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.

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