Evangelistic preaching is the proclamation of the gospel in the power of the Holy Spirit with the aim of making disciples.
To be sure, all Christian preaching should expect a response in both faith and action, whether the sermon be a declaration of the facts of personal redemption or the teaching of some great moral truth. But in the more specialized sense, evangelistic preaching concerns the immediate message of salvation, a message that carries with it the imperative that all persons must repent and believe the Gospel.
Such preaching is not necessarily any special type of sermon or homiletical method; rather, it is preaching distinguished by the call for commitment to the Son of God who loved us and gave Himself for us.1
Preparing and delivering such a message is a holy task, and calls forth every resource of mind and spirit that God has given. Though the provisions for fulfilling the work are all of grace, this does not take away the responsibility of the preacher observing basic rules of effective sermon building. With this in mind, the following nine principles appear to me most crucial.
1. Pray it Through
The place to begin in sermon preparation is on our knees. Here, in renewal of our faith and our calling, totally submitted to the Lordship of Christ, we are in a position to receive strength and wisdom for the message. It may be that before we can get direction in what to tell others, we will have to hear what God has to say about correcting some deficiencies in our own lives, and confess the sin. Only when our vessel is clean are we fit for the Master’s use (2 Timothy 2:21).
With a heart in tune with the will of God, we can then project our thoughts to the persons to whom we will be speaking, trying to be sensitive to their needs. A message that hits home must meet people where they are, both in their interests and attitudes concerning the subject of the sermon, as well as their feelings toward the preacher.
By knowing the nature of the audience, understanding where they are coming from, the evangelist can make the appeal more direct and meaningful in their situation.
As the burden of the message, and its structure, takes form, it is prayed over, and presented unto God as an offering of devotion. There is a sense in which it is preached to God before anyone else. Only after the sermon has His approval can the evangelist be confident in proclaiming it to the people.
The spirit of prayer continues on through delivery. It is this communication with heaven that makes the sermon “mighty through God to the pulling down of strongholds (2 Corinthians 10:4). As Sidlow Baxter has put it, “men may spurn our appeals, reject our message, oppose our arguments, dispose our persons — but they are helpless against our prayers.”2
Here is evangelism in its most basic expression. To paraphrase the words of Dr. Lewis Sperry Chafer, “Winning souls is more a work of pleading for them than a service of pleading with them.”3
2. Lift up Jesus
The evangelistic message itself, whatever its style, will center in Jesus Christ (I Corinthians 1:23; 2 Corinthians 4:5; Acts 5:42), “the fullness of the Godhead bodily” (Colossians 2:9).
He is the Evangel — “the Good News” incarnate, “the Lamb of God which taketh away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). In Him every redemptive truth begins and ends. “There is none other Name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved” (Acts 4:12b). Unless people see Him, regardless of what else impresses them, they will not be drawn to God.
The Revelations reaches its climax at the blood-red hill of Calvary. There nearly two thousand years ago Jesus bore our sins in His own body on the cross, suffering in our stead, “the Just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God” (1 Peter 2:18). Though any interpretation of His sacrifice falls short of its full meaning, it is clear that Christ, by offering Himself once and for all, made a perfect and complete atonement for the sins of the world.
Herein is the wonder of the Gospel. “God commendeth His love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). Jesus paid it all. Nothing deserved! Nothing earned! In our complete helplessness, bankrupt of all natural goodness, He did for us what we could never do for ourselves.
His bodily resurrection and ascension into heaven bring the cross forcibly to attention. When one dies who has the power to rise from the grave, in all honesty we must ask why He ever died in the first place. To this penetrating question, the evangelist declares: He died for you, and was raised for your salvation (Romans 4:24-25).
The whole message, then, turns on what is done with Jesus (Acts 17:31). Keenly aware of this, the evangelist must seek to bring into focus the person and work of the Saviour. It matters little what the people think of the preacher; everything depends upon what they believe about Christ.
That is why the measure of a sermon’s power is the degree to which it exalts the Lord and makes the audience aware of His claims upon their lives. With this in mind, listening to the remarks of people after a preaching service is very interesting. If they talk more about the preacher than about Jesus it may be that the sermon missed the mark.
3. Use the Scripture
Preaching that brings persons to the Saviour answers to the spirit and letter of God-breathed Scripture. The word written in the Book discloses Christ the Living Word (John 20:21). It is the means by which the mind is illuminated (2 Timothy 3:16), faith is kindled (Romans 10:16), and the heart is recreated according to the purpose of God (1 Peter 1:23; 2 Peter 1:4; John 17:17). For this reason, the redemptive power of any sermon relates directly to the way one uses the immutable, inerrant and life-changing Word of God.
