A little less talk and a lot more action

Where is the balance of application in preaching today? Some say that sermons have drifted toward the cerebral side of things and have neglected application. However Shaddix questions the conventional wisdom and seems to think it may be the other way around. What do you think?

“More application is preached than exegesis . . . While preaching may have once erred on the side of weighty exegesis with no connection to the real world, its contemporary crime is reverse. Today, application is the sermon and exegesis is the servant.”

[from Jim Shaddix, The Passion Driven Sermon: Changing the Way Pastors Preach and Congregations Listen (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2003), 101.]

11 responses to this post.

  1. Paul,
    I do not want to hog the blog. So if this too long or off topic, please feel free to omit it.

    I grew up a Southern Baptist. In my former Southern Baptist’s circles, there was little explanation of the text, but tons of textually off-based exhortations. One time, my friends and I asked our Baptist pastor, who was a pastor of a very large Church, could he explain more of the text to us. He replied that God had not called him to feed Giraffes, but to preach the gospel. Isn’t Shaddix a Southern Baptist? Perhaps he is responding to such a view of preaching. I have his old book, is this a new book?

    In my opinion, most of the sermons I hear today, in my circle, tend to toward minimizing or neglecting application. I have been trying to think through the issue. My thoughts are below.

    Scripture speaks on the balance of explanation and application in preaching. It is one-third of the sermon in 1 Timothy 4:13 while another third is teaching (doctrine). In 2 Timothy 4:2 of the five imperatives, 3 are regarding “application.” Paul, then, adds the prepositional phrase “with all . . . teaching (doctrine).” In other words with the application there should be a lot of explanation. When Paul describes his preaching in Colossians 1:28 he uses two participles: admonishing and teaching. In 1 Timothy 6:2 there is also this 50/50 division between application and explanation like in Colossians 1:28. Titus 2:15 has two imperatives for application (“exhort” and “rebuke”) and a third one for teaching (speaking here).

    My observations from the above are these:
    (1.) The Scriptures do not give us an exact measurement for how much application to put together with explanation, but neither explanation nor application is given without the other.

    (2.) The application should not drown out the explanation (2 Tim. 4:2- “with all . . . teaching.”), but neither should the explanation drown out the application (1 Tim.4:13 –“the exhortation”).

    (3.) The issue, therefore, is not so much a balance with volume of time spent on each element (explanation and application), but rather a mixture of being faithful to accurately and clearly explain the text so that textually derived and textually driven application can be given by the preacher to his flock. Enough explanation must be given so that the flock is both guarded against legalism and moralism, and empowered for obedience to Jesus. Enough application should be given by the preacher so that the flock’s sin is challenged (rebuked, convicted, exhorted), the suffering in the flock receive comfort (another side of exhort in 2 Tim. 4:2), and both the nominal and the apathetic are confronted.

    (4.) The balance of emphasis with explanation (doctrine) and application also involves the intricacies of the text, the complexity of the doctrine in the text, the present issues of Church and culture, and the general flock’s maturity level. I think this is seen throughout the epistles. Romans has mostly 11 chapters of indicatives before Paul gives exhortations (there are a couple of imperatives in 6:11-12). In Ephesians, Paul gives mostly doctrine for three chapters before giving imperatives (In 2:11 there is an imperative). Philippians and Colossians, however, are different. Paul brings up imperatives sooner in Philippians (1:27) and in Colossians (2:6) than in some other epistles. Paul’s epistles differ somewhat in their emphasis between doctrine and exhortation. Additionally, consider James, who starts right off the bat with imperatives (1: 2-5) and keeps hammering away. That is not to say there is no doctrine in James, there is (1:3 –knowing). There are many more imperatives in 1 Peter than in 2 Peter. All this is to say that being a shepherd involves knowing your flock, and knowing how much understanding and exhorting they need from the text. At times they need more or less of both. It is not easy task to do. We preachers are not sufficient for this task (2 Cor. 3:5).

