Preaching with Practical Impact

The third and final aspect of impact is so close to our understanding of application that many may be tempted to accuse me of inconsistency in my thinking. Impacting a congregation practically is akin to traditional application in that it exhorts or implies certain action. The main difference between traditional application and what I am calling practical impact is that the latter is nothing more than the consequence of every other aspect of the sermon. It is not the chief end or the climax of the sermon. Nor is it the rubric for evaluating the preacher’s success or failure. Rather, it is the wonderful consequence of a preaching text that has been faithfully applied to Christ and which has made an intellectual and emotional impact. In other words, if everything else has been accomplished, practical impact will appear. This does not necessarily mean that a preacher is responsible to spoon-feed his congregation practical impact. However, every hearer who actively engages with the Spirit of God in the Word of God through the preaching will be impacted in the way they live their lives, even without the preacher necessarily telling them to go and live a certain way. Practical impact, therefore, is the evidence of a true encounter with God. It is neither the means nor the end of a transformative sermon. It is the evidence.

In this way, the practical impact of a sermon is inextricably tied salvation. To paraphrase Paul in Ephesians 2:8-10: We are saved by grace through faith for good works. We are not saved by good works. Neither are we saved with good works as the ultimate end of our salvation. No, we are saved by grace through faith and the evidence that this salvation has taken place is that we do the good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them (Eph 2:10). Good works, like practical impact, are a necessary part of salvation and transformative preaching respectively. However, when we make good works the basis of salvation or practical impact the basis of transformative preaching then we have aborted the fundamental core of each. Good works and practical impact are each evidences of greater realities.

So then, evidence is necessary but it is not causative. Indeed it is the opposite of causative; it is effected. In his last major public sermon John Stott made the following statement:

I remember very vividly, some years ago, that the question which perplexed me as a younger Christian was this: what is God’s purpose for his people? Granted that we have been converted, granted that we have been saved and received new life in Jesus Christ, what comes next? … So I want to share with you where my mind has come to rest as I approach the end of my pilgrimage on earth and it is – God wants his people to become like Christ. Christlikeness is the will of God for the people of God.[1]

Begg and Prime agree with Stott: “Feeding God’s people and proclaiming the whole counsel of God are not ends in themselves. They serve a greater end – the goal of presenting everyone perfect in Christ.”[2] Christlikeness is the ultimate evidence of conversion, that we have been saved and received new life in Jesus Christ. It is what comes next. It is what God wants for the people of God. Practical impact, therefore, can be captured in this very simple idea: transformative sermons must bring about Christlikeness in the people of God. The beautiful irony, however, is that only the Holy Spirit can produce Christlikeness in the people of God, a truth Stott goes on to affirm.[3] Therefore, our sermons must not try to force Christlikeness upon our congregation. Rather, we must dare to preach Christ, and Christ crucified, so that the proper evidence of both salvation and transformative preaching – namely Christlikeness – can be brought into existence by the grace and power of God’s Holy Spirit.

The book of Romans gives us a beautifully clear example of this kind of practical impact. Chapters 1-11 provide the world with the most systematic comprehensive summary of Christian theology in the entire Bible. Drawing on many Old Testament texts and concepts and bringing them to bear on – applying them to – the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, Paul lays out the Gospel one piece at a time. Try to read through Romans without being impacted intellectually. It requires vigorous in-depth concentration to understand what God is saying through Paul in each section and to synthesise all of the parts into a single coherent whole. And, when we spend that mental energy, we cannot help but be moved emotionally.

For, we were all sinners, exiled from God and destined for His righteous judgment and wrath. But, in His mercy God provided His own Son – who is very God Himself – to come as a man, take our sins upon Himself, and receive the wrath we deserve. Now we, by grace through faith, can find mercy and forgiveness. We can be made right with God if we but call out to Christ in faith. When we do this, the Holy Spirit – who is very God Himself – will take up residence in our hearts to empower us to grow more like Christ every step of the way. What’s more, we are promised full glorification – spiritually and physically – when we enter into the age to come. There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Rom 8:1). For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom 8:38-39). Can you feel your mind working and your heart pumping?

But this is not the end of the epistle. After discussing the relationship between Israel and the Church (Rom 9-11) Paul transitions the letter toward practical impact:

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship (rational service). Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect (Rom 12:1-2).

