Struggling to Make Your Sermons Evangelistic? You’re Not Alone.

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As pastors, we acknowledge the importance of evangelism in the Christian life. Sharing the good news was one of the last directives that our Lord gave His disciples (Matt. 18:18–20), and the early church’s rapid growth largely was due to the believers’ obedience to this command. Given its central role in the New Testament, evangelism should be a key feature in our lives—including in our preaching.

But how much evangelistic preaching is actually being done today? Before we try to answer this question, we should reflect on our own ministry contexts. Do our preaching plans feature sermons that are strictly evangelistic? Do we pray for the lost in our church fellowships? Do we preach only to feed the sheep or also to win the lost? Truthfully, in many churches, there seems to be an absence of effective, biblical, expositional, evangelistic preaching.

No doubt, preaching evangelistically is a challenge. To help equip us for the task, let’s first consider an approach to drafting and preaching evangelistic sermons, then work through a sample exposition of Luke 15 as a model for this kind of preaching.

“There seems to be an absence of effective, biblical, expositional, evangelistic preaching in our churches.”

An Approach to Evangelistic Preaching

Many of us neglect preaching with an eye toward evangelism because it feels unnatural. Some of us wouldn’t even know where to start; it can feel like an insurmountable task. As we develop an approach, we should address why we don’t preach evangelistically and how we can begin.Six Reasons We Don’t Preach Evangelistically

Why might we not preach evangelistically? As we consider several possible reasons, prayerfully reflect upon your own ministry, determining which of these are true for you:

  1. We distinguish too sharply between preaching that edifies and preaching that evangelizes. While there is some truth in the mantra “We gather to learn, and we scatter to evangelize,” we can take this principle too far, inadvertently doing away with evangelistic sermons altogether. 
  2. We are unclear on the nature of the Gospel that we’re called to proclaim. This lack of clarity can cause us to preach the Gospel either with a confused vagueness or with a familiarity that breeds a degree of contempt.
  3. We lack effective role models. It’s probably accurate to say that most influential voices in North American pulpits, for all that they’re known for, aren’t best known for their effective evangelistic preaching.
  4. We are confused about the nature of true, biblical preaching. J. I. Packer, paraphrasing Robert Bolton, remarks, “If one preaches the Bible biblically, one cannot help preaching the gospel all the time, and every sermon will be … at least by implication evangelistic.”
  5. We shy away from the challenges this type of preaching presents. Evangelistic preaching is difficult, demanding that we bring together all that God has given us in terms of our mental, spiritual, creative, and imaginative faculties.
  6. We think that we’re preaching evangelistically when in point of fact, we’re not. Graeme Goldsworthy puts it this way: “Telling people the need for the gospel, both their felt need and their real need, is plainly important, but it is not itself the gospel. When we have explained what God has done for us in Christ—the gospel—then we may go on to explain the benefits of receiving the gospel and the perils of ignoring it.”

The reasons we don’t preach evangelistically are numerous, requiring discipline on our end and divine enabling if we are to overcome them. How, then, can we begin preaching these kinds of sermons?

While there is some truth in the mantra “We gather to learn, and we scatter to evangelize,” we can take this principle too far, inadvertently doing away with evangelistic sermons altogether.

How to Begin Preaching Evangelistically

Whenever we approach an evangelistic text or theme, we can follow a simple framework to prepare and deliver a winsome Gospel sermon. While the following principles can apply to preaching of any kind, they’re especially helpful in our efforts to preach evangelistically.

First, we think ourselves empty. We think about anything and everything that comes into our minds in relationship to the matter before us, and we write it down. Some of what we discover will be helpful, but most of it won’t, going the way of the tailor’s excess cloth in the making of a quality suit. To get us thinking along these lines, we may bring questions like these to bear on the text: What does the passage say? Why does it say it that way? How does it fit in the broader context? What is surprising about it?

Second, we read ourselves full. We read the biblical passage, perhaps in a few different English translations and the original Hebrew or Greek, as we’re able. We read the passage also in its literary and historical contexts, determining whether it’s parable or narrative, pre-exile or post-resurrection, etc. We’ll also read commentaries, ranging from the technical to the more pastoral in nature. Our aim should be to become as well-versed in the text as we can before we preach it.

Next, we write ourselves clear. There’s no shortcut to lucidity and fluidity of speech in our preaching. Our sermons will be set free as we engage the text and write things down. We aim to craft a compelling outline, but we don’t die on the hill of alliterating every point. Our outlines may provide clarity, but they’re not ultimately what effects transformation in our hearers.

Fourthly, we pray ourselves hot. There’s no chance of fire in the pews if there’s an iceberg in the pulpit. It’s absolutely imperative that we come to God in the process. So we think, read, write, and pray, and penultimately, we endeavor to be ourselves without preaching ourselves. Simply put, the preacher’s task it to clear the way, declare the way, and get out of the way, that we might make much of the one who is the Way. Many of us would do well to lay aside the notion of emulating some other preacher and instead resolve to embrace a few unifying features in our preaching ministries: commitment to Christ and the Scriptures and a genuine dependence upon the Spirit of God.

