The use of illustrations is an art, not a science. While it is not an art that requires the preacher to be a Michelangelo, it does require more ability than that of a monkey throwing paint balloons at a canvas. Just as the first task of the artist is to select the scene to be painted, the first task of the preacher is to select an illustration that both makes the point and appeals to the hearers. Just as masterpieces have never been produced with one swish of the brush, good illustrations are rarely the product of the inspiration of the moment. The preacher should test and perfect his illustrations by first presenting them to his wife, child, or secretary. If the illustration is good, there will be an immediate favorable reaction. If the reaction is less than favorable, the illustration should either be perfected or be discarded in favor of another. To use less than a good illustration detracts from the truth that is being taught.
Illustrations should be used in every portion of the sermon. Illustrations in the sermon’s introduction may be no more than “sound bites” designed to whet the hearers’ mental appetite for what follows. Illustrations in the sermon’s conclusion help the hearer to remember what has been said. The most important illustrations, however, may be those used in the sermon’s body where the life-sustaining nutrients should be found. While the difference between a well illustrated sermon and a sermon having either poor or no illustrations is similar to the difference between obtaining necessary nutrients through a delicious meal or through vitamin pills, it is not the same. Nutrients can be obtained through vitamin pills. When the hearer has “turned off” the preacher, the hearer can starve to death in the midst of nutrients.
Because properly illustrating a sermon is a difficult task, and using illustrations well is even harder, some refuse to use them. Instead of applying themselves to learn how to prepare and use illustrations effectively, they eliminate illustrations, criticize those who use them, and belittle hearers who appreciate them. Failure to use illustrations is not a sign of intellectual surrender. To the contrary, failure to use illustrations is a sign of intellectual lethargy and indifference to the hearers. The use of illustrations affirms that the preacher places a priority on the hearer’s understanding. Illustrations permit the hearers to “see” with their minds. Hearers can tell from the illustrations whether a sermon is practical. The preacher’s illustrations will indicate whether the preacher is kind and discriminating, or whether he lacks those qualities. Neither propositions alone nor illustrations alone can bridge the gap between generations, much less centuries. Illustrations without propositions have no framework; propositions without illustrations often have no meaning. Together they make truth accessible and comprehensible.
The best preaching never addresses the intellect alone or the emotions alone. Man is both an intellectual and an emotional creature. Illustrations that address the intellect through the emotions address the hearers as the scripture addresses them. The aim of preaching is not just to explain or define. Preaching also aims to implore hearers to believe what God said and to do what God commanded. What good is explanation without purpose or motivation?
Christianity is incarnational. Preaching should be as well. Ideas and propositions should be clothed in the flesh of illustrations.
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)