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General Bible Courses > Living by the Book > Studying by the Book

Chapter 7: Principles of Application


IN THIS CHAPTER, you will discover:  

*    How to draw contemporary applications from Scripture.  

*    The cornerstones of successful application.  

*    The role of personal responsibility in spiritual growth.  

*    The relationship between attitude and application.      

AS A RESULT, you will be able to:  

*    Turn biblical knowledge into practical action.  

*    Keep applications God-centered.  

*    Develop a teachable spirit.  

*    Obey from the heart.

The Need for Contemporary Application

Key Scripture: “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says” (James 1:22).

While studying this and other Living By The Book courses, you may find a strange uneasiness entering your life as you gain new knowledge. This happens because knowing more about God brings added responsibility. It obligates you to live up to what you know. As Rule Six of the General Principles of Interpretation states, “The primary purpose of the Bible is to change our lives, not increase our knowledge.” Even unbelievers instinctively know that beautiful or pious sentiments are less weighty than a single noble act. They know too that it is not those who are most intelligent or have the fewest faults who are holiest. It is rather greatness of love, depth of courage, and selfless generosity that signal true holiness.

As you learn more about God by studying His Word, your desire to express His love should increase. But how do you bring your actions into line with your good intentions? Learning is easy; living is hard. To help us avoid becoming “unprofitable servants,” Henrichsen offers a seven-step procedure for translating Bible knowledge into action. As you use it to apply biblical principles, remember that the work you are doing is not “worldly” work. It is not mere self-improvement for the sake of vanity. It is worship. In “work[ing] out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12), you fulfill God’s plan for your life. Salvation (Heb. yeshuah; Gk. soteria) means deliverance, sanctification, and wholeness.

There is an adage that God laughs and plays in our good deeds. This is a way of saying that God’s approval rests on us when we express His nature. This nature, of course, is love. In your efforts to live according to the law of love — even when you fail — God laughs and plays. For He is for you and with you: “It is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose” (Phil. 2:13). Henrichsen’s seven rules for making applications are summarized below:

1. Use the Principle of Observation

In the study techniques in the last chapter you learned how to list potential applications while observing biblical texts. Six questions to ask the text, which will assist you in applying it, are: Is there any example for me to follow? Is there any command for me to obey? Is there any error for me to avoid? Is there any sin for me to forsake? Is there any promise for me to claim? Is there any new thought about God Himself? Remember to ask God for the spiritual gifts you need to carry out your applications.

2. Follow the Rules of Interpretation

Two principles that should be kept in mind are: (1) although a text may suggest many applications, it only has one correct interpretation; and (2) interpret a text literally unless the text demands otherwise (see SIAB, pp. 166-67, 179-82).

3. Be Selective

If you have ever watched a kitten trying to pounce on a flock of feeding birds, you will understand the wisdom of this rule. By failing to focus on one bird, the kitten catches none and frightens the rest. Similarly, unless you choose to work on only one application per text, you are unlikely to reap any life-changing benefit from your study.

4. Be Specific

After you have picked a general target in application (e.g., developing patience), particularize your strategy. Define explicitly how you plan to express patience. What is your specific behavior goal? For example: “I will not raise my voice when disciplining my children.”

5. Be Personal

Think in terms of “I,” “me,” “my,” and “mine” when drafting your application. Take full personal responsibility for the problem or behavior you wish to address.

6. Write Out Your Application

In the business world, important agreements are set down in black and white to avoid confusion. It is also useful to have a written record of application goals when “doing business” with God. Human memory is notoriously tricky when it comes to matters of self-discipline.

7. Set Up a Check-up Procedure

We learn negative behavior and acquire bad habits gradually, step-by-step. Barring a miracle, we must unlearn them the same way. When attempting to break a habit or develop a virtue, first specify your goal. Then map out a route to that goal consisting of a series of progressively difficult objectives. In this way you can set achievable goals for yourself and maintain your motivation. You can also monitor your progress and maintain your focus.

Practicing Your Skills:

Create your own application by following the suggestions below.

The passage — Give your target text and briefly state the principle of application you observe. Philippians 4:8 may be used for this exercise if you have no preferred text.

An example — Describe a concrete instance in which you failed to live up to the command, example, or implication of the text.

The solution — Describe a behavioral goal expressing the positive principle described in the text, or specify how you should change your behavior in light of the text.

The specific steps — Write a plan consisting of specific actions. Begin with achievable goals. Progress to more difficult or more comprehensive actions or goals. Covenant with God to help you, and perhaps ask your spouse or a Christian friend to help monitor your progress.

