The Heresy of Application

I ’m sitting down listening to another one of America’s premier preachers, and I can see why he’s popular. He’s funny, articulate, loves Jesus and God’s Word, and obviously has the gift of preaching. Equally obvious is the fact people love listening to him. The pastors in the room are eating up what he’s saying. Later, they will offer him kudos on how insightful, convicting, and powerful the message was.1

I feel a bit differently.

Honestly, I chastise myself for feeling overcritical (Oh you Enneagram 8, just take the message for what it is. Get off your high horse!), but I can’t escape my unease. This is the second time I’ve heard him at a conference, and both times he committed the same error. In fact, it’s a misstep so common I find it prevalent in pulpits across the land, my own not immune.

His homiletical sin, you ask? The heresy of application.

Let me explain. Years ago I read a 1997 Christianity Today interview with the late Haddon Robinson, the former Harold John Ockenga Distinguished Professor of Preaching, whose book Biblical Preaching is commonplace in almost any evangelical seminary. In other words, when Robinson says something about preaching, the wise lean in and listen. The CT piece was follow-up interview after the esteemed professor made the following observation of modern preachers: “More heresy is preached in application than in Bible exegesis.”

The entire article is archived here. I would recommend reading it in full. It will feel dated in places but that’s because it’s a quarter-century old. However, I wanted to share some of the most germane aspects of Robinsons’ conviction that much heresy is found in sermon application. For surely this is what I’ve experienced in modern pulpits as well.

Robinson began with the pastor’s predicament (emphases mine):

They get out of seminary and realize the preacher’s question is application: How do you take this text and determine what it means for this audience? Sometimes we apply the text in ways that might make the biblical writer say, ‘Wait a minute, that’s the wrong use of what I said.’ This is the heresy of a good truth applied in the wrong way.

[For example] I heard someone preach a sermon from Ruth on how to deal with in-laws. Now, it’s true that in Ruth you have in-laws. The problem is, Ruth was not given to solve in-law problems. The sermon had a lot of practical advice, but it didn’t come from the Scriptures.

When we preach the Bible, we preach with biblical authority. We agree with Augustine: What the Bible says, God says. Therefore, we bring to bear on, say, this in-law problem, the full authority of God. The person hearing the sermon thinks, If I don’t deal with my mother-in-law this way, I am disobedient to God. To me, that’s a rape of the Bible. You’re saying what God doesn’t say.

Strong words to say the least. But in Robinson’s estimation the implication for preaching this way was clear:

One effect is that you undermine the Scriptures you say you are preaching. Ultimately, people come to believe that anything with a biblical flavor is what God says.

The long-term effect is that we preach a mythology. Myth has an element of truth along with a great deal of puff, and people tend to live in the puff. They live with the implications of implications, and then they discover that what they thought God promised, he didn’t promise.

Wow. In Robinson’s estimation, to take a text and preach points that aren’t remotely tied to the passage or teach biblical narratives like they are universal didactic, how-to manuals for living aren’t merely hiccups of application but heresies of application. These approaches give “the heresy of a good truth applied in the wrong way” and/or “saying what God doesn’t say” which produces a “mythology” from the pulpit. Heresy indeed.

There are reasons this is a popular way to preach. It’s easier to prep, gives the appearance that you are biblically insightful, and who doesn’t love practical steps to follow? Consequently, pastors seek out biblical narratives to find activities they want to normalize like they’re everyday events (e.g., what are your giants to slay), spiritualize in the name of accessibility (e.g., don’t let Satan steal your birthright), generalize by making it commonplace (e.g., all of us have a Red Sea to cross), or over-interpret a detail of the narrative in order to make a theological or homiletical point (e.g., Christ was stripped of his clothes because true power can’t be clothed with the world).2

If that’s the case, I join Robinson in that pastors aren’t preaching the Bible! They’re just using the Bible (I’ll refrain from Robinson’s graphic characterization) to justify points that don’t stand up after careful and responsible exegesis. Unfortunately, preachers of all stripes get away with the heresy of application because their congregants trust they’ve done the careful and responsible exegesis beforehand. That’s what strikes me about Robinson’s assertion that “more heresy is preached in application than in Bible exegesis,” because I’d argue it’s careless exegesis that often leads to such abysmal applications in preaching.

Let me give an example. I was given the topic on parents blessing their kids. Great! One of the study resources was an older, well-known bestseller that had the blessing of Jacob over Esau in Genesis 27 as its primary text. From it, the authors deduced five steps to how parents can bless their children. But to look at the Genesis passage in context (both textually and in redemptive history) should cause the preacher to hesitate in pocketing these applications (normalizing, over-interpreting, etc.). I get that we’re trying to see how this text might be illustrative of the parental blessing. But making it the textus classicus on how parents bless kids belies some serious exegetical cherry-picking. I mean, will we also include points like:

  1. Let your kids cheat each other to acquire your blessing,
  2. You can only give the quality blessing to one kid so make it count,
  3. Make sure your blessing pits one sibling against the other for most of their lives?

I’ll let you read Genesis 27 and draw your own conclusions. Frankly, the way Esau is depicted shows what children may feel when parents don’t give their blessing!

This simply allows me to restate the point: Do the careful and serious work of exegesis. Instead of listening to the podcast of your favorite preacher’s take on the Scripture, sit down with the text yourself, do the hard work of rightly dividing the Word of truth, and then consult commentaries by respected scholars who’ve given their lives to help folks better understand these texts biblically, historically, theologically, and redemptively. In the long term, it wouldn’t hurt to study up on how to better preach biblical narratives.3 Friends, doing the hard work of proper exegesis is important. The integrity of the text and preacher hang in the balance. A good rule of thumb is that if most folks couldn’t deduce from the text what you got from the text it’s probably because it’s not in the text!

Friends, let’s honor God, his Word, and the pulpit we steward by fleeing the heresy of application.

Footnotes

  1. Don’t try to figure this one out kids. It’s happened many times over the years.
  2. See my article on three common errors in preaching Old Testament stories.
  3. Such as Steven D. Mathewson’s The Art of Preaching Old Testament Narrative or Sidney Greidanus’ The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text.
Yancey Arrington
Dr. Yancey C. Arrington is an eighth generation Texan, Acts 29 Network and Houston Church Planting Network fan, and Teaching Pastor at Clear Creek Community Church in the Bay Area of Houston. He is also author of Preaching That Moves People and TAP: Defeating the Sins That Defeat You, and periodically writes for Acts 29 and The Gospel Coalition.

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