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.

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