In conversations I have had recently with both seasoned ministers and young men preparing for pastoral ministry, the subject of what constitutes evangelistic preaching has been discussed. As we wonder why we do not see more conversions in Reformed churches, generally speaking, certainly one simple reason is that we do not preach for them. Are there not times where a preacher should preach not only an edifying gospel-centered sermon, delivered faithfully in his weekly Lord’s Day preaching, but an evangelizing one, whether in the church for special seasons and services or outside the church along the highways and the hedges (Luke 14:23)? If so, what would such a sermon look and sound like?
Below are thirteen characteristics, briefly explained, which help distinguish an evangelistic sermon from what we might call an edification sermon. These qualities should not be understood as mutually exclusive, but rather as weighted tendencies or features.
An evangelistic sermon is aimed primarily at unbelievers; an edification sermon is aimed primarily at Christians. An obvious quality perhaps, yet this question is worth asking. When is the last time you preached or heard such a sermon? We may rightly scoff at the excesses of the widespread Arminian, revivalistic preaching of our day. Certainly I am not saying we should blindly imitate it. Yet why do so many start their Christian journey there and then end up in Reformed congregations? Could it be that the world is not hearing the gospel from Reformed preachers?
An evangelistic sermon addresses especially the lost state of the hearers; an edification sermon addresses all types of struggles people may have. In his book Christ-Centered Preaching, Bryan Chapell uses the term “Fallen Condition Focus” to teach that every sermon should be addressing some ill that befalls us as we live in this broken world. From personal sins to grief to war, the Bible speaks to all the conditions we face living “under the sun.” Yet an evangelistic sermon narrows this focus to speak to the lost condition of the hearers.
An evangelistic sermon makes justification by faith central; an edification sermon may look at other benefits of our salvation. Lost sinners first and foremost need to be instructed on how sins have been atoned for on the cross, the futility of trusting in their own works, and their need to trust Christ alone for their salvation. Justification is the chief focus in an evangelistic sermon. In an edification message, any salvation blessing, from election to adoption to sanctification to glorification, may be emphasized more strongly.
An evangelistic sermon highlights the resurrection; an edification sermon may simply imply it. Every apostolic sermon recorded in the Book of Acts has not only the death but the resurrection of Christ central to its message. So any evangelistic message should show forth the power God demonstrated in raising his Son. Though certainly Christ’s death and resurrection should be foundational to any gospel-centered message, often this can be more implied, referenced, or alluded to in regular worship services.
An evangelistic sermon has a singular application; an edification sermon has many and varied applications. The focus in evangelistic preaching should be laser-like, desiring the hearers to be converted to Christ. That is THE application! In an edification message, the pastor may seek to bring the main theme home with many different applications addressing the varied situations of the congregation.
An evangelistic sermon appeals to the hearers to repent and believe in the gospel; an edification sermon appeals to many responses. Following from the previous quality, evangelistic preaching should make clear to the hearers how one is to receive the gospel. In the more regular preaching in a church, the call to respond can be to many differing activities. The first calls them to do no works but believe; the latter calls them to good works because they believe.
An evangelistic sermon has many illustrations; an edification sermon may have fewer illustrations. Vivid, picturesque speech should mark evangelistic preaching to help the blind to see and the deaf to hear. Jesus so often used the surrounding countryside or the hearers’ immediate situations to speak directly to their hearts in concrete terms.
An evangelistic sermon makes urgency prominent; an edification sermon has urgency present. Though there should be urgency in every sermon that proclaims the kingdom of God, this should be especially so in an evangelistic message. The listeners should not be able to walk away without a sense that truly “today is the day of salvation!” Whether they believe it or not, they should be convinced that the preacher does!
An evangelistic sermon does not use Christian jargon or terms; an edification sermon may use known theological language. In typical preaching at a well-established congregation, the pastor may assume more and so use theological terms such as justification or atonement. Before unbelievers, one should assume very little and either avoid such terms or, if used, explain and illustrate them very clearly.
An evangelistic sermon quotes more from popular sources; an edification sermon quotes more from theological sources. Clearly the apostle Paul practiced this common sense method. Before audiences containing primarily Jews, Paul quoted prophets such as Isaiah or Jeremiah. Yet before the Greeks at Mars Hill in Athens, he quoted their own poets. Again, this is not to an exclusive statement, as an evangelistic sermon may be well-serviced by a good Christian quote. Yet the evangelist will seek to speak in “the language” of his hearers.
An evangelistic sermon has few assumptions; an edification sermon has many assumptions. A minister in his congregation has a whole context in which to preach, as the people will be familiar with what is happening in the life of the church, much of the Bible, and previous messages preached. Indeed, he will have children in the pews before him that will immediately know the stories if he mentions names like Joseph or Elijah. Yet in this increasingly Biblically-illiterate society, that is certainly not the case. So little should be assumed when preaching in an evangelistic setting.
An evangelistic sermon has repeated appeals often; an edification sermon has fewer repeated appeals. I always like to point out to my students that when Peter preached at Pentecost, his sermon was not done when the hearers were cut to the heart, asked what they needed to do, and he called them to repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus for forgiveness of sins (Acts 2:37-38). For we read just a few verses later: “And with many other words he solemnly testified and kept on exhorting them, saying, ‘Be saved from this perverse generation!’” (Acts 2:40) Evangelistic preaching is not only urgent in tone, it urges with words again and again to come to Christ.
An evangelistic sermon is more personal in nature; an edification sermon may be less so. Often I hear instructors cautioning against any personal references in preaching. Though certainly the message is not to be about the preacher and should not be filled with soppy references, I would encourage you to look again at apostolic preaching and writings. They regularly spoke of being witnesses and experiencing the power of Christ’s salvation. Though rightly done a personal account may be appropriate on any given occasion of preaching, in evangelistic preaching it may be especially so in order to help the listeners see the message incarnated before them.
P.S. Following the posting of this article, I was reminded of David Murray’s series of insightful posts on this subject a few years ago. They are listed below for further encouragement.