So much for the practicality of Scripture! Not only this, but God has only given us Ten Commandments for all of life, and Jesus went a step further and reduced them to two: Love God and love your neighbor. You do realize what God is telling us in all this, don’t you? God demands that we think! More specifically, God demands that we think his thoughts after him, or think in accordance with his word.
But it is perhaps safe to say that thinking scares many of us. How much easier it is just to be told exactly what to do and how to do it, when to do it, with whom to do it, with whom not to do it, etc. How much easier it is just to have our lives micromanaged for us; for someone to do our thinking for us. You know, for the government to tell you how to keep yourself safe in every situation in life.
Of course, we must implement this kind of micromanagement with the care of very young children. It’s why parents of young children are routinely exhausted, and those nursery workers are checking their watch when the preacher has gone one minute over the normal stopping point! Sadly, however, some parents can’t seem to shift gears when their children reach the point of moving out of the first phase of life called childhood and into the second phase of life called young adulthood. The latter, by the way, begins happening by at least the age of twelve, not twenty! I was appalled a few months ago when my then 19 yr. old son told me that many of his friends had apps on their phones that their parents made them get that allow the parents to track their movements. Obviously, my son’s peers, most of whom came from professedly Christian homes, just aren’t capable of making any wise decisions, and that’s because neither are their parents.
What God demands of us is that we receive his word so that we are not conformed to this world’s way of thinking, but transformed by the renewal of our mind so that we are able to discern the good, pleasing and perfect will of God. Among other things, this means that pastors need to be very careful about how detailed they get when applying the text of Scripture.
I read recently where one rather prominent pastor stated that the number of one-on-one counseling sessions between pastors and their congregant members would be significantly reduced, if pastors would preach with more specific applications. There is a particular truth in this point. Certainly, those listening to the sermon need to hear some applications of the text that are consistent with the text; they need to know that the Scriptures were given to beautify our lives, to put us on a right path of behavior that we might bear much fruit in godly living. However, the issue is really one of balance. If pastors routinely get overly specific or spend the majority of their sermon addressing the finer points of applications, they will easily neglect the explanation of how the text mandates that we think.
Consider the nature of Scripture itself, that makes us wise unto salvation. What is the ratio in Scripture of the imperatives to the indicative? Put another way, what has God given us in his word? Detailed explicit commands regarding what to do in every situation in life? Or has he primarily told us what is, what has happened in the past and why, what he has done, is doing and will do? The most important application that preachers can make is to show how the text demands a particular pattern of thought that is then to be applied amongst the innumerable variables of life. Of course, only the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Wisdom can apply God’s word to the soul transforming the mind of the hearer. But when he does, he will not only stir up love for God and his ways, but also enable biblical reasoning, right reason, that will lead to wise decisions.
David P. Smith (Ph.D.) is the author of B. B. Warfield's Scientifically Constructive Theological Scholarship (Wipf & Stock) and co author with Ronald Hoch of Old School, New Clothes: The Cultural Blindness of Christian Education Wipf & Stock). David is Pastor of Covenant Fellowship A.R.P. Church in Greensboro, North Carolina.