Home > Brandenburg, Preaching > How Much of Preaching Should Be Interpretation and How Much Application? pt 2

How Much of Preaching Should Be Interpretation and How Much Application? pt 2

July 13, 2010

Since the Bible is practical, when you preach what it means, you get application.  However, it’s obvious that a lot of what the Bible says requires making application to every day life.  We could even call this “wisdom,” that is, the proper application of Scripture.  Not all of the Bible tells you exactly how to apply it.  A lot of it assumes that you are going to have to apply it.  This is where the guidance of the Holy Spirit comes in, in addition to the text of Scripture.

For example, in 2 Timothy 2:22, Paul commanded Timothy, “Flee youthful lusts.”  Preaching should include ‘what it is to flee’ or ‘how to flee.’  That is partly where application comes into the right kind of preaching.  After Paul told Timothy to “preach the Word” (2 Timothy 4:2), he also said to “reprove, rebuke, exhort.”  The goal would be to have actual fleeing youthful lusts to take place.  When that’s the goal, you want to give the audience some ways that fleeing should occur.  You could go to parallel passages to expand upon what it is to flee, but explaining that is a means by which someone would apply God’s Word.  It might take very little time to describe what “flee youthful lusts” means and a lot of time to explain how to do it.  In those cases, the application would last longer than the interpretation.

The inclusion of more of this kind of application with interpretation is a major way that fundamentalist or separatist preaching differentiates itself from evangelical preaching.  It is possible, even probable, that the popularity of many evangelical preachers comes because they do not apply the Bible with proper authority.  And then they may do very little reproving and rebuking that Paul told Timothy was required in preaching.

For instance, Paul instructs Timothy in 1 Timothy 2:9 concerning the proper dress “that women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety.”  What is adorning with shamefacedness?  A preacher should show that the term “modest” relates to extravagance.  “Shamefacedness” is what corresponds to our modern term “modesty.”  Is there a scriptural standard for modesty?  Are certain lines drawn in the Bible?  This is where a separatist or fundamentalist has historically given specifics to the audience, while the evangelical often has not.  And you’ll see far more immodesty in evangelical churches.  That kind of evangelical preaching, however, is creeping into fundamentalist churches and so now their practice looks more and more the same as evangelicals.

So what does the evangelical say in response to a criticism for the lack of application?  He would say that the preacher should allow the Holy Spirit to “guide them in the application of that truth to their individual lives and circumstances.”  This is exactly what John MacArthur has said is the role he strives to take in preaching as it relates to application of a passage.  He has said that “it is the work of the Holy Spirit to make the most personal, individual applications of the truth of Scripture in the heart of the hearer, and He does that infallibly, in a way [that] a preacher cannot.”

But what passage of Scripture itself says that the preacher should allow the Holy Spirit to make the application to the hearer?  Shouldn’t the preacher be making the application to the hearer?  Isn’t that part of the responsibility of the preacher?  I think so.  Again, I think it is part of the role of reproving, rebuking, and exhorting.  The Apostle Paul told the Corinthians to imitate Him (1 Cor 11:1), and I think especially in the application of the principles of Christian liberty.  As the man of God, you have wisdom from God that He wants you to use in your preaching.

In a sense, the ‘fallibility of the preacher,’ as a reason for not applying Scripture, is just an excuse.  It is a cop-out.  The passages left unapplied are often the ones most difficult to keep because their application is the most offensive to the world.   This is  one major reason, I believe, for the larger size of many evangelical churches.  Their pastors offend fewer people with their preaching, because they don’t make pointed applications.  What they say is “waiting on the Holy Spirit” is actually just fear of man.

When MacArthur says he doesn’t apply because of his fallibility, this sounds humble.  Uncertainty is quite in fashion today.  The emergents can’t even interpret because of fallibility.  They think they’re even more humble.  I say that all this is “voluntary humility” (Col 2:18).  We can interpret and apply.  God wants us to do that.  This doubt about application is akin to the doubt about truth found in the world.  Truth is relative.  Application is relative.  None of this is good.

