Just as a traveler begins his journey with his intended destination in mind, so the preacher should begin his preparation with his intended application in mind. Application is not an afterthought added when preparation has been all but completed. If the preacher does not know the destination to which he wishes to convey his hearers, how will he know which route to take? What will guide his choice of words? His selection of illustrations? His preference for supporting passages? How will he expect his hearers to answer the questions, “So what” (“Why should I listen?”) and “Now what” (“Having listened, what action should I take?”)? Modern contempt of preaching is caused in part because preaching often bears no meaningful relationship to the hearer’s life.
It is the application that moves the hearer to God, reveals the gospel’s power and beauty, and provides a reason to implement that gospel in daily living. It is the application that stirs the hearer because it addresses real concerns. It is the application that brings the hearer face to face with God’s demands on his life and the implications of calling Christ Lord. It is in the application that that which is first perceived as the preacher’s voice is discerned as the voice of God calling upon the hearer to respond to God’s claim.
As important as application is, however, there are dangers associated with it which, if ignored, either detract from the gospel or lead to the proclamation of something other than the gospel.
What are some of those dangers? First, confidences are betrayed for the sake of application. Preachers often provide private counseling to individuals. Recognizing that more than one person may face the same struggle, the private revelation, poorly disguised, becomes a sermon illustration. The counseled hearer is embarrassed and betrayed; those who recognize the situation are discouraged from seeking needed help for their own difficulties. Application has led away from the gospel, not to it.
Second, some assume that just talking about a problem will solve it. Application is not just talking about and defining a problem; it is bringing the power of the gospel and the gospel’s solution to bear upon it and motivating the hearer to follow that solution.
Third, some substitute psychology for the gospel. Application drives Biblical content out of the sermon. Application that is not based on the gospel and designed to lead to obedience to the gospel is no more than human-centered exhortation to do better in the power of the flesh. Preaching that does not bring man to the cross for pardon and to Christ for power is incomplete.
Fourth, over-emphasis on the issues of the time causes neglect of the timeless. Preoccupation with the questions that people are asking causes neglect of the questions people ought to be asking. Servants of fashion may cater to the world’s self-understanding. Servants of God cannot.
Fifth, over-emphasis on application causes neglect of doctrinal preaching. The single objective becomes right living. However, right living without right doctrine is just as unavailing as right doctrine without right living.
In spite of these and other dangers, true preachers will seek proper application. Both over-emphasis on application and omission of application are errors. One of them lives in time, failing to lead people to the eternal. The other lives in the eternal, failing to relate the eternal to the lives of hearers or to provide them with the direction and motivation to live powerfully for Christ in time. Both of them fail to bridge the “great gulf fixed” between the pulpit and the pew.
You Must Hear the Gospel
You must hear the gospel and then understand and recognize that you are lost without Jesus Christ no matter who you are and no matter what your background is. The Bible tells us that “all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23) Before you can be saved, you must understand that you are lost and that the only way to be saved is by obedience to the gospel of Jesus Christ. (2 Thessalonians 1:8) Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.” (John 14:6) “Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12) "So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God." (Romans 10:17)
You Must Believe
You must believe and have faith in God because “without faith it is impossible to please him: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.” (Hebrews 11:6) But neither belief alone nor faith alone is sufficient to save. (James 2:19; James 2:24; Matthew 7:21)
You Must Repent
You must repent of your sins. (Acts 3:19) But repentance alone is not enough. The so-called “Sinner’s Prayer” that you hear so much about today from denominational preachers does not appear anywhere in the Bible. Indeed, nowhere in the Bible was anyone ever told to pray the “Sinner’s Prayer” to be saved. By contrast, there are numerous examples showing that prayer alone does not save. Saul, for example, prayed following his meeting with Jesus on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:11), but Saul was still in his sins when Ananias met him three days later (Acts 22:16). Cornelius prayed to God always, and yet there was something else he needed to do to be saved (Acts 10:2, 6, 33, 48). If prayer alone did not save Saul or Cornelius, prayer alone will not save you. You must obey the gospel. (2 Thess. 1:8)
You Must Confess
You must confess that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. (Romans 10:9-10) Note that you do NOT need to make Jesus “Lord of your life.” Why? Because Jesus is already Lord of your life whether or not you have obeyed his gospel. Indeed, we obey him, not to make him Lord, but because he already is Lord. (Acts 2:36) Also, no one in the Bible was ever told to just “accept Jesus as your personal savior.” We must confess that Jesus is the Son of God, but, as with faith and repentance, confession alone does not save. (Matthew 7:21)
You Must Be Baptized
Having believed, repented, and confessed that Jesus is the Son of God, you must be baptized for the remission of your sins. (Acts 2:38) It is at this point (and not before) that your sins are forgiven. (Acts 22:16) It is impossible to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ without teaching the absolute necessity of baptism for salvation. (Acts 8:35-36; Romans 6:3-4; 1 Peter 3:21) Anyone who responds to the question in Acts 2:37 with an answer that contradicts Acts 2:38 is NOT proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ!
You Must Be Faithful Unto Death
Once you are saved, God adds you to his church and writes your name in the Book of Life. (Acts 2:47; Philippians 4:3) To continue in God’s grace, you must continue to serve God faithfully until death. Unless they remain faithful, those who are in God’s grace will fall from grace, and those whose names are in the Book of Life will have their names blotted out of that book. (Revelation 2:10; Revelation 3:5; Galatians 5:4)