The last question I ask myself when I’m evaluating a sermon, including my own, is, Did I apply the text? This is an important question, though perhaps it’s often debated because people disagree on what constitutes application. In the minds of some preachers, application is a well-intended but nevertheless sinful effort to impose moral obligations upon a congregation apart from biblical warrant. In eighteenth-century Germany, preachers were typically evaluated on whether their sermons were practical. Church historian Jaroslav Pelikan recounts how pastors would therefore give gardening tips in their sermons so they would be perceived as being practical. Others believe that it’s the job of the pastor only to hold out Christ and that the Spirit of God is the only one who can apply the text. I certainly acknowledge the vital truth that only the Spirit makes the word effectual in the conversion and sanctification of God’s people. That being said, the Bible certainly presses the point that preachers must apply the text of Scripture to their congregations.
But what do I mean by application? In grammatical terms, we want to preach both the indicatives (what Christ has done and who we are in him) and the imperatives (what the Scriptures expect of us in terms of our conduct). The Bible is filled with indicatives and imperatives. Take, for example, the book of Ephesians. While this is a slight exaggeration, Paul largely dwells on indicatives in the first half of the book and then imperatives in the latter half. A similar pattern appears in the book of Romans—Paul expounds the indicatives in Romans 1-11 and then addresses imperatives in chapters 12-16. This is not an airtight pattern, as there are undoubtedly imperatives and indicatives in both portions of Ephesians and Romans, but it illustrates the unbreakable bond between both categories. Preachers, therefore, have the responsibility to preach both indicatives and imperatives, but we must always be mindful of their logical order. Indicatives (what Christ has done for us) always serve as the foundation for the imperatives (our Christian conduct). We can never reverse this logical order. Christ through the work of the Spirit is the source of our capacity and ability for growth in sanctification. We do not offer our good works (imperative first) so we can then somehow secure the indicative of redemption. We can reverse the order in our sermonic rhetoric—i.e., you can begin with the imperatives but then show that you need Christ to carry them out. You’re still preserving the logical order between the two even if you invert their presentation.
So you should always ask, Did I apply the text? The Westminster divines were adamant about this when they wrote their Directory for Public Worship. They state: “He [the preacher] is not to rest in general doctrine, although ever so much cleared and confirmed, but to bring it home to special use, by application to his hearers.” Application might look different depending on the text that you preach. In some texts (John 1:1ff, e.g.) the indicative is, Christ is God, and the imperative might be worship him! In other texts, such as Joseph's flight from Potiphar’s wife (Gen. 39), the indicative would be, because we are called to holiness and set apart through our union with Christ, we must therefore flee sexual immorality (imperative) even at great personal cost—devotion to Christ and holiness outweighs the consequences (such as Joseph’s imprisonment). Context ultimately determines the nature of the application.
These are the four rules for preaching:
Did I exegete the text?
Did I explain the text?
Did I organically preach Christ from the text?
Did I apply the text?
These are four simple questions to ask any time you evaluate or write a sermon. God willing, by asking these questions you will be better equipped to evaluate or prepare sermons.