Much could be said about these two verses, and much has been said. For our purposes here, let us simply notice that Paul makes an appeal to the Christians in Rome to allow the intellectual and emotional impact of Romans 1-11 to translate into practical impact. He says, “I appeal to you therefore…” In other words, in light of what you have learned and felt about the Gospel, “present your bodies as a living sacrifice.” He says, “This is your spiritual worship,” or translated another way, “This is your rational service.” It is only rational to live a certain way after you have been moved intellectually and emotionally by the Gospel. The remaining chapters of Romans provide illustrations and examples of what this spiritual worship, this practical impact, might look like. However, Romans 12-16 is not exhaustive. Paul does not feel compelled to list every way the Gospel ought to change lives, to impact congregations practically. Likewise, it is helpful for our sermons to provide illustrations and suggestions to lead our congregations in the right direction. However, these exhortations can neither be exhaustive nor required. We have to train our congregations to partner with us in our preaching so that they will be able to take the glorious truths of God and discover individually how God desires to transform each of them uniquely with that truth. It is the classic difference between feeding a man a fish verses teaching a man how to fish. The former may feed him for a day but the latter will feed him for a lifetime.

Unfortunately, when we preachers endorse strict traditional application-based sermons we feed men fish. We create a dependency and reinforce a false expectation. This may temporarily make us feel good because we become needed week after week after week. We become the experts telling people how to live, rather than confronting people with the Gospel and allowing people to be transformed by the renewal of their minds by the Word of truth. We want our congregations to be impacted practically, yes. But we want this impact to come about by washing them in the Word so that they might encounter Christ and be moved both intellectually and emotionally. The rest will follow supernaturally.

There is one very important caveat to all of this which must be mentioned. When the Bible exhorts plainly, we exhort plainly. For example, Romans 12:9-13:

Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.

These verses, and the verses following, are clear. Preaching on these verses cannot help but impact practically. More work will be required on the part of the preacher to provide the basis for these commands, articulated in Romans 1-11.

An application-based sermon for these verses, however, will err in the other direction. Rather than seeking to apply these verses to Christ, and thus impacting a congregation intellectually and emotionally, the application-based sermon will try to tease out the variety of scenarios where these verses might be considered “relevant.” By way of illustrations and stories the preacher will try to make clearer what is already abundantly clear. Abhor what is evil means abhor what is evil. Need we find three or five or seven examples of evil in order to satisfy our craving to “apply the text”? What of the other countless examples of evil we overlooked during our preaching? Do we expect a person struggling with alcohol addiction to fail to see the practical impact of this verse on his life simply because we failed to include drunkenness in our sermon’s list of evils?

Goldsworthy makes an apt observation on this point. He writes:

Paul may expound the gospel in the first part of the letter, and then go on to spell out some ethical and pastoral implications. When the preacher finally gets to deal with the latter, it is possible a couple of weeks or more since the gospel exposition has happened, and the connection between the gospel and behavior, very closely related in the epistle, can be lost. The result is that the exhortations and commands are no longer seen to arise out of the good news of God’s grace in the gospel but as simple imperatives of Christian behavior; as naked law.[4]

A traditional application-based sermon that fails to first apply exhortative epistle passages to Jesus will cut the Gospel out of the message. By misapplying the text to the congregation first, and thus bypassing Jesus, the preacher will turn behavioural implications of the Gospel message into legal requirements, which is a clear distortion of the meaning of these texts.

While providing a few examples to make the point cannot be said to be entirely destructive it is nevertheless helpful to ask whether or not it is necessary. Would it not be better to point our congregations toward Christ and His work as the foundational motivation to live out these verses? Would it not be more powerful to impact our congregations intellectually and emotionally, applying even these verses to the Person of Jesus, rather than trying to supply an endless list of For Examples?

Please do not misunderstand me. Providing illustrations and examples can be helpful. However, when they begin to drive the sermon then something is out of balance. Application-based sermons make their first move from the preaching text toward the human audience. Sermons that seek to impact a congregation practically apply the preaching text first to Christ. The difference is subtle, yes, but definitive. Both will undoubtedly take both the congregation and the Lord into consideration. However, the former focuses more acutely on the congregation while the latter makes the Lord first and central. When the human audience is the focus, the sermon may be entertaining but it will ultimately be shallow and forgettable. When the Lord is first and central, the sermon will be transformative even after it is forgotten.