A Model for Evangelistic Preaching

Now, how can we take the principles for preaching and evangelism and have them translate to preaching a sermon? We’ll work through Luke 15:11–32, the parable of the prodigal son—a well-known evangelistic text—as a sort of model from which we can learn and that we can apply to our own contexts. The parable presents us with essential Gospel themes in a series of compelling pictures.

The First Picture: A Crowd of “Saints” and Sinners

Luke sets the scene for us in verses 1–2 , where he provides the context for the teaching that follows. Present with Jesus are a group of saints and sinners—or at least those who regarded themselves as saints and those who knew themselves to be sinners. It wasn’t His first time encountering these two groups, for Luke had recorded in chapter 5 a key event:

The Pharisees and their scribes grumbled at his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” And Jesus answered them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.” (Luke 5:30–32)

So, in Luke 15, we discover the Pharisees again grumbling, concerned that Jesus associates with the scoundrels of society (v. 2). What was bad news to the supposed “saints” was good news to the sinners. The Pharisees were enraged by what Jesus did, and the tax collectors and sinners were intrigued by what He did.

The preacher’s task it to clear the way, declare the way, and get out of the way, that we might make much of the one who is the Way.

Jesus’ ministry context is not much different from our own. Do we not have these same two groups, the self-righteous and the self-abased, before us each Sunday? And as in Jesus’ day, both groups need the Gospel preached to them—the impossibility of meriting righteousness by our works and a resting in the finished work of Christ (Matt. 11:28–30). It’s this message that we must bring to bear on our hearers.

The Second Picture: A Bedroom, a Bedsit, and a Pigsty

What’s the key issue in the parable of the lost son? Clearly, it’s that the younger of the two sons is overtly estranged from his father. Jesus paints for us the picture beginning in verse 13: “The younger son gathered all he had,” leaving with a resolve never to return. In other words, the son emptied his bedroom—a constant reminder to his father that he had turned his back on him.

From the empty bedroom comes the picture of a lonely bedsit—an efficiency apartment, more or less. The Prodigal “squandered his property in reckless living,” until he “had spent everything” (vv. 13–14). Having pushed the limits in his wild living, he then ends up in a circumstance similar to the one he had left behind: an empty bedroom, and then a lonely bedsit. And it digresses even further, the son eventually winding up as a hired hand in a pigsty (v. 16).

If we were preaching this text evangelistically, we wouldn’t hasten to move on from verse 16. We would instead lean into it, highlighting (honestly, of course) sin’s devastating effects in our hearers’ lives. When the son had left home—confident, wealthy, and hopeful—he never could have imagined that he would end up in this situation. He had left in search of liberation, down the road to opportunity, but it wound up a dead-end street, the son in a helpless and humiliated condition. Isn’t this an apt description of the fruit of our own rebellion against God? Indeed, the Prodigal’s condition, rightly understood, exposes the hopeless condition of all those who are far from God.

The Third Picture: A Waiting, Watching, Loving Father

Following the text’s movement, we look finally at the snapshots Jesus provides of the father in the parable. The son, having come to his senses, decides he will return home (vv. 17–19). And when he does, he’s greeted not with cold indifference but by a waiting, watching, and loving father (vv. 20–24). With a heart of compassion, he goes to his son, embraces him in arms of welcome, kisses him as an expression of his tenderness, and calls for a celebration. What an amazing picture this is!

The Prodigal’s condition exposes our own hopeless condition as men and women far from God.

Incidentally, the self-righteous shake their heads at scenes like this one. The smug, self-sufficient, legalistic person will always find fault with a father who freely forgives and abundantly pardons. “Why doesn’t the son get what he deserves?” he asks. But this question misses the story’s force entirely. It’s a story of tremendous grace toward the undeserving.

Here's the point: God loves saving sinners. This truth is fundamental to the biblical storyline, to the heart of God, and to our evangelism. Jesus tells this story so that rigid saints may be made uncomfortable and hopeless sinners may discover God’s love. Do our sermons bring this message to bear on both the “saint” and sinner in our congregations? Or do we opt instead for lecturing on peripheral doctrines that often seem divorced from any real, heart-level burden for the lost in our midst?

Evangelistic Preaching Is Gospel Preaching

If we wish to preach this text—or any text, really—evangelistically, we cannot do so apart from the cross. In other words, we will never understand God’s compassion for the lost without viewing it through the lens of Calvary.

As we piece together the puzzle that is Luke 15, we discover that the story has a piece missing. It’s not that there is something missing but that there is actually someone missing—and the very one who’s telling the parable. Jesus tells the story of the Prodigal in light of the fact that He will soon go up to Jerusalem to be mocked, scourged, and crucified and will rise on the third day. In our preaching, we must present this missing piece to our people, commending to them the beauty and agony of Christ crucified for sinners.

Make no mistake: there is no evangelistic preaching without the Gospel. If we’re going to preach to win the lost, our sermons should strike the chord of Romans 5:8: “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” And then, pressing upon burdened hearts, we ask, “Have you ever heard this good news? Has anyone ever explained to you what God has done in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ?” For God uses this kind of preaching to save sinners (1 Cor. 1:21).


This article was adapted from the sermons “Evangelistic Preaching — Part One” and “Part Two” by Alistair Begg.

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Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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