General Rules of Application

Key Scripture: “Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of our spirits and live!” (Heb. 12:9).

We have used several key analogies throughout “Studying The Book.” We have spoken of the Bible as God’s love letter to His children. We have compared seeking the truths of Scripture to mining for gold. As we learn how to apply Scripture to our lives correctly, we will use the analogy of driving a car. Before you “test drive” your newfound Scripture knowledge on the crowded freeway of life, it is important that you learn the “rules of the road” for responsible biblical application. Failure to do so could cause you to “crash” — as have many in the past who have spawned cults and heresies by irresponsibly applying the Word of God. Disobedience, inattention, bad judgment, and forgetfulness all cause application “accidents” that can injure you and others. Knowing the “rules of the road” will help ensure that you grow spiritually, witness effectively, and please your Father in heaven.

In this lesson we will present five general principles needed to get your biblical application “learner’s permit.” In the next lesson you will learn more complex skills needed to negotiate rough terrain. Finally, you will take the wheel with an experienced driver by your side for some hands-on experience in application.

Rule One. Application must be focused on pleasing God rather than pleasing others.

First John 2:17 tells us: “The world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever.” Scripture tells us that friendship with the world is enmity toward God (James 4:4). Yet we must guard against misunderstanding the real nature of worldliness. The natural world and the things in it are fundamentally good, having been made so by God. Christian love is a love that acts to redeem the world. The “world” that the Christian is to oppose is the corrupt order caused by sin and evil. In this order man and his desires take precedence over God. Thus worldliness is essentially a kind of self-centeredness that either ignores God’s laws or reinterprets them, so that they express man’s desires rather than God’s.

Worldliness expresses itself in two ways. It may have lawlessness and license as its objective. Or it may have a religious emphasis that has as its goal the justification of the self before God. We see this latter attitude displayed by the Judaizers in the book of Galatians. The “golden chains” of religious egotism can bind us just as strongly as the ordinary chains of lust and anger. We should avoid both extremes and aim at being neither self-pleasers nor man-pleasers, but God-pleasers.

Rule Two. Every problem a person has is related to his or her concept of God.

This rule, using the language of the King James Version, is “an hard saying.” How can a crippling disease or the death of a child be considered a problem born of an incorrect concept of God? Are we expected to look at every obstacle we encounter in life and say, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good . . .” (Gen. 50:20)? In a word, yes. This is what faith means. While not denying the reality of evil or our responsibility to combat it, we can still affirm “that in all things God works for the good of those who love him” (Rom. 8:28). This is a great mystery, perhaps the greatest. We have touched on this perspective in our reflections on 1 John 4:18 in an earlier lesson. The key point is that during testing, as during temptation, “[God] will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it” (1 Cor. 10:13; cf. James 1:2-4). Fear, depression, anxiety, heartache, and anger need not cripple us. If we allow God to speak through His Word, He can give us faith and peace in the midst of any trial.

Rule Three. Attitude is as important as action in obeying God’s commands.

In Isaiah 29:13 the Lord says: “These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” He pronounces judgment upon those who reason: “Who sees us? Who will know?” (v. 15), supposing their inner thoughts are not discerned by God. Jesus proclaimed that “God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24). The heart is the arena in which salvation and damnation occur. From the heart, evil thoughts arise and are assented to, becoming sin (Matt. 5:28; Mark 7:21). From the heart, repentance springs, bringing cleansing and purity (Ps. 34:18; Matt. 5:8). Therefore God, the righteous Judge, “weighs the heart” (Prov. 21:2).

It is challenging to contemplate that God can and will change our hearts, if we truly ask. He can give us love for those we hate, patience instead of anger, and self-control instead of weakness. But we must first be honest with Him and with ourselves. Do we really want to be holy? Often the first step in dealing with sin is to ask God for a sincere desire to change.

Rule Four. Surrender is the cornerstone of all application. Refusal to surrender blurs our ability to discover and do God’s will.

“The heart is deceitful above all things” (Jer. 17:9). Paul expressed the bewildering double-mindedness of our moral being in Romans: “For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do — this I keep on doing” (7:19). The human capacity for self-deception is immense; but the price we pay is high. The prideful resolution to disregard God’s inner guidance fosters both spiritual and intellectual blindness.

