Application More Than Asking Questions
Reformed preachers know they are not to stop with proclamation of God’s Word. There must also be application. Such preaching is commended to us by the directions given to ministers in the Directory of Worship proposed by the Westminster Assembly of Divines:
He is not to rest in general doctrine, although never so much cleared and
confirmed, but to bring it home to special use, by application to his hearers: which albeit it prove a work of great difficulty to himself, requiring much prudence, zeal, and meditation, and to the natural and corrupt man will be very unpleasant; yet he is to endeavour to perform it in such a manner, that his auditors may feel the word of God to be quick and powerful, and a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart; and that, if any unbeliever or ignorant person be present, he may have the secrets of his heart made manifest, and give glory to God.
In fact I appealed to this passage from the Directory in defense of my own preaching. As I have re-read some of those sermons one thing that has impressed me is how unsatisfactory experiential Calvinists would find them. They're not up to Jonathan Edwards and John Piper standards. But the fact that I needed to appeal the Directory proves to me that even old side applicatory preaching can upset some folks.
However, as I reflect on preaching as a listener, it seems to me that a lot of application resorts to questions, and that the questions are variations on a few themes. Some is explained by the inexperience of young preachers or the lack of thoughtful preparation by older ones, but even the most seasoned seem in the end to ask the basically the same questions, though with more skill.
1. Do you give God the place in your life he deserves?
2. Do you treasure the Bible more than worldly distractions?
3. Do you love Jesus more than all rivals?
4. Do you live a transformed life?
The problem that confronts me when I am asked these questions is the answers I get. Whether I am enjoying my “sweetest frame” or my bitterest, I can’t say, “Yes, I do.” To be sure, I come nearer to a reassuring answer when I am in a “sweet frame,” but that in itself raises questions about whether I “wholly trust in Jesus’ name” or Jesus and my spiritual frame.
Sometimes when I hear such preaching, I think about a person I once worked for, who, when informed of real or potential problems, would say, “Don’t give me problems; give me solutions.” Though I could not agree there was no value in calling attention to problems as a first step toward finding solutions, I did get the point that there is no use saying the sky is falling unless you know what can be done about it. So, what is the solution when the answers one gets to the applicatory questions are not very comforting?
One way of looking at it, is to take the answers as indicating the need of the new birth. OK, then what? The Calvinist knows that you can’t “born yourself again.” It’s the work of God. That could result in passivity, even fatalism. So, is there anything a Calvinist can say? Some Calvinists tell those who are disturbed to pray for the new birth. Others expand the list of things one can do to prepare for or put oneself in the way of salvation.
But the question comes, if the person is not “born again” but is disturbed, what do you say? Isn’t the person who is sufficiently disturbed to say, “No, I don’t give, treasure, love, or live as I should. What can I do?” really saying, “What must I do to be saved?” And is not the answer, “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved, you and your household”? It seems to me that the question, “Are you born again?” focuses the issue on the wrong place and the wrong person.
But, then the same answers might be given and yet one conclude that he is a believer, but a believer not in the right place. The question is, “How can the preacher help the believer get at least to a better place?” Or for that matter, “What can the preacher do for the sinner beyond disturbing him by application?”
It seems to me that, if preachers really want to help, they might change the focus to the things that could help, such as:
1. Show the perfections and glory of the God of redemption. Awe of God’s holiness and love, his wrath and his mercy, his glory and his condescension, and his gracious purpose of redemption are realities that move sinners to put God above all else.
2. Manifest the saving person and work of Christ. Love for Christ is founded upon appreciating who he is (God who became man) and what he has done for us (come down from heaven to save us sinners).
3. Preach the Bible so as to point to God and Christ and the unfolding plan of redemption, allowing the intent of the text to discipline the preaching and purposing to help the hearer.
4. Proclaim the indicative as much as the imperative of the Christian life and more than the interrogative. Tell hearers what they are in Christ as much as you tell them how they should live in Christ and more than you ask them if they are in Christ.
Preachers aren’t cops with tasers. They’re shepherds who lead the flock to green pastures and still waters.