Matthew Harmon


Matthew Harmon

Since 2006 Dr. Matthew S. Harmon has served as Professor of New Testament Studies at Grace College and Grace Theological Seminary in Winona Lake, Indiana. He is also a member of Christ’s Covenant Church, where he serves on the Preaching Team, leads a small group, and teaches regularly in their Life Education classes.

Find out more at his blog, Biblical Theology, which is a forum for all matters pertaining to biblical theology (and some entirely unrelated).

Follow him on Twitter: @DocHarmon

Application: Pressing the Text upon the Heart (Part 7)

In our last post we spoke of the different aspects of application. Now we move on to consider the different levels of application. While this topic is more relevant to those who preach and teach or lead Bible studies, there is value in it for every believer. In what follows, I am largely adapting what Mark Dever has done....

Our tendency, especially in the West, is to think of application in very personal terms. And in a sense, that is truly where we should begin, since our first responsibility before God when reading his Word is to respond ourselves. But application is much broader than that. There are many levels to application that we should think through:

  • Non-Christian: How does the passage speak to the unbeliever? How does it call him/her to repentance and faith? How does it warn, rebuke, correct, prod the unbeliever? What does it say about the danger of the unbeliever's situation, the exclusivity of Christ, the sinner's need for a Savior, or the sufficiency of that Savior as a substitute for the sinner?
  • Public: What does the passage say about our lives and roles in the public sphere, both as Christians and non-Christians (e.g., government and/or our neighborhood)?
  • Christian: What is the significance of the passage for the individual Christian? How does it call him/her to deeper repentance and faith? How does it warn, rebuke, correct, motivate, comfort or encourage the Christian?
  • Local Church: What is the significance of the passage for the corporate life of our local church? How does it call the local corporate body to tend to its corporate life together and corporate witness to the unbelieving community around it?

So let's look at Philippians 1:27-30 and work through each of these levels:

Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, 28 and not frightened in anything by your opponents. This is a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God. 29 For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake, 30 engaged in the same conflict that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.

And now for each level I'll suggest some possible application:


  • Non-Christian: (1) Since faith is a gift from God, this passage calls the unbeliever to ask God to overcome his/her doubts and give him/her the necessary faith to be saved. (2) Persisting in persecution of God's people will ultimately result in his/her eternal destruction.
  • Public: (1) Persecution of Christians is evidence of a culture that is hostile to God and in danger of God's judgment. (2) Because Christians are citizens of God's kingdom, their final loyalty will be to God and not the state.
  • Christian: (1) Because suffering is a gift from God it should be embraced as an opportunity for growth rather than avoided at all costs. (2) The gospel of Christ is the measuring stick by which our entire lives are to be evaluated.
  • Local Church: (1) Because persecution is to be expected, we as a congregation should be preparing our people to suffer through preaching, teaching, etc. (2) Because unity is so important to standing firm in the faith, we as a congregation must pursue unity in the gospel.

These are just a few of the possible lines of application for each of the levels. But they should be enough to give you a sense of what I mean by different levels of application.

In our next post, we will address the different orders of application.


Application: Pressing the Text upon the Heart (Part 6)

Today we will discuss what I refer to as the four aspects of application. These aspects should be kept in mind both for our own personal application of Scripture as well as attempting to make application when you are teaching or preaching.

For most people, when we think of the area of application, our thoughts turn to asking the question, "What does the next tell me to do?" This can be true for pastors as well, who feel the compulsion to end every sermon with two or three tangible action points that the congregants can do that week. Imagine that a pastor is creative enough to come up with three new action points each week. If he preaches 50 times in a year, the congregation has walked away with 150 things to do over the course of a year. In such a situation is it any wonder that Christians become legalists?

The answer to this problem is to take into account all four aspects of application:

  1. Think: What does the text want me to think? What false beliefs does the text correct? Remember that central to what God does in us as believers is transform us by the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:1-2). Since we are called to take every though captive to Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5), it is essential that we allow God to change our understanding of who he is and the world around us.
  2. Believe: What does the text want me to believe? What false beliefs does the text correct? It is one thing to understand something, another to put your trust/faith in it. If we are going to take seriously that "faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ" (Romans 10:17), then we must move from simple comprehension to trust in / reliance upon the truth of what God's Word says.
  3. Feel: What does the text want me to feel? What sinful emotions does the text correct? While it is fashionable for people to say that no one has the right to tell them how to feel, God has absolutely no qualms about telling exactly how we should feel. The Psalms are filled with commands to rejoice, while the prophets often tell people to weep over their sin.
  4. Do: What does the text want me to do? What sinful actions does this text correct? While we do not want our application to consist solely of doing, that does not mean we ignore the many places where Scripture specifically tells us to do things like pray, speak the truth in love, forgive one another, etc.

