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Posted by on Feb 16, 2012 in Ecclesiology | 2 comments

Application in Sermons: Some Thoughts from Mike Horton

Application in Sermons: Some Thoughts from Mike Horton

Mike Horton posted some thoughts on application in sermons yesterday, dealing with how pastors ought to apply God’s word to the congregation in preaching. Partially he was relating how to think through the 3rd use of the law in preaching within a gospel-centered approach to preaching. I would encourage a read-through of his thoughts, as some of it was quite helpful and challenging. I do want to discuss one thing that I found concerning or at least puzzling, though, one should take what I have to say about preaching with a grain of salt, since I’m such a newbie to that whole world. But first a few thoughts that I found quite helpful:

On one hand, the danger is that we take the gospel for granted, assuming that everyone knows it already and now we need only the “house rules.” On the other hand, we can swing to the other end and imagine that every imperative is simply the “first use” and that we’ve handled an imperative text faithfully if we have simply said, “Jesus did this for us and bore our judgment for not having done it.” Take Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, for example. Galatians 5 (on the fruit of the Spirit) has its roots deeply embedded in the first four chapters (centering on justification). It’s a letter and as such its original audiences would have heard it from beginning to end in one reading. So even when one is preaching on chapter 5, hearers should be reminded of the gospel indicative from which it arises. Nevertheless, chapter 5 is not just a repetition of the first 4 chapters.

This is a very balanced relation of how preaching should reflect what the text says, and commands in Scripture are not merely meant to show us our need for Christ but also how we ought to live as those who have been called out of darkness and into light by him. In the ongoing law-and-grace-in-sanctification discussion, it seems that while I think most people probably would agree on this point if you were to ask them, it often doesn’t seem that way in the statements made. The balance here was a great reminder to me.

I also think that Horton’s point about avoiding turning application into something that only comes at the end of the sermon to be helpful. I don’t know how common this is anymore, but it’s certainly a good reminder to continually be applying the Word to life throughout the sermon, not just as a tack-on at the end.

There are a number of other helpful parts of his post that I would encourage you to take a look at: he discusses good and necessary consequence not only for interpretation, but also for application, how that relates to Christian liberty, and distinguishing genres appropriately.

An Area of Concern

Notwithstanding all of those good things, there was one area in particular that made me pause and think. Horton says the following about application, particularly towards the end of the sermon:

By all means, press home the exhortations of the text (i.e., the third use). In any case, though, the gospel must have the last word. The problem is not application coming at the end, but application of the law coming at the end, especially in such a way as to revert back to the first use without then actually holding up Christ as the believer’s only hope.

If I understand him correctly, he’s saying that sermons should not end with the 3rd use of the law, that is, by telling God’s people what they ought to do in light of who Jesus is and what he has done. I hope that I haven’t misrepresented him, but he seems to be saying every sermon must end with the indicative rather than the imperative (at least the imperatives of God’s law, not the imperative of “believe the gospel”).

I’m not sure that we can biblically make such a categorical statement (and perhaps he would qualify it might if given the opportunity). If the movement of Paul’s letters (as Horton discusses briefly) is from the indicative to the imperative, then why must the sermon end with the indicative? Obviously, I think all Reformed people should agree that the gospel and the indicatives ought to be present throughout our preaching as the grounding for the imperatives, but I’m not sure that we can say that we can’t end with the imperatives of God’s law.

For example, after the great indicatives of Colossians 1-3, great portions of chapter 3 and all of 4 give instructions for Christian living based on those indicatives. If we have grounded the imperatives in the indicatives, then surely we need not put an extra-biblical requirement to end with indicatives.



  1. Good thoughts Joel. As with any article, there will always be aspects that could have been developed more or at least stated more clearly (as I find each time when I have finished preaching). I think your concern is well-founded, though again I think Horton might clarify his concern. If I hear Horton correctly, he doesn’t think we should end the sermon with the listener focusing on what we should do in response apart from what Christ has already accomplished. If that is his concern, then I agree. However, if he is saying that we cannot end with an imperative at all but most solely focus on the indicative, then I might have to part company with him. If I am preaching on a text that deals with Christian liberty, for instance, and am told by Paul that I am not to put a stumbling block in the way of my weaker brother in the faith, then I certainly would want to give a modern application of that. Unless I am preaching to an audience full of Jewish believers who still hold to the Kosher diet, I am not sure how much use the unclean food or food offered to idols would have to a modern listener. But, if I can take another issue that would be a good and necessary inference from the text (say, entertainment choices that Christians have disagreements on for what is acceptable), then certainly I would hope that the parishioners would be exhorted, in light of what Christ has done for them and me, that we would all long to show more patience and concern for those who might have weak consciences. That is an application that I could live with as a preacher.

    • Thanks for your thoughts. I definitely agree with what you’re saying, as certainly I don’t think we should with an imperative that isn’t first grounded in what Christ has done.

      Perhaps he didn’t mean the second option. It seems like I hear similar things to that regularly from some, and it seems like an overreaction to the moralism/legalism that characterizes some groups (ones that we’ve both been familiar with in the past).