The Neglected Task of Persuasive Preaching

With both the challenges and prerequisites to preaching persuasively in mind, we would do well to heed a biblical example. The apostle Paul was not merely a theoretician when it came to preaching; he was a practitioner—and we see his philosophy of preaching, so to speak, tested in Acts 25:23–26:32, as he is on trial before King Agrippa. For what was Paul on trial? In short, it was on account of the Gospel. “We have found [Paul] a plague,” the Jewish elders reported, “one who stirs up riots among all the Jews” (Acts 24:5). The implication is clear: faithful Gospel preaching is unsettling to many. Paul is proof that preaching isn’t popular with everyone. So confident was Paul in the Gospel, though, that he appealed to defend it before the highest authority in Rome: Caesar (Acts 25:12). 

Preaching isn’t popular. W. E. Sangster, writing in mid-twentieth-century Britain, remarked, “Preaching is in the shadows. The world does not believe in it.”1 If he were around today, he might have broadened his observation to include not only secular society but the church also.

When we speak of preaching, we don’t mean some well-intentioned individual addressing his audience with a certain degree of enthusiasm. We’re talking about a Spirit-filled, Bible-based, Christ-exalting delivery of the Scripture through a God-appointed ambassador. Regrettably, the appetite for this kind of preaching is dwindling. And if baseline biblical preaching is increasingly unpopular, persuasive biblical preaching is even more so. No preaching is more unpopular than that which addresses men and women’s stubborn wills, calling them to repentance and faith in Jesus.

Yet while unpopular, persuasive preaching is exactly the kind of work to which God calls faithful preachers. The apostolic pattern pushes us to swim against the cultural current, urging lost people to repent and believe the Gospel (Acts 18:4; 28:23; 2 Tim. 4:3–5).

In 2 Corinthians 5:20, Paul outlines the call to persuasive preaching: “Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” Appeal. Implore. Be reconciled. This is the vocabulary of Christ’s embassy. Our task is neither easy nor comfortable. In fact, at least three challenges will accompany the “message of reconciliation”(2 Cor. 5:19) to which we are appointed as stewards.

The Challenges of Persuasive Preaching

The first set of challenges are personal in nature. Really, the challenges preachers face will always be personal, for when we preach, we stand between a holy God and finite men and women. Our sense of natural inhibition is to be expected. It’s no surprise, then, that Paul refers to Gospel ministers as “jars of clay” (2 Cor. 4:7), fragile vessels in whom resides the priceless good news of Jesus.

This sense of inadequacy might reveal itself further in a tendency toward self-preservation. That is, in the spirit of following cultural trends or saving face, we might be at times unwilling to bring the Word’s demands to bear on our listeners. Tragically, the very message lost people need is that which many of us are guilty of altering.

Hear Charles Spurgeon’s plea for powerful, Gospel-focused preaching:

The Gospel is preached in the ears of all; it only comes with power to some. The power that is in the Gospel does not lie in the eloquence of the preacher, otherwise men would be converters of souls. Nor does it lie in the preacher’s learning, otherwise it would consist in the wisdom of man. … We might preach till our tongues rotted, till we should exhaust our lungs and die, but never a soul would be converted unless there were the mysterious power of the Holy Ghost going with it, changing the will of man. O sirs! we might as well preach to stone walls as to preach to humanity unless the Holy Ghost be with the Word, to give it power to convert the soul.2

There are also cultural challenges in preaching. In the late twentieth century, Neil Postman wrote a book titled Amusing Ourselves to Death, in which he asserted, “The name we may properly give to an education without prerequisites, perplexity and exposition is entertainment.”3 What is true of modern education is also true for much of today’s preaching. Where are the calls to think carefully upon, drink deeply from, and respond sober-mindedly to God’s Word as it’s taught from the pulpit? The cultural demand for entertainment has in many places eclipsed the distinguishing marks of true, persuasive preaching.

Finally, ministers encounter theological challenges in their task. Preaching is theological work. But we must see to it that our doctrinal frameworks are shaped by the whole of biblical truth rather than shaping our interpretation of Scripture. For example, the necessity for repentance does not undercut God’s sovereignty in salvation (Acts 17:30), nor is grace in our justification contrary to effort in our sanctification (Phil. 2:12–13). As we formulate our systematic theology, we would do well to ask, “How does this doctrine work in Jesus’ ministry?” The teachings of our Lord in the Gospels are like guardrails for our preaching, keeping us from veering off the beaten path of truth.

The Basics of Persuasive Preaching

For each of the three challenges to our preaching there is a biblical solution. In fact, Paul addresses these personal, cultural, and theological challenges in 2 Corinthians 5:19–21.

The remedy to theological confusion, Paul asserts, is Gospel clarity: “In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them” (2 Cor. 5:19).

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