I have a problem with application in sermons. It's often poorly done. Granted, this is because application is actually one of the hardest parts of preaching. I agree with what Haddon Robinson has said: more heresy is preached in application than in any other part of the sermon.
One of my main problems with application is that it starts too soon. If a preacher is too practical, the listener can develop application fatigue. Every week there are 5 practical applications to take home. Over the course of the year, this will amount to some 250 practical steps. Most listeners will not succeed at accomplishing more than 10%, leaving the listener feeling overwhelmed and with a sense of failure. When done poorly, application can be the giving of more law, leading to more condemnation and failure. Who needs five more practical steps to apply every week? Not me.
The answer isn't to ditch application. That's not helpful either. Instead, we need to back up and look at the groundwork necessary for application. We need deeper application, consisting of three things:
1. Human Need
Our preaching needs to identify the point of need in our lives. Until we've shown people our need, we're not ready to move on to application. Our need falls under two broad categories: our finiteness and our sin. We are finite, and we are sinful.
George Whitefield preached about the need to raise human need in one of his famous sermons. "Before you can speak peace to your hearts, you must be made to see, made to feel, made to weep over, made to bewail, your actual transgressions against the law of God." If we don't raise our need (what Bryan Chapell calls our Fallen Condition Focus) we haven't set the stage for application.
2. God's Provision
Good preaching shows how our need is met in God. I said that our need falls into two categories: our finiteness and our sinfulness. God's sufficiency meets us in these two areas: he is infinite, and he is gracious.
We are finite, but he is infinite. We are limited in our power, understanding, and time. He is not constrained in any of these areas. Where we fall short, God is more than sufficient.
We are sinful, but he is gracious. We deserve his punishment, but have instead received grace through the person and work of Jesus Christ.
Before we can apply a sermon, we must raise human need and God's provision of that need. We need a vision of God and his gospel.
3. So What?
Once we've shown people our need and God's provision, we can get to the "so what?" question. Application fails if you begin here; application can be very effective if you land here after showing our human need and God's provision.
We don't need less application. We need deeper application. We need application that identifies our need and God's provision, and then explains the difference that this makes in our lives. Effective application really requires that all three take place.
Does this make sense? I'd love to hear your thoughts.