Application is the missing element that helps the gospel transform lives
-Murray Capill talks to Peter Hastie-
Dr Murray Capill has pastored churches in New Zealand and Australia and is the principal of the Reformed
Theological College, Geelong, Victoria, where he lectures in preaching and pastoral ministry. He did
postgraduate research at Westminster Theological Seminary, California, where he received a Doctor of
Ministry. Murray is married to Wendy and they have five children, three married and two at home.
In addition to his first book on preaching, Preaching with Spiritual Vigour: Lessons from the Life and Practice of Richard Baxter, Dr Capill has recently written, The Heart is the Target: Preaching Practical Application from Every Text (P & R, 2014). It is an important book and one that is
being recommended for those involved in preaching and teaching. Bruce Milne (Know the Truth, IVP) has endorsed it warmly: “I wish I had had this text in my hands when I began preaching over 50 years ago.”
Murray, what led you to write your latest book, The Heart is the Target?
That’s a good question. I had to ask myself, “Is there really a genuine need for yet another book on preaching?” But I decided it was valuable to write it because very few books explore in any detail how to press the truth of a biblical text into people’s minds and hearts. My concern in this book is to provide an extended treatment that will help preachers discover tools and skills for making penetrating application of biblical texts.
What should be the preacher’s aim when he addresses people?
Well, you’ve got to remember what a preacher is: a preacher is a herald, a proclaimer of God’s Word. So when the preacher stands in the pulpit, he stands there on behalf of God to speak God’s Words into the lives of people. The preacher is aiming to preach a message that is true to God’s Word, one that leaves people sensing that God has spoken directly to them in their situation.
To what extent is preaching about life transformation?
Well I think that’s the intended outcome of preaching, because you can’t hear God speak and not be changed by it. But the main goal is that people actually encounter God, meet with Him, form a sense of who He is and how He is meant to govern their lives. If they understand that, and the Holy Spirit impresses this awareness on their hearts, then they’re going to be changed by it. So ultimately, yes, one of the great aims of preaching is to transform lives, but transformation comes through relationship with God.
You can Google anything. But the gospel is about far more than facts and information. It’s about a person we must meet and listen to.
You make a distinction between lecturing and preaching. Why?
Well, lecturing is largely concerned with conveying and explaining information. All preaching includes elements of that, but it goes much further. Good preaching moves from information to explanation, and then on to proclamation and transformation. So a preacher should never be content with a message that simply explains truth and downloads information. Our concern must always be to press that truth on people’s lives so that they know what to do about it.
We need to realise that our world is full of information. You can Google anything. But the gospel is about far more than facts and information. It’s about a person we must meet and listen to. And this meeting is life-changing.
I think preachers need to have a theology of preaching that reminds them that they are speaking on behalf of God. They’re proclaiming something, not just sharing something. They’re proclaiming a message for today, not just talking about the Bible and the meaning of a text. So if we remember that we are heralds, then I think we’ll have a right approach to the task.
Today many evangelicals have realised that preaching, if it is to honour God, needs to follow the text of the Bible carefully and expound it. But is that enough?
I think it’s encouraging that expository preaching is back in vogue today. It is a very positive sign. However, it’s got to be true expository preaching. This means that the preacher must not only bring out what the Scripture meant to its original hearers, but what it means for us today. When expository preaching is no more than a verbalised commentary on the text, that is, exegesis out-loud, then it falls short of true expository preaching. If that’s all we are doing then we are not actually preaching.
We must do more than explain the meaning of the text; we must show how it applies to people’s lives today and press this message on their consciences. If we refuse to do this, expository preaching will become dry, arid and intellectual and it will fail to transform people’s lives.
So how does your latest book, The Heart is the Target, address some of the issues that you’ve been raising over the last decade in relation to modern evangelical preaching?
What I aim to do in the book is give preachers tools that will help them think more deeply about how a biblical text applies to the people they’re preaching to. It seems to me that we often give preachers lots of resources – both exegetical and theological – as well as good communication tools and devices.