This Book is the “Sword of the Spirit” in the preacher’s hand (Ephesians 6:17). It gives authority to the message. Without its sure testimony, the sermon would be little more than a statement of human experience.
Of course, the preacher must support the message by clear personal witness; but the ultimate authority for what is preached must be the written Word. Experience can be trusted only when it accords with the inspired Scriptures.
Thus the evangelist is commissioned simply to “preach the Word” (2 Timothy 4:2). As an ambassador of the King of heaven, he is not called to validate the message, nor to speculate or argue about conflicting opinions on the subject. God has spoken, and the message imbued with this conviction is an inexorable declaration: “Thus saith the Lord!”
Such preaching needs neither defense nor explanation. The Spirit of God who gave the Word will bear witness to its truthfulness (1 John 5:6; 2 Peter 1:21), and He will not let it return unto Him void (Isaiah 55:11).
This is exemplified in the preaching of Billy Graham. However, there was a time in his early ministry when this confidence was missing, and he had to duel with doubts about the Bible’s integrity. The struggle came to a head one evening in 1949, when alone in the mountains of California, he knelt before the open Bible, and said:
Here and now, by faith, I accept the Bible as Thy Word. I take it all. I take it without reservations. Where there are things I cannot understand, I will reserve judgment until I receive more light. If this pleases Thee, give me authority as I proclaim Thy Word, and through that authority convict me of sin and turn sinners to the Saviour.”4
Within weeks the Los Angeles Crusade started. There his preaching began to manifest a new power, as he quit trying to prove the Scripture, and simply declared the truth. Over and over again, he heard himself saying, “the Bible says ….”
To use his words: “I felt as though I were merely a voice through which the Holy Spirit was speaking.”5
It was a new discovery for the young evangelist. He found that people were not especially interested in his ideas, nor were they drawn to moving oratory. They were hungry “to hear what God had to say through His Holy Word.”6
This is a lesson every preacher must learn. And until it is reflected in our sermons, not much that we say is likely to generate faith in the hearts of hearers.
4. Dig Out Sin
Under the refining light of the Word of God, the evangelist’s message makes people face themselves before the cross. The cloak of self-righteousness is pulled away (John 15:22), showing the deceitfulness of sin.
The pretense of living independently from God is seen for what it is — the creature actually holding the will of the Creator with contempt, worshiping his own works as a false god (Romans 1:25). Its ultimate expression comes in the defiant rejection of Jesus Christ, the promised Messiah. “He came unto His own, and His own received Him not” (John 1:11).
Knowing, therefore, the terror of the Lord, the evangelist strikes at the heart of sin. Urging at one time the greatness of the rebel’s guilt and at another the imminence of his doom, he seeks to awaken the human conscience. The awfulness of sin becomes vivid. Although all the diverse kinds of sin cannot be treated in one sermon, at least, the basic issue of unbelief and disobedience can be disclosed, with perhaps a few specific applications to the local situation.
There should never be any confusion about whom the evangelist is addressing. It is not sin in theory but the sinner in practice that he is talking about.
Indeed, it might well seem to the sinner that the preacher has been following him around all week, noting every wrong deed and thought. While, of course, considerations of propriety and good sense must be kept in mind, still a sermon must get under a person’s skin and make him squirm under conviction of sin.
A message that does not deal with this cause of all human woe, individually and collectively, is irrelevant to human need. Though the tragedy of rebellion and its result may be bad news, still the Gospel shines through, for God judges that He might save. One thing is certain: if people do not recognize their problem, they will not want the remedy.
5. Keep to the Point
The evangelistic sermon is based on a convincing course of reason. Notwithstanding the fad of irrational thinking among some existentialist ministers, consistency is still a mark of truth, and a Gospel sermon should reflect this character.
For this to happen, the objective of the message must be perfectly clear. The preacher should ask himself: what is it that I want to get across? Then try to visualize the response expected.
Unless the evangelist knows what he is aiming for, almost certainly no one else will catch on. As an exercise, it may be helpful to write out the objective in a sentence, then see if that is what you want to accomplish.
However the message may be structured, a good, balanced outline will go a long way in keeping it on course. The points should flow effortlessly out of the passage, and be arranged in such a way that each builds upon the other, creating a progression of thought leading up to the appeal for decision. When this is done well, the invitation seems as natural as it is necessary.
