An illustration has been described as a door through which the hearer passes to understanding. While perhaps an oversimplification, it nevertheless captures the essence of the concept. In an illustration, the preacher attempts to relate the truth (the unknown) that he hopes to teach to the hearer’s experience (the known) in a manner that enables the hearer to accept the truth and act upon it. Put differently, an illustration enables the hearers to accept truth because they recognize it in their own experience. For example, Jesus taught the nature of the kingdom (truth) by comparing it with a pearl of great price (the hearers’ experience). In doing so, he neither diminished divine truth nor deified experience. He used experience to demonstrate truth.
Some have suggested as a general rule that if the preacher can’t illustrate a point, he shouldn’t preach it. This does not mean that God cannot or will not use preaching that neglects illustration. Nor does it mean that every point must be illustrated. It does mean that if the preacher cannot think of an illustration of the point that he is preaching, that point may at best be irrelevant. At worst it may be untrue.
Sermons without illustrations do not appeal to the imagination, one of the greatest gifts with which God endowed mankind. Imagination makes the invisible, visible. Illustrations make the abstract, concrete; the ancient, modern; the unfamiliar, familiar; the general, specific; and the vague, unambiguous. Illustrations recognize the nature of the mind – it is not so much a forum for debate as it is a gallery for pictures, in which metaphors, similes, parables, etc. are displayed.
When illustrations are based upon the hearer’s life experience (which is the hearer’s reality), the hearer is convinced (by persuasion, common sense, or logic) that the truth illustrated is also reality. For this reason, illustrations must be true to life. Hearers will not recognize their experience in inaccurate illustrations that do not honestly depict how they act or feel. As a result, the hearers will conclude that the preacher misunderstands them and cannot identify with their experience. Consequently, they will not listen.
In thinking about his sermon, the preacher should ask, “What difference does it make?” If there is no meaningful answer to that question, he will do better to select a different subject that will make a difference. If there is a meaningful answer to that question, he may be close to a good illustration. A good illustration has been likened to a window through which the hearer is enabled to “see” the truth. A preacher who uses too many illustrations creates a glass house (all windows, no walls) that blinds from glare. The preacher who uses too few illustrations creates a prison (all walls, no windows) that no hearer enters voluntarily or enjoys. A wise preacher remembers the Oriental proverb that speaks powerfully to the wisdom of properly illustrating a sermon: “He is the eloquent man who turns his hearers’ ears into eyes, and makes them see what he speaks of.”
You Must Hear the Gospel
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) "So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God." (Romans 10:17)
You Must Believe
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
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
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)
You Must Be Baptized
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!
You Must Be Faithful Unto Death
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)