Making Biblical Application – Principle 4 (by Bill Gernenz)

Bill Gernenz blogs at Broken and Undone

Principle #4:  Faithful Biblical Application is Redemptive

If God-centered, exegetically-based, faith-building application is going to prove genuinely biblical, it must be presented in a thoroughly gospel context.  Therefore, the final principle of sound biblical application is that biblical application must be redemptive.  In the midst of all applying, knowing, and striving the preacher must firmly tether his teaching and his audience to the cross.  The work of Christ in securing, revealing, and preserving salvation for his people cannot be assumed or taken for granted.  It cannot be left unstated.  If the preacher does not keep the cross predominantly in his life and preaching, many will become ensnared by the pitfalls of legalism, reductionism, self-righteousness, and superficiality.  To avoid these traps the preacher must be careful to center his sermons on Christ’s accomplished work, making the gospel, not assumed, but explicit.

Often, in an attempt to make intentional and measured application, the preacher loses focus on the gospel.  Assuming the gospel, he obscures it.  Having labored faithfully to mine the meaning of a text, he abandons sound hermeneutical practices in order to manufacture contemporary application.  In doing this, he muzzles the biblical authors from disclosing the impetus of their writing and instead gives his ear (and the ears of his people) over to inadequate and inferior voices.  These deceptive voices sing the sirens’ song of humanistic philosophy, a song that has at least three verses: “Be good;” “Don’t worry;” and “Do this.”

  • “Be good,” declares the moralist verse.  This moralistic approach presents application in terms of a mere ethical plea.  While Christian proclamation may entail ethical values, such as integrity, justice, and charity, it is not moralistic.  As is true with all three inferior approaches, the moralist verse is fatally insufficient.  Reducing application to mere morality strips the gospel of its substance and power.  Adding insult to injury, this approach also presents Christianity in terms that are largely indistinguishable from other religions.  The second verse,
  • “Don’t worry,” brings out the therapeutic element.  This approach seeks to provide comfort and encouragement.  It seeks to assure the listener that everything is going to be okay.  This “I’m okay; you’re okay; everything will be okay” message is a false gospel of positive-thinking.  Essentially, it seeks to infuse confidence that “things will turn around” if the individual will “continue to hold on” because, after all, “you can do it.”  Many times this therapy will be presented in religious terms which have been emptied of any real meaning.  Yet without tangible means, these exhortations are nothing more than hollow cheer sessions.  The end-game of this approach is simply to lift up the listener, to provide him with a “shot in the arm” and get her through the week.  Here, the gospel and faith are boiled down into a nebulous pool of sentimentality.  Hollow faith, optimism, and positive-thinking are used to anesthetize the pain of living but no real hope is provided.
  • The sirens’ final verse confidently asserts, “Do this.”  This is the self-improvement approach and is generally presented in the format: x number of ways to achieve y.  Whether it is “five ways to improve your marriage,” “seven steps to a peaceful home,” or “the fifty-one keys of effective communication,” this method of application plunges headlong into the deep end of man’s egocentrism.  In addition to being rooted in the terminal philosophy of humanism, this self-improvement approach commonly presents sociological studies and cultural surveys as unquestionable authorities.  So, man becomes both the ends and the means of this approach – striving for man’s benefit with man’s methods achieved by man’s efforts.

Preaching is not to be a mere ethical speech, a therapeutical session, or a self-improvement seminar.  Preaching is ultimately, a redemptive act.  Redemptive preaching, also called Christ-centered, cross-centered, or gospel-driven, has at its core “the central realities of the person, character, and work of Christ” (T. David Gordon, Why Johnny Can’t Preach: The Media Have Shaped the Messengers, 91).  While preaching may have other secondary effects, Christ must be preeminent in all Christian proclamation.  T. David Gordon provides this encouragement:

The pulpit is the place to declare the fitness of Christ’s person, and the adequacy of both his humiliated and exalted work for sinners.  If such proclamation sharpens moral vision, convicts the complacent, or creates in us dissatisfaction with our current culture, so be it.  But these occur as occasional results of Christ-centered preaching; they are not its purpose.

To avoid the humanistic, legalistic, and reductionistic pitfalls of the age, the gospel of grace and the provision of Christ must be center-stage, spotlighted, and lifted up.  Appealing to human willpower has not only proven powerless, but it is faithless for it places man in the prominent position.  Although regulations and commands “have indeed an appearance of wisdom. . . they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh” (Col 2:23).  Only Christ has the power to transform a life.  While the believer strives, struggles, and labors through the process of his sanctification, he does so only in the strength that God provides.  The faithful preacher will make much of what Christ has accomplished.  He will not only remind his congregation of the Lord’s redemptive work but, in doing so, will awaken in them praise and dependency upon it.  Redemptive preaching, therefore, is very careful to anchor God’s children to the cross where he secures the believer’s holiness and empowers him or her to pursue godliness with an expectant joy.  Therefore, all Christian proclamation must remind its hearers that they are completely dependent on Christ and indebted to his work for it is God who works in the lives of Christians “to will and to work for His good pleasure” (Phil 2:13).

To read a full treatment of this principle in pdf format click here.


  1. says

    I think I agree, in principle at least, but would emphasize the counter to your point.