Brevity is important. The rule is to include nothing in the sermon that can be excluded. Wise counsel was given by John Wesley when he told his preachers: “Take care not to ramble, but keep to the text, and make out what you take in hand.”7
Illustrations and human interest stories can be used as needed to clarify or to make more impressive an idea. Yet one should keep in mind that the strength of the sermon does not rest primarily in the illustrative material. People like stories, and interest in the sermon must be sustained; but the force of the truth itself must come across.
6. Make it Simple
A well-prepared sermon will be simple in its basic organization and language (2 Corinthians 11:3). Truth, when reduced to its highest expression, is always simple. Anybody can make the Gospel difficult to comprehend, but the person of wisdom says it so that a child can understand.
Some preachers, I am afraid, feign intellectual superiority by sermonizing in high-sounding terms, as if the message needed to be sophisticated in order to appeal to the well-educated. That some clerics labor under this illusion may partially explain why so many people, including university students, scorn the church. Whenever a theological discourse gets so complicated that only a college graduate can understand it, then something is wrong, either with the theology or with its presentation.
The admonition is to speak “in simplicity and godly sincerity, not with fleshly wisdom, but by the grace of God” (2 Corinthians 1:12). Paul, probably the most astute theologian of the church, expressed the ideal when he wrote: “My speech and my preaching was not with enticing words of man’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men but in the power of God” (1 Corinthians 2:4-5).
Plain language and familiar terms will help accomplish this. Not that everything in the message can be given an easy explanation; much that is revealed by God remains a mystery, such as the nature of the Trinity, the Incarnation, or the miraculous work of the Holy Spirit. But when the Gospel of salvation is stated plainly as a fact, it makes sense to the honest soul seeking after God.
7. Plead for Souls
The evangelist is not content merely to state the Gospel; he expects people to be changed by it. The sermon thus becomes a plea in the Name of Christ that persons be “reconciled to God” (2 Corinthians 5:20). A living, personal, certain experience of saving grace is the aim of the message.
Definitions of that experience are not nearly “so important as its reality. Without quibbling over terms, the preacher directs the sinner to the mercy seat, where by faith he or she can be redeemed in the precious blood of the Lamb.
This keeps the sermon from becoming merely a pious statement of orthodoxy. To be sure, the message must be unapologetically sound in doctrine but its orthodoxy must be clothed with the brokenness of a preacher who knows that, except for the grace of God, he would be as those who have no hope.
Humbled by this knowledge, the evangelist cannot be judgmental and brazen in pronouncements against others. Rather he enters into their sorrows with compassion wrung from his own deep experience with God, and the sermon reflects this in a tenderness that the hearer is quick to recognize.
A few years after the death of the famous preacher, Robert Murray McCheyne, a young minister visited his church to discover, as he explained, the secret of the man’s amazing influence. The sexton, who had served under Mr. McCheyne, took the youthful inquirer into the vestry, and asked him to sit in the chair used by the old preacher.
“Now put your elbows on the table,” he said.
“Now put your face in your hands.” The visitor obeyed.
“Now let the tears flow! That was the way Mr. McCheyne used to do!”
The sexton then led the minister to the pulpit; and gave him a fresh series of instructions.
“Put your elbows down on the pulpit!” He put his elbows down.
“Now put your face in your hands!” He did as he was told.
“Now let the tears flow! That was the way Mr. McCheyne used to do!”8
Yes, that is the way to do it. Not that physical tears must fall, but that the compassion which they represent should characterize every preacher feeling the weight of lost souls, knowing that their destiny may hang upon his sermon.
8. Call for a Verdict
The decision is what makes the difference. If the will is not moved to action, there can be no salvation (Romans 10:13). The truth of the message, thus, is saved from degenerating into mere rationalism on the one hand and mere emotionalism on the other if it is linked with a personal response.
To stir people to great aspirations without also giving them something that they can do about it leaves them worse off than they were before. They will likely become either more confused in their thinking or more indifferent in their will.
Consequently, once the Gospel is made clear, the evangelist must call to account each person who hears the message. So far as he knows, this may be their last opportunity to respond.
With this burden, the evangelist cries out almost with a sense of desperation. Tremendous issues are at stake. Immortal souls are perishing in sin. Judgment is certain. God offers mercy through the blood of His Son. All must repent and believe the Gospel. Heaven and Hell are in the balance. Time is running out. “Behold, now is the day of salvation” (2 Corinthians 6:2b).