The preacher leaves the people ignorant of the application and then uses the Holy Spirit as his excuse for doing so.  If the people don’t make the application, ‘I guess the Holy Spirit must not have wanted them to do that.’  I believe this is what Paul had in mind with Titus when he called on him to “speak, and exhort, and rebuke with all authority” (Titus 2:15).   Sure the younger women were to love their husbands (Titus 2:5), but what does that look like as it is fleshed out in the life of a younger woman?  Preachers should exhort and rebuke in the particular shortcomings of love in the life of those women.  The “aged men” were to be “temperate” (Titus 2:5), so certainly application is called for.

Preachers can be prey to fallibility in interpretation just as well as application, so if fallibility is the “reason” for not applying, then perhaps nobody should preach.  After all, they might make a mistake in preaching due to their fallibility.   This is why the preacher is not the “pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15).  “The spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets” (1 Cor 14:32) and the congregation, though not to despise prophesying (1 Thess 5:20), is to “prove all things” (1 Thess 5:21).  The church is the pillar and ground of the truth.  The protection against fallibility is the Holy Spirit and the church, which is the temple of the Holy Spirit.

I’ve heard many evangelicals say that they “don’t want to get in the way of the Holy Spirit.”  I contend that they are getting in the way of the Holy Spirit by not making the application for the hearer.  The Holy Spirit works in the heart of the preacher, but he quenches the Spirit by not applying the verse as the Holy Spirit would have him.   The Holy Spirit wants the preacher to make application.  When he doesn’t obey the Holy Spirit, why would He think that those to whom He is preaching will obey the Holy Spirit?  Can individuals take the application a little further?  Yes.  Should they?  Yes.  But that doesn’t alleviate the responsibility of the preacher to apply.

When the preacher doesn’t apply, and leaves that to the hearer, and then the hearer doesn’t apply, the preacher doesn’t have to be responsible for that.  After all, it’s the Holy Spirit’s job, right?  And so he doesn’t have to confront anyone about not applying the Bible either.   And how can he?  He’s fallible, isn’t he?  This type of thinking is very normal in evangelicalism.  Evangelicalism mocks and criticizes fundamentalist preaching because of their overemphasis on application.  In several cases, they might be right.  However, the evangelicals are wrong in their lack of application.

In the end, God wants us to do what He says.  Without application of Scripture, we won’t do what He says.  If you have fundamentalist churches that do what God says, even though they are not quite as instructed in what Scripture means, they still are doing more of what God says if they are doing more of what God says.  And then when someone in a fundamentalist church is confronted for not doing what God says, so starts doing what God says, while a person in the evangelical church continues not doing what God says because everyone is waiting for the Holy Spirit to do the job of making an application, the fundamentalist person is doing what God says and the evangelical is not.  The evangelical might say that telling someone to do what God says is actually replacing the Holy Spirit.  That whole “replacing the Holy Spirit” doctrine is not in Scripture anywhere, either interpreted or applied.   Whoever tells someone to do what God says is doing something that someone ought to do.  It results in more people doing what God wants them to do, and we do want that.  Don’t we?

  1. July 13, 2010 at 4:50 pm

    Brother Kent,

    I would even say that you are not fulfilling the Great Commission without teaching and preaching application. The term is “teaching them TO OBSERVE all things” not “teaching them all things.”

  2. July 13, 2010 at 8:50 pm

    The end of your essay reminds me of the parable of the two sons. Which one (“movement”) is doing the will of the Father?

  3. July 13, 2010 at 10:27 pm

    Good point, Art. I agree. Can I attaboy a comment? 😀

    Jeff, I understand what you are saying, except that I do think a bit of a caveat applies to the parable of the lost son. We know the older son represented the Pharisees. He may have still been in the field, but he didn’t care about his lost brother. That was a kind of weightier thing of the law that he (they) left undone. God (the Father) cared, but the Pharisees didn’t.

    • July 14, 2010 at 6:53 am

      The parable I was referring to is not the one of the prodigal son. I was referring to when Christ told of the son who said he wouldn’t go and then did and the son who said he would go and then didn’t.