Through the power of the Holy Spirit we can tame the perversity of the heart. But it is an ongoing battle. When Bible study becomes dry and unfruitful for you, it may indicate that your pride is deadlocked with the Holy Spirit over some issue. Often the hesitancy to confront a convicting passage becomes an inability to hear the voice of God. This is much like the child who doesn’t want to hear — and consequently “can’t” hear — the voice of his or her mother calling. Perhaps you are angry with God for some reason and have hardened your heart. Perhaps your conception of God needs to be expanded. At such times you should remember “every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights” (James 1:17). Our true happiness can only be found in His will. With this recognition you can surrender to God once more. In surrender we find wisdom, and we rediscover that “the only tragedy in life we need fear is the tragedy of self-will” .

Rule Five. Application is a process, not a single event.

As the discussion above makes clear, the faith of the morning is not sufficient for noon. To return to our analogy of driving, it is not sufficient to stop at a red light only once. You must stop at each one you encounter before proceeding again carefully. If we learn to practice the art of continual surrender to God, the Bible will continue to speak to us and challenge us for as long as we remain on our journey toward sanctification.

Practicing Your Skills:

1. Recall a time when you were at an impasse spiritually because of your unwillingness to be submissive to God. What was that area or problem? How was it resolved?

2. What was God’s last revelation or command to you? Were you obedient to that command?

3. How would your life be different if you could remain surrendered to God on a daily basis?

Rules of Personal Responsibility

Key Scripture: "For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad" (2 Cor. 5:10).  

In this lesson we focus on the need to assume personal responsibility in interpreting Scripture. After learning the "rules of the road," you alone are responsible for what you do with your knowledge. Commitment to personal responsibility affects every decision you make behind the wheel. Only you can insure that you drive defensively, slow down in the rain, and maintain a safe distance between vehicles. The five rules that follow will help you deal with "gray" areas of interpretation in which individual convictions are tested.  

Rule Six. In those areas of life not directly addressed by Scripture, we must develop personal convictions to govern our behavior.  

The specific prohibitions in Scripture are relatively few; in fact, they would hardly fill a page. Christians are allowed a great deal of freedom in their behavior. However, Paul pointed out that "‘everything is permissible' - but not everything is beneficial" (1 Cor. 10:23). Christ's overarching commandment to us is the law of love - a law that sums up and includes all lesser laws (Gal. 5:14). The Holy Spirit functions in the believer as a barometer and advisor, revealing whether our thoughts and actions accord with the law of love. If they do, we experience the peace of God. This peace is to be our inner measuring rod or "rule" of correct behavior (Col. 3:15).   

Because of the spiritual nature of the Christian "rule of life," we are called to very high standards of conduct. Whether we reach those standards depends on how closely we allow the Holy Spirit to judge our thoughts and actions. In Romans 14, Paul stated how to avoid turning grace into license. When deciding matters of personal conscience, "each one should be fully convinced in his own mind" (v. 5). Full conviction and absolute honesty toward the Holy Spirit are necessary: "Blessed is the man who does not condemn himself by what he approves….[for] everything that does not come from faith is sin" (vv. 22-23).   

Paul furnishes two additional guidelines on using our freedom in Christ responsibly. First, we are to be sensitive to the consciences of others when expressing our liberty. We are not to distress or provoke our Christian brothers and sisters by our choices (vv. 13-18). "Nobody should seek his own good, but the good of others" (1 Cor. 10:24). This is an extension of the rule of love. Second, we are to keep our convictions about matters of conscience "between [ourselves] and God" (Rom. 14:22). We are not to impose judgment upon others regarding subjects not explicitly addressed by Scripture (v. 4; cf. Matt. 7:1). Such judgment belongs to God alone.  

Rule Seven. When applying the Scriptures, we must make a distinction between the positive and the negative commandments.  

Negative (or prohibitive) biblical commandments are precise in their meaning - "Fathers, do not embitter your children, or they will become discouraged" (Col. 3:21). Positive commandments, which usually concern applying the law of love, are less clear-cut - "Do everything in love" (1 Cor. 16:14). We can, to some degree, evaluate how well we are obeying positive commandments by noting how well we obey negative commandments. If we speak to our children harshly, we obviously are not doing everything in love. But avoiding negative behavior is not final proof of compliance with positive commandments. We may speak to our children with a pleasant tone out of indifference or from a desire to be thought a  "good" parent.  For this reason, the avoidance of negative behavior often leads to pharisaism.  Positive commandments are ultimately meant to produce correct attitudes of the heart, and only there can they be truly judged.   

Rule Eight. Each person is individually responsible for applying the Scriptures to his or her own life.   

