Shedding Light through Images: Adams Lectures Emphasize the Use of Illustration in Preaching

Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (SEBTS) welcomed Stephen Rummage to campus for the annual Adams Lectures series on February 21-23. Rummage, senior pastor of Quail Springs Baptist Church in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, spoke on the use and importance of illustration in preaching.

During his lecture on Tuesday, Rummage began with the question, “Should expository preaching include illustration?” After describing the essential elements of the preaching event, Rummage concluded that, though not strictly essential, illustration is a strategic and valuable tool for communicating and heralding the truths of Scripture. Illustrations in preaching should, however, serve the sermon and not merely entertain the hearer.

“You need illustration in the expository sermon,” argued Rummage. “The illustration should never be the master of an expository sermon, but illustration can be a faithful and helpful servant of the expository sermon. If you do it wrong, illustration becomes a departure from biblical exposition, but if you do it right, illustration does much more than keep things interesting.”

Illustration should never be the master of an expository sermon, but illustration can be a faithful and helpful servant of the expository sermon.

As a strategy for unfolding theological concepts, illustration in preaching can enable its hearers to become doers as they learn to envision biblical truth. Because they help to curate and illuminate Scripture, a preacher’s illustrations have the potential to form or deform its hearers. That is why Rummage offered nine principles for how to use illustrations biblically and effectively in preaching:

  1. Essential is greater than ornamental.
  2. Images are greater than only stories.
  3. On target is greater than almost on target.
  4. Shorter is greater than longer.
  5. Specific is greater than general.
  6. Relatable is greater than fantastic.
  7. Truthful is greater than untruthful.
  8. Transparency is greater than making it all about you.
  9. Connecting the dots is greater than leaving people guessing.

As he learns to practice these principles, the preacher can develop an approach to illustration that aims at the hearer’s biblical formation as a disciple of Jesus Christ. The goal is illustration that produces theological understanding, which leads to lived obedience.

“When you have illustration in your messages, it paints a picture of the truth that you are proclaiming from God’s word,” shared Rummage. “It doesn’t distract from the truth, it doesn’t just entertain or amuse the listener; instead, it helps the listener understand and see and live the Bible truths that we’re presenting as we preach.”

When you have illustration in your messages, it paints a picture of the truth that you are proclaiming from God’s word.

Following Tuesday’s chapel, Rummage also shared at a mentorship luncheon hosted by the Center for Preaching and Pastoral Leadership at SEBTS and spoke in ministry classes later that afternoon and again on Wednesday afternoon.

During Wednesday’s colloquium hosted by the PhD office, Rummage lectured on the use of illustration in the preaching of nineteenth century Baptist pastor Charles Spurgeon.

Quoting the third volume of Spurgeon’s “Lectures to My Students,” Rummage noted that the point of illustrating a sermon is to “shed light on the subject.” By illustrating with images and stories of everyday life, the preacher clarifies and brings to light the theological implications of the biblical text. That is why “commonplace things are very effective in reminding us of biblical truth,” commented Rummage.

Commonplace things are very effective in reminding us of biblical truth.

Analyzing five selected Spurgeon sermons, Rummage observed Spurgeon’s varied use of illustration types, such as analogy, biblical and historical allusions, personal experiences, and figures of speech. Rummage explained that Spurgeon regularly used illustration to communicate and visualize the theological implications of a biblical passage, involving his hearers in the unfolding truths and calling them to decision and application.

Rummage concluded by listing four takeaways for preachers to consider if they want to illustrate their sermons more like Spurgeon did:

  1. Favor analogies over other forms.
  2. Include yourself occasionally, even as a first-person observer, to personalize the illustration.
  3. Consider places in the message where multiple biblical allusions, brief analogies, or figures of speech can be strung together for a cumulative effect.
  4. Develop your ability to use metaphors, similes, personification, and imagery, and then use them strategically.

For Thursday’s lecture, Rummage sought to apply the principles from Tuesday’s lecture by delivering an illustrated expository sermon of 1 Corinthians 15:1-11 about the priority of the gospel.

Beginning his message with an illustration about the relative consistency of Coca-Cola’s branding and ingredients, Rummage emphasized how significant it has been for Coca-Cola to preserve its classic logo and recipe. He argued that what has made Coca-Cola an industry leader is its label and the contents of its bottles.

Reminding attendees that God has tasked the Church to safeguard both the label “gospel” and its biblical-theological contents, Rummage emphasized the priority of the gospel message in all of life and ministry.

“He died for your sins according to the Scriptures, and he rose from the grave on the third day according to the Scriptures,” declared Rummage. “Add to it, and it’s not the gospel. Take from it, and it’s not the gospel. Proclaim it, and it is the power of God to save everyone who believes.”

Through a careful exposition of 1 Cor. 15, Rummage explained how the passage establishes the priority of proclaiming, receiving, and embracing the gospel of Jesus Christ. Drawing from personal experience and relatable anecdotes, Rummage demonstrated how the strategic use of illustrations complements and enhances one’s explanation of the biblical text.

Each year, the Adams Lectures series honors Theodore F. Adams and his legacy of faithful ministry as a professor at SEBTS for more than 10 years. The Adams Lectures welcome respected pastors and theologians to campus each spring to deliver lectures on a subject significant to the life and ministry of the Church.

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