Why You Need Applicational Preaching

R. D. Norman


Biblical preaching is a wonderful gift of God. When we gather to hear the Word preached, we are gathering to feed our souls. Imagine a flock of sheep descending the hills to drink from the streams of water. We are those sheep, descending from the busyness of our lives to drink from God’s Word as it is preached. It is a true blessing to sit under biblical preaching, learning from men who have studied the Word.

There are a lot of great preachers nowadays. We are also blessed that we have easy access to many of them on the internet. Today, all we have to do is type John MacArthur or Steven Lawson on YouTube. There we have massive lists with decades of faithful preaching ministries. Such men have always served as an example to me for many reasons. The biggest reason, of course, is that they practice an expository preaching model. They do this better than anybody else I have ever heard. Their doctrine is solid and their methodology as well. There is one more element, however, that is particularly drawing to me. These men do not only preach expository, God-honoring, and doctrinally rich sermons. They also apply their preaching to the congregation.

This is something I see being lost, more and more, in expository sermons. Some preachers are so concerned about getting their doctrine right that they ignore the practical needs of their congregations. That is not to say doctrine is unnecessary in preaching. Instead, I am saying that application is equally important. There will be times when doctrine must be more accentuated than application. There will also be times where we have to apply a simple doctrine with more emphasis. Whatever the situation, if we are faithful to God’s Word, then we will never divorce the two.

As preachers and those who listen to God’s Word, we must train ourselves to be more applicational. Preachers need to look at their congregations and think: what needs are in this congregation? Church members need to look to preaching, working hard to listen and discern how they can practically benefit from preaching. Preachers and church members can work together to make their congregations better if they focus on how to do this properly. Nevertheless, it must first be demonstrated from Scripture that application and doctrine must flow in the same river.

Biblical Testimony

We have all been in church and heard the typical “faith sermon.” This consists of the preacher standing in the pulpit and trying to encourage his congregation. Knowing people are struggling with faith, he tries to talk about this subject. Sadly, he does not really know how to make proper applications. He states: “How can we conclude? When we struggle, we must hold more to our faith.” There is nothing wrong with this statement in and of itself. If that is all his congregation got by conclusion, though, they will be in trouble. Questions will abound: “What is faith, though?” “How does this look in my life?” “What happens when I really feel like I am about to lose my faith?”

Often, the preacher cannot answer these questions for two reasons. First, he has a steady diet of purely doctrinal books. He has not spent enough time consuming practical works. These would have helped him know how to preach to people’s practical needs. Secondly, he does not know his congregation. He has spent all his time solely in pulpit ministry. The result is that he does not know the situations his people are facing. This does not mean his primary responsibility to preach the Word is negated. It does mean, however, that he will be less effective the less he knows the members of his church.

Thinking about this, we look at Paul. Two of his heaviest theological works were Romans and Ephesians. Reading through Romans 1–11 we are treated with, essentially, a broad systematic theology. He details how God worked out salvation in eleven glorious chapters. Having traversed through all of this he then opens chapter 12 with applications. He has proven that salvation is an act of grace on God’s part. Now, he wants his readers to see how all of this applies in practical responsibilities.

The letter to the Ephesians is the same. Chapters 1–3 are chock full of technical information. When we get to chapter four things change. Paul begins writing about how to put off evil and put on good (something our “faith preacher” would have benefitted to study). Following this, he moves into family life and spiritual warfare. What begins as a doctrinal study magnificently transforms into a practical treatise.

This is what we need to keep in mind when people swing too far in the opposite direction. Such people say “I just need Jesus and application, no doctrine.” This is simply not the biblical model. There is no application without first addressing doctrine. That, we have seen, is the biblical model. We also see this naturally. Nobody has ever picked up a guitar and been able to play it flawlessly. They have to go through the motions of studying and learning the chords and finger placements. Subsequently, they can then enjoy the practical benefits of playing a whole song. It takes time and work to get to where you want to be as a musician. It is the same with practical preaching.

The letter of James is the same. A large portion of James is application. The reason he goes into such an applicatory mode of thinking is because of his doctrine. He is writing to believers who have begun to think that their indestructible salvation means they can do whatever they desire. He shows how that is not the case. Following this, he spends the rest of the letter unpacking various ways people can live out their faith.

