I’m a big fan of preaching. When I was only 12 years old, I read Biblical Preaching by the late, great Haddon Robinson. Soon after I preached my first sermon at a “preaching contest” in the little, fundamentalist Christian school I attended. I was so terrified during my 7-minute sermonette that I literally shook the pulpit with my white-knuckled fingers clinging to the sides of the pulpit. But the judges mistook my terror for boldness and gave me an A rating.
I’ve been hooked ever since.
Since I wasn’t any good at sports, I decided to put my whole effort into becoming the best preacher I could possibly be. So I began to listen to the best preachers I could find. From pastors on the radio to listening to old cassette tapes of famous preachers to watching televangelists, I listened to thousands of sermons over the years, taking copious notes along the way.
I wanted to learn from the best.
Not only that, but, over the course of my 30+ years as a preacher, I’ve been privileged to have traveled with some of the greatest Bible teachers on the planet. Throughout much of the 2000s, I toured with Promise Keepers and was blessed to preach alongside some amazing communicators.
It was an honor. I learned much from them along the way.
But over these decades of traveling with preachers and listening to all kinds of sermons, I’ve come to a conclusion that makes me sad. It’s this: Most preachers I’ve heard are train wrecks at the Gospel invitation. They don’t give a clear Gospel and/or invitation for unbelievers so unbelievers can say “yes” to Jesus.
What is the invitation I’m referring to? The Gospel invitation! It’s the moment when a preacher invites unbelievers to believe and the lost to be saved. It’s the moment when all the angels of Heaven pause in anticipation of just “one sinner who repents” and then hold a praise party in his/her honor (Luke 15:10.)
In many ways, this is the most important part of every sermon. It’s when the preacher demonstrates the power of the Gospel to his watching congregation. It’s when God is glorified by the proclamation of the Gospel. It’s when the bridge is built from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light and sinners are invited to cross it in faith.
Here are 5 ways most preachers blow it during the invitation:
1. Failing to present a cross-centric Christ.
“For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” 1 Corinthians 2:2
When Paul ministered to the Corinthians for 18 months he had one main sermon…the Gospel.
If you don’t preach the cross, you don’t preach the Gospel. The blood-stained cross of Jesus is the centerpiece of salvation. Without the death of Christ, there is no resurrection or hope for any of us.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard preachers give the “Gospel” and not even mention the cross, let alone focus on it. This means they didn’t actually give the Gospel at all.
Preach Jesus Christ and him crucified. Preach that simple message clearly and consistently. As it has been said by another great preacher, take your text and make a beeline for the cross.
2. Refusing to do a consistent invitation
“Every Sabbath he reasoned in the synagogue, trying to persuade Jews and Greeks.” Acts 18:4
The Apostle Paul’s habit was that, whenever he preached in front of a crowd that had unbelievers, he gave the Gospel. He gave it with the intention of seeing souls saved and lives changed.
As I’ve preached in churches across the nation for the last three decades of ministry, I’ve seen people come to Christ, often in droves, in the vast majority of churches I’ve preached in. Is it because I’m the best preacher? Nope. I am not.
But it is because I give the Gospel every time I preach. And when the Gospel is declared, it has the power to save the lost (Romans 1:16.)
3. Forgetting to speak to unbelievers specifically
“For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” Luke 19:10
Jesus focused on reaching unbelievers during much of his earthly ministry. He hung out with them, healed them, ministered to them, and invited them to join the fold. In Luke 15, Jesus tells the story of how the shepherd is willing to leave the 99 to go on a search and rescue mission to find the one lost sheep.
Even if 99% of the people attending our churches are believers we must leave the safety of preaching to believers to invite the 1% of the lost in our midst to believe in Jesus. And as we do we must make it clear that we are inviting the non-believers to believe in Jesus.
Too many invitations miss the mark by calling believers and unbelievers to the same action points. Instead, we must call the believers to act on the message of the sermon and the unbelievers to act on the message of the Gospel. Jesus himself said it this way in Luke 5:32, “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”
Jesus wants to call sinners to repent (change their minds about sin, self, and salvation) through your message.
4. Not being compelling enough
“At Iconium Paul and Barnabas went as usual into the Jewish synagogue. There they spoke so effectively that a great number of Jews and Greeks believed.” Acts 14:1
We must speak effectively, compellingly, and persuasively. The Greek word for "persuade" (peitho) means to gently win someone over, to gain one’s goodwill. It is used 8 times in the New Testament when it comes to evangelism.
That’s why many used to call evangelism “soul-winning.” It’s not a push, but a pull. It’s not coercive, but compelling. As I’ve heard someone explain, it’s not sales, but marketing.
We must make a case for Christ and the cross. We must, like Paul and Barnabas, speak “so effectively” that many believe. Yes, God is sovereign in evangelism, but our sovereign God uses humans as his instruments of redemption. And, in many cases, the clearer and more compelling we are, the more people respond.
5. Subtly adding works to the Gospel
“But even if we or an angel from Heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse!” Galatians 1:8
These are strong words for every preacher to ponder. In essence, the Apostle Paul is saying, “Even if Timothy, Barnabas, Luke or myself starts preaching a Gospel that adds one thing to simple faith alone in Christ alone let him fall under God’s judgment. Even if Michael the archangel or Gabriel his messenger, presents a works-based message to you, then they will be accursed.”
Too many Gospel invitations are in danger of being cursed. They subtly (or not so subtly) add to the one requirement for salvation, faith alone in Christ alone.
Just think about some of the commonly used catchphrases that litter many preachers’ Gospel invitations:
“Ask Jesus into your heart.” Actually, this phrase is never used in Scripture. We put our faith in Jesus and then he comes to dwell inside us. Jesus in our hearts and lives is what happens after we trust in him, based on his finished work on the cross, to save us.
“Turn from your sins and then come to Jesus.” If we could turn from our sins then why would we need to come to Jesus? We could save ourselves. Instead, we come to Jesus in simple faith and he begins the life-long process of turning us from our sins and conforming us to his image.
“Just say this prayer and you’ll be saved.” Saying a prayer never saved anyone. But faith in Jesus can save everyone. It’s fine to lead someone through a salvation prayer as long as they know it was their faith in “Jesus Christ and him crucified” that saved them, not some magic words.
“Commit your life to Christ.” Instead, we should remind them that Jesus gave up his life for us. Once a person receives Him as their Savior, they can follow him as Lord, not as a requirement for salvation, but as a result of it.
We preachers will give an account before God of how clearly we gave the Gospel. Anyone who adds anything will be in serious trouble. As James reminds us, “…we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” James 3:1.
For help in making sure your Gospel is as clear as it should be I recommend the book Simply By Grace by Charles C. Bing. It is the best book I’ve ever read on making sure we embrace and proclaim the simple Gospel.
Give the Gospel in every sermon. Give it clearly. Give it compellingly. Give the lost a chance to say “yes” to Jesus. Whether you have them text in their response, bow their hands and raise their hands, fill out a card or walk an aisle, do something. Do it every week. Do it until people respond.
It’s worth it for the one lost sheep.