Impacting a congregation practically is the fruit of a sermon that is well prepared and well delivered. It is the consequence of a preaching text being properly applied to Christ. It is the evidence that the Gospel has impacted a congregation intellectually and emotionally. Sometimes a pastor ought to impact a congregation practically through explicit exhortation. Other times a pastor ought to trust the Holy Spirit to make a practical impact through the implicit preaching of the Word. Knowing when to be explicit and when to be implicit will require wisdom and the guiding of the Holy Spirit.

[1] Stott, Last Word, 19.

[2] Begg and Prime, Pastor, 54.

[3] Stott, Last Word, 43.

[4] Goldsworthy, Whole Bible, xiv.

Preaching with Emotional Impact

As mentioned previously, thinking about God is required if we are to love God. As preachers we do not want to foster cold, heartless thinking. Rather, we want our people to think emotionally. We want our preaching to inflame the passions of our people for the heart of God. Prime and Begg make a distinction between the intellectual target of teaching and the emotional/behavioural target of preaching:

In teaching we aim to give people an understanding of God’s truth. Beginning often with the first principles of a doctrine, we will make sure that people grasp it as best they can in all aspects. Then in preaching we make an appeal to people’s wills, as well as to their emotions, to respond to the Word that they have now understood through teaching… Considerable harm may be done to people if they are called upon to act without first possessing a proper foundation in their understanding of that action. Many have made an emotional response to preaching, and have not understood afterward what they have done. That is irresponsible of the preacher and damaging to the hearers. Preaching at its best maintains a balance between teaching and preaching.[1]

Whether we make a clear definitive distinction between teaching and preaching, or we consider them to be two aspects of the preaching ministry, it is essential that we ensure that our ministry targets both the head and the heart in order to motivate the hands.

Just as it is wonderfully intellectual, the Gospel is deeply emotional. God created human beings in His image but we rebelled against God. This betrayal of our Creator ought to grieve our hearts. God became man and we brutally murdered Him by nailing Him to a Cross. The sheer violence of this act ought to affect our hearts, not to mention the aching realization that we killed the One who gave us life. The deep love of God, however, shines through all of this because it is while were still sinners and enemies of God that Christ died for us, the ungodly (Rom 5:6-8). It is important that we help our congregation to connect with the truth of the Gospel in an emotional way.

Unfortunately, familiarity breeds apathy. It is so easy to sanitize the Gospel of all emotion. It quickly becomes an emotionless transaction between us and God. The challenge for the preacher, therefore, is to continuously find ways to help the congregation to reconnect with the heart of God through the Gospel.

It is interesting to me that many in our pews will shudder at the thought of animal sacrifice, but sit easily through a description of Good Friday. This does not mean that these are bad or heartless people. It is simply an illustration to prove the point that we can quickly be desensitized to the most graphic violence simply through repetition. Since, however, animal sacrifice elicits such a strong reaction Leviticus 1-5 becomes the preacher’s ally, helping him to shock the congregation into a fresh emotional appreciation for the sacrifice of Christ. The near sacrifice of Isaac in Genesis 22 is another example than can be used to show the deep love of God the Father, that He would sacrifice His only Son for us. There are many such examples throughout the Bible.

It is important that we, as Christians, do not grow cold in our hearts. Jesus warned the doctrinally committed Ephesian Church: “I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first” (Rev 2:3-5). The works Christ refers to are works motivated by love, works fueled by emotion that had been stirred in them through the Gospel. Jesus does not want us to be doctrinally sound but emotionally cold. He wants us to be doctrinally sound and emotionally engaged with the heart of God.

More to the point, Christ desires his people to be moved in their affections so that our allegiance to Him is not coerced but rather wooed. As Piper says:

When God sends his emissaries (preachers) to declare, “Your God reigns.” his aim is not to constrain man’s submission by an act of raw authority; his aim is to ravish our affections with irresistible displays of glory. The only submission that fully reflects the worth and glory of the King is glad submission. Begrudging submission berates the King. No gladness in the subject, no glory to the King… When the kingdom is a treasure, submission is a pleasure.[2]

Our emotions help us to engage our lives submissively with joy. When our hearts dry up then our Christian journey becomes forced, stale, and bordering on counterfeit. Therefore, we must continually be renewed in our knowledge of God’s glory so that our love for God remains hot and our slavery to God remains freedom.

