Home > Brandenburg, Preaching, Sermons > How Much of Preaching Should Be Interpretation and How Much Application?

How Much of Preaching Should Be Interpretation and How Much Application?

July 3, 2010

We know we’re supposed to “preach the Word.”  However, I believe one of the major problems for fundamentalists through the years has been preaching an application that is detached from the Word.  As a result, the folks in the fundamentalist pews have found a lot to be doing without knowing what the Bible says.  They’re doing a lot that they think the Bible teaches without connecting it to what the Bible teaches.  That’s not all.  In the rush to application, a lot of fundamentalist preaching has given the hearers the wrong meaning of Scripture.  In certain revivalist circles of fundamentalism, that’s been fine, because “the Holy Spirit told them to preach that.”  So these “preachers” have perverted and added to the Bible and then blamed it on the Holy Spirit.  This common practice has shattered the discernment of a sizable chunk of fundamentalism and also created a generation of mind-numbed ignoramuses.   This has dawned on some of the victims, so they have gone looking for something more.  They’re converted and really do want God’s Word, so they go looking for it and find it with evangelical expositors and Calvinists.  Granted these don’t use the King James Version, but they also often preach more actual Words of Scripture than those who defend the King James.

Often fundamentalists have attacked biblical preaching that emphasizes the interpretation of scripture by calling it “word only” preaching.   Then eisegetic extrapolations can count as demonstrations of power and the Holy Ghost and short term effects will stand as evidence for the latter without proving the former.  Jack Hyles used to scare his adherents away from exposition by calling this ‘treating the Bible like a math book.’  I heard someone else call it “worse by worse.”  Clever.

Scripture is its meaning. You aren’t preaching the Bible when you don’t preach what it means.  The words can’t somehow circumvent the missed interpretation to find their right way in someone’s heart.   If preaching is the Bible, which it is, then telling people what it says is the only necessity in a sermon.  If you miss that, you haven’t even preached.

The primary term for “preach,” kerusso,  means “to herald.”  The New Testament audience understood the kerux to be a representative of the king who did nothing other than proclaim the king’s message.  He spoke for the king in the king’s words.  I compare his job to a waiter.  The waiter just serves the food.  He won’t add or take away from the food or rearrange it to his liking.  Within the analogy, God is the chef.  He wants the meal to get to the table as He intended it.  Often what is called “application” or “practical sermons” is nothing more than playing with the food on the way to the table or perhaps even better, eating it and then regurgitating it back onto the plate before it gets to its recipient.

Unless someone understands what Scripture means, he can’t even make an application of it.   It’s not practical not to know what the Bible is saying because you can’t practice what you don’t know.  And if you know it, then it’s already practical.  That’s what 1 Timothy 3:16-17 say, that all Scripture is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, and for righteousness.

The primacy of interpretation in preaching  exalts God’s authorship of Scripture.  It says, “He did a good job.” And, “This is fine like it is.”  Or, “If people know this, they’re going to be OK.”  Or even, “I like what He said better than what I think.”  God is the actual authority.  If what comes out of our mouths isn’t what He said, then we replace God in this.  We, of course, can’t replace God as an authority, but if we don’t care if we do or not, we’re verging on, if not committing, a kind of idolatrous practice.

One irony in this is that the “word only” preaching is the preaching that is our words, not His.  His Words do come with power and the Holy Ghost.  They can’t but do that.  Someone may say, “But I seem to get more results and I’ve found that people seem to like it more when I’m more practical, you know.”  It might be true that you might arouse more of the passions of your hearers with preaching that majors on personal application.  However, this is where what we do in this regard must be a matter of faith.  Faith is what pleases God.  And glorifying Him must be our purpose.

The preeminence of application also causes a lot of wrenching of passages from their original intention.  Texts of scripture get shoehorned into a “good sermon.”   When the audience becomes sovereign, the actual teaching of the Bible often becomes mangled beyond recognition.  The hearers might leave with an appreciated bump to their self-esteem or an incentive for more good Christian activity or a clue for an improved personal relationship, but the path to achievement doesn’t honor God nor likely will the performance itself.  God wants and deserves all the credit for the right outcome.  He’ll only get it when that right outcome springs from the divine source, the words that He inspired.