Let's take an example to flesh this out. Here is Philippians 4:4-9 (ESV)

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. 5 Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; 6 do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. 8 Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. 9 What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me--practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.

So in light of this text, let's walk through each of the different aspects.

Think:


  • The Lord is near (both in that he is present with us no matter where we are and in the sense that Christ's return is imminent). 
  • The peace of God transcends my ability to completely understand it.
  • I must fill my mind with things that are true, honorable, etc.

Believe:


  • I must believe that Lord is near even when he does not feel near to me
  • I must trust the God's peace is capable of protecting my heart and mind from anxiety no matter what my circumstances
  • I must believe that things I have learned and received and heard and see in God's Word are sufficient for my growth in godliness.

Feel:


  • I must rejoice in the Lord and not find my joy in the things of this world.
  • I must not be anxious because God is the God of peace

Do:


  • I must let my "reasonableness" be know to all people, not just those who are easy to along with.
  • I must let my requests be made known to God through an active prayer life
  • I must practice the things I have learned and received and heard and seen in Paul and other godly examples.

While this is far from an exhaustive list, it should be enough to give you an idea. The important thing is to recognize that application is a much broader concept than simply "do this."

In our next post, we will look what I refer to as the different levels of application.


Application: Pressing the Text upon the Heart (Part 5)

Although I had mentioned in the previous post that I would deal with the different aspects of application next, upon further reflection I have decided instead to address the issue of personal application. In my last post, I walked through several fallen conditions and their corresponding gospel solutions. But if you read closely, you will see that the fallen conditions are expressed in general terms. This was intentional, since my goal is to identify different aspects of our "fallenness" that the text identifies as universal. But now my goal is to articulate how each of these fallen conditions specifically manifests itself in my own life. It is at this point that the process of application moves from general to specific, since a fallen condition may manifest itself differently in my life than it does in yours.

Let's take the example of the parable of the Rich Fool in Luke 12:13-21. In the midst of this parable, Jesus warns his listeners:

Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions. (Luke 12:15)

So a pretty obvious fallen condition would look something like this:

We seek to find life/joy/fulfillment/contentment in the abundance of our possessions

But this fallen condition can show up in a variety of ways. For example:


  1. For the person who is wealthy, it may reveal itself in the sense of pride and arrogance that believes all that they have is the product of their own hard work and has nothing to do with God's common grace.
  2. For the person who is poor, it may reveal itself in the constant preoccupation with acquiring more money/possessions, believing that if only they had a little more wealth it would solve the vast majority of their problems.
  3. Regardless of a person's wealth, it may reveal itself in working long hours at the expense of time with family, believing that life is found in providing a certain standard of living for his family.
  4. It may reveal itself in a person who turns to shopping or buying things to deal with the difficulties or frustrations of life, believing that buying one more thing will bring them the joy they are seeking.
  5. It may reveal itself in a person who is stingy and refuses to give generously, fearing that if too much is given away the desired lifestyle will not be attainable.
  6. In the person who is retired, it may show itself in an attitude that views the retirement years as an entitlement to be lazy or selfish in how time and resources are spent. After all, because of his years of hard work he is now entitled to spend his time and energy on whatever he wants.

Hopefully that gives you a sense of what I mean when I say that the fallen condition identified in a passage can reveal itself in different ways depending on a person's circumstances, personality, upbringing, culture, etc. Because I am not a wealthy person, it could be quite easy to read Luke 12:13-21 and think, "Since I am not wealthy, this passage really has nothing or very little to say." But when I realize that the fallen condition is a disease that has a variety of symptoms depending on the person, I am reminded to ask diagnostic questions that reveal the presence of the disease.

The recognition that the fallen condition reveals itself differently in different people is also an important bridge to applying the text to others when you teach or preach. If you were preaching or teaching Luke 12:13-21, it would be tempting for the people in your group/audience who do not view themselves as rich to "check out" because they think the passage has nothing to say to them. But when you help people to see the fallen condition and its various symptoms, it becomes much more difficult for anyone in the group/audience to think, "This passage has nothing to say to me."

