Crossway’s blog has a provocative article by David Mathis, who argues that practical application can sometimes be a red herring that distracts us from careful Bible study.
So then, is it right to think of “application” as an everyday means of God’s grace? Is this a spiritual discipline to be pursued with every Bible encounter? The answer is yes and no, depending on what we mean by application.
Good teachers have claimed that every encounter with God’s Word should include at least one specific application to our lives—some particular addition, however small, to our daily to-do list. There is a wise intention in this: pressing ourselves not just to be hearers of God’s Word, but doers. But such a simplistic approach to application overlooks the more complex nature of the Christian life—and how true and lasting change happens in a less straightforward way than we may be prone to think.
Mathis goes on to argue that Bible study doesn’t always produce specific additions to our daily to-do list. Often, it should produce astonishment at who God is, and worship. Such astonishment and worship change us on the inside. And we will see specific change on the outside after only long periods of reflective astonishment.
Mathis makes some important points, and I don’t disagree with him. However, terminology can trip us up. Mathis argues against daily “application,” which he considers a red herring, but he narrowly defines “application” to include only detailed behavioral changes. He offers the substitute of astonishment and worship as a better daily practice.
But in the process he almost replaces one kind of application (hands) for another (heart). He argues against overly ethical application (too much focus on the hands), but seems to suggest an overly pietistic application (too much focus on the heart). I humbly suggest both approaches are imbalanced; we should regularly do both. In addition, let’s not forget also to apply the Bible to our heads. Remember the application matrix, which enables us to stretch our application into every category.
So I’m happy to recommend Mathis’s article to you. But when he writes of “the red herring of Bible application,” hear him describing, not application itself, but “the problem with focusing exclusively on hands application.” Don’t ever remove “application” (hands, head, and heart) from your Bible study. And with this clarification, the article is right on target.