How to Saturate Your Sermon with Application Without Sacrificing Doctrine and Exegesis

There are three common factors that cause preachers to quarantine application to a mere few corners of their sermon.

One is the misconception that application and doctrine is a zero sum game. The more you have of one, the less you have of the other. As we will see, that isn’t true.

A second is a tendency to follow the “seminary sermon structure” too rigidly. The explanation, illustration, application format backloads the section for applying the passage. If it’s a hard passage to interpret, or if you tell a story that is longer than usual, you might skip application altogether.

A third is that many pastors are (mis)guided by doctrine-then-application pattern in Paul’s letters. They rightly discern this common arrangement in the Pauline epistles, but they wrongly assume that it is the model to follow for preaching and teaching.

If you read the prophets of the OT, however, you see application right from the beginning. Psalms, Acts, Revelation. They all have application right at the beginning.

Want to be a biblical preacher? Don’t backload your application. Frontload it and midload it, too.

So the question is not should you provide application from the start of your sermon. The question is how. Here are three ways.

1. State your main points in the form of a command

Whether your sermon has two, three, or four main points, give them applicational thrust by phrasing them as imperatives. Don’t merely be descriptive. Be prescriptive.

Let’s take Philippians 2:12-18 as an example.

Good – non-imperative main points:

1. The divine and human work of obedience (12-13).

2. The church and non-church context of obedience (14-16).

3. The sacrifice and joy of obedience (17-18).

Better – imperative main points:

1. Expend effort toward obedience through the power God supplies (12-13).

2. Adopt an attitude of obedience that unites the church and shines to the world (14-16).

3. Rejoice over the cost of obedience that you and others face (17-18).

Notice that in the second outline, you don’t lose any exegesis. The exegesis is simply stated in terms of the actions it implies. If you adopted the first outline, I don’t doubt that you would get to the application eventually. But your sermon would not be saturated with application.

2. In your sub-points, lead with the present tense (application), then support with the past tense (exegesis)

It is possible, as you interpret the passage for your listeners, to do so in a way that has the flavor of application. Let’s take main point #1 (2:12-13) from above as an example.

Good – past tense, exegetical sub-points:

1. Expend effort toward obedience through the power God supplies (12-13).

a. Paul couldn’t be with the Philippians, so they need work all the more (12a).

b. Paul warned the Philippians that fear and trembling should accompany obedience (12b).

c. Paul grounded the Philippians’ obedience with the power God works in them (13).

Better – present tense, imperative sup-points that are supported by exegesis:

1. Expend effort toward obedience through the power God supplies.

a. Expend such effort when you’re on your own.

i. Paul couldn’t be with the Philippians, so they needed to work all the more.

b. Expend such effort with fear and trembling.

i. Paul warned the Philippians that fear and trembling should accompany obedience.

c. Expend such effort through God’s power in you.

i. Paul grounded the Philippians’ obedience with the power God worked in them.

After you lead with the present tense, then you shift to the past tense. This continues to challenge your congregation to apply the passage while you interpret the passage.

3. Give non-cliché life examples of what it might look to live this stuff out

There are few things that deflate application more than cliché examples. They trivialize the content of your message and evaporate the force behind it. Put the hard work into thinking up examples that evoke a response from your congregation.

So in 1.a. above, don’t follow up expend effort toward obedience even when you’re on your own with, “One situation to apply this, men, is when you’re surrounded by magazines at the grocery checkout as you buy the milke your wife asked you to pick up on the way home from work.” That’s true, but it’s cliché, so it loses impact. (The point of saturating your sermon with application is to saturate it with impact.)

Instead, rattle off some real-life situations that make your congregation feel what is at stake, for example:

“When you’re entertaining clients for business, and your wife and accountability partner are not around, expend effort toward obedience. When you go off to college and you can no longer be discipled by your youth pastor, expend effort toward obedience. When that wise, old saint – whose advice was always there for you whenever you needed it – is called home to be with the Lord, expend effort toward obedience. And always expend that effort relying on the strength that God works in you.”

This is where you knock your congregation off balance, only to stand them right back up with the gospel and grace.

We’re not peppering our sermons with “tips” here

As you can see, when I say saturate your sermon with application, I’m not talking about filling your message with tons of practical tips. I’m talking about supplying applicational drive throughout your sermon.

And this is not at the expense of exegesis. Quite the contrary, this requires strong exegesis so that the application packs specificity into its punch.

(Image credit)


  1. This approach was drilled into us by Chris Green at Oak Hill and I’ve found it really helpful. His book Cutting to the heart is a useful detailed follow up on this