What is Christian doctrine?And do words such as eschatology, sanctification, and atonement really have anything to do with our everyday, going-to-class, working, hanging-out-with-friends lives?
Christian doctrines begin as interpretations of the Bible. Throughout the history of the church, Christians have preserved what they believe the Bible teaches. They form doctrines so that they may remember what other Christians have historically believed about God, humanity, and God’s mission in this world.
These days it’s no less important than in ages past for us to understand Christian doctrine. So we’re offering you brief monthly posts about what Christians have historically believed are the core teachings of the Bible. We hope you find that these historic teachings not only broaden your understanding of Christianity but also deepen your love of God.
Have you ever wondered, “How do I make this textbook information relevant to my daily life?” When reading the Bible, you can make a biblical text relevant through the practice of application.
In the Gospel of Luke, a Judean lawyer, attempting to justify his legalistic morality, asks Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” (see Luke 10:25-37). Jesus replies by telling a story about the victim of a mugging who is helped by only one passer-by—a Samaritan, a man from an ethno-religious group looked down upon by Judeans.
At the conclusion of the story, Jesus asks the lawyer which of the three passers-by in the narrative is a real neighbor to the victim. The answer is obvious; the lawyer has to acknowledge that the Samaritan—the one who shows mercy—is the good one.
Jesus’ authoritative reply to the lawyer, and to all the people standing nearby, is a call to “go and do likewise”—in other words, to apply the interpretation of his story to their daily lives. His call is the same for us today.
What Is a Biblical Application?
In simple terms, an application is the response and action that follows our hearing God’s Word. It is the call to “go and do likewise.” This call consists of two parts—our internal response and our external action. Our internal response is the heartfelt desire and intellectual decision to act on God’s Word; our external action is the fulfillment of that desire and decision. One side alone of the response-and-action equation is not sufficient for application; without a genuine internal response our external action may be misguided, and without an authentic external action our internal response may prove ineffective.
The application of a biblical text affects our individual lives, of course. But it often also extends to the corporate life of communities, societies, and institutions. As salt preserves food and light penetrates darkness, practical action preserves health and illumines the conscience of a society.
Essentially, to “go and do likewise” calls us to be changed and to help change those communities, societies, and institutions that do not live in accord with God’s shalom—his love, grace, and peace.
Accurate Interpretation Matters
Rightly applying a biblical text to our daily lives requires that a text be interpreted accurately. If we don’t know the true interpretation of a text, we’ll probably misapply its message. The Jewish leaders in Jesus’ time often made this mistake, with disastrous results (see, e.g., John 5:39-40).
Once we’ve understood what the original writers meant in a biblical passage (exegesis) and interpreted the meaning of that passage (interpretation)—and there is only one true meaning, not plural meanings—we can then seek to discern the multiple applications of a passage. For instance, how does our “speaking the truth in love” apply to our relationship with a family member, an unethical employer, an unjust government half a hemisphere away?
A word of caution, however: As we apply Scripture, we need to be careful not to confuse applications with interpretations. This can lead to Christians misjudging or imposing unnecessary rules on other Christians. For example, among some Christians it was once taboo for a woman to wear lipstick. The biblical principle of vanity was mistakenly applied as a cultural absolute.
Ways to Apply Biblical Truths in Our Daily Lives
After exegesis is complete and interpretation is accurate, the application process begins. The following list contains some steps for applying biblical truths in your daily life:
Prepare your heart and mind to respond faithfully to the interpretation of a biblical text by praying for guidance from the Holy Spirit.
Meditate on the interpretation in the context of your particular life circumstances. Use the Google Map method: zoom in and zoom out on the contexts of your life. Zoom in to your immediate circumstances and ask, “How does this interpretation call me to behave within my family, neighborhood, and local community contexts?” Then zoom out to the farthest distance and ask, “How does this interpretation call me to behave within my institutional, national, and global contexts?”
Compose a simple statement that describes a practical action, such as “Help my roommate with her homework,” or “Pray for children in Uganda.” Write down that statement or store it in your phone where you may refer to it in times of daily prayer.
Ask God to enable you to remember and practice your practical application.
Be patient with the process of application. Though application in the fullest sense can sometimes happen immediately (e.g., by way of God’s miraculous healing), for most of us God uses the daily events of life to gradually grow us in his character.
As we apply biblical truths in our daily lives, we discover that God creates in us the character of Christ and a desire to help change this world.
Image by twentyonehundred productions team member Laura Li-Barbour.