Friday, July 27, 2012

Is Application Necessary in the Expository Sermon?

“Is Application Necessary in the Expository Sermon?” by Hershel York, Professor of Preaching at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, Pastor of Ashland Avenue Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky and co-author of Preaching With Bold Assurance. From: The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology. Volume 3, Summer, 1999. Available at Accessed 07/24/2012

     “To apply, or not to apply?” that is the question…at least the question Dr York asks in this article on expository sermons. Should the preacher simply exegete the Scriptures or should he attempt to make an application from the text that the audience can use as a “take away” from his sermon? The debate among scholars is real, although probably less practical in the real world of day-to-day ministry. Nevertheless, the article treats the issue and its impact in the expositors preparation. The detractors of application argue  that it lessens the authority of God’s Word, while protagonists counter that application is the best method of demonstrating that very authority.

     York contends that even the great theolog Karl Barth believed that application was a neigh impossibility for any human preacher to get right, and that being faithful to the truth of the text keeps us from properly bridging the gap from the original to the current audience. York presents the argument as inferential as opposed to direct. Or, stated another way, there is no direct application, only concepts that the modern hearer can infer from the text.

York; however, holds to the belief that the text deserves to be applied by the audience. He therefore implores the exegete to provide application when preaching expository sermons. York writes; “we are convinced that expository preaching which includes direct and explicit application to the lives of the hearers is the most effective. Those who are committed to an expository model must be determined to do more than merely explain the text in its original context.”

Leading the audience to application is no less important than leading them to understand the meaning. Ergo, sermons without application are simply the expositor regurgitating the facts of the text in Homiletical form. If York is correct, then is not preaching, but oral commentary. As Jerry Vines is quoted as saying, “much of the ineffective expository preaching of our day is due to the failure to relate Bible facts to the contemporary world.” This inadequacy in proper exposition leads Stephen Olford to write about application that, “So many people hear the what of our message but never hear the how of our message.”

With so many “homiletical experts” in today’s preaching world advocating application in expository sermons, it is wise to accept that today’s audience needs and desires the application of the Word as much as (if not more than) the facts of the Word. Nevertheless, the question remains “how does the exegete get from fact to application?” York sees the answer in the perspicuity doctrine of the Reformers. The clarity of Scriptural truth is not threatened by the clear application of that truth to modern hears. But in order to get there we must bridge the gap that exists between the original audience and modern hearers. York’s illustration of this point is 1 Corinthians 11 and a modern understanding of women’s veils. How does one reconcile the Scripture and the "modern" woman's lack of covering while praying? One could also argue from an illustration of money. How does the modern hearer understand the difference between a talent and ten thousand talents unless the exegete explains the concept of a day’s wage?

York’s conclusion then, is that “application is the vital link between God’s eternal Word given in antiquity and the concerns of men and women in the present. Preachers need not discuss the option of 'needs-based preaching,' because the biblical revelation is more than adequate to touch hearers across the spectrum of humanity. The role of the expository preacher is to make biblical truth plain enough for listeners to understand its meaning and to demonstrate its relevance.”

     York's article is well received by this reviewer. Application is not just a necessary evil; it is a necessary and critical part of the sermon. Preaching is to be the elevation of simple commentary of a portion of Scripture. It is to be the highlighting aspect of the Believer’s week, the opportunity to hear God’s Word proclaimed by God’s man so that the audience might be able to apply that Word in their everyday world. York does a masterful job of explaining the need for application, presenting valid arguments from both camps, and concluding that application I an interregnal part of expository sermons.

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