Most pastors work hard to preach their sermon with personal application. It’s admittedly a trying task. We may have our exegesis tight but struggle to press home the implications for the widow or teenager sitting in the pew. I have found Keller’s book on preaching, particularly the chapter on preaching to the heart, to be helpful here. Also, Mark Dever’s application grid will serve preachers well.
But I’ve noticed a trend when evaluating my preaching, listening to feedback, and hearing other sermons. We often gravitate toward our own items of personal emphasis or importance. In preaching, we tend to pronate our application toward our own personal hobby horses. A guy burdened for doctrinal purity is keen to warn against false teaching. A brother who may be more mission-minded will find evangelism in every point. This is just what we naturally do. Preachers are human instruments, and we naturally go where we want to go.
This is where a hip hop group from the late-’80s has helped me immensely. The group’s name was EPMD. And, if I’m honest, their help is limited to the use of their acronym (although their most famous song, You Gots to Chill, does occasionally parade into my mind when I start getting worked up).
The acronym helps me to work through a few different categories of application. In every sermon, and often multiple times on a point, I want to think through these categories. My thought is if I am giving the congregation EPMD application each week then I’ll be serving them well. Here are the categories: E- Ecclesiology, P- Piety, M- Mission, D- Doctrine. I’ll briefly explain below.
I believe that far too much preaching assumes the life in the local church. The commands in the New Testament get reduced down to an individual’s relationship with Jesus. There is comparatively little said about how we live together as Christ’s body. This category for application simply asks the question how this particular point intersects with the life of the local church. For example, I was recently preaching through Matthew 22 and came to the great commandment (Matt. 22:37). One application of this command to love God and love our neighbor is through the covenant community. In the local church we gather to express our love for God through Christ and show our love for one another. Our love for God and neighbor is expressed through church membership and active engagement in the covenant community. The preacher here is simply thinking through the corporate application and implications of the principle.
This is the most common reflex for most preachers. What does the text teach me about my relationship to God? How does it inform me of what to think, feel, or do? Picking up on the example from Matthew 22, some questions about the great commandment will quickly diagnose the heart. It will reveal what attitudes and actions are out of step with God’s commandment to love him with all that we are and to love our neighbor as ourselves.
This too is straightforward. How does this verse prompt us to bring the gospel to the nations and our neighbors? If I’m thinking again about Matthew 22, I want to show how loving God and neighbor is expressed through carrying out the Great Commission. I want to tell people about Jesus because I love God and am jealous for his glory (Acts 17:16). I know that he seeks true worshipers (John 4:23-4). In Matthew 22 I want to show how this love for God overflows by supporting the Great Commission to bring the gospel to the nations.
What is this passage teaching us to believe? In Matthew 22 we are reminded again that God is worthy of all worship. He deserves everything from us. It also shows us that we have sinned and fallen short of this standard. This, along with everything else that God has ever commanded his people, has been fully completed and fulfilled by Christ our substitute. Therefore, this doctrine not only convicts us of sin, but it also leads us to Christ. Further, it trains us in righteousness in our obedience.
Depending upon what I might be going through I might emphasize one or two of these categories. But, by trying to consistently include all four, I am giving the congregation a more balanced and consistent framework. I don’t limit application to these four categories, but I do try to use them regularly.
As you prepare to preach, jot down the acronym of that obscure hip hop group EPMD and see if it might help you as it has me, to be intentional and biblically balanced in preaching with application.