The best way to define application is to first determine what it is not. Application is not just accumulating knowledge. This helps us discover and understand facts and concepts, but it stops there. History is filled with philosophers who knew what the Bible said but failed to apply it to their lives, keeping them from believing and changing. Many think that understanding is the end goal of Bible study, but it is really only the beginning.
Application is not just illustration. Illustration only tells us how someone else handled a similar situation. While we may empathize with that person, we still have little direction for our personal situation.
Application is not just making a passage "relevant." Making the Bible relevant only helps us to see that the same lessons that were true in Bible times are true today; it does not show us how to apply them to the problems and pressures of our individual lives.
What, then, is application? Application begins by knowing and understanding God’s Word and its timeless truths. But you cannot stop there. If you do, God’s Word may not change your life, and it may become dull, difficult, tedious, and tiring. A good application focuses the truth of God’s Word, shows the reader what to do about what is being read, and motivates the reader to respond to what God is teaching. All three are essential to application.
Application is putting into practice what we already know and answering the question, "So what?" by confronting us with the right questions and motivating us to take action. John had this to say to his readers: "Those who obey God’s word truly show how completely they love him. That is how we know we are living in him. Those who say they live in God should live their lives as Jesus did" (1 John 2:5-6). Application is deeply personal—unique for each individual. It is making a relevant truth a personal truth, and involves developing a strategy and action plan to live your life in harmony with the Bible. It is the Biblical "how to" of life.
A good application has three parts: (1) an explanation that ties directly to the Scripture passage and sets up the truth that is being taught, (2) a bridge that explains the timeless truth and makes it relevant for today, (3) an application that shows you how to take the timeless truth and apply it to your personal situation. No application produced by someone else can apply Scripture directly to your life. It can only teach, direct, lead, guide, inspire, recommend, and urge. It can give you the resources and direction you need to apply the Bible, but only you can take these resources and put them into practice.
This material is adapted from the Life Application Study Bible (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 2004), available everywhere books are sold.