As a final note on this subject, the more specific you can be, the more clearly you and the people you lead will be able to see the fallen condition at work. Try to give specific examples that reveal the presence of the fallen condition so that when people recognize their own thoughts, attitudes and actions in what you are describing, they will realize that they think, feel or act that way because they are infected with the fallen condition you have identified. The more specific you are in identifying the fallen condition, the more precision you will have in applying the gospel solution. The better you know the specific people you are leading as well as the larger cultural influences that feed the fallen condition you have identified, the better you will be able to speak God's Word into their lives. A friend of mine once referred to this as "reading people's mail." In other words, when you identify the fallen condition and how it shows up in a person's life, you want them to have that moment where they think, "That's totally how I think/feel/act." Once a person is to that point, the gospel solution will seem especially sweet.

Lord willing, next week, we will move to the different aspects of application.


Application: Pressing the Text upon the Heart (Part 4)

In our last post, we looked at identifying the fallen condition. Now we turn our attention to identifying what I will refer to as the gospel solution. By gospel solution, I mean:

the aspect(s) of the Gospel (i.e., the work of Jesus Christ) that are revealed (either explicitly or implicitly) in the text (the passage itself or the larger context) that provide the solution to the fallen condition

In other words, what we are trying to do is apply the benefits of the gospel to the specific fallen conditions that the text has identified. By the power of the Holy Spirit we seek to determine the specific aspects of the work of Christ that overcome the area(s) of sin we have identified. Note that sometimes the gospel solution is not found in the passage itself, but in the larger context of the book or even the canon.

So continuing with our previous post, let's look again at 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. 14 For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. 15 For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. 18 Therefore encourage one another with these words.

Here are the Fallen Conditions that I identified from the passage, but now I have included a corresponding gospel solution:


  • Fallen Condition 1: Our ignorance about what happens to fellow believers when they die leads to sinful grief.
  • Gospel Solution 1: The gospel teaches us that God will gather all of his people to himself when Christ returns.
  • Fallen Condition 2: When we lose sight of the hope that we as believers have in Christ, we grieve as those who have no hope (i.e., we grieve like unbelievers who have no hope).
  • Gospel Solution 2: Because Jesus has conquered death through his resurrection, we who are joined with him by faith have the hope of sharing in his resurrection. Therefore, even in our grief we have an unshakable hope that death does not have the final word.
  • Fallen Condition 3: Our grief when responding to death reveals that deep down we recognize that things are not the way they are supposed to be.
  • Gospel Solution 3: Through his death and resurrection, Jesus has inaugurated the new creation, which will culminate one day in a new heaven and new earth where there will no longer be any curse or death.
  • Fallen Condition 4: We become discouraged when we contemplate the delay in Christ's return.
  • Gospel Solution 4: Because God was faithful to his promises in sending his Son in the fullness of time to pay for our sin during his first coming, we can be confident that God will once again send his Son back to consummate his purposes for his people.
  • Fallen Condition 5: We live our lives with little or no thought of the imminence of Christ's return.
  • Gospel Solution 5: When we behold the beauty of Christ our longing for his return will grow and begin to shape how we live.

Hopefully that is enough of a taste to give you an idea of how this works. But essential to this process is a growing grasp of the gospel in all its richness. There is no substitute for reading and reflecting on Scripture itself. But a wonderful tool that will help you to do this is the book... A Gospel Primer for Christians: Learning to See the Glories of God's Love by Milton Vincent. Vincent does a wonderful job of not only summarizing different aspects of the gospel, but also explaining how those different aspects have practical, everyday life implications for the way that we think, feel, speak and act.

In our next post, we will look at what I refer to as the four aspects of application.


Application: Pressing the Text upon the Heart (Part 3)

Two of the most important things that Scripture does are show us who God is and show us who we as human beings are. This is simply another way of getting at what John Calvin wrote long ago:

Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid Wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. (Institutes 1.1.1)

In my previous post, I focused on the transforming power of seeing Christ as he is revealed in Scripture. Today we will look at seeing our fallenness in the pages of Scripture. The term we will use is "fallen condition," which Bryan Chapell defines this way:

The Fallen Condition Focus (FCF) is the mutual human condition that contemporary believers share with those to or about whom the text was written that requires the grace of the passage for God's people to glorify and enjoy him (Chapell, Christ-Centered Preaching, 90).