    We must preach “be good,” “don’t worry” and “do this.” There are commands in the Bible to do exactly these things. Those commands come within the context of the gospel and the power of Christ – enabling us by the Spirit to do what we cannot do in the flesh.

    There are twin dangers I see here. We can ignore human responsibility (perhaps an “irresistible sanctification”) or we can depend on the flesh and stray into moralism.

    Accurate biblical preaching must walk the center line on these – calling people to godly, holy living while also constantly reminding them that the power and ability to obey comes from grace, from the gospel.

    • says

      “We must preach “be good,” “don’t worry” and “do this.” There are commands in the Bible to do exactly these things. ”

      So true… What I am seeking to guard against is the kind of preaching where those commands are the substance, when that’s the center of the target or the fulfillment of our preaching. When the reality is that there are many unbelievers who are moral and happy people, seeking to be better spouses, parents, employees, and ___.

      Our preaching should, in its intention and at its core, be about realizing our re-creation as God’s children, redeemed by Him and for Him. Another way of saying it is that all commands and exhortations must flow out of and into the reality of who Christ is.

      Some verses that echo in my head as I think about these things are Philippians 2 (“work OUT your salvation in fear… for it is God who works IN you…) and in chapter 3 Paul mentions that he is pressing on to lay hold of that for which Christ had laid hold of him.

      And of course, key to this process of striving for holiness is realizing that we cannot do it in our own strength. You hit the heart of the principle when you said, “the power and ability to obey comes from grace, from the gospel.” Amen! We must stop preaching in such a way that our people are left in their own power to do what only Christ can accomplish. I am afraid I may do that more than I want to imagine.

    • Steven Menteer says

      I agree with what you are saying 100%. I’m curious, how do we as preachers and bible students get there? In other words, during your sermon prep time, what do you do to make sure the sermon’s application is accomplishing the above stated?

  2. says

    Preach the law to expose…not to make better. The law can’t make us better (St. Paul)…but only worse for righteousness sake. It “stirs up sin” makes us focus on ‘the self’.

    Law…then gospel. We believe that is the proper paradigm.


    • says

      This is without a doubt true. And I am thankful for the Lutheran preservation in this opinion.

      But we must remember that the law is holy and perfect. It was on the law that David meditated. We would do well to recognize that emphasis on the law is meant to make us more like Christ. Any use of it otherwise is a false use.

      And this is why Bill is principally right. He is reacting against moralistic use of the law. But his heart is clear in its communication that these commands can be used by the Holy Spirit to make us look more like Christ.

  3. says

    Joshua T,

    Thank you, friend.

    We do believe, however, that the law will NOT improve us. St. Paul says as much. The law CANNOT make us better. Because our motivations are tainted from the git-go.

    The law makes it so we can live together in this world, the best we (as sinners) can (that’s the 1st use of the law)…and then it’s main job, theologically speaking, is to expose us…to convict us, and drive us to Christ.

    I appreciate the opportunity to give you the Lutheran party line. Well…some of us old style Lutrens, anywho.

    • says

      I would then ask, if it makes it such that “we can live together in this world”, is this not the definition of helping us become like Christ? For we are to live peaceably as best we can (Rom 12:18) because this is in fact the fulfillment of the commandments (Rom 13:10).

      Paul speaks this way to Timothy when he says the law is good for those who use it properly (1 Tim 1:8). The ones who use it properly are not the unrighteous he proceeds to describe (1 Tim 1:9-11) even though they too experience the purpose of the law.

      I say this all because I fear a misunderstanding of the law leads to a misreading of Pauline ethics. Paul’s ethics are to help us look like Christ or to imitate God (Eph 5:1) and I see the law serves the same purpose.

      • says


        We think we are to become ‘more human’. To keep our feet on the ground. There’s only one Jesus. We strive to just be ourselves and live freely…because of Christ, for the neighbor. Knowing that so much of time, we won’t be up to it.

        The essence of the 1st sin was to become like God. Mormons are all into that becoming God stuff.

        I do, however know what you are saying. We believe the way to be free…that’s what Jesus was, truly free…is the proclamation of the gospel. The law demands good works…the Holy Spirit inspires them.

  4. says

    Also, I believe it is in 2 Corinthians where Paul refers to the law, the commandments written on stone (The 10 Commandments), as “the ministry of death”.

    That’s pretty heavy.

    • says

      Yes 2 Cor 3:7 is a heavy text. Heavy in a Romans 7 type of fashion. I am not of the typical Reformed tradition with respect to Romans 7. But I don’t think 2 Cor can be separated from the declaration in Rom 7 that the law is holy and good.

      A wonderful topic for future discussion I imagine. Thank you for the words.

  5. says

    Yes, the law is holy and good. In that it is how we ought to live together…and in the fact that it exposes our hearts and shows us our need of a Savior.

    Good stuff, Joshua!

    Thank you, friend.

  6. says

    If the Scriptures are heard as a matter of life and death…then they will just end up being ‘principles for living’…or religious noise…or…ideas about God.

    But if the law kills us off to any notions of being good enough…and then the gospel of forgiveness in Christ Jesus brings us to new life…again and again and again…then we have the proper use of Scripture. Not a Christian progression…but a death to life action that the Lord actually DOES to us.