However, we tend to leave the whole area of application to the preachers’ intuition. If they see a great application, they have something to run with. If they don’t, then they may well bolt on a very predictable, well-worn application – and there are some classic ones. “You’ve got to pray more; you’ve got to read your Bible more; you’ve got to witness more; or you’ve got to serve more.” And so we end up with these largely moralistic applications tacked on to the end of a sermon.
What I want to do in this book is open up a much richer range of possible applications that are true to the intent of Scripture, but are varied and penetrating, and will touch people’s hearts.
How did you become interested in this whole area yourself?
Well, my own journey in preaching began with reading the sermons of Martyn Lloyd-Jones when I was a teenager. I found his preaching thoroughly compelling. It was so persuasive and spiritually convicting.
Then I journeyed backwards from Lloyd-Jones to Ryle and Spurgeon, and then later I began reading Jonathan Edwards.
Eventually I found my way back to the Puritans. It was really my study of some of the Puritan writers that opened up to me these unexplored areas of application. They had real skill in penetrating the heart, pricking the conscience, stirring godly affections and moving people at the level of the will. They saw genuine and heartfelt change under their preaching. So what I am doing in my book is really just modernising ideas that have been around for centuries.
So which particular writers did you find helpful in giving you an insight into this whole issue of application – even in the 17th century?
It was particularly from Richard Baxter that I developed the model of the heart that I work with in The Heart is the Target. He showed me that a person’s heart consists of four main faculties.
First, there is the faculty of the mind in which we come to understand the truth. The Scriptures show us that God is able to enlighten our otherwise darkened, depraved minds.
However, the truth that enlightens us must be pressed on the second faculty, our consciences. Then truth is not just known; it’s felt, and we’re judged by it. God’s Word convicts us of our sin.
So we see our need to change, and faculty of the will has to do with that. The will is our capacity to choose, decide and act. God’s Word intends to change our decisions and actions.
But the thing is, our choices and actions won’t change even if we know what is right with our mind and feel convicted of it in our conscience – our actions won’t change unless our deep inner desires and passions change. That’s the fourth faculty of the heart – the passions or affections.
The problem is that our sinful hearts are passionate about all the wrong things. We have ungodly affections, and we find, as Paul said, that the things we want to do we can’t, and the things we don’t want to do we do because we’re driven by these sinful passions.
The work of the gospel is to transform our minds, awaken our consciences, and stir in us godly passions – and that leads to a changed way of life.
Why do you think modern preachers struggle to apply the Scriptures?
I think preachers struggle with application for several reasons. The most obvious one is that it’s plain hard work, and often those of us in Bible believing churches put most of our sermon preparation time into exegesis.
So you’ve got to allow more time?
Definitely. In terms of sermon preparation, we need to devote about as much time to the application of a text as we devote to discovering its meaning. It requires time and serious reflection to think about human life in terms of the faculties of the heart – the mind, the conscience, the will and the passions. It’s complex, so if you haven’t thought deeply about people and truth, then you’ll resort to the more predictable and superficial applications that we hear so often.
Do you think modern theological education needs to bear some of the responsibility for this deficiency?
Modern theological education, which is often very rich and helpful to people, can also tend to be rather academic. And theological colleges can easily teach people to have an academic approach to Scripture. You see, the study of theology requires people to analyse the biblical text, interact with scholarly opinions and then write essays. That is the academic approach.
But a sermon is aiming at something different. It’s designed to take the truth and press it winsomely on the lives of people. It’s not an essay. It’s not a research project. It’s not chiefly a refutation of other view-points. It’s a positive proclamation of gospel truth today.
Preaching is a very demanding task. When we really understand what is involved we will always be on our knees in prayer and sweating week after week to make sure we preach as well as we can.
So a student who reads copiously and writes lots of essays and does very detailed study of a text can easily develop an overly academic approach to the Scriptures. If we’re going to preach engagingly, we have to have a different approach to the truth. We must certainly rely on the Holy Spirit to give us insight and we should use academic tools to uncover the riches of Scripture, but we must go further – we must persuade people of the truth of Scripture, apply it to their consciences, address their passions and show them how, by God’s grace, they can change.
What do you think are the essential things that preachers need to know to ensure that their preaching is filled with effective and arresting application?