As a means of expanding on this concept here are some questions I have found helpful in prompting my own thinking: (1) What sinful tendencies, habits, thoughts, patterns of behavior, feelings, beliefs are explicitly stated in the text or reasonably implied by the text? (2) What evidence of the effects of the Fall are explicitly stated in the text or reasonably implied by the text that need the redemptive work of God? (3) What God-given human longings that are warped by sin are explicitly stated in the text or reasonably implied by the text that need the redemptive work of God?

In most cases a passage has multiple fallen conditions. Let's take as an example 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. 14 For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. 15 For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. 18 Therefore encourage one another with these words.

Here are just a few of the possible Fallen Conditions that emerge from this passage:


  • Our ignorance about what happens to fellow believers when they die leads to sinful grief
  • When we lose sight of the hope that we as believers have in Christ, we grieve as those who have no hope (i.e. we grieve like unbelievers who have no hope)
  • Our grief when responding to death reveals that deep down we recognize that things are not the way they are supposed to be
  • We become discouraged when we contemplate the delay in Christ's return
  • We live our lives with little or no thought of the imminence of Christ's return

Notice, by the way, that some fallen conditions are not inherently sinful. For example, this text is not saying that it is sinful to grieve at someone's death. Jesus himself wept at the tomb of Lazarus, even though he knew he would raise him from the dead in a matter of minutes (John 11:35). The point here in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 is that grieving as if we have no hope is sinful.

At this point, I then want to ask myself how I personally see these different Fallen Conditions manifest themselves in my life:

  • It is only when someone I know dies that I am reminded that death is an intruder into God's creation
  • Because it has now been almost 2,000 years since Christ promised to return, I can be discouraged into thinking Christ's return will not happen in my lifetime
  • Because my life is usually so comfortable here in this fallen world, I find it easy to go significant periods of time without thinking about the return of Christ.

Notice that I have tried to be specific rather than general. The more specific you are able to be, the more targeted you can be in addressing the fallen condition with the gospel.

In our next post, I will consider how to apply the gospel to the fallen conditions that we discover in the text and see at work in our lives.


Application: Pressing the Text upon the Heart (Part 2)

Today's post deals with a fundamental biblical truth that is essential for application. That truth can be summarized as follows:

We resemble what we worship, whether for ruin or restoration.

Think about it for a minute. Every kid growing up imitates someone they look up to. My kids love sports, so I constantly hear them say things like "Rondo goes behind the back, lays it up and in! What a shot by Rondo!" or "Pryor, sidesteps the rush, throws downfield to Posey, TOUCHDOWN!" The impulse to imitate does not stop once we reach adulthood. Have you ever noticed we tend to speak and act like the people we admire? People spend large sums of money to even dress like those whom they admire.

The reason for this pattern is that God has made us this way. By creating Adam and Eve in his image, God intended mankind to reflect his character in thought, word and deed (Genesis 1:26-31). By beholding God in submissive worship they would reflect his glory. But when Adam and Eve rebelled against God, they usurped the rightful place of God as the sovereign King and placed themselves at the center of the universe (Genesis 3). In other words, they committed idolatry (cp. Romans 1:21-23). This act of rebellion, however, did not change the fact that man resembles what we worship. Notice, for example, what Psalms 115:3-8 (ESV) says:

Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases. 4 Their idols are silver and gold, the work of human hands. 5 They have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see. 6 They have ears, but do not hear; noses, but do not smell. 7 They have hands, but do not feel; feet, but do not walk; and they do not make a sound in their throat. 8 Those who make them become like them; so do all who trust in them.

The psalmist warns against the worship of idols because inevitably those who worship them become like them. Because idols are spiritually blind, deaf and dumb, so those who worship them become spiritually blind, deaf and dumb. (See additionally passages like Psalms 135:15-18;Isaiah 6; Isaiah 44:1-20).

But there is a flipside to this reality. As we worship the one true God in Jesus Christ, we become like him. Although there are many texts that point in this direction, we will focus on just two. The first is 2 Corinthians 3:18 (ESV):

And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.

Notice the progression. We as believers behold the glory of God himself in the face of Jesus Christ (see 2 Corinthians 4:6), and as we behold that glory we are transformed so that we more fully reflect the very glory of Christ himself. The apostle John says something very similar in 1 John 3:2-3 (ESV):

Beloved, we are God's children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. 3 And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.

