Recently I heard a sermon that did some great work expounding the historical and theological context and meaning of an Old Testament passage, and then looking forward to how these themes are expressed in the context of the New Testament fulfilment. There was lots to like in both the content and the delivery.
But the application jarred at points. And as I tried to think through what was going wrong, I realised how clumsy sermon application, especially when applying things from the Old Testament to the New Testament, often is the result of an individualistic grid.
Often sermon applications want to say basically something along the lines of:
“This is what it must mean for every individual in the room right now.”
That’s right in the sense that ethics in God’s world are ultimately objective and universal. Every individual in the room must not murder, at all times. Every individual must repent and trust in God’s one and only son.
And it’s also right in the sense that the gospel message speaks to each of us as individuals. While recognising the communal nature of humanity, the Bible at the same time upholds human individuality, dignity and responsibility. Not only ‘the soul who sins is the one who dies’ but also each one of us who, ‘not by natural descent or human decision’, receives Jesus Christ becomes children born of God. We cannot preach the gospel in some generic, communal, ritualistic manner.
Many sermon applications are not matters of absolutely constant moral duty or obligation — believe in Jesus, don’t murder. Many are about values, priorities — ‘seek first the kingdom of God’, ‘do good first of all the household of believers’. Many sermon applications have multiple expressions — ‘marriage is to be honoured by all’, ‘all of this is to be done for the strengthening of the church’. And many have a range of possible degrees of application — ‘be generous’, ‘pray’, ‘do good’.
But sermon applications get into trouble when the preacher identifies a particular application and lays it on the conscience of all their hearers in equal measure. With no attention to the range of individuals and contexts.
This clumsiness is often made worse when moving from the Old Testament to the New Testament. Passages which are primarily addressed to the leader of God’s people, or God’s people as a whole group get applied with a timeless, universal and personal application to each individual. Israelites were to come up to Jerusalem for the great festivals; but not absolutely every single individual Israelite was morally bound to do so every year. The community of returned exiles as a whole were to stop tending to their own property and comfort in order to build the house of the Lord; but not every single Israelite was pledged to a particular amount of construction work each day. And this duty looked different in the unique time period of the rebuilding of the physical temple than it looked in the days of Malachi, in the more routine and ongoing duties of temple worship.
Each individual Christian in a congregation is not somehow frozen in the timeless quirks of a particular moment in salvation history and shouldered with the burdens and responsibilities of the whole people of God. To apply the Scriptures as if they were is to burden their consciences where the Lord does not.
Often equally powerful, inspiring and convicting sermon applications can be preached that qualify a bit more carefully in ways such as:
- what might this mean for you in particular? What does this mean for us as a whole group?
- What should we all be committed to, value and pray for, even if how you express that commitment might vary?
- How will this look for you in the coming week? How ought it look over a lifetime?
- Some of you a peculiarly responsible for this: what are you bound to do?
- And so on.