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How to Work for Christ: Book 3: Preaching and Teaching the Word of God, Chapter 3

By Reuben Archer Torrey


      Nothing goes further toward making an interesting and effective speaker than the power of illustration. All preachers who have been successful in reaching men have been especially gifted in their power of illustration. Much of the power of Spurgeon, Moody, and Guthrie lay in their power of apt and impressive illustration.


      1. TO MAKE TRUTH CLEAR. No matter how clearly an abstract truth is stated, many minds fail to grasp it unless it is put in concrete form. Ministers are probably better able to grasp abstract truth than any other class of people, and yet I have noticed that even they, in order to understand truth, need to have it illustrated in concrete form. It was once said of a certain minister by one of his parishioners, "He is a remarkable man: he is so profound that I cannot understand him." This was said in honest admiration and not as a criticism, but obscurity is not a mark of profundity. It is possible to take the profoundest truth and make it so plain and simple that a child can understand it. Obscurity is rather a mark of intellectual weakness than of intellectual power, for it requires brains to make a profound truth clear and simple. But nothing will go further to make clear a truth which is of difficult statement and profound, than the skillful use of illustrations.

      2. TO IMPRESS THE TRUTH. It is necessary in a public speaker that he not only make the truth clear, but that he impress it upon his hearers. A truth may be so stated as to be clearly understood, and yet make but little impression on the mind. There is perhaps nothing that will do more to impress the truth upon the mind, than the wise use of illustrations. Take for example Romans 1:16:

      "For I am not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ; for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek."

      This verse may be clearly understood and yet make little impression upon the mind of the hearer, until you tell the story of some poor degraded wretch who has been wonderfully saved by the Gospel. Then the truth is not only understood but impressed upon the mind.

      3. TO FASTEN THE TRUTH. How often you have heard a sermon, and the only thing that fastened itself in your memory was the illustration. You cannot forget an illustration, and with the illustration you remember the truth which it was used to illustrate.

      4. TO ATTRACT AND HOLD ATTENTION. There is little use in talking to people unless you have their attention. Nothing is more effective in accomplishing this object than the apt use of illustrations.

      5. TO REST THE MIND. If you talk continually for twenty minutes without an illustration, people begin to get very tired. Most people are not used to thinking consecutively for twenty minutes, and when you require them to do so without giving an illustration to rest and refresh the mind, they become very weary; but if here and there you drop in a good illustration it serves to rest the mind. A two-hour sermon by a man successful in illustration will tire you less than a ten-minute sermon by others. I once heard a man talk two hours to children. He held their attention spell-bound from beginning to end, and they did not seem to be tired at the end, but would have liked to have him go on. The whole secret of it seemed to be that he had marvelous power of illustration. When you find that your audience is growing tired or listless, drop in an illustration. This was Mr. Moody's constant practice. When he found his audience was heavy or getting restless, he would bring in one of his best stories out of his inexhaustible fund of anecdotes.


      1. BIBLICAL ILLUSTRATIONS. That is, incidents from the Bible and pictures of Bible scenes. Christ made much use of this kind of illustration. There is reason to believe that it is the very best method of illustrating a sermon. One of Mr. Moody's greatest gifts was his power to make a Bible incident live before you; Zaccheus, the woman who was a sinner, the woman with an issue of blood, and many other Bible persons, became living, breathing beings in whom your deepest interest was aroused. In order to acquire this gift, study Bible incidents carefully, then write them out; study them over and over again and rewrite them; tell these incidents to others, especially to children; endeavor to make them as living and interesting as you possibly can. The power to do this will grow rapidly. About the only genius there is in it is the genius of hard work. This is true of almost any form of genius. There is scarcely anything that a man cannot accomplish if only he puts his mind to it. Hard work will accomplish almost anything. If you are going to gain this power of Biblical illustration you must try and try and try again. Never be discouraged. You can certainly cultivate this faculty if only you work hard enough.