In a popular comic strip, a figure with a ski mask and a chain saw is depicted sneaking up behind his fellow characters one at a time and cutting off their tails. After each amputation he mutters an excuse: "Wasn't me, it was the booze"; "Sorry, temporary insanity, I wasn't myself"; and "Sorry, my dog beats me." Yes, we are all, to some degree, influenced by our environment and upbringing. But the cartoon is on target in satirizing the belief that society or circumstances are to blame for every crime or antisocial act. The assumption that individuals themselves are not ultimately guilty of crime or sin is bogus and misguided. As our Key Scripture indicates, this is not the biblical view. We are each responsible for using the knowledge that God gives us to the best of our ability. 

Rule Nine. In all things we must be teachable. We must be willing to admit that we are wrong, change direction, and appear inconsistent.   Henrichsen mentions Mahatma Gandhi as an example of one who prized truth above all else. In the case to which he refers, Gandhi had mustered a following of thousands who marched with him for many miles in protest. Before they reached their destination, Gandhi learned that he had been misinformed about the facts of the political situation. He immediately turned around and began the long walk home. When questioned about his abrupt about-face, he replied, "My commitment is to truth, not consistency." We need to be "humble and contrite in spirit" (Isa. 66:2) so that we may be ever ready to hear God's truth and respond. God is truth, and a love of truth that is stronger than false pride will take us far along the road to spiritual maturity.   

Rule Ten. The acknowledgment of wrong must be followed by restitution when it is within our power.  

Jesus commanded us to "produce fruit in keeping with repentance" (Matt. 3:8). The example of Zacchaeus and others in Scripture shows us that restitution is a natural and pleasing response to God's mercy and holiness. Today confession and restitution are not required aspects of Christian discipleship. They were common practices in the church for many centuries, however, and for good reason. They functioned as sacraments of healing, reconciliation, and spiritual growth. As Henrichsen points out, "People feel guilty because they are guilty" (p. 285). Restitution is a form of spiritual housecleaning that can restore the joy of God's favor and reawaken our sensitivity to God's presence within us.  

Practicing Your Skills:             

1. List some areas in which Christians are free to act according to personal conviction (several were mentioned in this lesson).   

2. Are you "fully convinced" about the correctness of your conduct in these areas (Rom. 14:5)? Are there any attitudes or actions you need to reevaluate? Have you taken the law of love into consideration in forming your opinion? Are you a "stumbling block" to anyone (v. 13)?   

3. Do you outwardly judge others whose opinions are different from yours? Do you judge them in your heart? What is the result of such an attitude according to Scripture?

Our Perception of God’s Word

Key Scripture: “For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:20).

The degree to which drivers conform to traffic regulations depends upon their attitude toward them. Perhaps in a driver’s education class you saw a film that depicted the gruesome results of a traffic accident. Or perhaps you spot a state police car in your rearview mirror. In either case, fear deters you from breaking the rules. Fear is a powerful and effective incentive to obedience. The fear, awe, and respect of God motivate us in a practical and healthy way to follow His commandments. But while “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Prov. 9:10), it is neither the end of wisdom nor is it the best and final stimulus for obedience. For this reason we should consider the following rules.

Rule Eleven. Our motive for applying God’s word must be based on love for His commands rather than on fear of chastisement.

Jesus said: “If you love me, you will obey what I command” (John 14:15). Remember: “The one who fears is not made perfect in love” (1 John 4:18). Fear always secretly seeks a way of escape from the claims of obedience. Fear is the germ from which rebellion and hatred grow, given the chance. Most parents know that children cannot be made truly obedient through fear alone. Only the child that has learned love can be trusted to obey freely, without threat or supervision. We should realize that it is impossible to obey Christ without love. Love is unique in that it is the “virtue-making virtue” — the seed from which obedience and all other virtues arise. Devotion must precede true obedience.

Rule Twelve. Knowledge carries with it both privilege and responsibility.

This principle is set forth throughout Scripture: “From the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked” (Luke 12:48) and “Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly” (James 3:1; cf. John 9:41; 2 Peter 2:21). Perhaps James said it most succinctly: “Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins” (4:17). After God’s Word has become a lamp to our feet and a light to our path (Ps. 19:105), we deliberately wander into spiritual darkness only at great peril. The conclusion of the parable of the talents (Matt. 25:29-30) demonstrates that God insists that knowledge be followed by application.

Rule Thirteen. There is no such thing as a nonessential command.

In British legal language, the “dock” is the area of the courtroom where the defendant stands. Christian author C. S. Lewis entitled a series of essays, God in the Dock, suggesting that today humanity stands in judgment on God rather than vice-versa. Religion has become an elective in the university of life. We practice a “cafeteria-style” morality in which only those moral restraints we choose are considered binding. The Ten Commandments have become the “ten suggestions,” and few people, even committed Christians, are willing to be told what to do. The idea of an absolute moral law is “undemocratic” and threatens the freedom of the individual. To the modern mind, this is the ultimate blasphemy.

