What is the Role of and Cautions Concerning Illustrations and Applications in Expository Sermons?
I may do a little Q & A series on preaching. We will see how it goes. I thought it would be helpful since myself and another fellow brother at my church are discipling a few men on preaching. The first topic will be on illustrations and applications, as already indicated in the title. The role of and cautions concerning illustrations and applications are two terms that have received much discussion in the preaching world. Before addressing the cautions, I will first address the role of illustrations and applications. Another danger is when we put too much focus on illustrations.
In regards to applications, that element puts the listener in a state of urgency because applications demands that one’s affections are stirred in order to apply what they learn. Without the use of application, it may not be helpful for the hearer because the listener maybe prone to have head knowledge, but is not applying that knowledge to daily living. But application prevents one from having a passive Christian walk. Applications prompt one to step out of their comfort zone. And when they step out of their comfort zone, they step into Christ’s comfort zone.
I believe the appropriate question that must be asked is not, “Should we use applications?” Instead, it should be, “What type of illustrations and applications should one use?” Answering those questions will help one understand the cautions concerning what illustrations and applications should be used in expository sermons.
Let’s first tackle illustrations. Illustrations can be misapplied in many areas, but one area that I see it being misapplied negatively is towards the doctrine of penal substitution. For example, before one uses an illustration for penal substitution, the expositor must answer these questions, “Does the illustration deny the active, consenting involvement of the Father and the Son? Does the illustration imply a conflict between God’s law and will? Does the illustration imply that God’s action in averting our punishment is unjust? Does the illustration imply a conflict between God’s wrath and God’s will? Does the illustration imply a conflict between God’s attributes? Does the illustration imply that God did not foreordain Christ’s atoning work? Does the illustration imply that no-one actually benefits from God’s saving work” (Steve Jeffery, Michael Ovey, and Andrew Sach, Pierced for Our Transgressions, 334-335)? Because of the misuse of illustrations at times, sometimes it is safer to use illustrations from the Bible when covering doctrines such as penal substitution or other timeless truths such as the Trinity.
As Martyn Lloyd-Jones said, “Stories and illustrations are only meant to illustrate truth, not to call attention to themselves” (Preaching & Preachers, 245). And if you are too infatuated with illustrations and trying to be clever with it at the expense of timeless truth being expounded, I think it would be wise to take heed to Lloyd-Jones exhortation once again, “To me, that kind of thing is not only professionalism at its worst, it is , as I say, the art of the harlot, because it pays too much attention to, and is too much concerned about, enticing people. What is even worse, of course, is when preachers repeat other preachers’ stories and illustrations without acknowledgement; and even yet worse when they buy books of sermons mainly in order to find such stories” (243). This is a convicting and sobering reminder for myself. I do not want people to come hear me because of the clever illustrations I use, but I want people to come to listen because of the truth. If I have done that, then I can be satisfied. Many expository preachers implement illustrations and applications in their sermons. They see a role for them in their sermons because illustrations add clarity concerning complex topics and terms and also adds color to the listener’s mind. And there is nothing inherently wrong with that. We just need to make sure as preachers that we have the eternal perspective so that truth which is the main priority is not kicked to curb because of over emphasis and the cleverness of illustrations that calls attention to the preacher rather than being a means that leads others to the truth.
As for my concern for application, it becomes a concern when applications are too specific and narrow. When that happens, it no longer becomes applicable for the entire congregation. I think it is best not to have narrow applications, but broader applications that will be applicable for all. Some explain that universal applicability by using the term “implication.” Implications still demand the second person plural, which is important, but it does not do it by making its demands too specific to listeners, but to the entire congregation.
I pray that as preachers, we will grow and mature in our preaching. I pray that we will preach with accuracy and power to the best of our ability, but with the assistance of the Holy Spirit. There is much more to be learned concerning applications and illustrations. With more careful practice, the expositor will be more effective.
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