Notice the progression here. When Christ appears, we as his people will be like him, because we will see him as he truly he is. In other words, the vision of Christ is what will complete the transformation to complete Christlikeness. In light of this eschatological hope, in the present believers purify themselves just as Jesus is pure.

Thus at the heart of application is the fundamental truth that we resemble what we worship. As a result, application is first and foremost a reorientation of our whole lives to Christ, a commitment to see him for all his beauty and experience the transformation that comes from seeing his glory. It is not first and foremost a list of things to do or not do.

In the next post we will look at the necessity of recognizing "fallen condition" in the biblical text and identifying how that fallen condition shows up in our own lives.

POSTCRIPT: I wanted to point out two books that have been very helpful in my own thinking on this particular subject. While at Wheaton I had the privilege of learning from G.K. Beale, whose work in the area of the use of the OT in the NT is superb. As part of my Ph.D. program I was first exposed to this concept that we resemble what we worship. In fact, the wording of the quote at the beginning of this post is taken straight from him. A couple of years after I finished my degree at Wheaton, Beale published the book... entitled We Become What We Worship: A Biblical Theology of Worship. In this book, Beale walks through in extensive detail this biblical-theological thread from Genesis to Revelation and all points in between. To make this case Beale does detailed work in the Hebrew Old Testament, Greek Septuagint, Second Temple Jewish literature and the Greek New Testament. As a result, it is not something that is easily readable, although those who make the effort are richly rewarded with a firm biblical foundation.

For those who want a much more accessible and readable book that deals with this same subject, the place to look is the book by Tim Keller entitled Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope That Matters. As the title makes clear, Keller singles out three particular forms of idolatry that are prevalent in our culture. With his characteristically clear and engaging writing style, Keller sheds light on how these forms of idolatry surface in our lives and offers Christ as the one who will truly satisfy. This is a book that I would not hesitate to hand to just about anybody, even those who are not naturally drawn to reading.


What is Biblical Theology?

Such a question at first might seem obvious—theology derived from, or based on, the Bible. But unfortunately it’s not that simple, because the term Biblical Theology has come to take on a specialized meaning. Perhaps the best way to explain what is meant by biblical theology is to define it along with other “types” of theology:

Systematic Theology—the attempt to organize the teaching of the Bible under various headings such as theology proper (what the Bible teaches about God and his character), anthropology (what the Bible teaches about human beings), soteriology (what the Bible teaches about salvation), Christology (what the Bible teaches about Christ), etc. Examples of this approach would include: The Institutes by John Calvin; Systematic Theology (3 vols.) by Charles Hodge; Systematic Theology by Wayne Grudem. In the past this was sometimes also referred to as Dogmatic Theology.

Historical Theology—the attempt to trace the development of specific doctrines (e.g., the Trinity) throughout the history of the church. Attention is paid to heretical views that forced the church to sharpen and refine her formulation of doctrine. An example of this approach would be Historical Theology (2 vols.) by William Cunningham.

Pastoral Theology—the attempt to relate Christian doctrine to specific life situations in the church (e.g., sickness, suffering, interaction with the culture). Attention is paid to how Christian doctrine is to be lived out within the church and the culture.

Biblical Theology—the attempt “to explore the unity of the Bible, delving into the contents of the books, showing the links between them, and pointing up the ongoing flow of the revelatory and redemptive process that reached its climax in Jesus Christ” (J.I. Packer, “Foreword” in The Unfolding Mystery by Edmund Clowney, p. 8). Attention is paid to the “storyline” of Scripture and prominent themes across the Bible usually with an attempt to relate them to gospel and/or Christ.

While I certainly believe all of these approaches are important, it is my conviction that biblical theology provides the basis for systematic, historical, and pastoral theology. So, on this blog the focus will be on biblical theology, but given the interlocking nature of biblical theology with the other disciplines, we will often delve into these other areas as well.


Since 2006 Dr. Matthew S. Harmon has served as Professor of New Testament Studies at Grace College and Grace Theological Seminary in Winona Lake, Indiana. Find out more at his blog, Biblical Theology, which is a forum for all matters pertaining to biblical theology (and some entirely unrelated).


What Does It Mean to be a Citizen of God’s Kingdom?

