H. B. Charles Jr. on How to Better Explain and Apply Scripture

Pastor H. B. Charles Jr. began ministry at age 17 when he inherited the pulpit at his father’s church. Now with more than 30 years of ministry experience, Charles has written books on prayer, preaching, and ministry. He is a popular conference speaker, and in 2018 he served as the first black president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Pastors’ Conference.

Recently, Charles spoke with Bible Study Magazine’s Mark Ward about how preachers and readers of the Bible can better explain and apply Scripture. Explore part of that interview below.

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WARD: As soon as somebody starts talking about [Bible] application, the specter of legalism comes up. When does application of Bible truths become legalism?

CHARLES: I am a student of expository preaching and teaching. The main idea of your sermon, of your message, of your lesson is rooted in and flows from the primary meaning of the text. The first statement I would say about avoiding legalism is to let application be shaped by the text of God’s word. In God’s word, there are both the indicatives and imperatives.

WARD: Telling people what’s true and then telling people what to do.

CHARLES: Yes. The gospel is an announcement. The gospel is an invitation. The gospel is a promise. And as you read how it is presented in the text, you must let the text shape how you talk about application.

There is nothing we can do to earn the favor of God. We trust the finished work of Christ, and we must be careful to guard our hearts and minds and thinking—and thus our teaching—from Phariseeism that seeks to earn its way to God. We must saturate our minds with an understanding of the gospel, and keeping the gospel foremost helps us do that.

WARD: Is it possible for a Bible teacher of any kind—or even just a Bible reader—to fail to apply a passage? Maybe the teacher is afraid to step on toes or is sensing where the passage is going and simply not wanting to obey. How do I know when I’ve morally failed to apply a text?

CHARLES: I do really think this is the conscience, the heart, the mind being yielded to the authority of God’s Word. Any teacher is going to stand in three positions as it relates to the Word of God. There are people who claim to be Bible teachers who stand over it and say what they think is true and not true in the Bible. And then there are, if I may, life-coach-style teachers who seem to stand alongside the Word and say, “The Bible’s got some stuff to say, and I’ve got some helpful stuff to say.”

But the proper place to stand is under the authority of God’s word, and let God’s word speak. And inasmuch as the word of God says it, I must say what the word of God says, and I must not apologize for things that the word of God speaks so very clearly.
I do have an Ephesians 4:15 responsibility to speak the truth in love. But the notion of being loving cannot be used as an excuse to avoid speaking that which inevitably will be hard truth at times because we are sinners speaking to sinners in the final analysis.

WARD: Have you ever faced the temptation to flinch when it comes to applying God’s word because you know somebody in the eighth row isn’t going to want to hear it?

CHARLES: I have experienced that over the years as I started as a young pastor and in a very established church. And I just knew that some things were going to get me in trouble. In fact, that is the practical reason for me beginning to preach consecutively through books of the Bible. It was just out of fear. I could act as surprised as they—“Oh my goodness! Look here, this is in the text. Oh, well, we might as well deal with it.” And I have to admit—even to this day as a pastor who, for all of my adult life, has been publicly teaching God’s word week in and week out—I still feel that pressure. I still feel that temptation. I know there are softhearted people who will struggle with things. And I know there are hardhearted people who are going to resist things. It is your job to present God’s word and then get out of the way and let people deal with God.

WARD: There’s nothing more humbling to me than to be studying a passage and realizing I am the first person who needs to apply this. This goes to my heart and needs to change my behavior. That is going to be true of Bible readers whether or not they are preaching and teaching—and it’s going to be more true of them if they’re going through the whole Bible, letting all of the various applications come to them rather than only picking their favorite parts.

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CHARLES: I, as a young Christian, bought a lot of “Bible promises” books. And I set those verses to memory. And then when I went back years later and started studying those passages—most of those promises have commands attached to them. And it taught me that you cannot cherry-pick just the parts you like.

You have to let the word of God speak as it will—let it say what it means in context. And if you are processing God’s word like that regularly, it’s going to make you sensitive to the need of application in teaching publicly, because you’re going to be confronted with the truth in your own life personally as you’re studying. The most faithful men and women who teach God’s word are humbled before the truth and are seeking to live it out in their own life as they present it to others.

WARD: How do you choose the thing you’re going to say in your message when you have a more general command to apply?

CHARLES: I don’t have all the answers there, but there are three ways I approach something like that. The first thing I am going to do is affirm that passage. Let’s use Romans 12:2 as an example: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.” Because it’s a general statement and because it has been mishandled in applications so much, we are tempted to shy away. I want to affirm that Scripture is drawing a line here. There is such a thing as worldliness and being conformed to the world, and it is a big enough thing that we need to be on guard about it.

Secondly, I think rather than specifying what that looks like when you have those general exhortations, I try to work through categories—categories of financial stuff, entertainment stuff, how you manage your time. Presenting this truth in terms of categories provides starting points for people to think through.

