Preach the Word! — Chapter 29

Benefits and Dangers of Illustrations

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.

Illustrations are to a sermon what meat tenderizer is to a tough steak – it makes the steak edible without reducing either the nutrients or the amount of meat. It is no wonder that people remember illustrations longer than they remember points. Illustrations make the obscure plain and bridge the gap between the Biblical and the modern world. While whoever said “a picture is worth a thousand words” was not thinking of sermon illustrations, it is true that one effective illustration is worth a thousand words of content. An illustration enables the hearer to comprehend a concept by relating it to his or her experience. They understand the illustration and through it see a common sense application that they realize will work in their lives. They are persuaded by the truth of their own experience. It is at this point that the sermon begins to be effective in the hearers’ lives. This is especially important when dealing with controversial subjects. It is a rare hearer who engages in even mental debate with the preacher while an illustration is being presented. To the contrary, the mind stays open and the hearers find themselves agreeing with common sense principles in the illustration. Having accepted these principles in a non-challenging, non-confrontational illustration, the hearer is then more apt to accept the same principles when applied to a controversial subject.

Recognizing these and other benefits, preachers sometimes do not consider the dangers of illustrations. For example, there is a danger that he may treat the illustration as an end in itself instead of a means to an end. The preacher’s goal is to explore, explain, and convince of God’s truth. That goal is not necessarily reached by waves of laughter or tears. Attention must ultimately be focused on the truth to be illumined, not the lamp (illustration) used for that purpose. It does the hearer little good if only the illustration is remembered while the truth illustrated is forgotten.

There is a danger of applying analogies improperly or ambiguously. For example, does “I slept like a baby” mean that the speaker slept soundly with the innocence of a child? Or does it mean that the speaker awakened every few hours and screamed for food and attention?

There is a danger of using too many or too few illustrations. If there are too few, then the sermon will have its greatest appeal to those who are most gifted at abstract thinking. The preacher who uses too many illustrations is like a woman who uses too much makeup – beauty is hidden rather than enhanced. In spite of the benefits, more is not necessarily better. Illustrations cannot be used as a substitute for substance.

There is a danger of using inaccurate illustrations. History or personal experience may be incorrectly stated or “stretched” to make a better illustration. Thinking to make the illustration more effective, a preacher may describe the experiences of others as his own. In some instances, like a lectureship when two different preachers both told the same story in the first person, all hearers will detect the untruthfulness. Hearers who recognize the inaccuracy lose faith in the honesty of the preacher, and rightfully so. If an illustration doesn’t fit, do not force it. Preaching is not a game of horseshoes – close doesn’t count.

There is a danger of using illustrations that are out of proportion to the point being made. A five-minute illustration should not be used to support a two-minute subpoint.

There is a danger of betraying confidences in the use of personal or church-family illustrations. The preacher should never assume that his hearers have no knowledge of and cannot recognize persons, living or dead, in other congregations where he has preached. If his hearers believe that they will become an illustration, they will not confide in or otherwise seek the help of the preacher.

There is a danger that laughter from humorous illustrations will be mistaken for understanding and persuasion. Research shows that when humor increases, persuasion diminishes. A widely known jury consultant advises his clients to use no humor with the jury. While that is perhaps an extreme position, to have even a chance of being effective, humor must be natural to the speaker.

There is a danger that illustrations will be used primarily to play on the emotions, causing emotion to rule over the reason and the heart to rule over the mind. While a sermon without emotion is warped, a sermon with uncontrolled emotion is wrong and abusive.

In spite of the dangers, the best speakers, recognizing the power and persuasion of effective illustrations, never preach a sermon without them. They select them carefully, prepare them thoughtfully, and present them properly. All preachers who want to preach Christ persuasively will do the same.

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)