Preaching that is dilatory about this fact lacks evangelistic relevance. The Gospel does not permit people the luxury of indecision. In the presence of the crucified and living King of kings, one cannot be neutral. To deliberately ignore Christ is to live in a state of refusing forgiveness; it is to close the door to the only way of life, and life abundantly.
To some persons this assertion seems arrogant. A man once said to Dr. R. A. Torrey, “I’m not a Christian, but I am moral and upright. I would like to know what you have against me.” Torrey looked the man in the eye, and replied, “I charge you, sir, with treason against heaven’s King.”9
That is the issue which must be faced. It is not finally our Gospel, but His. And because Jesus Christ is Lord, before Him every knee must bow.
In this obeisance, therefore, the evangelist seeks to “persuade men” (2 Corinthians 5:11). “Whosoever will” may come (Revelation 22:17). He cannot make the decision for anyone, but as God leads, he is responsible for doing what he can to make the issues clear. Eternal destinies are at stake.
9. Depend on the Holy Spirit
Apart from this ingredient, everything said thus far would be sounding brass and tinkling cymbal. The Spirit of God must have control. Throughout the sermon presentation, delivery and invitation, He is the divine enabler.
Preaching the Gospel, as any Christian work, is not contrived by human ingenuity. All we can do is to make ourselves available for the Spirit to use. Failure to appreciate this truth, I suspect, is the reason so many sermons fall flat.
The third Person of the Trinity effects in and through us what Christ has done for us. It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing (John 6:63). He initiates and guides prayer. He lifts up the Son, thereby drawing persons to the Father. He makes the inspired Scripture come alive.
He convicts of sin, of righteousness and of judgment. He guides the obedient servant into truth, making the message clear to seeking hearts. He recreates and sanctifies through the Word. And He extends the call for weary and heavy-laden souls to come to Jesus. From beginning to end, the whole enterprise of evangelism is in the authority and demonstration of God’s Spirit.
We can understand why the glorified Saviour told His disciples to tarry until they be filled with His Spirit (Luke 24:49; Acts 1:4-5, 8). How else could they fulfill their mission? The Word and work of their Lord had to become a burning compulsion within them. The superhuman ministry to which they were called required supernatural help — an enduement of power from on high.
This is nowhere more necessary than with Gospel preachers. Any sermon that circumvents this provision will be as lifeless as it is barren. So let us trust Him. As God has called us into His harvest, He will provide what is needed to do the work. The secret of evangelism finally is to let the Holy Spirit have His way.
One January day in 1930, Walter Vivian of CBS was checking the equipment which had been installed to carry the message of King George of England to the British navy around the world. In a last minute inspection, Vivian discovered a break in the wires. There was no time for it to be repaired. So, grasping the two segments of the wire each with a hand, he became the conductor through which 250 volts of electricity passed. He came out of the experience with burned hands, but the King’s message went through.
So may it be with us in transmitting the message of the King of Heaven. Whatever it takes, wherever we may be placed in His service, let us become a conductor through which the Spirit can bring the Good News of salvation unto the ends of the earth until God calls us home.
“Preparing and Delivering an Evangelistic Message” by Robert E. Coleman. Adapted from The Calling of an Evangelist,” (c) 1987 World Wide Publications. Used by permission.
1. Much of this presentation is adapted from my article, “An Evangelistic Sermon Checklist,” Christianity Today, Nov. 5, 1965, pp. 27-28; as well as my small book, The Heartbeat of Evangelism (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1985).
2. Sidlow Baxter, quoted by Cameron V. Thompson, Master Secrets of Prayer. (Guatemala: Service of Life Schools), p. 4.
3. Lewis Sperry Chafer, True Evangelism. (London: Marshall, Morgan and Scott, 1919), p. 93.
4. Billy Graham, “Biblical Authority in Evangelism” Christianity Today, Oct. 15, 1956, p. 6. The events surrounding this commitment are described by John Pollock, Billy Graham: The Authorized Biography (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1966), pp. 78-9.
5. Graham, Ibid.
6. Graham, Ibid.
7. Methodist Discipline (New York, 1784), p. 19.
8. Taken from F. W. Boreham, A Late Look Surging (London: The Epworth Press, 1945), p. 66.
9. Portrait of R. A. Torrey in Great Gospel Sermons, I (New York: Flemming H. Revell, 1949), p. 138.
Evangelistic preaching is the proclamation of the gospel in the power of the Holy Spirit with the aim of making disciples.