When we conveniently assume that some clear moral teaching of the Bible is irrelevant or negotiable, we run an awful risk. Remember, the Bible is not a book of life-denying “don’ts,” but a collection of grace-filled “dos.” God’s sole intent in giving moral guidelines is to protect us and bring us to wholeness and happiness. He always has our best interests at heart. It is common for children to ignore the sage advice of their parents, only to learn the wisdom of such advice through tragedy and difficult circumstances. How much more dangerous is it to ignore the wisdom and counsel of our heavenly Father? One of the most sobering passages in the Bible is Proverbs 14:12: “There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death.” We should bear this verse in mind before assuming that some part of God’s revealed wisdom in Scripture is expendable.

Rule Fourteen. We must guard against the temptation to obey Scripture only after seeming contradictions have been resolved.

In chapter 5 we studied the nature of antinomies in Scripture. There we learned that apparently contradictory doctrines such as the humanity and the divinity of Christ are profoundly and wonderfully complementary. In the same way, many moral commandments of the Bible seem contradictory but at heart complement one another.

Henrichsen analyzes and resolves the tension between Luke 14:26 and 1 Timothy 5:8 on page 295. Let’s look at another apparent conflict, this one between Matthew 6:25-34 and 1 Timothy 5:8. In this famous passage from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus commands his followers not to worry about food, drink, or clothing. But how can one follow Jesus’ instruction and still responsibly care for a family, as 1 Timothy 5:8 demands? Should we literally “take no thought” (kjv) for these necessities and leave it up to God to provide them? Or should we ignore Jesus and anxiously shoulder the burden of provision ourselves?

A closer look at the text clears away any perceived difficulties. The key emphasis of Matthew is “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (v. 33). A mind and heart grounded in Christ and established in the principles of his kingdom is one from which godly love and activity flow spontaneously. Our provision for our families becomes not an end in itself, but a means by which God is glorified. Jesus’ words warn us to avoid anxious materialism: “Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?” (v. 27). Many, if not most, of the crosses we carry are not given to us by God, but are burdens created by our own appetites and anxieties (vv. 31-32). Taken alone, Jesus’ yoke is easy and His burden is light (11:29-30). Similarly, work done for others as a service unto the Lord is blessed by an inner grace that lightens each task. As an old adage puts it, “He who loves God, his work is done of itself.”

Practicing Your Skills:

1. Do an analytical study of Deuteronomy 8. List any observations and applications about obedience that you find there.

2. Give an example of a biblical command that is generally considered non-essential. Examine the criteria given in chapter 4 in the Study Guide to see if it is culturally relative or morally indifferent.

3. Find two moral commandments in Scripture that seem to contradict each other. What is the nature of the tension between them? How can this tension be resolved by a deeper understanding of their meaning?

Take the quiz

Quiz Instructions

Review Questions

1. Applying biblical principles to daily living should not be thought of as mere “self-improvement” but as __________________.



2. Although a text may suggest many applications, it only has one correct _____________________________.



3. True or False. The “golden chains” of religious egotism can bind us just as strongly as the ordinary chains of lust and anger.



4. Every problem we have is related to our concept of __________.



5. __________________ is as important as action in obeying God’s commands.



6. ________________ is the cornerstone of all application.



7. Application is a _______________.


Single event

8. In areas of personal conviction, the _______________ of God is to be our inner measuring rod of correct behavior.



9. According to Paul, every action that does not come from ____________ is sin.

Word of God


10. True or False. Scripture allows us to judge others based on our personal convictions.



11. Judging our spiritual state by how well we obey negative commands in Scripture is misleading and may lead to _______________.



12. _______________ commandments in Scripture are ultimately meant to produce correct attitudes of the heart.



13. True or False. We must never appear inconsistent, even if we are wrong.



14. The acknowledgement of wrong must be followed by ____________________ when it is within our power.



15. Our motive for applying God’s word should be based primarily on __________ rather than on fear of chastisement.



16. Knowledge carries with it both privilege and __________________________.



17. There is no such thing as a nonessential _________________.



18. God insists that knowledge be followed by ____________________.



19. We must guard against the temptation to obey Scripture only after seeming __________________ have been resolved.



20. True or False. Work done for others as a service unto the Lord is blessed by an inner grace that lightens each task.



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