      The parallel to me is fundamentalists who don’t interpret or exposit, but do obey contrasted with evangelicals who do interpret and exposit, but don’t obey.

      I believe not interpreting or expositing is disobedience also, but the in the end (and I’m not necessarily condoning, just observing), the fundamentalists preacher has more people obeying the Lord than the evangelical one.

  4. d4v34x
    July 14, 2010 at 8:33 am

    I haven’t heard MacArthur preach in a long time, but I have to believe he makes some applications. I know his notes in his study Bible do. I’ve heard PJ preach much more recently and he makes application.

    Of course it is impossible for a preacher to make every possible situational application that might arise from a given passage, but I think he should make at least some representative applications.

    However, the scripture makes it clear that it is God that works in us both to will and to do of His good pleasure. If that is not the dynamic that affects change in in the heart and behavior, does it really matter what the behavior is? After all, whatever is not of faith is sin.

    Which may bring us to question Bro. Voegtlin’s assessment of obedience/conformity. Is someone doing/not doing something merely because that’s the way the preacher applied the passage the same to God as the person seeing how the passage interacts with his conduct/thoughts/etc and understanding that he out of line with God’s character and repenting and obeying in faith?

  5. July 14, 2010 at 11:19 am


    I’m sorry on the name of the parable. I know that many call the prodigal the parable of the two sons. Yes, that parable does work! Thanks.


    I’m just quoting MacArthur and then making an observation about application. When I heard PJ’s message from the Shepherd’s conference this year, he did make application, or in other words, he sounded strangely like a fundamentalist. And that is ironic, because he and they would be getting all over the case of fundamentalists for doing the same thing. It’s just that the language thing crossed a line with PJ and MacArthur, the foul language from Driscoll.

    Your “just because the preacher” comment seems to downplay the importance of the pastor to the behavior of a church, a point that would contrast with what the pastor epistles describe as his role. The people hearing and doing are exercising faith—they have been told what to do in the preaching. Then you have the evangelical who doesn’t know what to do and doesn’t do. That isn’t faith. It’s doubt caused by an unnecessary fear.

  6. d4v34x
    July 14, 2010 at 12:14 pm

    My comment about MacArthur was intended more to highlight the fact that his words there seem inconsistent with his practice and that of those around them, not that you were making something up. Sorry I didn’t make that clear.

    I personally hear no shortage of application in the fundamentalist (or Evangelical for that matter) preaching I listen to. For what that’s worth.

    I think you hit on a philosophical difference in your last response- differing views on the level of function of the pastor in the life of individual believers. It’s good to know just where these differences lie so we can truly talk about what we really want to be talking about and not make all sorts of tracks off the field, so to speak.

  7. July 14, 2010 at 12:33 pm


    My first part in this series went after a problem and this second part goes after another problem. I think they are both equally serious problems. I think that the no-application stuff relates to an attack on truth in the real world. We can know what the attire of a harlot is, even though scripture doesn’t say what it is. God assumes truths in the real world. I believe that there is an attack on truth that has seeped more into evangelicalism than it has into fundamentalism. This is part of the culture war—what is good, what is true, and what is beautiful. We are getting silly and ugly with a rejection of application. It isn’t, I don’t think, because these men can’t make application, but because they won’t because of what it will do to their numbers. Look at the acceptance of the Jesus’ movement and Lonny Frisbee among the evangelicals—the ‘Jesus freaks’ populated the well-known Southern California evangelical churches, so it gets a pass by them.

    I think this ‘the Holy Spirit working special through each individual’ has been a harmful movement. It’s really popular because people don’t like authority. He does work in each individual but it isn’t going to differ from the whole church and history.

  8. July 18, 2010 at 2:00 pm

    Recently I heard the following excuse made by a young preacher for why he does not give more specific application on proper attire for Christians: “I think dress standards are supposed to come from the home.”
    Sounds spiritual doesn’t it. I wonder why Paul then instructed Timothy (and all pastors) to preach on this matter in I Timothy 2? I would say that a preacher who doesn’t preach upon & make application concerning proper Christian dress is disobedient to the clear instruction for pastors found in the Word of God.

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