One thing you realize very quickly when you travel internationally is the value and importance of a passport. As you enter and leave a country you need to be able to show that passport, or you aren’t going anywhere. That passport is tangible proof of your citizenship, the place you call home. Indeed, in the past it was even common to refer to the country you were from as your homeland.

When we talk about citizenship, we are at some level also talking about our identity. Our citizenship plays a role in shaping who we are, what we value, what is important to us, and how we live. Since as believers we are citizens of God’s kingdom, that reality should shape the way that we we live as sojourners and exiles in this world.

What does it mean to live as a citizen of God’s kingdom? What is it that governs our lives as citizens of God’s kingdom?

This past Sunday I had the privilege of answering these questions as I preached on Philippians 1:27–30. You can find the audio here, and read even more about it in my Philippians commentary.


Dr. Matthew S. Harmon has served as Professor of New Testament Studies at Grace College and Grace Theological Seminary.


Application: Pressing The Text Upon the Heart (Part 1)

Application should be the ultimate goal of studying the Bible. Howard Hendricks is correct when he claims "Interpretation without application is spiritual abortion." The goal of application is life transformation--becoming progressively more conformed to the image of Christ. Yet despite this, most believers receive very little instruction on how to apply Scripture to their lives. The assumption seems to be that we will somehow just "pick it up along the way" as we grow spiritually.

In light of this, I have decided to write a series of posts on application. Today's post will attempt to briefly sketch a basic theological framework for application. Our starting point is a familiar text:

Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. (Philippians 2:12-13)

Paul commands us to work out our own salvation, while at the same time emphasizing that it is God who is at work in us for his good pleasure. Thus application is the work of God and it is the work of the believer. So as a starting point let's look at each of these.

God's Work. Not surprisingly, all three persons of the Trinity are involved in the work of application. According to 1 Peter 1:14-17, it is the Father who calls his children to be holy as he is holy. Paul makes a similar point in Romans 8:29, when he asserts that the Father "predestined [us] to be conformed to the image of his Son." Thus the Son is the ultimate pattern of God's work in our lives. Of course, it also the Son's work on the cross that makes conformity to him even possible, as our union with him enables us to share in his death and resurrection (Romans 6:1-11). The Spirit is the one who applies the benefits of Christ's work to us, and this is true in application as well. He is the one who enables believers to put to death the deeds of the body (Romans 8:13).

The Work of the Believer. Growth in holiness does not come by waiting for God to zap us. As a starting point we can begin with Paul's paradigmatic claim in Romans 10:17 that "faith comes by hearing and hearing through the word of Christ." We are responsible to believe the good news about Jesus Christ and his work on our behalf. All proper application flows out of the gospel. Thus it is imperative that we expose ourselves to the word of God and believe what it says. It is also crucial that we pray for God to do his work in our lives; without prayer our efforts to apply Scripture quickly devolve into self-effort that is rooted in self-righteousness. We must also prioritize the role that other believers play in our lives to assist us in application. Other believers identify our blind spots and confront and/or encourage us when necessary. As we live in fellowship with other believers we are able to grow together in godliness.

Much more could be said, but this is a sufficient foundation for us to build upon. The next post will deal with what I regard as the single most important principle of application.


Idolatry in Christian Ministry

In my continuing study of Philippians, I have been working my way through Markus Bockmuehl’s The Epistle to the Philippians in the Black’s New Testament Commentary. In speaking about some of his Christian brothers in Rome who were preaching Christ more boldly because of Paul’s imprisonment, Paul writes in Philippians 1:17:

“the former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition rather than from pure motives, thinking to cause me distress in my imprisonment.” (NASB)

Sometimes one finds a one-liner that captures the essence of what the biblical text says. I found that statement in Bockmuehl’s commentary when he writes:

“The robe of ‘Christian ministry’ cloaks many a shameless idolatry” (p. 80).

In this concise one-liner Bockmuehl identifies one of the most acceptable forms of idolatry in evangelicalism: ministry. In the name of serving the Lord far too many pastors, missionaries, professors, and lay people are, in fact, furthering their own agendas for personal fulfillment and success. In a word, that is idolatry. It is placing ministry ahead of God himself, and it is so dangerous because on the outside it looks good.