      2. INCIDENTS FROM YOUR OWN EXPERIENCE. There is power in an incident that happened in your own experience that there is not in an incident which you have taken from somebody else. There is also great danger in the use of this class of illustrations; the danger is that you will make yourself too prominent. One has to be on constant guard against that. Unless one is very careful, he will soon find himself parading himself, his excellences and wisdom and achievements. It is a very subtle snare. In using these incidents from your own experience, you must put yourself in the background just as far as possible. Cases are not rare where the imagination, in use of incidents, has grown to such an extent that workers have been found borrowing incidents from the experiences and lives of others, and transferring them to their own experience. Within the past month I have received information of one who is going up and down the country telling of things which are known to have happened in the life of Mr. Moody as though they had happened in his own life. There is danger too that as you repeat a story again and again it will grow in its proportions, and at last there will be little likeness between the incident as you tell it and the event as it really occurred. And yet you will yourself get to believe, unless you are scrupulously truthful, that it actually happened that way. It may not be that "all men are liars," but most storytellers get to be liars unless they are on their guard. When it is once found out that a man is given to exaggeration (lying), and it will always be found out sooner or later, his usefulness is at an end.

      3. ANECDOTES. Almost every one is interested in a story. The great power of one of the best-known after-dinner speakers in our country lies in his power to tell a good story. Lawyers and politicians and platform speakers generally make a large use of the anecdote in their speeches. Preachers of the Gospel do well to make use of the same form of illustration. Anecdotes may not be as dignified as illustrations from science and poetry, but they are more effective, and effectiveness is what the true preacher is aiming at. There is, however, great danger that the matter of storytelling be much overdone. One hears sermons which are simply a string of anecdotes, and after a while this becomes disgusting to an intelligent hearer.

      4. HISTORY. Illustrations from history have the advantage of dignity as well as forcefulness. The question is often asked me by young men preparing for the ministry and evangelistic work, "What do you think a man ought to study outside the Bible?" and I always advise them, whatever else they study, to study history. It is a most useful branch of knowledge in itself, but is of special value to the public speaker. Very few people know much about history, and if you can bring forward from history well-chosen incidents, both the truth and the illustration will be interesting, instructive and effective. It serves furthermore to awaken the confidence of the people in the speaker. An argument from authentic history is one of the most unanswerable of arguments.

      5. ILLUSTRATIONS FROM SCIENCE. The natural sciences afford many beautiful and suggestive illustrations. Striking and impressive illustrations of Bible truth can be found in astronomy, botany, chemistry, geology, physics, and other natural sciences. But this is a form of illustration in the use of which one needs to exercise great care. Be very careful that your illustration illustrates. I have heard scientific illustrations used when the illustration needed more explanation than the truth it was intended to illustrate. Be very careful that your science is correct. What is considered scientific knowledge today is likely to be found to be scientific error tomorrow. I have heard much scientific falsehood used in illustrating sermons. Do not use exploded science to illustrate Gospel truth. One great fault with the use of scientific illustrations is that the average preacher is likely to accept a scientific doctrine just about the time the scientific world gives it up.

      6. ILLUSTRATIONS FROM THE POETS. An apt quotation from the poets often serves to illuminate and fix the truth. These are very easy to get, for there are excellent collections of classified quotations from the poets.

      7. ILLUSTRATIONS BY VISIBLE OBJECTS. It is sometimes well to use objects, not only in talking to children, but to grown-up people as well. For example, Rev. E. P. Hammond makes a very successful use of the magnet and different kinds of nails; small nails, large nails, straight nails, and crooked nails, in illustrating the doctrine, "I if I be lifted up from the earth will draw all men unto me."


      1. BE ON THE LOOKOUT FOR THEM. Cultivate the habit of watching for thoughts, watching for texts, watching for points, and watching for illustrations; in other words, go through the world with your eyes and ears open. One of the greatest faults in the training of children in the past has been that we have not trained the child's faculty of observation. Cultivate your own power of observation. Henry Ward Beecher was a striking example along this line. He was one of the most gifted men in the power of illustration. Wherever he went, he was always on the lookout for something with which to illustrate the truth. He would talk with all classes of men and try to get from them illustrations for his sermons. James A Garfield was another example of the same thing. One day he was walking down a street in Cleveland, Ohio. He heard a strange noise coming out of the basement of a building he was passing. He said to the friend who was with him, "I believe that man is filing a saw. I never saw a saw filed, I am going down to see how he does it." Spurgeon was a most illustrious example. He not only went through the world with his own eyes open, but it is said that he kept three or four men in the British Museum all the time looking for illustrations for him. The one who would be a mighty preacher to men must associate much with men.

