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In the second post from Brother Steven J. Cole’s responses to questions about expository preaching, we look at a few questions which cover some practical aspects of sermon preparation relating to illustrations, application, and gospel connections.
What is a good way to have apt illustrations in the expository sermons?
I am always looking for good illustrations or quotations that explain biblical truth. The best ones are those that come from my own life and experience. Write them down and file them or you’ll forget them. But I also look for illustrations in magazines (Readers Digest), books, devotional booklets (“Our Daily Bread”), etc. I have some books of illustrations that are sometimes helpful (Barnhouse, Ironside, Paul Tan’s Encyclopedia of 7,700 Illustrations, etc.). Reading or listening to other preachers who are good at illustrating is another source (Boice is very good). You can get a lot of this on the web now. When I began in the late 1960’s, personal computers did not exist. So I used Dr. Robinson’s 3x5 card system. Now there is probably a better way to compile and organize illustrations on your computer. I file them by topic and cross reference them. I also cross reference them to a Bible file (Genesis-Revelation) where I save relevant quotes or illustrations. Sometimes I reuse illustrations, but I try not to use one that I’ve used in the past few years.
Some focus more on the exposition of the text and less on application and vice versa. How to strike the balance?
This depends on the text itself. Some texts are pretty easy to explain, whereas others require a lot of time to explain the meaning before you can apply it. But application (asking, “So what?”) should be the bottom line of every text. The proper application must be built on sound interpretation. What difference should this sermon make in my life and in the lives of my congregation? That’s fairly easy if the text is, “Rejoice always,” or “Pray without ceasing.” You have to explain what those concepts mean practically, but then you can focus on how to apply them. It’s much more difficult if the text is the table of nations in Genesis 10 or the lists of the names of those who returned to Jerusalem after the Babylonian captivity in Ezra 2 or Nehemiah 7.
How do you make applications? How broad or how specific should they be?
The application of some texts is obvious: “Rejoice always!” But you have to anticipate how the congregation will respond based on your knowledge of their situations. Be sensitive! If someone has just lost a mate or a child, how are they supposed to rejoice? Is it wrong for them to grieve? How do you rejoice while grieving? To what extent should a believer yield to feelings versus trusting in the Lord and His promises? Don’t throw out pious platitudes that gloss over these very real issues. If you struggle with applying the text in your life, be honest in saying so. For example, I struggle with prayer, especially praying for things that I know would be for God’s glory, but He hasn’t answered in spite of my decades of prayer (the salvation of loved ones, revival in our city and nation, etc.). Don’t put on the false front that you’ve got it all together in these difficult issues. I try to be as specific as possible by describing what it looks like when you obey this command. For example, it’s easy to think, “I love my wife.” Great! But we are to love our wives as Christ loved the church and gave Himself for her. This requires death to my selfishness and putting the good of my wife first. Specifically, this may mean putting down my book and getting up to help my wife in the kitchen or to help her deal with the children while she is trying to fix dinner. It requires sacrificing my time to spend time with my children. It requires verbally telling my wife and children that I love them and showing it by enjoying their company.
Or, if the application is, “Don’t steal, but labour with your hands” (Eph. 4:28), you need to apply this specifically to ways that a businessman can steal from his customers, or an employee can steal time or goods from his employer. If your application singles out an individual in your congregation, you should probably contact him before the sermon and explain what you’re doing and why. I had a Presbyterian man who attended our church get very angry with me when I preached on baptism. I said that while I love John Calvin, when he gets to baptism, he abandons both logic and Scripture. I think he felt singled out (although another Presbyterian man didn’t have a problem with what I said). I think the angry man’s pride was his issue. He also got upset with me when he heard that I had joked (privately out of the pulpit) that R. C. Sproul is now a Baptist! Oh well!
What are the things you look for when making gospel connections?
Not every text is directly related to the gospel, but usually you can bring it home to the gospel. For example, a text that exhorts believers to some moral imperative (tell the truth, don’t steal, work to support your family, etc.) can be either begun or ended by noting that these moral commands are built on the assumption that you have experienced the new birth. You can briefly explain what this means and emphasize that keeping these commands does not get anyone into heaven. With some OT texts, I am hesitant to read Christ onto every page (as one book tells us to do), unless the connection is obvious. For example, I do not believe that the story of David and Goliath is there to picture Christ as our champion against our enemy Satan. That is reading something into the context that is simply not there. The story itself shows that the key to David’s victory was his faith in the Lord and his outrage that God’s name was being blasphemed. From there, it’s easy to transition to our need to have genuine faith in Jesus as our Savior, victorious over the enemy, in fighting the battles of faith that we face. And to emphasize that our main concern should not be our comfort, but rather the Lord’s glory. Don’t assume that all regular attenders understand and believe the gospel.
This article is based on the Q&A session with Brother Steve J. Cole in a meeting held in July 2021 entitled ‘Expository Preaching.’ Some of the questions were answered on air and some were answered off air.
Please click here to read Part 1 of the Q&A session article on "Expository Preaching" by Bro. Steven J. Cole.
Please click here to read Part 3 of the Q&A session article on “Expository Preaching” by Bro. Steven J. Cole.
Please click here to read Part 4 of the Q&A session article on “Expository Preaching” by Bro. Steven J. Cole.