We see very clearly that there must be a foundation of doctrine before practical application can begin to flow. We cannot do away with doctrine. At the same time, we must be careful not to emphasize application to the point where doctrine is seen as irrelevant. Every preacher must walk this tight rope in his study every week as he prepares to speak to his people on Sunday.

Our Lives and the Word

What we hear on Sundays should fit itself into our life-frameworks. The doctrine and application we hear should be lived out in our day-to-day lives. The more we are built up on the truth of God’s Word the more we will be better able to live out faith. That is why John states in 1 John 5:1–5:

Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome. For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?

The more we practice the things of faith, the more we confirm in our own hearts that we are God’s children. 

This should cause us to be drawn to applicational preaching. This preaching helps us see what we can do and how we can improve our walk of faith. Are the sermons in your church reflective of this model? Are they expository, doctrinal, and applicational? Or are you getting heavy doses of one thing, without the benefits of the others? Do the sermons you hear truly help you live out your faith? Are you hearing sermons which teach you to live out the doctrine which is proclaimed? We should be able to conclude that the more we learn and live out our faith, the more we are confirmed that we are in Christ. Applicational preaching helps us live by His commands by standing strong on biblical doctrine.

Is this your experience? Is the preaching in your church leading to this experiential Christianity: a real Christianity. Does the preaching in your church help you walk in the Lord’s ways as you experience His grace every day? Joel Beeke has noted: “Throughout the Holy Scriptures, we find examples of godly people embracing the truth of Christ in their hearts and bringing it to bear on the experience of others.”1Beeke. J. R. Reformed Preaching. Crossway. Wheaton: IL. (2018). 54 This we see when Paul teaches Timothy. He builds him up on the truth. Afterwards, he calls Timothy to apply that truth throughout his letters.2This theme can be seen all throughout 1 and 2 Timothy. We also see it in Jesus’s teaching. Many times we see Him teach. Following this He further helps His disciples understand and apply the teaching to their lives.3There are many occasions in the Gospels where people ask Jesus to clarify His teaching and He answers them. There are times, such as with Mary and Martha, where He uses the current situation to show … Continue reading So, are the teachers in your church helping you apply the truth to your life?

If not, I encourage you to open this discussion. Take your struggle to understand application to your elders and ask them for help. No preacher is perfect, we all miss the mark sometimes (dare I say often). You will help your leadership if you kindly and politely begin this conversation. Show them where you are struggling with the preaching. Do not get angry and throw up your arms in frustration. Instead, ask them for help in humility. Help them see that you are struggling to see where the benefit lies in the preaching you hear. This way you and they all grow together.

Leaders should also be willing to ask their congregation, from time to time, if they are hitting the mark. Of course, the leadership is responsible to make the final decision on the pulpit ministry. Regardless, it never hurts to do a roll call and see if people are actually benefiting from the preaching. Only our pride will stand in the way of this occasion. Leaders are helped when they call their people to ask if they are benefitting from the preaching. Members are also helped when they address where they need more help. Overall, everybody helps each other. This way we live out Paul’s command to do good to all in our congregations (Gal. 6:2). What a privilege and blessing we have in this responsibility.

It is imperative to remember that doctrine and application go together. Only when they are joined, hand in hand, can the result be experiential truth. Only when the doctrine we preach is practically applied can we discover just how important and relevant it is. This will play out as we experience God in our objective faith-lives. It will also serve to make the doctrine and practicality more alive to us.

Preachers, do you see the benefits you can give to yourselves and congregations in this way? If so, I suggest two things. First, read practical books. There are plenty of great practical books on Christian living. Find the best ones and get studying. The second is to listen to applicational preaching. See how others before us have applied the word. This helps us see fresh ways we can apply what we teach. As we consume this diet of both doctrinal and applicational works and teaching, we will see a difference in the pulpit.

Members, are you willing to encourage your leaders? Will you help them by showing them your needs, opening up to them about your spiritual issues. Help them know what to preach about by talking to them about your problems.

Together, leaders and church members can make the pulpit a better ministry. The target can be hit a lot better and easier when all in the church are working together.

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1 Beeke. J. R. Reformed Preaching. Crossway. Wheaton: IL. (2018). 54
2 This theme can be seen all throughout 1 and 2 Timothy.
3 There are many occasions in the Gospels where people ask Jesus to clarify His teaching and He answers them. There are times, such as with Mary and Martha, where He uses the current situation to show a practical reality.