Here in the context of Philippians 1:12-26 Paul provides the necessary corrective: to have as our highest aim the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ. So the question for each of us involved in ministry is this: do you care who gets the credit? Are you fine with others being recognized for their faithful gospel ministry while your own proclaiming of Christ remains under appreciated or recognized? What happens in your heart when someone else receives credit for something YOU did? Can you be content with rejoicing in the progress of the gospel rather than nursing resentment that you did not receive the recognition?

May we take seriously the admonition with which John closes his first letter:

Little children, guard yourselves from idols. (1 John 5:21)


Dr. Matthew S. Harmon has served as Professor of New Testament Studies at Grace College and Grace Theological Seminary.


Who is the Worst Sinner You Know?

Paul never lost the wonder of the gospel of God’s grace to him. Even after 30+ years of walking with Christ and serving as the lead apostle among the Gentiles, he remained blown away by the fact that God had saved him. In 1 Timothy 1:12-17, Paul recounts his testimony of how the grace of God transformed his life. Before Christ stopped him on the road to Damascus he “was formerly a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent aggressor” (1:13). But the grace of God was more than sufficient to save him, since “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1:15).

At this point Paul makes a surprising statement. We might expect Paul to continue his thought by saying “among whom I WAS the foremost.” Given his life before Christ, who could argue? He was a persecutor of the church and a blasphemer! But instead Paul says “among whom I AM the foremost” (1:15). In other words, Paul thinks of himself currently as the “foremost of sinners.” It is not merely a description of his former life, but a statement of his current experience.

So how could Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, think of himself as the foremost of sinners after 30+ years of walking with Christ? I believe the answer rests in his self-understanding and his God-understanding. Paul knew the mixture of his motives, the impurity of his desires, the extent of his failure to love the Lord his God with all his heart, soul, mind and strength. As he grew in his understanding of God he progressively saw the depths of his sin in ways he never appreciated. Combined with his growing understanding of the perfections of God in Christ his sin became increasingly odious to him.

Who came to mind when you saw the title of this post? Did you think of a mass murderer? A child molestor? Osama bin Laden? Hitler? I am becoming convinced that the biblical answer to that question for every single person is “me.” Sure, I haven’t committed the outward acts that would lead others to call me the worst sinner they know. But when we recall Jesus’ exposition of the Law in Matthew 5–6, I reach a different conclusion. I am guilty in my heart of the very sins that Jesus describes. Even my best actions are tainted by sinful motivations, many of which I do not even fully recognize or appreciate.

I am convinced that one of the marks of growth in holiness is paradoxically a growing awareness of the depth and extent of our sinfulness. As the Spirit continues his work in our lives, he exposes the idolatry in our lives in all its various forms. But he does this to cause us to abandon those idols and instead cling to Christ. And that is why we need to preach the gospel to ourselves daily.

So, who is the worst sinner you know?


Dr. Matthew S. Harmon has served as Professor of New Testament Studies at Grace College and Grace Theological Seminary.


Expository Preaching Part 2 – Content

In my first post I defined expository preaching as preaching in which the content, intent, and structure of the passage determines the content, intent, and structure of the message. Today I want to focus on the “content” portion of that definition.

In contrast to topical preaching (which chooses a topic or subject and then collects various texts that deal with that topic), expository preaching chooses one passage of Scripture as the foundation of the message. The length of the passage can vary significantly, from a single verse to an entire book of the Bible. But the defining characteristic in view here is that the content of the passage determines what the preacher preaches. If the passage deals with the deity of Christ, the preacher preaches on the deity of Christ. If it deals with caring for widows, he preaches on caring for widows. You get the picture.

But expository preaching is more than merely making sure that some of the topics present in the passage are present in your message. Good expository preaching seeks to determine the central thrust of the passage and make that the central thrust of the message. Different preachers refer to this with different terms such as the big idea, the proposition, or the burden of the sermon. In determining the central thrust of the passage, you are making the claim that everything in the passage in some way relates to it. In the same way, everything in the message should in some way relate to the central thrust of the passage.

Determining the central thrust of the passage enables the preacher to know what to emphasize in his message. In a passage of any significant length, any number of elements might catch the preacher’s eye and lead him down a rabbit trail. But the central thrust helps to rein in the preacher and prevent him from simply selecting the elements of a passage that are most interesting to him. It also provides a helpful filter for determining what stays in the sermon and what is left on the cutting room floor.

In the next installment in this series, I’ll discuss the “intent” portion of my definition.