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The Neglected Task of Persuasive Preaching

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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.

Jesus’ teachings are like guardrails for our preaching, keeping us from veering off the beaten path of truth.

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.

If we’re going to preach in a manner that addresses men and women’s stubborn wills, then we must be crystal clear on the Gospel.

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). If we’re going to preach in a manner that addresses men and women’s stubborn wills, then we must be crystal clear on the Gospel. Graeme Goldsworthy expounds on the essential elements of our message:

Only the message that another true and obedient human being has come on our behalf, that he has lived for us the kind of life we should live but can’t, that he has paid fully the penalty we deserve for the life we do live but shouldn’t—only this message can give assurance that we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.4

Or consider John Stott’s Gospel summary, in which he centers the message on four key verbs: in the Gospel, Stott notes, God requires righteousness from us, achieves it for us, proclaims it to us, and bestows it upon us by faith.5

If we’re clear on the Gospel, then we can proclaim it with authority. Such authority is not inherent, as if it were a quality which resides in us, but derivative. “We are,” Paul declares, “ambassadors for Christ”; any authority our words possess flows from God, who is “making his appeal through us” (2 Cor. 5:20). Our enlistment into God’s divine taskforce is what makes us bold. Rather than bow a knee to the cultural demand for lighthearted entertainment, we, “knowing the fear of the Lord,” courageously contend for the Gospel (5:11).

The Gospel is not just good. The Gospel is vital, indispensable.

We combat theological confusion with Gospel clarity, cultural fear with divine authority, and, thirdly, personal complacency with heartfelt urgency. Paul “implore[d]” that lost people would be reconciled to God (2 Cor. 5:20). Such a sense of urgency must, however, be authentic, not performative. The people to whom we preach will know whether we care about their condition or not.

And what made Paul’s appeal so earnest was his understanding of theological realities: reconciliation, alienation; life, death; salvation, condemnation; heaven, hell. The Gospel is not just good. The Gospel is vital, indispensable. Are we gripped with these realities? Are we burdened beneath the weight of these truths? If we are to persuade others of their need with any effectiveness, these convictions must precede our preaching.

A Model for 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). But he would first have to mount his defense before Agrippa. That’s where we pick up in the narrative.

Paul’s model for persuasive preaching in this account is instructive for us in four ways.

First, consider the scenario in which Paul found himself (Acts 25:23–27). Luke describes Agrippa and Bernice as entering the hall with “great pomp,” a phrase that translates the Greek word phantasia, from which we get our word fantastic. It’s an indication of pageantry, glory, and significance. These were no ordinary people. Further compounding the matter, Agrippa was of the Herodian dynasty. His great-grandfather was responsible for slaughtering the children of Bethlehem (Matt. 2:16–18), his grandfather for beheading John the Baptist (Matt. 14:3–12), and his father for killing the apostle James (Acts 12:1–2). Agrippa’s reputation preceded him. Surely, as Paul stood before these towering figures, the crowd must have wondered, “How is this poor fellow going to say anything of substance?” Indeed, Paul in his own strength could not provoke life-transformation in anybody. He, like each of us, had to rely on the God whose power “brings princes to nothing” (Isa. 40:23). No matter the prestige of those before whom we stand to preach—whether poor or rich, weak or powerful—our preaching must be God-dependent.

Second, notice the personal tone in Paul’s preaching (Acts 26:1–18). Beginning with his story, Paul outlined his advancement as a Pharisee and his brutal treatment of Christians (vv. 4–11). His audience would have tracked well up to this point—that is, until he testified of his conversion (vv. 12–18). Anticipating their disapproval, Paul identified with their thinking. He essentially said, “Look, I know you all don’t believe that Jesus is the Messiah. I understand that because I used to feel the same way.” Like Paul, we ought to be careful to look for these interpersonal inroads in our preaching, striking a personal tone to meet our audience where they are.

When we are faithful to preach the Gospel, our work in applying it to people’s lives can be simultaneously subtle and transformative.

Next, Paul modeled preaching that persuades in the scope of his message. “I stand here testifying,” Paul declared, “both to small and great” (Acts 26:22). In other words, Paul understood that the Gospel was good news for all people without distinction. He didn’t edit his message based on the room. No, the Gospel is the same for small and great alike because the need is the same for small and great alike. As ministers of Christ’s Gospel, we need to bear in mind that men and women are lost, “having no hope and without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12). While the ways in which people deal with, disguise, or explain their lostness will differ based on time and place, the need and solution are the same.

Finally, Paul’s skillful application is instructive for preaching (Acts 26:27–32). After explaining the Gospel, Paul simply asked, “King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know that you believe” (v. 27). What a subtle, disarming question and statement! He didn’t use a two-handed sword to cut to Agrippa’s heart but a small dagger. Why? Because he did not need to. Paul had already done the careful work of faithfully proclaiming the Gospel in all its fullness. When we are faithful to preach the Gospel, our work in applying it to people’s lives can be simultaneously subtle and transformative.

The Hard Work of Persuasive Preaching

We can be sure that a commitment to preach the Gospel will be hard work. Consider again Paul’s experience. His ministry carried with it “daily pressure … of my anxiety for all the churches” (2 Cor. 11:28). He pleaded with his fellow Jews “with tears and with trials” concerning the hope of Jesus (Acts 20:19). He described his ministry in terms of toiling and striving (1 Tim. 4:10). And as he concluded his appeal to Agrippa, he did so prayerfully: “I would to God that not only you but also all who hear me this day might become such as I am” (Acts 26:29).

Will we commit ourselves to the task of persuasive preaching? Have we counted the cost and trained for the work? Will we stand in the long line of Christ’s ambassadors before us who paved the way for us? Surely the work is worth it!

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

W. E. Sangster, The Craft of Sermon Construction (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster, 1951), 11. ↩︎

C. H. Spurgeon, “Election: Its Defences and Evidences,” The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit 51, no. 2920, 54. ↩︎

Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (New York: Penguin, 1985), 148. ↩︎

Graeme Goldsworthy, Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture: The Application of Biblical Theology to Expository Preaching (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 83–84. ↩︎

John R. W. Stott, The Message of Romans: God’s Good News for the World, The Bible Speaks Today (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2001), 62. ↩︎

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