There is not one single way to impact the congregation emotionally. Every congregation is different and every preacher is different. Sparking an emotional response cannot be formulaic.  At the root, however, emotion that comes in response to preaching must be a response to nothing other than the Gospel and the Person of God. Indeed, the preacher must be careful not to hypnotize the congregation, and thus flush out emotion that is misplaced. That is, any emotion that does not flow from the believer’s response to the Gospel is not properly placed.  Music is a powerful means to prepare the heart to hear the Gospel. However, the abuse of music can cause a congregation to fall into a collective trance. A hypnotic trance is not the goal of biblical preaching. Preaching or praying over music, therefore, must be employed with tremendous care and wisdom. It cannot be said to be wrong one hundred percent of the time. However, if it is music alone that elicits an emotional response then the preacher has failed in both his means and his end.

The Bible contains the full range of human emotions and therefore every preaching text must be carefully studied to see which emotion ought to be tugged at by the sermon. Since all sermons find their climax in Christ, however, all sermons ought to have a ring of hope. Some preaching texts, such as texts from Judges 19 or Ezekiel 16, will cause despair and heavy heartedness. Therefore, the sermon ought to permit, yes even encourage (.), despair and heavy heartedness. However, the answer to these chapters is the hope we have in Christ. Therefore, take care to leave the congregation with hope, which leads to peace and joy.

Speaking about marriage, Ravi Zacharias writes: “Without the will, marriage is a mockery; without emotion, it is a drudgery. You need both.”[3] A similar comment could be said about preaching: Without the intellect, preaching is a mockery; without emotion, it is a drudgery. You need both. Indeed, Zacharias continues to develop his understanding of the relationship between the will and the heart concluding that they are inseparable. In marriage, the will creates a foundation for the heart and the heart fuels the will. So is the relationship between the intellect and emotion in preaching. Both are needed because each contributes to the other, thus safeguarding the impact of preaching from both mockery and drudgery.

[1] Begg and Prime, Pastor, 125-126.

[2] Piper, Glory, 25.

[3] Zacharias, Isaac & Rebecca, 30.

Preaching with Intellectual Impact

The Bible is a never-ending treasure of intellectual stimulation. The infinite wonder of God is captured in the pages of Scripture for us to contemplate without end. The sheer mastery of God’s Word is a mystery worthy of everlasting exploration.

Unfortunately, however, there seems to be a very real fear in many evangelical churches that too much intellectual exploration of the Bible will translate into mere information dumping or receiving. There is a definite pressure from all sides to apply the Bible to the here-and-now without permission to enjoy the Bible for its own sake. This is a tragic perspective insofar as it instinctively belittles Biblical information. It reduces God’s self revelation to a self-help book, a how-to manual, and a chicken-soup-for-the-soul approach to faith.

The all too common wariness toward Christian intellectualism misses the reality that information is critical if we are to know God. Who can know a person without knowing information about that person? Who can be a medical doctor without knowing information about the human body? Who can be a lawyer without knowing information about the laws of the land? Who can be a farmer without understanding information about the soil, the crops, and the animals in his or her care? Who can be an athlete without knowing the information that makes up the rules of his or her sport? If this is true about human relationships and vocations, how much more is it true of our relationship with God?  Preaching ought to require and inspire people to think and this thinking ought to be recognized as worship in the highest order.

Even though we shall separated intellect, emotion, and practical action in the next many blog posts, in all reality it is impossible to disentangle them. For, the intellect, when engaged, serves the heart in stirring up emotions and an engaged heart provides motivation for practical action. Thoughtless emotion is not the goal of preaching. Neither is cold intellectualism. Nor is passivity which believes and says true statements but fails to act on them. Making the foundation of this point, Piper brings thinking and loving together in a meaningful way:

The main reason that thinking and loving are connected is that we cannot love God without knowing God; and the way we know God is by the Spirit-enabled use of our minds. So to “love God with all your mind” means engaging all your powers of thought to know God as fully as possible in order to treasure him for all he is worth.[1]

Add to this, Active living in the Biblical truths of God and obedience to the commands of Christ, and you have a full picture of the intended fruit of preaching. We need to intentionally arrest the either/or polemic that is developing in evangelical circles and begin to cultivate a both/and mentality that embraces a thinking mind, an engaged heart, and motivated hands.