The license men give themselves with their preaching proceeds from their own doubts about the effectiveness of Scripture.   Preaching has taken on the nature of a sales pitch.  However, it isn’t so much that the Bible doesn’t “work.”  It’s just that most people don’t like what it says.  You really don’t have the option of changing Scripture, and yet that’s still what occurs.   You could call it “outcome based preaching.”  You find a message within acceptable parameters that will still meet your desired outcome.  In this way, you adjust your pitch to your target audience to produce the preferred result.  What happens here is that when the Bible doesn’t succeed like the speaker wants, he just changes the Bible.   It’s called “application of the Bible” though.

In John 21 Jesus told Peter to feed His sheep.  That’s what Jesus wants His shepherds to do.  Later in 2 Peter 3:2 we see that Peter understood this to be the “words which were spoken before by the holy prophets” and “the commandment of . . . the apostles of the Lord.”  Let’s make sure that’s what we’re doing, you know, that thing we say we’re doing.

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  1. Chris Stieg
    July 4, 2010 at 3:06 am

    I’m not one for “attaboys” but I just wanted to say that you hit the nail on the head. Thanks for a great article.

  2. July 4, 2010 at 4:55 am

    Brother Kent,

    You are absolutely correct. Most of the “application” preachers make a lot of noise, but very little change is wrought in the hearts of the hearers.

    What God has to say is infinitely more important than what I have to say or than what people think they need.

  3. Joshua
    July 4, 2010 at 6:02 am

    Pastor, do you know of any good examples of expository sermons that I could listen to online that demonstrate what you are saying? Do you know of any online articles or good books that would be useful for preachers to read on the subject?

    Many thanks in advance.

    Joshua

  4. July 4, 2010 at 11:29 am

    Joshua, Bethel Baptist’s sermons are online at:

    http://www.pillarandground.org/home/?page_id=15

    those are excellent examples of expository sermons.

  5. July 4, 2010 at 11:50 am

    You make some excellent points.

    Indeed it is sad that we make so much noise about being independent and Bible-based and so forth and yet we routinely preach messages based not on what the Bible says, but rather on what we think it says, what someone we trust says it says, or worse, what we wish it said.

    We have become guilty of the sins of holding tradition and results over scripture, the very sins of which we have long accused our denominational brethren and other independent groups.

    We need to get back to studying the Bible and preaching it.

  6. July 4, 2010 at 2:18 pm

    Would you class topical How to messages in this category( How to have a true relationship with God, How to build and have a godly marriage, How to face temptation, hoe to get answers to prayer, how to live in a sinful unfair world as a christian, how to deal with biterness)?

  7. Jack
    July 4, 2010 at 6:05 pm

    I’m 100% for faithful exposition of the text. Sometimes “how to” sermons are needed very much, but they must be based on a clear interpretation. But that doesn’t mean 90% of the sermon must be interpretation; it may only be 10%. The problem comes when “application” (i.e. eisegesis) is divorced from interpretation.

  8. July 4, 2010 at 8:14 pm

    Lots of guys to whom to reply. Thanks for the comments and thanks for the encouragement. I think your comment can encourage others in your agreement, so that is good.

    Joshua,

    It is true that listening to exposition is most helpful and good topical for that matter. There are ways to deal with it. I think that how to study the Bible is most important in this. The most help to me was my language classes. No one book on hermeneutics comes to my mind. Understanding the meaning of words, how they are used, how the phrases are used, and then reading parallel passages has been most helpful. You must harmonize with the rest of scripture, so compare scripture with scripture. There are good books that give good cultural and historical background, like Edersheim. I personally will read several commentaries with a series as well, usually exegetical ones. I use them for reference.

    Phil,

    All topical messages must take their authority from the text too, including all the ones you listed.

    Jack,

    I agree really. I don’t know about the 10% part. I don’t remember ever preaching a sermon with this kind of ratio. Perhaps it could be done, but I’d have to hear an example.

