Application: The Key to Transformational Communication

Application: The Key to Transformational Communication
by Tony Cooke

tony cooke communicationAt one time, there were two great orators in ancient Greece: Cicero and Demosthenes. It is said that when Cicero finished a speech, people would say, “He speaks so well.” However, when Demosthenes had concluded an oration, the people would say, “Let us march!

One of these men spoke beautifully and listeners were impressed with his oratorical skills. The other moved men to take action.

When we deliver biblical truths, are we simply sharing content (information), or are we helping people take action, enabling them to make wise application of the communicated truths? When we listen to or read Scripture, are we merely gathering facts, or are we looking for wisdom and direction on how to act?

Perhaps this distinction is why Booker T. Washington said, “An ounce of application is worth a ton of abstraction.” Winston Churchill expressed the significance of application when he said, "It is always more easy to discover and proclaim general principles than it is to apply them." More recently, it has been noted that the most important part of “doctrine” are the first two letters: “do.”

In his outstanding book (The Seven Laws of the Learner), Bruce Wilkinson devotes an entire chapter to “The Law of Application.” In it, he states: “…a biblical mindset for the Christian teacher is to teach not merely the content but the application of that content. Content relates to fact, information, and material. Application relates to wisdom, transformation, and maturity. Content is the ‘what’ and application is the ‘so what.’ Content is typically what is discussed during class and application is primarily what is done as a result of class. Content centers around ‘knowing’ and application around ‘being’ and ‘doing.’”

If we are to excel as biblical communicators, we need to be mindful of how people might be inclined to apply what we say. We can’t simply adopt the attitude, “My only responsibility is to deliver the information; then it’s up to the audience to decide how to apply it.” Great communicators speak with a view toward application.

For example, the first three chapters of Ephesians is predominantly all content, theological information, or “positional truth” as some have called it. In Ephesians 1-3 we find such truths as:

• We are blessed with every spiritual blessing in heavenly places.
• He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world.
• He made us accepted in the Beloved.
• In Him, we have redemption through His blood.
• In Him, we have obtained an inheritance.
• We have been made to sit in heavenly places in Christ Jesus.
• We were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise, etc.

But Paul doesn’t stop there. In the next three chapters (Ephesians 4-6), we find out how we are to live in the light of the truths he just presented. Believers are to:

• Walk worthy of their calling.
• Maintain unity amongst themselves.
• Quit lying.
• Quit stealing.
• Be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another.
• Walk in love.
• Not let fornication, uncleanness, or covetous be named among them.
• Be properly related to one another (husband-wife, parent-child, employer-employee), etc.

In his introduction to the book of Ephesians in the Message Bible, Eugene Peterson eloquently writes, “What we know about God and what we do for God have a way of being broken apart in our lives. The moment the organic unity of belief and behavior is damaged in any way, we are incapable of living out the full humanity for which we were created. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians joins together what has been torn apart in our sin-wrecked world. He begins with an exuberant exploration of what Christians believe about God, and then, like a surgeon skillfully setting a compound fracture, ‘sets’ this belief in God into our behavior before God so that the bones – belief and behavior – knit together and heal.”

Responsible biblical ministry not only communicates the spiritual truths of who we are and what we have in Christ, but also provides guidance and direction as to healthy and appropriate application of those truths. It would be wrong to tell people, “If you quit lying and stealing, God will love you.” But it’s not wrong to tell people, “Because God has accepted you through His mercy and His unconditional love, there are ways to appropriately express your relationship with Him, and these include not lying, not stealing, not fornicating, etc.” That’s what Paul did. He covered both sides of the issue: content and application (or as Peterson described it, belief and behavior).

On occasion, Paul recognized that the information (content) he shared was being misapplied. Paul did not take the attitude, “Oh well, I put the truth out there. If people are misapplying it, that’s their problem.” No, Paul went to great lengths to make sure that people not only understood the content, but that they were applying it correctly.

Three specific examples come to mind:

  1. Paul had communicated with believers in Thessalonica about the return of Jesus. Some of those disciples not only believed Paul’s statements, but, because they thought Jesus’ coming would be immediate, actually quit their jobs and became busy-bodies. In a follow-up letter, Paul maintained the belief that Jesus would return, but promoted appropriate behavior (application) relative to that belief. He told them that if people were unwilling to work, they should not eat, and commanded them to “work in quietness and eat their own bread” (2 Thessalonians 3:10, 12).
  2. Paul had addressed the Corinthians about avoiding immoral associations, but some of the people apparently were taking his statements too far and were completely disassociating from all of society. In 1 Corinthians 5:10-11, he clarified what he meant and what he did not mean: “Yet I certainly did not mean with the sexually immoral people of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I have written to you not to keep company with anyone named a brother, who is sexually immoral, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or an extortioner – not to even eat with such a person.”
  3. Paul taught extensively that salvation is a gift based on God’s grace, and that God’s acceptance is not based on our works or our perfection. He taught that no matter how great our sin is, that God’s grace is greater. Some individuals twisted Paul’s teaching to mean that how they lived was of no consequence, and that we can even increase God’s grace in our lives by sinning more! Paul was aghast and angry that people would make such a perverted application of his teaching, and he set the record straight.In Romans 3:8 (NLT), he said, “And some people even slander us by claiming that we say,‘The more we sin, the better it is!’ Those who say such things deserve to be condemned.” In Romans 6:1-2, he picks up the same line of clarification and defense when he says: “What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? Certainly not! How shall we who died to sin live any longer in it?

These examples all illustrate that it wasn’t just content that was important to Paul; how people applied truth was equally crucial. When we read Scripture or listen to messages, we need to be diligent to seek healthy and appropriate application of what we hear. In other words, we need to ask what we should do with this information that would be right and pleasing to God.

When we speak, we need to be diligent to not just give people information, but give examples and illustrations of what the principles will look like when they are properly acted upon. Remember, it’s the doer, not the hearer, who will be blessed (James 1:25).