In order to know God we need to learn information about Him, about the world He created, about the history He has unfolded, and about the Gospel by which He has saved us. This information requires us to think, and by thinking we find that our emotions are aroused, and when our emotions are aroused we will find that we are ready for active obedient living. Encompassing all of this is the crucial ministry of the Holy Spirit who reveals, confronts, enlightens, engages, and empowers our thinking, our loving, and our doing.

Who will do something for someone they do not love? And who can love someone they do not know? And who can know someone they have never thought about? And who can think about someone unless they information to think about? Doing requires loving, loving requires knowing, knowing requires thinking, and thinking requires information.

Therefore, preaching requires the proper handling of Biblical information. Everything in the faith journey of a person is rooted in the reception of true information about God and the only absolute and reliable source for this information is the Bible. An informative sermon, properly understood and communicated by the preacher, is the foundation for all truly transformative sermons. A sermon that makes a congregation feel good or a sermon that calls a congregation to action is incomplete without first an adequate presentation of the truth. As Paul writes to Timothy, the Church is to be a pillar and a buttress of the truth (1Tim 3:15). Sensationalized experience and practical exhortation without truth is hollow and void, for neither will stand under serious testing. However, an authentic spiritual experience or exhortation that is grounded in the truth will endure the most severe trial.

One of the greatest gifts a preacher can give to a congregation is a consistent call to spiritually think-through the sacred writings of the Bible. Since all behaviour is rooted in the true beliefs of every individual, if you want to know what a person believes – and by this I mean what someone truly believes, not what they imagine or say they believe – simply watch how they behave. Behaviour is the only true mirror of belief and belief is the only true fuel of behaviour. Therefore, if we can help our people to believe the truth about God, creation, sin, and salvation, then the fruit of Christian living that we are longing to see in the hearts and homes of our people will begin to grow naturally by the power and oversight of God’s Holy Spirit. Thinking is the impetus for everything else in the Christian life.

A preacher who is not predisposed to thinking, however, will not be able to motivate his congregation to think. Moreover, a preacher who is bored with the Bible will not be able to inspire his congregation to love the Bible. And a preacher who is not allowing the awesome truth of God’s Word to wash over him, sanctifying him from one degree of glory to another day after day after day, will not be able to communicate the message with authenticity and power. The call of a preacher is a call to think. It is a call to prayerfully meditate on the Word of God so that over a lifetime he becomes a sage, a theologian, a man of spiritual wisdom. A preacher must be committed to growing deep roots in the bedrock of Scripture so that others can come to learn from him and to imitate him in his devotion to the Word of God.

John Stott dedicates a chapter of his book, Between Two Worlds, to this very subject. In his opening remarks on the central importance of study and preparation he includes this powerful anecdote:

Speaking to about 600 clergy in London in November 1979, Billy Graham said that, if he had his ministry all over again, he would make two changes. People looked startled. What could he possibly mean? First, he continued, he would study three times as much as he had done. He would take on fewer engagements. ‘I’ve preached too much,’ he said, ‘and studied too little.’ The second change was that he would give more time to prayer. Moreover, in making these emphases, he must have been deliberately echoing the apostolic resolve: ‘we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the Word.’ (Acts 6:4) Because afterwards I commented appreciatively on what he had said, Dr. Graham wrote to me the following day and added: ‘I remember that Dr. Donald Grey Barnhouse (of Tenth Presbyterian Church, Philadelphia) once said: “If I had only three years to serve the Lord, I would spend two of them studying and preparing.”’[2]

Without question, thinking takes time, a lot of time. Therefore, blessed is the preacher who is given the gift of time from a generous congregation who understands the value of thinking. And blessed is the congregation who learns from a pastor who is committed to thinking and to sharing the wondrous truths of God week in and week out, both in season and out of season.