  9. Roland E. Pittman
    July 5, 2010 at 12:16 am

    Kent, thanks for a good article and addressing a much needed topic. So-called expository preaching is becoming the ideal among many young Fundamentalists. I heartily agree that expository preaching, if it means explaining the Scriptures, is a wonderful mode of preaching but it often degenerates into an academic exercise of preaching about the Scriptures rather than preaching the Scriptures. I like the idea of purposeful preaching, as one has called it, of preaching the purpose of the Scriptures. What the Scripture says is much more important than the academic analysis of the text, IMHO.

    Other types of preaching, such as topical preaching, are not bad when they are firmly grounded in Scripture. The problem is that such methodologies lend themselves too easily to abuse. Part of the problem may be in how we approach sermon preparation. Many preachers get an idea and then look for verses to support it. Instead, ought we not study the Scriptures and find our sermons in them?

    Furthermore, each sermon should have application as one of its elements. After explaining the Scripture, the Scripture should be applied to life. Ideally, the people should ask after every sermon: “…[W]hat shall we do? (Acts 2:37)”

  10. Buddy Woolbright
    July 5, 2010 at 9:00 am

    God help us to preach His Word without changing it to suit our needs.
    bw 2Timoteo1:9

  11. d4v34x
    July 6, 2010 at 1:26 pm

    Wow, 9 comments and no one disagrees. I have to put my name in the “attaboy” (which admittedly sounds weird saying to a pastor several years my senior, oh well) column as well. Excellent points all.

  12. Don Johnson
    July 9, 2010 at 10:19 pm

    Hey, Kent, you know I am in the attaboy chorus also.

    The fact is that there is a lot of bad preaching, no matter the style. Some fellows think they are expositors but somehow they miss the point of the passage they are in anyway. But I agree that our goal is to say what the Bible says.

    We are also to say it with force. The sermon needs to be going somewhere. As Roland said above, some fellows I have heard recently are just giving an academic report on the meaning of the passage. Preaching calls for a response and the force of preaching comes in being consumed with the need for the response and faithfully using the Scriptures to bring about the Scriptural response.

    On topical preaching, some of the best preaching has been topical. To do it right, however, requires a tremendous amount of work and an in depth understanding of multiple passages. I’m a bit lazy, so I find expository a lot easier!

    Maranatha!
    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

    • July 10, 2010 at 2:24 pm

      Brother Don,

      I agree completely with your first two paragraphs. Preaching is a declaration, not a recitation.

      I do not agree with you third paragraph, however. I really don’t believe that in my lifetime the best preaching has been topical. The most entertaining, perhaps,the most sought after at meetings, definitely. I just don’t think that is the same thing.

      We are to preach the WORD, not an outline or a topic, in my opinion.

      God bless, Brother!
      Psalm 37:23-24

      • July 10, 2010 at 6:43 pm

        Well, you have heard of a chap named Spurgeon, haven’t you? Most of his sermons are topical.

        Topical done right is mighty powerful.

        Maranatha!
        Don Johnson
        Jeremiah 33.3

  13. J. Paul Hornick
    July 10, 2010 at 9:13 pm

    How much should be exposition and how much application? That is the two-million-dollar-question. On the one hand, some men have not the knowledge to go into the word-studies, yet their application is able to do much in the lives of their hearers. A simple godly preacher, with no knowledge of Greek or Hebrew, but seeking God with all the heart by reading the Bible faithfully is better than Rudolph Bultmann – the mightiest “exegete” that lived (memorizing the entire Greek NT and not believing a letter of it). I have to agree that if there is “absolutely no application” the sermon will be little more than showing off knowledge. I believe that Paul said something to the effect with the words “knowledge puffeth up.” One ends up then with little more, or nothing more, than a storybook knowledge of anything historical. For my part,I have heard no “exposition only” or “exposition almost-only” ever preach from I Chronicles 1-9, nor from the Song of Solomon, and really anything from the Old Testament becomes a mere history lesson. Sure, they may know the facts about David and Goliath, as a story-book knowledge of the Bible – but if “these things were written for our learning” then we must be able to apply them to our lives. I do agree, however, that if one does not give the sense of Scripture (actually a rather late method, being developed by Ezra after the captivity), he will possibly give an incorrect interpretation thereof. Let us not, in the meantime, confuse the principles of application with allegory.

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