If we are not careful we can easily misfire when it comes to applying Bible texts. One cause of dangerous misfiring comes from too narrow a view of the text. The result is application that functions as a legalistic burden – appealing to the flesh, but not consistent with the gospel.
In Narratives, Look Up.
In Bible stories we can easily focus on the human characters and determine to copy or not copy them. The moral of this story is . . . oops. This is a recipe for burdensome preaching. It is not a recipe for gospel preaching. It is not really good news that the Bible is full of examples for us to copy or not copy in our own strength. We need to always look up. The characters are not just humans in action, they are humans living in response to God and His Word. Their response is instructive, but we don’t live as their copycats, we live as people responding to God and His Word too. In preaching narratives, be sure to use a wider view and include the divine dimension.
In Epistles, Look Out.
In epistles we can easily focus on the commands and determine to obey them. The lesson for today is . . . oops. This is a recipe for burdensome preaching. It is not a recipe for gospel preaching. It is not really good news that the Bible is full of imperatives for us to harvest and apply in our own strength. We need always to look out. The imperatives and commands are not just stand alone instructions for holy living, they are imperatives and commands coming in the context of a whole letter that was written to be heard in one shot. The recipients would have felt the force of the instruction in light of the gospel content. Ephesians 4 is to applied in light of Ephesians 1-3, otherwise it becomes just another burden for our weary souls. In preaching epistles, be sure to use a wider view and include the divine doctrinal dimension.
Last night I was at a prayer meeting where we sang “There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy” . . . an old hymn with a few great verses:
There’s a wideness in God’s mercy like the wideness of the sea; there’s a kindness in His justice which is more than liberty.
For the love of God is broader than the measures of man’s mind; and the heart of the Eternal is most wonderfully kind.
But we make His love too narrow by false limits of our own; and we magnify His strictness with a zeal He will not own.
If our love were but more simple we should take Him at His word; and our lives would be illumined by the presence of our Lord.
So to avoid imposing a “strictness” God would not own, we must preach good news and not turn it into burdensome law. Here are a few thoughts to keep stirring our thoughts:
1. In narratives like the gospels, observe the growth in faith among characters as the stories unfold. The same is true in other narrative sections of the Bible. We are not given much concerning most characters, but what we are given enables us to get a sense of their trajectory towards God in faith or away in rebellion. Tracing that broader story can help to make sense of a particular pericope (individual story).
2. Be careful to identify the link between doctrine and application. It is often more of a “this is what a life looks like that is gripped by that truth ”rather than “so you must now do this!” Is the application an implication? Is it a natural outworking? Is it an appropriate response? These are all very different than a self-moved obligation.
3. Turning response into responsibility is to turn gospel into legalistic burden. Many really struggle with this, but it is so important. A captured heart that is stirred will flow out in far greater commitment, sacrifice, integrity, holiness, etc., than a person pressured to obey by the apparently self-moved determination of their own will. If the heart is not stirred, then the motivation will still be about love, but a misplaced love that is a weaker motivator. That is, if it isn’t love for Christ that stirs a person, then maybe they will obey commands out of love for self in respect to conformity to community expectations – a love-driven action, but not in response to the greatest love of all.