Preach the Word! — Chapter 24

Using Illustrations in the Sermon

This article is part of a series of articles on how to preach written by Jess Hall, Jr. and originally published in The Firm Foundation.

Properly illustrating a sermon is a difficult, time-consuming task. It might be called “going the second mile” in sermon preparation. Have you ever heard a preacher justify his failure to properly illustrate his sermon by saying, “I don’t use illustrations, I just preach the word.” While a preacher can preach the word without using illustrations, he cannot omit illustrations and follow the word’s examples of preaching. Scripture abounds with illustrations, e.g., parables, similes, and metaphors. The book of Revelation has been called an oil-painting from God. Why should most preaching be propositional when the majority of scripture consists of narrative accounts, imagery, and illustrations? Parables comprise approximately fifty-two percent of Luke and approximately seventy-five percent of Jesus’ recorded teaching. Given Jesus’ use of illustrations and parables, is it not vanity for one who claims to follow him to assert that the use of illustrations somehow detracts from preaching the word? Clearly, while illustrations (other than those from scripture) will not be accompanied by a scripture citation, scripture blesses (if not encourages) their use.

Scripture’s use of illustrations should be instructive. Very little of Jesus’ public teaching consisted of syllogistic reasoning or definition of terms. In describing Jesus’ teaching, Mark wrote, “and without a parable spake he not unto them: but privately to his own disciples he expounded all things.” (Mark 4:34) Jesus is himself the living illustration. “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us (and we beheld his glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father), full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14)

But someone asks, “Don’t Paul’s letters concentrate on propositional teaching to the exclusion (or at least the downplaying) of illustrations?” While the observation is correct, the comparison is unfair. Paul’s epistles are just that – epistles or letters. They are not sermons. In his recorded sermons, Paul not only used illustrations, he selected them carefully based upon the hearers he was addressing. Even in his epistles Paul recognized the need for illustrations. In fact, it was Paul who identified scripture as a rich source of illustration: “For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that through patience and through comfort of the scriptures we might have hope.” (Romans 15:4) However, while scripture was the source for many of Paul’s illustrations, it was not his only source. He also alluded to Jewish history, the market place, the stadium, sports, the army, warfare, armor, the temple, the home, Greek poetry, and the school. One of his most beautiful illustrations is the comparison between the husband/wife relationship and the relationship between Christ and his bride, the church. (Eph. 5:21-33) Whatever the source of illustration, Paul endorsed their use.

An illustration has been aptly described as a short-cut to the hearer’s mind. By either refusing to use illustrations or using poor illustrations, preachers both lengthen the journey to the hearer’s mind and make it more burdensome. The inevitable result for most hearers is that, tiring before the journey ends, they rest by the side of the road while the preacher trudges on.

God's Plan of Salvation

You must hear the gospel and then understand and recognize that you are lost without Jesus Christ no matter who you are and no matter what your background is. The Bible tells us that “all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23) Before you can be saved, you must understand that you are lost and that the only way to be saved is by obedience to the gospel of Jesus Christ. (2 Thessalonians 1:8) Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.” (John 14:6) “Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12)

You must believe and have faith in God because “without faith it is impossible to please him: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.” (Hebrews 11:6) But neither belief alone nor faith alone is sufficient to save. (James 2:19; James 2:24; Matthew 7:21)

You must repent of your sins. (Acts 3:19) But repentance alone is not enough. The so-called “Sinner’s Prayer” that you hear so much about today from denominational preachers does not appear anywhere in the Bible. Indeed, nowhere in the Bible was anyone ever told to pray the “Sinner’s Prayer” to be saved. By contrast, there are numerous examples showing that prayer alone does not save. Saul, for example, prayed following his meeting with Jesus on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:11), but Saul was still in his sins when Ananias met him three days later (Acts 22:16). Cornelius prayed to God always, and yet there was something else he needed to do to be saved (Acts 10:2, 6, 33, 48). If prayer alone did not save Saul or Cornelius, prayer alone will not save you. You must obey the gospel. (2 Thess. 1:8)

You must confess that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. (Romans 10:9-10) Note that you do NOT need to make Jesus “Lord of your life.” Why? Because Jesus is already Lord of your life whether or not you have obeyed his gospel. Indeed, we obey him, not to make him Lord, but because he already is Lord. (Acts 2:36) Also, no one in the Bible was ever told to just “accept Jesus as your personal savior.” We must confess that Jesus is the Son of God, but, as with faith and repentance, confession alone does not save. (Matthew 7:21)

Having believed, repented, and confessed that Jesus is the Son of God, you must be baptized for the remission of your sins. (Acts 2:38) It is at this point (and not before) that your sins are forgiven. (Acts 22:16) It is impossible to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ without teaching the absolute necessity of baptism for salvation. (Acts 8:35-36; Romans 6:3-4; 1 Peter 3:21) Anyone who responds to the question in Acts 2:37 with an answer that contradicts Acts 2:38 is NOT proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ!

Once you are saved, God adds you to his church and writes your name in the Book of Life. (Acts 2:47; Philippians 4:3) To continue in God’s grace, you must continue to serve God faithfully until death. Unless they remain faithful, those who are in God’s grace will fall from grace, and those whose names are in the Book of Life will have their names blotted out of that book. (Revelation 2:10; Revelation 3:5; Galatians 5:4)