      2. KEEP A BOOK OF ILLUSTRATIONS. Take this book with you wherever you go. Whatever you see on your travels that seems to afford likely matter for an illustration, jot it down. Whenever you hear a good illustration in a sermon or address, jot it down. The book of illustrations that you make for yourself is far better than the book of illustrations that you purchase; too many others have that book, and sometimes when you are telling some of the stories in it you will see a smile pass over the faces of your congregation at the familiarity of the story. And some one may come up to you at the close of the sermon and say, "I always liked that story."

      3. STUDY THE MASTERS OF ILLUSTRATION; Such men as Moody, Spurgeon, Guthrie. Do not adopt their illustrations too extensively, but see how they do it.

      4. CULTIVATE THE HABIT OF TALKING TO CHILDREN. I do not know of anything that will make a man more gifted in the power of illustration than talking to children. You are simply obliged to use illustrations when you talk to children, and thus you acquire the power to do it. By talking to children you will not only cultivate the gift of using illustrations, but also a pure Anglo- Saxon style.


      1. BE SURE YOU HAVE SOMETHING TO ILLUSTRATE. Do not preach a sermon for the sake of the illustrations. One hears many sermons where it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the sermon was gotten up for the sake of the stories that are told in it rather than for the sake of the truth it professes to teach. Indeed, it is sometimes hard to tell what the truth is that the man is trying to illustrate. A literary friend once come to me in great disgust after a service he had attended. I asked him how he enjoyed the service. "It was all bosh. The man preached his whole sermon to work up to the point of getting off a quotation from Scott's 'Marmion' at the end. He did that well, but the whole performance was disgusting." Yet this preacher was considered by some a great pulpit orator.

      2. Be sure that your illustrations illustrate.

      3. AVOID THREADBARE STORIES. But it is well to bear in mind that a story that is threadbare in one place may be perfectly new in another. It is well, however, to be overcautious rather than undercautious in the matter of threadbare stories.

      4. DO NOT MAKE UP STORIES. If you make up a story and tell it as if it were true, it is a lie. There are religious adventurers in our country, sometimes calling themselves by the noble name of evangelists, who go here and there making up the stories that they tell. It is time this sort of thing was stamped out. True evangelists are suffering much injury from this class of men.

      5. WHEN YOU TELL A TRUE STORY, TELL IT EXACTLY AS IT IS, OR DO NOT TELL IT AT ALL. There are some who exaggerate their stories because they think in this way they will be more impressive. Perhaps they call this a pious fraud, but pious frauds are the most impious and blasphemous on earth.

      6. Do not take a story that some one else told of his friend, and say, "A friend of mine" did so and so.

      7. OFTEN BEGIN YOUR SERMON WITH AN ILLUSTRATION. In this way you get the attention and gain the interest of your audience at the very outset.

      8. OFTEN CLOSE YOUR SERMON WITH AN ILLUSTRATION. This, if wisely done, will serve not only to fix the truth, but to touch the heart.

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See Also:
   How to Work for Christ: Book 3: Preaching and Teaching the Word of God, Chapter 1
   How to Work for Christ: Book 3: Preaching and Teaching the Word of God, Chapter 2
   How to Work for Christ: Book 3: Preaching and Teaching the Word of God, Chapter 3
   How to Work for Christ: Book 3: Preaching and Teaching the Word of God, Chapter 4
   How to Work for Christ: Book 3: Preaching and Teaching the Word of God, Chapter 5
   How to Work for Christ: Book 3: Preaching and Teaching the Word of God, Chapter 6
   How to Work for Christ: Book 3: Preaching and Teaching the Word of God, Chapter 7


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