“Good illustrations are hard to find” is a common excuse for their absence from the sermon. Good illustrations are hard to find if the search begins too late. The last minute search often results in reaching for the volume entitled “10,000 [fill in the number] Illustrations for the Busy Preacher.” The “busy preacher” then wanders through general subjects listed in the index, finds stories that are based on the experiences of others and that most likely fall into one of several categories such as unreal, surreal, or unbelievable. Is there a solution to this always-present problem? Where can the preacher find good illustrations that will accomplish the purpose that an illustration is supposed to serve? What sources are available?
The first and most obvious is the Bible itself. Illustrations abound in both its teaching and its history. The preacher should not assume, however, that his hearers know as much Bible as he does (nor should he always assume that they know less). If illustrations are based on little known Biblical historical events, so much background may be required that the illustration loses its impact.
Second, sensitivity to life (people and events) can be one of his most useful tools. The preacher who is a close observer of life will discover illustrations wherever he goes, in whatever he does, and in whomever he meets. A preacher who is not sensitive to illustrations in the everyday events of life is not likely to be sensitive to the everyday needs of his hearers. Most people can write a sentence, punctuate it properly, use a dictionary and spell it correctly, but only those who observe, understand, and speak to life have anything to say.
Third, the preacher should observe himself. After all, he is not an outsider to humanity. While most preachers fear admitting it, they have the same problems and successes with their children, experience the same victories and defeats in their marriages, and enjoy the same triumphs and suffer the same failures in temptation as everyone else. Does it not follow that the preacher’s experience will provide a rich storehouse of meaningful illustrations?
Fourth, the reading preacher will never lack for illustrations. When he reads a novel, illustrations will leap from the page. When he reads newspapers or newsmagazines, illustrations will surface from current events. When he reads books on current social issues, illustrations of the problems facing his hearers will appear in abundance. This requires, of course, that the preacher have a regular reading program in which he is exposed to a wide range of materials. How can the preacher who reads only theology expect to communicate effectively with those who never read theology? The preacher who reads widely will expand his mind, enlarge his horizons, and enrich his hearers.
Fifth, radio and television are a rich source of illustrations. Radio and television cater to people’s tastes and desires, and are expert in speaking to people and providing stories about people. The programs can provide illustrations of both good and evil.
Sixth, the preacher should talk to his hearers and ask for illustrations. Let the hearers know that you will appreciate their providing apt illustrations. There should be little question that the illustrations are meaningful to your hearers if the hearers themselves contribute them.
Seventh, talk with other preachers. Share effective illustrations with them and ask them to do the same. Be careful in adapting the illustrations. Some audiences, having heard two preachers tell the same story in the first person, could only conclude that one (or both) was untruthful!
Finally, as a last resort, use a book of illustrations. But remember that an 18th or 19th century illustration probably doesn’t fit a 20th (almost 21st) century audience. The preacher will most certainly find that, as his sensitivity to illustrations from life increases, his use of books of illustrations will decrease to the point that he can throw them away. In short, he will find that he can walk without crutches. The truth is that the preacher who can’t find a good illustration probably needs to spend less time in his study and more time among God’s people.
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)