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Pastors are divinely called to preach God’s Word. They are to do so persuasively, just as Paul did in Acts 18:4: “And he reasoned in the synagogue every Sabbath, and tried to persuade Jews and Greeks.” Preachers should aim to persuade their listeners not only to hear and receive God’s truth but also to apply it. Unfortunately, as Michael J. Kruger has observed, persuasion is “the one critical thing missing in most sermons.” In offering these three thoughts on persuasive preaching, my goal is to encourage fellow pastors to preach more persuasively.
the power of the spirit
Persuasive preaching is undergirded by a confidence in the Holy Spirit’s power to convert sinners. As you stand behind your pulpit every Sunday, remember that you are preaching to a congregation comprising both sheep and goats. A local church will have both believers and unbelievers. Churches are not perfectly pure. Both unbelievers and believers need the gospel: the former for their salvation, the latter for their sanctification.
Preaching to the unbelievers is like talking to the dead. We see this picture in Ezekiel 37 when God commissioned His prophet to prophesy to dry bones, symbolizing the spiritual condition of “the whole house of Israel” (v. 11). Like these dry bones, the children of Israel were spiritually dead. God commanded Ezekiel to say to them, “O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord” (v. 4). How can you persuade these bones to hear God’s Word when they are in fact dead? This is where you need to be entirely convinced of the Spirit’s supernatural power to make spiritually dead sinners alive together with Christ (Eph. 2:5).
Therefore, preach with full conviction in God’s ability to save even those who you think, humanly speaking, are impossible to be saved. With this conviction, persuade believing members of your church not to give up sharing the gospel with and praying for the conversion of their unbelieving loved ones and friends.
divine sovereignty and human responsibility
Persuasive preaching embraces both divine sovereignty and human responsibility. To call the unbelievers to repent of their sins and believe in Christ may appear illogical. After all, unless God quickens dead souls, they cannot repent and believe, so it would seem to make more sense if God were to open their hearts to the gospel first, before we call them to repentance and faith. While this seems more logical to us, this is not the biblical pattern. For instance, God commanded Ezekiel to proclaim His words to the people of Israel before He regenerated them. “So I prophesied,” the prophet wrote, “as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived” (37:10). Here we learn how God ordinarily uses the proclamation of His Word to regenerate sinners. And while the unbelievers are spiritually dead—and thus unable in and of themselves to believe—they have nevertheless the duty to believe for their salvation. The gospel message is clear: Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved (Acts 16:31). No one can expect to be saved unless he or she believes. In fact, just as pastors are commanded to preach the gospel, so unbelievers are commanded to believe the gospel.
Thus, persuasive preaching does not hesitate to offer the gospel freely and to urge the unregenerate to repent and believe. Hyper-Calvinistic preaching, on the other hand, will argue that since unbelievers are unable to believe because they are dead in their sins, they have no duty to believe in Jesus for salvation. Therefore, to appeal to them to come to Christ by faith is not only irrational but unscriptural.
In contrast, persuasive preaching holds to both divine sovereignty and human responsibility—that is, unless God grants us faith, we cannot believe, yet we have the responsibility to believe. The Spirit is our ultimate convincer, yet preachers are called to be persuaders. But how does persuasive preaching reconcile the two, you might ask? Charles Spurgeon addressed the issue:
You ask me to reconcile the two. I answer, they do not want any reconcilement; I never tried to reconcile them to myself, because I could never see a discrepancy. . . . Both are true; no two truths can be inconsistent with each other; and what you have to do is to believe them both.
head and heart
Persuasive preaching addresses both head and heart, with the goal of inciting the hands to action. As you preach, make an effort to deliver sermons capable of not only informing the minds of your listeners but also touching their hearts and moving their hands to practice what has been preached.
Sadly, some pastors preach like news reporters or lecturers, concerned only with the imparting of knowledge. I once heard a minister say, “My calling as a preacher is simply to teach God’s truth. The application of this truth is not my work but the Holy Spirit’s.” But as Derek W.H. Thomas has argued: “Preaching is teaching plus application. To suggest that preaching is application is to overstate the case, but unless there is a ‘so what?’ component, it is something less than preaching.” For a pastor to preach persuasively, he should know his members well enough to address effectively their spiritual needs and struggles.