Tag Archives: Application

‘We’ or ‘You’ in Preaching?

When he’s making his applications, should a preacher use ‘we’ or ‘you’?   There are arguments for and against both.  Using “we” sounds more humble and preachers don’t want to be accused of coming off arrogant and self-righteous.  But using “we” also sounds a bit weak-kneed, as if God’s Word doesn’t speak authoritatively and directly to the congregation from the pulpit.

In one corner is Alec Motyer, a ‘we’ proponent.  In his book Preaching? Simple Teaching on Simply Preaching, he says he’s “not comfortable with the ‘you’ approach to preaching.  We are not like doctors diagnosing and prescribing for someone else’s complaint – in which case ‘you’ is appropriate and necessary.  We who preach are fellow-sufferers from the same disease!” (p.95)

In the other corner of the ring, we find, perhaps not surprisingly, Jay Adams.  In Truth Applied, Adams argues that effective application requires direct language directed to the hearer.  He says that applicatory language is “at once clear, simple, direct, personal, active and concrete” (p.115).  Whether in the introduction or elsewhere, the preacher has to direct his speech to the congregation.  It’s got to have punch.  That means ‘you.’

‘We’ or ‘you’ may appear a vexing question.  But what if the Bible gave us an answer?  What if there was a sermon addressed to a congregation of believers where we might be able to see not only how the early Christians dealt with this, but also discern God’s will?

While the book of Hebrews is often described as a ‘letter’ or ‘epistle,’ a good case can be made that it is actually a sermon from the apostolic church era.  One of the most compelling arguments is the use of the expression ‘a word of exhortation’ to describe the work in Hebrews 13:22.  Exactly the same expression appears in Acts 13:15 to describe preaching in the synagogue.  Moreover, numerous scholars have drawn attention to rhetorical devices used in the work – these devices are usually associated with spoken language rather than written.  While there’s no way to be absolutely certain, it’s quite likely that most of what we call Hebrews was originally a message delivered to one or more churches.

Now if that’s true (I think it is), then we could examine the applicatory language used by the author/preacher of Hebrews.  Does he use ‘we’ or ‘you’?  There’s plenty of applicatory language to be surveyed throughout the book.  I didn’t do a tally of all the uses, but I’m going to guess that it’s about half and half for ‘we’ and ‘you.’  Here are a few select examples of ‘we’:

“Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it.”  (Heb. 2:1)

“Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience.”  (Heb. 4:11)

“Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession.” (Heb. 4:14)

Here are just a few examples of ‘you’ (second person plural):

“Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God.” (Heb. 3:12)

“Therefore do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward.” (Heb. 10:35)

“Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you.’”  (Heb. 13:5)

This variety of applicatory usage is found throughout the book, although it does start to clump up in chapter 13 with its large section of application.

If we take our lead from Hebrews, it seems that both ‘we’ and ‘you’ are equally valid ways of bringing application to bear in sermons.  But it would also seem that one shouldn’t be used to the complete exclusion of the other.  It’s good to be authoritative and direct with the congregation, but at times it’s also good to include yourself as a sinner equally addressed by the exhortations of God’s Word.  Let me give the final word to Bryan Chapell.  He writes in a footnote in Christ-Centered Preaching:

I encourage students to ignore the senseless arguments over whether preachers should exhort with the words we or you.   The arguments some preachers make for the exclusive use of one or the other are specious at best…Obviously, a preacher who never confronts others speaks without the authority Scripture grants, but a pastor who never identifies with sinners preaches with an arrogance even Jesus did not assume. (p. 143)

Legalistic Exhortations

This morning let me say something about an interesting section of this book in chapter 9, “Can I Preach a Christian Sermon without Mentioning Jesus?”

Goldsworthy notes that preaching the whole counsel of God will necessarily include exhortation.  Most people like that sort of thing — they narrowly view it as the only thing that counts for application.   Unless the sermon tells me what to do and how to live, it’s not relevant and not applicatory.  Goldsworthy says, “I suggest that we love this kind of treatment because we are legalists at heart.  We would love to be able to say that we have fulfilled all kinds of conditions, be they tarrying, surrendering fully, or getting rid of every known sin, so that God might truly bless us.”  (p.118)  If the preaching can just give us a ten-step program to holy living, we love it.  People don’t want to hear so much about what God has done for us apart from us — that’s old news.  Tell us something we can do.

Goldsworthy goes on, “The preacher can aid and abet this legalistic tendency that is at the heart of the sin within us all.  All we have to do is emphasize our humanity:  our obedience, our faithfulness, our surrender to God, and so on.  The trouble is that these things are all valid biblical truths, but if we get them out of perspective and ignore their relationship with the gospel of grace, they replace grace with law.  If we constantly tell people what they should do in order to get their lives in order, we place a terrible legalistic burden on them.”  (p.118)  Goldsworthy doesn’t say this, but it is my observation that it is even more tempting when you see lifestyle issues in the congregation that are problematic.  You figure that the solution has to be to preach more law — and even if that is subsumed under the heading of “thankfulness” it can have a habit of becoming legalistic (what John Piper calls “the debtor’s ethic”).  The problems are not solved and in fact, get worse.  The solution is counter-intuitive.

Let me give the last word to Goldsworthy — this whole paragraph is worth reading carefully:

In practical terms, if we as preachers lay down the marks of the spiritual Christian, or the mature church, or the godly parent, or the obedient child, or the caring pastor, or the responsible elder or the wise church leader, and if we do this in a way that implies that conformity is simply a matter of understanding and being obedient, then we are being legalists and we risk undoing the very thing we want to build up.  We may achieve the outward semblance of conformity to the biblical pattern, but we do it at the expense of the gospel of grace that alone can produce the reality of these desirable goals.  To say what we should be or do and not link it with a clear exposition of what God has done about our failure to be or do perfectly as he wills is to reject the grace of God and to lead people to lust after self-help and self-improvement in a way that, to call a spade a spade, is godless.  (119)

This is a worthwhile book that I can recommend to pastors and aspiring pastors.

(Reposted from 07.31.07)

Application in Preaching

Situation:  you hear a sermon and the text drives the minister to proclaim the glorious wonders of God and of our Saviour Jesus Christ.  The minister doesn’t tell you to do anything but to know this God and this Saviour, to love him and believe in him.  Was such a sermon weak on application?

Many people think so.   However, I submit that this is a narrow and unbiblical understanding of application.  A minister has to preach the text.  There are many texts in the Bible that contain commands and imperatives.  There are many which directly show us what a loving, thankful Christian life looks like.  But there are also many other texts where the point is simply to have us fall down in praise and adoration of who our God is and what he’s done in Christ.  When a minister preaches such a text, his aim will be to get the congregation to that place where they are in awe of God.  Is that sermon less applicatory?

The problem is that we want sermons which tell us what to do on our own terms.  We’ve heard about faith so many times.  Give me something else that I can do.  But by thinking this way have we become dull to the wonders of God?   Do we take for granted how great our God is?

John Piper has some helpful insights on this point.  Recently I listened to him speaking about “enjoying God.”  He said, “God is most glorified when we are most satisfied in him and when we enjoy him the most.”  If we take that trajectory, it certainly broadens our understanding of what application is and does so in a biblical way.

Here’s another example of Piper pointing us in the right direction (h.t. to Danny Hyde).

“Wonder changes people, not examples…Seeing glory changes everything.”  Amen.

(reposted from 03.29.07)