    • Tom,

      I think you hit the nail on the head when you wrote, “All this is to say that being a shepherd involves knowing your flock, and knowing how much understanding and exhorting they need from the text. At times they need more or less of both.”

      Too often, it seems we talk about preaching as if it were akin to a building project or a political speech. In other words, it is evaluated in isolation, as if it could be properly evaluated independent of its pastoral purpose. Far too many — including myself — are willing to evaluate the quality of a sermon, forgetting that it’s just one of the means God has prescribed to a greater end, namely, the edification, equipping and shepherding of the saints. In other words, eloquence, balance and a perfect (if there is such a thing!) of exegesis and application doth not a great sermon make. A preacher who has effectively shepherded those to whom he has preached has preached a great sermon.

  2. Posted by Scott Christensen on August 21, 2009 at 10:48 am

    I wonder if there is an unecessary bifurcation between explanation and application. It seems to me that good expository preaching should always be applicational and that the application of the text to how we should live our lives is really not that far removed from explaining what the text means. Is that not the charge of 2 Tim. 3:16-17 and 4:2? But then maybe we need to be clear on what exactly we mean by “application” in these sorts of discussions.

  3. Posted by Matt Waymeyer on August 21, 2009 at 11:06 am


    I often think of it in terms of the “two worlds” that John Stott refers to in the title (and actual content) of his book “Between Two Worlds.” If Stott is correct that the sermon must bridge the gulf between the biblical world and the modern world, perhaps the question for me, as I preach the Gospel of John on Sunday mornings, is this: During my sermon, how much time should I spend in first-century Jerualem, and how much time should I spend in 21st-century Vista, CA?

    If you have time to comment, Paul, is that the essence of your question? Or is there a better way to word it?

  4. Great comments guys and very helpful. Shaddix is making two points in the section I quoted from. One is that what is often reported about today’s preaching is not necessarily the case. I hear a lot that preaching suffers from a lack of “application.” Shaddix is saying that’s not really the status quo at all. Most preachers run to application without carefully explaining the meaning of the passage in some clear manner.

    Another point he makes is that much of the talk about the need for application overlooks what he calls the “abstract relevance of biblical truth.” He makes an extended argument that “lofty concepts of faith seem to motivate and inspire us more than concrete principles” (103). I think he makes a helpful yet subtle correction to those who say there must be application which a lot of times means crafting an imperative statement for each cross section of your audience (Mark Dever’s application grid comes to mind).

    • Shaddix’s point about the “abstract relevance of biblical truth” calls to mind something that John Piper wrote about in The Supremacy of God in Preaching, where he highlighted a situation in which he preached about the holiness of God from Isa. 6, with no obvious “application.” And yet God saw fit to stir up some discouraged souls with that truth about God.

  5. Evers,

    Shaddix actually uses the example of Piper’s sermon as an illustration of his point.

  6. I can’t believe no one appreciated my shout out to Elvis in the title.

  7. Posted by Scott Christensen on August 21, 2009 at 1:03 pm

    Does Shaddix define “application”? Does he distinguish between valid and invalid forms of application (other than crafting imperative statements)? Does he give examples of what he considers valid forms of application? Furthermore, what does he mean by “lofty concepts of faith” versus “concrete principles”? I’m not sure I understand the distinction.

  8. Scott,

    Yes he does does all that. My quoting him here is not a representation of everything he says in his book on this. I would recommend his book which is helpful on a number of fronts. He seems to be a balanced voice between too little application and too much application. There is a lot more I want to discuss here but it will have to wait until next week. I plan to post more on this.


  9. The issue with application is not just isolated to expositional sermons, but is also an issue in topical sermons as well. Too many times topical sermons just serve as a data dump concerning that topic. As is mentioned above the pastor should know his people well enough to know when and how to apply the word he is preaching. However, we all know that Paul always started with doctrine before he brought application to bear, even John does that in the first 18 verses of his gospel. People can never apply what they do not know.

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