Our sermons must impact our congregations intellectually. Otherwise we are trying to build something in mid-air and, when the time of testing comes, the impressive structure we thought we had constructed will collapse like a house of cards. Thinking is the spiritual mortar that the Holy Spirit uses hold everything together. Let us therefore help our people to be thinking people by ensuring that every sermon impacts the intellect as we challenge and encourage our congregations to deeply and seriously think about the revelation of God.

[1] Piper, Think, 90.

[2] Stott, Two Worlds, 180-181.

Preaching with Impact

Having established the subtle, though important, differences between application and impact we will now turn our attention to a fuller treatment of what this impact might look like. It is crucial to recognize that personal and congregational impact comes in all shapes and sizes. The sequential movement from selection and contextualization of a preaching text to Christological application of that text to personal impact gleaned from that text ought to happen chronologically during sermon preparation but it need not flow chronologically during sermon delivery. That is, as the preacher works through a text with a congregation he may find it helpful to take a point in the text and immediately bridge to Christ and then to the congregation without having finished all of his contextualization. This is fine so long as the preacher has been diligent in his study and he is wise in his delivery. I mention this here in order to introduce freedom of style and homiletic preference. This methodology is not meant to be dogmatic about delivery but rather constructive for preparation. There is no one-size-fits-all because all preachers are different and all congregations are different. The Holy Spirit must guide a preacher and every preacher must trust entirely the active work and power of the Holy Spirit.

We can and should be impacted in three primary ways: intellectually, emotionally, and practically. All three are spiritual and necessary for a full Christian life. No matter how a sermon is crafted and delivered it is important for the preacher to continually affirm in his own conscience and by his own preparation that the Word of God is to impact the mind, the heart, and the hands. All three are required for a balanced Christian walk and all three are evident in faithful preaching. As we will see, it becomes very difficult, if not impossible, to separate intellectual impact from emotional and practical impact. The three coexist in a dependent relationship that is not easily deconstructed so long as the preacher is faithful to the Biblical text.

Impact versus Application

As we have explored the past three weeks, application-based sermons fail to achieve the transformation they seek. Why? There are many reasons, four that we will briefly articulate here. One, they falsely assume that the preacher can apply a text for a hearer, both in theory and in practice. Two, they overload the hearer with pseudo-laws that the hearer rarely ever intends to implement. Three, they tend to ignore – and sometimes deny – the subtle but necessary transformative work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer. Four, they make the congregation the central focus of preaching rather than Jesus Christ.

Does this mean that the sermons we preach are doomed to be fruitless powerless exercises of futility? Absolutely not! Preaching changes the world, shining light where there once was darkness and breathing life into people who once were dead. In a word, sermons are meant to have IMPACT. Yes: real, enduring, eternal, transformative impact.

So far, this blog stream has attempted to demonstrate that the application portion of a sermon is directed toward Christ and not toward the congregation. Therefore, we need not – indeed we should not – apply the Bible to ourselves and our congregation. This would displace Christ in our preaching. However, by preaching the preacher does help the congregation explore the impact of the preaching text on their lives.

In some senses, what I have just written is only important in the world of semantics. Does it really matter if the “so what?” part of a sermon is called impact instead of application? Clearly it does not. Therefore, if you would be more comfortable saying that we must first apply a preaching text to Christ and then apply that same preaching text to the congregation through Christ, then so be it. I have no quarrel. I have chosen to use the word impact, however, to make clear the distinction between the second and third movements of preaching. That is, I want it to be abundantly clear that to apply a preaching text to a congregation without first understanding that text in light of Jesus is not really the goal of Christian preaching. So, call this third movement congregational application or call it congregational impact. Whatever you call it, however, please recognize the need to first apply any biblical text to the Lord Jesus Christ.

Most Christian sermons require a clearly articulated congregational impact in order to be full and faithful sermons. This impact is the fruit of an aptly selected and contextualized preaching text that has properly explored Christ-centred application. The Bible is about Jesus written for humanity to the glory of God. Therefore, the more we see Jesus, the more we will be personally and corporately impacted. Both this Christ-focused application and personal/corporate impact brings glory to God.