I think first of all a preacher has got to know what preaching is really all about. As I said before, it’s about proclaiming God so that people come face-to-face with Him and are forced to deal with Him. Second, they’ve got to have a really good handle on biblical truth. Of course it’s right that theological colleges are helping young preachers wrestle with Scripture in depth and understanding the critical theological issues.
But, and this is important, they must also know how to get inside people. They’ve got to know how to speak to the real issues of people’s lives – their basic motivations and driving passions. And finally, I think, they’ve got to know how to do those things winsomely and in an engaging way.
This means that preaching is incredibly challenging work, and if we’re not struggling with sermon preparation there’s probably something wrong. Even Paul himself throws up his hands and says, “Who is sufficient for these things?” Preaching is a very demanding task. When we really understand what is involved we will always be on our knees in prayer and sweating week after week to make sure we preach as well as we can.
How important is it for preachers to understand idolatry?
It’s vital. Idolatry is our fundamental “heart” problem, so if a preacher doesn’t understand how we long to find fulfilment in things other than God, he doesn’t really understand the human condition.
God created us as worshippers who are meant to find our meaning, joy and significance in Him. Worship is something that is innate and part of our very being. However, when we reject God we try to find our fulfilment in other things. And that’s what idolatry is. Idolatry is when we look to anything else to give to us what only God is meant to give to us. We look to these other things to find our sense of value, identity, fulfilment and joy.
If we’re looking for those things apart from God, we’ve created an idol. We might be looking to our work, our reputation, our entertainment, hobbies, or relationships – to provide what God alone can give us. Whenever we find ourselves doing that, we’re acting as idolaters.
That’s a huge issue for Christians as well
as for non-Christians. Sadly, even after we come to know God, we still find ourselves trying to find fulfilment and satisfaction in things other than God.
Are all Christians involved in idolatry?
Yes, unfortunately – even preachers! It’s very possible to make Christian ministry itself an idol. If I find my ministry becomes the focus of my attention instead of God, and I make my preaching the one thing that gives me significance and joy, then I have become an idolater. It’s possible to be a Christian preacher who gets his sense of purpose and worth from preaching rather than God. As soon as I do that, I make gospel-preaching my idol.
Or a minister can make the size and health of his church his idol – it becomes the reason for his existence. Or I can make my wife an idol. She is a wonderful, godly, and loving wife – but if I run to her for my sense of security and try to find all my happiness in her, I will be disappointed when I can no longer receive from her what I want. So anything – good or bad – can be an idol. An idol is often a good thing that’s assumed a wrongful place in our lives.
What kind of changes should we expect in people’s lives through effective preaching?
Well we need to be aiming for heart change. We’re not just looking for superficial, surface change. When you raise children, you can raise them to have nice manners. But that’s not enough. Children can be polite and well mannered but still have rebellious and wayward hearts. What parents really want are children whose inward attitudes match their behaviour. And it’s the same with preachers. What we really want to see in people is change that begins with repentance. We want to see conviction of sin, a turning from godlessness and an earnest seeking of God’s grace.
Today, I think many preachers have their sights set too low. Their sermons are really designed to pander to our desire for success rather than our need for repentance and renewal. This is one of the reasons why “how-to” sermons are so popular today. People have a great appetite for preaching that tells us how to have better marriages, higher self-esteem, improved finances and the like because we all desperately want to know how to make life better.
But when you deal with people at that level, you’re just touching the surface of their lives. For genuine and long-lasting change to take place people’s heart attitudes need to be transformed by the gospel.
Does the life of the preacher affect his capacity to apply the gospel?
Yes, it certainly does. The minister himself is the conduit through which God’s message passes. And it’s not just his words that convey the message; his whole life is to bear testimony to it. So when we preach to others we must first press that truth on our own hearts. We must preach to ourselves first before we presume to preach to others. And to make good applications we must know our own hearts very well. In fact, we’ll discover in our own hearts many of the issues we need to be preaching to in others.
This actually means that preaching is very personal. It explains why a certain text preached by five different preachers can be the same truth, but expressed quite differently. The same truth is coming through different people, different experiences, and different filters. That’s not wrong; it’s exactly how preaching is meant to be.
Peter Hastie is the principal of the Presbyterian Theological College of Victoria.
First Published Autumn 2015 Edition