Every application we make in the pulpit should come with a health warning. Perhaps a sticker with something like this should be attached to every application we come up with in our sermon preparation:
WARNING! Your listeners are very prone to auto-self whatever you say. This well-intended application will be corrupted before your closing prayer.
What does that mean? It means that when we give an application, no matter how well intended it might be, or how well-rooted in a Christ-focused message, our listeners have a flesh filter that will cause them to hear an instruction to be applied in relative autonomy from God. We may have spoken for half an hour on how apart from Christ we can do nothing, etc., but they will soon forget that and make the application a personal commitment.
Religious flesh wants to know what I must do in order to live a good life, be obedient, please the Lord – you pick the phrase (but recognise that underneath there is an implicit sense of “so I can keep God at arms length!”) Our flesh thinks that if we do what the preacher says, then we can be independently successful. So easily rows and rows of well meaning Christians will file out to comply with the devilish idea of autonomous living.
Does this mean we shouldn’t preach with applications? Not at all. But if we are aware of how the listeners will corrupt what we say, perhaps we can do a better job of flagging up the problem with self-moved morality and spirituality. Perhaps we can do a better job of showing people their need for Christ. Perhaps we can spend a bit more time offering them a Christ they might feel compelled to trust as they seek to live in response to this message.