It is true that some preaching texts are so focused on God that finding personal impact is not as easily discerned. As Johnson writes, “Some texts even leave us – and our actions – out of the picture; some texts are about God. Period.”[1] Likewise, Piper asserts that the greatness and the glory of God are themselves relevant and sufficient for our people because “our people are starving for God.”[2] These statements are absolutely true and a wise preacher will heed their counsel. Nevertheless, even these texts impact the congregation. Often these are the texts that are the most transformational because they force us outside of ourselves. They compel us to lose focus on our selfish little empires for forty minutes in order to focus on the eternal glory of the kingdom of God. These are the sermons that help us to actually apply – if I dare use that word (.) – Luke 9:23-25:

And Jesus said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself?”

How wonderful it is when God’s people lose themselves for thirty or forty minutes to focus on the eternal glory of God. A sermon that does this, though it may provide no other piece of application, is transforming the hearts of men, women, and children. It has impact.

This seems to me to be a perfect example to articulate the difference between the classic felt-need for application versus the liberating real-need for congregational impact. Put another way: “We are not asking people to apply a truth; we are inviting people into a truth to participate in the new reality shaped by the truth… We want people to throw themselves on God, not on their own abilities.”[3] Our sermons must point to God in and through Jesus. When we lose ourselves in Christ-centred preaching we are only beginning to find ourselves. When we insistently point the sermons toward ourselves then we lose any hope of real change. Application belongs to Christ. Impact is for us.[4]

[1] Johnson, Glory, 136.

[2] Piper (Glory, 10-11) also states that “application is essential in the normal course of preaching…”

[3] Johnson, Glory, 139.

[4] For too long we have turned the Bible into moralizing application. This misses the heart of the Gospel. By being disciplined in our applying the Bible to Christ and then seeking impact for ourselves, we can properly safeguard ourselves and our congregations from legalistic preaching that fails to communicate the Gospel.

Relevant Preaching (Pt 3)

We live in an instant, give-it-to-me now culture. We expect to consume material goods, people, and information at an alarming rate. We want slogans and soundbites, how-to’s and should-do’s. We also want someone else to do the heavy lifting for us. Perhaps our pastors can do the transformative work for us, chewing and digesting the truth so that all we need to do is swallow the how-to pabulum. But preaching does not work like that. Transformation does not work like that. While attending a Bible Conference at Muskoka Bible Centre I heard Andy Bannister, the lead apologist for Ravi Zacharias International Ministries Canada, say: “The Gospel is not intended to make bad people good. The Gospel makes dead people alive.” A transformative sermon is not 7-Ways to Be a Better You. A transformative sermon is an encounter with the living God in the face of Jesus Christ through the revealing power of the Holy Spirit. Show people Christ and they will be transformed. Show them one more how-to and they will simply stumble over the stumbling stone (Rom 9:30-33).

Relevant Preaching (Pt 2)

This idea, that applying a text is not the preacher’s responsibility, requires a little further explanation. If applying the text is not the preacher’s responsibility, then whose responsibility is it? The answer is twofold: it is the responsibility of the hearer in the power and instruction of the Holy Spirit to connect the preached Word of God with his or her own life.

Every life is different. Every person’s struggles are uniquely fitted to that person. While we can agree that we might share certain struggles in common, the exact contours of every person’s life are different. Therefore, it is an impossible request that a preacher apply a text to anyone’s life. The role of the preacher is to articulate the truth from Scripture. From there, each person must invite the Holy Spirit to help him or her apply that truth to the realities of his or her own life. This application has two parts. First, the person must identify the relationship between the biblical truth and the circumstances of his or her life. Second, the person must put the biblical truth into practice by the way he or she chooses to live. A preacher can and should deliver the truth and provide some practical assistance for application, but the rest is up to each person who is listening in the power and partnership of the Holy Spirit.

These realities are sobering for preacher and hearer alike. As preachers, we must come to terms with our own limitations and the extent of our call. As hearers we must also recognize the role we all must play. The miracle in all of this is that the Spirit of God will use one sermon to bring about the healing and transformation of His people in a multitude of unique ways.

