Editor’s Note: This is part 10 in a 10 part series on Westminster Larger Catechism Question and Answer 154-160.
Every preaching textbook includes at least some discussion on the topic of application. Application, however, appears to be the most elusive of all homiletical pursuits. Outlining, exegeting, and explaining a passage of Scripture can be difficult work, but it has a certain objectivity to it. Given the semantic and syntactical limitations of any given statement, the range of meaning for a verse or verses can be only so extensive. The text is what the text is, and our job is to understand and teach it as accurately as possible.
Once we have explained the passage, we then have a responsibility to bring its meaning to bear on the hearts and lives of those to whom we preach. Preaching is more than a transfer of knowledge. Westminster Larger Catechism 159 expounds Paul’s charge to Timothy to “preach the word” (2 Tim. 4:2) by working out the implications of the apostle’s full admonition. Timothy must preach the word when the opportunities are convenient as well as when they are not. Faithful proclamation requires both patience and sound doctrine for the preacher to provide his listeners the necessary correction, rebuke, and encouragement they need. Hence the Westminster divines made judicious use of several adverbs to remind us that preaching must be done diligently, plainly, faithfully, wisely, zealously and sincerely.
We who labor in the ministry of the word must be diligent, plain, and faithful to make known the whole counsel of God. That is the focus of the first half of the catechism’s answer. We must also be wise, zealous, and sincere in our attempts to apply the word to the consciences and conduct of those entrusted to our care. How do we accomplish this task? The second half of the catechism’s answer offers us some initial hints and paves the way for fruitful progress as we who preach seek to be helpful and pastoral in the explication and application of God’s eternal truth.
Wise preaching requires us to know our sheep. Godly wisdom leads us as pastors to study both the needs and the abilities of our congregation. Application cannot simply be invented in the study. It must emerge from the word as it is read and studied in light of concerned pastoral interaction with our people. We must know our sheep if we are to tend them with the Scriptures. If we do not know the heartaches and challenges that those in our congregation face, then we will not be able to apply the word to their sorrows and trials. At the same time, we have to discern how much they are able to digest of the milk and meat we attempt to feed them. Our churches will be filled with believers at various stages of their Christian lives. If all of our application sounds the same or operates on the same level, then it is likely we have forgotten this point.
Zealous preaching requires us to love our sheep. Godly zeal combines a warm–hearted and devout love for the Lord and for those to whom we preach. When we love the Savior, we will strive to be faithful to him and to his word. We will apply the necessary labor to understand the passage we are preparing to preach so that we are trustworthy ambassadors who declare the King’s will. Love will compel us to preach with passion Thus saith the Lord. A love for God’s people will, in turn, lead us to work equally hard to help them see and feel the weight of the passage and its message upon their own circumstances. When we love those to whom we preach, we will endeavor to lead them to grow in their love for and devoted obedience to Christ.
Sincere preaching requires us to seek the glory of God in the growth of our sheep. Godly sincerity, therefore, has two goals. The first goal is to glorify God. In a sermon, we must never attempt to turn people’s attention to us let alone impress them with our knowledge or rhetorical skills. Preaching must be God–centered from beginning to end. The preacher’s chief end is to glorify God. Only as God, his word, and his Son are exalted can the second goal be reached—the spiritual benefit of men, women, and children. Both goals must be clear in our minds as we prepare, and the more we achieve the first goal the greater will be our success in reaching the second.
To preach wisely, zealously, and sincerely, we must preach with application. Application is the attempt to help those who listen to our sermons understand the abiding authority and relevance of the Scriptures for their own circumstances. Its purpose is to take the passage under consideration and aim its truth at the hearer’s heart so that he or she feels the impact of its message.
How might we go about the process of applying the word in our sermons? What steps could we take to help us help our flock? The place to begin is with the Bible itself. A deeper knowledge of the passage we are preaching will lead to better application. Ask yourself not just what the words and sentences mean but ask what pastoral purpose lies behind the passage? Why was it written? Know your own heart. You and I need God’s word just as much as our people. Pray the passage into your own life and you will more readily see how to apply it to others. Know your congregation. Spend time with those under your care.
Use the Scriptures for the purposes for which they were inspired. When you study a passage, ask what doctrine it teaches, what reproof and correction it offers, as well as how it trains the believer in righteousness (2 Tim. 3:16). Prayerfully seek to touch the affections of those to whom you preach. It is one thing for us to say, “You must believe God is glorious, faithful, and true.” It is another thing altogether to help the congregation feel his glory, faithfulness, and truth. Only the Holy Spirit can change us and those to whom we preach, but as we aim for the heart might not we be instruments in the Spirit’s hand?