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Question 5:

Many, maybe most, pastors end their sermons with some points of application. In fact, I thought that was what preachers were taught to do. This is not generally your practice. Is there a reason? You sometimes caution us about applications we make. Can you provide some guidelines for legitimate applications?

Both questions this week are courtesy of Suzanne, and they are very good questions with regard to modern preaching and its purposes. Hang with me on this answer, as we need to cover a few important points before we actually answer the questions.

Let me begin with a simple explanation of a proper way to study your Bible. As good Bible students, we should always come to a text with the question, "What did the author intend to say when writing this passage?" If you can discover the answer to that question, then you can often understand what you should do personally with that information. The typical methodology for this type of study is called inductive study, or represented with the acronym OIA, which stands for observation, interpretation, and application. I will add a slight modification to this with regards to preaching in just a moment.

Observation of a text is the actual work of studying the Bible, however, it is often the most neglected part of personal study today. Observation includes noting important words and investigating their meaning, identifying connecting words that bring contextual relevance to a passage, and also considering the major themes of a particular book and the author's intent in writing his book as a whole. You likely understand why I say this is hard work and often neglected. Rarely do we take the time to actually observe the details of a particular text, which is to our detriment.

Interpretation involves just what it implies, that we ask the question, "What did the author mean to say?" However, if we have not done the necessary work to actually understand what is being said and how it is being said, then there is no way to properly interpret the author's meaning. It could be said succinctly that correct interpretation of a passage is impossible without proper observation. If you have not understood the words the author used, not understood the main theme, and not understood the context, you will almost always arrive at a faulty conclusion about what the author intended to say. However, with proper observation of the text, it is from there that we can put together the different pieces of observation and reasonably know what was intended for us to understand from a passage.

Once the hard work of observation and interpretation is done, typically application is easy. If you know what the author meant, because you know the words he chose and why, then you can often see how the intended meaning of a passage applies to your life and to your understanding of God. If the author is trying to communicate the importance of obedience to God's moral law, for example, you likely can make the connection that you first need to know God's moral law, and secondly, you need to follow it, even identifying areas of your life that might be falling short.

That is a basic way of understanding how to study the Bible. Observe the text, interpret the text, and then apply the text. A common error many make today is to read a passage and ask, "What does this mean to me"? Or, "What should I do with this text to be a better Christian?" Neither question is particularly helpful, because neither of them have made understanding the text the primary goal. If we understand Scripture correctly, through careful study, and then pray for the work of the Holy Spirit to illuminate the word in our hearts, the application of Scripture will come. When we jump to application, often with the intent of living better or to deal with a particular topic, we skip the most important part of biblical study, which is knowing and understanding the text itself.

However, all of that fails to answer the original question, and the reason is because preaching should be a bit different than personal study. Many (most?) pastors today believe it is their job to help you live better and more according to God's ways. That seems noble on the surface, and so most preachers will give you a passage, maybe, and then tell you how to take that passage and live. The problems with that type of thinking are too many to list here, but two of the most prominent are: 1. It is not the pastor's job to help you live differently, that is the individual's responsibility. 2. The work of the preacher is to bring forth the word, and then rely on the Holy Spirit to do the work in the life of each hearer, which is the work promised in Isaiah 55, "so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it."

Instead, the job of a preacher is to present the observation of a text and the proper interpretation. From there, and here is where I will add another word to this, it is the preacher's job to give the proper implication of the text to the congregation. Implications, because they are tied to the interpretation closely, do not change. Applications can change both with time and with each individual person. What the passage implies we do is true for everyone. How you take that implication and personally apply is always different for each person. To take it one step further, an honest preacher would have to admit that he has no idea how a text applies to each person, because he isn't them.

Thus, a preacher who presents the Word of God correctly to his body will do so knowing that if he does his job correctly, the word will bring about the conviction and change in a person through the Holy Spirit, and application is simply part of that. To expand on an illustration I heard recently: Preachers are not chefs, in that we do not cook a meal and tell people how to enjoy it. Instead, we are waiters, simply bringing what God has already prepared, and for which He will instruct, through his spirit, how to partake and make useful.

To summarize this altogether, application is a highly personal point, which a preacher can not possibly provide for every person. Instead, each person should apply a text, in such a way that fulfills the implications of the original intent of the author, and helping you understand that intent is the job of a Biblical preacher.

Because of Christ,
Pastor Jayson

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