By contrast, application-based sermons run the serious risk of missing the mark more often than not. Rather than inviting people to learn a transformative truth, an application-based sermon must give specific exhortation for immediate implementation. Forget that the pastor is powerless to ensure this happens. Who has successfully applied all the application points of application-based preaching? Surely this approach is doomed to failure from the outset. For example, say a church-goer receives three application points a week, forty-six times a year. That person will have received one hundred and thirty eight (138) must-do’s, could-do’s, or should-do’s in that year alone. If that person keeps up that pace for a decade, then he or she will have received one thousand three hundred and eighty (1,380) how-to’s to try to integrate into his or her life. If that person is given the gift of health and he or she continues to attend church at that rate for forty years, then the number has increased to five thousand five hundred and twenty (5,520). Why stop there? It is not inconceivable that a person could go to church regularly to listen to a sermon for eighty years. If this were the case, that person could hear upwards of eleven thousand and forty (11,040) ways to live a Christian life. Even if we lower the number on account of duplicate application points, this scenario illustrates a powerful point. Who could remember all that application? And, who could successfully apply all that application? This makes the Law of Israel, which only contains 613 laws, tame by comparison.

Relevant Preaching (Pt 1)

There is a lot of talk these days about the need to be relevant in our preaching. On one level this is pure common sense and self evident. An irrelevant sermon can hardly be the goal of any preacher. However, the term “relevant” seems to mean many different things to many different people. Relevancy has become a mask that we wear to discuss whether or not the sermon tickled our ears. And, any student of Scripture will know to beware of such a desire (2 Tim 4:3-4). In spite of the malleability of this term, however, I have found that what most seem to mean when they say that a sermon is relevant is that it can be easily applied to their life. There seems to be a real hunger in congregational appetite for the preacher to take a biblical text and transform it into two or three imperative pseudo-laws or therapeutic comfort statements. In my own experience, this is what relevancy seems to mean to most people. But is this an acceptable understanding of relevancy? Goldsworthy challenges such thinking and I heartily agree with him:

Preaching must be relevant, I’m sure we would all agree. But what does “relevant” mean? Who determines what is relevant and on what basis?… Relevance is relative. It is relative to how we perceive a situation. Often it is based on as simple a thing as enjoyment. A sermon was deemed relevant because the preacher stimulated and even entertained us. Maybe it seemed relevant because it confirmed our already formed ideas or prejudices… In short, what is relevant is defined by the gospel; what is helpful is defined by the gospel. The first question we all need to ask in not, “Was it relevant?”; “Did I find it helpful?”; or “Were we blessed?”; but “How did the study (the sermon) testify to Christ and his gospel as the power of God for salvation?”[1]

Need we preach relevant sermons? Absolutely. What constitutes a relevant sermon? The degree to which it faithfully bears witness to the Gospel of God in the Person and Ministry of Jesus Christ for the salvation of the world. Anything and everything else – imperative and therapeutic application points included – is irrelevant by comparison.

Though I make this statement about relevancy with some boldness, my own ministry has not always been as confident. Many years ago I read Johnson’s preaching manual, The Glory of Preaching, during a season when I felt buried by the burden shared by so many pastors. This burden was the demand and pressure to tell people how. It felt as though nothing mattered to the congregation as much as the last two minutes of the message, when I would try to boil down a week’s worth of study and prayer – which is usually the culmination of years of study in or around a particular preaching text – into a short succinct list of one, two, or three application points. The pressure to find three common how-to’s for a congregation as diverse as snowflakes in their wants and needs, ages and stages, crises and celebrations, was too much to handle week in and week out. The burden was additionally heavy because I knew deep down that it was an impossible task. This, and my own lack of life-experience, made my preaching seem to me to be hollow and false, contrived and forced. Imagine my relief, therefore, when I read the following words:

I want now to do what I can to lift a horrible burden off of preachers. It is the burden of ‘applying the text’ to the everyday life of the hearers. Yes, we can, and we should, try to help people understand the text’s radical implications. But applying the text is not the preacher’s responsibility.[2]

This was exactly what I needed to hear at exactly the right time. It affirmed what I had been feeling all along. Finally, I was free. If you are a preaching pastor and need a similar release, then I invite you to take it. I also encourage you to get a copy of Johnson’s book so that you can more fully learn and appreciate the wisdom he shares. If you are a church-goer and you expect or even require your preaching pastor to give you easy to understand, one size fits all, plug and play application then I challenge you to consider what kind of unfair yoke you are putting on his shoulders, both to his detriment and to yours.

[1] Goldsworthy, Whole Bible, 61-62.

[2] Johnson, Glory, 158.