The third way, when I can’t figure out how to present the application well, I cheat by asking questions. I think questions are a tool we neglect sometimes. And you’re not going to get far in the teaching of Jesus without him raising some probing question.

WARD: “Are you not of more value than many sparrows?”

CHARLES: “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” I think using questions strategically is a way, as you said, to stir up the conscience. And I think that’s an effective way to deal with general exhortations you want to help people get their arms around—to raise probing questions for them to wrestle with.

WARD: You’ve written about using verbs in your sermon outlines. I wonder if you could give me an example of that. What does an outline point worded as a call for action look like?

CHARLES: Toward the beginning of this year, the first message I preached to my congregation was on Matthew 6:33: “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” It’s a great beginning-of-the-year verse, and it has two major parts—a command and a promise. I said to the church, “I can state the point of this message in three words: put God first.” How do you put God first? Well, I think there are two ways indicated right here in the text, “Seek God. Trust God.” “Seek God” is the beginning of that verse. “Trust God” is “and all these things will be added unto you.” And that is a promise. It is not a command. It is a promise. But I said it as a matter of faith. Do you believe this? Do you believe God has made a promise? Do you believe that God, if you put him first, will take care of everything else?

And then when I finished the message, I bid the church to pray over what they just heard: “Lord, help me to seek you. And then help me to trust you.” Because I put verbs—and, specifically, imperatives—in the “how” I stated, the outline seemed to carry the force [of] a challenge to God’s people—and, I hope and trust, without undercutting the spirit of the text.

WARD: Do you ever have a sense that your hearers are going to object in their minds to your application, and you’ve got to address these implicit objections?

CHARLES: I think through my study process with five terms. I start with the Inductive Study Bible method: observation, interpretation, application. My fourth one is correlation. I want the analogy of faith. I want Scripture to interpret Scripture. The fifth term I have used is argumentation or refutation. What is this text refuting? And I am thinking about that every week now in my study, because I think faithful study, faithful teaching, and faithful exposition have to be apologetic these days. There is an attack of truth in our culture all around us, and it is increasing.

WARD: We’re no longer able to rely on a basic Christendom out there, where even the unbelievers share a lot of the assumptions of Christian faith.

CHARLES: Things have shifted so rapidly. And it is our job as teachers to help our people think through these things with a Christian worldview and to be thinking about the ways error, falsehood, and denial of truth are going to come at the text. The argumentation part is required for faithful teaching and preaching in the times that we are living in.

I often will say, though, there is sometimes this rebellion in people’s hearts and minds to the truth. But the other thing is, we get them for 30 minutes on Sundays. And they are being fed other things all week long from so many platforms, sometimes not even consciously.

If you are not feeding on God’s word every day and building yourself up in our most holy faith, you start kind of getting back to Romans 12:2—shaped into the world’s mold. And I do think when you get to discussing the will of God, it sounds foreign to a believer whose mind is not saturated by the word of God.

WARD: If you just go with the flow—which is so easy to do—then you are going to be put into the world’s mold. Let’s talk to that lay Bible reader who is not teaching others, who is just trying to apply the Bible faithfully to his or her life. What could help them take the next step toward being a responsible and obedient applier of the word?

CHARLES: I really do think you must take your time with the word. A teacher wants to get an outline or a lesson out. A believer wants to get some nugget to take with them through the day, and you rush through this. You are rushing what you need to spend time with. Carving out time, in Psalm 1 language, to delight yourself in the law of the Lord and meditate on it—I think that is so important to a stable Christian life and a growing Christian faith.

I think about Psalm 119, reading through that regularly. I pray as I study. Psalm 119:18: “Open my eyes that I may behold wonderful things from your word.” That is a prayer for illumination. But it also makes me think about the things that close my eyes—my circumstances, suffering, and sin. The word doesn’t have to be made wonderful. But I’ll miss it if God doesn’t open my eyes, and I need to be sensitive that my own sin can close my eyes to the wonders of the truth of Jesus Christ and his word.

Psalm 119:24 is me painting myself in a corner, where the psalmist prays, “Give me understanding, and I will observe your word and keep it with my whole heart.” That verse is a reminder to me that God does not reveal his truth for entertainment purposes only. He reveals his truth to people who have a precommitment to obey. And so when you pray that verse, it is obligating you to submit yourself to the authority of God’s word. And if you are constantly praying that as you study God’s word—sincerely, openly, and humbly—God will honor those prayers.

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Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version.

Listen to the full interview with H. B. Charles—and other episodes of Bible Study Magazine Podcast—on iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify, or wherever you listen and learn.

This article originally appeared in the September/October issue of Bible Study Magazine.

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Written by
Mark Ward

Christian, husband, father, writer, ultimate frisbee player when possible.

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Written by Mark Ward