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sean du toit: implication vs. application?

Due to my own contexts which are so varied (I regularly engage with Kiwi’s, Pacific Islander’s, South Africans, Koreans, and others), I struggle to specifically apply a passage of Scripture.  Our lives are all so different, and the applications will be varied depending on the lives we encounter, and the situations we encounter them in.  This does not mean I don’t think carefully about the people with whom I will be engaging when writing my sermon.  However, trying to apply my preaching to the different genres of people that make up our congregations – this, I find, is an almost impossible task.

Haddon Robinson suggests that “In application we attempt to take what we believe is the truth of the eternal God, which was given in a particular time and place and situation, and apply it to people in the modern world who live in another time, another place, and a very different situation. That is harder lynne than it appears.” Whereas implications seek to follow the theological consequences of the Scriptures.  While application may be viewed as a specific way to deploy a Scriptural wholesale NBA jerseys passage in our contemporary lives, implication is deeper and more profound.  Implications deal with a change in worldview which necessitates a changed praxis. There is a level of specificity that separates implication from application.  Let me give you an example.

I am currently wrestling with Paul’s letter to the Philippians.  Here Paul constructs what must be one of the most thoughtful theological responses (2:5-11) to a practical/real life issue (4:2-3).  Here Paul attempts to cultivate a way of thinking, feeling and acting that is Christ-like (Phil 2:5).  With Jesus as their Lordly example, and with the lives Mauris of Timothy, Epaphroditus and Paul as other models, Paul exhorts the Philippians to McDonough conduct themselves as citizens of Heaven (1:27; 3:20).  The vision is inspiring and breathtaking.  The KOHTAAMISPAIKKAMESSUT? implications are manifold.  Disunity must be dealt with, as this opposes Christ’s way of thinking (4:2-3), which was to establish unity between humanity and God, and unity among God’s people.

How do you apply a message like this?  Should we even attempt to apply a message like this?  Shouldn’t the people of God learn to improvise their own movements in the drama of life and salvation?  Shouldn’t they take responsibility for their lives and think through the applications of these implications, both individually and within their own relational networks?  As preachers we cheap NBA jerseys can point people to the Script, and then pray and encourage and converse as a fellow performer.  But can we really “apply” the Scriptures to the lives of others?  Is that even our role?

Within the constraints of the meaning of the text we can imagine an infinite array of applications because of the infinite varieties of life.  Peoples’ lives are different and we cannot pitch sermons to everyone’s situations in anything more than general terms.  However, we can wholesale NBA jerseys begin to carefully delineate the implications of appropriating Scripture into our lives (using specific examples?).  It is here where our message will connect with the imagination and dedication of our people.  It is here where the conversations of how to apply the truths of Scripture will begin.  It is here where God’s people take responsibility and engage in the task of embodied exegesis, the living out of the gospel truths.

I don’t think there is anything wrong with this.  Do you?

Sean is the husband of Sue, a student of Laidlaw-Carey Graduate School, a New Testament lecturer at Alpha Crucis, and more significantly, a follower of Jesus the Lord.


  1. Thanks Sean, It certainly puts a huge load on the preacher if they have to not only correctly exegete the passage and construct a message but also do cultural and social analysis of the congregation to fine tune any application. Our church discusses the sermon in the midweek house groups (in theory at least) and I think this is often a good setting for specific application, it is a smaller group and they can help each other process the “so what?” of Sunday’s message. However I think sometimes there is a burden on the preacher to spell-it-out to the congregation, especially if the church as a whole is suffering with some cultural/social issue that the text adresses, for example gossip, disunity, or the idolisation of family!

  2. sean says:

    This is exactly what I’m envisioning Jonathan, a congregation that takes responsibility and discusses the “so what” in their own various social networks (connect groups, friends, etc.). I think that pastors/teachers/elders can play a key role in helping people to think through the issues, and be a “sound board” through personal communication, but trying to apply the text to everyone is trying. Haddon Robinson calls attention to the “heresy of application” whereby our endeavours to apply the Scriptures or make them “relevant” (every Sunday) leads us into unhelpful and unbiblical territories. What I’m attempting to do is aid and participate in the conversations about how to apply Scripture, while casting a biblical and theological vision under God’s reign. So far so good, but I think I may be missing a few issues, which is why I’ve raised it here. I’m looking for constructive feedback that may alert me to the possible weaknesses of my view.

  3. Paul Windsor says:

    Darrell Johnson addresses this very issue in his recent book on preaching (The Glory of Preaching, IVP 2009). In chapter 7 he states that “applying the text is not the preacher’s responsibility” (158).

    For Johnson “application is too mechanistic, too modernistic, too humanistic (in the sense of humanity as the measure of all things). Implication is more dynamic, more relational, more empowering. Apply suggests, “You make it happen.” Imply suggests, “this is what necessarily happens.” (159) So, there is a sense in which truth is “self-applying.” (160)

    He illustrates his point from the Acts 2 sermon and then from his own ministry when a sermon of his in Manila, unbeknown to him, impacted President Marcos himself. It is a great story!

    For Johnson the core of the problem is that to bear the burden of application is to “play God” with our listeners – and it is to grossly underestimate the power of God’s word to inform as well as perform something in the lives of listeners.

    Provocative stuff. Thanks Sean

  4. MIchael Frost says:

    Good thoughts Sean. I think this is an extremely relevant issue for preachers to be considering right now.

    The preaching ‘obsession’ with application stems from a good intent – we have all sat in sermons where we are left wondering what this has to do with me. And preachers have responded by ensuring that application becomes the central aim of the sermon. Many of us are taught in preaching classes that we must always lead to application…otherwise we have failed in our communication.

    Of course the challenge is that once we start applying it for people we make a huge set of assumptions about them, we decrease their own ability to ‘own’ that application, and we end up leaving people on the margins who feel that your version of application doesn’t relate to them

    Additionally, and perhaps even more importantly, application-centric messages can create a slowly developing resentment in the listeners (especially post-moderns) who realise that when you are preaching to them you are essentially telling them what to do with their lives. This can feel inspiring in the short term, but condescending and controlling in the long term.

    So the challenge is as you say – to lead people to a point of realisation and application for themselves, either individually, or even better in small group community (whether structured or organic)… If we can preach in such a way that we lead people to an understanding of the story of which they are a part, then we lead them to a place of being able to find their own story within it. This is perhaps harder to do than it is to say… but I think it is the better path. Of course, we must not let sermons become an exercise in academic waffle… but we must also refrain from assuming that unless we spell it out for people to the finest detail they will be unable to apply it to their own context… this is a subtle arrogance that we need to avoid.

  5. Donavan Holmes says:

    Hey Sean

    Thanks for this great article. It ties in with my thinking that has been developed by Frederick Beuchner (Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Comedy, Tragedy & Fairytale) and David Fitch’s book, Reclaiming the Mission which has a chapter entitled “The Myth of Expository Preaching”.

    There will always be those who want to be spoonfed applications (and yet strangely they never seem to grow or mature) but I prefer to find good stories that parallel Scripture and leave the application open to interpretation. I wonder if this could be a form of Narrative Therapy (Donald Capps) where Scripture and story reframe a person’s presuppositions and metanarratives so that they become empowered to live a story that has been rescripted, if not completely renewed and altered.


  6. Andy Dickson says:

    Nice Sean…implications are deeper than applications – I like it!

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